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Recently an ornery and overly judgmental finger puppet joined us for dinner. He looks like a wizard dog (or a dog wizard?) but apparently he thinks he’s human. And he’s mean. Despite this, he has a girlfriend. His name is Zachary.

Zoe developed Zachary’s character. He is annoying and irascible. On purpose. Zoe just calls him mean. Zachary says things like “I hate your dress! It’s too pink!” or “I don’t like your purse because it has flowers on it!” He insults all that is pretty and girly and kind, or that which Zoe generally embraces. Zoe scolds him and corrects him, or asks us to do so.

The other night Zoe made up a story in which aliens come and kidnap a baby and kill it and bury its heart. Randy asked her if she knew what that was or why they were doing that. She said they were mean. I would venture to say evil or demonic. But for sure they’re mean.

When I picked Zoe up from my parents’ house today she reported that she and my dad were playing mean little brother, in which my dad–directed entirely by her–was the mean little brother and she was the sister. She was protecting her baby (daughter or sister? not clear) from the mean brother, who said things like “I’m going to eat all your food and take all your toys.” She would stroke the baby’s cheek and reassure her that she would be ok and the brother wouldn’t hurt her.

Randy and I were slightly amused by Zachary, and somewhat disturbed and perplexed by the infanticide. Zoe loves babies more than anything else in the world, why would she want to pretend someone was killing or hurting one? Where did she even get the idea? My mom suggested that in Snow White, the Queen asks the huntsman for Snow White’s heart to prove that she’s dead. I guess I forgot that part. When Zoe asks me to tell the stories, they are somewhat smoothed over. My parents have the actual book.

I finally got up the nerve to ask Zoe why she liked pretending that someone was mean. She is never the mean one. It’s always someone else. My mom says she is usually cast in a variety of evil queen roles. Zoe said “I like to fight people.” But not fight as in fisticuffs. “I like to protect people from the mean people. It makes me feel special.”

So she has created bad guys so she can more easily be the heroine and rescuer. I guess this makes sense. I admire the fact that she wants to protect others. I don’t even understand where she has gotten these ideas of meanness, since she has been exposed to very little meanness in her life as far as I know. Maybe that’s why she has to fabricate it, and perhaps that’s a good thing. If Zachary’s meanness emphasizes insulting fashion choices and femininity and as long as the threats to babies are aliens, maybe that indicates there are few actual threats, so she has to invent them. And if she’s doing it to practice saving the day, I’m down with that.

I’m writing my thank you notes to folks who donated to the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life on my behalf. The event was, just like last year, outstanding. My dad and Randy and I walked alongside 1,000 others, collectively raising $165,000. We heard an amazing young man–a theatre major at Georgetown–talk about his battle with cancer that began at age 14. We remembered those we have lost and honored those who have been or still are fighting the good fight. Thank you to all of you for your support, whether it was financial or moral. Here’s what our event accomplished. This is taken from an email I received from the event chairs.

What can $165,000 do for those facing cancer and those working to find cures? The amount our event raised can provide so many things:

  • 275 more days of the 1-800-ACS-2345 hotline service for patients and caregivers looking for support and answers.
  • 66 scholarships of $2500 for young cancer Survivors.
  • 1100 more stays at a Hope Lodge, easing the financial and emotional burden on patients traveling out of town for treatments.
  • 550,000 test tubes or 16,500 Petri dishes for researchers to use to find cures.

Until next year…

My Love Letter to AUCP

When Zoe was born I began to receive advice from friends with children—“apply to preschools right away—they’re very hard to get into around here!” Never one to ignore a cautionary tale, when Zoe was almost a year old I started preschool shopping, expecting to apply and be waitlisted and have her start school at two. We applied to three preschools and I definitely loved AUCP most—expansive classrooms and all that natural light! Despite being in the lower level of the church, AUCP was the only one that didn’t feel like a church basement. And Randy was an AUCP alum and my mother-in-law had been a co-oper! Much to my surprise, we were offered a spot in the Panda class right away, and Zoe started at AUCP when she was 17 months old. I still remember that before-school Panda gathering on the AUCP playground, and watching other small girls toddle around the sandbox with Zoe, thinking we couldn’t possibly be starting preschool.

Now I can’t believe we can possibly be leaving preschool. Zoe is five and while we are excited about kindergarten (she’ll be attending Abingdon in the fall) we are sad to be leaving AUCP. I don’t want to bring it up too much with Zoe (thank you for the advice, Ms. Susan) but I know I’m sad. I will be leaving my friends too. While I’m sure some of us will stay in touch, there’s no replacing the daily conversations in the lobby, chats on the playground, and sympathetic looks you get in the hallway at pick-up or drop-off when your child is going berserk. I am sad to be leaving a place where I know I can trust any grown-up in sight to watch out for my child, even if I don’t know that person’s name. I am sad to be leaving a place where I am confident that all the grown-ups will be kind to and patient with my child. I am sad to be leaving a place where grown-ups and kids alike can be as creative as they wish, treat each other with respect, and have so much fun. I can think of few places in the real world where process is valued so much more than product.

My heart is filled with love and gratitude for all of Zoe’s teachers over the past four years. They have taught me as much as they have Zoe. I am thankful for Ms. Elizabeth’s boundless love and patience and her willingness to always greet a child at child eye level and that she remembers everyone who was ever a Panda. I am thankful for Mr. Peter’s sense of humor and the effort he put into creating learning opportunities for the kids. I am thankful for Ms. Aasma’s infectious enthusiasm and zest for life and for the fact that she never misses an opportunity to stop what she is doing and give Zoe a hug whenever she sees her. I am thankful for Ms. Patricia’s steadfast serenity in the midst of chaotic children and the insightful questions she asks them. I am thankful for Ms. Julie’s thoughtful planning and her ability to teach our children how to greet her and each other with lovely manners. I am thankful for Ms. U’s inspirational creativity and the countless hours she must spend at home preparing unbelievably cool art projects for our kids. I am thankful for Ms. Susan’s constant sense of calm and friendliness that she infuses into the entire school. Her advice and wisdom, which usually boils down to, “Listen, it’s going to be ok. You’re going to be ok, your child is going to be ok. It’s ok” has reassured me many, many times throughout the past four years. Sometimes when you’re in the middle of some craziness with your child it’s impossible to believe it’s going to be ok. But Susan, you’re right.

I am thankful for the parents who did nice things for Zoe when you co-oped. I am thankful for the parents who told me she was ok during the various periods of separation anxiety when I would have to physically hand Zoe to a parent or teacher while she screamed and I tried to make my exit without breaking down myself. I am thankful to the parents who made and delivered meals to us when Zoe had surgery. I am thankful for anyone who ever spotted Zoe on the monkey bars, risking back pain for the rest of the day. I am thankful for Ms. Susan, Ms. Patricia, and Ms. Aasma welcoming Zoe (and us) back with open arms after our time away. I am thankful to all the parents who supported us and loved us when we came back. I am thankful that no one ever complained when Zoe had an accident and no one ever made her feel bad about it. I am thankful for the friendship, the commiseration, the advice. I am thankful that I’ve always known you all have my back.

I’ve often said that co-oping—for me—is like going to the gym. I don’t especially want to do it, and it’s usually really hard while I’m doing it, but afterward I’m really glad I did it and I know I’m a better person for it. I have learned from other parents and all of Zoe’s teachers and Ms. Raylene, Ms. Diann, and Ms. Susan smart and interesting ways of being with children I would never have thought of myself. I value the fact that I’ve had the opportunity to get to know Zoe’s classmates and friends much better than if I weren’t in the classroom on a regular basis. I love that I’ve had the chance to work alongside parents with so many different ideas and attitudes and learned a lot from all of them. And co-oping has also given me the wonderful opportunity to talk with other teachers besides Zoe’s. I have loved every continuing education event I’ve attended and (I know I’m a nerd) I love the fact that we are required to always be learning about kids.

Our family is so lucky to have been members of the AUCP family for the past four years. Thank you for your unconditional love. We will miss you. Hopefully someday we’ll be back. We’ll send you a postcard from kindergarten.

In one week I will be participating in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life. ACS is not political. ACS simply works to find a cure for cancer, improve treatments, educate people to prevent cancer, and provide compassionate, life-saving care.

I am walking in the Relay for my dad, who is a prostate cancer survivor. I am walking for my Aunt Judy, who had breast cancer and died before any of us knew she was sick. I am walking for friends who have overcome breast cancer, colon cancer, endometrial cancer, and testicular cancer. And I’m walking for friends who aren’t here anymore to walk beside me.

Please join me in saving lives. Thank you.

Tonight I sat next to my mom in a synagogue listening to John Irving repeat the phrase “anal sex” many times from the podium.

This should not have been surprising, because my mom and I have both read all of John Irving’s books, and they all describe—and in many cases focus on—a variety of sexual practices and situations. My mom says he talks about sex in an amusing way. Irving describes himself as being “drawn to sexually extreme situations.”

Fortunately my mom did not seem fazed by this, and I kept my eyes mostly trained toward the front of the sanctuary. We’re both grown-ups, right?

Irving was reading from his new novel In One Person, about the coming of age of a bisexual man. He remarked when he first began to speak—haltingly—that he was glad to hear about President Obama’s endorsement of marriage equality today, although in his opinion it came too late. Irving said that when he wrote The World According to Garp in 1978 he expected that it would eventually become a relic of a time when our nation was sexually intolerant, and he is chagrined that it’s not the case, and that this new book takes on a different topic but the same challenge of a society that has a hard time knowing what to do with anyone who is outside what we perceive to be the sexual norm.

One of the questions Irving answered after the reading was why he writes about incest so often. No more than Sophocles, he answered, who wrote three plays about it.

Irving said he likes to write with sympathy about characters who would be decidedly unsympathetic when plastered across a tabloid headline. “The more any of us is made to feel like a minority, the harder it is to accept who we are,” he said.

Many interviewers have asked him about why he made the main character of In One Person bisexual, and Irving said that choice seems much more normal to him than some of the sexually extreme characters he’s written before, such as Nurse Jenny in Garp who hates men and has sex only one time, with a comatose patient. Or Johnny Wheelright in A Prayer for Owen Meany who is a closeted gay man who never has sex at all.

“It’s a whole lot easier for me to imagine having sex with everybody than to have sex once and then stop, or never have sex at all,” he said.

He talked a bit—reluctantly—about his own mother, in response to a question about the mother figures in his books. She was a nurse’s aid in a center that cared for abused women, he explained, and she had a “sharp judgmental eye toward men.”

Another audience member asked him why he liked bears so much, since they often figure prominently in Irving’s books. “I don’t like bears at all,” he said, “I don’t invite them into my house.” And he went on to explain that bears are dangerous and people who get mauled by them are stupid for thinking they are Disney-esque creatures who are thoughtfully regarding the nearby humans, vs. animals with poor eyesight who can’t see what you are.

Speaking of poor eyesight, he mentioned a reading he gave once in Vancouver in which he received two questions directed toward Margaret Atwood. He said he tried to answer them as he thought Atwood, who is a friend, would have. He said when he returned to the States he received a “rather cold letter from her saying that was NOT how she would have answered those questions.”

Irving also recounted a strange correspondence he enjoyed with John Updike, because a couple times a year each of them would receive a package of fan letters actually intended for the other one. “Well, John is a fairly common name,” Updike postulated to Irving at one point.

While Irving maintains he has no favorites among his characters, he referred often to Cider House Rules, which seemed to mark a turning point in his career. He said while he wrote his first four books he was also coaching wrestling and teaching English literature to earn a living. After that, he was able to support himself as an author and over the course of writing The Hotel New Hampshire, figured out how to do it. During Hotel New Hampshire he would write for about two hours and then get distracted, and was terribly disappointed with himself. When it was over, he had developed a process. Now he writes sveen or eight hours a day, seven days a week, which he says is “a great luxury.”

He says he loves the writing process, and that you have to love the details to be a writer. He compared it to wrestling, as both require teriffic repetition and attention to small details. “You must love the process more than you love the end of the match or producing a book,” he said. When you do these unnatural acts over and over, they become second-nature and they look natural to the outside. But in the meantime, it’s not always easy. In wrestling, he said, you’re dealing over and over with “the same small number of sparring partners whom you could find in the dark by their smell. And that’s not a compliment.”

“I don’t have a lot of fun writing a novel,” he explained, because when he writes, he’s imagining the worst thing he could think of happening to him or someone he loves, and is determined to explore it. “What’s the thing you don’t want to happen?” he asks. That’s where the book lies.

The worst piece of writing advice he’s ever heard, Irving said, is Ernest Hemingway’s “Write what you know,” which he called “blowhard bullshit.”

“How could you read Hemingway and want to be a writer?” he asked.

On the other hand, he champions Herman Melville’s philosophy: “Woe to him who seeks to please rather than appall.” Mr. Irving, I think you have succeeded. And thank you.

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