Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Word from Toppa: Lunch Box Grandpa

By: David Maraniss
I am the Lunch Box Grandpa. More familiarly I am the Lunchbox Toppa. Toppa is what my three granddaughters call me. Or what the two granddaughters who can talk call me. My three granddaughters are five, two, and three months. Like all granddaughters, they are precocious, of course, but the littlest one, Eliza, doesn’t talk yet. She smiles a lot, and laughs, and roots for the Packers and Vanderbilt basketball, and has a pretend morning sports radio talk show in Nashville with her dad, my son, in which she goes by the name Little Goose, but he does the talking and Little Goose does the squeaking. When the subject turns to sorry Vanderbilt football, she does the grunting and moaning.

My two older granddaughters are Jersey Girls. Heidi is five and Ava is two. Readers of this blog will recognize them as Lunch Box Mom's daughters. Ava, the two year old, has been getting more of the ink lately in the Lunch Box Mom blog because she does not like to sleep, or prefers to sleep on the lower shelf of a bookcase or in her parents’ bed than where she is supposed to sleep. This makes the Lunch Box Mom tired, and it also takes sleep time away from the utterly unheralded Lunch Box Dad, Tom Vander Schaaff, but you readers already know that. Heidi makes the blog mostly for her wondrous curiosity and ability to ask an unending series of penetrating questions beginning with the word why. There is no doubt that she is the granddaughter of a journalist, although at this point she would rather be a princess than a writer.

The writer (Lunch Box Toppa) with son Andrew,
wife, Linda, and daughter, Sarah (Lunch Box Mom) circa 1976
I became the father of Little Goose’s dad, Andrew, when I was only twenty, and Heidi and Ava’s mother (Lunch Box Mom) danced into the world when I was only twenty-four, so my wife Linda and I are not new to this game of parenting, though to read Lunch Box Mom you might assume that she and her friends were the first parents, or at least the first responsible parents, who ever lived. That is as it should be. Every generation reinvents the role. I love Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff, aka Lunch Box Mom, to pieces, and understand her every twitch and twitter to the bottom of my soul. She is an actor, and a teacher, as well as a super mom, and now she is a writer, too, something I never quite expected, and something that thrills me and would make her late grandfather, my dad, Elliott Maraniss, especially proud as the progenitor of a line of writers.

But before I get too syrupy here, and before I get back to my granddaughters and what it means to be a Lunch Box Toppa, let me spend a paragraph in the holiday season giving you a Christmas history of this Lunch Box Mom whose essays you read each week. To the best of my memory, I first made her cry on Christmas when she was about seven or eight and I gave her a wristwatch I’d bought at the last minute at a little shop inside the Pentagon subway station as I was rushing home from an interview. Even at that early age, you could not slip anything by her, she knew quality, and this watch had a cheap band. The saving grace of that Christmas meltdown was that it became iconic. Any disappointments thereafter were delivered and received in the context of my pathetic attempt to satisfy her with a faux fancy watch – every sweater of the wrong color, or shirt of the wrong style, every wrapped box containing something just plain beneath her discriminating taste (mostly picked out lovingly by her mother, my wife, the quirky saint Linda), evoked that Rosebud moment when little Sal first teared up.

Toppa with oldest
granddaughter, Heidi
That is what it is like to be a parent. That is decidedly not what it is like to be a grandparent. All the unavoidable tensions and expectations of parent-child relationships blessedly vanish. One of my books happens to be source material for a play that is running on Broadway now, and when people ask me how it feels, I compare it to being a grandparent. “It is all joy and not much responsibility, but in some sense it couldn’t exist without me,” I say. And that is the truth of the situation. We love our children unconditionally, but it is impossible for there not to be complications, large or small. The love for grandchildren is no deeper, yet somehow it seems purer, probably because it is free from the daily ups and downs of family life. We can bop in and out at our discretion. It is not my responsibility to get up in the middle of the night when Ava chooses not to sleep. When Heidi, with her boundless energy and curiosity, tires us out, we can retreat to the back bedroom or find a book to read and give her back to her mom or dad. When Eliza, our Littlest E, expresses her hunger, she needs her mother, not me.

Toppa and wife, Linda,
 with youngest granddaughter, Eliza
Just as every generation reinvents parenting, every older generation discovers the unexpected joy of grandparenting. When I am in my office trying to write, brooding over a sentence or a paragraph or the shape of a chapter, absolutely nothing in the world lifts me more than getting an email attachment from New Jersey or Tennessee with the latest picture of Heidi, Ava, or Eliza. Heidi with her gorgeous red hair and radiant spirit, Ava with her sweet and tender mischievousness, Little Goose with her infectious smile. I love those three little munchkins more than I could ever express. They are the best presents anyone could ever receive. They are the frankincense, gold, and myrrh for this Lunch Box Toppa.

Yesterday, the national website Mamapedia featured the Lunch Box Mom blog post: Kids: The Last of the True, Great Old-Fashioned Book Readers. If you missed it when it ran on the blog, or want to see it on the big screen, please click here.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

My Power Sweep

Somewhere near the middle of LOMBARDI, the Broadway play inspired by my father’s biography, When Pride Still Mattered, about the great Packers coach, the lights go black, and an NFL film takes center stage. Set to music and slowed, it seems, the projection of Lombardi’s team running the power sweep takes on a holy purity.

49—“Red Right 49 on 2”

And, then each man does his job, calculating his opponent and responding---tight ends pushing a linebacker, right tackle slamming a defensive end, offensive guards arcing behind the line of scrimmage and to the right sideline, and Jim Taylor running to daylight.

“Position by position, Lombardi went through as many as twenty defensive possibilities, offering his players a logical response to each of them. Some coaches considered innovative, might have twenty plays but no options for any of them; Lombardi, sometimes mischaracterized as unimaginative, preferred one play with twenty options. It was a variation of the Jesuit concept of freedom within discipline. The sweep again symbolized the philosophical lineage from Ignatius of Loyola to Vince Lombardi, both said to be limited to one great idea, but unrestrained in the incomparable realization of it,” my father, David Maraniss, writes in his book.

I’ve seen Eric Simonson’s play three times, but lived with the phrase, “freedom within discipline” for more than a decade; since my parents first moved to Green Bay and traveled to Italy’s Vietri di Potenza in search of Lombardi’s history.

Whenever my father writes a biography, there’s usually one characteristic of the subject that hits me with particular force. I was in college at the time of his book on Bill Clinton, and you better believe my obsessively organized outlines of class lectures were inspired by some line I read about the forty-second president’s study habits.


Freedom within discipline is not that far off from a phrase I’d heard, mostly in theatre classes, where those of us not born with raw genius were taught that understanding a framework, knowing the craft, having a system, allows for spontaneity and creativity. Repetition, discipline. Then freedom.

And, maybe the same can be said in motherhood.

Something moved me when the December issue of Martha Stewart’s Living arrived in my mail. There was Martha, dressed in silver, and inside, there was the headline—one cookie recipe, thirty variations.

I was a fast convert, Xeroxing the recipe and sharing it with friends, talking it up at the library, in the parking lot of my daughter’s school, to anyone who would listen.

The simplicity. The beauty. The brilliance of the idea. Something to bring efficient order to the chaos of the season.

The chaos of life.

I bought the flour, the butter, the eggs, vanilla and sugar needed for the basic recipe. I bought the add-ins—the spices, the chocolate, the citrus—needed to make the variations. I bought the boxes, the ribbon and the stickers I wanted so that I could package up these expressions of freedom within discipline and give them to my friends.

I baked. One dozen. Two dozen. Four dozen. Seventeen Dozen. The kids could watch, but this was my project. I spent most of a day standing in the kitchen, holiday music coming from a radio, calling out plays to my husband and kids, “time for breakfast, time for lunch, someone needs to walk the dog.”

My basic vanilla recipe was tweaked to become lemon. Later, chocolate balls. Still later, spice. Half the lemon got dipped in glaze, and were reborn into beautiful stars.

The kitchen was filled with measuring cups and pans, cooling cookies and tissue paper filled boxes. But, it was not chaos. I had one recipe. One basic pattern with eggs, butter, sugar, and flour. From there, there were possibilities. It was not overwhelming, it was simple.

It was occupational therapy for my state of extremes—being pulled by the needs of a five year old, a two year old, a nine year old dog, and a very supportive and overworked husband---and the thirty-six year old inside of me.

This Christmas night, while my husband assembles a train table and my mother makes hot chocolate for my girls, I will be riding a New Jersey Transit with my father to see the 8 o’clock show of LOMBARDI, one more time.

I’ll get chills when the lights dim, and the projection of the Packers power sweep takes over the theater. But, there’s another moment in the play that usually gets a laugh, but strikes me as equally significant.

What does Lombardi do at night when he’s not watching footage? What does he do to relax?

He reads cookbooks.

There’s nothing like reading a recipe for a nice “glazed ham,” is there?

With Dad in front of the theater, Circle in the Square.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

An Offer You Can't Refuse

Last year, a bearded portly guy came to town and made me an attractive offer. He’d get my kids to behave if I built him up to be some kind of present-giving hero. Never mind that he employed unpaid elves and a team of mutant flying reindeer, what bothered me were the terms of his bargain: If the kids behaved, then he’d dole out presents. If they didn’t, well don’t want to know.

Was this really ethical? How about the diminutive spies he sent out, code name, Elf on a Shelf, who watched, big brother like, and filed nightly reports on household behavior?

Was this all in the spirit of Christmas, or just a way to bribe and threaten my kids?

A year ago, I sincerely wanted to know. I wrote to the British philosopher and author, Alain de Botton, and asked him about the use of Santa Claus to encourage good behavior. He is a  father himself, and wrote back to say:

My feeling is that using Santa is utterly fine and ethical.

The reason is that any parent has such a hard time disciplining children that the self-discipline that comes from Santa is actually of the mildest, gentlest sort and preferable to the more hard-headed alternatives (naughty step etc.).

Also, children are not capable of ethical choice right now, so the claims of Santa are not an alternative to ethical thinking; they are a pre-ethical way of maintaining order and a modicum of calm.

I don't think that kids do take away from the Santa= present equation the idea that being good gets a material reward (as many psychologists argue). They take away the broader underlying point, which is that being good leads to good things.

Author and Philosopher
Alain de Botton
The trick in the teens is then to suggest that good things encompasses far more than material advantages. But that's definitely for a later stage.

If you can believe it, I have even had to resort to the idea of a friendly sleep ghost in order to lure my four year old not to get up at 3am every morning.

With very good wishes,

Oh, Alain, your words now, as did your books The Consolations of Philosophy,  and How Proust Can Change Your Life have come at the right time. Soon, I might need to conjure up my own friendly sleep ghost, but in the meantime, for a short while still, I do have Santa.

May he do his best.

His elves can wiretap for all I care.

If the Easter Bunny has some free time and wants to swing by and offer a carrot, he has my permission. Tooth Fairy—we haven’t officially met, but given the force with which my oldest is yanking at her tooth, I expect we shall soon—you are welcome to sprinkle a bit of goodwill dust in the air. My kids and I have been known to have breakdowns and meltdowns from time to time, and you fanciful entities, as Alain de Botton suggests, do seem a lot less harmful than the cast of characters I have assembled in my situation room right now.

My go-to team of advisers?

First, there’s Captain High Fructose Corn Syrup, found principally in lollipops, a stash of which I was unfortunate enough to win. She and her pops have been used primarily to get my young troops moving—out of the house, through the front door, and into my car, by which time the HFCS treats have been licked, crushed, and devoured by the highly energized children who carried them.

Second, there’s General George the Curious and his colleagues in a remotely controlled region of PBS, who, as far as I can tell, is financed by me and the viewers like me.

Third, in the high range of my register, and in the depths of my bowels, is a voice called, Mommy’s Losing It, that has been known to make telemarketers cry, delivery men flee, and occasionally, get an obstreperous child to follow directions.

Fourth is an agent who likes to keep a low profile. And, to be fair, this deputy of nocturnal sanity is not often called to the table. Only rarely, when all other measures fail and the risk of not using him is greater than the risk of overuse, say on the fourth day of a cold, or first day of an eczema outbreak, does Benjamin “Ben” A. Drill come down from a cabinet.

So, Santa, you show up once a year and then split. Do you think it’s worth keeping you briefed on matters of domestic civility? Worth financing your bag of toys? Worth touting your hyperbolic blacklist of naughty children? Worth feeding your milk and cookie addiction?

If you could help me with a few things on my personal wish list (getting the youngest to sleep, the oldest to stop asking to wear high heels) then, I’d say yes.

What about my ethical concerns? My hesitancy to make a deal with such a masterful manipulator?

I’m in my second term as Parent.

I’m a realist.

I firmly believe in Santa.


Sunday, December 5, 2010

Parentem Civi

There is a world of difference between raising kids in a city and fifty miles outside of one.

This realization slapped me in the face and spun me around like a tourist on the Central Park carousel when I arrived in New York with my husband and kids for a four day visit. We pushed our stroller (fully equipped with snacks and two kids it weighs 70 lbs) eight miles a day and observed an alternative universe of parenting. Elevators instead of stairs; sidewalks instead of carpools; giant parks with wonderful swings—and five hundred of your newest friends; bodegas and gourmet grocery stores instead of acres of aisles in one Stop & Shop, and everywhere, a constant hum of traffic, whistles, jack hammers, and language. We were never more than a few blocks from a bookstore, or museum, or landmark, which made the experience of feeding, entertaining, or attempting to enlighten our children both simpler and more complicated.

Long before Ava (right) was born, Tom and I,
along with a mouse, shared a tiny apartment
 in this building on E. 83rd.
But, the parents who called this environment home looked calm and seasoned, having adapted fully to the city—walking their kids to school against the construction of Second Avenue, carrying a soccer ball for a pick-up game a few yards from the Met, and eating breakfast at 8am on a Sunday at a kid friendly spot like Big Daddy’s--strollers parked with balloons attached, and coffee mugs stretched out, ready for a free refill. Whatever challenges and frustrations they faced appeared to come from the children they’d created, more than the city in which they were raising them.

"How do they do this?" I wondered. Until our visit, I hadn’t realized my skills in parenting had evolved in relation to a specific environment. But, here I was, surrounded by a familiar but distinct type of city parent—a Parentem Civi—against which I might only be classified as a close relation, that minivan driving, Parentem Extracivi, distinguished, among other features, for her ability to buy 48 rolls of toilette paper and stash them in closets throughout her suburban house.

The Parentem Civi, in contrast, had developed the instincts to fasten a car seat in a moving cab, cross four lanes of traffic with three kids in tow in less than twelve seconds, fit an entire week of groceries in the bottom of a stroller, and manage, most impressively, to get her dog to pee on a four inch expanse of sidewalk grass while breastfeeding a newborn in a sling.

We are reminded, especially on the Internet and Facebook, of our similarities. And, we are, virtually, very similar. In reality, though, on the pavement of Manhattan, or the freeway of Los Angeles, or in the parking lot of the Mall of America—we might say that, even if we are in the same place or phase of parenthood, we are in extremely different places.

So, I asked a few experienced city moms to talk about their life raising kids in big cities. We’re going from coast to coast today—with one family living in Brooklyn, New York, and the other in Los Angeles, California.

Brad Alperin and Jody Drezner Alperin: Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, near Prospect Park. Have lived in Brooklyn for 8 years and in their house for 5. Children: Dov, not quite 6.5 and Zoe, not quite 3.75
Why do you live in the metropolitan area? Brad works here but we also love being here. We live in a neighborhood that our friends have nicknamed 'Urban Mayberry.' We have block parties, chili cook offs, weekly stoop dinners in the summer and where you can really borrow a cup of sugar or have your neighbor watch your kids while you get dinner started. We love having that but also having easy access to all the city has to offer.

How does living in NY influence you as a parent?
If you asked some of my friends who DON'T live here, they would say it's made me crunchier, more granola and a bigger purchaser of organic products. I think the competitive nature of parenting and especially mothering are heightened in the city and I try hard to avoid that and not play in to it. I'd like to think living here has made me more flexible and more able to roll with the punches. I love that the kids are exposed to people of all different backgrounds, races, ethnicities and sexual orientation, which is not really something I grew up with. It inspires conversations and I hope those conversations help our kids have open minds as they grow. We also see a lot of economic and social disparity here and we talk about that a lot too. I like to imagine that the ideas of social justice we discuss with the kids will inspire the choices they make as they are older. We could certainly have those talks wherever we lived, but I think living in the city makes it somewhat easier.

How does living in NY influence your children or the way in which you believe they experience the world and their own maturation? Our kids are city kids, no doubt, which is funny for two people raised in decidedly non-city environments. We once went to an event at a synagogue in Westchester. To get in to the building from the parking lot, we had to cross a small stream. Dov looked at it and us and declared, 'It must have really rained here a lot! It flooded!' I think that is a good example of how being city kids shapes their world view. Things that are commonplace to non-city kids, like streams, are unique to our kids. On the other hand, things that were so foreign and somewhat exotic to me are commonplace to the kids-subways, national landmarks and the like. They have a certain amount of street savvy I think but I don't think they are more mature than kids their age elsewhere.

What’s the most convenient part of living in the city? If you have a hankering for any kind of food, you can always get it. There is ALWAYS something to do for us and for the kids.

What is the least convenient part of living in the city? There is ALWAYS something to do! No, really, things that I think are more simple elsewhere are a pain here. Running a whole series of errands with both kids in tow and without the car. Getting somewhere quickly with a three-year-old and no car. Picking up two kids from two different schools at the same time with no car. Can you tell we have a car? (They do—it stays parked in their driveway)

What is one thing that people (or family) who do not live in the city probably don’t understand about raising kids where you do? When I went to my high school reunion in NC one of my classmates said 'I feel so sorry for y'all living up there in those tiny apartments.' But we really don't see it that way. Would I like a bit more counter space in my kitchen? Sure, but I don't daydream about a 4,000 square foot house and some of our family and friends seem to think I ought to. I think people imagine a very cold and hostile New York when they think about raising kids here and our experience has been the polar opposite of that.

What is something about living in the suburbs that mystifies you?
Do you have impromptu playdates? Or do you have to schedule everything? Do you have to drive everywhere? As much as I complain about running errands without a car, we do like being able to walk or bike or take the bus or train places too. Does the sheer amount of stuff in the grocery stores there ever make you feel like you can't breathe?

If a new family was moving to your neighborhood from the suburbs—what advice would you tell the mom if she said she was feeling overwhelmed by the pace and largeness of the city?
I think the key is to make connections. If you have small kids, join a mother's group that meets in your neighborhood. If your kids are older, perhaps get involved in a project at their school. Meeting other people makes your world tighter and more manageable, I think even if the initial people you meet end up not being a great click for you, they do help bring some shape to the overwhelmingness of the city. Also, don't try to do too much at once. If you are used to driving everywhere but are now using public transportation or walking, your times for doing things are going to differ now. The kids don't need to do three exciting activities in a day-if you make it to a playground, they are happy! Also, use a babysitter sometimes if you can. Go back and see that exhibit your kids ran past on the way to their favorite part of the museum or catch a show. Take some time to explore the city without your kids too and you may find more things to like about it.

Alyson and Cody, Westside of LA, a few miles from the beach. In Condo for 6 years, in LA for 12. Child: Brett will be 3 in March.

Why do you live in LA?
Work is the main reason, (Cody works in Television) but the longer we stay here, the more it feels the right place for us in so many ways. We love our friends and Brett's friends. The diversity, the culture, the beach, the mountains and all the opportunities that are available to us year round. Oh and the weather, we love the weather.

How does living in LA influence Brett or the way in which you believe he experiences the world? Well in an ideal world, I hope that living in an urban environment will help Brett to be an open-minded individual, because he interacts with a wide variety of children and adults. But it's not a given. There are plenty of city kids who have a more rarefied existence than those living in the suburbs or in a rural area.

What’s the most convenient part of living in a large city? The access to museums, parks, events, friends, trains, car shows, etc, etc. I've visited more of the above since Brett was born, than I have in the 10 years before that, and there are still so many to visit. I love feeling like the options are limitless and many of them are incredibly affordable or even free.

What’s the least convenient part of living in a large city? The lack of space. I wish we had a larger living space and a yard. And the schools. We're in LAUSD (Los Angeles Unified School District), the 2nd largest school district in the country and I feel like it's going to be a part-time job to navigate it successfully. And I do wish we had more nature in our lives, but I feel fortunate to be close to the beach and the Santa Monica Mountains.

What’s one thing that people (or family) who do not live in the area probably don’t understand about raising kids where you do?
I think most people think about space and schools, and those issues often motivate people to get out of the city and into the suburbs. One thing that has occurred to me as a stay at home mom in the city is that I am incredibly stimulated by my surroundings. Life is never dull, but maybe that's the case everywhere....

When you return to the city after a trip away, what’s the first thing Brett wants to do that he’s missed on vacation? His trains. His friends. The beach.

If a new family was moving to your neighborhood from the suburbs—what advice would you tell the mom if she said she was feeling overwhelmed by the pace and largeness of the city?
I would encourage them to make the big city a small city by getting involved and finding a local neighborhood based MOMS Club, volunteer at the preschool or enroll in a class (oftentimes the ones through the city are affordable and full of stay at home moms) where she and her kids can meet like minded people. And if the first or second one isn't a fit - keep looking. The upside of living in a city is the amount of options, so keep looking for the right one until you find a fit.