Friday, February 27, 2009

Something is Rotten in Denmark

Once upon a time, back in the mid-90's, I was a reporter for a little outfit called People Magazine.

And while at People, I worked on a story that left a deep impression on me. It was about a New Jersey woman -- a frumpy, bespectacled 30something with a high school education -- who was randomly dialing the dorm rooms of Ivy League college students, befriending them and then bilking them out of money. She claimed to be a South African supermodel. She claimed to be dying of leukemia. She claimed to know all sorts of celebrities. The story changed so many times it was impossible to keep track. But people fell for it. She'd supposedly even managed to get a Princeton student to marry her. And she was going on trial for fraud.

My colleague Sarah and I worked this story best as we could, but in the end it never ran. The con woman was slippery as an eel. The college boys, it turned out, were just the tip of the iceberg. This woman's aliases had aliases. She pled to a lesser charge, got five years' probation and we moved on. But we did get in the habit, whenever things just got wacky and unexplainable in our lives, of putting up our hands in resignation and saying her name, ala Seinfeld's Newman! You can learn more about her shenanigans here; apparently, the rise of the Internet and social networking was a huge boon to her. Last I heard she was posing as a 9/11 widow. On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog, right?

Many years later, when I was a regular on the wedding planning message boards on the Knot, I thought of my old friend Nancy when the boards were rocked by scandal. AmyLovesRian was the screenname of everyone's favorite, most helpful bride-to-be. She had a picture perfect romance and was planning a destination wedding in the Caribbean. Somewhere during the course of planning, she discovered she was pregnant -- with twins! And then there was that time her fiance surprised her with -- a new house! After the pictures of the beach wedding failed to materialize, Amy's story slowly began to unravel. Someone discovered that all the pictures of her pregnant belly had been borrowed from someone else's pregnancy journal. The picture of Amy and her fiance was supposedly from an advertisement. It was never clear at what point Amy had begun to embellish the truth, or whether she'd ever really been engaged at all. But I distinctly remember the uproar her unmasking caused. How cheated people felt for admiring her and swallowing her story wholesale. One woman was livid that she was constantly finding fault with her own fiance for not being more like the mythical Rian. Amy crawled off the boards with her tail between her legs, never to be heard from again. Or at least not that we knew of. It looks like BabyCenter recently had a similar poser on its boards.

I've always been captivated by this type of fakery. I'm honest to a fault, the kind of reporter who worried constantly about getting every word down verbatim. The idea of being that brazen with the truth completely and utterly fascinates me. And I'm also unhealthily obsessed with sad stories.

Which is why I've spent most of today searching over and over for a plausible explanation for what I've discovered.

Here's the deal.

There's a blog attracting thousands of hits from all over the world. It purports to tell a heartwrenching story about a family tragedy. Strangers have been praying for the blogger and making gracious offers of emotional support. Many tears have been shed. And I'm about 99 percent sure that it's a scam. Or a student's sociology project, or something, but it's definitely not what it purports to be.

There's nothing illegal about what the blogger is doing; no donations have been solicited. Yet. But it literally makes me ill to think of bereaved parents investing even an ounce of emotional energy on a what is almost certainly a fictional story. It's not the first time such a fraud would have been perpetrated. But to whom does one complain about an ethical violation on the Internet? (And while we're at it, are people really still falling for the Nigerian bank thing?)

Anyway, I'm at a loss for what to do. Do I contact the blogger privately with my concerns? She doesn't post an email address, but I'm pretty sure I know how to reach her. Do I post my accusations publicly (anonymously?) on the site so that others will see them and be warned of her deceit? Do I just stay out of it and see where she goes with this? I'm no detective, and there's always the chance I've somehow gotten this all wrong, but while I'd love that to be the case, my gut and a host of evidence say otherwise. I thought something was odd when I realized that every single comment on the blog was from someone who'd seen the blogger's many comments on other blogs and message boards, (she's been drumming up business at an alarming clip) not from anyone who seemed to actually know her and her story in real life. The tragedy, it would appear, is an Internet exclusive.

So I'm putting it out to you, all three of you who've been reading this space. What's the right thing to do?

Monday, February 23, 2009

I'm Crafty, Dammit!

Like every other adult human being on earth, I recently listed "25 Random Things About Me" in a note on Facebook. And for those three people who haven't yet joined Facebook and can't see that link, I'll share that #24 was "I am completely craft-impaired and get anxious in craft stores. Which partially fuels #17." (#17 being: "I always worry that I'm not creative or patient enough as a mother.")

I can't fully explain my anxiety about craft stores, except to say that it has something to do with endless possibilities. I walk into a craft store and feel completely overwhelmed and ill at ease. I feel like there's a whole universe of craftiness for which I'm missing the decoder ring. I immediately wonder how people know what you're supposed to do with all those materials. Artificial fruit? Glue guns? Styrofoam forms? Little tin watering cans? And don't even get me started on the scrapbook aisle, for which I require almost an entire bottle of Xanax.

I don't like the idea that when it comes to crafts, you can pretty much do whatever you want -- that the very essence of being crafty is that you blaze your own creative trail. Not so much for me. I like activities that have a carefully proscribed beginning, middle and end and precise rules to follow. Not surprisingly, I can only write non-fiction, my former agent's constant insistence that I should try my hand at young adult novels notwithstanding. Making it up just plain scares me.

For nearly 36 perfectly good years, this failing had few real world implications. Yes, yes, I might have saved some money on my wedding if I could have made my own sugared fruit and topiary place card holders, but... whatever. Being un-crafty, however, turns out to make you feel seriously disadvantaged as a mother. The crafty moms are like the popular cheerleaders or the go-getter student government presidents; I'm like the maternal equivalent of an unmotivated burnout. (Do kids still get called burnouts, btw, or am I hopelessly dating myself?)

I look longingly at blogs like No Time for Flashcards or Nie-Nie in the pre-accident days (just look at this interview Cookie magazine did with her about how she decorated her impossibly adorable home) or my uber-crafty friend Vicki's, and picture myself charming my kids with my ability to turn popsicle sticks and cotton balls into a 3-D recreation of the Taj Mahal. Or maybe it's not even their craftiness I covet per se, but rather the idea that the craftiness is emblematic of a more energetic, creative parenting style than mine. I often feel like a mother with -- to quote Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd --"limited wind." Do crafty moms ever feel the urge to plop the kids in front of Caillou and play a few rounds of Scramble just to relax? Not that I've, um, ever done that, of course. I'm just wondering.

My own children, on the other hand, don't do much with popsicle sticks except eat Popsicles. They like to jump on the couch a lot and watch what I'm sure is too much television. Can't you just see the IQ points leaching out of their brains? And no, I have no idea why Ethan has no shirt on.

One of my very first posts to this blog was about making 2009 extraordinary, right? So I wanted it documented that the A. boys did in fact do a craft project. Alert the media.

I got the idea for apple painting from No Time for Flashcards. It seemed like a good baby step, something I could master on limited craft wind. I know how to cut an apple in half! I can pour paint on a paper plate! Woo-hooo!

Alec immediately showed no interest whatsoever -- he actually cried upon being handed the apple -- and instead practiced banging chalk on the table.

Ethan, on the other hand, was way into it.

Next time I'll actually read the directions, which say that you can only use a thin layer of paint or it doesn't work, but this was our finished product.

I came. I saw. I crafted, dammit. Now what?

Cora Paige

I was recently accused of being the most morose person on earth, an accusation I plan to address more fully in a future blog post. (In my defense, the accusation was leveled while I was serving Cosmopolitans to a house full of girlfriends at my semi-annual Miss America party, so I can't be all that bad, right?)

For now, I plan to channel my dark obsession with sad stories of woe and loss into something positive.

My friend Vicki, the insanely creative and talented force behind Three Wheels Design, recently alerted me to the heartbreaking story of Cora Paige McClenahan, a ten month old girl from Kansas who died earlier this month after being diagnosed only weeks earlier with stage four neuroblastoma. Cora's mom is a blogger, and word quickly went out through the blogosphere of the McClenahan's terrible loss. A project is now underway at to raise money for a playground in Cora's honor. 150 different Etsy sellers (including Vicki) are donating the proceeds from the sale of certain items to the effort.

You can read more about the etsy project here and follow links to purchase something. To see Vicki's super-cute daughter Jane modeling her Cora Paige shirt from etsy seller I Love Plum, click here.

I just bought Alec this ridiculously cute I Love Plum shirt in Cora's memory.

Here's a convenient button that will take you right to all the Cora Paige items for sale.


Rest in peace, little Cora Paige.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

That's My Boy

Ethan has always been a pretty easy-going kid. In the year and a half since he's been in preschool, we've really never had reports of bad behavior. A few times the teachers have pulled us aside to tell us there's been an incident of some sort, but it's almost always one in which he was on the receiving end of something. Ethan's just not a troublemaker. Trying in plenty of other ways, I promise, but just not an instigator.

So I knew something was up when I went to pick him up last week and saw the teacher making a beeline for our car in that determined "I need to speak with you" kind of way. There was an unfamiliar edge to her face, something that told me this time was going to be a little different. She motioned for me to open the window.

"I just wanted to let you know something happened today," she began. Sure enough, Ethan was the one who had gotten in trouble.

So what was it that prompted my son's first brush with the law?

Ladies and Gentleman, I give you Exhibit A.

It's, um, a snack cake.

But not just any snack cake. It's a Disney "Racing Cake," specifically put into his lunch box because, of course, it was letter R week, and the kids get special notes if they find things in their lunch that start with the letter of the week. (We're not discussing the fact that for "O" week I actually picked through an entire tub of alphabet cookies and weeded out all the O's for him, only to have him fail to notice. A mother's work is never done, you know.)

So apparently our little man really really really wanted that Racing Cake. So much so that he sneakily threw out his sandwich so that his teachers would think he had eaten it and would allow him to move on to the Racing Cake. Ethan, however, was busted during this little maneuver. And reduced to hysterical tears, though it's unclear whether that was over getting in trouble or over the fact that they told him he wasn't going to get to eat the cake.

What can I say? My boy likes his cake.

To anyone who knows how seriously I take my snack foods, this shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. Yet one more piece of proof that the apple really doesn't fall far.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Giants Among Us

In the fall of 1986, when I was eight years old a freshman in college, my friend Natalie came into my dorm room with a cassette tape that a friend had sent her.

"I'm not sure what this is," she told me. "It kind of sounds like two really stoned guys with a keyboard."

What Natalie had discovered was the genius that is They Might Be Giants, and I am forever in her debt. I can't hear the song "Don't Let's Start" without mentally driving up 14th Street in Charlottesville in Natalie's cherry red Jetta, screaming the lyrics out the windows. They were two really stoned guys with a keyboard. But they were frigging awesome.

Fast forward twenty-odd years and the Giants, bless their hearts, are still going strong. But in one of those totally mind-meld-y moments of divine inspiration, in the last few years, TMBG have turned their attention to perhaps what they should have been doing all along: kids' music. A little bit off-the-wall, incredibly clever and almost pathologically catchy, is it any wonder that they're the force behind the terrific theme songs for Mickey Mouse Funhouse and Higglytown Heroes? (We won't discuss the weirdness of the latter show, however, or how my friend Kay is suspicious of pizza guy's motives, always wanting to hang around all those children.)

All of us in the parent trenches know how hard it is to find kids' music that doesn't make you want to hurl, and the TMBG kids' CDs (there are now three of them) are so great I want to weep with relief. Who else could come up with a song called "Who Put The Alphabet in Alphabetical Order?" Or envision a conversation between the letters D and W?

"W, you think you're so great."
"Well, I am pretty big."
"Yeah, you're okay. You're just not as great as you think you are."
"How come I never see you around anymore, D?"
"I got this big TV set at home now. And I like to watch the sports."

It does my heart good to watch Ethan rock out to the Giants' latest offering, Here Come The 123s, which includes what might be my all-time favorite song opener, to a gem called "Nonagon:" "Everybody at the party is a many-sided polygon...."

Here Come the 123s is up for a Grammy Sunday night for Best Children's Album. And if there's any justice in the world, they'll win.

Monday, February 2, 2009

LaLa: A Love Story

Even before I became a parent, I always thought it was especially adorable when little kids had a security blanket or stuffed animal that they couldn't live without it. I'll never forget the night I had dinner with my dear friends Lynn and David and their boys at the Hard Times restaurant in Arlington, only to realize that their son Eric had left his beloved "curly edged diaper" behind. Curly edged diaper was an unassuming white cloth diaper to which, for whatever mysterious reason, Eric had become rather attached. 17 years later, I still remember the ritualistic way Eric would manipulate curly edged diaper, folding over a corner and working it rhythmically through the crook of his hand while fervently sucking his thumb. (A practice I've since learned is oddly universal.) David and I went back to rescue C.E.D. that night, only to realize that white cloth diapers look remarkably like white cloth napkins, of which approximately 974 had been cleared off the tables since we'd left. After explaining to the puzzled kitchen help that we were essentially looking for a rag, we mounted an exhaustive search. Somehow we found it, and all was right with the world again.

When you spend enough time around families with young kids, you start to know their lovies as well. My nephew Jake's attachment to "Bear" was the stuff of legend. His younger sister and brother took up with blankets with no less ferocity of affection. My friend Michele's three kids were all devotees as well; first came Puppy, then Bunny and then Blankie. And then there are my husband's good friends Jason and Cindy. By the time she was about four, their daughter Ellie clung -- quite literally -- to the pieces of what had once been her lovey. I'm not even sure what animal it began life as, because after many years of hard-core affection all that was left was a frayed piece of torso, and maybe an ear, if I remember correctly. But that didn't dampen her enthusiasm. It sort of reminded me of the Victorians, wandering around with those lockets filled with dead people's hair. Or the way people revere religious relics.

And so it was a minor disappointment in our lives when our oldest son, Ethan, fell into that 40% of Western children who aren't attached to a "transitional object," as the psych lit calls them. He definitely had a favorite stuffed animal -- Lambie -- but that was about as far as it went. Lambie was nice. Lambie was quite loved. Lambie was almost always there at nap and nighttime, and we made sure to bring Lambie with us when we traveled, but Lambie could also fall under the crib for days at a time and cause no great stir. Lambie was no curly edged diaper.

And then came Alec.

Alec was an abysmal sleeper as an infant, so bad that I caved and hired one of those baby whisperer people to help me after he once woke up 12 times in a 12 hour night. Oh yeah. We were even
on the local news about it.

In my desperate search to figure out how to get him to sleep better -- a search motivated by the growing realization that sleep deprivation was eroding my grip on reality -- I dutifully did all the tricks that the sleep czars recommend. Including introducing a lovey.

For Alec, we chose a blue sailor bear made by Kaloo that we'd been given as a gift when he was born by our friend Tori. The body is actually a small flat blanket, about six or eight inches square, with a stuffed bear head topped with a long nightcap, the kind they wear in The Night Before Christmas. I wore it around in my shirt one day so it would smell like me, just like the books said, and then introduced it to him.

To say that it worked would be the understatement of the decade. Correction. It didn't really help with his sleeping, (neither did the baby whisperer, for that matter, despite what the news report said) but whatever mystical powers make a child attach to a transitional object worked their magic in spades. Alec and LaLa, as he has since been dubbed, are now completely and somewhat maniacally inseparable.

I'm genuinely fascinated by the the power of LaLa. When you go in to get Alec out of his crib in the morning, or after a nap, almost without fail, the first thing he does is hold up LaLa and show him to you. "LaLa," he always declares solemnly, as if he were introducing him for the very first time. It's like he's just reaffirming that LaLa is there and life can proceed as usual. When he plays with LaLa, he just keeps saying LaLa's name over and over again, deliriously happy just to be in LaLa's presence. Even better, he tells LaLa he loves him, using inimitable Alec-speak: "Lah-loooooooooo LaLa!" he sings. He buries his face in him, which is no small feat considering that LaLa, due to Alec's penchant for sucking on him, usually smells like something between a dirty diaper and a rotting carcass. (And this despite the fact that there are now actually two LaLas in rotation, a fact that -- shhhh!!! -- we've taken great pains to conceal from Alec.) And most interesting to me, though we never taught it to him, he's somehow figured out that same ritualistic manipulation, folding down a corner of LaLa and rhythmically working it through his fingers, all the while keeping him close to his face.

If LaLa goes missing, we all get a little frantic. I honestly feel a stab of genuine fear until I can locate him. (Sometimes backup LaLa is in the wash.) Alec can be a little -- how shall we say? -- insistent about most things, but nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to a missing LaLa situation. "LaLa? LaLa?? LALA???? LALA?????!!!??" he'll start repeating, with escalating anxiety. On the flip side, there's nothing quite like the pure unmitigated blast of joy he'll experience when you then find LaLa and give him back. It's nothing short of a religious experience, in which he displays the kind of unabashed affection usually reserved for returning prisoners of war. His eyes actually twinkle.

I have to say I sort of envy Alec for having LaLa. Don't you wish your life were simple enough that there could be an object whose very existence -- the mere sight or feel of it -- could absolutely elate you and instantly comfort you? And no, I know what you're thinking. Wine doesn't count.

Photo courtesy of the fantabulous Dr. Katherine Holman

Update. Sunday, February 7.
Just had to add that this afternoon we gave Alec one of his very favorite things to eat, hummus with pita chips. He decided to forego the chips and use LaLa's paw to scoop up his hummus. That's love, people.