Archive for Musings


Jan 2013

Giving Back

Photo credit: John W. Brett, FCCPS

I work for a lot of association clients, and as a result, I interview a lot of association presidents. They’re nearly always incredibly successful people, with big jobs at big companies, and I’m always amazed that they can find the time to volunteer untold hours working, speaking and traveling on behalf of their association. But time and again, they tell me that they feel the need to pay back to an industry that has supported them for so long, or that they do it because “you get out what you put in.” I’ve heard that “get out what you put in” quote so many times I feel like I can finish their sentences for them as easily as a long-married couple.

In my own life, I tend to be a joiner and a doer. I love a good cause, and I’ve sort of made it my personal mantra to never complain about something if I’m not willing to do something about it. That’s not always possible of course — there are plenty of times I have a good kvetch about something without having the slightest plan to do a darn thing about it. But for the big issues … the stuff that really gets my goat … the stuff I’m truly passionate about? That I’ll commit to doing something about. And just as all those association presidents have been telling me over the years, it feels great. I get out more than I give. It’s awesome.

Below, then, are two articles that I think are perfect illustrations of this. I share them not to toot horns. Rather, I share them because after it was all said and done, I got this huge outpouring of thanks from other parents in my community, and it made me feel all warm and fuzzy knowing that by having this story played out this way, it helps everyone remember that change doesn’t have to be hard. That little actions by many can result in one huge (fabulous) thing. So I hope, I truly truly truly hope, that if I’ve inspired even one person to stop kvetching and start volunteering, than the success of this little project of mine has been way more worth it than just the act itself. And that’s cool.

City Council Approves Board’s Bus Camera Request
By: John W. Brett
(From the Falls Church City Public School website, January 30, 2013)

Beginning later this year, blowing past a Falls Church City school bus with its flashers on and stop sign out will cost drivers $250.

The new law follows a year of work by an FCCPS parent, a Falls Church school board member and finally the unanimous support of the City Council.

“I’m really just thrilled,” said Stephanie Oppenheimer, a parent of two boys, both of whom ride the bus each morning. “Their bus stop is on a fairly busy street where cars routinely blow by the stopped bus. We’ve even had cars swerve around us in the crosswalk. It’s insane and dangerous.”

So last year she began her quest to do something about it. Working with Transportation Supervisor Nancy Hendrickson and Falls Church Officer Mary Gavin, the three researched the law to determine how best to proceed and brought their research to the school board.

In October FCCPS school bus drivers tracked violators over the course of three days and documented 60 incidents of running school bus stop sign arms. With data in hand, the matter was presented to the City for action.

“We felt it appropriate for Council to take the initial action,” said school board member Kieran Sharpe. “It appeared the Council must first authorize the schools to install and operate a video monitoring system before the schools can enter into an agreement with a vendor.”

Sharpe drafted a proposed ordinance to be presented to the Council before their December 17th meeting. And Monday night, Council unanimously approved.

“We are extremely grateful to Ms. Oppenheimer, who led the way. And also, to Mr. Sharpe who wrote the original draft ordinance” said Superintendent Toni Jones. “All in all, it was a great collaborative effort between FCCPS and Falls Church City Council and staff. We couldn’t be more pleased!”

“It was definitely a feel-good, ‘it takes a village’ moment,” added Oppenheimer.

******************** (wait, there’s more!)**************************
Falls Church first in Va. to use surveillance cameras to ticket drivers who don’t stop for school buses
By Tom Jackman, The Washington Post, January 30, 2013

It’s illegal in Virginia to drive past a school bus while it is picking up or discharging students, not to mention very dangerous. But who could consistently enforce such a law? Falls Church City says it can, and it approved an ordinance Monday night which would make it the first jurisdiction in Virginia to use video surveillance cameras on the outside of school buses to capture license plates of those who drive past the flashing red lights.

“This came from the community,” said city spokeswoman Susan Finarelli, who said that citizens complained they frequently saw drivers cruising past stopped buses. In November, the city asked its bus drivers to keep track of how many cars illegally passed them while they were loading or unloading. In three days, the drivers reported 60 violations.

By unanimous vote, the Falls Church City Council approved placing video cameras on the rear corner of some or all of the city’s 17 buses, who cover more than 155,000 miles per year. No vendor has been selected, but the two biggest manufacturers both told Falls Church that they were the first in the state to adopt such a plan.

The vendor will monitor the footage and supply possible violations to the police. A sworn officer will review the tape and issue a civil summons if the license is clear and the violation is apparent. A $250 fine, but no traffic points or convictions, will be assessed, and it doesn’t matter if you weren’t driving: if it’s your car, you’re liable under Virginia law.

“We expect this program will change driving behavior and have a positive impact on the safety of the city’s students,” said Falls Church police Captain Rick Campbell. “While the city has been fortunate to have not had an accident yet, it’s only a matter of time. The safety of our community is our number one priority.”

The city hopes that the cost of the cameras, and using the vendors to monitor them, will be roughly balanced out by the fines brought in from the violators, Finarelli said. She didn’t know how many of the buses would be equipped with the cameras — no vendor has been hired yet — but said it would be on the buses with the mostly high-traffic routes.

Stephanie Oppenheimer, a Falls Church parent who worked with school and police officials to get the ordinance passed, said the council’s approval was “definitely a feel-good, ‘it takes a village’ moment.”

Oppenheimer has two boys, ages seven and 10. Both use “a bus stop on a fairly busy street,” Oppenheimer said, “where cars routinely blow by the stopped bus. We’ve even had cars swerve around us in the crosswalk. It’s gotten so commonplace that the most dangerous part of riding a school bus is literally getting off of it and getting on it.”

Oppenheimer said the program’s goal is not to make money, but simply to stop drivers from passing buses. “Keeping our youngest citizens safe is far more important than any revenue,” she said, “and that point was repeated again and again last night” by the Falls Church council.

Photo credit: John W. Brett, FCCPS

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Oct 2012

Exploring the New Frontier … in Tysons Corner

Tysons' Last ForestSome people have to work on Columbus Day. Some get to stay home, sleep in, go to the movies, go shopping, heck, I don’t know … buy a mattress on sale? Do mattress stores have sales on Columbus Day, as they seem to for all other American holidays?

Anyway. My husband and I decided it should be a day that we’d go explore a new world with the kids. We thought about corn maizes and pumpkin patches, or maybe just a little hike at a nice park near our house.

But then I remembered an article I read the other day in The Washington Post, about a coalition of citizens who were working to help save “Tysons’ Last Forest.” The article said that in looking at ways to alleviate traffic in Tysons, Fairfax County’s comprehensive plan includes an “Option 3”, which basically means running a four-lane connector road for the Dulles Toll Road right through the heart of the forest and stream valley.

Now I have to admit something: I’ve lived in Northern Virginia for a really long time, and I’ve been hearing about this secret little forest in the midst of Tysons Corner for what seems an equally long time. But I’ve never been there, and for reasons I can’t quite put a finger on, I never really pursued trying to find out where it was. I had my own favorite places to hike in the woods, and I guess I just thought of Tysons as the place to sit in traffic while trying to get to The Container Store.

But this article stuck with me, and I suggested to my husband that we go check it out. We weren’t quite sure where exactly to park, but with some explanations from my mom, who has lived here for 40+ years, our GPS and an iPhone with Google Maps still loaded on it, we hopped in the car. A few wrong turns later, the minivan was parked and we were curiously poking through the forest’s edge.

Twenty seconds later, my husband yelled that he found the trail, and off we went, headed west through the woods.

The woods. In Tysons. This was insane. To our right, we could see glimpses of the elevated Metro track, and the backs of some random commercial buildings. To our left, we could see backyard playground equipment from neighboring houses. But as far as the eye could see ahead of us, all we could see was huge, old-growth trees. A gorgeous carpet of ferns along the forest floor. A twisting little stream that the boys couldn’t resist. (It had awesome rocks—perfect for boys to toss into the water with great, satisfying plunks.)

We scrambled over fallen trees, twisted around piles of deadwood from a recent storm, came upon an old paved path and some Parcourse equipment that I imagine some corporation installed years ago for their employees.

I. was. stunned.

Eventually, the boys got tired, and the oldest started asking when we were going to turn back. I begged for just another minute and just then spotted a huge, massive tree. It had to be well over 100 years old, and I had to see it. As I hopped up the bank to see it, I saw something perhaps even more incredible: A huge, old farmhouse, shutters hanging at crazy angles, an old brick outbuilding tucked behind it. “Ash Grove,” a historical marker said, circa 1790. Built by Thomas Fairfax.

Um, wow.

Suddenly, I started picturing a bunch of little Fairfax kids running around the very forests that my boys were now running, and this whole entire day went from being a really exhilarating, exciting experience to a heartbreaking, painful one. Would the powers-that-be really, seriously, destroy all of this—indeed, Tysons’ last remaining forest—for an exit ramp? Could they?

On the way back, we came across an orange marker with a sign stapled to it that read, “See the stakes? Two rows of stakes cross this trail, 140 feet apart. This is roughly the width of proposed exit ramps per “Option 3”. Imagine everything between the stakes destroyed – gone forever. Check out what we are doing and what you could be doing to help prevent that from happening at:”

“But Mom,” my son said as he looked out at the ferns and the forest and the stream that we had just hiked, “that would mean that all this would be gone.”

(Yes, my sweet baby, that is true. It would all be gone.)

“And look at all those houses over there,” he said, pointing to the backyards we could see through the trees. “I guess the people who made this decision don’t live here, and that’s why they don’t care.”

(I’m afraid you might be right, my sweet, perceptive, seven year old boy. Perhaps that’s true too.)

As we neared the end of our hike, two deer raised their beautiful heads and gave us a quick look before bounding away. My son stared after them, surely the closest he’s ever been to a deer. And I vowed that I would try too, to do what I can to help save this forest. It’s too important to not even try.

(For more information about the issue in general, visit To sign a petition for its protection, visit

Disclaimer: What I am not: I am not a homeowner in the Tysons Corner area, nor am I am a member of the coalition working to preserve it. In fact, I don’t even live in Fairfax County anymore (I live in Falls Church City).

What I am: I am a lifelong resident of Northern Virginia, and I grew up in Fairfax County during a time when cows still lived in McLean (corner of Swinks Mill and Georgetown Pike). I am a girl who once cried as I watched, from the window of my third-grade classroom at Spring Hill Elementary, hundreds of trees being cut down for what would become the Summerwood neighborhood. I am a woman who loves to hike, loves being outdoors, loves wildlife and trees and clouds and water and wind. I am a mom to two boys—a mom who feels like I’ve done my job well if they come home with muddied knees, stones and acorns in their pockets, and the perfect, most excellent stick they’ve ever found clutched in their dirty hands.

This article was originally published October 11, 2012 on

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Jan 2012

Discovering the Magic of Disney through Parenthood

DisneySo I’ve always had fond memories of Disney. My first trip there was in the 1970s with my family, via the Amtrak Auto Train.

When Epcot opened in the early 1980s, my mom and I flew down to stay with my Godmother and see what all the futuristic fuss was about. When I graduated from high school and my four-years-older-than-me brother graduated from college, we took a super fun sister-brother trip there. I checked it out a few more times when I was working at Orlando-based conventions, and all the delegates were out golfing.

The last time I was there, Hurricane Jean forced us to hunker down in a windowless room at a college friend’s house instead of riding Space Mountain, but we still had a blast. And any time I’ve ever been asked what famous person I’d like to meet, I’ve always said Walt Disney, because I figure he must have been a crazily inventive, imaginative, curious, whimsical and optimistic guy, and I like those kind of people.

In spite of all that, I’ve never felt as though I had drunk the Kool-Aid when it came to Disney. Yeah, it was a cool place, but I couldn’t quite understand why young couples chose it as the site for their destination weddings. I thought friends who went there in the midst of a boiling hot Floridian summer with little kids were nuts. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to honeymoon with nine billion other people in long, hot, sweaty lines.

I would occasionally watch those YouTube videos of kids completely and totally freaking out as they learned that they were going to Disney, and I couldn’t fathom my own children having any such reaction: As boys, the whole princess thing was lost on them; they’re terrified of roller coasters and most other rides; and to them, “Disney” meant movies—not a destination.

But then two critical moons lined up: First, Legoland opened in Orlando in October. Second, our good friends and neighbors asked if we’d like to join them on a trip down there, using their Disney points for our “on-property” (check me out, knowing the Disney lingo!) accommodations.

Kool-Aid or no, our answer was a resounding yes. We made a plan for a five-day trip over the MLK holiday weekend, scored some buy two/get two free tickets to Legoland, bought four-day Park Hopper passes (more expert lingo!), and waited. If anyone asked me about our plans, I would blithely wave my arm in the air and make it clear that we hadn’t drunk the Kool-Aid, and even if we spent a few hours a day in the parks and the rest of the time lounging around our hotel with our friends, we’d be happy. We had no intention, said I, of stressing out over a trip to Disney.

The week prior to our departure, Disney veterans spoke to us earnestly about Fastpasses. A free app that tells you in real time what the wait times are at every ride. A book about how to maximize your Disney experience. Web sites to help you plan your visit. We turned it all down. We’re doing Disney the Oppenheimer way, we said, which means no. stress.

The day before we left, our cat sitter told us the sad tale of a colleague who flew her entire family down to Disney over Christmas, only to be told at the gates that the park was at capacity, and they couldn’t come in.


At the airport, we ran into a teacher from my younger son’s school, who cheerfully told us that she had just checked some Web site that rates the parks’ crowdedness, and that Saturday and Sunday were both forecasted at “9”, with 10 being the most crowded it could be.


Our plane was on time. Our rental car perfect. Check-in easy. The pool water warm. The sunset lovely. The next morning, giraffe and zebras and Ankole cattle wandered around right outside our balcony, munching on grass as we ate our breakfast. It was nature nirvana.

We hit Legoland first, arriving bright and early to a parking lot so empty it reminded us of National Lampoon’s Vacation. But unlike the movie, the park wasn’t closed—we just had it all to ourselves. At the Disney parks, we’d head to the most popular rides first for the oft-mentioned Fastpasses, only to find that there were no lines. We’d wander by a show by happenstance, only to see a sign announcing the next performance was in two or five minutes. Trains arrived the moment we’d step on the platform.

We felt for sure we’d miss the evening fireworks display when our shuttle bus had to take a detour; instead, we arrived at exactly the moment the show began, with a perfect view of the Magic Kingdom’s castle. We signed up for a character breakfast and were one of the first families seated, so we didn’t even have to wait in line for personalized Mickey pancakes. We felt like the golden family, breezing through Disney as if an advance team had cleared the way for us. It was bizarre—too perfect, really—and as every minute passed, I started feeling the Kool-Aid.

The parks were clean. The workers kind and helpful. The whole shenanigan expertly and perfectly planned. Seamless. Enjoyable. Magical.

And I realized that in the midst of all the talk of Fastpasses and apps and manuals and how-to books, the one thing no one had mentioned was the difference—the difference between going to Disney as a kid and going to Disney as a parent. Because the ability to bring a kid to Disney, I’ve decided, is the closest I’ll ever come to feeling like I’m some sort of superpower rock star parent. To watch their mouths open in wonder as fireworks explode over a glowing castle … to hear them laugh a big belly laugh as Winnie the Pooh gives them a big hug … to watch their faces turn from fear to joy as they rode their very first roller coaster?

Yup, I’ll drink to that.


This article was originally published January 27, 2012 on

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Dec 2011

The (Many) Annoyances of a Christmas Birthday

Birthdays stress me out.

To be specific, kids’ birthday parties stress me out. It could be that it’s because I’m a Christmas baby and therefore have very few nostalgic memories to fall back on when it comes time to think up great ideas, because I’ve had very few birthday parties.

(When I say I’m a Christmas baby, I do not mean I was born in December. I mean I was born on December 25.)

My mom tried really hard to make my birthdays special, but let’s face it: It’s pretty hard to separate a kid’s birthday from The Big Man’s birthday. A few friends over for cake and games? Forget about it – they were all out of town. A slumber party? Puh-leeze. Cupcakes at school? Nyet.

BirthdayOne year, she decided to throw a half birthday, with a “Christmas in July” theme. She propped up a fake tree on the back patio (remember when we called them fake instead of artificial?), decorated it with balloons, and set us all up out in the backyard for a day of summer frivolity and fun. It was pretty great, until one of the moms called her later and asked her to never pull a stunt like that again, as the woman’s son apparently expected Santa to come and was sorely disappointed when he didn’t.

As I aged out of little kid parties, things didn’t really change for the better: I had to wait three whole, agonizing days after my 16th birthday for the DMV to re-open so I could go for my driver’s test, only to be rejected because my driver ed teacher accidentally wrote my date of birth as 12-25-83 instead of 12-25-67. The only solution was to wait until school re-opened in January. And then go back to the DMV on yet another (later) date. When I turned 18, I couldn’t go out for a celebratory beer like all my other friends did. My family threw small surprise parties in honor of my 25th and 40th birthdays, and they were both wonderful, but each time, it was hard to ignore the absence of so many beloved friends who couldn’t come for obvious reasons.

So cue up the violin strings and feel sorry, because my birthdays pretty much come down to cramming in a piece of birthday cake after a huge Christmas meal and then straggling off to church, all the while hoping that at the very least, we’ll get a seat. Good times.

But now that I’m a mom to two birthdate-blessed boys (October and May – possibly the two most beautiful months in Virginia), I’m realizing that my lack of personal birthday party experience continues to be a hindrance as I try to give them what I didn’t have.

I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out a plan that won’t break the bank but that will be fun for all the kids. If the plan is to be outside, I spend an inordinate amount of time checking, starting a week before the date, maniacally checking for the chance of rain, hitting the hourly forecast refresh button like a drug-addled woodpecker. If the plan is to be at a location anywhere near the beltway, I spend an inordinate amount of time worrying whether there will be a colossal traffic jam, causing all the guests to be late, leaving my poor birthday boy all alone on his birthday.

This past October, my son’s ninth birthday about put me over the edge, as I careened from idea to idea, rejecting one after the other as the attached price tags to my ideas remained stubbornly over $250 and were, therefore, more than I wanted to pay. A trampoline bounce party for 20 guests but no food: $375. A home laser tag party for 20 but again without food: $275. An insanely cool ropes course and zipline adventure in the woods: $300. (That one I still might just have to do someday.) A dinner out at Medieval Times for our family and a couple friends: $35 to $40 per head, assuming we could make the coupons work as advertised. A trip to the Big Apple Circus: forget it, closing day was two weeks too early. A couple of hours at an arcade: $275. (With prices like these, does one also buy their kid a present?)

We revisited past (cheap) themes – a bowling party or a pizza/movie night at our house – but both were rejected because, God forbid, “we’ve already done that, Mom!” Seriously, it must be a bummer to have a cheap mother who doesn’t have a lifetime worth of party ideas in her back pocket.

Ultimately, we settled on an ice skating party, held on a gorgeous sunny day. (Oh no! Are people going to be irritated that they have to be inside on such a beautiful day?!) The party room was ready for us, and all nine invited boys showed up right on time (Yikes! Did I order enough pizza?!), the assigned host/helper was a doll (GeezIforgottoaskifIcanincludethetiponthechargecard!). Skates were pulled for us (They’re out of size 4s???), kids were bundled out on the ice (Are three adults enough to help those who can’t skate?!), and everyone had a blast.

They loved it. They fell, they got back up, they skated. They swirled and crashed and hung on for dear life, but they had a great time. And every time I looked at my sweet son, surrounded by his sweet friends, I saw him smiling the most perfect smile. A happy, uncomplicated, wriggling-puppy smile. It’s what fills my cup.

Another party, another success, another one done. Another year closer to the time when one isn’t expected to throw their kids a birthday party (When is that, exactly?). Another year closer to being a crying, sorrowful empty-nester. And another year of realizing that my mom must have felt like she hit the jackpot when her third kid ended up being a Christmas baby, and “organize party” fell from her list of responsibilities like a stone.


This article was originally published December 1, 2011 on

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Sep 2011

The Joys of Boys

I’m the youngest of three and have two older brothers, and it seems that when there’s one girl and multiple boys in a family, there’s very little middle ground—the girl ends up being either uber girlie, or a serious tomboy. I was the latter, preferring Toughskins jeans, hand-me-down tee shirts, and beat-up, nondescript brown jackets over anything that remotely looked like it came from the girls department.

Brother and SisterMy mom occasionally tried to get me to wear a dress, but her efforts didn’t always work out so well: I very clearly remember scribbling brown marker all over the front of a dress I hated and telling my mom it was dirty. She was furious—the dress, in retrospect, was pretty cute, with a big red tulip hand-stitched on the front—but I found it itchy and horrible, and it was, well, a dress. My punishment was that I had to wear the dress for three straight days, with brown marker all over the front, and I think that was about the last time I ever pulled a trick like that. But it certainly didn’t make me embrace dresses, or tulips for that matter.

Not surprisingly, I spent a good deal of my childhood explaining to people that I was actually a girl. At one of my parent’s parties, the hired bartender asked me if I wanted a Roy Rogers, when all I really wanted was a Shirley Temple. A helpful salesman at Crown Books directed me to the superhero section instead of Nancy Drew. The barber who cut my brothers’ hair once gave me a boy haircut too, not quite understanding why I was crying by the end when I realized that the clippers he was using weren’t for neatening up edges but, rather, for cutting all the hair over my ears in a neat half-moon.

Things didn’t change all that much when I fell in love with horses and started spending all my time at the barn with other girls—while they rejoiced in wearing jodhpurs and beautiful paddock boots, I was happiest in jeans and muck boots. They braided manes and tails while I shined saddles with spit and Murphy’s oil soap.

After college, I lived in a group-house and shared the bathroom with two male housemates while the other female got the master bath. (She did pay more rent, and she was from a family of four girls, so it wasn’t something anyone ever had to discuss. It just made the most sense.)

And now, I’m the mom of two boys, which was probably a supremely smart move on the part of God or whomever is in charge of doling out babies to families, because I am far more comfortable digging in the dirt for worms than I am digging through piles of princess barrettes. And after growing up with boys, I find it relatively easy to interpret what is a preoccupied grunt vs. a rude grunt, or what is a game of hitting and kicking vs. an actual fight. I understand that being the mom of two boys is very similar to being the caretaker of two Labrador puppies: They need to be taken outside daily for a run, and their paws need to be wiped off before coming into the house.

Still, there are times when the inner girl in me cries out for a little attention. My dreams of reliving my youth at the stables was quashed early on, when both my baby boys cried in terror at a County fair’s pony ride, and when they refused to even look at the beautiful Park Police horse on the mall, let alone pose for a picture with him. My warm fuzzy thoughts of buying cute little outfits for cute little darlings were dashed when I realized that a) kids’ clothing stores are 75 percent pink and 25 percent blue, and that b) boy clothes are boring. Girls get to wear all sorts of awesome, outrageous clothes, mixing stripes and polka dots with abandon. They wear bedraggled tutus over snowsuits, socks of different colors, and hats and scarves that look like they’re straight from the pages of a 1980s Benetton ad. Boys wear basically the same clothes at five that they will at 50—gym shorts and tees, khakis and a Polo, jeans and a sweatshirt. Even shoe shopping is dull, as we pass by shoes with fantastical sparkles and neon laces for sneakers that look exactly like my husband’s. Yawn.

Even at school, I can’t help but notice that girls get to participate in the super cool Girls on the Run program, giving them a boost of self esteem, a shot of some healthy living, and the joy of participating in a large-scale athletic event with zillions of other girls. I’m so envious of Girls on the Run that I’ve come close to asking my neighbor if I can adopt her girls for the day and wear a pink tee while we’re running. Sadly, there is no Boys on the Run program.

So when the inner girl speaks, I find myself praising Lego and gratefully acknowledging that we live in Northern Virginia, next to a huge shopping mall. Because on those days, I pack up my boys and head to Tysons. They get the Lego store; I get to window shop, taking in some sparkle and bling and dazzle in a place without bugs, mud or sticks. Really, it’s a win-win.


This article was originally published September 21, 2011 on

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Sep 2011

Parenting by Googling

QuestionsYears ago, pre-kid, I remember reading a pretty amusing article in the Post about some of the crazy things docents at the Air & Space Museum overhear parents telling their kids when asked a question to which they don’t actually know the answer. The article was full of hilarious anecdotes that made it pretty clear that many parents, when faced with a difficult question about aviation or space exploration, simply made up an answer to satisfy their child’s yearnings.

Around the same time, my husband and I happened to meet the curator, and he confirmed what the article said: The answers, while creative and amusing, were almost always false.

I am convinced this was not the case during my childhood, because I am convinced that my parents didn’t make up the answers. I believe this because in our household (no offense, Mom), my brothers and I directed the vast majority of our questions to our dad, who seemed to know everything. His credentials were solid—PhD in chemistry—and he has this kind of quiet, understated presence about him that just make people listen to him and, at least for us, believe everything he said as the absolute truth. He has authority without being authoritarian.

His knowledge was also startling in its breadth: One day, my brother and I decided to play “Trivial Pursuit” with him. He had never played the game before, so we let him go first, and one by one, he marched his game piece around the board, ticking off the answer to every single question and filling all of his little colored pie wedges before either of us had even had a chance to roll the dice. When we sort of helplessly shrugged our shoulders and told him that he had won the game, he looked at us like we were crazy. What game, he wondered aloud, only lets one person go before it’s over? Meanwhile, we recognized that a man who can recite the periodic table of chemical elements and tell you who won a 1954 Oscar for Best Actor is perhaps not the guy you want to pit your mind against in Trivial Pursuit.

Sadly, I have not followed in his footsteps. In fact, I often wonder if my own kids think I’m an idiot. It’s getting to the point that I too am beginning to wonder the same thing, as every day, my children find new and creative ways of discovering how little I actually do know.

I blame it on the follow-ups. You see, it always starts the same way: They ask a fairly innocuous first question, which I can usually answer. Something like, “How far is a lap?” But I had no sooner told my swim team son that his age group swam 25 meters, when he asked me who decided that length (ummm …), followed by, “And how big is the biggest swimming pool in the world?” (ummm … )

I’ve been asked who invented cotton candy and how many people have climbed Mt. Everest and how many dogs are there in the world. I’ve been asked about meteors and comets and the speed of light and even how many gallons of water are in the ocean. I don’t think I could even tell you how many gallons of water the average bathtub holds, and to be honest, I can’t say I really understand how fax machines and televisions work, either.

I don’t make up answers though—no, I’m not like some of those parents at Air & Space. I just say I’ll google it. And google it we do, my husband and I. Reams of paper have been printed with explanations of hundreds of seemingly unanswerable questions. It’s turned into a bit of a game, actually: Almost every night, each boy asks a question, and one of us (usually my husband) googles it after they go to bed and leaves the print-out for them at their place at the breakfast table.

This is all well and good, and we’ve learned some fascinating things (The world’s largest swimming pool is in Chile, in case you’re interested, and is eight hectares in size.), but Parenting by Googling doesn’t work so well when you’re not within reach of a computer.

Just last week, I went on a hike at Riverbend Park with some friends. The kids ran ahead, finding all sorts of interesting creatures and leaves and bugs. Given that my friend is some sort of master naturalist or bug expert, it didn’t take long before my idiocy was revealed: A child saw a Daddy longlegs, another child said it wasn’t really a spider, my son looked inquiringly at me, and I found myself sputtering about something having to do with insects and spiders and segmented body parts, but really, it didn’t make much sense even to me. My friend saved me from further embarrassment, for which I was grateful, but inside my head, I was just crying out, “Why couldn’t we have visited a farm? I could have explained the difference between a horse and a pony! (14.2 hands!) I know what a hand is!! (Four inches!) I could tell you the difference between a jenny (a female donkey!) and a jack (a male donkey!)! Domestic animals I know! Spiders and bugs not so much!”

Seems when I do have all the answers, no one is asking the right questions.


This article was originally published September 7, 2011 on

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Aug 2011

September, the New New Years

CrayonsI’ve never been a big fan of New Years, mostly because I believe that “fun” is a feeling that needs to evolve and that depends not only on the people with whom you’re spending time (granted, that’s a biggie) but also on the overall vibe of the moment (or, better yet, a series of good-vibe moments all deliciously following one another). So deciding that the moment the clock strikes 12:00 is the moment WE MUST BE HAVING FUN RIGHT THIS VERY SECOND has always struck me as ludicrous and contrived and sort of stupid. And really, does anyone truly enjoy watching a big ball slowly drop? What is the fun in that, exactly?

My other big beef with New Years is the timing: As far as I’m concerned, January 1 represents the start of the trifecta of awfulness: January, February and March. (I love summer, and I don’t ski.)

I will admit that I love the whole concept of resolutions, and I make a bunch of them every year with my husband, brother and sister in law, in what has become a fun tradition of deciding what we feel absolutely must be achieved this year. Our resolutions are nothing too lofty – we originally gained inspiration by one of my brother’s resolutions several years ago, when he resolved to buy a utensil organizer so that he could find a spoon more easily. Go ahead and smirk if you must, but the goal of “use up all gift cards by December” is far easier to cross off the list with certainty than “eat more healthfully.”

But outside of our resolutions, I’ve also never really shared others’ opinions that New Years represents a clean slate. We don’t tend to vacation during winter break, so there’s no feeling of “going back to work” with any rejuvenating R&R under our belts. Yardwork is impossible, the windows can’t be opened to usher in fresh air, and my closets are mostly empty anyway because all of the **** mittens, hats, boots and scarves that are usually crammed in there are instead draped all over my kitchen.

So for me, September is my New Years. My clean slate month. My time to shake the cobwebs away and look forward to a fresh start. This feeling is tied inextricably to the start of school (I shudder to think how I would have ended up if year-round school had been around when I was a child). I love crisp white paper, spiral notebooks that haven’t spiraled out of control, perfectly sharpened pencils, fully loaded markers, a virgin Crayola box. Backpacks with working zippers, lunch boxes without questionable grossness lodged in the seams, shoes without holes. Seriously, Back-to-School season is an OCDer’s nirvana.

Turns out, my kids feel the same way.

When asked what they’re most looking forward to about starting school, they also think of its newness. They wonder who their classmates will be, who their teacher will be, and what they’ll learn. But mostly, they’re just looking forward to using their new backpacks (secret compartments! Cool zippers!), getting all of their never-before-used-by-another-human markers and pencils and crayons, and cracking open a few books for the very first time.

The third grader, in fact, clings to the hope that his new Crayola box will contain the same perfect blue crayon that carried him through second grade. “The blue of the most perfectly perfect blue sky,” which was worn to a pitiable nub by June.

The first grader is eager to try out a new classroom with desks, and he’s fiercely hoping that he’ll get to turn right, down the first grade wing at Mt. Daniel Elementary, instead of turning left, down the wing that houses both first grade and kindergarten classrooms. (Hey, it’s the little things that count!)

Yes, we’re all crying over and commiserating the end of summer: It’s been a glorious season of lazing around at home, swimming and diving and leaping at the pool, playing in the waves at the beach, visiting friends in far-flung places, and seeing some of our nation’s wonders for the first time. There’s been plenty of funnel cake, corn on the cob, beefsteak tomatoes from roadside stands, watermelon and root beer floats. It’s enough to make me wish that summer could just drift on forever.

But I know that they’re ready for new challenges and new experiences, and I know that it’ll be a relief to both my husband and me to no longer be the sole recipients of the out-of-left-field questions they ask every day. (“Why is there snow on top of Mt. Everest if heat rises?”)

I’m also hoping to fulfill the one New Years Resolution I never achieved last year: To spend one entire day on the couch, reading a book.


This article was originally published August 10, 2011 on

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Jul 2011

Tick Tock

I’m pretty sure that when I die, my epitaph will read, “C’mon c’mon c’mon! We’re going to be late!” It’s a sobering thought, really. Not so much the dying part, but the “we’re going to be late” part. Because I come from an impressive line of on-time people. My family has long prided itself on our timeliness, to the point that even my typically clueless children have noticed that their grandmother can absolutely be depended upon for arriving at least 15 minutes before any engagement. One of our family’s favorite stories to re-tell is the time our irate father nearly broke his watch at a restaurant in Arizona, as he pounded on it furiously while asking an unsuspecting waiter if he had any idea what time it was (while not so subtly indicating that our food was, indeed, quite late). My brother doesn’t even wear a watch, yet he is freakishly on time. And for the first 30-something years of my life, I too was Little Miss Timely when it came to being somewhere at the appointed hour.

And then I had children. Two boys who blithely ignore the concept of time. Who don’t seem to care that it’s raining out and their poor dad is waiting for us at the Kiss & Ride. That we’re late for a birthday party at the Ultra Zone. That the soccer game starts in five minutes (!) and we don’t even have our cleats on. That we can hear the squeal of the school bus’ brakes, and we’re still struggling to get backpacks on.

I’ve tried everything: setting buzzing egg timers at breakfast, surreptitiously moving the clock hands a few minutes ahead, giving advance 10-5-3 minute warnings. And yet still, I have more than once walked into my son’s room, only to find him sitting motionless on the edge of the bed, sock halfway onto his foot, staring dreamily at the ceiling.

I’ve bought them both watches, patiently worked with them to learn how to tell time. Tried guilting them by asking them to imagine how it would feel if their friend was the one who was late. Ranted and raved. Screamed. Explained in no uncertain terms that being late is unacceptable … that by being late, they’re indicating that they don’t respect others’ time. And still, nothing.

So this summer, I threw in the towel. Not by giving up on being timely, but by giving up the need to be anywhere. Camp catalogs got tossed in the recycling bin the moment they arrived in the mail, and the only thing we signed up for was swim team at a pool 2.3 minutes from our house, which doesn’t start until three hours after my kids typically wake up. This, they can manage.

The result is that our summer has taken on a dreamy new quality. I wear a watch only sometimes. I haven’t yelled in at least a week that we need to go NOW. Bedtime is, well, whenever. I have even noted that our family’s “Summer List,” which we make every Memorial Day and which includes such things as “make home-made lemonade, pick berries, catch fireflies, eat ice cream on the front porch, camp out in the backyard, and go kayaking,” includes not a single item that must be done at any particular time. We are a family without deadlines.

It is a glorious state of being, and I find myself dreading the start of school—with its schedule of bells and tardy slips and requirements—as strongly and as purely as a teenager. I watch the calendar pages turning far too quickly, feel panicky that summer is slipping by, wish desperately that I could just slow down time.

And I realize (with a sad, deflated sigh) that this summer is just as much about paying attention to time as it’s always been. Little Miss Timely cannot, it seems, escape from watching the clock.


This article was originally published July 14, 2011 on

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May 2011

Youth Really Is Wasted on the Young

So I went to see the Legwarmers at State Theater a couple weeks ago. (For the uninitiated, the Legwarmers are a wildly popular ‘80s tribute band. They play ridiculously fun music from my teen years, in front of heaving, sweating, screaming, adoring fans (some of whom were likely in diapers in the ‘80s, but that’s okay … us kids from the ‘70s and ‘80s are a very welcoming and inclusive group).

I hadn’t been to see the Legwarmers before (although I have been to State before; I saw the original Star Wars there, forheavenssake, when State was a movie theater!), and at the risk of sounding even more ancient than my 40 something years, it was in many ways a shock to the senses. For instance:

The band started playing around 10PM. That’s usually when I collapse into bed.

They didn’t stop until about 1AM. About the only reason I’m up at 1AM these days is to tend to a sick child or, more recently, to rub a five year old’s rapidly growing—and painful—ankle and shin bones.

My knees can no longer handle dancing (well, more like jumping) for three straight hours. I wanted to ice them when I got home, but I was too tired.

If I could remember Important Facts as well as I could remember the lyrics to every song the Legwarmers played, I’d surely be insanely rich and incredibly successful.

I wasted my youth.

I say this after witnessing the never ending parade of Legwarmers fans who saw fit to dress not as fashionistas of 2011 but instead as teens of the 1980s. We’re talking hair sprayed bangs, pony tails growing out of the side of their heads, hair fried by curling irons to make it looked permed, pegged jeans, Cyndi Lauper bling, double Polo shirts with upturned collars, pearls with t-shirts.

This display of bad taste made me realize that the old saying really is true: Youth is wasted on the young, and although I’m a little embarrassed to admit that it took a Legwarmers concert, of all things, to help me recognize its truth, I’m grateful that it did.

I think back on my late teens and early 20s, and I remember a fit body that allowed me to drink an enormous chocolate milk shake every single day without consequence. A lustrous head of hair that didn’t sprout a single grey hair. No wrinkles. No freakish peach-fuzz-gone-wild facial hairs. No post-pregnancy varicose veins. No permanent under-eye circles. Perfect teeth, freshly out of braces. A back that never hurt. Knees that let me run for miles. And what did I do with all that bounty? Gave myself a perm, wore legwarmers over jeans, and truly believed that my life was ruined because my mother bought my sneakers at Kinney’s instead of at Foot Locker. Dear. God. What was I thinking?

As an older and hopefully wiser me, the whole escapade also made me wonder: How will my kids poke fun at their generation? What clothing or brand or style will they just have to have when they’re teenagers? What old favorite dress of mine will they one day hold up on its hanger—as they double over with laughter—and cry out, “You actually wore this?”

What hairstyle that’s so revered today will be snorted at with derision in another few years? Will perms make a comeback? Hairspray? Rat tails? Mullets?

And what song, from what band, will stop time for them and bring them back to one of their most perfect teenage moments? Will make them remember exactly where they were, whom they were with, and what the weather was like? Will make them nearly swoon with excitement as, decades later, they laugh open-mouthed, with their hands high in the air, as they gasp to their friends at a local concert hall, “Oh, I love this song!”


This article was originally published May 4, 2011 on

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Mar 2011

Finding Peace in Strange Places

So I have an appointment that I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. A chance to stretch out on my belly, under a blanket, in dim lighting, in the middle of the day. No one can call me, email me, pull at me, or ask me any questions. It’ll just be me and a kind therapist, for 45 minutes. Mom nirvana, and I cannot wait.

But this is no day spa, with thick white robes, flickering candles and aromatherapy; no, I’m at Fairfax Radiology, for a routine MRI.

How did this happen?

How is it that a noisy, clanging, banging MRI tube has become my spa?

Or that a longer-than-usually-acceptable-wait at the dentist’s office seems perfectly acceptable now, because it means more time with a trashy magazine on a comfy couch?

That a delayed flight to visit my brother’s family (without my own family) is like an added bonus to an already fabulous solo trip. (More time to grab a Starbucks! More time to people watch at the airport! More time to read my book!)

That I rarely crank the stereo when I’m home alone anymore, because I cherish the silence too much.

That the highlight of a recent conference I attended in DC was not necessarily the speaker’s tips and ideas, but the delight in meeting people who actually wanted to shake my hand rather than hand me their cast-off garbage and used lollipop sticks.

This is pathetic.

This is not what the parenting magazines advise when they feature advice articles about the importance of taking time for yourself and pampering yourself and not losing yourself in the swirl of backpacks and cleats and homework and playdates and PTA fundraisers and social secretary’ing for second graders.

But who has time for leisurely walks through the woods to reconnect with nature when onion grass has taken over my yard, or quiet time with a favorite novel when I have stacks of books that need to be returned to three different libraries?

I sometimes fall into the trap of blaming “this area” (You know the argument: “This area is so fast-paced!”), or pointing a finger (a badly manicured one at that) at “society” and “technology” for speeding up our lives to an impossibly frenetic pace.

But it’s faulty thinking, this blaming of society or technology or the much-maligned Northern Virginia area, because I very clearly remember my own mother—living in a time without Crackberries or SOL testing or HOT lanes—also feeling the need to carve out some private time in places not much better than an MRI tube.

The downstairs powder room in my childhood home, for example, was one of her personal favorites. She’d grab the kitchen phone receiver, stretch the long curly cord into the bathroom, and close the door on her noisy and intrusive world so that she could catch up with a friend in peace.

(I also remember her saying that her dream would be to have an electrified phone booth in the house, so I suppose we should have been grateful that she chose instead to merely hog the bathroom.)

She also reserved her bedroom, particularly during the 10:00 news hour, as a kid-free zone, and although I can’t remember actually wanting to watch the news, I do remember feeling vaguely offended that my brothers and I weren’t invited in. Now I just shake my head in amazement that she made it until 10pm before demanding some alone time.

And wasn’t it Erma Bombeck who literally wrote the book on the trials and tribulations of motherhood—and the pursuit of peace and quiet—in the 1960s and ‘70s?

So I’ve decided, actually, that this pathetic habit of finding peace in peaceless places is no fault of modern culture but is instead an unavoidable byproduct of motherhood. And since I’m in no way a fan of getting rid of my kids, or seeing them exit the nest any sooner than they absolutely have to, I have willed myself to view life’s inconveniences as opportunities for unexpected rewards: A blown disc means time at the MRI spa, a double-booked dentist means quality time with Brangelina.

Perhaps it sounds a little Pollyanna, this insistence on focusing on the positives in the midst of everyday annoyances. But I’m a mother, so I’ll just call it survival.


This article was originally published March 30, 2011 on

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