Beach Reads Recommendations

Headed for sand soon?

The web folks at work asked me to create a list of books I thought people should be reading on vacation. I pored over lists from the publishing houses and scanned the Internet landscape to see what the hot reads might be and consumed as many of these as I could. And although my list was almost completely rejected because it didn’t contain such lofty titles as Fifty Shades of Grey, I do believe the following are well worth your time. Bon Voyage!


Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Crown, June 5, 2012)

A perfect wife’s disappearance plunges her husband into a nightmare as it rips open ugly secrets about his marriage and, just maybe, his culpability in her death.  It’s a mystery, it’s a psychological thriller, and I’m devastated I just read the last page.

The Stonecutter by Camilla Lackberg (Pegasus Crime, May 12, 2012 )

Swedish Lackberg is getting attention for being a better crime/mystery writer than Stieg Larsson and heir apparent to his legions of fans. Her latest book is getting rave reviews and is one “that ruins a vacation” according to Maureen Corrigan (book critic, NPR, in WashPo) as its tale of doomed relationships and murder suck in would-be beachcombers.

The Fallen Angel by Daniel Silva (July, 2012)

Silva’s thrillers featuring world-class art restorer and Israeli assassin Gabriel Allon never fail to disappoint. In this anticipated one, Allon is restoring a Caravaggio at the Vatican when he is called on to investigate a suspicious suicide on behalf of the Pope. His suspicions lead him to trail an art smuggling ring through Rome, St. Moritz, Istanbul, and his home turf, Jerusalem. Allon’s internal conflicts as a hired killer and Silva’s depictions of the inner workings of the Middle East are compelling enough to make a reader buy the entire series—even in hardback.

The Solitary House by Lynn Shephard (Delacorte, May 1, 2012)

Shepherd’s latest detective story (Murder at Mansfield Park, 2010) is a Victorian tour de force that borrows characters from Charles Dickens’ Bleak House and Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White.

A Trick of Light (Minotaur, July 3, 2012) by Louise Penny

Penny is known for engrossing mysteries that are also funny and wise. This paperback edition of this best seller seems like a good option for thrifty mystery fans who don’t want to mix a hardback or tablet with sand.

Maisie Dobbs series, by Jacqueline Winspear

The first one is actually called “Maisie Dobbs.” You should start there. Allow yourself to become immersed in post-War Britain as an unlikely detective uses her intellect, intuition and guts to sort out crimes both national and personal. A good salve for Anglophiles, especially if you’re missing Downton Abbey!


Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (October 24, 2011). Yes, a tad older than the others but everyone I know who’s read it raves about the insider’s peak into the mind of a visionary. We could proclaim that a vacation week is the perfect time to delve into the 448-page tome—and be astonished, revolted, and amazed at the life of Jobs.

Swim: Why We Love the Water (Pubilc Affairs, April 2012)

By Lynn Sherr

From the evolution of our “aquatic ancestors” to the trauma of bathing suit shopping, these essays examine the sport of swimming from all angles. Water! Swimming! How can we resist???

God’s Hotel: A Doctor, A Hospital and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine by Victoria Sweet(Riverhead, April 26, 2012)

A doctor’s experiences in a unique corner of the medical world—Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco—where the doctors and nurses provide long-term care for the sick poor; the working and living environments are unlike that of any other hospital in the country.

This is How: Proven to Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More. For Young and Old Alike by Augusten Burroughs

(St. Martin’s, May 8, 2012)

Acclaimed memoirist Burroughs (You Better Not Cry: Stories for Christmas, 2009, etc.) charts new territory, offering his readers advice on life.

The First 20 Minutes; The Myth-Busting Science that Shows How We Can Walk Farther, Run Faster, and Live Longer (Hudson Street/Penguin, April 26, 2012)

By Gretchen Reynolds

A fitness columnist for the New York Times dispenses documented exercise science for a healthier life. I’ve read some excerpts from this and listened to interviews; she makes a compelling case to exercise a little less—perfect beach reading!


My ’50 Shades of Grey’ Assignment


(Author’s note: I read 50 Shades of Grey trilogy for work. I was assigned to assess some of the popular books people would be reading this summer, “Beach Reads,” as we call them. I suggested many titles. I was overruled. But after investing hours of my life and the company’s money in the “50” trilogy, I couldn’t stop writing. Unfortunately, my editor only wanted about1/4 of my rant, so I’m publishing the full monty here.)

Title: 50 Shades of Grey, 50 Shades Darker, 50 Shades Freed by E.L. James

The books of this erotic, pornographic trilogy have occupied rarified air atop bestseller lists since March prompting its publisher to print more copies daily. The author, an English, 40-something former television producer and mom of two teenage sons, wrote these fan books for those (still) obsessed with Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. James admits she’s not a great writer (Warning #1) and her characters differ little from Bella and Edward, the wide-eyed virgin and her beloved vampire. In Fifty Shades, Bella is now named Anastasia, a literature-loving recent college grad and the vampire figure is Christian Grey, an obscenely rich, “older” entrepreneur (all of 27 when the story begins) who’s into S&M and BDSM (You’re going to have to Google that yourself) and would like the innocent Anastasia to become his submissive (please keep Googling).

Ready to download to your ebook?

 If middle school-level dialogue between paper-thin characters sandwiched between scenes of sex and bondage and sex and punishment and sex and spankings and sex and sex and sex in a lushly-described playroom of pain, among other places, is your thing, go right ahead. Get the Greys. (Warning #2)

 Still intrigued? The “love” (to use the term loosely) scenes are so repetitive and boring, you might start skipping them to get to the plot. (Good luck finding it.) You’d think that with floggers, whips, spreaders, and chains in the mix, the 16 (maybe more, I was dozing) sex scenes in the first book might call for more descriptive sentences than “Laters, baby,” ”He’s so freaking hot” and the variations on the exclamation “Crap!” — as in “Double crap!”, “triple crap!” and the sacrilegious “Holy crap!” Total crap utterances in first book alone: 92 (Warning #3)

 If you’re still insatiably curious, read away. While you’re at it, throw down a couple jumbo-sized bags of Doritos, a dozen Big Macs and fistfuls of Ding Dongs. If you’re determined to consume all crap, you might as well go whole hog.

 *If, on the other hand, you like some well-crafted pageturners about bizarre and complex relationships, try Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes. Weeks after reading, I’m still thinking about them.




Mama Tricks: My Path to an Easy Thanksgiving

If all else fails, we'll be here--at the restaurant at the end of the block.

A new friend recently was panicking over making and hosting her first Thanksgiving dinner. The guest list included her future in-laws from the culinary capital of the U.S.—New Orleans, plus five others. D (dinner) -day was a mere seven days away, she had no plan and looked a bit flustered.

Having been in her position, I told her: “Megan, don’t panic. Help is here.”

1. Have every guest bring their favorite beverage. Assign one or two a
dessert or app; you can’t have too many of either.

2. When they arrive, have a pitcher of Sazeracs waiting. It is the official
cocktail of New Orleans, looks all autumn-y and has a real kick. In this
wonderful essay, there is a recipe

3. Have a few open bottles of wine, too, and your reds already opened in the
kitchen, taking a good deep breath. Everyone says buy Pinot Noirs and
Sauvignon Blancs to serve with turkey. I think that’s nuts, but am kind of
opinionated in this genre. I’d suggest Cotes-du-Rhones–almost any of them
would work and are crowdpleasers, and any white from the Veneto region of
Italy. Soaves would be good. I think easy-sippers should be the goal here.

4. Make a few things the day before. Suggestions:
Very easy stuffing
Easy savory green beans that can be made in advance

My personal favorite – super easy bourbon balls (to be served right before pie, when no one is
expecting them)

BUY —do no make—really good bread.

Get all your salad ingredients sorted and semi-assembled (except for
dressing. That would be gross).

5. Really, the only things you need to do on Turkey day is the turkey and
potatoes. The trick to the turkey is simply having enough time to cook, and slightly cool, the bird. HEre’s the secret: Read directions. And have lots of butter on hand.

May I suggest baked potatoes? (OR baked sweet potatoes)? Easy. Put
in oven at 350 for an hour (or in a pinch, put in microwave for 10 minutes
and toast for about 5 to get skins crispy). Have sour cream/butter/chopped
chives OR melted butter and brown sugar in bowls to serve with.

6. If you have to have another app, cut up veggies, get a block of cream
cheese (softened), scoop in some pesto, and garnish with sundried tomatoes.
Put in pretty dish. Appears and tastes fancy and takes 3.4 seconds to

7. Votives. Lots of votives and dim lights slightly. Have Harry Connick, Jr.
playing softly in the background.

8. Remember, it’s more interesting visually if you mix and match dishes and
linens. Don’t worry about finding NINE identical place settings.

9. Serve more wine.

10. Serve more wine to yourself.

Unlike many of my fellow Southern mamas, I’m not the most adept cook. But JUST like many of them, I do know how to fake it!

Best of luck to all the new “cooks” out there!

Tigers Out, Safari In

What happened to your book  Tigers, you ask? When will it be published?

Excuse us, coming though.

Ah, what an excellent question. How I wish I knew the answer. How I also wish I would get paid. Somehow, given that the publisher from Dakini Media seems to have disappeared, I doubt either will happen. (Yes, I hear you, all my lawyer friends. I’m looking into it).

It’s heartbreaking, actually. Not only am I in love with the subject–a tiger mother and her cubs in a difficult environment–but I reached out to world-renowned biologists who helped me get the behavior of tigers just right. I don’t want to go back to them and say that their time was all for nothing. I know there’s a good lesson for writers here, but honestly, I’m not sure what it is yet. Perhaps it’s don’t hand in any text until you see at least half the fee–that way the publisher knows you’re serious? And why is that only obvious to me now?
* * *
Because that’s what real publishers do, apparently! As soon as I signed a contract for my second book, SAFARI, Workman Press sent me an advance. Within a week. Within a few more weeks, I was on my way to Kenya to have a mind-bending experience. Three months later, the text is safely in the hands of my editor. Knowing Workman’s reputation–and seeing the amazing job they did with my friend Jenny’s book–I’m excited to see “Safari,” which was a crunch, time-wise, but a true pleasure to write. I actually believe this one will reside on Amazon some day.

Closure? Writing the Book, #5


This is how I feel.


There comes a point in the life of any project when it must end. Declare is done. Finis. Sayonara.

I’m not very good at goodbyes.

In fact, I can’t seem to let my tigers go. One problem: I don’t have a hard-and-fast deadline. That’s a death sentence for any journalist. We revolve around definitive ends when our words will make their way from our brain/fingertips to the etherworld. So, I tinker.

But I also have a good reason. The end is hell.

A conclusion to a body of work is a tough thing to craft. Lynne, my esteemed editor and friend, says that you have to draw conclusions for the reader that they should come to naturally given the information you have provided. Make them feel smart. Seems obvious, yes? Oh, but so tough to actually do. Especially in this particular case. I’ve written about the lives of a tiger family–their habits, instincts, biological characteristics and the relationships to their environment and all that live in it. In other words, I describe, or try to, everything about these living creatures. It seems only natural to broaden the perspective and discuss the future not only of this family, but of tigers in general.

And this is where a 1,000 word essay goes off the rails.

Discussing the plight of tigers raises so many conservation, economic and cultural issues, I could write a whole other book. Hm. (Maybe I shall.) But I have an obligation to discuss the precarious nature of their (the global tigers) lives. And be suscinct and effective.


So, I tinker.

Enter the Editor

Writing the Book, #4

Thanks to much time and many espressos in my local WiFi coffee shop, appropriately called Buzz, my first draft is finished. Begin phase II of the writing process.  Allow me to explain. The first part of any writing project begins with the blank page. Some fear a space of all white; others love it. Some love the freedom and opportunity a blank page offers—the challenge of creating something from nothing.  Others have the ability to read a collection of words, know what’s good, bad and ugly about them, and with a deft hand, reassemble them to create an engaging tale.

I’m a blank-page lover. And though I edit others from 9-5, I definitely need an editor when it come to my own work. Every writer, no matter how good, needs an editor. A creative soul—or anyone really—cannot be truly objective about their own product. If I’ve birthed it, I’m possessive and irrational about it—children and stories alike

Any writer, is nothing without a good editor.

When Lucky Dissanayake, Dakini owner and publisher, told me I could pick an editor to work with on the tiger book, I knew exactly who I wanted. A former colleague, boss, mentor, and friend, Lynne Warren who used to head the writing division at National Geographic. A beautiful writer in her own right, she’s a phenomenal editor. She glances at copy and, in seconds it seems, knows where you have a logic problem, an issue with the flow, if your words are trite or pedestrian or staid, if the story just isn’t coming alive—and why.

Lynne and I met for five productive and highly entertaining hours one day and went over my draft. During bites of tzatiki, and souvlaki and tomato caprese, we worked out spots that were bugging me. She pointed out repetitive places, one of my huge concerns, and places where inaccuracies may have crept in (I’ve read so much about cats, I feared my past knowledge of say, cheetahs, was creeping into my tiger text). She suggested often small, sometimes large, changes in wording that better conveyed what I meant.

A good editor knows how to say what you mean better than you do. But to get to this level of skill, the editor’s heart has to be in the right place. Lynne knows this so deeply. I told her I was writing about our process and she offered her own perspective (which, to prove my point, better conveys what I mean):

“I think the heart of the writer-editor connection is shared trust and respect. You have to feel really sure that I’m already convinced of your abilities to be comfortable showing me work very much in progress. You have to know that you’re going to be aided, not graded; and that my goal is to help you achieve your goal. And you have to believe that I have the ability and knowledge to help you tailor and refine your text without substituting my voice for  yours.” I have to know that your work is worth my time and attention; and while you don’t have to embrace every suggestion I offer, I have to be confident that you’ll consider my recommendations with an open mind and a solid regard for my skills and experience.

Oh, yeah, really liking each other helps, too.”

And we respect, and really like, each other. A few years back, we spent three weeks aboard a Woods Hole research ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for a story on hydrothermal sea vents. She encouraged me to descend in Alvin, a deep-sea, three-person submersible for an eight-hour stint on the bottom of the ocean floor, and was there to help deluge me with cold water when I returned (a rite of passage for Alvin newbies). On the ship, we shared bunk beds in a room the size of a walk-in closet and stayed up way too late hashing out everything from literature to Eagle’s hits to latest loves and crushes. We later taught a photography workshop (clarification: taught photographers how to write to their photographs) at the Mountain Workshops in a small Kentucky town. Again, we shared a room. Again, we stayed up way to late, this time eating lots of fried food and sampling the local bourbon.

Imagine doing all that with someone you didn’t like? Imagine trusting your creation, your baby, to someone you didn’t like?

In these often frenetic days of writing a tiger text, it’s good to know someone has your back.

Writing the Book, #3 The Sources


Now, we’re really cookin’.

I can write all I want about tigers, but without the input from serious and credible sources, my text will never ring true. Nor, perhaps, BE true. But in the past few weeks my A-list sources have appeared.

I was getting a little antsy because I hadn’t heard back from John Seidensticker, who’s one of the foremost big cat experts in the world AND who lives in Washington, D.C. AND who writes great books on cats— tigers in particular. He’s the Curator of Mammals at the Smithsonians’s National Zoological Park (the Zoo, where I sometimes go to write. It helps to look at animals.). He also spent years studying tigers in Nepal, which resulted in a ground-breaking report on tiger behavior.  I had written Dr. Seidensticker asking for the most up-to-date sources on tiger behavior, conservation and research. He’d been out of the country and apologized for not being more prompt.

Apologized? I was honored. And now he’s given me some serious reading to do. This is in addition to all the books and web materials I’ve amassed on my own. The pile is getting pretty high. But that’s not all.

THEN he agreed to be on our board of advisers. And the good news kept on flowing.

Belinda Wright, the Executive Director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India in New Delhi also agreed to be one of the advisers on the book! A former photographer and filmmaker, she transformed her passion for  conservation into this nonprofit that tackles India’s wildlife crisis.  She reminded me (because apparently she keeps immaculate records) that we had a couple conversations in the past about small cat-related pieces I worked on at National Geographic. Extremely knowledgeable as well as pleasant and engaging, I’m thrilled to have her input. She also is good friends with Dr. Ullas Karanth, whose The Way Of the Tiger, is sitting beside me as I write. He’s one of India’s top tiger experts and I’m thrilled to have a connection to him. To write about tigers in India, I need to talk to people in India!

AND by some lucky stroke of fate, Fahreen at Dakini found a high school friend through Facebook who has worked with Ullas Karanth, has been studying tigers for the past 18 years, who knows Pench, my tiger reserve, and will help me understand what its like to walk through that jungle!!!

I’ve been peppering these folks with questions ranging from “How much does a tiger weigh at 10 months?” to “Describe the sounds they make when their eating.” Belinda wrote a beautiful description of the sounds you hear in the jungle when a tiger is present–and what you hear when all is calm.

Why ask such things? I learn so much from books and academic papers, but to engage readers and make them feel as if they are standing right beside the tiger, I need to appeal to their senses. I need to find out what this particular jungle smells like, what it sounds like, what the air feels like. When you walk through one of the jungle paths, what sound does your feet make? Describe a tiger alert. Describe a tiger’s smell. With such a tight deadline there’s no way I can make it to Pench–besides, it’s rainy season–but I can learn from people who’ve taken the walks I’d like to someday.

The fact is no books, magazine articles or websites on any natural history subject would ever reach the public if not for the generous nature of biologists like these folks to share their expertise with writers like me.  I’ve dealt with many scientists in my career and if I had my choice, I’d work with biologists for the rest of my life. By far, they are my favorite group. Perhaps it’s because they study life.

How do you get someone to care about tigers?

One of those adorable faces at the Wild Animal Sanctuary, Keenesburg, Colorado. But don't get too close!

Writing the Book, Post #2

As I write each paragraph of the story of the Indian Tigress and her cubs, thoughts like this go though my head.

Sure, there are cat lovers, people who are going to oooo and ahhhhh over the adorable photos (see right). There are environmentally minded folk concerned about preserving the earth. Biologists, naturally, care about preserving their species of interest.

But then there’s the rest of the world. And it takes more than cat lovers, enviros and scientists to save a species that could easily vanished from the earth’s wild places in less than a decade.

So how do you make someone who doesn’t think much about animals, who’s more concerned with, say, paying the electric bill and what to have for dinner on any given night, care about tigers?

I was thinking such thoughts this morning on my commute to work on Washington, D.C.’s Metro. I love riding the metro because it gives me a solid 20 minutes of reading time. (And believe me, a working mama can get a lot done in 20 minutes.) Today, I was reading Valmik Thapar’s Tiger: The Ultimate Guide. Thapar is a big deal tiger conservationist, mainly associated with a major tiger reserve north of Pench, the one I’m writing about. I like his book because he’s extremely knowledgeable about the species but also because he has so many first-hand encounters with Panthera tigris.

In a section about the family breakup, he writes something that amazed me:

“I often wonder what exactly happens as family groups break up. After watching wild tigers for decades, I remain convinced that you cannot generalize about this or anything else to do with their behavior.”

I don’t know why this should surprise me so. Why should different animal families of the same species reach certain milestones at exactly the same time? The animals certainly have individual traits and personalities, so why shouldn’t their family dynamics be just as diverse?

Before reading this, I thought I was writing a story about a tiger family. Now, I realize I’m writing a story about THIS particular tiger family—and the distinction is important. For example, while my tigress may not associate with the father of her cubs (she doesn’t as far as we can tell), some tigress actually do.  While my tigress leaves the cubs for days in search of a meal or to lure threats away from her young, other tiger mothers make a different calculation. Such divergent actions point to the fact that female tigers think, decide and act upon information in their environment and weigh the effect their choice will have on their offspring.

Very much like a human mother. Hmm.

Once I started thinking about this tigress as an individual, her story looked different to me. Writing a tale of one individual—any individual— in the context of the wide world is far more interesting than writing about a representation for an entire species.

What a difference a commute to work makes.

It’s A Deal!

Writing the Book, Post #1

I’ve hit my version of nirvana: I’m going to write a book on one of my favorite subjects.

For money!

A few years, a whole other job and one child ago, a publishing company in London tracked me down. I had written an article for National Geographic magazine about a family of cheetahs that had survived for three generations in Kenya. (Very rare. Despite their speed, those cats are fragile). The company was in the process of securing rights to photographs of a similar tiger family in India that had been captured by a film crew in the process of shooting a BBC documentary. Would I be interested in writing the text?

Does a cat purr?

A bobcat blocks my vision.

I know a fair amount about cats, both the jungle kind and housebroken variety. The obsession started in childhood with a lonely kitten a friend gave me for my birthday when I was about five and has been in full force ever since. Truthfully,  watching any animal in the wild and contemplating its behavior and motivations can fascinate me for hours. But my first love is the cat. It never really leaves you.

Flash forward again. When I worked as a reporter for Reader’s Digest, I traveled to the plains of Colorado to profile a man who had spent decades and every dime he ever made building a 160-acre sanctuary for unwanted and abused wild animals. Along with lions, leopards, grizzly and black bears, mountain lions, bobcats, and a sole emu, he had 75 Bengal tigers on this property. Let me say that again. SEVENTY FIVE Bengal tigers, in all their black and pumpkin-colored glory.

Do you realize you could never EVER see 75 tigers in their natural habitat? Or maybe any where else on earth? These animals had no where else to go. Bred or imported for circuses, roadside attractions or idiots who think they can raise—and feed—a 600-pound wild animal, these cats came to Pat Craig sick, injured, malnourished, fearful and angry. Pat and his crew nourish them back to health, serves them food specifically designed for their needs and, yes, hangs out with them. He can actually pet one.

Two Bengals from the Wildlife Animal Sanctuary. The hand is mine.

Through a massive chain-linked fence, I touched one, too. That gorgeous coat bristles more than you’d think and these cats live in relative luxury, having their nutritional needs met, never hunting their own food. I looked into its golden flecked eyes at close range. I watched the muscles and sinews flex. They are truly awesome.

This story, plus the cheetah tale and various other bits I’d written, got me to thinking about the precarious plight of the big cats.  It’s easy to love them. They’re beautiful, their cubs are freakin’ adorable, their coats look soft and cuddly (a myth, but we’ll chat about that later).  But most of them–cheetahs, tigers, etc.–may not be around on their planet for much longer. I’m no pessimist, but with dwindling habitats where they can thrive, their survival is simply not a guarantee. Why this is so is no real mystery: Man.

My publishing friends in London tell me that India has taken the bold step of reducing tiger tours, a fairly lucrative revenue stream for them no doubt, to allow the big cats some privacy. Maybe this book can help, too. Most of the profits we make will go to big cat non-profits working to save their existence. (Read about Dakini Press’s super-human efforts to get this project off the ground.)

I’ll be blogging about the writing process, learning lots more about the cats and undoubtedly working out some of the kinks in the text as I go. All feedback welcomed. As long as it’s civil.

Riding Away

Riding Away

mother child sign loveBy Carol Kaufmann, Mama Tricks

Months after my son’s first day of school, I can honestly say I haven’t moved past the initial sendoff.

The crunch of the holiday season should have pushed memories of fall on the cerebral back burner, but it’s taken some time to process that my baby is now a student. Each morning he rides off with other, bigger kids to a place where I’m not. Thinking about that initial shock still fills me with both head-swelling pride and full-blown anxiety.

At 8:20 that morning, we stand at our door, set for the big departure. It’s a crisp September morning. But I’m afraid that, somehow, we’ll miss the pint-sized preschool bus. I don’t know how small it is, exactly.

I look at Luke, my Big Proud Three-year-old in his maroon hoodie and slightly big-around-the-waist khaki pants, carrying a small canvas book bag embossed with Star Wars action figures, all ready.  How is this possible?

We’re on time, miraculously, for the big day. We’ve eaten our cereal, brushed our teeth, we’re dressed. Even Baby Sister Sara Clare—all of two—has her play clothes on. I write “we” not to imply that I am in any way together, much less ready for work, but because I still think of my kids as part of me.

I peer out over the front stoop, making sure the bus isn’t at the stoplight, though with a screen door full of transparent glass, there’s really no way I could miss it. I keep looking back at Luke to make sure he’s still there, still my little boy.

Then, he announces he wants eggs.

My God, his wheatie O’s must not have cut it because clearly I’ve not given him a good breakfast. To the pan! No time for whisking in a separate bowl that makes the eggs light and fluffy! Milk goes right in skillet on top of the sunny-colored yolks. Five minutes later, both children have scrambled eggs, buttered toast and more milk in their cups. But at 8:25 with the bus due at 8:30, there’s no time to actually dine at the kitchen table, yards away from the full-on view of the road.

“Special treat!” Mama uses the code words that capture their attention quicker than our fat cats jump at the sound of dry cat food ringing in porcelain bowls. “We’re going to make egg sandwiches, guys! On the stairs!”  In front of the door.

Anything that smacks of a picnic brings the troops to prompt attention. The kids toddle to the steps, plop down and attempt to fold a single piece of bread over their scrambled eggs. A mixed success, yellow morsels fall over the carpeted stairs and, of course, begin to grind their way in.

The kids looooovvveee eating those egg sandwiches on the steps. Big brother helps little sis by cramming tiny pinches of bread into her mouth and they’re giggling. I’m having fun, too, though I hover over Luke’s spanking-clean school clothes, all the while keeping an eye out for the bright-yellow kidnapping machine that will interrupt. I now hope it will roll merrily by.

Eggs finished more or less, we go outside. Sara immediately runs into a neighbor’s yard, out of my reach. Luke begins to dismantle a dead butterfly.

“Look, Mommy! His legs!” Luke holds up sad bugs appendages. The kids drift further away physically, but in other ways too. I try to put a positive spin on this realization and figure that with Luke’s dissecting abilities, he’ll ace biology.

Anxiety crowds in. Maybe it’s because somewhere in the recesses of our minds, mothers will always be preparing their children for the next step, though unsure about how the hell to do it. I don’t know how my little guy will react when the bus pulls up. His preschool is in our church so he’s seen his classroom, but this is different. New teachers, new kids, new smells, new structure.  Though he’s only three, school implies expectation and I don’t know if I’ve prepped him well enough to compete or thrive with his peers who will have minds and three-year-old agendas of their own. And I can’t decide if it matters.

I check the sky, actually hoping for a sudden downpour. Luke has developed a sudden fear of water and yesterday a monsoon had moved in. “It’s getting deeper!” Luke wailed at the gushing water and clung on to me. We don’t know why water scares him. I hear that toddlers develop irrational fears without warning and I pray school’s not one of them. But, here on his first day, there’s no rain. No excuse to keep him inside in my cocoon.

When the bus comes, chills run down my damp back, which always seems to have a layer of permanent sweat these days. The miniature bus looks like a third of the size of school buses I remember, with twelve tiny toddler seats, belts dangling, their buckles clacking. I love it, I hate it.

My big boy climbs on, big as you please, with Mommy escorting him, per bus rules.

“I do it myself, Mommy.” He buckles up the belt with no help from me.

Snapped in place, he smiles so big my heart crumples into a million bits. His excitement is palpable—and hopefully contagious because the other kids looked kind of dour. I click a few pics for the memory book.

Sara Clare climbs on too, and plops in the seat opposite her brother. Getting her off the bus is no easy task. “Sara go to school!” she insists.

“Next year, baby.” Or maybe never.

As the bus pulls away, I hold her on the sidewalk as we look through the small windows and see a silhouette of Luke’s curly blond hair framed in the window. His hand is waving, he’s looking straight at me. He grins like Candy Land is awaiting him. And who knows? Maybe that’s how he sees it.

At least, that’s what I’ve told myself every day since.

Carol Kaufmann regularly shares her “Mama Tricks” with The Well Mom. Her work has appeared in Reader’s Digest,National Geographic, The Washington Post, and in the anthology, A Woman’s Europe.  She lives in Alexandria, VA with her husband, two children and two obese rescue cats.


First appeared on, January 6, 2010.