The End-of-Vacation Realization


Scene: It’s 7 am in the Dworkin-McDaniel household. An eager Fletcher emerges from the bedroom and makes a beeline for the living room … and the TV remote.

MOMMY: Uh-uh-uh. [Wags finger.] School today. Get dressed.

Fletcher stops, puzzled. Then, realization dawning that this means vacation is over, and there will be no TV this morning, he spins around.

FLETCHER: Actually, Mommy, I’m still tired. [Heads back to bed, disappears under covers.]

End scene.

Playing The New Mom’s Game of Life

We’ve been playing Milton Bradley’s Game of Life quite a bit at our house lately. Fletcher, my 6-year-old, spent a rainy afternoon playing the game with his older cousin Dylan, and, predictably, within minutes of my picking him up from my sister’s house, clamored for a game of his own. I think I’d played this board game exactly once some 30 years ago, and the only things I remembered about it were the tiny plastic cars you moved around the board, and the tinier gender-rigid pink and blue pegs you filled the car with — plastic avatars of the spouse and children picked up, like hitchhikers, on your journey from college or first job to retirement. Still, I was game to play anything that wasn’t as mind-numbing as Candy Land and had an endpoint you could reliably reach within an hour or so. Unlike, say, Chutes-N-Ladders, which dumps you with maddening consistency right back at the beginning just as you think (hope) you’re nearing the end.

But as our family dutifully “drove” our plastic vehicles around the Life game board, landing on spaces that directed us to choose a career, get married, buy a house, lose a job, collect a salary, buy a bigger house, pony up for emergencies (“Car accident, pay $5,000”) and earn Life tokens (“Volunteer at soup kitchen,” “Visit Great Wall of China”), it struck me that while this looked like the classic American experience, it wasn’t exactly “life” as I knew it as a working mom. And not just because the odds that anyone will “Find buried treasure” are rather slim while my son lands on that square without fail every single time we play. (Though, I gotta say, the half-mil Milton Bradley offers would certainly fluff up my kid’s 529 college savings account.)

Where, I wondered, were those indelible, precious, all-too-human moments that come with family life that my mom friends and I experienced: baby’s first smile, first steps, first big-time diaper blowout; the midnight runs to the urgent care center (because what child actually gets sick during daylight hours?), the out-of-the-mouths-of-babes bon mots (and cringe-worthy moments), the blind rage and sheer joy, the always-shifting balance between work and family (and the feeling that no matter how hard you try, you inevitably shortchange both).

Sure, I know the game’s got to be generic enough to appeal to a mass (and at least half male) audience. But I’m thinking there’s room for a special edition here, a la Star Wars Trouble or the Green Day version of Angry Birds. So in the spirit of making Life a bit more like, um … real life, I’m offering The New Mom’s Game of Life.

Unlike original Life where the goal is to bank enough cash to retire in Millionaire Estates, in this game, everyone starts off pregnant, with elastic pants and a box of saltines. Whoever makes it from Childbirth Class to Kindergarten Graduation with their sanity, sense of humor, ego and ab muscles intact, wins. Multiple winners are possible. Are you listening, Milton Bradley? Let the parenting games begin!

Start childbirth classes. Get LIFE token.

Morning sickness! Spend next turn vomiting in bathroom.

Load e-reader with baby/parenting books. Pay $50.

Baby shower! Collect $5,000 in cash and baby products.

Stunned (and queasy) watching real-life births on One Born Every Minute. Contemplate C-section. Get LIFE token.

“The epidural needle is how big? Wait!! That needle goes into my spine??!!” Get LIFE token.

Maternity leave. Miss next two turns.

Breastfeeding success! Get LIFE token.

Nod off from sleep-deprivation. Snooze through next turn.

Order audiobook of Samuel L. Jackson reading Go The F**k To Sleep. Pay $4.99.

Postpartum depression. Skip two turns till antidepressants kick in.

Baby (finally) sleeps through night. Get LIFE token.

Car seat recall! Pay $80 for replacement.

Diaper blow out!! Get the wipes! Need More Wipes!! Miss next turn cleaning up.

YOU! RAN! OUT! OF! DIAPERS! Pay $50 for a month’s supply.

Get back into your skinny jeans. Get LIFE token.

Baby gets croup! Spend next turn at the after-hours urgent care center.

Stay at home? Return to work? Miss next turn agonizing over decision.

Daycare separation anxiety. Spend next turn bawling your eyes out.

Baby’s first word! Unfortunately, it’s “&@#%*!” Screamed. In church. Get LIFE token.

Potty “trainee” has accident … sitting on your lap. Spend next turn blow-drying pants in ladies room.

“Mommy! Can you snuggle me!” Get LIFE token.

Lifting toddler, stroller, car seat, diaper bag X 2 years = totally taut arms. Get compliments. And LIFE token.

Pink eye! See pediatrician. $5 co-pay.

“Why, Mommy? But why? Why? Why? Why? Why?” Get LIFE token.

Face down mean moms on the playground. Get LIFE token.

Private school. Pay $15,000.

School uniforms. Pay $500.

School supplies. Pay $200.

New suit smeared with peanut butter and chocolate. Spend next turn dropping clothes at dry cleaner.

Lice! Spend next turn picking nits out of kid’s hair.

“Mommy, what’s s-e-x?” Get LIFE token.

Snow day! Reflect on how much less fun these are now that you’re the parent. Get LIFE token.

High-five! You scored boxes of Pokemon cards on eBay. Get LIFE token.

“I like Skylanders now, Mom. (Insert eye roll) Duh!” Resell Pokemon cards on eBay. Get LIFE token.

Forget to pick up Junior at school. Again. Get LIFE token.

Birthday party with 20 rambunctious classmates. Get LIFE token. And a cocktail. Or two.

Family vacation! Pay $3,000.

Hmmm … family vacations are really more stressful than blissful. Make pact with hubby to leave kids at home next time. Get LIFE token.

Totally, completely, utterly, lose your cool with your kid! Nominate self for Best “Re-creation of Linda Blair’s Scream Scene in The Exorcist.” Get LIFE token.

Stretch legs — finally! — after a week of nonstop driving to soccer, ballet, tennis, little league, Kumon. Get LIFE token.

PANIC!! You’ve lost your child in the supermarket. Hyperventilate … till you locate him in the bakery section … nose pressed against the cake display case. Get LIFE token.

Remember cookies for PTO bake sale. Store-bought. But still. Get LIFE token.

Kindergarten graduation! Get LIFE token.

Wonder where the time went. Get LIFE token.

A shorter version of this post was published today on Lifescript’s HealthBistro blog.


Redshirting? Not For Me. Why I “Greenshirted” My Kid For School

Unlike many other parents I know, I went against the tide, the redshirting tide.

When my son finished kindergarten, I expected that he would move with his classmates into first grade. That’s the natural order of things, right?

There was just one hitch. Fletcher had started kindergarten early — at age 4. In Florida, children need to be 6 by Sept.1 to enter first grade. With Fletcher’s late winter birthday, he wasn’t even close.

As I began looking for a way around the birthday cutoff, I found my choice baffled other parents. “What’s your rush?” they demanded. “He’ll be younger than his classmates.” “He’ll reach puberty later.” “He’ll be the last of his friends to drive,” they warned.

So what? My kid already wants to do lots of things – play shoot-’em-up video games, ride huge water slides, drive go-karts – that his older friends and cousins can but that he’s too young for right now. Not getting to do every single thing you want to do when you want to do it is a good life lesson to learn.

For more, please follow me over to Lifescript’s Health Bistro blog where I am the new Mommy Talk blogger, blogging about parenting and family life issues every other Saturday. While you’re there, check out the new parenting channel — tons of cool stuff for families!

And if you like what you read, please share, share, share!

Photo credit:Deborah Cheramie

Missed some posts? Catch up here!

A Mom By Any Other Name
Card Shark
My Bout With Gout

Finding A Teachable Moment In A Forgotten Lunch

This morning, my second-grader forgot his lunch.

Naturally, I only realized this as we were idling in the school’s drop-off line. The teacher managing the car line opened the rear door, as she does every morning, and I said, Okay, Fletcher, grab your bag. Have a great day, as I do every morning. Only this time his black knapsack emblazoned with the school logo, the same one he picks up every morning on the way out the door, was not in the car. En route to the car, he’d grabbed his three favorite stuffed animals and the paperback encyclopedia of every Pokemon character that has ever existed … and left the knapsack, containing the hot lunch I’d made him right by the laundry room door, where it always sits, waiting to be picked up, every single day.

So I pulled out of the car loop and into a parking spot, then walked in to confer with Fletcher’s teacher about the best way to handle the Forgotten Lunch Situation. Our Montessori school has an interesting way of dealing with forgotten lunches, and it wasn’t going to involve me simply fetching his lunch box for him.

“We’re not going to rescue him,” Mrs. S reminded me as we talked just inside the classroom door. I’d read about the “no rescue” policy in the new parent handbook that had been given out before the first day of school. But I hadn’t understood what exactly that would mean in terms of ensuring that a kid who didn’t bring lunch ended up having something substantial to eat once lunch time rolled around. It’s not like our fledgling charter school had a cafeteria where I could have pre-paid the day’s lunch. And while there were always plenty of healthy munchies available at the snack table, I knew my son wouldn’t make it till 3 pm on handfuls of the Cheerios and raisins alone. The kid was going to need some protein.

Still, Mrs. S didn’t want me to just run home and return with his knapsack. Forgetting lunch shouldn’t be an offense punishable by starving, she explained. But she did want Fletcher to learn something from his oversight. My “rescuing” him wouldn’t do anything to help instill that sense of personal responsibility — the fourth “R” if you will — that is just as important in Montessori teaching as reading, writing and ‘rithmetic.

Mrs. S assured me that the “classroom community” would not allow Fletcher to go hungry — a very good lesson in taking care of those in our community when they need help. But as generous as I knew his classmates would be in offering up portions of their lunches, the classroom also has a no sharing policy for kids lunches. And really, other children shouldn’t have to sacrifice their lunches to feed my child when I could just as easily bring him something to eat.

Instead Mrs. S came up with an ingenious ruse to make it appear as if Fletcher’s lunch would be cobbled together from classroom supplies and the teacher’s lunches. In the end, I did go home and put together a turkey sandwich, a bottle of water and a banana. There was no Star Wars water bottle, no Spiderman thermos keeping his hotdogs warm. It looked like any brown bag lunch that any adult would take to work. And from that, Mrs. S said, she would “share” with Fletcher.

So this was a bit of a roundabout … all right, sneaky way of teaching Fletcher his actions would have consequences while still providing a safety net and demonstrating that his community would stand by him in a moment of need. I’m fairly confident he’ll get over having to eat a turkey sandwich rather than the turkey hotdogs he’d been hoping for.

And, yes, this did mean extra work and time on my part to procure a masquerade lunch.

But if it means that Fletcher won’t forget his bag again this year — and here’s hoping! — well, I’d say that was time and effort well-spent.

Reader question: What do you do when your kid forgets lunch?

If you enjoyed this or found this helpful, please share!

Those Indelible Moments Of Parenting

Last night, I was a guest on Allison B. Levine and Julia Dudek’s BlogTalkRadio show Petting Unicorns, where we chatted about humor writing, parenting, magazines and how my blog got its crazy name. These two wonderful hosts were so gracious, they even asked me to read my favorite essay, Cougar Love, about my then 5-year-old son’s first big time crush on an “older woman” of 11 … and the inevitable heartbreak that followed. (Cue up to 35:00 to hear me read.)

Reading the essay again, reminded me how heartbroken I was for my baby when he realized he wasn’t gonna get the girl. That moment, cradling my son as he cried, will stay with me forever … just as the moments of his first steps, first words, first day of nursery school, first splash in the ocean will.

Care to share the parenting moments that stand out for you? I’d love to hear.

Photo: Graffizone






Strangers: Extremely Rude And Incredibly Kind

Last month, one of my essays won a writing prize. I’d written a broadly comic account of the “debate” I’d had with my somewhat skeptical, not-Jewish husband about circumcising our son. The essay was light-hearted and funny, and I got a lot of mileage out of our humorous sparring and the … um … go-for-the-groin tactics I used to finally win the “argument.” If you’ve read the essay, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, I won’t spoil the punch-line. You’ll have to read it for yourself

When my win was announced, I figured I’d get some Atta Girl!’s — and I did. And a few faintly indignant emails extolling the wonders and virtues of loving the uncut penis — and I got those too. My friend and Cafe Mom blogger Amy Keyishian said it best when I first posted this essay in 2008: “Dahlink, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.”

And that, I thought, would be that. Game over.

I had no idea what a hot button I’d pushed until the “intactivists” — those vehemently opposed to circumcision — began raining down hate like sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah.

For circumcising my child — daring to make light of it — I was called evil. A horrible mother. A vapid bitch. A baby mutilator. An emasculator of men. A disgrace to my country — and apparently to all Jewish people too. One of the many rabid commenters who likened circumcision to female genital mutilation wrote that he wished I’d “get kicked in the vagina so hard I’d need my clitoris removed.” I’m not sure that’s the best statement he could make against authentic genital mutilation, but so be it.

I got taken to task on a public forum with a “Dear Norine …” letter in which the writer didn’t even have the decency to sign her name. She hid behind a pseudonym.

On my birthday, I woke up to this charming assessment of my work and character: You don’t deserve a prize. Or a son. What a gift, right?

Controversy inevitably comes with the writing territory. Unless you’re penning nursery rhymes, you’re bound to piss off someone at some point. See Ellen Seidman on why the word retarded should be permanently retired. Dara-Lynn Weiss on putting her 7-year-old daughter on a diet Lenore Skenazy on allowing her 9-year-old son to ride the subway aloneI didn’t get pilloried on a national level like these women. Still, the vitriol coming from this particular faction was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced as a writer. Given that I also write about sex, abortion and vaccines, that’s really saying something.

Blogger Ellen Seidman points out, “Comments sections on news sites tend to bring out the worst in people.” Do they ever! And I’ll go one further: Anonymity makes commenters even more malicious, freer to type things they’d never say to my face. Jeez-lah-weez. Disagree with something I’ve written? Bring it. But can someone tell me what happened to civil discourse? Do people really have nothing more important to do than spew hatred into cyberspace?

Apparently not. As both I and my husband (who defended me on Facebook and subsequently got branded a “pussy” for not “protecting” his son) were virtually drawn-and-quartered on this blog and others, the ping-ping-pinging of nasty comments hitting my In Box made my MacBook sound like a pinball machine.

For four days we rode out the hate storm feeling a bit like America’s Most Wanted. And then as quickly as the squall blew in, things quieted down. Eye of the storm? Maybe. But we went back to our lives, which at week’s end included taking our son and four of his pals to Food Truck Friday, our little ‘burb’s monthly family picnic and movie night in the park. Yep, that’s what the Most Evil Mom In America does for kicks: Eats ahi tuna sliders and watches The Smurfs under the stars. (Wanna bitch slap me for exposing my kid to The Smurfs?!? That I can understand).

So, thinking only of squelching the week’s stress with goodies from my favorite food trucks, I shoved a credit card into my back pocket and herded five children toward the park.

Now stay with me here because I promise this is going somewhere.

The first time I realized my credit card had slid half out of my pocket, I thought, This isn’t a very good idea. The next time my credit card came flying out of the pocket when I pulled out my phone, I thought, I really should move the card.

Of course, I immediately got distracted. Of course I forgot to move the card. And of course, you know what happened next.

Standing in line for hot dogs with five ravenous kids … after I’d finally memorized who wanted ketchup … who wanted mustard … who wanted ketchup and mustard … and who didn’t want a hot dog but wanted a veggie dog (that would be my child), I went to pay with my card and … gone.

You know how you can’t quite believe something happened, so you keep checking? I shoved my hand in my back right pocket. My back left pocket. My front pockets. My jacket pockets. All I came up with was lint.

“So?” Hot Dog Gal asked brightly, “What’ll it be?”

“We’ll be right back,” I said tightly.

I scooted all the kids out of line, marched them to a picnic table and left my nanny in charge so I could retrace my steps in what I knew would be a futile attempt to find the lost card. But you have to try, right?

The card had only been missing for maybe 20 minutes, but I’ve had my credit cards lifted twice. In the right hands, I knew that card could be maxed out and tossed in the time it took me to realize it was gone. Fortunately, while I was hyperventilating over how I was going to cancel the card when the bloody customer service number was on the back of the card, my sister came to my rescue with the phone number. Ten minutes later, the card was dead.

Secure in the knowledge that I would not be on the hook for two round-trip luxury cabin-class tickets to Abu Dhabi aboard Emirates Airlines, my blood pressure floated down. I circled back with Hot Dog Gal to feed the kids, gulped down a few sliders, and finally let the inanity of The Smurfs numb my brain like Xanax.

In fact, I forgot all about the credit card till I got in my car the next day. There, tucked in my windshield, was a business card from the Ocoee Police Department.

“Norine –” read the message, beautifully scrawled on the back, “Can you please call the number on the front of the card? Found some property that belongs to you!” It was signed Officer Carlos Anglero.

Obviously he had the card. Not only that, he cared enough to drive out to my home during his night shift to let me know.

“Officer Anglero isn’t on duty now,” two separate police department operators told me when I tried to find Officer Anglero that afternoon to thank him. “You’ll have to try back on Monday.”

The next night, the house phone rang. The caller ID showed the number at our community guard gate. “Hello?” I said. I just heard static on the other end.

Kids trying to gain access to the neighborhood, I figured and hung up. The phone rang again. More static. I hung up again. The third time, I could just make out a quavery “Ocoee Police Department” between the crackles. Officer Anglero is nothing if not a model of perseverance. I buzzed the gate open.

He’d found me on Facebook, the officer explained when I asked how he’d tracked me down. A family had spotted the card in the grass and turned it over to him. And he hadn’t stashed it in the property room where it might have gotten “lost” again. Officer Anglero held on to it until he could put it in my hand himself. Is that public service or what?

I was floored. Completely and utterly floored.

In the space of one week, I’d been on the receiving end of some of the most extreme rudeness and incredible kindness I’ve ever experienced — from strangers who didn’t have to go out of their way to be vicious or considerate in either situation, but chose to do so anyway.

Oddly enough, I’m grateful to both.

And so, Kind Family, whoever you are … and Crazy Nasty Commenters, who’ve driven my site stats through the roof and made the essay you love to hate the most popular piece on my blog, the Most Evil Mom In America thanks you. Kindly.

Photo credit: James Brey

And The Winner Is … Circumcision Decision!

I almost never enter writing contests.

But a few weeks ago, on a whim, I entered my essay Circumcision Decision — about convincing my somewhat skeptical husband to go along with circumcising our then-newborn son — in the third annual Two Kinds Of People essay contest that I found through She Writes, an incredibly supportive online community for women writers of all stripes.

What tempted me to dust off this essay, one of my early ones for this blog (and a personal favorite, I have to say) was the side note to would-be entrants from contest founder, Susan Bearman: “It’s the dead of winter around here,” she wrote from Chicago, “so a little humor couldn’t hurt, if you know what I mean.” Having spent four years in the corn fields at Oberlin College in Ohio, I have vivid memories of just how gray and frigid those Midwest winters can be. And I thought, I bet I can make her laugh. So I hit Send and hoped for the best.

And, unbelievably, the best happened. My irreverent little essay won. You can read it here,  along with some of the other wonderful essays submitted to the contest.

Susan was kind enough to gift me with some 2KOP swag that I’m looking forward to flaunting around our Central Florida town. But even better was the excuse to bring Circumcision Decision out of the archives and share it with new readers who may have missed its first appearance on the blog.

If it makes you laugh or smile, please share or tweet it to others. Thank you!

[Ed Note: I am aware that this essay has prompted many comments on the Two Kinds Of People blog from people who feel circumcision is wrong and strongly disagree with my tongue-in-cheek way of writing about it … and winning a contest for it. Even if your comments weren’t posted on 2KoP, you can be sure that I’ve seen them all.  Humor is subjective and not everyone likes mine. You may hate mine. And in the last few days I’ve heard from many who do. That’s the beauty of a free press. So, I welcome dissenting views and will post comments that are thoughtful, civil and offer a new perspective on the discussion. That said, anonymous comments, vitriolic rants, profanity-laced insults and repeats of what’s already been posted on 2KoP, Reddit or Facebook will not be re-posted here.] 

Photo credit: kaisersosa67







A Mom By Any Other Name

“Fletcher’s Mom?” The dental assistant called out to the waiting room.

I looked up, annoyed. I’d been engrossed in a New York magazine article while my 5-year-old was in with the dentist. For me, doctors’ offices are like airplanes at 36,000 feet — one of the last few places I can read without guilt because you’re not supposed to use your cell phone — at least according to the signs posted around the office, threatening, in BOLD CAPITAL LETTERS, to immediately bounce you from the building if you so much as peek at email. People still do, of course, but I’ll toe that particular line just to grab a few minutes to read something — outside the bathroom no less — not related to any article I’m writing, Magic Treehouse, Harry Potter or The Clone Wars. With fluoride and X-rays, I figured the 20 minutes Fletcher would spend in the chair might just give me enough time to finish the article I was reading. I was nearly done when …

“Fletcher’s Mom.” The dental assistant looked at me, pointedly, impatience creeping into her voice.

I resignedly dog-eared the page. Maybe I’d come back to it later, though I doubted it. More likely, the magazine would join the piles of half-read magazines cluttering my office, the kitchen counter, the downstairs bathrooms, that I keep for a while in the hopes of picking them back up … but that eventually just get tossed in the recycle bin and left at the curb.

Still, that’s wasn’t the source of my annoyance. It was the dental assistant’s choice of words that aggravated me: Fletcher’s Mom. With a single phrase, she’d managed to reduce my entire nuanced, multi-layered identity, fashioned over four and a half decades, to a state of biological guardianship.

I don’t know if this is some national trend, or a more regional phenomenon, but lately I’ve been getting this a lot in doctors offices. Sometimes the staff calls me Fletcher’s Mom. Other times it’s just Mom or — gag — Mommy. Seriously folks, if you didn’t enter this world through my birth canal, calling me Mom is weird and creepy. But beyond that, unless you’re under, say, age 7, calling me Fletcher’s Mom is vaguely insulting. Excuse me, but I was walking the planet for going on 40 years before Fletcher arrived on the scene. How did the genetic connection to my child become my single most-defining attribute?

Call me sensitive. Call me petty. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask for doctors’ assistants to actually call me by the name I use to — hello?!? — sign their bills.

Make no mistake. I love being Fletcher’s mom. The kid wows me daily with his certitude (he’s always right, just ask him) and finely honed negotiating skills (“Mommy, here’s the deal …”). But “Fletcher’s Mom” makes it sound like I spend my days wiping bums and runny noses. Sure, with a kid diverting any attention that I don’t focus on writing, I’ll cop to being more familiar with the Dr. Seuss and J.K. Rowling than anyone who’s made the New York Times Best Seller list recently.  There are weeks when I spend more time looking at Lego Magazine than New York Magazine. I haven’t seen The Artist or Shame, but I do have the dialogue from just about every Pixar film released on DVD committed to memory. And I probably know more about Bionicles and Bakugans than any adult needs to. Ever. But I also know know where my Personal Life fits, neatly, but separately, into my Mom Life.  I’m comfortable that, even as I lag a bit on pop culture and political news, I haven’t completely sacrificed my personal self on the altar of motherhood.

In the grand scheme of things, it probably shouldn’t matter what some assistant I see at most twice a year calls me. After all, a rose by any other name, right? Still, this Fletcher’s Mom biz bugs the crap outta of me.

Mom defines my relationship with my child, not my identity,” I want to snap when these doctors’ assistants, some times even the doctors themselves, take the lazy way out, not troubling themselves to learn their patients’ parents’ names — a pity since we’re the ones who choose the doctors.

But mostly I don’t. Mostly I just stew silently and smile through clenched teeth. But this morning, something about the dental assistant’s attitude was really working on my last nerve. Maybe it was her impatience that I didn’t immediately hop to attention when she called the first time. Maybe I just had too little sleep. Or too much caffeine. Maybe it was just one of those mornings when everything irked me. But as I dog-eared the magazine page, my Inner Bitch sucker-punched my Inner Diplomat. And for one unguarded moment, my temper flared, and I was Howard Beal from Network — mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.

“Is there a remote possibility that you actually know my name?” I demanded, loudly enough for the other parents in the waiting room to hear.

The dental assistant, surprised into silence, nodded, dumbly.

“Then use it.”

And with that I strode past her into the exam room to see the dentist.

All right, so this wasn’t exactly a giant leap for mom-kind. And hardly the strongest language I’ve ever used in a confrontation. But I was fairly certain that when it came time for Fletcher’s next dental checkup, here was one doctor’s assistant who’d finally get my name right.

If this made you laugh today, please share or tweet! Thank you!

Card Shark

photo: Rob Andrew

We recently marked a milestone of sorts in our house: We quietly … surreptitiously … finally… retired Candy Land.

I don’t say quietly and surreptitiously because I enjoy hiding toys from my kid. I just don’t want to do anything that might alert my little hoarder-in-training — a kid who’d stash away every plaything he’s ever had since babyhood if our house had enough closets — that the game’s gone missing. If you’ve ever attempted a toy purge in the presence of a child, you know that even if your kid never so much as touched the workbench you dropped 80 bucks on because he was enthralled with Daddy’s tools, the mere threat that it might leave the house forever will prompt him to cling to that molded plastic like an environmental activist chained to a tree, sobbing MOMMY! IT’S MY FAVORITE. DON’T TAKE IT AWAY. PLEASE!!! until you return it to the playroom — where it will sit untouched till the next purge.

Having learned that lesson with the plastic workbench … and the inflatable Elmo I bought for my son’s second birthday … and the tinny synthesizer keyboard we tried to replace with an actual piano, I now do my toy purging on the sly. It’s not that I’m that mean. It’s that Candy Land is that excrutiatingly dull. If you haven’t gotten to this particular stage of childhood yet, here’s a friendly heads up: Candy Land is the tranquilizer of board games. Go ahead, play a few rounds the next time you can’t fall asleep. Works better than valium. Mid-game, you could probably drill my teeth, and I wouldn’t flinch.

Yes, yes, I understand its developmental value for introducing tots to structured game play and how not to hurl the pieces at the wall and stomp on the board when you lose (though that particular lesson will take some time to sink in). But spend a few years pushing a plastic gingerbread man through a junk food forest, from red space to blue space to green space to orange space, and your brain will feel about as sharp as those beginner knives you find in toddler cutlery sets — the ones that couldn’t slice butter if it was left out in the sun. After a couple of hours on a rainy Saturday, you’ll beg to stop playing. You’ll barter a kidney to stop playing. But as anyone who’s ever gotten within striking distance of that promised land o’ sweets only to draw the dreaded Gingerbread Man card and been booted back to the beginning to start the maddening trek over again knows, the game … never … stops. It’s like pedaling a stationary bike. You can play forever and never get there. In fact, I think we were still in the middle of the first game we started when we opened the box three years ago. Deep-sixing this baby wasn’t mean. It was self-preservation.

With Candy Land hidden away on the top shelf in the back corner of my office closet, I was free to introduce Fletcher to games that I wouldn’t need a double Scotch to endure. Games like Othello, Sorry and Chinese Checkers. Eventually, I figured, we’d graduate to Mastermind, Scrabble, and, my personal favorite, Stratego. In my Perfect Parent daydreams, I envisioned our little family gathered, Norman Rockwell-style, round the table for family game nights with a big bowl of popcorn, our golden retriever happily resting at our feet, a nice cozy fire in the fireplace …

Okay, so we don’t have a fire place. Or a dog. I’m actually more of a cat person. But you get the picture of wholesome Hallmark Channel-kind of family fun I had in mind.

Know what my sweet, pink-cheeked li’l cherub wanted to play instead? Poker.

Yessir, that’s my baby … the budding card shark.

I’ve asked Fletcher repeatedly and still don’t know what put the idea in his head, where he even heard about poker. It’s not like my husband Stewart has a weekly poker game. No one we know plays poker. My parents occasionally talk about “bridge,” but as far as Fletcher’s concerned, they’re discussing crumbling infrastructure in London, not cards. I spent four years in Vegas and still can’t tell the difference between a straight and a flush. To me, a full house means having weekend guests. Or that inane sitcom with the Olsen twins.

Of course, I was grateful that he wasn’t clamoring for Candy Land. But, seriously, in what universe is poker an appropriate game for a 5-year-old? Was gambling really the best example to set for our child, I demanded, when Stewart agreed to teach Fletcher Texas Hold Em. What next? Blackjack, maybe? Showing him how to blow smoke rings? Mix martinis? I could already anticipate the summons from his Montessori teacher: Fletcher’s reading well and starting to master subtraction. But we are concerned that he’s hustling poker games on the playground. Please see me at your earliest convenience.

When they give out Debauched Parents of the Year awards, we’re shoe-ins for the Under Six category.

But Stewart shrugged off my concerns in the way that husbands the world over shrug off their wives’s concerns when they think we’re over-reacting. Then he helpfully pointed out that we’d already exposed Fletcher to gambling, playing dreidl during Chanukah. If you’ve never played, dreidl is like rudimentary craps, but rather than rolling dice, you spin a top with Hebrew letters on it, then put pennies in or take them out of a pot based on which letter comes up. It’s a children’s game. But there’s probably a bookie who takes odds on it somewhere.

And, of course, eight days of dreidl spinning had not spiraled Fletcher into juvenile delinquency.

“Hon, we’re not talking about roulette or throwing dice here,” Stewart said, still trying to win me over. “Poker’s a sophisticated game of skill.”

Yeah, yeah. You say po-TAH-toe … I say we’re thisclose to having DCFS banging on our door.

But caught between a child who’s raised relentless pleading to an art form (Please, please, please, Mommy! I want to play!! Please!) and a husband who’s logged his share of glassy-eyed hours on Candy Land duty and was equally desperate for more stimulating diversions, I knew I wasn’t gonna win this one.

“All right, all right. We’ll play. But no cash. We’ll use M&Ms.”

At least I’d drawn a line somewhere. Though on reflection I realized that years from now Fletcher would be able to tell his therapist how his parents set him up for gambling addiction and diabetes. It was too late to buy back on that one though. Fletcher was already rummaging in the pantry for his Halloween stash.

“Found the M&Ms, Mommy!”

Oh goody.

I wondered if maybe, between the anteing up, the calling and the raising, we could consider poker a “math exercise.” Oh yeah, I was grasping. That’s a whopper of a rationalization. But I figured it was my best defense if Social Services came calling.

So Family Game Night became Hold Em Night. Stewart outlined the basics of our sophisticated game of skill … er, math exercise. He explained the flop, the turn and the river. He detailed the different types of winning hands and what it meant to check, to call, to raise and match a bet to “make the pot right.” See — there’s some addition. Maybe “math exercise” wasn’t such a stretch.

We played cards up for practice so Fletcher would get the hang of putting together two-of-a kind, three-of-a-kind, four-of-a-kind, flushes and straights from the cards he held and those on the table.

“How’s that for some set theory?” Stewart said, pointedly. More math. Sweet.

Then we were ready to play for real.

We tossed some M&Ms into the pot, and Stewart dealt the cards. Two to each of us and three face down in the middle.

“I dealt, so it’s your bet, Fletcher,” Stewart nodded at him.

Fletcher knocked his little fist on the table. “Check,” he said. “I wanna see it for free.” One lesson, and he’s already got the lingo down.

I checked. Stewart checked. Then he flipped the table cards over: Ace of hearts. 5 of spades. 10 of clubs. That did nothing for the cards in my hand. But Fletcher gave a little yelp, then pushed a bunch of M&MS into the pot, with a big grin.

“Ooooh, Maaaah-meee,” he taunted, through a mouthful of chocolate. “I’m gonna beat you. I’m gonna beat you.”

“Okay, Poker Face,” I tousled his hair. “Try to save some chocolate for the game.”

“Here comes the turn –” Stewart dealt the fourth card, the 10 of diamonds. “Okay, everyone’s got a pair of 10s. Fletcher, your bet.”

Fletcher pushed more of his candy into the pot. “I’ve got the best hand! I’m gonna beat you. I’ve got the best hand. I’m gonna beat you,” he chanted, dancing excitedly in his seat. “I’m gonna take you to the laundry.”

“To the cleaners, baby,” I laughed. “You’re going to take us to the cleaners.” Okay, so he didn’t have all the lingo down yet.

“Uh huh … Can I show you? Can I show you?”

“Not yet. Let’s wait for the last card,” I said. I had squat but tossed more M&Ms into the pot anyway.

“And the river –” Stewart laid down the last card, the queen of hearts. “Okay, Fletcher. Whaddya wanna do?”

“All in!” Fletcher pushed the rest of his M&Ms into the center of the table. “Can I show you now? Can I show you now?”

We’d noticed during practice play that Fletcher loved to bet heavy, more, we figured, because he liked to see a big pile of candy on the table, than any real understanding of how to bluff. So wagering his sizeable pile of M&Ms could mean he had pocket aces … or nothing at all. And I didn’t want game night to end with him sulking, face down in the couch cushions because he lost all his chocolate.

“You really want to bet all your M&Ms?” I asked gently. He nodded, fiercely.

“All right.” We added the rest of our M&Ms to the pile too. “Turn ‘em over,” Stewart said.

Fletcher gleefully laid out his cards. It took a moment to register. Then Stewart and I looked at each other in disbelief. There on the table, between the community cards and his own, was a pair of aces and three 10s.

The kid had a full house.

Seriously. What are the odds?

“I told you I would win, Mommy and Daddy,” Fletcher said, all confidence and melted chocolate.

We looked at the cards, then back at each other, sharing a bewildered and bemused How the fuck did that happen?!? look.

Score one for poker math, I thought with chuckle. Then we brushed the chocolate off our little card shark’s teeth and tucked him into bed.

My Bout With Gout

James Gilray

At first, I thought that, somehow, I’d broken my big toe. Not that I could recall any trauma, but our family had spent the afternoon mini-golfing. Instead of wearing sneakers like a practical person, I’d roamed the hilly course in strappy sandals to show off my newly pedicured toes. So when a sudden stab of pain woke me later that night, and my foot had tripled in size by morning, I figured the vanity gods were punishing my poor choice of footwear with the kind of torturous pain that would keep me in sturdy cross-trainers from now on.

My father, a doctor, told me that there wasn’t much to do for injured toes beyond toughing it out with ice and ibuprofen. Free advice is always good, but after a few days of hobbling around the house, unable to put any weight on my foot, which also meant I couldn’t drive, climb the stairs to my office, or exercise, I was more than ready for another opinion. Or at least some stronger meds. The last time I was in this much pain, I was given an epidural.

Instead, I got the surprise of my life.

“That –” said my primary doctor, giving my foot a quick glance, “is textbook gout.”

Gout? Seriously? I have gout? Isn’t that something fat, boozy, old codgers who never leave their Barcaloungers get? What kind of cruel joke was this? Yeah, okay, women do get gout. BUT NOT TILL AFTER MENOPAUSE! The last time I checked my driver’s license, I was still in my mid-forties. I had years before The Change really factored into my health. Besides, I’m healthy (or thought I was). There’s no family history. I’m reasonably active. I eat a near-vegetarian diet. I’m a size 0 for chrissake. Even the nurse was perplexed. “Damn!” she marveled. “We never see skinny people with gout.”

Thanks. Now I’m a medical oddity. This way to the Freak Show. Honestly, I could not be more embarrassed if I’d brought home herpes. I’d rather cop to that than admit to this stodgy ailment. At least that would suggest I’d been out there having some fun. Stupid, dangerous, fun. But still. What did gout suggest? Nothing sexy, that’s for sure. I have a healthy lifestyle. How do I have a lifestyle disease?

A quick Google search told me gout was a type of arthritis, so I contacted Nathan Wei, MD, a rheumatologist and director of The Arthritis Treatment Center in Frederick, Maryland, to find out more. (One of the perks of being a health writer is that you can call up random specialists for advice under the guise of “research.”)

“That is very, very weird,” he says when I explain my situation on the phone.

Nice. I can see my second career now: Gout Girl.

Gout develops when your body either makes too much uric acid or your kidneys aren’t very good at flushing out the uric acid your body makes. Either way, it’s an overabundance that causes urate crystals to form in a joint, usually at the base of the big toe (though they can also form in other parts of the feet, hands and elbows). Those babies are sharp, which is why gout feels like someone’s playing voodoo doll with your toe.

Doctors are seeing a lot more gout these days. Though it’s still very much a man’s disease — three to four times more guys get gout than women — women’s gout rate, while comparatively low, has nonetheless doubled over the last two decades, according to the Mayo Clinic’s Rochester Epidemiology Project. Dr. Wei thinks part of that is better detection. “We’re looking for it more,” he tells me. And a big reason docs are looking for and finding more gout is because it’s one of the many conditions that go along with being, well … fat. “The U.S. population is obese,” Dr. Wei says. “You see a fat person with high blood pressure, diabetes, elevated lipids, and they get gout. That’s all part of the package.”

The other reason: Age and meds. “Women are living longer,” he explains. “More women are entering menopause. And there’s tighter blood pressure control, so a lot of women are on thiazide diuretics to control hypertension, and that bumps uric acid up.”

That all made sense. But it still didn’t explain why I, a slender, active, premenopausal woman with blood pressure so low I could probably eat a salt lick without much fallout, have been so afflicted. I don’t get to say this about too many things these days, but I really am too young – about 15, 20, maybe even 25 years too young – for this. Estrogen, which helps the kidneys eliminate uric acid, is thought to be so protective, gout doesn’t really start to bother women till we hit our 60s.

Since I wasn’t a fat old man or a postmenopausal woman, Dr. Wei started quizzing me about my diet. As with many lifestyle diseases, diet is a huge factor in gout. Once upon a time, gout was even called “rich man’s disease” — payback, essentially, for overindulging in rich foods and drink. It’s the breakdown of amino acids called purines in things like organ meats, beef and pork that boost uric acid levels and lead to gout. But that didn’t apply to me — and not because of my tax bracket. I’m a low-fat dairy, whole grains and vegetables kinda gal. I don’t eat fast food. I don’t eat junk. For years, I was a near-vegan — till wild pregnancy cravings drove me to cross six lanes of traffic to get to Tony Roma’s for ribs. Post-baby, I ditched the meat, though I still eat fish. But c’mon. Low-fat dairy, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins — that’s the foundation for good health. You want to live a long and healthy life and prevent things like heart disease, hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes? That’s where you start.


“You can also find purines in some vegetables — ” Dr. Wei was telling me.

Wait … What?

“…beans, peas, spinach, cauliflower, asparagus …”

Hold up a sec. I eat those vegetables every day. I can go through a bag of spinach, sautéed in garlic and olive oil, in one dinner alone.

“What about shellfish? You eat shellfish?”

Uh-oh. I nodded unhappily, thinking about the softball-sized crab cakes I’d devoured every night on a recent trip to Baltimore. Crab cakes. Shrimp. Scallops. These are my go-to foods when I’m tired of salmon. Turns out, tuna, another diet mainstay, is also brimming with purines. Come to think of it, in the weeks before my midnight gout flare, I’d gone on a bit of a tuna-polooza binge: tuna steak, tuna salad, tuna sushi rolls, seared ahi. Talk about payback for dietary excesses. I’d been practically mainlining purines. The way I’d stacked it, my “healthy” diet was as gout-promoting as gorging on sweetbreads, chopped liver and bacon-double-cheeseburgers.

“How about alcohol? Beer, hard liquor and wine, in that order, can elevate uric acid levels,” Dr. Wei continues.

Strike three. I admit, for a fortysomething mom, I can drink like a party girl.

And there it was: Through blind luck, I’d managed to cherry-pick enough “healthy” foods that, mixed with a few cocktails, added up to a big fat gout diagnosis. A “perfect storm” of factors, and I was the Andrea Gail. Jeeeez. How come I don’t have that kind of luck with lottery numbers?

“You know, if you just ate the shellfish and vegetables, you’d probably be okay,” Dr. Wei says delicately. “Maybe what tipped you over the edge was the alcohol.” He pauses. “It doesn’t take that much, really.” He’s trying to be diplomatic. But the data is on his side. Earlier this year, researchers at Boston University Medical School analyzed Framingham Heart Study data and found that more than five drinks a week – barely even the one cocktail a night that most health experts say is okay for women – will triple a woman’s risk for gout. Apparently, even before menopause, vodka can trump estrogen.

Sigh. Nearly 15 years of meticulously careful eating undone by dirty martinis. Woman plans; the body finds a way to sideline you on the couch, foot packed in ice, mumbling vague excuses about an old Jazzercise injury. (Like I want to be the poster gal for premenopausal gout?!?)

A day after my diagnosis (and three powerful anti-inflammatories — including a big ol’ shot in the ass — later) I was back on my feet.

But like anyone diagnosed with a chronic disease, I’ve had to make some lifestyle changes to avoid future flare-ups and the medications I’ll be forced to take if I get more than one or two attacks a year. Because apparently, I’ve already reached my quota for one year. A few months back, another mysterious injury to the same toe had me limping around for a day or so. I’d chalked it up to too many miles on the elliptical machine, popped some ibuprofen and promptly forgot all about it. Now, I realize, that was a warning.

So I’m trying to follow the rules. While I’m delighted to finally have a medically sanctioned excuse for the three mugs of Italian roast I drink in the mornings (coffee is associated with lower uric acid levels), I’ve also had to give up a few things too: asparagus, seared ahi, any kind of tuna sushi. And, oh yes, I finally accepted that I had to give my well-worn cocktail shaker a rest and climbed (albeit reluctantly) on the wagon. As a result, in the 18 months since my diagnosis, I haven’t had a single flare-up, not even a twinge of toe pain.

I believe that calls for a drink. Shirley Temples, anyone?

A version of this essay appears in the December2011/January 2012 issue of MORE magazine.