Saturday, October 27, 2012

Assignment: Halloween Costumes!

Decked out in my purple long-sleeved shirt featuring a small, tasteful, and sparkly spider design, I headed down to the mall to go Halloween costume shopping this past Monday. Even though it was nine whole days before the holiday, I felt like I was late in tackling this all-important project. The marketing juggernaut all-things-spooky has been chugging along for quite sometime now, and it has the effect of putting parents (at least this one) into a mild state of panic.

"Calm down," I told myself, "you are way ahead of schedule compared to previous years." And that was certainly true.

Since my older son's birthday is the day before Halloween, I have had to be super-organized this time of year to be ready for the back-to-back festivities, including the inevitable birthday party and Trick or Treating. Then there is the matter of getting pumpkins -- Christopher and Charlie each want their own, of course -- along with mums, gourds, Indian corn, or any other attractive fall offering from the local nursery. By the time we go door-to-door, I am so tired and frazzled-looking I don't need a costume.

Yep. I'm going as a zombie again!

Lest you've been living under a rock, finding just the right Halloween costume -- i.e. what the child wants, what is priced reasonably, what is age-appropriate, and what is comfortable to wear -- is like finding the Holy Grail. For kids, the Halloween costume is right up there in status with the big birthday present or Christmas present. So it is always with some measure of trepidation (mixed with excitement, yes, because it is an adventure of sorts) that I head out in search of Halloween costumes.

First stop: Spirit Halloween. Christopher wanted an orange prison jumpsuit. I found some. Yay! They were for teenagers. Boo. My son is big for his age but not THAT big. In any event, I took the costume out of the package and looked it over because that's allowed. It was too big for Shaquille O'Neal. Seriously. I know what I'm talking about: I've met Shaq. I went over to the lady at the cash register and inquired about smaller sizes. No luck. Not in this costume. She suggested some sort of tape to pull in excess fabric. But all I could think of was the double-sided tape J.Lo used to hold up that notorious green awards-show dress when she was with Ben Affeck. "Uh, no. That won't work," I said.

Charlie's first choice for a costume was a chicken. Spirit Halloween had no chicken costumes, but they did have bananas. Uh-uh, can't see it. My first-grader is way too cool to dress up as a piece of fruit. In fact, I was concerned that any poultry attire would be too toddler- or preschooler-oriented for Charlie.

Initial stop: a fail, to be expected. Next up was Target. No prison jumpsuits but about a dozen black-and-white-striped jailbird costumes in small and medium ONLY. Now I've been around the kids' Halloween costume scene long enough to know that these cheaply made polyester numbers (stretchy yet clingy) tend to run small. Two years ago Christopher's pirate-outfit top nearly split at the seams, and that was BEFORE my broad-chested son started playing defense on a championship football team. Needless to say, I was discouraged not to find a large jailbird getup at Target because I just knew my third-grader needed a large.

Argh. Make that double argh. No chicken costumes or fish, Charlie's second choice.

"Am I the only one starting to have a panic attack?" I asked a woman with frizzy blond hair.

She shook her head. "I'm trying to find a wig for my daughter, and these are $30!" She gestured toward a wall of hanging costumes and accessories.

"It's terrible," I concurred, spotting an almost-hidden yellow Angry Bird costume near the floor. It was a one-size-fits-all hooded poncho with arm holes. OMG, I thought to myself. A chicken's a bird. This is a bird. A bird with attitude and speed, just like Charlie. A hip (and commercial) update to a generic chicken outfit. Charlie loves to play Angry Birds. And this definitely won't be mistaken for a toddler or preschooler costume. It's PERFECT! I didn't know if Charlie would like the costume. He can be very stubborn. But a little birdie was telling me that he would!

I headed to the cash register, Angry Bird in hand. The only hurdle left: the cost. Yellow Angry Bird had no price tag on him.

The lady at the cash register looked over YAB. The price would determine whether I would buy him or not, I said. In other words, don't ring him up just yet. She made eye contact with another Target employee standing nearby then somewhat unsurely answered: "$19.99."

I wasn't convinced. "Is that the actual price? Or the default price?" DEFAULT PRICE. How did I come up with that? Is that a real retail term? Or did I just coin it? Awesome, Shelby. Love it when I'm sharp on my feet. I could see the definition printed in a store training manual: "If you don't know or can't find the exact price for a particular item, revert to the Default Price. Hint: it often has a .99 at the end of it." I chuckled to myself.

Well, turns out I WAS being given a Default Price of sorts . . . or a guesstimate. The male salesclerk inquired if I wanted to know the exact price. Uh, yeah, though it dawned on me that I was taking a gamble as I could lose out on what already seemed like a good deal if, in fact, YAB actually cost $50. "Give me a couple of minutes," he said, scurrying off to do some investigation.

SCORE! When he returned, he informed me that YAB was an online item that originally went for $44.99. I could have it for $11. I didn't understand that logic, but I was certainly not going to quibble! Eleven dollars was the price of a Halloween costume my mother might have bought me in the early '70s. Woo-hoo! I took it.

Still no prisoner costume. However, my anxiety had lessened and my optimism had increased. Time to check out iParty where, unfortunately, I heard the costumes were high-priced. Finding that amazing deal at Target, though, meant I would be amenable to spending more at iParty, but I refused to shell out in excess of $25 for a costume regardless. And I couldn't forget about accessories. Christopher had made it very clear he needed handcuffs and one other emblem of the incarcerated life. Spirit Halloween carried such items, yet I couldn't pick them up without first knowing if Chris was going to be a prisoner or hippie, his second choice. If, after all this, I had to start again and look for a '60s Dennis Hopper "Easy Rider" getup, I would be very annoyed, indeed.

I arrived at iParty and fully expected to run into someone from my past. That's because two years ago I bumped into a woman from my college and a former job in the checkout line. And this visit did not disappoint. There was a woman in the accessories aisle from both my boarding school and college. Going to iParty is really like going to a party for me!

To the task at hand: prison jumpsuits. Men's sizes only, I was told. Jeez. What about jailbird black and white? A few minutes of pawing through the hanging selections revealed -- yes! -- the large size Target no longer had in stock. This was it! It cost $14.99. Pretty reasonable, I'd say. Toy metal handcuffs and a plastic ball and chain set me back an additional $8.98. But I was happy . . . and DONE.

I would deal with the issue of makeup later. Besides, I had some left over from last year in the bathroom cabinet back home. Then, on my way to the cash register, I spotted YAB -- the very same costume I had just purchased at Target -- for $11 ($11.96 with tax, to be exact). It was selling for a whopping $49.99. Suckers! I also passed a generic turkey. More expensive and less The Bomb than my awesome YAB, natch, so I walked by with a satisfied spring in my step.

Charlie didn't want to be a turkey anyway.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Mastering the Schedule: Part III (Duty to Myself)

It is not often that participation in a young child's extracurricular activity is decided upon by much else beyond the broad question "Does this work for my family?" Several considerations come into play: the activity's cost, frequency and duration, location, ease with which it fits in with the schedules of other family members, and more.

Sometimes comfort level is the deciding factor. For example, flag football may be chosen over tackle football because it is safer. Rugby was available to my eight-year-old son this fall, but I would not let him play because I got injured in the sport in college. I was diagnosed with torn cartilage. However, that was only part of the story. Seventeen years later it came to light that I'd actually suffered a torn ACL as well. My orthopedic surgeon called it "a medical miracle" I'd been able to carry on playing tennis at a high level on teams and in tournaments, traveling around the globe with a heavy backpack, trekking to Everest Base Camp, skiing, and much more without incident other than the occasional "popping out" episode I'd learned to manage. I required and underwent major reconstructive surgery that included a patella-tendon graft to replace the ligament that had atrophied down to nothing. With this kind of history, I most definitely DID NOT feel comfortable green-lighting rugby for my third-grader.

Cub Scouts posed a different challenge for me altogether. First of all, the activity did not pass the litmus test of being in sync with the rest of the family. For two years while Christopher was a Tiger then Wolf Scout, my younger son Charlie resisted attending pack meetings at the elementary school and den meetings at the local community center. ("Pack" refers to all the Scouts in the school; "den," just the Scouts in Christopher's grade.) Married couples usually didn't bring their other children to meetings because one parent stayed behind at home with the other youngster/s. And divorced parents traded off, with the father doing the lion's share of attending meetings in most cases, I observed. As a full-time single mother, however, I had no choice but to bring my reluctant younger son along every single time.

Charlie, a preschooler then kindergartener during those years, would jump out of his seat in the school auditorium and run up and down the aisles or leave altogether and wander around the front of the school or the kindergarten wing. Meanwhile, I needed to stay at the meeting to listen to important announcements, yet I couldn't when my unruly son was taking off on me repeatedly. The final straw occurred toward the end of the year last year when Charlie ditched not just the gym where the Scouts were engaged in physical activities but also the front lobby. Yes, that's right. He pushed right through the outside doors and could not be persuaded to come back in, preferring instead to hang around on the sidewalk in the cold and dark. I absolutely HATE it when he does this or something similar because it's always so public. He has no concept of being judged by other people and doesn't care one iota that I do.

Once again it was a case of being split in two between my two sons . . . or needing a leash.

At den meetings, the space was so small that Charlie's rambuctious behavior was even more noticeable, if that's possible. I started discreetly slipping him a Nintendo DSi XL to play with upstairs in a tiny game-table space. Unlike the only other younger brother in Christopher's den, Charlie did not want to be a Scout when he became a first-grader. No way, no how. Without specifically articulating it to me, I believe Charlie didn't like the regimentation of Scouts. It's just as well. From my perspective, he is not Scout material anyway.

Fast forward four months: Charlie is now a first-grader and not a Scout. Christopher is not one either. I explained the difficulty I had at meetings to my older son, but it was certainly unnecessary because he saw it for himself. In any case, Christopher is not broken-hearted. He gets it that continuing with Scouts would cause me hardship and overload our schedule. As far as the outdoors goes, we as a family are way beyond what the Scouts do for boys Christopher's age anyhow. We have camped out five nights in a row and climbed several mountains; the Scouts sleep over one night in a science and nature museum or (this year) on a naval ship and hike a hill marked by two boulders in our town.

As if these reasons weren't enough, the tip of the iceberg for me was the Boy Scouts of America's stance on gays. As a division of the BSA, the Cub Scouts -- like little brothers in the same family -- abide by the same set of principles, one of which is that gays who have come out of the closet are not permitted to be either Scouts, Scout leaders, or Scout volunteers of any kind. I was not aware of this long-standing stipulation until this year when the BSA reaffirmed its stance and made national news doing so.

Many people were upset that a large, well-respected youth organization could continue to hold such a prejudicial, seemingly outdated position excluding a segment of the male population. Eagle Scouts came forward to turn in their hard-earned awards, and letters of protest were fired off to the BSA. Just this month, a San Francisco Bay-area teen named Ryan Andresen was informed that he would not be receiving his Eagle Scout honor after working toward it for twelve years because he is openly gay and opposes the BSA's "Duty to God" Scout Oath and Law.

Incidentally, I do, too. I am Christian, but I don't believe a worthy candidate who happens to be an atheist, agnostic, or follower of a non-Christian faith should be discriminated against by being banned, thrown out of, or denied his rightful accolades by the organization.

Now it would be easy to say, "Oh, well. My son is in CUB Scouts. I don't need to bother myself with a BOY Scout matter. It doesn't affect me." Perhaps other parents are telling themselves this. Perhaps they don't want to think about it. Or perhaps they just don't care. Now I don't want to sit in judgment of other parents. They will have their sons stay in or leave Scouts as they see fit. But, for me, I need to be true to myself and stand up for the principles that I believe in. I want to be a role model for my sons in this way. They don't have a second parent to also look up to so, hell yeah, I'd BETTER be a role model for my sons!

Yet it's not just about teaching them not to condone an exclusionary policy. It's also about teaching them to embrace all kinds of people without prejudice. It's about teaching them to take action when they find themselves unwittingly caught up in something they don't subscribe to. This lesson can be transferred to cyberbullying, cheating, underage drinking, etc. -- issues they likely will encounter in coming years. It's about teaching them to have enough courage and strength of character to say, "NO, this is not for me. I will not participate in this activity because it is not in line with my core beliefs." It's about teaching them to walk away with their heads held high, knowing they have done the right thing. This is much easier said than done, of course, but who are we if not our honest selves?

While I am not gay, a couple of my cousins are. I have gay friends in and out of my single-mother-by-choice community, and we have gay women in our extended donor family -- mothers of some of my sons' half-siblings through their anonymous sperm donor dad. And even if I did not have these real-life gay connections, I would feel the very same way toward inclusion because it is the only democratic way.

Today is the eve of the release of the BSA's "perversion files" -- 14,500 pages of secret files on Scoutmasters and Scout volunteers suspected of child molestation between the 1960s and 1985. These files, which came to light via court cases against the BSA, are being made public by order of the Oregon Supreme Court.

Clearly, this issue of child sexual abuse within the Boy Scouts of America is poised to blow wide open. With it, I suspect, will be renewed calls -- shouts, I imagine -- for changing the organization's policy toward gays.

At least I know where I stand.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Mastering the Schedule: Part II (Masochistic Mom Wisens Up)

When drawing up a child's extracurricular schedule, it is just as important to choose which activities to exclude as which to include. But making the decision to drop one or two can be difficult, indeed.

Each of my sons this fall is taking a break from an enrichment program he has participated in for at least two years. It is Cub Scouts for Christopher; gymnastics, Charlie. I wish I could say that the break from both is just temporary. However, in one case, it might be permanent. Like every other athletic, artistic, or other nonacademic pursuit, each needed to be weighed very, very carefully so as to best answer the definitive question: "Does this activity work for my family?"

As gymnastics was simpler and less painful to say no to this time around, I will detail the thinking behind this decision in this blog post and take up the stickier, more complicated matter of Scouts in the next. Charlie has taken clinics in gymnastics off and on at two different locations (a gymnastics academy and the local Y) for several years -- since he was in preschool. He loves the sport and is adept at it. My first-grader can do a full split and one-handed cartwheel, and he is double-jointed enough to put his foot behind his head. He is springy on his feet and bursting with energy ALL THE TIME, both of which are characteristics well-suited to gymnastics.

In fact, I feel he could have serious potential if given the chance to train beyond the usual recreational classes offered to young elementary schoolers. So when I heard about a gym not too far away being run by a FORMER OLYMPIAN -- Paul Kormann, the first American male to win a medal in that sport -- I became very interested. I went over for a tour and got the lowdown on the facility and its classes.

The next day Charlie went over after school to take a free class and be observed by the FORMER MARINE recruited by the FORMER OLYMPIAN from a gymnastics academy in FLORIDA. Now that's a lot of star power! I picked the boys up at school, but we got on the road fifteen minutes late because I got sidetracked into planning a playdate. The drive took forty-five minutes. Charlie enjoyed the class and was successfully evaluated. However, we got in the car fifteen minutes late a SECOND TIME because it takes SO long to wait for one child to put back on his socks and sneakers and buy a snack after waiting in line and the other child to finish dressing for football practice.


Since it was now rush hour, I decided not to head all the way back to the highway in making our way east and north to the town next to ours for Christopher's 5:30 p.m. practice. Instead, I took trusty Route 1 north to bypass a potential traffic jam. It's fairly slow going with a lot of lights, yet I felt like the old standby was the right choice under the circumstances. Problem is: In thinking about which cutoff road to take east, I miscalculated. I should have taken the first one instead of the second, thereby saving myself several extra miles of driving. Then . . . didn't I encounter the aftermath of an accident on the home stretch to the field where Christopher practices! I've NEVER BEFORE been backed up on this road where the speed limit in places is an efficient fifty miles an hour, but I was on this day! So by the time we arrived at the field, by the time I'd helped my older son don his upper-body protective gear and practice jersey, and by the time Christopher snapped on his helmet, THIRTY MINUTES of football practice had passed.

Now the old me -- the Masochistic Mother me, or the more-masochistic Masochistic Mother me -- would have said to herself: "Oh, well! Next time you can buy the snacks before the gymnastics class ends. Next time you can hand Christopher his football clothes earlier at the gym. And next time the road won't be narrowed to one lane." Very pragmatic, indeed, but nevertheless trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. I would have found ways to shave off the time in my well-intentioned attempt to justify my decision to enroll Charlie in a class that didn't really work with our schedule. And I would have been a nervous wreck for it.

Let's get real!

Thankfully, I have wisened up, folks. The fact that I got caught in the unexpected traffic on a perfectly clear day showed me that anything can happen during this forty-five-minute RACE from one Massachusetts town to another at rush hour. What if it was raining? That would delay the driving. What if Charlie changed his mind about which snack he wanted after I'd purchased it during his class? I'd have to either relent and get him a new one, which would make us late to football, or say "too bad" and have a cranky six year old on my hands. To be sure, it is most unpleasant when Charlie -- or any other six year old -- is cranky. I jump through all kinds of hoops on a regular (er, multiple times a day!) basis to avoid this situation.

So I came to the only logical conclusion available to me: I said NO to the gymnastics class. Christopher had long been committed to football, and I did not want to dishonor that commitment by having him show up late to practice one day a week. (For the record, I struggle with lateness already. I certainly did not want to have another reason to be late AND to be stressed out about BEING late.) Besides, Charlie expressed no disappointment regarding not taking the class. He enjoys going to football practice and games where he meets up with the younger siblings of the players. And, before a town official told a parent the water was TOXIC, the little boys had an adorable Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn thing going on catching frogs, a snake, and even watching the snake EAT a frog in a creek near the practice field.

Gymnastics/football was a combination that clearly was not going to work for us this go-round. However, soccer/acting does. Upon first consideration, I believed Christopher could not take the performing-arts class in the city next door because its Saturday meeting time conflicted with Charlie's soccer clinic. However, when I thought it through, I realized that the boys could do both. If we left home at 1:30 p.m., we could get to the theater ten minutes before the 2 p.m. class. Returning immediately to our town, Charlie could arrive on the soccer field right on schedule at 2:15. I stay at soccer with my younger son until he finishes at 3:30, at which time we get in the car to head back to the theater for Christopher's 4 p.m. pickup.

Talk about mastering the schedule! The arrangement is downright masterful. It runs like Swiss clockwork. I couldn't plan it better if I tried.