Schulzian Writing Advice

Snoopy's Literary Side
Snoopy is sitting on the roof of his doghouse, his hands hovering over the typewriter. Lucy, sensing the writer’s block that he’s up against, offers her professional advice (and she even waives her normal 5 cent fee).

“You’re a dog, right?” she says. “Okay, you should write dog stories…Write about one of your brothers…What was it that made him different?” Snoopy thinks for a moment, then leans over to type this epic opening line:

“Andy was fuzzy.”

Ishmael, eat your heart out.

[Text from 3-frame Peanuts strip featured in The Delaware State News, 2/26/09]

Great Grandparent Moments, Installment I

Never in my life did I ever expect the name ‘Professor Pippy Pee-Pee Poopypants’ to emerge from my mother’s mouth.

But last night, there it was—an uncensored stream of carefully scripted potty language coming from my dear, sweet Mom, whose alter-ego (Booger Burger Lips) seems awfully comfortable in the sophisticated literary world of one Captain Underpants.

I’m having a little trouble picturing either of my grandmothers being as willing as my mother was to read Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants in front of a live, dinner-time audience of children and grandchildren. But perhaps I underestimate the extent of their grand-motherly devotion. They certainly were willing to watch the championship-grade cheesy Land of the Lost program with me, and that’s really saying something.

As you might have guessed, Mom’s little read-aloud stunt scored big with my kids. I suspect that a public recitation of Walter, the Farting Dog can’t be far behind; I’d better get my recorder ready.

Thank you, Dav Pilkey, for creating a bridge between the generations, even if it does connect through the bathroom window.

Got any moments you’d like to share?
Please, send ’em my way—I’d love to read ’em!

Classroom Confessions, Next Time on “Cheaters”

A new Vatican study identifying the most frequently confessed sins, by gender, shows lust, gluttony and sloth in the win, place, show positions for men and pride, envy, and anger in the top three for women.

No mention of the most commonly confessed sins for children, but I suspect that cheating in school is probably somewhere pretty high on the list (followed closely by ditching your peas under the table and “cleaning up” your room by taking every last thing off the floor and cramming it into your closet).

I haven’t bugged any confessionals to back up my theory, but I know me, and I know my daughter, and that’s all I need to know to make a case for cheating as one of the big ones. I did it, she’s done it, and, her teachers tell me, she and I are not alone.

My cheating career was not long, nor was it glamorous. I’m not proud of it, but there was that time in third grade when I lifted the entire Henry Hudson chapter from an explorers book and passed it off as my own (attention, teachers: when a third grader hands in a 14-page paper, do some digging, will ya?) There was that time in fourth grade when, just to keep from breaking the chain of gold stars on the class spelling test performance chart, I cribbed off another kid’s test paper (my first real-life ends/means dilemma). And there was that time in my senior year of high school, when I faked my way through our class discussion of The Grapes of Wrath, the only book assigned to me for high school English that I hadn’t actually read (still haven’t, incidentally, though I did find Steinbeck‘s East of Eden pretty darn amazing).

Scandalous, yes, but awfully white bread, right?

Well, before Christmas, my daughter came to me boasting an incredibly high AR score—the month’s best in her class, in fact. (For those of you not familiar with it, AR, or Accelerated Reader, is a school program where kids read books, then take computerized reading comprehension quizzes; it’s great for goal-setting and achievement-tracking, and it’s a big educational component in many of the schools in my area). But while I cheered her sudden surge to the top of the charts, her dad was skeptical. Turns out his suspicions were confirmed: the printed AR report showed that she’d scored big for quizzes that she’d taken on several Harry Potter books—several of which she’d not actually read.

Her explanation? She’d read one of the books, and had seen the movies for the others, and just got “carried away” when she took the tests. Oh boy.

Thankfully, I’d learned long ago from a Leave it to Beaver rerun on Nickelodeon’s TV Land that the “I saw the movie, so that’s good enough” approach doesn’t work. Poor Beaver was supposed to have read The Three Musketeers, but on the advice of his dopey friends, he watched a televised movie version instead, which, as it seems, could have starred the Three Stooges in the title roles. Athos, Aramis, and Porthos or Larry, Moe, and Curly—same difference, right?

So, my husband and I set up a conference with the teacher, where my red-handed daughter presented a confessional note, complete with her own suggestions for punishment, which included no recess, lost points, and, of course, actually reading the books and retaking the tests. The teacher, God bless her, went for door number 3, and sent my daughter back to class with a stern “thank you” for her honesty.

Truth is, she said, that my kid is by no means the first of the cheater-pants; the other kids in the “gifted” class (the little rascals) have been gaming the AR system since the day it was installed.

My daughter may be a cheater, I guess, but at least she’s developmentally on par.

Fertile Ground for Controversy

The Nadya Suleman Octo-mom” controversy has many of us wondering about the ethics of providing fertility treatment to a dubiously-financed woman who is already the mother of six. We’re wondering how robust a treatment would have to be provided in order to result in such a high order multiple birth. And, in the most practical sense, we’re also wondering when Nadya, her parents, or anyone else she knows will ever dig out from under 14 children worth of laundry.

In light of all those considerations, I was happy to hear yesterday’s Fresh Air broadcast featuring journalist Liza Mundy, whose 2007 book Everything Conceivable: How Assisted Reproduction is Changing Our World covered the medical challenges, ethical dilemmas, and social issues related to the relatively recent boom in fertility treatment-generated multiple births. I haven’t read the book, but I did listen to Terry Gross’s interview with Mundy, and, to be honest, I had no idea about the behind-the-scenes of fertility treatment.

Not that it’s morally wrong per se; it’s just, well, complicated.

The cost of fertility treatment ($12,000 per course for artificial insemination, according to Mundy) was not news to me. But the wear and tear on a woman’s body, the mortality risk of often premature and low birth-weight multiple birth babies, the risk/benefit analysis involved in deciding how many embryos to implant and whether to selectively destroy some, and the possible developmental and long-term medical impact on the co-carried babies themselves—these are curves on the roller coaster of infertility that were not even on my radar.

Sure, I knew that some of these issues were out there, but I never really thought about a couple actually going through the decision-making process that asks hard questions like, is the possible benefit of having one healthy child worth the risk of finding ourselves with triplets (or quintuplets) 9 months down the road?

Talking about it with my husband last night, I found out that he’s more up-to-date on the infertility front than I am. Turns out that a former work colleague of his, along with his wife, adopted an embryo a couple of years ago; the embryo was implanted in the wife’s uterus and grew into the little person who is now—and I guess always has been—their daughter.

It’s controversial, I know. And, believe me, I don’t want to sound glib. But having had 2 children myself, and not having gone through any fertility problems, I’m curious. So I’d love for you to comment…

If you’ve gone through fertility treatment, what tough decisions did you have to make?

If you’ve had a multiple birth as a result of fertility treatment (especially one on the order of 4, 5, or more), how did you adjust to (what would be for me) the incredibly overwhelming prospect of that many babies going through infancy—and beyond—all at once?

If you’re having infertility problems now, would you ever consider embryo adoption? What pros and cons do you see in that approach compared to “conventional” adoption?

Drop me a line—I’m interested to see what you have to say.

5 Ways to Score Big With Your School-Age Child

Following up on yesterday’s “5 Ways to Mortify Your School-Age Child,” I give you these 5 ways to score big…

  1. Back into the lunch lady’s car in the school parking lot.
  2. Sample the jelly beans before you put them into your grocery cart.
  3. Drive for 35 miles with the B-52’s Rock Lobster on endless repeat (my kids tell me that some youtube thing called The Hamster Dance is another new favorite—check it out…if you dare.)
  4. Hire a costumed Link (the digital hero from the video game Zelda), to spend the afternoon with your child, with the understanding that battle-ax construction, insider gaming tips, and bottomless salty snack foods are part of the package.
  5. Frequently pepper the word ‘underpants’ into casual conversation, as in “Do you know what Daddy found in the attic? Albert Einstein‘s underpants!!!”

Again, your suggestions are welcome—send me your comments, and I’ll post ’em!! Imagine how big we’ll score with our kids if we just put our heads together!

5 Ways to Hopelessly Mortify Your School-Age Child

  1. Back up into the principal’s car in the school parking lot.
  2. Sample the grapes before you put them into your grocery cart.
  3. Drive for 35 miles with the fuel gauge on E.
  4. Force your 10-year-old to hug the enormously-headed Clifford, the Big Red Dog costumed-character at the local Book Festival.
  5. Take your kid shopping for underpants. Even better, when you get to the store, double-check the size of his underpants…while he’s still got them on.

Other suggestions? Send me a comment!

Recession-Proof Employment, $4.99 a Minute

Today on NPR’s “Morning Edition” I heard the story of Alexandra Chauran, a working fortuneteller from Washington state. Our economy may be plunging further into its death spiral, but for her, apparently, business is booming. “It’s a good sign when people come to me,” she says.

(This reminds me of a conversation I once had with a mortician. I asked what made him decide to pursue that line of work. “Job security,” he replied.)

Just who are the people who are paying a whopping $4.99/minute (up from the pre-bust rate of $2.50/minute) for a glimpse into Chauran’s crystal ball? It’s a lot of realtors, she says, some of whom call on a daily basis to cosmically vet their clients.

Sort of makes you wonder what kind of voodoo is going on at the investment houses.

For Chauran, fortunetelling is a full time job, and she’s definitely busy. She does face to face consultations and is available for parties. She also does some online work, which must be challenging now that dial-up has gone the way of the dinosaur (as the Psychic Friends Network used to tell us, psychic energy is stronger over the phone lines).

No matter what shows up on your Tarot cards, though, don’t worry about Chauran raining on your parade. She says that, no matter what the content, a reading from her gives people the opportunity to change their lives and their futures for the better. “I’ve learned ways to give people a positive outlook without shutting them down,” she says. In other words, I guess, no news is bad news.

Besides giving me a bad case of the willies, Chauran’s evaluation of her profession’s role in our current climate seems itself to be a fulfillment of ancient prophesy: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.” That’s from the Bible, 2 Timothy 4:3-4.

No mention of whether the high cost per fable will be rising any time soon.


Another Pudding Please

My big question about college is not whether I can pay for it; the answer to that one is pretty obvious, but I guess miracles—and scholarships—can happen. No, my big question about college is whether my son, now age 10, will ever turn off his video game system during his four years of higher learning.

I also wonder, will he help himself to five puddings every night at the dining hall? Will he oversleep, miss all his classes, and never do his laundry? Without a reminder from me, I fear, will he ever brush his teeth?

Now it’s not that he’s not a responsible guy. He’s great about getting up for school (though it does take a couple of shakes to awaken him). He loves to read (but his overdue library fines could finance his college tuition). And he’s happy to practice his trumpet (but finding his band shirt on concert day–not so much).

This is the tricky thing about older kids. They do have their responsible, trustworthy moments. But just when I tell my husband that our son is “old enough to make good decisions about that,” I’ll find an open jar of marshmallow fluff under his bed, even though I’m pretty sure I haven’t bought or used any in months.     

Often, my son’s behavior suggests that every single reminder I’ve ever given him—reminders about when to turn off the Nintendo DS or where to put his backpack after school or how your dating pool will be seriously diminished if you never shower—have gone in one ear and out the other, been taken up by the passing breeze, and swept up into the vacuum of outer space, where, everyone knows, parents really don’t make any noise when they speak.

So how can we parents bridge our children’s personal responsibility gaps? I, for one, like to universalize my bike safety approach. I figure, I can’t make my son stop at the stop signs, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t let them ride. What I can do instead is give him a safety talk before he rides, set a good example myself, give him the opportunity to do the right thing, and debrief afterwards about how it went.

It’s scary to imagine the bad consequences of children’s choices, whether it be a car speeding around the corner—or a teacher who doesn’t take any excuses. But, painful as it may be, experience is often our children’s best teacher.

A recent afterschool trip to the car wash brought this lesson back into focus for me. I’d tasked my son with picking up the odds and ends from the back seat, throwing him, unexpectedly, into an full-blown anxiety tailspin. His worry, he confessed, was that he’d lost a video game cartridge months ago and was convinced that it had fallen under the seat and been sucked up by the car wash vacuum.

After I’d talked him down from the ledge, I gave him a personal responsibility pep talk. It’s up to you to take the preventive measures that will keep your video games safe, I said. Never washing the car is not one of them.

We’ll see whether that one sank in. If it did, though, I’m sure that daily oral hygiene can’t be far behind.

Factory Field Trip: No Superhero Sightings

Yesterday’s day-off-from-school family event was a trek to the Herr’s Snack Factory in Nottingham, Pennsylvania. The trip was short (an hour and 15 minutes from our city of Dover, DE), and it was organized by the leader of my daughter’s Girl Scout troop. I’d definitely recommend the tour, especially for school-age kids. In case you’re curious, I’ve put together the following highlights reel:

The members of our group comprised a five vehicle, interstate Girl Scout Mom caravan, which begs the question, does careening into the school’s drop off lane on two wheels every morning signify a general propensity to open it up on the highway?

Our February 16th visit coincided with Presidents Day, which was appropriate, because who among us could not in truth confess, “I cannot tell a lie; I ate the entire bag of salt and vinegar chips all by myself.”

As evidenced by the large sign at the factory’s entrance, our February visit also coincided with National Snack Food Month, which, by the way, shares its twelfth of the annual pie with National Electrical Safety Awareness Month, National Termite Awareness Month, and National Pet Dental Health Awareness Month. In related news, Congress’s efforts to designate June as National “If I have to, I’m going to open this nacho chip bag with my teeth” Month have been delayed significantly by the recent passage of the federal stimulus package.

Thankfully, the super clean factory environment showed no evidence of gamma radiation-laced Hulk blood dripping onto the conveyor belts or the factory floor as it did in last summer’s feature film.

Were an incognito Bruce Banner to be working at the factory, though, the answer to his anger management problem—a foamy, to scale, Herr’s-themed stress potato—is available for $3.99 at the gift shop.

Also available at the gift shop are reduced price “oops”-labeled products. According to the tour guide, a bag might be resold under the “oops” label due to over- or underseasoning or other issues—again, no mention of gamma ray contamination, but you never can be too careful.

In the quirky factoids department, the tour did not disappoint. Did you know that Herr’s Extra Thin Pretzels start off life as part of a 300 pound ball of pretzel dough? And that an employee at Herr’s can eat as many snacks as he or she wants while at the plant, and may take home one bag of snacks per week? (Unfortunately, at this writing, no stats were available on the weight of the average Herr’s employee, but my observation was that they were remarkably slim.)

The Herr’s factory is a model for industrial recycling, as it captures the heat from its fryers to warm the factory’s water, resells the starch byproduct from the potato chip process to a paper manufacturer, and uses bags that have accidentally opened or fallen on the factory floor as feed for a Herr’s owned cattle operation. Perhaps this zeal for repurposing is what gave birth to the Herr’s Ketchup-flavored Potato Chips; it was either that, or some decision-maker over-exposed himself to barbecue chip fumes.

By far, our biggest treat of the day was crispy, hot potato chips fresh out of the fryer.

The biggest disappointment? No pretzel-twisting oompah-loompahs.

Tell Them What They’ve Won

There’s nothing that’ll take the wind out of your Valentine’s Day sails faster than coming in third in the Newlywed Game at the church’s Sweetheart’s Dinner.

Nothing except maybe coming in fourth. Or being led away from the Sweetheart’s Dinner in handcuffs. Yeah, that wouldn’t be so good.

When I agreed to be part of the church Newlywed Game (cleverly renamed “Marital Blitz,” because, I guess, Bob Eubanks is such a royalties hound), I didn’t realize that the first question of the night—the one I should have been asking myself—is this: If you and your husband screw up royally in matching your answers to bogus made-up questions, then does that mean that (a) you’ve provided rollicking entertainment for some of your closest friends, (b) you look at life from different, but often complementary, points of view, or (c) you should whip out your BlackBerry because the church counselor’s only got openings on Thursday nights, and they’re filling up fast.

Consider question number one: If your marriage was a movie, what genre would it be? (a) romance, (b) family comedy, or (c) drama.

(I suggested “horror” but didn’t get nearly the laugh I was expecting. Wrong crowd, I guess.)

My marriage, like yours (and believe me, I hope it’s like yours, or else I’d better reserve my spot on the couch now), is a combination of all three. Really, it is. There’s romance, but my viewing of only one drippy, sentimental, emotion-manipulating Nicholas Sparks-based movie convinced me I was NOT going to answer (a). There’s drama, of course, brought to us by anything and everything (including myself, my husband, my kids, my dog, my furnace, my dryer, and, just this week, my local phone company), but without explanation “drama” sends the wrong message. Sort of like “diva” or “dictator.”

But I’m a family humor writer. So you’d think “family comedy,” right? I answered (b), but my husband said (c), and boy did the gang love that. I’m sure that this discrepancy was particularly enjoyed by the parents of the young engaged couple that my husband and I just spent six weeks mentoring.

This kind of thing, I think, is why neither of us is in politics. Needless to say, I’m putting Marital Blitz on that ever-growing list of “we won’t be doing THAT again.”

Last night at our pitch perfect Valentine’s Day dinner out (which almost didn’t happen because I was so wrapped around the axel about the ridiculous “What would your husband do if he unexpectedly had the day off?” question), we talked about the movie question more. I think that we’re square on our genre, so next time we’ll be more prepared.

If our marriage was a movie, it would be a rockumentary. Starring Brad and Angelina. Playing Sonny and Cher.

Because even after an embarrassing night at the church, I’ve found, the beat certainly does go on.


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