Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Two 'Lunatics,' One Snarky Suburban Dweller & a 'Blueprint' for Feminine Insight, Melancholy

The first one took me along a darkened, twisty trail as girls became teenagers rebelling against their parents and wrestling with their own personal demons, as teens became twentysomethings who still needed their own mothers, to women becoming mothers themselves (or wanna-be mothers) who struggled with their own rocky childhoods and tried not to replicate them with their own children.

The second made me laugh (sometimes at myself) as it took a great big arrow and skewered the not-quite-grounded-in-reality lives of contemporary suburban parents, mothers specifically, who desperately attempt to camouflage their own insecurities about their bodies, their decisions to abandon their careers for at-home parentdom and whether their offspring have what it takes to one-up the kid next door who's taking violin and calculus lessons as well as mastering French and Mandarin Chinese.

The third was just one big, absurd joke of an adventure that two suburban dads unintentionally embarked upon after a wildly intense dispute over an off-sides call during a pivotal moment during a 10-year-old girls' soccer playoff game.

I'm speaking about three new books featuring parents, specifically Elissa Schappell's Blueprints for Building Better Girls, Linda Erin Keenan's Suburgatory: Twisted Tales from  Darkest Suburbia and the novel co-written by Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel, aptly entitled Lunatics. If you're looking for touching, albeit somewhat depressing insight into the lives of women and mothers, you should pick up Blueprints. However if you're up for laughs at the expense of hyper-suburban parents, grab a copy of Suburgatory. Laughter at bizarre antics? Lunatics.

Of the three books, Schappell's Blueprints is the one I can't get out of my head. It has stuck with me, long after I closed the back cover. Eight, interrelated short stories deftly depict women's journey from girls blossoming into adolescents, to college students grappling with intense adult issues and to mothers of grown children who still need their counsel. In one story, you see a troubled girl who battled anorexia while her mother felt guilty for not recognizing the symptoms sooner. In another story, the girl's younger sister befriended a woman at a playground who also happened to appear in another story as a girl who dropped out of college after she was raped at a party. The most intriguing though, were the stories about Heather Chase who went from being a teenager who was trying to gain popularity through sex, then later put herself romantically between two best friends (it ended badly) and eventually wound up trying to give her own son a valuable lesson in love and trust despite her checkered past.

One hundred and eighty degrees in a different direction, tonally and otherwise, is the deeply sarcastic Suburgatory, the title from which the ABC comedy took its inspiration and name. In the book, Keenan plays the role of the intrepid reporter and reveals odd anecdotes from the alien nation that is suburban parenthood. Many of Keenan's edgy and sometimes profane articles are send-ups of situations or people she observed when Keenan, the former career-centric Manhattanite, was dragged by her husband to the 'burbs after they had a child. A significant chunk of the book involves Keenan's self-deprecating humor, mocking what has become of the formerly hard-charging CNN producer now that she's gone native. It was a fun jaunt after the weightiness of Blueprints.

Lunatics, by contrast, is on an entirely different planet than the other two books. By humor columnist Dave Barry and Emmy-winning Saturday Night Live writer Alan Zweibel, this strange novel was inspired by Barry's experience at his daughter's soccer games and Zweibel's experience with his son's Little League. The two writers assumed the voices of the two main characters and alternated chapters in their characters' voices. Zweibel wrote the part of Phillip, a mild-mannered, married pet store owner and father who made a controversial call as a referee at a youth soccer game that changed the outcome of the playoffs. Barry gave voice to the other character, the hot-headed Jeffrey, who went into a rage after Phillip called Jeffrey's daughter off-sides after she made what would've been the tying goal in a playoff game.

Out of their unhealthy obsession with youth sports, the unlikely pair formed an involuntary team as their story hurtled from a suburban book club where the women had perhaps a bit too much vino (and barely talked about the book), to being on the run from the police in Central Park, to assisting in a Cuban revolution and playing starring roles at presidential nominating conventions. While Lunatics can spark genuine laughter, especially at the beginning before it launched itself into absurd locales, if you're not comfortable with jokes about flatulence, bodily functions and crazy journeys, this might not be the read for you, although a soccer dad you know might thoroughly enjoy every part of it.

Image credits: Simon & Schuster, Amazon and Penguin.

Originally posted on Modern Mom.

Monday, March 26, 2012

It's Spring and the Rush is On (Hockey, Lacrosse, Soccer, School Projects, Concerts, Easter & Passover)

It used to be that the month of December -- when the Picket Fence Post family celebrates both Christmas and Hanukkah -- seemed like my most tension-filled time of the year. My "To Do" lists were gigantic and the pressure to get everything right -- gifts, holiday cards, "big" meals, decorations -- could be intense. But as my kids have gotten older, I've come to believe that the spring has actually supplanted Christmas/Hanukkah time as one of the more intense time of the year? Why? Let me count the ways:

Hockey is still on-going in its pop-up-out-of-nowhere practices and games, wreaking havoc on my family calendar.

Lacrosse has begun (this is our first foray into youth lacrosse) and the sport has an extremely intense practice schedule (three practices a week and one game on the weekends . . . and The Spouse volunteered to assistant coach, after he head-coached two basketball team and assisted on another this winter). One of my children, who shall not be named, plays on both hockey and lacrosse teams, whose practices and games overlap until hockey concludes next month, ending the August to April season. (Yes, August to April. For grade schoolers.)

My e-mail box is getting deluged with missives from coaches/league organizers for the Picket Fence Post kids' travel soccer teams, establishing practice times and locations, then changing said times and locations at the last minute. (I now only pencil in these dates.) I currently am unclear as to where and when the games and practices will be for those teams and how they'll fit fit into the hockey/lacrosse picture.

The Girl has also become an official soccer referee (she had to take a long class to become certified) and is supposed to be officiating youth soccer games for the first time this spring. I've got no clue as to how this is going to work. I'm also hoping no lunatic sports parents give her a hard time.

School bands are suddenly switching into high gear with band competitions and performances cropping up all over the place like weeds. I just found out from a fellow band mom that after last week's jazz band performance, a week after a jazz band's talent show performance, a week after an out-of-state band competition, that there's another concert this week AND a competition on Saturday (but I knew about Saturday's, and it's local, yippee). That unanticipated concert happens to be at the same time as a hockey practice AND a book club meeting for a group I really want to join. (I missed the last meeting because of kid-related stuff.) The Spouse has a work engagement that night as well. Don't yet know what that night's going to look like.

Spring class projects. When the flowering trees start to blossom, we know that the smell of drying glue and a forest of tri-fold boards are bound to be taking over our dining room, because if it's spring, it's time for at-home school projects. This usually leads to 11th-hour pleadings from The Ungratefuls for me to rush out and get supplies that they "didn't know" they needed, despite the detailed supplies list their teachers gave them weeks ago.

Then there are the twin religious holidays which require that I temporarily re-locate those school projects from the dining room (usually they're shoved into my horrifically disorganized closet like everything else) in order to prepare for Passover and Easter. We typically host Passover dinner for The Spouse's family and then share Easter Sunday with my family. But before that occurs, I've got to buy lots of matzo (The Spouse and The Girl are the only ones to eat matzo for the Passover week, unlike the rest of us bread-eaters who only indulge in matzo during our formal Passover dinner) and other Passover accoutrements. Plus, I've got to buy tons of eggs (need 'em for both holidays) and an egg dying kit and Easter candy, actually remember to dye the Easter eggs with the kids and make whatever it is I'm going to bring to Easter dinner, provided we're not hosting.

*deep, cleansing breath*

It's all good, I keep telling myself. It'll be fine. We'll figure out a way to handle all of this and, in the meantime, I'll just have to color my hair more frequently to keep stress-induced gray hair at bay.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Strong = Beautiful

NIKE t shirt

When The Girl saw this T-shirt while we were shopping, she insisted that she HAD to have it . . . in her favorite color red. Had. To.

You see, she's receiving contradictory messages about beauty and that there's more than one way to be attractive. She's not especially keen on the frilly and short skirts or the stomach revealing tops that fill stores shelves. She's much more into the sporty look, her long hair in a ponytail while she's clad in athletic wear, perfect for shooting hoops or kicking around a soccer ball.

So when I saw this shirt, which promotes the idea that athleticism and strength are beautiful, I couldn't not get it for her.

Gal power!

Image credit: Polyvore.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Max the Dog Looks Like a Fuzzy Caterpillar

Max really, really needed to have his haircut.

However our favorite dog groomer had left a message on her answering machine saying that she'd taken ill and wouldn't be tending to any canines for a while. We decided that her recovery was worth waiting for. We really like the way she groomed our little Wheaten Terrier/Havanese, plus she didn't make us feel like negligent dog owners.

The Spouse and I have endured some unsatisfactory experiences with other groomers during the past two years since we got Max. When we've asked groomers to please shape his hair and not just shave him (because it's way easier to shave him than shape his hair), they'd seem put off, give us attitude and later chastise us because they said we didn't regularly or adequately brush the little guy. (We do but his hair is prone to knots. We do the best we can.)

So we decided to cool our heels as we awaited word from our nice, patient and thorough regular groomer. We waited. And waited. But we never heard from her, despite leaving messages. Meanwhile, Max's hair grew longer still and mats began forming all over him with frightening regularity. We tried to keep up with his grooming but it was very difficult. We would brush him, remove the knots/mats if we couldn't brush them out. Inevitably though, within a few hours of being brushed, Max would get new knots and he'd soon look like an unkempt, homeless canine looking for a spot of food from a kind stranger.

Yesterday The Spouse finally gave up on the waiting and brought Max to yet another new groomer. I crossed my fingers that Max wouldn't be: a) Shaved, rendering him looking like a big-eyed rat and b) That the groomer didn't get all haughty about the fact that we'd waited so long in between haircuts.

And although the groomer was kind and did not shave our pooch -- she shaped his hair with scissors -- he emerged from his doggie "spa day" (if I were to name a living being in our house who needs a spa day, it wouldn't be him . . . but I digress) looking a tad like a fuzzy tan caterpillar, at least when he lays down and spreads out.

Is he still adorable? Yes!

Soft and fuzzy? Most definitely.

But Max no longer looks like my scruffy little dude. He looks like a different pup. But that's okay. Hair grows back.

'Stop Blogging About Me Mom!' So It Has Been Uttered, So It Shall Be Done.

I've officially been given my pink slip. By my 10-year-old son.

I've been put out of work as the chronicler of his childhood. I've gotten the hook. His life story, or so I've been told, is his and his alone, so I need to just step away from the laptop. Immediately.

The kid's got a point. I can completely understand his feelings of vulnerability, his fretting that I'll, in my power-mad mom mode, mortify him on my blog or in a column. He doesn't like not knowing what little humorous chestnuts I might share with my readers. So this week he issued a blanket cease-and-desist order. I can only write about him from this point on, if he gives me explicit permission to do so.

What the kid doesn't know is that, for some time now, I've been trying in earnest to protect his privacy, as well as the privacy of his siblings. I no longer use their names in my parenting columns and blog posts. I don't post photos of them. I no longer write about subjects that I think will prove embarrassing to them (which means a ton -- and I mean A TON -- of funny and sometimes poignant pieces never get written). When in doubt, I keep it out.

I've been trying to delicately balance my family's privacy concerns with trying to write honestly and forthrightly about modern parenting in an era where there are over-involved helicopter parents and hockey dads who aim laser pointers at opposing players' eyes in an attempt to help their kids' teams win.

But now that The Youngest Boy has thrown down the gauntlet, I'll have to respect his request and only write about material he thinks is okay.

Maybe I SHOULD just suck it up and get a second dog to join my 2-year-old Wheaten Terrier/Havanese dog Max (against the vigorous opposition of The Spouse) so I'll have new, humorous fodder which I can mine for columns and blog posts. At least the dogs can't read.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Know a Parent Who Desperately Needs a Chuckle? Get My E-Book!

If you or someone you know is in the midst of raising kids, particularly young ones, and could use a big glass of wine and a belly laugh or two, I have a suggestion: A Suburban Mom: Notes from the Asylum freshly released in digital format.

If you have a Kindle, Nook or another kind of e-reader you can download my collection of 76 humor/parenting columns onto which I've added a new introduction reflecting on how much has changed in the past five years since the book was first published . . . like the fact that I don't write about potty training anymore, have ditched my minivan, haven't bought diapers since the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 and haven't had to call the nice Poison Control folks in many years to report that one of the kiddos has eaten something unspeakable, like cat vomit.

The book was described by my publisher, Wyatt-MacKenzie, thusly:

"A glimpse into the mind of a laid-back yet stressed-out, insecure, sleep-starved, TV-obsessed, news junkie, Generation X parent navigating the labyrinth of modern parenthood with three young children including a set of twins. From critiquing fashionistas who try to convince the pregnant public to buy maternity thongs and discussing whether at-home moms have sold out their feminist sisters, to tackling topics such as how to have a sex life while three kids are pounding on their parents' locked bedroom door, how to look cool while driving a minivan (a clue: you can't) and what happens when a toddler eats trash, O'Brien's collection of 76 columns illustrates how parents are living their lives in the real American suburbs, not in the white picket fenced world portrayed in fuzzy, honey-hued greeting card ads."

The web site Cool Mom Picks wrote about the book:

"O'Brien's writing is funny and real, whether she's questioning the practicality of certain maternity clothes (leopard print thongs?!); venting about the zillions of pieces of kids' toys that are constantly landing underfoot (like 'tiny plastic grenades'); or describing a game of Candy Land with her family (when NO ONE wants to land on Lord Licorice).

I found her book to be as effective as one of those marathon bitch-and-laugh sessions with another mom: it kept me laughing, even through the madness."

In a review on the web site Literary Mama, Heather Hudson wrote:

"With a healthy dose of pathos, she manages to capture the befuddlement that comes with trying to parent in the face of the opposing demands of children and lurid temptations like fast food and the veritable buffet of kids' television programming. Like many of us, she makes laborious, whole food dinners only to have them resounding rejected in favor of mac and cheese, and she takes a stab at cleaning the house despite the fact that it's routinely dismantled while she dashes to the bathroom. She and her husband even try that staple recommendation of women's magazines -- daytime sex -- while the kids are otherwise occupied. Awkward. And funny.

. . . A Suburban Mom: Notes from the Asylum is an easily digestible, worthy distraction from the chaos of our lives. It has just the right amount of validation that we're all feeling our way blindly through this motherhood gig. There's something about sharing another's experience as she botches it up too that makes us feel like we're all more or less qualified. Even when we find our child coated in blue marker."

The publication ForeWord said:

"This book's short essays will appeal to harried mothers looking for relief from the sometimes claustrophobic world of parenting young children. In A Suburban Mom, readers will find both humor and reprieve from the outside world's view on their daily lives."

Image credit: Barnes and Noble.