May 29, 2006

Eight Legs Up

We love movies. Who doesn't? We have seen every single Pixar production and Harry Potter film multiple times. Even if the film isn't my cup of tea, but remotely suitable for children, we go. I have taken many expensive naps in darkened theaters. Though I was eager to see The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I closed my eyes when Lucy met Mr. Tumnus, the fawn, and when I opened them, Lucy was at her coronation. Unless the movie sounds completely repellent (The Cat in the Hat, Space Chimps), we go.

Jeff's all-time favorite movie is none of these films that I've carefully vetted. This film is known, familiarly, in our house, as "The Spider Movie." We discovered it on cable one weekend when I was trying to do some housework and Jeff had run out of toy car-related activities. "Wait," he shrieked, "Turn back!" Hmmmm, I thought, that looks like Scarlett Johansson. (

The movie stars a very young Scarlett Johansson.)

I have not seen the film all the way through, but generally it is campy horror send-up about a small Arizona town menaced by gigantic arachnids. I checked in on Jeff in the TV room to see half dozen huge spiders jumping down an abandoned stretch of highway. "What happened to them?" I asked. "Somebody potioned them."

I was concerned about possible onscreen violent encounters with enormous spiders. There is no blood. The spiders attack by quickly spinning the human victims into webs and sticking them onto walls and ceilings to great comic effect. Bullets glance off larger spiders, but the smaller ones explode with a gooosh of green goo, which Jeff finds hilarious. On my second tour through, a huge tarantula was crushing a camping van. "That's the biggest one, Mom. He's the king."

Now that Jeff knows the film, he summons me for the good parts, so he can tell me what happens next. "Uh-oh, the spiders are going to get the dog and the grandma," he warns me.

I am under strict orders to let Jeff know whenever Eight-Legged Freaks is on. Frankly, I am happy to see him engrossed in anything for a sustained period of time. For a long time, I did not know if Jeff understood the whole movie idea, namely, that it is one story. I wasn't sure if he just perceived it as a long series of unrelated images. So it is with some strange delight that I can occupy myself for 90 minutes only to hear Jeff periodically laughing, explaining the plot to no one in particular, and indulging that age-old horror film tradition of yelling admonishments at the characters. "Get to the mall! Now! Take the guns with you!"

May 28, 2006

Kindergarten Etiquette 101

Me: When you arrive at Nathan's birthday party, what do you say to the birthday boy?
J: Don't bite me again, Nathan.

May 26, 2006


Roll on, Big O. Get that juice up to Lawson's in 40 hours.
Well, the oranges ripen in the Florida sun. Sweet on the tree they stay.
Then they pick 'em and they squeeze 'em just as quick as you please.
And the Big O leaves the same day.
Roll on, Big O. Get that juice up to Lawson's in 40 hours.
Well, one man sleeps while the other man drives on the nonstop Lawson's run.
And the cold, cold juice* in that tank truck caboose stays as fresh as the Florida sun.
Roll on, Big O. Get that juice up to Lawson's in 40 hours.

If you grew up in Ohio as I did, that commercial song is as indelibly etched on your brain as "I'd like to teach the world to sing . . ." and "Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh, what a relief it is." The sky-blue, shield-shaped logo with white wild-west thick serif lettering was an integral feature of the Ohio landscape. To call Lawson's a convenience store like 7-Eleven or White Hen is an injustice. It served more as a neighborhood market for staples. Back then many families still had milk and bread delivered; everyone else went to Lawson's.

Our Lawson's was on a single commercial-zoned block directly across from my elementary school, surrounded by houses. On this minuscule strip, there was a gas station, a pharmacy, and at varying times during my childhood, a record store, a barbershop, a shoe repair and a soda fountain.

Every evening after dinner, my father would walk the four blocks to Lawson's, carrying empty bottles to return, smoking a cheap cigar, either alone or with one of us in tow. He would buy the evening Akron Beacon Journal, a half gallon of milk, a loaf of bread and occasionally, a bag of Salem potato chips or a half gallon of chocolate milk.

All the Lawson's were identical. Two long narrow aisles flanked by shelves led to a low counter. Behind the lone cashier were glass-fronted, wood-framed refrigerators with milk and juice. In summer, we rode our bikes there to buy nickel Popsicles from the low freezer at the entrance. For 15 or 20 cents, there were other novelties, Fudgesicles, Creamsicles, ice cream sandwiches.

At some point, around the time I was in high school and had long since lost interest in Popsicles, all the Lawson's stores quietly disappeared. I never gave them a second thought, until, after a decade of living in Chicago, I visited Japan.

If you are a westerner on a first visit to Japan or have seen Sophia Coppola's brilliant film, Lost in Translation, you know that being there can be a completely disconcerting experience. In 1993, at the height of Japan's economic bubble, the dollar was worth bupkes to the yen. In a country of 125 million people, I was the single non-Japanese-speaking western tourist. It was both thrilling and baffling. For example, experienced world traveler that I am, I requested an address list of ATM machines from my U.S. bank. However, as I found out--JAPANESE STREETS HAVE NO NAMES. The locals get around by identifying locations by landmarks or asking someone for directions. I had to just wander around endlessly in what I hoped were smaller concentric circles until I stumbled onto my destination. By the way, Japanese ATM's are INSIDE buildings, usually on upper floors.

But, on almost every single corner in Japan, there is a Lawson's. It was as if there was a small wrinkle in the time/space continuum. All the stores had slipped through the portal from 1960s Ohio to appear here decades later in Japan. Roll on, Big O. It was exactly as the Lawson's stores I remembered. Here were the same two aisles, the candy display, the bread and pastries on the middle island. I looked at the fridge. The packaging was exactly the same, save for the hiragana lettering. Blue for whole milk, half blue and half gold for 2%, gold for skim, green for buttermilk. I couldn't find the Imperial Palace with a map and guide book, but I could tell small curd cottage cheese from large curd at 15 paces.

I met up with some Japanese acquaintances later in a trip. The strange comfort/thrill of seeing six different Lawson's every day still hadn't worn off. I told them how Lawson's was originally an Ohio dairy, before being a chain of stores. They listened politely. "Lawson's is Japanese," they insisted. There was no point in arguing.

I have eaten at Dunkin' Donuts in Buenos Aires, at McDonalds in Moscow. If there is a KFC at the magnetic north pole, I would not be surprised. But for me, Lawson's so strongly evoked a certain era; the 60s and 70s of my childhood and a specific geographic location; northeastern Ohio, that my entire time in Japan felt like I had traveled through the looking glass. Not so for the Japanese. Lawson's has been part of their landscape since the late 70s. It doesn't have any corporate heritage beyond that. In the 21st century, Lawson's exists everywhere in Japan, and nowhere else. Lawson's IS Japanese.

When I got home, I showed this photo to several friends. Like me, they are now in their 40s, Chicago transplants from Cleveland, Akron, Kent, Barberton. The response was exactly the same each time. Eyes widen. "Roll on, Big O," they sang. "Get that juice up to Lawson's in 40 hours."

*Thanks, Mark, for correcting my lyrics.

Kyoto 1993

Short corporate history of Lawson Dairy Stores
Lawson history (thanks, Phil!)

May 25, 2006

Phrase book for first-time travelers

New parents, you have plenty to worry about right now. Will your infant be accepted into an Ivy League School? Become a Republican, a decent T-ball player, a crystal meth user? These are legitimate concerns which should preoccupy you for the next few years or so.

I cannot help with your new baby's SAT scores, but I can ease your mind about child communication, which also will be much on your mind for the next twenty-five years or so.

What qualifications do I have to advise you? None. Zip. No university work, no academic credentials, no published studies. I have gone to the parenting school of hard knocks, and I mean it. I have taken more ice skate blades to the forehead than anyone deserves in one lifetime. I have taken a few karate kicks to the chest. I have subdued public tantrums. As you will soon find out, a tantruming toddler in a shopping mall is an inconvenience: a tantruming nine-year-old is a mortification.

As the parent of two children with multiple disabilities, I know a lot of things that do not ever work (not that screaming your head off isn't satisfying in its own way) but it doesn't ever get the desired result. I know some strategies that occasionally work and I know a very few things that consistently work.

Think of yourself as a first-time traveler to a foreign land. Even if the locals speak English, they do so with accents, different cultural references and unfamiliar traditions. The possibilities for miscommunication are legion. I see this all the time: parents who attempt in seventeen different phrases to say no to a two-year-old, desperately hoping the kid will take the hint. It's confusing and unsettling . . . and I am just a bystander. How on earth does the hapless child feel?

"I wanna go to McDonald's." Not now, honey.
"I wanna go to McDonald's." I'd like you to eat a healthy lunch today.
"I wanna go to McDonald's." It's only 9:15 in the morning.
"I wanna go to McDonald's." I don't like that whiny tone.
"I wanna go to McDonald's." Maybe later.
"I wanna go to McDonald's." McDonald’s has run out of Happy Meals.
Memorize the following phrases, use them liberally for the next ten years and go back to more pressing concerns such as university scholarship applications.

I don’t know.
Parents are children’s primary teachers. Yada yada yada. They assume we know everything, which is flattering for a while. But if you don’t know an answer, you have to say you don’t know. Most adults can generally explain how a car works or why the sky is blue. (Internal combustion, light refracted through the atmosphere, in case you didn’t know.) You can tie your neural pathways into knots trying to muster acceptable answers to “Why is Squidward so mean to Sponge-Bob?” “How does red sound?” “Could a dinosaur eat a truck?” Don’t even try.

That’s because of safety.
When I was a child, our household was run by strict and immutable rules. My parents were autocratic, but the rules were often whimsical and capricious. It seemed to me then and now, that parents, teachers, and other adults enforced ridiculous rules, simply because they could. The rules in my house that are absolute and non-negotiable are those concerning safety. Maybe it seems that adults were put on earth to spoil kids’ fun, but even so there is no running at the swimming pool, no playing in the street, handling knives, lighting matches in the house or eating anything that isn’t recognizable as food.

I can help you.
This has two different applications; pro-active and reactive. If a child could articulate his internal emotional state, "I can't find my favorite Hot Wheels model in this basement containing thousands of toy cars, and if I don't find it in the next 10 seconds, the universe as we know it will collapse in a fiery inferno," you would hastily get off the couch to assist. Since small children lack that erudition, you must be pro-active and get off the couch before the world ends. Secondly, first-time parents, you will spend much time directing children to do things that they simply aren't inclined to do, such as putting on shoes before going outside in January, coming when called, eating anything green. Make any request once, pause, then offer to help.

Thank you for telling me. alt. Thank you for letting me know.
This is a handy, all-purpose phrase that indicates that you have heard and understood, but does not require an emotional response. You can hear bad news, tattle-telling and malicious insults if you respond neutrally with this sentence. “I had three time-outs at school today.” Thank you for telling me. “And my driver made me ride home in the trunk.” Thank you for telling me. “You are an evil witch and I hate you!” Thank you for letting me know.

I am not buying that. alt.
I am not buying that today.
For several years after the boys came, I was able to maintain the fiction that shops were museums, with things to admire. The guys were blissfully unaware that one could actually exchange money for items and take these desirable objects home. Alas, they know better now. Hence, I use this handy phrase. Try it, use it liberally, repeat as often as needed.

If all else fails and you must endure a complete meltdown, especially one in public, Say Nothing. Stand with your hands in your pockets and a bemused expression on your face, as if to say, "I am just waiting here as a precaution, until the incompetent parents return." It may be that your child tries to call your bluff by shrieking your name, but don’t give in. In your most pacifying tone of voice, say, “Don’t worry. I’m sure Mom will be right back.”

Art Installation (photo)

Barbie Menaced by Trolls, Hart

May 24, 2006

An exclusive interview with Ron and Ginny...


I was lucky enough to get from Sorrel Lucent, Editor-in-Chief of READING, an exclusive interview with Ron and Ginny. This is what she told me about the interview: "I had hoped to speak to Ms. Rowling at the awards dinner. When I heard that she had asked Ron and Ginny to represent her, I asked to speak with them. Ms. Rowling and the Ministry of Magic gave permission and approved the questions and the final draft."And here it is an exclusive interview with Ginny and Ron as will be seen in the January 2003 issue of READING:

SL: Ron, Ginny, I am delighted to finally meet you. Are you representing your U.K. publisher or the Harry Potter franchise here at the conference?

GW: Oh, neither. Jo asked us to come.

SL: Jo...that's J.K. Rowling?

RW: Right. She's putting the finishing touches on Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and couldn't get away, so she asked us to speak here on her behalf.

SL: Did anyone else from Hogwarts attend?

GW: Hermione is too busy.

RW: Harry is feeling a bit over-exposed at the moment.

SL: I hope you'll pardon me, but you look a bit older than I expected.

GW: The first book was published in 1995. I was ten years old then. This is my last year at Hogwarts.

SL: Do fictional characters age in real time? How does that work?

GW: Parallel literary universe, time-space continuum... I am not sure.

RW: (Shrugs.) Hermione can explain it.

SL: Of course, our Muggle readers will want to know what you think of the film versions of the books. Have you seen them?

GW: Oh yes, several times.

RW: They're brilliant. Of course, it's just the Hollywood version. We are literary characters. Our loyalty is to Jo, the author.

GW: We are more concerned with the written word, you see. But the films are great fun. Our Muggle-born friends say it's just like home videos--whatever those are--with better production values . . .

RW: Whatever those are!

SL: So everyone is satisfied with how the books translated to the screen?

RW: Not everyone, ummmm, Hermione...

GW: She feels her character was over-glamourised and well, that Hogwarts' academic rigor was rather trivialised.

SL: I see. Speaking of Hermione, what is she doing now?

GW: I thought you would ask, so I may a few notes. (Unrolls a roll of parchment.)

RW: Ginny, we have only an hour for the interview. That list will take days.

GW: It's just the highlights.

SL: Hermione was head girl last year?

GW: Yes. Oh, I didn't even write that one down.

SL: Please go on.

GW: She is the youngest full professor in Hogwarts' history. Right now she is teaching first- and second-year Charms, besides doing research with Professor Flitwick.

RW: And one section of History of Magic.

GW: Someone had to finally tell Professor Binns that he was dead and he deserved a sabbatical.

RW: Muggle Studies, don't forget Muggle Studies.

GW: Hermoine has re-done the entire curriculum for Muggle Studies. She has a book coming out which is expected to be the definitive text. Advance orders have already surpassed Gilderoy Lockhart's final book, Magical Me.

RW: (Rolls eyes.) That's saying something. There's a huge display in Flourish and Blott's. Brilliant. Y'know, Muggle Studies was considered a soft elective. Hah. Wait till our Hermione gets to 'em.

SL: Can you tell us about her changes in the coursework?

GW: Well, 5th and 6th years study traditional Muggle disciplines, chemistry, calculus and so on, and their applications to Wizarding subjects. Seventh-year students do a course on Muggle Technology.

RW: Not sorry to miss that one.

SL: Fascinating. Can you tell us about Harry? Ron, I do want to hear about what all you Weasleys are doing, too.

GW: He is at Hogwarts, too. He's to be the next Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher.

RW: There's no one in the world more qualified.

GW: Harry's not a full professor yet. He's practice-teaching under Professor McGonagall.

RW: He teaches Advanced Flying and coaches Quidditch, too. Ginny, you forgot to mention the benefit when we were talking about Hermione.

GW: Oh right. You know that Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is over one thousand years old, so fund-raising has gotten a bit haphazard.

RW: Hermione and Parvati Patil took it over this year. There was a huge event Halloween weekend, an alumni Quidditch match. It was brilliant.

GW: Witches and wizards came from all over the world. The event raised thousands of galleons for Hogwarts' scholarship fund.

RW: You should have seen Cornelius Fudge puttering around on an original "Twiggy."

GW: That's the first ultra-light flying broom designed for Quidditch.

RW: They have been out of production for about two hundred years.

GW: My brothers were falling about laughing when they saw it. Harry played, of course.

SL: How are the Dursleys taking all this attention to Harry?

RW: Dudley took a fair bit of harassment at Smeltings. Not that he didn't deserve it.

GW: Vernon Dursely barricaded himself in the house for a few weeks at first. When he realized that the publicity didn't hurt the drill business, he calmed down a bit.

SL: Please tell us about your family.

GW: Dad is still at the Ministry of Magic. Percy is now, too.

RW: No surprise there.

GW: Charlie is director of the rare dragon breeding program and head of all the dragon preserves in eastern Europe now.

RW: Bill is traveling for Gringott's. Mostly in Asia.

SL: Ginny, you are in your final year. Any ideas beyond graduation?

GW: I am just focused on my N.E.W.T. exams. No plans yet.

SL: How are Fred and George?

RW: Successful! You know they have the joke shop. Shops, actually.

GW: There's the big one in Diagon Alley, and the smaller one in Hogsmeade. We all try to help out during holidays and the big Christmas shopping rush, even Mum.

RW: I have been working for Fred at the Diagon Alley location.

GW: And next year. . .

RW: Well, I am to take over the Hogsmeade shop while George scouts a New York location. We are planning to expand into the U.S. market.

SL: New York! Is there an equivalent of Diagon Alley there?

GW: Yes, of course, where do you think North American witches and wizards shop?

RW: (low booming voice) I shouldn't 'a said that. I should not have said that.

SL: (Laughs) Good luck to both of you. Thank you, thank you for your time.

GW: Our pleasure.

Reprinted with permission British Publishing Group, from January 2003 issue of READING. Interview by Sorrel Lucent, editor-in-chief.

Note: This article's content is copyright © 2002

Thanks so much to Sorrel...Lupinlock

Happy New Year 2003

For someone who doesn’t work, it has been an exciting and eventful year. Here are some of the more newsworthy items.

Long elaborate sorry tale told as briefly and concisely as possible
I am single, again.

Best summer visitors
My friends Jesper and Pernille visited from Denmark on the hottest week in July. Pernille and I met in Israel over twenty years ago and have kept up ever since. This was Jesper’s first trip to the U.S. We had a great, but sweaty, time showing them around. The boys adored them, after all, they are from the genuine Legoland! It was a wonderful reunion.

Worst summer visitor
Not 48 hours after tearfully seeing our Great Danes off at the airport, I was preparing to take a shower in the quiet and now-empty house. As I reached to turn on the water, I noticed a racoon in the bathtub. I have told this story a few times, so I have prepared a short FAQ:

Did you scream?
No, I calmly phoned Animal Control, hung up, then started screaming.
How big was it?
Kinda medium-sized, probably a racoon juvenile delinquent on a spree.
Once I had a (squirrel, mouse, skunk) in my (attic, chimney, gutter).
Hmmm, very nice, but this was a #^%*&~ racoon in my +#*$%~!" bathroom.

Best sports for very hyperactive children
Hart is in his third year of karate, now a green belt. He is the ranking belt in the class of younger kids, so he enjoys demonstrating moves for the peewees. He entered his first tournament and came home with three bronze medals. Jeff started speed skating this fall and loves it. He’s tireless–the other skaters come off the ice looking ragged and exhausted–but Jeff is like the Energizer Bunny, he keeps going and going…

Best school news in a while
Jeff is happily in his second year at the wonderful, magnificent, fantastic Cove School. He has surprised everyone with his growth and progress so far in third grade. The money and effort for legal wrangling with our school district proved well worth it.

The World According to Hart
(on religious diversity)

John isn’t Jewish, he’s Christmas.


On Mother's Day, I took both boys to a popular family restaurant. Taking both boys out is generally a major production with numerous admonitions and much preparatory discussion about proper restaurant behavior. (Not that it necessarily helps.)

The three of us made our way through the endless salad bar without incident and were shown to our booth when I noticed that I had forgotten silverware. Swimming upstream, I made my way back and waited for an opening in the line. As I reached for the forks, a women several feet down the line bellowed, "Excuse you!" Momentarily stung, I turned, but gathering my wits, I immediately demanded to see her Etiquette Vigilante credentials and when she could not produce them, I made a citizen's arrest on the spot for verbal assault and impersonating a civil human being. Of course not. I skulked back to my table and seethed.

You see, I am a very mannerly person. I say "please" and "thank-you." I say "bless you" when strangers sneeze. I let people with two items in front of me in the grocery line. I wasn't always as conscientious as I am now, but since I have children, I have to be.

With special needs children, I frequently ask for accommodations, rules to be bent or dispensed with, policies to be reconsidered. I run interference with irate parents. I have taken on a posse or two of enraged teenagers. There may be parents who storm and bellow and know their rights, but I don't know if they get their way. I do know that camp directors, recreation supervisors, and school administrators don't dodge my phone calls . . . yet. Menacing teens haven't done anything worse than roll their eyes at me.

"It must have been annoying to have some little kid butt in." "It would be so disruptive to have him stay backstage until intermission, may I pick him up early?" "I know I've passed the refund date, but the guitar class just isn't working out. You'll pro-rate and refund the rest! Gee, thanks."

I have also learned that despite my best efforts, there are adults in the world who just don't get it. Some of them are even teachers, counselors and doctors. Recently, a coach had Hart spend so much time sidelined on the bench that I realized she had no other idea how to deal with him. I approached the rec staff with a number of suggestions: "Could we come a little later and skip the warm-up?" "Could one of the coaches accompany him during the warm-up and free play?" "Is there a 'helper' job he could do during the unstructured time?" I went on and on while they listened raptly. At the end of my monologue, the supervisor asked, "Well, but do you have any ideas for us?" As the old song says, "You gotta know when to fold 'em." I guess I will take that refund after all.

Back at the table, I entertained malicious thoughts. "I'll key her car." "I'll find out her email address." "I'll kidnap her baby." But I had my revenge. On the way out, with both boys clutching my hands, we detoured past her table. With my most winning smile, I announced, "We just want to wish you a happy Mother's Day, too." Leaving her and her husband gaping, we swept out of the restaurant with what I imagine to be a dramatic exit.

In the car, I tried to debrief the boys. "That lady was mean to me in the line," I explained. "When someone is rude to you, what could you do?" "Hit her." "Grab her food." "Smash her car." So much for the "teachable moments" of parenting.

I told my friend Joan about this incident the next day. In addition to being smart and sensible, Joan is about six feet tall, with a look about her that indicates she probably doesn't suffer fools gladly. "This was an angry person," Joan said, "It had nothing to do with you." Joan was altogether too sensible about the whole thing. I wanted righteous anger, or at least indignation on my behalf. I told her about my retaliation ploy. She smiled, "Of course, she must have said thank you." Snort.