Giving your child unfair advantage

An acquaintance in his late 20s beamed from ear to ear as he told me that he is about to become a father. I gave him my hearty congratulations and commented on how happy he and his wife must be.

They are not married. I knew that, but I threw in the part about “he and his wife” hoping to plant an idea. I threw it in because the stories of kids growing up without dads are too many and too painful. I threw it in because Brad and Angelina may have assembled a brood of six before becoming engaged, but they are from that thin sliver of the population that enjoys unlimited wealth, own multiple homes and give private jets as birthday gifts. Rich celebrity couples do a great disservice when they make unmarried parenting look easy. Rich celebrity couples don’t shop Wal-Mart.

The fact is that this very kind young man, who surely chose a very kind young woman to deliberately replicate DNA with, will give his child a much better chance at success in this cold, cruel world if he advances from the role of father to that of husband.

The truth of this plays out every day. Literally.

If you are ever in a class or corporate training exploring diversity, you may be asked to play a game in which you will be “penalized” if you grew up in a married two-parent home because it has given you an unfair advantage in life.

What does the unfair advantage look like? Quite simply, two people can move a piano easier than one. When one of you is exhausted, the other one can take the lead. When one of you grows discouraged, the other one can find a new angle around a difficult corner.

Two are usually better equipped than one to avoid poverty, provide a roof overhead, food on the table, greater interaction, more supervision and conversation. Single parents can, and do, successfully raise children alone, but the path is far more difficult, which is why we readily give them generous amounts of support and sympathy.

From a child’s perspective, there is something mysteriously empowering about a wedding picture in a frame sitting on a shelf, the occasional envelope that comes addressed to Mr. and Mrs. and that crazy snoring at the end of the hall. It makes a kid feel stronger, smarter and taller. Marriage creates a safety net, visible and invisible.

People spend a lot of time assembling all the things a new baby will need, carefully choosing a crib, soft sleepers, diapers and baby creams. In a matter of several short years the child will have outgrown all of those things. But a child never outgrows the need for stability, a mom and dad committed to making a life and a home.

I wish I had been more direct with my young acquaintance. I should have said, “Your precious unborn baby deserves every unfair advantage. Why not give it to him? Why not give him the security of a mother and a father who are also husband and wife?”

Oh baby, here come the swaddling bans

When our fifth grandchild was born, I was in our daughter’s hospital room alongside our son-in-law helping him freshen up this adorable creature, their third baby. We changed her diaper, put a sleeper on her and prepared to swaddle her.

babyOur son-in-law has excellent swaddling skills. He employs a technique much like folding a flag, which reflects his military background. The folds are so crisp you nearly want to salute the infant when he’s finished.

As he was spreading out the blanket, my daughter said, “Mom, did you know swaddling babies is now frowned upon?”

I paused before saying the first thought that came into my head, and good thing, because a nurse had quietly entered the room.

I was about to proclaim, “If swaddling was good enough for the Christ child, it’s good enough for this child!”

The young nurse picked up the conversation and proceeded to inform me why swaddling is no longer an accepted practice. I gathered from her tone that swaddling is not quite as bad as letting your children play in traffic, but a close second.

She explained that the new way to put a baby to sleep is to put the baby on her back in the crib, place a blanket over her and tuck the blanket in on both sides of the mattress. This, of course, is a direct violation of the standing edict of the past 20 years that you never, never, never put a loose blanket in a crib with a baby under age 1.

People have been swaddling babies for more than 2,000 years. But why should that stop us from denouncing the practice now? We are nothing, if not arrogant.

Any mother worth her stretch marks will tell you that swaddling calms babies. Swaddling simulates the tight quarters in the womb, reduces crying, allows babies to hold body heat and sleep well. Swaddling for a baby is like a Snuggie for an adult—only much tighter fitting and more socially acceptable.

Bureaucratic fingerprints are all over this baby. The National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education now states that “swaddling is not necessary or recommended.” What do you bet they were all swaddled as babies and swaddled their own babies as well?

In California, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, swaddling finds itself wrapped in virtual bans. Pennsylvania parents must obtain a signed wavier from a pediatrician if they want a daycare to swaddle their baby.

If only government bureaucrats intent on banning swaddling showed the same enthusiasm for deficit reduction.

Dr. Harvey Karp, one of the best-known gurus of baby sleep, maintains that swaddling has many benefits and “may well reduce infant sleep deaths.” But why listen to him? He’s only a well-respected, highly regarded specialist in how babies sleep; whereas the government specializes in . . . I’ll get back to you on that one.

When my obituary for Common Sense was published in a small book several years ago, it’s a shame we didn’t insert 100 blank pages at the back of the book so readers could add their own examples.

Sadly, you could fill a new page almost every day. This is definitely one for the book.

Nite, nite, Mr. Germ

Like a lot of kids during cold and flu season, our grandchildren have been trained for good health and good manners: Cover your mouth when you cough and say bless you when someone sneezes. Earlier in the day, one sneezed and another one said, “Hey! Don’t bless on me!”

Three of the grands are spending the night. Their mother is putting them down and I have been summoned to tell a bedtime story. The baby is already asleep, another is on the verge of sleep, and the third apparently has been downing espresso on the sly. The conversation between the very awake toddler and her rapidly fading mother turns to germs. “Grandma is going to tell you a story, because Mommy doesn’t feel well.”

“What’s wrong, Mommy?” the three-year-old asks.

“I have a virus,” Mommy says, getting up to leave.

“What’s a virus?”

“A virus is caused by a germ.”

“What’s the germ’s name, Mommy?”

Mommy sits back down. “I don’t know.”

“But, Mommy, what’s the germ’s name?”

“It’s probably rhinovirus. All right? Mommy’s going to leave now.” Mommy gets up again.

“But wait, Mommy. Where is the germ?”

“It’s in my mouth.”

“How did it get there?”

“I don’t know. Germs just travel this time of year.”

“Oh. What’s the germ’s name?”

“Rhinovirus.”

“Oh. I can’t say that.”

“It’s a hard word to pronounce,” says Mommy, who has inched her way to the door.

“And it’s in your mouth?”

“Yes, it’s in my mouth.”

Mommy leaves the room. I begin telling a story about a heavy snowfall and a full moon. It is a captivating story, if I may say so myself, and yet I am interrupted.

“Mommy has a germ.”

“I know. And on the most crooked branch of the tree sat a very round and puffy owl.”

“What’s its name?”

“What’s what name? The owl or the germ?”

“Mommy’s germ. What’s the name?”

“I think it was supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

“I don’t think that was it, Grandma.”

“Maybe not. I don’t remember the germ’s name.”

“It’s hard to say, Grandma.”

“Yes, I know. The owl had yellow eyes, pointed ears and a hook nose.”

“Grandma?”

“Yes?”

“Mommy has a germ. The germ has a name. The germ is in her mouth.”

“Yes, that’s why she has a sore throat and doesn’t feel well.”

“Do I have a germ in my mouth?” She opens her mouth wide.

“No, all you have in your mouth is your teeth and your tongue.”

“Oh. That’s good,” she says with a yawn. “Good night, Grandma.”

Four wheels forward, three back

Every time I walk through a parking lot, I look for the car we should have bought. The husband’s car was totaled by another car last year, so we had to buy another one. We bought a Mistake. That’s not the model name, but it should be.

First, there’s the color. We viewed color samples in a slick brochure and chose Kodiak Brown. It’s black.

If the sun hits it just right, it will reflect a deep beautiful rich brown. It happened once. On a Thursday. In the driveway.

I directed a valet to the car once and said, “Over there, the brown one.”

“You mean the black one?”

“No, it’s brown. Look again. Here, angle yourself just so. Better yet, come to the house on a sunny day, half an hour before sunset.”

You can also see it is brown if you hold a flashlight six inches from the car. That’s us driving down the street with flashlights suspended from iron hooks mounted to the car, illuminating the brown exterior.

The husband often laments the disappearance of the two-toned car. His fondness for two-toned is embarrassing, almost as embarrassing as being in a movie theater, watching a preview featuring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts and having him loudly proclaim, “If I ever say I want to see that movie, just shoot me.”

We are both opinionated. Our opinions sometimes differ on movies and cars, but we agree about the Mistake.

It’s terrible to have no affection for your vehicle. Ford knows I’ve tried to conjure up some feelings of warmth and affection. “Aren’t these seats nice?” I say. “Look how clear the glass is on the windshield.” It’s like telling the kid with the worst handwriting in the class that he dots his i’s well. Even a car can detect condescension.

The worst thing about the Mistake is the dashboard. It would be safer to drive, text, drink, smoke, apply mascara and fry chicken all at the same time than to operate the Dashboard of a Thousand Choices. It’s called “smart technology.” That’s code for “one more thing to make you feel dumb.”

There are no fewer than 28 buttons on the dash between the driver and the passenger. There’s internet radio, Bluetooth, MP3 integrated player, incoming calls, call to text, and more. All that’s missing is a button to froth a latte.

Of course, everything is voice activated, but the Mistake doesn’t seem to like our voices. “CALL HOME!”

“Calling Joan.”

The Mistake prefers accents. It will respond to a thick Southern drawl, a stiff British accent and pirate talk, but not us.

Good luck finding the button that turns on the radio. I’d like to see the dummy crash test for that one. “Not bad, only six broken bones.” All I’m saying is, don’t let your insurance lapse.

I have a bad feeling about the Mistake, a feeling that it is going to last 300,000 miles. We’ll learn to like it. We’ll have to.

In the meantime, would a car maker please consider bringing back the punch-button radio? I feel so desperate I’d buy a car like that even if it was two-toned.

Small dot accused of big attitude

Perhaps it is only an ugly rumor, but you never know. Word is, there is trouble brewing in the land of punctuation.

To be specific, and anyone with any regard for punctuation always is, the lowly period, that faithful end mark at the end of a sentence, is falling from favor.

This disturbing news comes by way of the New Republic. I often read a lot of disturbing things in the New Republic, but this may be the most disturbing of all. It would appear the period is now regarded as a small dot with a big attitude.

Mark Liberman, a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, reports that his teenage son told him his text messages were aggressive because he used a period at the end. The young man found his father’s texts not only aggressive, but downright harsh.

Harsh?

Let me tell you about harsh, son. Harsh is Sunday dinner at your Grandma’s with 24 first cousins and one indoor bathroom. Harsh is growing up in summers with 105-degree heat, matching humidity and no air conditioning. Harsh is delivering three babies at the peak of the natural craze and having an Earth momma convince you there was no need for painkillers.

I apologize. I may have gotten a little carried away there. After all this is only about the period the most basic of punctuation marks among those configurations of dots and curls and squiggly lines that tell you when to breathe when to pause when to question when to change thought lines and in the whole scheme of things how big a deal can punctuation really be

Perhaps it is a generational thing. Years ago, when instant messaging came on the scene, my mother joined in and would instant message with the kids from time to time. They got a chuckle out of the fact that Grandma never ended a conversation without proper form. She’d type a closing (Love), followed by a comma, new line, then “Grandma.” My mother, once a teacher, wouldn’t have dreamed of ending a correspondence any other way.

As one who appreciates form, I must also confess that the young man’s perspective does have merit. I, too, have witnessed a growing streak of aggression in the period—not by its absence, but by its overuse. Usually displayed in the comments section on social media, it often looks like this:

MUST. MAKE. THIS. TODAY.

There’s no denying such use of periods is aggressive bordering on harsh. Such posts are usually seen on Pinterest beneath a picture of cherry pie. Make that a harsh piece of cherry pie.

Too many. Too few. What to do?

Should we go to the other extreme and abandon the lowly end mark, I fear a domino effect. They scoffed at such theories during the Vietnam War, and there went Cambodia and Laos. It’s the period today, the comma and the semicolon tomorrow.

No matter how you look at it, there’s something terribly unfinished about a sentence without a period

DON’T. QUESTION. ME.

Container mania boxes us in

A catalog from the Container Store came today and it contained alarming news: Our containers now need containers. Just when you thought the container craze was waning, it spawns a second generation.

You know those little individual coffee containers that you put in those specialty coffeemakers? It used to be people put them in a metal rack next to the coffeemaker. Now there’s a big container to hold the little containers before they go public and move to the rack. Heaven forbid they should simply sit quietly in the box they came in.

Any woman will tell you that containers are like candles, highly infectious. You weren’t thinking about candles, you don’t really need candles, you don’t even like scented candles, but the minute you get a whiff of ocean breeze and pumpkin spice—wham!—you need candles. Come to think of it, you probably need a container for your candles.

The stores that sell containers and tubs promising to organize your life, keep your sweaters stacked, your shirts on hangers and your shoes lined up according to color, have an intoxicating power. Case in point: Only minutes ago I was happy with our junk drawer, the cabinet under the bathroom sink and that space in the garage where we keep the trowel and weed digger. But now, after looking at a myriad of container solutions, I suddenly have an insatiable need for wooden drawer dividers, mesh containers, and monogrammed canvas bins.

Yesterday, I was happy storing pasta in the box it came in, but today I saw pasta neatly displayed in clear acrylic containers with specially patented locking lids. They had me at locking lids. You never know when your rigatoni and bow ties may plan a middle-of-the night escape.

What’s more, I suddenly find myself needing bamboo wood dividers for my sock drawer. Who knows how I’ve gotten dressed all these years without them?

Shelving may be the most powerful lure of all. Personally, I blame our lack of a floor-to-ceiling shelving unit for standing between me and the Time magazine Person of the Year award.

Then again, it is possible that there is a downside to all this organization. Once you put compartments and dividers in your junk drawer, it ceases to be a junk drawer. Sure, it may look nice, but what are you going to call it?

Consider that the chaos of your kitchen utensil drawer may be keeping your brain sharp. Rifling through that tangled mess for a vegetable peeler is like solving the hidden pictures puzzles you did as a kid.

If you can’t get dressed without having your socks rolled and organized by color, you have problems far bigger than your bare feet.

And ask yourself this: Do you really need one more under-the-bed plastic storage box? If you fill up all that space under the bed, where is the boogeyman going to hide? I know, I know, probably on a shelf in the garage.

At the risk of being practical, instead of storing all that junk, why not get rid of it? There’s a container for that, too. I believe it’s called a trash can.

Big deer and little dears parting ways

Three little girls bound onto the bed in the spare bedroom where we sleep, giggling and squealing and making tents with the covers. It has become part of the morning routine when we visit them in the old two-story house the family has been renting in New Jersey.

DeersAfter a riot of laughter, arms swinging and legs kicking, the one-and-a-half-year-old and one of the 3-year-old twins head downstairs with Grandpa. The other twin goes to the window overlooking a stretch of land bordered by a line of black locust, sumac, and elderberry. “Come on, Gramma. Let’s watch.”

She stands by the window and I kneel, waiting and watching. A few shafts of dawn wrap around the corner of the house and warm the woods. Motorists zip by on a two-lane highway cutting through the countryside. A doe and a fawn emerge from the trees.

“It’s a momma and her baby,” she whispers.

“It is.”

A few moments later, a horse in an adjacent pasture clears his throat and stretches his vocal chords. The deers’ right ears shoot straight up. The horse whinnies. The momma turns and the baby follows, bounding into the woods, their white tails waving farewell.

One morning when we looked out the window, deer were sleeping in the grass. They were curled up like dogs by a fire. We walked outside later and saw swaths of grass flattened in the yard and along the back tree line. Separated by a wall and maybe 20 yards, the deer had been sleeping while we had been sleeping.

One evening near dusk, I stood at the window alone when a peculiar thing happened. It appeared as though the tree trunks were swaying, gently moving from side to side. I wondered if it was an earthquake, the earth’s crust moving, along with everything on it. The trees weren’t moving, it was a herd of deer foraging in the woods. They so seamlessly blended with the bare trees, underbrush and dead leaves that you could barely separate the deer from the tree bark. One deer poked his head out of the tree line, grazed a bit and then signaled to the others. They took off single file, white tails bobbing behind them, 11 in all.

A little voice behind me said, “Where’s your camera, Gramma?”

As unbelievable as moving trees, this young family is leaving New Jersey and moving home to the Midwest. They’ll leave behind rustic views and deer, only to be greeted by a gaggle of grandmas and grandpas, great grandmas and great grandpas, aunts and uncles and cousins nearby.

Their memories of the deer and bucolic countryside may fade in time, but maybe not. It was a special gift, a never-to-be-repeated season of life, a time when big eyes brimmed with wonder.

They will settle in more populated terrain now, a neighborhood instead of the countryside. They will have different views, new memories in the making, and a lot more people to love and share them with.

When Heaven came down to Earth

The best Christmas is the unexpected Christmas. After all, that’s what the first Christmas was, an unexpected, cosmic intersection of the natural and the supernatural – in the shepherd’s field, the manger stall and the arms of a bewildered new mother and father.

We nearly obscure the power and the beauty of the first Christmas with all our busyness and trappings today. And yet, small glimpses of the marvels of that first Christmas happen even now.

I once caught such a glimpse at a city mission. It was Moms Club, a weekly morning meeting where women come to hear a message, work on completing a GED or learn about parenting. On the last meeting before the holidays, each woman was given a large grocery bag filled with necessities. Sometimes they even receive something extra, something special like laundry detergent.

The bitter cold outside was offset by a furnace that wouldn’t quit on the inside. The room was packed with women shoulder to shoulder, women in old coats and old clothes. The furnace circulated the smell of hard work, poverty and wet boots. There were women who had children, women who had health problems, women who had prison records and women who had nothing but the clothes on their backs. The room was sweltering, the crowd restless.

As a woman welcomed everyone from up front, the crackling sound system, as weary as the women, muffled what must have been an introduction. A woman in a black cape swept up the center aisle. She planted herself firmly on the riser and instantly owned the room.

She drew a breath and began to sing. “O holy night, the stars are brightly shining.”

Her voice was magnificent. Strong and pure, it was a voice that belonged to the heavens.

“It is the night, of our dear Savior’s birth.”

Her voice soared, filling the room with a rare, exquisite beauty. The stunning elegance and artistry made listeners dare not draw a breath for fear of missing a fraction of a second.

“Long lay the world in sin and error pining, ‘til he appeared and the soul felt its worth.”

Her voice ascended through the clouds, looped toward earth and soared again and again. She was on the final verse now. Could she possibly reach higher or stronger? “O night, O holy night, O night divine.” Had there been crystal in the building, it would have shattered into a million shards—and then reassembled itself with joy.

She whisked down the aisle and vanished out the door.

Who was she?

Someone mumbled a name. “She’s passing through town and came from the airport just to sing at the mission. She’s returning from an engagement at the Metropolitan Opera.”

I have never been to the Met. I doubted those around me would be going anytime soon, either. But the Met had come to us, the tired, the worn and the weary. For a few minutes it seemed as though the supernatural had infused the natural. Like that very first Christmas, heaven had once again reached down to earth.

Hiding Christmas presents is a gift

I have perfected the art of hiding Christmas gifts. I can hide them so well that not even I can find them.

GiftsWhen the kids were little, hiding gifts was easy. I could have slung snow shoes around the vacuum cleaner and they would have gone unnoticed for months. Years, maybe.

I once considered hiding gifts in the cabinet beneath the kitchen sink where we keep dishwashing soap, glass cleaner and furniture polish. It would be the last place any of the kids would have looked. Kids, nothing. It was the last place I liked to look.

Laundry baskets and the dishwasher would have been safe stash spots as well. The freezer, however, was off limits. It was their home away from home, fanning the door looking for frozen waffles and Bagel Bites.

I’ve heard of people hiding gifts in trash bags, but it sounds like a recipe for disaster.

Now that the kids are grown and have homes of their own, the hiding spots have multiplied exponentially. Closet shelves, dresser drawers, under the beds, obvious spots as well as every nook and cranny are potential hiding spots. The problem is not hiding the gifts; the problem is finding them.

I have a central hiding spot, but sometimes when in a hurry, which is to say most of the time, I have been known to tuck a gift in a spot that is perfectly logical at the time, but makes absolutely no sense later. Finding them becomes a cross between buzzing in on Jeopardy and playing Scattergories.

Bedroom slippers in a drawer with swimming suits: “Seldom worn things for $500, Alex!”

A sketchbook hidden beneath a paper cutter: “Things that start with “P”—paper for drawing, paper for cutting.

The youngest stopped by the other day as I was wrapping a small gift for one of the grandbabies. “How many gifts do you think you’ll forget about this year?” she asked.

It has become a Christmas tradition. We finish our gift exchange, I look around, take inventory and realize something is missing.

The crowd, always helpful, not to mention easily amused, offers suggestions:

“Check the linen closet behind the towels. You hid body wash there once.”

“How about beside your dresser? You always think nobody can see large boxes because there’s a surge suppressor in front of them.”

“Did you look in the utensil drawer? Remember the time—“

Personally, I think it’s nice to run across little treasures during the course of the year. It’s a way of keeping Christmas in your heart, not to mention your closet shelf, in the attic and the garage, all year long.

Real princesses of everyday life

Our oldest granddaughter, who is 4-and-a-half or “close to 5” as she says, lives in an apartment building in a diverse pocket of Chicago within walking distance of Target, a thrift store, the lake shore, subsidized housing projects to the north and grand manses of the early 1900s a few blocks south.

princessThis little girl who lives in the city asked her daddy if princesses were real. “Sort of,” he replied. To which she responded, “Do they live way out in the suburbs?”

Where daddy was vague, Grandma would like to be specific.

Yes, Sweetie, princesses are real. And, yes, they do live way out in the suburbs, but they also live in the city, the country, on both coasts and in all the spaces between. The important thing to know is that there are two kinds of princesses, storybook ones and real ones.

Storybook princesses have perfect hair, beautiful skin, dangerously long eyelashes and blood red lips that never pale. Real princesses have stubborn cowlicks, chocolate on their faces and some, like you, may even be missing a front tooth.

You should also know something a little sad about the storybook princesses. They are often helpless. They tend to mope and cry and throw themselves on chaise lounges a lot. Whether it is due to wearing high heels every day or their disproportionate body shapes cutting blood flow to their brains, they also do peculiar things like agree to cook, clean and keep house for seven short, scruffy miners. When you marry one day, Sweetie, you will learn that cooking and cleaning and keeping house with one man is enough. Some days it is more than enough, but don’t tell Grandpa I said that.

Storybook princesses make for entertaining diversions, but the truth is they have small brains. They can only think about one or two things – how they look and whether a prince might be riding by soon. A real princess has many things to think about—playing dress up, building with blocks, learning to write her letters, going to museums, understanding the stock market and making wonderful things from empty toilet paper tubes. Storybook princesses never make clever things from empty toilet paper tubes, which is a shame, because they are missing out.

Since your daddy claims to be king of his castle, or two-bedroom apartment in this case, that makes your mommy queen of the castle and you, therefore, a princess. A real princess.

A real princess must work hard to develop her mind and character and all her abilities so that she can rule over her kingdom—which in your case would be your two younger brothers, at least until they outsize you.

A real princess doesn’t wait for a stranger on horseback to solve her problems; she solves her problems herself. Real princesses embrace the ups and downs of everyday life. They may not live happily ever after, but they know not to take shiny red apples from strangers or consider a pumpkin acceptable transportation.