It’s Raining Underpants. It’s Raining IN the Underpants. The Underpants are Reigning Over Me.

This timely T-shirt available at Amsterdam Gifts on!

This timely T-shirt availabe at Amsterdam Gifts on!)

The week between Christmas 2012 and New Year’s Day 2013 will be remembered in this household as the week of Underpanting the Piddle Producer. Next Monday, Gbot merges with preschool, and dropping the diaper is part of the deal. And so we are working on becoming a four-underpants kind of family. We’re almost there, but I admit to procrastinating. Diapers are easier. So an all-out effort to direct piddle into the potty had been postponed. Yesterday we were a nine underpants family, but as Noah knew, things must get wetter before they get drier.

As we gain underpants, we are also gaining pedals. Mbot received a letter from Santa this year:

A handwriting analyst would nail Santa as a kind, patient, tired, right-handed forty-five year old woman.

A handwriting analyst would nail Santa as a kind, patient, tired, right-handed forty-five year-old woman.

This morning, the pedal bike was under the Christmas tree.

“I am the luckiest boy in the world!” Mbot pronounced.

And that’s a take.

Other things that happened today that probably will not occur on New Year’s Eve, 2013:

1. While making Gbot’s bed, with his help (in theory), I found under the bed a.) Gbot and b.) twenty-six Swedish fish beside an empty bag labeled “Swedish Fish.” I had been wondering where my Swedish fish had gone.

2. In an unrelated incident, while oohing and aahing over Mbot’s new bike, I heard plaintive calls of “Mama, Mama,” from the bathroom. Investigation revealed that Gbot had climbed onto the bathroom counter, where he’d conducted a thorough investigation of the medicine cabinet and, apparently, brushed his teeth, and could not get down.

3. In a completely unrelated incident, except that it again involved Gbot, Gbot applied my new concealer, which I’d had heart palpitations while paying for last week, across his lips in an effort to make him “as beautiful as you, Mama.”

Am I beautiful when I'm angry?

Am I beautiful when I’m angry?

4. In another completely unrelated incident, except that Gbot was found at the site of the incident, Gbot was caught, before breakfast, standing on a toy suitcase in order to reach the gold-wrapped chocolate coins on a high counter. When he was told to get down, he replied, “I was not getting into trouble. I was just doing my exercises.”

5. In a fifth and completely unrelated incident, except that once again, Gbot was there, both bots embarked on a “Look, it’s raining small, clean clothes!” extravaganza, and so instead of going outside to ride a new bike, they sat on their beds without talking (in theory) while I picked up, folded, and returned to the drawers so many miniature shirts, pants, and pajamas that, by the time I was finished, both guilty parties had fallen asleep.

2012 December 31 007

Exhausion sets in after the fifth misdemeanor.

Exhaustion sets in after the fifth misdemeanor.

May safety, happiness, and peace rain in your home in 2013!

Just in Time for New Year’s: A Parable for Mondavi Times

Back by popular demand, this post appears here in time to help those of you who might face tricky ethical questions at a New Year’s Eve party. May you find yourselves in less costly shoes than I found myself at last year’s Halloween party.
"President Obama accepts both the Nobel Peace Prize and a glass of Robert Mondavi Cabernet." I achieved peace by giving the wine back.

“President Obama accepts both the Nobel Peace Prize and a glass of Robert Mondavi Cabernet.” I achieved peace by giving the wine back.

Here’s a funny little story about my Halloween.

It was the third day of Halloween. Our party was at 4 on Sunday, a “MeetUp” hosted by a mother in one of the toddler groups we occasionally participate in. I brought at $14 bottle of Cabernet instead of a food item. There is always way too much food at these things, and so I hoped my decision to bring a bottle of wine for the hostess would be acceptable. I explained in jest as I handed it to her that I figured she might need it after a toddler party. I placed it on the counter with the other drinks.

Miniature Buzz Lightyears, paleontologists, ballerinas, and superheroes darted through the rooms. I set up my own superheroes with small plates of hotdog and fruit. I poured them something green from one of two pitchers on the counter set up as the bar. Behind the pitchers were stacks of cups, a few bottles of water, bottles of tonic, and three or four 1.5 liter bottles of wine lined up across the back. I hadn’t thought that wine would be provided, but how nice, I thought. Since there is, I will have a glass.

I couldn’t find a corkscrew on the bar, and since it’s the kind of thing I might forget in the frenzy of preparing for a party, I asked the hostess and she provided one. I reached for a 1.5 liter bottle of 2009 Robert Mondavi cab, wanting to open a lesser bottle than the one I’d brought. I see Robert Mondavi cabs all the time at Costco and Walgreens and CVS. I opened it. I poured. I drank. At one point during the evening, the hostess asked if it had been corked. I thought that was a strange question. “We’ve had it forever,” she added.

“No, it’s fine,” I replied. And it was. It was nothing special. Having bartended at fancy catered parties for several years, I knew corked when I tasted it. I also knew special.

I drank two glasses over the course of the evening. The boys ate cupcakes. The hostess’s smile never left her face but never quite reached her eyes.

Three days later, I received an email. This was it:

Betsy- I had to get this off my chest and felt I needed to let you know how upset I was that you opened my $140 bottle of 2000 Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Cab. The more days that have gone by the more upset about I’ve become. I’ve never had an issue with them sitting on my counter behind everything else. It wasn’t ‘retro’ of me and I really didn’t care if it was corked….I never intended on opening it and even if I did it certainly wouldn’t have been for a Mom’s group Halloween party. When you asked for a corkscrew I figured you were opening the bottle you brought. I specifically stated on the comments that if you wanted an adult beverage to bring your own, We were not providing.

I was stunned. How could I have been so socially unacceptable? How could I have been so rude? How could I have been so clueless? I wrote back immediately:

Oh my god. (Name of Hostess here), I had no idea. I am appalled. I had thought that the bottles on the counter were for consumption. I will replace it. I feel sick to my stomach that that happened.

While the Midgets took advantage of my distraught state, chasing the pets, making a mud pie on the patio and bringing it in to eat on the living room rug, I made phone calls and searched the internet for a replacement bottle, the first of perhaps four hours spent over the next few days. I called a restaurant in Boston that offered what looked like the last remaining bottle on the Earth for $300. Maybe I should have told them it wasn’t worth that. I called Robert Mondavi himself, who had on hand only the 2000 Reserve, but in the regular .75 liter size.

Finally, on the third day, I paid $40 (refundable when I canceled my subscription within the week) for a year’s membership to And there it was, at a store in New Jersey, for $129 plus $25 shipping. A better wine, no doubt as it was the Reserve, but otherwise the same. I bought it. Kicking myself for my stupid mistake.

But meanwhile, the initial self-flagellation was subsiding into a more rational evaluation of just whose mistake it was. As a bartender in people’s homes, I had never seen a drinks counter set up with bottles that were not for consumption. Yes, I should have looked at the label more carefully: 2000 is not 2009. Yes, perhaps I should have read the long list of “comments” posted by mothers planning to attend. The absence of a corkscrew should have given me pause. But.

Moreover, the tone of the note implied not that I had made an honest mistake, but that I had knowingly opened a bottle of both monetary and sentimental value. What had the hostess accomplished by sending such a missive? She hadn’t asked me to replace the bottle. She felt bad and wanted to make me feel bad, too. Not exactly a hostessy act.

To get some sense of reality, I shared the story with my sister as objectively as I could. “You saved some other poor idiot from doing the same thing,” she basically said. “And what’s more, she’s the least gracious hostess in the universe.

My sister related the story to a friend of hers who happens to be a lawyer. A woman who also has been a polite guest. “The woman was asking for it,” she said. “She should be socially shot between the eyes.”

Well, she is a lawyer.

I had imagined, cringing, the scene at the party after I’d left. I expected that the organizers of the toddler group would quietly ask me and my toddlers to un-member ourselves.

In the following days, several members contacted me. But their reactions were quite the opposite. Do not replace the bottle, several counseled. And if you do, don’t replace it with the one you’re planning to replace it with.

Their support provided as good a reality check as the other opinions I’d heard. But I’d already ordered the wine, and it’s not like the original bottle had opened itself.

I thought of a woman, who I will call R. For many years, both my sister and I had catered small dinner parties for her. In spite of vast financial resources that included a little vineyard in France, R always cooked the meals herself, leaving us only with last-minute preparations, serving, tending bar, and cleaning up. She prided herself on her abilities and originality. She was a lovely, smart, compassionate, no-nonsense woman whose modest origins included professional catering. We had witnessed her navigate some treacherous social straits to the advantage of all. When my sister and I have an etiquette issue of our own, we ask ourselves, “What would R do?”

R, I decided, would take responsibility for her actions, even if they were only a small part of a debacle, and inject grace into a situation that was in sore need of it. Her character (and her bank account) would be big enough to absorb the cost. My bank account will never be as big as R’s, but I have more hope for my character.

Two weeks later, the bottle arrived. I brought it to the Halloween Hostess from Hell. But I couldn’t make a clean get-away. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. I said, kicking myself internally, “The next time you invite people into your home who have never been, you might want to remove anything from the drinks counter that’s not meant for consumption.”

Her cat-and-the-canary smile vanished. “I’ve never had this problem….”

“I’m not arguing,” I broke in with a smile. “Just making a suggestion. So that someone else doesn’t open this.”

Maybe I should have recognized that the expense was too great and that I had been a player in a mistake that I really couldn’t make right. Maybe I would be a bigger person if I had made the decision not to replace it. I don’t know. Wisdom under such circumstances comes with experience. But I felt better. I have won peace with my decision, if not with the Hostess from Hell.

What would you have done? And what’s your worst etiquette story?

What the Directions for Your LeapPad Don’t Tell You

During the LeapPad Introduction Session, Husbot forgot to tell Gbot one important thing.

During the LeapPad Introduction Session, Husbot forgot to tell Gbot one important thing.

That when The Backyardigans doesn’t come on, you should not–repeat, NOT–apply a wooden boat ornament to the screen forcefully and repeatedly.

We will be holding a memorial service for the LeapPad later this week. In lieu of gifts, please send cash donations to:

Gbot’s second LeapPad fund, c/o Gbot’s mother.

And so three Christmas lessons have been learned: 1. If you are frustrated with your LeapPad, do not assault it enthusiastically with a wooden boat ornament. 2. Spend only half of what you can afford on a gift for your three-year-old, especially if it is electronic, because there is an excellent chance that you will soon be purchasing a second one. 3. The day after Christmas is apparently an extremely popular day for shopping. If, on this day, you find yourself in the market for a popular electronic device for three-year-olds, do not bother to attempt to actually shop for it. You may find yourself having a conversation like this:

Recorded Voice: “Please continue holding. There are (pause) FOUR (pause) guests ahead of you in line.”

Person, twelve minutes later: “Customer care, how can I help you.”

Me: “Hello. Could you please tell me if you have any LeapPad2’s on your shelves?”

Person: “I’ll check on that for you.”

Eight minutes later: “I’m having a hard time getting that information. Hold please.”

Six minutes later: “It’s hard to tell in our system.”

Me: “Umm…Could you look on the shelf?”

Person with obvious irritation: “Honey, if I walk across the store, fifteen people are gonna stop me to ask for something.”

Me: “Okay! Sorry! I didn’t know!”

Person: “No trucks delivered yesterday, because it was Christmas. The day before was Christmas Eve. The shelves were vacant. Check back tonight. There is a truck due in. Something might be unloaded. There’s a chance.”

Me: “Okay! Okay! Thank you! And I’m so sorry I even considered paying the company you work for for a product built for three-year-olds that can’t even withstand a bit of fisticuffs with a wooden boat ornament! Keep your shipload of WimpPads!”

(I did not actually say that last part out loud.)

Meanwhile, the perpetrator of the original incident had fallen asleep in the back seat. I had let him think that That Was That, no second chances for someone who doesn’t use the Accompanying Stylus to communicate with one’s LeapPad, and perhaps the tears and trauma had worn him out. It was the first nap he’d taken in five days.

I can’t honestly say it wasn’t worth it.

Still Life with Letter to Santa

On Christmas Eve, Mbot remembered to put out cookies for Santa. He dictated a letter to go with them:

Santa Claus,

Thank you for bringing us presents and is Mrs. Claus having a good time with you? Thank you for the presents, Santa Claus.

I hope you have a good week and I hope you had a good year, dear Santa Claus, and your reindeers are having a good time and having a good, nice rest.

Santa, is the list not all dirty? And the reindeer are having a good time exercising and doing stuff in a nice, good year.

I think the list Mbot refers to is the Christmas list he painstakingly dictated over the last several weeks of 2012. He was perhaps worried that the light saber had been smudged out. It had been.

I realize that, in the photo, there is an apple on the plate. That was a last-minute addition. As he turned away from the cookie-laden plate, Mbot exclaimed with alarm, “Oh, we forgot! We forgot to give him something to eat that has more nutrients! Like a banana.”

Bananaless, we decided on an apple. (“Did you wash it, Mom?” Blearily, I turned back to the sink to run it under the tap.)

Apparently, an apple was a fine pick-me-up, because apparently Santa made it around the world, at least according to NORAD. I’m not so keen on NORAD’s Santa Tracker, but more on that after our thirty-six-hour family trip to California for Great Aunt Noel’s ninetieth birthday. Apparently, she still jogs. She’s probably eating apples with her cookies. Joyeaux Noel!

I hope you are having a good week, and I hope you had a good year, dear readers.

With Joy and Nutrients,


Boys R Us, or, Getting Back Whatcha Give

Christmas shopping with bots can be as unpredictable as setting out to make marshmallow snowmen with them.

Christmas shopping with bots can be as unpredictable as setting out to make marshmallow snowmen with them.

I experimented this year: I took each bot to the toy store by himself, to buy a present for his brother. I realized that, with a four and a half-year-old and a three-year-old, my optimism might have been slopping over into the idealistic. But I just had to try. I figured Gbot might be fairly easy to persuade into picking out what I thought he should pick out. I thought Mbot might throw a small sputterfuss about one or several things before we settled on a compromise.

Since Gbot had the sniffles and I couldn’t foist him off on anyone, he went first. At the toy store that I hate but that is the only one within about ten miles of us, he bounced from Legos (me: “they’re for bigger boys”) to a FurReal bunny that made chewing noises and moved its hind legs when you rubbed its back (“let’s keep looking”) to bubble machines (“it’s too cold outside for that”) to the toy guns (“no”) to a giant, spherical, plush, hot pink, butt-ugly cat pillow (“let’s look at the other stuffed animals.”)

At long last, he settled, at my urging, on an enormous fluffy stuffed doggie that looks like it could be Junepbear’s half-brother. It was not stitched by a fair-trade artisan out of organic cotton. In fact, it was so affordable that I see much seam-repair in my future. But Mbot, whose favorite word at the age of sixteen months was “fwuffy,” and who continues to seek out fwuffy experiences, will be thrilled.

Gbot lugged the thing, which is as big as he is, up to the front of the store, happily talking nonstop about how Mbot would love his new doggie. It was fun to see him so happy about something for his brother. That was two days ago, and he hasn’t yet spilled the beans, in spite of the fact that this morning, we wrapped it (but only after he ran to get a blanket to spread in the bottom of the box).

Yesterday I took Mbot. As I’d predicted, it was more of a challenge. I hadn’t considered the fact that, after walking in and within fifteen seconds identifying a cool Thomas the Train quarry complete with crank elevator and roundtable, that would have been perfect and was on sale, no less–he could happily spend three days examining every item on every shelf within reach in every aisle of the eight billion acre store. Or that he would want to get his brother the six hundred-dollar four-wheeler (“that’s way too dangerous”) or the fifty-dollar plastic bat-cave that I know would provide a great seven minutes of uninterrupted fun before boredom set in and they never looked at it again. Or the remote control helicopter (“that’s for bigger boys.)”

Gbot might hurt his finger on this, too....

Gbot might hurt his finger on this, too…. (

What I didn’t foresee was how either protective he would be or how eager to assert that Gbot is a baby–every time I’d point to something that looked like a possibility, Mbot would find a health reason to boycott it. “Gbot would choke on those pieces.” “Gbot might break that and hurt himself.” “Gbot might cut his fingers on that part.”

“How about a stuffed animal?” then, I asked, because one of the ways I’d lured Gbot out of the store the day before was to tell him that maybe Mbot would buy him one, too. “Noooo!” howled Mbot. “how about we go back to the fun aisle.” And now of course I must entertain the possibility that he won’t like Junep’s giant half-bro. But distanced from the overwhelming profusion of crap, I’m quite sure he will.

What I also didn’t foresee was how I would hear myself mimicked back to me. Every few minutes, if I was lingering in an aisle with appropriate items, I’d here, “Mah-ah-ahhm. Don’t diddle-dawdle.”

“Okay, I’m coming,” I’d say, in a reversal of roles.

If he’d vanish around a corner and I didn’t follow, he’d backtrack and admonish me to stay close.

And once, as we were perusing the remote control aisle, I must have been lagging, because he suddenly said, “Come-come,” using exactly the same word in exactly the same sing-song tone I use to call the antique cat.

Finally, I enacted a “choose one of these two things,” rule, and a time-limit of two minutes. He chose. The Thomas the Train Quarry won out.

So: success. Except that now Gbot keeps talking about a remote control stuffed doggie and Mbot keeps wondering what toy Gbot got him.

One reason I even let the boys do this, in addition to the “Christmas is about giving” angle, and instead of making something or visiting the dollar store–is that the bots don’t get piles of toys for Christmas. I see them playing more happily with the Trios, or with pipecleaners, or with their small bin of Legos, or their stuffed animals or blankets for forts or plastic bin lids for television screens–than I ever see them play with actual plastic toys.

And it was a good reminder to me, hearing Mbot repeat back to me my own words, that lots of times, you get what you give.

I Believe We Can Make Them Disappear: Thoughts on Mass Murderers

Mbot reads the news on "TV."

Mbot reads the news on “TV.” His news was about how the ants had a picnic. Do we have the power to make our news so benign?

I have been stalling with this post because I feel the need to address the shootings on Friday and I don’t want to. There is so much to say and at the same time such despair that silence seems the only reasonable course. Becoming a mother dissolved some binding agent in my emotional chain mail, allowing news items like the shooting deaths of twenty children (and seven adults who used to be children and who have children and who are the children of others) to penetrate deeply between the links. I believe this phenomenon–of weakening the binding agent that protects the one in order to allow the formation of empathy throughout a group–is a biological trick. Even Hollywood’s caught on–“women with children” is one of four demographic groups considered in the marketability of any big movie. We are different, which is the reason I nearly wept on Friday when the friend I was meeting for lunch–himself a parent–told me the news. Our server thought their was something terribly wrong. I assured her I was fine.

But there is something terribly wrong.

This isn’t the place for a scholarly diatribe and I’m not equipped to deliver a policy statement. I speak as a mother and a reasonably well-educated citizen.

This event is just the latest in an epidemic of mass shooting murders by young men. It is an epidemic, as described by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, The Tipping Point, in which he investigates social epidemics from the crime wave in New York City’s subways to the decade-long wave of teen suicides in Micronesia.

Here’s Malcolm Gladwell, in an interview about the book:

 In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Micronesia had teen suicide rates ten times higher than anywhere else in the world. Teenagers were literally being infected with the suicide bug, and one after another they were killing themselves in exactly the same way under exactly the same circumstances. We like to use words like contagiousness and infectiousness just to apply to the medical
realm. But I assure you that after you read about what happened in Micronesia you’ll be convinced that behavior can be transmitted from one person to another as easily as the flu or the measles can. In fact, I don’t think you have to go to Micronesia to see this pattern in action. Isn’t this the explanation for the current epidemic of teen smoking in this country? And what about the rash of mass shootings we’re facing at the moment–from Columbine through the Atlanta
stockbroker through the neo-Nazi in Los Angeles?

That inteview was from before Senator Gifford, before the theater in Arvada, before multiple shootings in other public places, before Friday’s horror.

We can’t change human nature–violence is our birthright. But behaviors within groups can be changed.

The question, of course, is how do we stop such an epidemic? The answer to making New York’s subway safe again began in a five-year effort to remove all the (then rampant) graffiti from the underground transport system. The theory behind the successful campaign: change the context, change behavior. It worked. A well-taken care of environment sent the message that criminal activity wasn’t expected. And people did what they were expected to do.

We’ve all seen that mentality at work time and time again: when children join other raucous kids on the playground, they become more raucous. I know that my own behavior shifts depending on my environment.

Offhand, I can think of three changes to our environment that might make this country a safer place for us all, and particularly for our children.

The first and most boring–because it’s been said a million times–is to ban ownership of semiautomatic weapons. I believe in gun ownership–I was raised by a father who provided his family with venison from deer hunting, and I married a bird hunter who shoots nothing he won’t eat. But people don’t hunt quail or deer with semiautomatics. People hunt people with them.

The second is to recognize schools–especially schools for children and teens–as the sacred spaces they are. There have been recent shootings in churches and mosques in this country, and so obviously, sacred spaces are not immune to the epidemic. But elevating our schools to the position they deserve–by paying teachers more, by valuing education more, by spend more money on programs, facilities, and protection for these facilities–we would be publicly recognizing these places as the most important places in our society, off-limits to such violence.

But I think a third change would be even more important. Peter Gabriel’s song, “Family Snapshot,” comes to mind, about a lonely boy fantasizing about assassinating a public figure:

“I don’t really hate you –

I don’t care what you do

We were made for each other –

Me and you.

I want to be somebody –

You were like that too

If you don’t get given you learn to take

And I will take you.”

It’s a chilling and horrible mentality. And we need to start sending the message that we don’t care about the gunmen. That our society doesn’t have one ounce of time or energy to spend on thinking about them or the troubles they’ve seen. That by taking life, they annihilate their own individuality, rendering them faceless criminals. Their names and the memory of them vanish; they become the equivalent of Untouchables in the Hindu caste system.

I believe we are not powerless to fight this epidemic of killing. We may live in a country where violence is embedded into society. But also embedded into it is freedom of speech. We have the power to lobby our lawmakers to ban semiautomatic weapons. We have the power to lobby our communities and government to turn our schools into holy places. And we have the power to pressure the media to make murderers not into Somebody, but into Nobody.

Because it is That Time Of Year, and Also

because the bug finally got me, in a big bug way, instead of writing a new post, I am reprinting one from last December, in which you will learn all about how the gifts are wrapped at Amazon.


The Amazon Way (Adventures in Gift Wrapping)

I went inside Amazon last week. That’s right: Santa’s distribution center and birthplace of the Kindle.

Approaching and entering the behemoth windowless block of Building Three was an experience similar to what I imagine boarding the Millenium Falcon would be like:  momentous and foreign. Disappointingly, Harrison Ford didn’t greet me at the door. In fact, no one did.

In spite of the presence of two uniformed personnel behind an elevated desk, and several others busily working the airport-like security exits, bag search windows, and two full-body turnstile entries,  no one acknowledged my appearance in any way. I looked down to check if I had turned invisible on the I-10 somewhere between my front door and theirs, but no, there at the bottom of me were the comfortable shoes I’d been instructed to wear in the email from Mbot’s school PTO leader, who’d organized this fundraising event which involved a five-hour stint wrapping gifts, $.75 apiece to go to Montessori to buy more turkey basters for turkey basting works, or materials for books about the biomes of the wetlands.

I had happily agreed to participate, imagining a relaxing yet enjoyably competitive afternoon around a large conference table making friends with other mothers while we honed our folding and taping skills. I shrewdly estimated that I could wrap perhaps seventy gifts, that I’d be a better gift-wrapper by the end of the afternoon, and that I’d have more friends. In my fantasy, the mothers were sipping mochas, but I thought maybe those wouldn’t be allowed, what with Amazon’s strict “no stains on the presents” policy.

The fact that of the ten or so unacknowledged and confused looking-individuals milling before the entryway, I recognized none, made my fantasy flicker, as though somewhere in it, a wire had come loose. Like in The Matrix, when there’s a break in the continuum. A bit perplexed by this, I followed the crowd, shuffling past a log book in which I listed the personal electronic devices on my person. No one actually told me to do this, and there wasn’t a title on the book, like “Personal Electronics Device Log,” but flipping back a few pages I saw that that is what I was expected to do with my allotted line. I then passed through a metal detector and stood with the group, whose members were finally communicating with one another, mostly to express how strange an experience it had been so far, even though we hadn’t actually started.

I spent several minutes of watching employees running (literally) past us across the concrete floor of the massive space, whose skylit metal roof was higher than a field goal kick and whose north wall I could not even see, it was so far away, and contemplating the wonders of contemporary engineering like a medieval peasant who lived in an earthen hut probably did upon entering Chartres. Then a woman appeared and ushered those volunteers who had “done this before” out of sight into the indecipherable maze of the machine. After a few more minutes, a tall man arrived, did not introduce himself, mumbled a few indecipherable words, and passed out nondisclosure agreements. I dug for a pen and wondered if I was breaking any rules by leaning my piece of paper on a pallet of hardcover copies of some book I’d never heard of. I read both sides of the agreement and signed it. In doing so, I promised not to blab about any of Amazon’s secret processes. I would not reveal what made the reindeer fly.

The tall man led us–and we walked for well over a minute–through a door and into an office, where we were instructed to leave our personal items (we could keep our cell phones, but were admonished that talking on a cell phone and gift wrapping were not to be done simultaneously). Then we were led–again, for well over a minute–back out into the main space and into a maze of high aisles of segmented, numbered, metal shelves that continued into infinity. Each held items of all description and groups of people moving with carts, moving among clusters of low-tech machinery, tables, ramps, etc.–the main impression I’m left with is  of movement, but when I caught a glance of an enormous banner across a wall reading: “No Running Allowed,” I realized that the running was just an impression, too.

Our small, confused group came to a halt across from loading bay #126, where a small, businesslike and perpetually moving person named Dolores introduced herself (actually), and proceeded to briskly and impressively demonstrate The Amazon Way of gift wrapping. There’s a way to wrap a Kindle, a way to wrap a CD, a way to wrap Boxed Items, a way to wrap books, and a way to wrap Large, Unwieldy Gifts. So as not to disclose an nondisclosable details, I will just note here that The Amazon Way involves neither a conference table nor any props of the traditional sort, like snowman-festooned rolls of paper, scissors, and small plastic rolls of Scotch tape.

Dolores, perhaps simply because she had a name and a smile, endeared us to her immediately. I speculate that our reaction was completely engineered by Amazon, their goal being to intimidate us with The Machine so that we would pledge undying loyalty to our immediate superior. Without her, none of us would be able to find a restroom, much less our personal belongings or the way out.

I imagined myself tripping or taking a wrong step and ending up in one of the giant blue bags designated for Large, Unwieldy Gifts, taped into a box and sent to Scottsdale. Perhaps with a card like one I affixed to a beribboned something-or-other, labeled, “Merry Christmas Fartpants and Sophia.”* At the end of the day (but when do the days end, inside Amazon, at this time of year, when employees work eleven-hour shifts around the clock?) some astute security personnel might blearily notice that a volunteer had entered, carrying a personal computer and a cell phone, and never left. They would assume I was still at my wrapping station. By the time the shift, and the next, rolled around, the narrow line containing my name and descriptions of my personal electronic devices would be lost within the book. I would only be discovered, lifeless but not yet bloated, thanks to Amazon’s amazing coordination with United Parcel Service, the next day or the next. Fartpants and Sophia would never be really the same again.

Each volunteer found a station for him or herself, checked for the appropriate tools, and went to work. I was again reminded of The Matrix, where Keanu Reeves’ real body was plugged into a giant power plant. My station was beside two stations shared by pregnant best friends, the only others, I’d learned, who were also wrapping for Mbot’s school. One had a son attending the morning session, which is why I hadn’t recognized her. We three formed the end of the line, literally.

For those of you considering such a diversion yourselves, I can reveal the most important secret without breaching my nondisclosure contract, and it is this: take the station as close to the front of the line as possible, so you can pick and choose what to wrap before undesirable, difficult, time-consuming items get rolled down to you. One woman, obviously a veteran, was up at the front hand-picking the Kindles. The Kindle, and I hope I’m not disclosing any nondisclosable details here, arrives via roller belt at your station accompanied by its own custum wrapping box with a pre-taped ribbon. If you get to exclusively wrap Kindles for five hours, your school will be swimming in quarters.

I enjoyed the challenge of a thirty pound a La Crueset dutch oven, but the Lady Gaga coffee table book almost bankrupted Montessori. In a fascinating paradox, while the Kindle is the easiest item to wrap at Amazon, home of the web-order book, an old-fashioned book is the most difficult. As old-fashioned books come in all those inconvenient sizes, they do not arrive on the roller belt accompanied by custom wrapping boxes. And they have all those pokey, pointy corners. Eight of them, to be exact. Each one ready to tear your carefully folded pre-cut sheet of wrapping paper. Again and again.

Tears are not allowed.

“Biege goes with everything.” –Burberry and Dolores (

Neither are more than three pieces of tape per gift. Nor is crinkling. Nor is unevenness or crookedness of paper, ribbon, or card. Nor is the blue ribbon on the green paper. Or the blue paper with the biege ribbon. But when in doubt, use biege. “Biege goes with everything,” says Dolores. She and Burberry know.

As the two pregnant ladies and I toiled, giggling over each other’s wrapping skills and high-fiving our ultimate triumph (if I do say so myself) over each superbly turned-out gift, Dolores appeared among us, one arm raised above her head. In her hand was a gift. One that had been tracked via a nondisclosable computer code to our row. It looked like something Mbot might have wrapped. It’s gold paper was crumpled at one end, tamed by three large pieces of tape.

“The Box of Shame,” I intoned. The pregnant ladies agreed. We watched, without shame, to see who the culprit was. We muttered not quite quietly that it was one of the women handpicking the Kindles. That they needed the Kindles because they had no genuine wrapping skills. Since no one fessed up, Dolores picked someone, at random, although I don’t think completely at random–Dolores was on the ball–and gave a lecture and wrapping demonstration as the rest of us guffawed. We toiled to avoid producing a Box of Shame ourselves.

Twenty minutes later, quality control arrived again, in the form of Dolores holding above her head a small, blue-wrapped box. I squinted to see what was wrong: aha: the tag had been applied sideways. Again, the Montessori mothers denied responsibility with smirks of superiority. Half an hour went by. I wrapped a felt pocketbook-making kit, a history of war, and a block of suet.

Dolores appeared again, now shaking her head and threatening us. In her upheld hand was another gold package; this time, it featured a large tear on its side. Even worse: the tear had been taped–thus indicting the culpable party not only of shoddy wrapping but of trying to hide it.  I was by this time beginning to feel sympathy for the poor sucker who was really, really bad at wrapping presents. Give ‘em the Kindles, we agreed. With those genes, their kid would need the $.75 more than mine.

After three full hours of wrapping, and quite a bit of standing around because the gift volume was down that afternoon, I counted thirty tags to add to the Montessori pile. I’d made $22.50.

I was chaperoned to the turnstiles but no Amazonian knew how or where I could retrieve my personal belongings. My chaperone had to be called back to lead me to a small office far away. Then, because no one told me what to do, I bungled the exit procedure. I made every mistake in the book. No one helped. The entry personnel let me try to go through the turnstile instead of the X-ray. They let me almost get through without giving them my bag. And then my cell phone. And then not turning on my cell phone to make sure it wasn’t hot off the shelves. It was an extraordinary example of what happens when a slice of the population comes to take their way of being (The Amazon Way) as The Only Way. It was as though, although they were aware there were volunteers in the building, they could not fathom our not knowing The Amazon Way.

As I drove home on the I-10 just before rush hour, I thought about The Amazon Way. The pregnant ladies had repeatedly expressed their amazement that Amazon was raking in from $3.99 to $5.99 extra for each item we wrapped. I did the math. On the average, this left Amazon not only the $4.24 per gift after Montessori’s take, but also with whatever it was saving by not actually hiring people to gift wrap. ‘Tis the season for giving to Amazon. But Amazon is also giving back to our community. The company doesn’t have to have a program that obviously no one there quite knows how to deal with.

I do applaud Amazon for giving it a go, although it is far from perfect. And maybe my $22.50 will result in an education that cannot fail to catapult Mbot into a chair in Amazon’s  boardroom.

Or maybe the money will just buy more paper to make books illustrating the biomes of the wetlands. “There are the plants that reach and reach high and high to the sun,” Mbot had said when he brought home the first book he’d made. “There are plants that stay down under,” he told me when he brought home the second book he’d made. “Wetlands are stinky!” he announced, when he brought home the third book he’d made.

I love them. I will keep them all forever. It’s my way.

What’s your way?

*Sophia was not her real name; I changed it here to protect the wife of Fartpants

Bots Bugged By Bugs, But This Bug’s Not Bugging Me

2012 October 31 Halloween NIKON 012

One thing I’ve had time to do is go through this year’s photos and make our Christmas cards. Normally, the bots love bugs!

We are on Day Four of the 2012 West Valley Endurance Biathlon, in which contestants alternate between pooping and puking during daytime hours. So far, Gbot is the clear winner, but he got a three-day headstart. Mbot threatens to give him the runs for his money. As for me, I’ve had a mildly upset stomach, but nothing that doing laundry twenty-four hours a day can’t keep at bay. Even the antique cat joined the festivities and left two little puddles of bile for me to step in early this morning before attending to other bile piles.

The bots aren’t in pain–except for the diaper rash that comes with the bug–they’re just very lethargic. Gbot’s finally on antibiotics. A downside for me of the P’n’P’ Biathlon is that it’s been accompanied by a Busytown Mysteries marathon. After nine hours of watching the same ten episodes ad infinitum, yesterday evening I finally insisted that something, anything, else be put in the DVD player. I am an evangelical fan of Richard Scarry books. But the film adaptations, I can’t stand. The bots, on the other hand, think it’s the best thing since Max and Ruby, another show I can’t stand.

I can’t put my finger on exactly what’s so teeth-grittingly bad about it. Maybe because Lowly Worm, who is a good-natured, skinny sidekick in the books, has an incredibly annoying voice. And then there are Pig Will and Pig Won’t, who bicker constantly. Mbot loves them. He wants to go live in their world.

Meanwhile, in my world, Husbot is feeling bad for me. “I know this is when motherhood is hardest,” he empathized on Day One. Then he proceeded to pick Mbot up from school two days in a row and taken him on adventures all afternoon before dropping him at Grandma’s. Grandma brought Mbot home tired and fed. Meanwhile, I experienced the two quietest days I can remember in a long time. Even today, with both bots home and leaking at both ends, it’s another quiet day (except for the swoosh of the washing machine and the constant tumbling sounds from the dryer.) I convinced the bots to trade in Busytown for Christmas specials and Ace Ventura, Pet Detective. I have set them guilt-free in front of the boob tube. The hardest part of motherhood? No. The hardest part of motherhood is all those other days–three hundred and perhaps fifty-five of them a year–when everything is a whirlwind of normalcy, when I am taking care of two healthy, active bots, trying to get on with career and cooking and cleaning, too, and no one’s saying, “This is the hardest part of motherhood.”

I just agreed with Husbot. “So true,” I said. But it has been a reminder that I feel less frantic–and happier–when I am concentrating on just one or two things–keeping bots comfortable and the house as sanitary as possible–and not spreading myself across an impossibly long “to do” list.

I hope we’re back to normal by tomorrow. If we are, I will try to remember how this slower pace felt, and try to go a little slower in my own West Valley Multi-Day Mothering Marathon.




A Potion For the Bottoms of Our Shoes

Florida M-beach face-001

Day two on the Continent of Great Grandmothers turned out to be more about the great grandsons. I had promised the bots a trip to the beach. We got a late start, though, groggy from the two-hour time change, and I was feeling the strain of trying to do a lot with a little–a little time, a little energy, and two little bots. Navigating from the hotel to the Health Center to various stores for necessities was proving to be a time-eating exercise in one-way streets, endless waits in lefthand turn lanes, and impatient drivers who went for their horns without mercy.

By noon, we’d arrived at the Health Center again, and Mbot asked to come upstairs to get Great Grandma with me. So Solveig ran after Gbot, who seems to have more energy than all the rest of us put together these days, while Mbot and I took the elevator to the second floor and ventured down the hallway to the lunchroom. We found my grandmother as she’d been the day before. Although lunch looked good, she wasn’t eating; she’s uninterested in food and unable to feed herself. We pulled up a chair. I put my hand on her shoulder. She roused, and turned to look at us. I introduced myself again, and Mbot. Her face brightened and she said, “Oh! I was just thinking about you this morning!”

“That’s because we came to visit you yesterday, Grandma. The boys played in the fountain!”

We stayed just a few minutes, because an enormous man asleep at the next table started making some pretty terrible sounds which scared Mbot. No one else in the room seemed to notice. But when Mbot squirmed in my lap and asked to go, I told my grandmother that we were heading to the beach to play in the sand, not to worry because the boys would wear life preservers, and that I would come back later. She asked how my parents were. “Are they meeting you?”

“Yes,” I replied, nodding and smiling. My parents were in Idaho. I hugged her goodbye. She used to give me a hard time about being uncomfortable hugging and kissing–I was, back in my twenties. I could just hear her unthought thoughts: “So this is what a grandma has to do to get a hug around here!”

I didn’t know at the time, but knew it was a possibility, that that would be the last time she recognized me.

We managed to find the local WalMart, where we purchased picnic supplies, life-jackets, a package of Toy Story underpants to serve as swim trunks, and a short-sleeved t-shirt for me, because I’d only brought one and had left it back at the room. Then we went to introduce the bots to the Atlantic Ocean. We cruised west past a shop selling “The World’s Best Quilts,” Tarot Readings, and Accurate Accounting Services (we figured that maybe in Broward County, such a thing might not be assumed. We found the beach, clean and wide, just south of the pier, complete with a life guard who emerged from his life guard stand when he saw Mbot run in the direction of the street.

Florida Gbot profile donut 2

And there we spent the afternoon. The bots waded up to their hips in the waves. Solveig had thought to bring pool towels from the hotel lobby, and they quickly became covered with sand as we sat among the opportunistic seagulls. We buried Mbot’s legs and decorated him with shells. The bots ate chocolate-iced donuts with sprinkles. Solveig and I opened a bottle of screw-top shiraz, which turned out to be 15% alcohol, and drank it out of empty water bottles. It just seemed like a day for treats–to revel in the tangible physical comforts, to swim in Toy Story underpants and get our faces messy and to pursue a buzz in the middle of the day.

By five, I was exhausted, without the emotional energy to visit my grandmother. Back at the room, we found that the latch to fill the tub was broken and so after a group shower (of which Solveig opted out), we camped in front of the computer to watch four episodes of Tin Tin. I ordered Chinese food and it all tasted the same. Mbot made a Chinese food-eating breakthrough when he gnawed the kernels off of the baby corn.

I visited my grandmother the next morning, leaving Solveig in the room making costumes for the bots out of The Wall Street Journal. She was dozing in front of the TV when I arrived. I took her to sit in the courtyard, in the gentle sun and soft fresh breeze. We walked around the lake, through the rose garden, and sat by the fountain again. But this time, when she woke, now and then, she didn’t recognize me. She talked quietly to herself, a sililoquy I couldn’t understand. I read to her, as she dozed, from a biography called The Founding Mothers, by Cokie Roberts. I’d bought it at the airport; she’s always loved biographies. I held her hand and told her more about the boys but it was my own sililoquy. And at eleven o’clock, I returned to the room to finish packing. It was time to leave.

Driving to the airport, Mbot said, “I wish I could send all of this away. The trees, and the beach, Great Grandma.”

I could tell Solveig was slightly disturbed by this seemingly nihilistic desire. But I have learned that when a bot doesn’t seem to make sense, ask questions.

“Send it where?” I asked.

“Send it home with us,” he replied.

“Me too,” I agreed. Except for the impatient drivers and one-way streets.

“I wish we could just hop and be here with Great Grandma.”

“Me too,” I said. “We’d have to hop REALLY far.”

“Hmm,” he mused, in problem-solving mode. “Maybe I could make a potion for the bottoms of our shoes.”

It is a lovely thought, isn’t it?

I don’t think I will have another chance to see my grandmother. But Mbot has, out of the blue, started talking about her, almost every day since we returned–counting his grandmas (three!), remembering her silver hair, and that “all the grownups were eating kid food. Hotdogs, soup, pie…” We took pictures, and a video, that first day, and so that will help him remember, too.

And he’s getting a chemistry set for Christmas, so he’ll be working on that potion.