In the War on Head Lice, Waving a White Flag.

When I was eight months pregnant with our first child, Amit and I attended the free class on childbirth at the hospital where I would later deliver. Enormous, flatulent, and generally grumpy, I remember little pangs of horror as each of what seemed to be 43 phases of the birthing process was explained in mucus-filled detail. Just when I thought I had hit my saturation point for disgust, the friendly nurse finally delivered the communal plastic baby. My relief was short-lived, however, because she then picked up a small metal pan and took us through phase 44.

That was it for me. I gagged, felt a burn of vomit line the bottom of my throat, and said to Amit: I need to get the f— out of here.

I thought of that birthing class roughly six years later, the first time my daughter got head lice. Nothing prepares you for the moment you see live bugs crawling in your child’s scalp, newly hatched from the telltale white egg casings you now spot with each stroke of the comb. Of the many cruelties delivered by this singular rite of parental passage, the worst is that it typically strikes first blood when your child is school-aged, and you have seen, smelled, wiped, treated, and conquered all manner of revolting phenomena: birthing phases 1 through 44; clogged ducts; being puked on for a solid year, and occasionally thereafter; the fecal fallout when a poop-filled diaper comes apart just as you push it into the Genie. It’s all done now, and you’ve developed a false sense of security that the worst of the preternaturally gross is behind you. It’s been a while since anything related to child rearing made you gag.

Welcome to head lice. Or, if you like, pediculus humanus capitis.

My call came one afternoon in early December, which happened to be the day of our firm’s holiday party. I needn’t even say that the school nurse called me, as opposed to my husband, who at the time worked at the same exact job in the same exact law firm. Over time I have concluded that were I to complete the annual school forms such that Amit was listed as “Snuffaluffogus,” and his contact number was the GEICO insurance quote line, it wouldn’t matter in the least. That school nurse calls ME, the mother, first, last, only and always. Most days I might admit I prefer it that way. Not this day.

My first reaction was indignant disbelief. She had made it through three years of pre-school, and now a half year of public school kindergarten without a single nit, and in my arrogance I had quietly identified the kids who seemed to “tend toward” getting lice. It was so unfortunate for those families, but aside from cautioning Devan not to swap winter hats (hardly a risk, given her singular taste in accessories), I worried about head lice about as much as I worried she’d get giardia from the school drinking fountain.

Still holding out hope that the nurse was mistaken, I barreled up Connecticut Avenue to collect my sweet girl, unjustly miscast into the ranks of the infested. I’ll never forget Devan’s little face as she sat on the windowsill of the office, hugging her legs to her chest, her hair greased and pulled back into a braid. As I took her hand to go, the school registrar asked me to complete the “sign-out” log.

Child/Date/Time/Reason.

Scanning the sheet, there were at least a dozen names above Devan’s. Twelve kids, one reason.

Lice.

Lice.

Lice.

Lice.

Lice.

Lice….

In that moment, I silently apologized to every child and parent who had faced down this pestilence before me. I realized the inconvenient truth about head lice – that if you have a kid, and that kid goes to school, there is exactly one difference between your child and the one who seems to “tend toward” getting head lice: time.

That epiphany aside, there was now the question of what the hell to do about it. The nurse had rattled off some basic treatment advice, but I’d been too disoriented to pay close enough attention. This left a few options: the internet; my friends who (yes) had been among those families; and, well, those were the only options.

Besides, there was the all-important matter of making it to my firm’s holiday party that night. How long would this lice remediation process take? Would I definitely miss the cocktail hour? Our sitter was coming at 6:30. It was now 2:30. There had to be a way to get this under control – indeed, eradicated entirely – in four full hours.

One of my first calls was fortuitous: as I stood in the CVS with a hand basket filled with Rid, I heard back from “Amy,” who in a hushed and harried tone told me in no uncertain terms what I needed to do.

“Listen, I don’t have a lot of time. I’m going to give you a name, and a phone number, and you need to stop what you are doing and call that number. Just do what I’m telling you.”

Then she was gone. For a split second, I wondered if she’d been so beaten down by head lice infestations that she was sending me to her drug dealer.

I dialed the number and reached Al, the proprietor of Advice on Lice.

Al and his wife run a “salon” in Kensington, and though I couldn’t have known it at the time, Amit and I would come to ensure Al and Wife of Al an enviable retirement. On that day, I just thanked God he had an opening, and I had a solution.

Al made Devan comfortable, put her in a smock, let her choose from a full wall of kids’ movies on DVD, and – with his patient thusly anesthetized – set to work. Instinctively, I reached for my IPhone to begin returning work emails from the past few hours. After all, I had done what Amit and I often do best: outsource a problem, eat the accompanying cost, and justify it in light of the fact that we are really, really busy people with busy jobs and, after all, headed into a busy holiday schedule.

I was therefore a little taken aback when Al summoned me over to Devan’s chair. What did he need me for? With an almost sinister glee, he held up his tweezers, then placed their contents onto a paper towel.

“That’s a live bug.”

Under the glare of the fluorescent lights, and against the contrast of the white paper towel, the bug took its full, wretched, kinetic form. It was phase 44 all over again. I gagged.

Al stared into my pekid face. “That’s what we’re up against.”

When it seemed socially appropriate, I scurried back to my seat and called Amit to remind him that if he was doing anything other than appreciating that I was the one looking down this uniquely shitty barrel, his time was sorely misspent.

I looked at my watch. How the hell was it already 4:30? The traffic back into the city would be horrible.

Foolishly thinking I might “speed the process” along, I sidled up to Al, who paid me no mind whatsoever as he worked on the second third of Devan’s neatly segmented scalp. My impatience eventually gave way to fascination as I watched Al ply his trade. Working through the tiniest section of hair at a time – indeed, only a small number of strands – he moved his lice comb in quick, focused, sweeping motions, stopping to hold the comb to the light every three or four strokes. Another nit gone. Unsatisfied, he took the same group of strands back into his hand, and combed from the other direction. Three strokes, hold the comb to the light. Repeat.

Three hours and a few hundred dollars later, Devan was picked clean. Though there was the slight consolation that the fee could be paid from our Health Savings Account, by no means was Al a cheap date. Still, I reasoned, my pristinely deloused daughter and I could be home in plenty of time for me to throw on a cocktail dress and dash downtown.

That’s when Al gave me the sheet of instructions, along with my very own lice comb and plastic spray bottle. At first I thought they were parting gifts, an insurance plan in case Devan were ever to be so unlucky down the road.

Not exactly.

It turns out that if you really want to rid your child of head lice, you might get a nice leg up from Al, but you’d better settle in for the long haul. My assignment was twice a day combing, Al-style, with the morning version less painstaking so there might be some prayer of Devan actually getting to school. But the evening was the full, section-by-section, three strokes and hold-comb-to-the-light endeavor.

Meanwhile, as word spread among my friends, I got a litany of differing Advice on Lice, from the comical to the apocryphal.

“You need to go get tea tree oil. Seriously. Keeps em away forever. By the way, Emily can’t make it for the play date next week.”

“Ohmigod, don’t believe that nonsense about tea tree oil. The lice just f—ing bathe in it. Mayonnaise, and a plastic shower cap. Trust me. ”

“Burn everything you own, starting with all your sheets.”

“Freeze her stuffed animals overnight.”

“Forget freezing, freezing is bullshit – it won’t kill them. Put everything in your dryer for an hour, on its highest setting.”

“From now on, mousse her hair like it’s the 80’s all over again. Better yet, mousse it, then dry it under high heat. They’ll never come back.”

“Dude, I don’t know what to say. You are so f—ed.”

It hadn’t occurred to me that the enemy was already inside my house. I hadn’t thought about how to protect Kian, or what might be lurking on the multitude of fabric covered surfaces that both of their heads touch daily. All this contradictory advice sent me into a panicked and ineffectual spiral of activity: tossing all of their stuffed animals out onto the back deck for the overnight freeze; stripping beds; running a vacuum obsessively over couch cushions.

Needless to say, I’d missed the cocktail hour. I put my dress and heels on anyway. The night was still young.

When I gathered my wits about me, I turned back to the patient. It was time for the first of the aforementioned comb-outs. Having spent the equivalent of three nice date nights on Al, I was damn well going to follow his method. That’s when I noticed Devan had a big smile on her face, though it would be a few outbreaks later before I figured out why.

With a floor lamp, a stack of cushions covered in an old towel, and my Al supplies, I turned the basement family room into our own little delousing salon. As Devan munched on her pizza, I told her she could watch one of the tween shows on Disney Channel that I typically forbid. Then I set to work: section; spray; comb-comb-comb; hold comb to the light. Repeat. Put clean section in sanitized pony holder. Begin next section.

Somewhere between Devan’s third piece of pizza and the end of dinner service at the firm holiday party, we got to talking about a girl in her class she’d been having some trouble with, and I learned her creative plan to remedy the situation. I admitted that the show she’d just watched wasn’t so bad, and explained that my main objection to what Disney puts on for kids is that the parents are depicted as foolish, or irrelevant, or just plain absent. She told me she’d never noticed that before. Meanwhile, Kian delighted in this odd little Friday night party, as he maneuvered his Thomas trains around the track he’d laid out at my feet.

I kicked off my heels.

Three months later, the call came again, and I was back retrieving Devan from the Windowsill of the Damned. There were return trips to Al. There were more frostbitten dolls and Stuffies. It wasn’t fun, and it definitely wasn’t pretty. The bugs were no less disgusting, and the process no less onerous. But when there’s an invader in the capitis of the humanus you love, there isn’t a whole lot of choice. That eleventh hour parenting class was the last time you could get up and just walk the f— out the door. Phases 45 through infinity involve sticking around and doing whatever it takes.

And yet, I didn’t gag anymore, not even when I was the first to extract a live bug and place it on a paper towel.

“Amit, come here. This is what we’re up against.”

We are, indeed, up against it. The bad news is that the betting odds are on these bugs sticking around. Recent studies show that lice are developing resistance and mutating in response to existing treatments. The result is that treating head lice with Rid alone these days is like bringing a plastic spork to a gun fight.

They’ve adapted. We have to as well.

The good news, at least for me, was that the best weapon in the fight was one I sorely needed to remaster anyway. The only difference between that first December call and the ones that eventually followed was that I settled in. I stopped thinking like the guy who as I write this is trying to make a better bottle of Rid.

That business development dinner on Tuesday? Not happening. XYZ firm’s rooftop cocktail mixer on Friday? There’ll always be another one. In its place, and what was hidden behind Devan’s smile, was the stretch of nights where we both knew exactly what we would be doing.

To be sure, I don’t claim that an evening that starts with a lice comb, a stack of cushions and an old towel is anyone’s idea of a great time. And to my fellow soldiers in this war, if you’ve found your failsafe remedy in tea trees or a jar of Hellman’s, I salute you. But should I ever get asked, I will recommend those basement hours, plus take-out food, TV on a weeknight, and some unscripted moments of conversation. Wave your white paper towel, and surrender to the unitask. Time is the only thing that makes a difference.

So What If My Kids Stink at Sports?

Though nothing is certain, it is possible that both of our children may stink at team sports.

I accept this piece of information the way I accept that they don’t sleep in on weekends, or as I accept differences in their personalities, musical tastes, or favorite foods. I also meet it with recognition, for there is no question that if current trends persist, my genetic contribution is 100% the causal factor.

My husband is a wonderful athlete. I knew that piece of information when we were dating, having spied the trophies and “Scholar Athlete” plaques in his parents’ home. But I didn’t really grasp what it meant until, in a quaint moment of fawning crush-dom I attended one of his softball games on the Mall and watched him field a line drive at shortstop and make a throw to first base for the out. In the years that followed, I have watched him sink baseline shots in basketball, throw a perfect spiral down 30 yards of beach on Cape Cod, and carve his skis into fresh snow. He moves with a confidence bestowed on the few who assume without question that their bodies will heed rapid fire messages from their brains about where each fiber and limb needs to be in the next moment. He has a lifetime of muscle memory reassuring him that this will happen. He makes it all look quite beautiful.

And I . . . don’t.

Before we had kids, Amit found my clumsiness somewhat endearing. Like my brother and father before him, he would QB games of touch football, drawing intricate plays on his hand for every able teammate in the huddle before looking at me and saying, “Caroline, you go long.” On one occasion, he returned the moment of fawning crush-dom by delivering a perfectly thrown pass into my hands in the end zone. I was equal parts stunned and elated. It never happened again, but I cherish the memory.

From time to time, I remind him that he married me with clear-eyed, irrefutable notice that I had spent a lifetime being picked last for teams.

Yet, two school-aged kids later, and despite his fervent denials, he is concerned. It was one thing when our daughter failed to embrace D.C.’s ubiquitous Stoddert youth soccer program. We dutifully procured the cleats and knee pads, took photos when she donned her Blue Jaguars jersey, and then sat through three seasons and forty hours of her unveiled disdain for the activity itself. Amit’s eyes rolled back into his skull when she declared that soccer was simply “too runny.” He swore to all who would listen, and those of us trying to tune him out, that when it came to our children being part of a “team sport,” this wasn’t over.

Meanwhile, I did a secret happy dance that, at least as to one child, our lives might not be beholden to travel teams, sidelines indenture alongside unhinged parents, and weekends spent apart to “support” each child’s quest within this narrow category of life’s accomplishments.

Time and again, I would (and still do) ask: Devan plays her guitar, loves her Indian dance lessons, and swims for the joy of it. What’s so wrong with that?

While he hasn’t given up on our daughter, our son is Amit’s second bite at this peculiarly fraught apple. Kian is a big kid, forecasted by our pediatrician to scale past 6 feet one day (score exactly one for my genetic contributions). He is also the single happiest and most contented person I have ever met, which is why when Amit announced that he would be coaching Kian’s first baseball team, I forced a smile and choked back a throat-ful of ambivalence.

From his place at the helm of the Mud Skippers, Amit has now had a chance to see our son among his peer group, a few members of which appear to have been raised in batting cages. While there is a wide range of skill on display, my husband hones in on the outliers, the ones who can already throw a baseball the way a baseball is supposed to be thrown. A small handful can consistently hit the ball well into the outfield. Intellectually, he knows that the vast majority of the team is a sweet display of earnest ineptitude and gooey smiles. But to Amit, the little boy who can already throw a ball properly most certainly has a more capable father who has fulfilled a sacred and timeless promise of parenthood. It pains him viscerally when our little guy launches the ball in a crazy arch along the side of his body, like a soldier unleashing a grenade. When I point out how much distance he was able to achieve with this technique, Amit sighs and shakes his head.

Parenthood is a fascinating journey, replete with opportunities to worry, to doubt, to aspire, and to teach. But there are moments when the issue at hand – in this case, our kids and sports – triggers polar opposite worries in each parent, and the lessons we each feel compelled to impart are in tension. We both agree that, all things being equal, being on a team is a valuable experience that we would like our children to have. But like our respective athletic abilities, all things are rarely equal, and the lens through which we watch our kids lace up their cleats is indelibly shaded by our own experiences.

Despite my limited skills, I too played sports as a kid. In a simpler time, there were enough youth recreation leagues that would take the “dabbler,” who even at the ripe old age of 9 had never dribbled a basketball but was willing to try. If these opportunities exist today, it is sure hard to find them in this achievement-drunk city, but through sponsorships of my small town’s athletic council, or the Rotary Club, or the Church’s CYO, I was able to play Lassie League softball, and basketball, and tennis.

In softball, I would occasionally eke out a single, then jog with my glove to the far, far outfield where I was spared the stress of ever having to make a play on defense. Away from the harried action, I could think about boys, plan my next day’s outfit and look forward to the post-game trip to Dairy Queen.

My contributions on the basketball court were typically limited to winning the tip off, thanks to my height advantage, and then getting subbed out almost immediately to assist our manager with the time clock and scoreboard. This persisted through middle school and beyond: for some reason, it went unquestioned that when winter rolled around, so did basketball. Though I never improved, somehow there was always a uniform and a nice spot on the bench for me. Eventually, it became socially awkward to be a junior playing on the freshman team, and I called it a day.

As for tennis, I made the last slot on the varsity team after the coach assessed us in a stroke clinic inside the gym. When the snow melted and we actually took to the tennis court, it became apparent that even the fiercest backhand required one to run to where one’s opponent had hit the ball. Bemused by my efforts to return any shot from exactly where my feet were comfortably planted, our coach nicknamed me The Tree. Still, I made some good friends and enjoyed the bus rides.

Meanwhile, on the fields and courts of Reisterstown, Maryland, Amit was having an entirely different time of it, never suspecting he would one day throw his genetic lot in with The Tree.

Yet here we are. We walk those histories right onto our children’s playing fields, where Amit looks at those Mud Skippers who seem destined for greatness, and on some subconscious level, he sees himself. He can’t grasp that in our little boy dancing around first base, struggling to keep the batting helmet on his head, and chatting up his opponent, I see myself. For vastly different reasons, we both wonder what will happen from here.

When we talk about sports as character-building, we don’t tend to specify which aspects of character we mean. Sports gave Amit positive attention and leadership roles. His lessons were about confidence and honing innate talent, through practice and teamwork, into success. Mine were about humility, persistence that defied all rationality, and learning to pick myself up after an inordinate amount of defeat.

All those uniforms and practices and smelly locker rooms later, it’s an open question whether sports were all that great for my self-esteem, especially where the things in which I did excel were so undervalued socially. At the Awards Day assembly at the end of each year, I would dread hearing my name read as winner of the Spanish Medal, or the History Prize, scurrying across the stage in shame because I had never – and would never – earn the Presidential Fitness Award.

F—ing chin ups.

F—ing shuttle run.

So I will admit that when I sense that our kids may be cut more from my side of the cloth, I occasionally fight the urge to take their hand in mine and walk right off that field. That urge does not mean that I would steer them away from competition, or from making fitness a priority in their lives, or from the bond formed from being part of a team. But I look around this wonderful city where we chose to raise our family, and I marvel at the opportunities to explore, create and excel far from the sports arenas. Today, our kids’ victories may well spring from poetry slams, or one-act play competitions, or Bollywood dance meets. I want them to swim, and to run, and to learn that their bodies are powerful and capable machines. I hope they get to experience hoisted-on-shoulders elation. But above all, I want them to know that their mind is the only muscle that will chart their ultimate course.

And yet, it is profoundly important to Amit that Kian learns to throw that ball, that he learns these games. It is far more important to me that his spirit keeps dancing. He sees no tension in these goals, whereas I see it in spades. He thinks it is important that Kian at least tries. I can’t argue with that, though after four decades this may be the moment my husband will know what it is to try… and still kind of stink up the joint.

But who knows? I may be completely wrong, and one or both of them will become excellent athletes, who will one day QB our family football game and tell their old mother to “go long.” Like so many other parts of being a parent, I can’t predict it, or control it, or foretell it. But no matter what, I want my kids to see countless paths to their own moments of glory.

Amit does too.

But first, they need to learn how to throw the damn ball.

The Pope and Me and What Might Have Been

The Pope is here today, just three miles from my home. As I write this, he is at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, with joyful throngs cheering him in the streets and the lucky few joining him inside.

My friend Sylvia has been texting me her updates on Francis sightings, jogging from one place on his route to another. Truly, it’s a great day, made holier by the gift of a cloudless sky and a fall breeze rustling the still-green leaves. Once upon a time, this day would have meant something different to me, as it does to Sylvia, and 70 million other American Catholics.

I am sad that it doesn’t. Some part of me wonders if I left a great party too soon. Other parts tell me otherwise.

As we watched a Pope and a President speak outside the White House, our new Brazilian au pair asked me if I was Catholic. Instinctively, I gave the same answer I have given for the past twenty years:

I was raised Catholic.

I say no more, but even a native Portugese speaker gets the meaning in those four words.

And was I ever raised Catholic. Not the version that my parents were, with angry nuns who never wanted to be schoolmarms rapping their wrists, measuring girls’ skirts and previewing Hell like it was one false move away.

No, I had an awesome Catholic upbringing, in a small parish nestled between Boston and Worcester. From my earliest memory, Sundays (and, occasionally, Saturday evenings, so long as it was after 5:00 so it “counted”) meant the five of us, my family, wedged in a pew at St. Luke’s.

Looking back, I realize that in many ways it was the being there that mattered, that my parents demanded that one hour of us, free of even the 1970’s and 80’s version of distractions. Even as we squirmed, elbowed, and got uncontrollable “Church laugh” triggering a mildly stern look from my mother, we were there. The rituals of Mass moved us through sits and stands, affirmations of faith that rolled off our tongues, and offerings of peace.

We went. We went even on summer vacation, my siblings and I making vocal and, if I may say, compelling entreaties as we were hauled out of a perfect late afternoon playing in Long Pond. My mother was the stalwart, my father likely on our side but too afraid of either Mom or those darned nuns of his memory threatening eternal consequences. Our Lady of Lourdes in Wellfleet was stifling hot, with tiny windows beneath the stained glass Stations of the Cross opened just enough so we could hear kids having what I imagined was the greatest time imaginable as an octogenarian priest mumbled into the chalice.

But St. Luke’s was different, and special – maybe too special as it turned out. We had Father Tom Sullivan, a gifted speaker and soulful thinker who made it his mission to be part of the larger community of a small town. He organized summer bus trips to Hampton Beach, which were open to any tween or teen in town who wanted to come. Busloads did, and we had a fabulous time. For the CYO’s annual fundraiser, called the Rock-A-Thon, half of Westborough Junior High – Catholic or not – filled the parish center with rocking chairs, junk food, boom boxes and sleeping bags, where we rocked for a solid 24 hours. When we were older, Father Tom took those of us who were interested into Boston to see wonderful foreign films, like Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring. He saw no tension between open minds and faithful hearts.

It made him, and us, no less Catholic that he advocated inclusion and acceptance. I remember a full sermon dedicated to condemning anti-Semitism, which must have been prompted by some incident of which I was blissfully unaware. And one day, out of the blue, processing up the aisle wearing white vestments were. . . girls. Altar girls. It’s hardly radical now, but I remember the turning heads and whispers among everyone over 40 at the time. I’m pretty sure Father Tom didn’t wait for the Vatican, or for that matter the Worcester Archdiocese, to approve. By the third week, it was normal.

This was my Catholic Church, less chosen than it was simply given, handed down through generations of families very much like mine. This was where we mourned our grandparents, celebrated marriages, welcomed new babies. This was part of being Irish, even after a century of assimilation. In so many ways, the Church strengthened my family. That’s an awful lot to leave behind.

I never considered myself a “Cafeteria Catholic” until someone assigned the term to me and my kind when I was in college. I should have pointed out that the better analogy would be trying to order a la carte from a prix fixe menu with no substitutions. Like so many other American Catholics, I was comfortable turning a blind eye to Church positions that conflicted with my own core, and emerging, values and beliefs. I was certain I’d bested my challengers in dorm room debates on whether being Catholic could live alongside advocacy for reproductive rights and support for LGBT equality.

I was certain of all that, until I wasn’t.

In 1996, my friends Chris and Meg were married at the Catholic chapel at Brown University. I was honored that they asked me to read the Petitions, the part of Mass following Communion when individual prayers are offered with the congregation responding to each: “Lord, Hear our Prayer.” They handed me my script a few days before the wedding. I read it, re-read it, and asked them if they were really sure. They were sure. It was the Brown chapel, after all. They could get away with it.

And so, from up on the altar, after the standard petitions praying for those who had died, and the sick and needy, I read:

“We pray today for all couples who love. And we wait in joyful anticipation of the day your Church will welcome our gay brothers and sisters in the same union of your love as Christopher and Meghan share today. We pray to The Lord…”

Even with their heads bowed, I could see my newly wedded friends’ smiles. As for the rest of the congregation, it was a little like that day at St. Luke’s when the altar girls walked in. A few great aunts and uncles looked stricken. There were some shrugs and a good number of nodding heads. This was almost twenty years ago.

At the reception, I started talking with Meg’s aunt about what I had read. She was a liberal feminist, and yet a Catholic, who of course loved this small act of defiance. I told her I didn’t think I could do it anymore. I was tired of living a version of Catholic faith where being true to other things I believed felt like trying to get away with something. I couldn’t reconcile that I was welcomed and comfortable in that pew only by the happenstance of how God made me. I only had so many blind eyes. It was a great conversation and ended in tears. She made a powerful pitch I still remember all these years later: If we don’t stay, nothing will change. I disagreed, and in the end we reached this consensus: Some of us need to stay, and some of us need to go.

I went. In my memory, that was the moment I started saying, I was raised Catholic.

And yet, today is hard. It’s hard for the same reason that thousands like me who no longer practice the faith still don’t have a name for what it means to have left it, or if it’s fully possible to leave it. There wouldn’t be such terms as “Culturally Catholic,” or the dismissive “Recovering Catholic” if there was an easy way to answer my au pair’s question with a simple “no.”

But whether as a citizen or a Catholic, surely this papacy is to be celebrated, even for those of us wondering whether we should have held in there longer. There is an inescapable feeling that this is the Pope so many of us were waiting for, and it is an honor to host him. Let’s face it: he’s the Joe Biden of popes, almost impossible not to like. I love the Fiat, the simple white vestments, the hundreds of embraces amidst untold security threats.

If nothing else, may we never see another Prada Papacy. May this Pope’s example of humility echo across our overheated planet. May his recasting of climate change as a call to conscience move the recalcitrant toward action.

Like many others, though, I fear that Pope Francis is a Rorschach test for Cafeteria Catholics, whose desperation to hear and see what they want the Church to become risks clouding the reality of what it is and what those who control it will fight to have it remain. When that agenda is cast as “core doctrine,” the betting odds are not good that even a Church recommitted to raising people out of poverty will concede the life-saving power of self-determination over whether and how many children to create.

Even less certain is whether a man who famously said of a gay priest, “Who am I to judge?” might look into 1.3 billion faces and ask, “Who are you to judge?” Those 1.3 billion people trace their faith to a man born in poverty, who threatened the establishment, was persecuted for his beliefs and put to death by being nailed to a cross. It shouldn’t be a bridge too far to stop casting people into darkness in Christ’s name.

But for the first time I can remember, I have hope.

I still think about what Meg’s aunt said all those years ago, and I know I miss the sheer joy of belonging. I think of what substitute I have given my children for that one hour my parents insisted on, and I don’t have a good answer. I think of Father Tom and hope he wouldn’t be disappointed in me. From my place on the sidelines, I guess it’s a lot easier to assign hopes to this new Pope than it is to figure out where it all leaves me.

A few years ago, I took my parents to an Easter Sunday service at St. Columba’s Episcopal here in Washington. I assured them that it would be nearly indistinguishable from a Mass. As we waited outside for the earlier service to finish, for no reason I can think of I asked them who baptized me. Their faces fell for a second. Then, as only Dad can, he said, “Well, funny you should ask….”

Of course, it wasn’t funny at all that I was anointed with holy oil and welcomed into the faith by Bernard Lane, who turned out to be one of the most heinous pedophiles in the Boston sex abuse scandal. He was a parish priest in Littleton, where I was born, before he molested countless adolescent boys at Alpha Omega, a school for troubled kids who had already been in the juvenile system. When allegations arose, he was transferred to St. Peter’s in Lowell, then to St. Maria Goretti in Lynnfield; St. Charles in Waltham (where he was in charge of altar boys and catechism classes); St. Anthony’s in Cambridge; and Our Lady of Grace in Chelsea. Finally defrocked in 2005, he was never prosecuted and is said to live in New Hampshire.

As I absorbed this news, Mom put one arm around me, and Dad put his hands on my shoulders.

“Do you want a do-over?”

“No, thanks, I think I’m good.”

I can’t go back. But in that moment, and countless others, I have come to know that what matters is not that I was raised Catholic, but that I was raised by these two Catholics. Surely, the truest sign my life was graced by God were the hands on my shoulders that Easter morning. Leaders matter, and theirs was the moral leadership that never faltered, these two people who taught me that the only anathema is to deny the full dignity of anyone.

I didn’t stand along the street today, but I did call Mom.

She loves her new Pope.

A Farewell to Our Unlikely Au Pair.

For Este.

This weekend, we were treated to the first taste of fall weather. I remember promising you, around this time last year, that the oppressive D.C. heat would pass. Today it did, but you’ve already returned to late winter in Cape Town. Tonight, on our first Sunday without you, I tried my hand at your curried beef recipe. The smell of tumeric and onions cheered me a little, but it didn’t taste the same.

Did you really use a whole can of tomatoes?

And by the way, where do we keep our Worcestershire sauce?

The State Department has a web page describing the J-1 visa available through the au pair program. It reads:

Through the Au Pair program, participants and host families take part in a mutually rewarding, intercultural opportunity. Participants can continue their education while experiencing everyday life with an American family, and hosts receive reliable and responsible childcare from individuals who become part of the family.

It was with some trepidation that we decided to opt in for the “American family” half of that exchange. We had heard and considered every warning:

You’re basically adopting another child.

Do you really want an extra person living in your house, all the time? Won’t you miss your privacy?

My friend’s last au pair was such a nightmare. Seriously, she [crashed the car] [got pregnant] [left the kids alone for hours] [ran off with Ben Affleck].

Undaunted, I must have read fifty profiles of young women describing their child care experience, driving ability, and reasons for wanting to come thousands of miles to care for strangers’ children. I came back to yours, again and again.

I kept your profile on hold in my “Favorites” as long as I could. We were vacationing at Bethany Beach over July 4th when I squeezed the kids onto my lap for our Skype interview. There was something about you that drew me in from the start. Even with a year of data from which to sum it up, I still can’t. In fact, though my work and personal pursuits both involve harnessing words into service, I don’t know how to put words to the mark you left on our family.

So, for now – since I still cry once a day since our parting at Dulles – maybe that blurb from the State Department is as good a launching pad as any to take the measure of the past year.

…”a mutually rewarding, intercultural opportunity…”

As it is, America does a pretty bang up job of exporting our culture. We didn’t need to educate you about Taylor Swift (though the life-size cutout in our dining room did merit an explanation), or Jon Stewart, or the Obama kids. You arrived with a fully-formed crush on Mark Ronson, so one half of the exchange had a clear head start. A few months ago, we had a complete meeting of the minds as we dissected the Ariana Grande donut-licking incident, using it as a springboard for discussion with Devan about fame, entitlement, respect, and just plain tackiness.

I suspect your American education emerged more from the pieces that underscore our enduring struggle. If nothing else, I know you left with a different understanding that America is a study in contrasts, and very much a work in progress.

The exchange I didn’t expect, though, was viewing my country through a visitor’s eyes for a full year. And though you never asked me to, I can’t explain the chronic homelessness we allow to persist, particularly among the mentally ill, like the woman who accosted you with racial epithets at Z Burger. I can’t explain why we tolerate gun violence and mass shootings as a fact of life. I can’t explain how the same polity that celebrated the extension of full marriage rights to all co-exists with the Westboro Baptist Church, or Kim Davis and her jumpers. I certainly can’t explain Donald Trump.

What I’m most at a loss to explain is the shabby treatment that some of your au pair compatriots endured. I will never understand why people mistreat the person to whom they entrust the care of their children. On behalf of my city, my country, and decent people everywhere, I apologize for that host family who ate their au pair’s birthday cake that she had baked, by herself, to share with her friends. Or the family who kept threatening to withhold their au pair’s modest weekly pay. It’s bad enough these people procreated. I’m so sorry they disrespected your friends.

I will admit I indulged in the occasional schadenfreude, such as the host family with four kids, ages 5 to 11, all still in Pull-Up’s.

Like I said, I can’t explain.

As for your part of the bargain, you taught us to appreciate the basic efficiencies and security of American life. The kids shuddered at your description of the daily load-shedding in South Africa, when a nation’s progress is literally stunted as the electricity goes out for an unknown period because the government and its utility operators can’t or won’t construct a 21st century grid.

Your biggest surprise about America was that many people, even in the big cities, don’t lock their doors. In the last few weeks, we talked about your goal of bringing attention to the scourge of sexual violence against young girls in South Africa, which routinely goes un-prosecuted.

On a much brighter note, you shared some awesome exports as well. We will forever be grateful that you introduced us to Suzelle DIY, the South African Lucille Ball of YouTube. Just a few hours ago, Devan and Kian watched her new release, a tribute to Biltong Day. I may yet dress as Suzelle for Halloween and enjoy baffling the neighbors. Thanks to Spotify, from the first night you arrived we all listened to Mi Casa, a soul/house band out of Johannesburg. The Meerlust pinot noir your parents brought us put the best of Sonoma or the Willamette Valley to shame. And I promise you, one day we will join you at your home for a “Bring and Brai,”

“Participants can continue their education…”

You came to us a highly educated and accomplished journalist. Your English was perfect. I doubt that the art seminar (really, an extended tour of D.C. museums) that you took to fulfill your credits was a formative educational experience. Indeed, it’s a shame you couldn’t have checked this required box by teaching classes yourself. I would certainly pay to be in your photography class, and you are a true talent at graphic design, writing, and teaching two weary forty-something’s remedial computer technology.

But you spent your time wisely, and if I had to guess, your favorite classrooms were New Orleans, and Chicago, and New York, and the Rocky Mountains. It was an honor to visit some of those places with you.

Finally, there is that matter of “reliable and responsible childcare from individuals who become part of the family.”

To be perfectly honest, as a caregiver you were not exactly out of central casting. No one would put a guitar in your hands and leave you with the seven kids of a widowed Austrian naval officer, or expect you to descend by umbrella onto a London stoop. But that’s part of what I loved about you: your wry and knowing, but slightly biting, wit; your understated style and cool head.

From day one, when Devan would turn it up to 11, you delivered these deadpan zingers she had no idea how to respond to: “Devan, don’t mess with my stress.” Or: “Just chill, woman – I’m getting to it.” Or: “Devan, no one needs your backchat.” I loved them all.

As best I could, I had warned you that she would be your challenge, and that Kian would be his easy-going, Matchbox-obsessed self. It played out in just that way.

Toward the end of the summer, I could see your frustration level rise and a sense of defeat setting in. I understood the former, but didn’t grasp the latter until my own mother (an Este fan from the jump) said of you, “I think she thought she could make a change in Devan.”

My dear friend, I wish you’d told me so. I should have figured as much when I found such earnest efforts as “Devan’s ‘I Will Not Overreact’ Contract,” drafted by you and executed in her 8 year old hand. I’m sure it was breached before the ink was dry.

Had I known, I would have marched you to the bookcase in our guest room, where an entire shelf is filled with titles such as: Positive Discipline; Parenting The Spirited Child; How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk; Is It a Big Problem or a Little Problem?; and, my personal favorite, an oldie penned in a more honest age, The Difficult Child.

A few of them are dog-eared, but for the most part, I skimmed the index or table of contents and found nothing approaching the phenomenon that is my daughter. Amit and I have been at this for eight years. I’d like to think we are pretty smart people, but here we are, with a spirited, difficult, witty, Suzelle-quoting, guitar-playing, Whip and NaeNae-ing girl who excels in having fun, does well in school, and still struggles with self-control. I once told you that parenting a child like Devan is mostly about hanging in there, and embracing the daily triumph of hope over experience. You need to believe me.

In the end, you did your best, every day, on behalf of the two most important beings in our world. That is all we ever could have asked.

So, thank you. Thank you for feeding and clothing them, and for delivering them safely to where they needed to be, and for bathing and reading to them. Thank you for loving them, and us. Thank you for bearing quiet and forgiving witness to every last detail of my working “mum” existence.

And while you’re quite smart about most things, you got one thing wrong. You changed her, and our family, for the better.

I’m still not certain you were meant to be an au pair. But there is no doubt you were meant to be part of us.

Godspeed.

Someone at Bravo Just Made a Wonderful Mistake.

There is a new show on Bravo called My Fab 40th, and all I can say is, some clever intern must have pulled a fast one while all the network executives were in the Hamptons. Or a rogue producer has the goods on someone in the C-suite. Either way, something is amiss here.

We all know Bravo as the home of the Housewives (though, for the most part, there is nary an extant marriage in sight). This juggernaut franchise ensures that on any given night those of us with work-a-day lives can tune in to watch women with too much money drink their faces off, cat fight on yachts, and promote their mythical “lifestyle” brands.

Our parents had Walter Cronkite. So, you know, tomato, to-mah-to.

But while no one apparently was minding the store, in walked Brandy Flores, the featured 39.9 year old subject of a show marketed as the mid-life answer to MTV’s My Super Sweet 16. The concept is simple: a woman, her friends, and a few assorted professionals throw the subject a lavish 40th birthday party.

I hadn’t intended to linger too long, as the teaser on my cable guide described this week’s plot: Brandy, an amateur race car driver and fitness model, hopes her boyfriend will propose at her 40th birthday party, which her friend Bethany is throwing at the racetrack. From that description, my Venn diagram of commonality with Brandy appeared to be that we both like celebrating our birthdays. In fact, had HGTV been running anything but Flip or Flop (I’m sorry, that couple just puts no love into their renovations), I would have missed the whole thing.

I’m glad I didn’t.

Brandy is divorced. She has two sweet daughters, who are featured only in a few scenes, but who seem like nice kids who love their mom. In the cutaway scenes, Brandy talks about how hard it is that they have to split time between her home and her ex-husband’s, and how she tries to find ways to make their time together special.

Huh.

Brandy has a good cadre of girlfriends, who all seem invested in her happiness. If I were to bend Brandy’s ear, I might suggest keeping the one who spilled wine on her head at happy hour at a bit of an arms’ length. But the only apparent beef between these women is the barbecue they’re happily chowing at a restaurant called “Smoqued” as they try to help Brandy figure out her future.

Huh.

This may be implicit in the term “fitness model,” but Brandy is also a knockout. Her arm definition is exquisite. She has a killer smile and clearly follows a sound skin regimen. Did I mention she’s a fitness model? Right, so about that: one scene features her enduring a grueling workout of lunges while she’s holding what looks like cement blocks in each hand. Then she sits on a mat and talks about how much harder it is to book the modeling gigs at her age, and the stress she feels at needing to work twice as hard as she used to so she can support herself and her children.

That’s when it hits me.

God help me, I like this Brandy. I would totally ham it up in the photo booth at Brandy’s Fab 40th.

Then there is Jim, the boyfriend of six years. What Brandy wants most at her racetrack chic 40th bash is for Jim to propose. She has sent him a picture of the ring she wants – a fairly silly move with great backfire potential – but she also sits down with him over dinner in their very average looking kitchen and tells him that being in limbo at 40 isn’t going to work for her. Jim looks uncomfortable, attempts some revisionist Jedi mind trick about how he always told her he never wanted to marry again, and retires to his study where he has been shopping online for a race car to present to Brandy at the party. In another scene, Brandy’s friend gets wind of the race car plan and tells Jim point blank that if he doesn’t buy Brandy a ring, she’s going to be crushed.

Cut to commercial.

At this point, I am certain that I’ve doped out the remaining scenes. Jim messes with Brandy’s head a bit, but in the end, he’s on one knee as the candles on her towering purple cake are lit. He’s brought her daughters along as a surprise, because the moment is too important for them to miss. After all, Jim doesn’t seem like a total jerk, and the fool who would give up Brandy is only second in line to the fool who would make a show in which an $80,000 birthday party for a woman the viewers have come to root for ends with Jim disappointing Brandy in front of all her friends.

And yet, that’s exactly what happens. Brandy’s friends go all out. The party is in full swing, and she looks amazing in a silver sequined dress. There’s an ice sculpture and lounge seating. She is serenaded by her favorite country singer. Out of nowhere, there’s Lorenzo Lamas, who as far as I know hasn’t been seen since Falcon Crest, and he presents her with a cool racing suit. Brandy is radiant, toasting her dear friends who have seen her through phases of life that she didn’t plan for and that have brought their share of struggle. Then Jim brings every single guest outside to the track, gives a speech in which he says “Brandy has waited a long time for this,” and pulls a tarp off a race car. It is wrenching to watch Brandy feign excitement, then get into the car and look around the front seat in the forlorn hope that the ring is there.

I brace for the explosive confrontation. At least fifty of Brandy’s friends have been swilling theme cocktails for hours and have warned Jim in no uncertain terms that he’d better do right by their girl. Jim’s best hope is that the massive party budget included staffing for a medical tent.

Cut to commercial.

We never see Jim again.

It’s a sunny morning, the day after the party. Brandy doesn’t look puffed up from crying, or particularly despondent. She arrives at Bethany’s house to thank her for all the hard work and planning. We learn that Brandy left the party with one of her pals, Lindsey; they went for late night sushi and did sake toasts to the beginning of her fifth decade. No big scene, just great resolve. Our Brandy walked off that racetrack and left Jim in the deafening roar of his own dick move.

Fin.

Bravo’s motto is “Watch What Happens.” Having watched what happened as Brandy turned 40, I got perhaps the greatest shock from this purveyor of all things shock value: a show about a woman who hoped things would turn out differently, but when they didn’t, had to make a hard choice about what was best for herself and her daughters. Her friends stood by her. No one lied to her or gave her false hope that Jim was going to see the light. In the final scene, Brandy and her daughters light candles on a simple plate of cupcakes in Bethany’s kitchen. Somewhere last night’s ice sculpture is melting into oblivion. But this little party beats that one any day. Brandy’s 40th never looked so fab.

As for the race car? I hope Brandy sells it and upgrades to a better model that she chooses for herself. Or maybe she sells it and takes her friends and daughters on a beach vacation. Or maybe she just drives it as fast as her heart desires. It doesn’t really matter, in the end, because she’s already made wise use of its most important part: the rear view mirror.

Happy birthday, Brandy. I don’t have to tell you, but you’ve got everything you need, right there in Bethany’s kitchen.

So I will just say this: Bravo.

On Coming In Last.

At our house these days, it’s all about the race. I don’t mean the proverbial rat race, or the race to finish the day’s tasks. I mean a literal race.

Last one to the car is a rotten egg.

Last one to the end of that sidewalk is a rotten egg.

Last one to say “rotten egg” is a rotten egg.

There are a few forces at play in this. First, Devan is trying to hold on to and reinforce her waning physical dominance over her little brother. Notwithstanding a nearly four year age gap, Kian quite literally punches in her weight class now, and (if our pediatrician can be credited on this) is making steady progress on his way to an eventual 6’3″. While she still has the intellectual upper hand, Devan’s days of imposing her will by sheer physical might, speed, and agility are numbered.

Conversely, Kian is realizing he might not be forever relegated to second place in these endless daily contests after all. Some of them don’t even draw on running speed or physical strength, such as “last one to brush teeth,” or “last one to finish cereal.” And he’s closing in on those that do: if Devan doesn’t give herself a sneak head start by being the announcer, he can beat her in a pure foot race. And no one dares take him on in a battle of “Mashoonga,” where one jousts with an opponent using foam covered bats. As every member of our household has learned, you don’t want to end up the “last one” on the business end of Kian’s Mashoonga stick.

As a parent, there is a wince of pain that comes as you see one child defeat the other, even in these silliest of match-up’s. You secretly cheer for the underdog, only to turn around and empathize when your stunned and saddened first-born encounters the displacement of losing. You tell yourself that each is learning important life lessons. You repeat the same platitudes again and again, which go fully ignored, that it’s having fun together that matters. You dry tears, scoop ice cream.

And if you’re like me, anyway, you insert yourself into the mix from time to time, with the result that (no spoiler alert needed): both kids win. No need for the loser’s revisionist taunt, “First is the worst, and last is the best!” Because while one child may have claimed first and the other second, there you are – Mom or Dad – and you are what they each most wanted to avoid.

You are last.

You are the rotten egg.

Only a parent could relish being the rotten egg. But I do, for lots of reasons, only one of which is that I can spare my kids – at least for that one moment – from having to hold the stinky title.

I actually like coming in last.

Devan and Kian, should you greet this with shock, or worse, conclude your Mom just has no game… let me explain:

First, of all, I’m tired. And I’m old. I had my day, probably too many days, lined up at a painted mark on school blacktop, waiting for the starting whistle. I was never that fast to start with, but I gave it my all and usually finished in a respectable middle of the pack. I always wished to do better. Today, I love that either one of you can dust me by about the 10th yard. The truth is, if we’re talking a foot race, I don’t have to try to let you win.

But I can live with slowing down, mostly because I peaked late. Surely the fastest I ever ran in my life was when one of you toddled toward some hazard, be it the end of a sidewalk on a busy street, or the top of an ungated set of stairs. I managed a respectable sprint to keep pace with you, Devan, as you pedaled without training wheels for the first time, and I captured the triumph on video. Let those be my personal bests.

Besides, I like the view from last place. When you are halfway up a climbing wall, I can watch your feet find the next foothold and each muscle flex in tandem to carry you higher. When you scramble ahead on a path, I get to see your arms spread in the sun and the dust kicked up by your sneakers. I like that you call back to me to tell me what you’ve found. When you take the occasional spill, I’ve already witnessed it from behind. I can wait for you to spring back to your feet, or scurry to scoop you up, already knowing you haven’t broken skin.

I marvel that I helped build the two bodies charging into that moment’s adventure. I take joy that you still need me.

I’ll gladly bring up the rear.

Finally, if there is anything that is going to take me down, may it be the two of you. Science tells us that our bodies begin shrinking, from around the time we hit our peak height in our 30’s. The causes include loss of bone density, which we can fight by eating the right things and exercising. And Daddy and I will do those things. We had you later in life, and we really want to travel and enjoy our lives when you’ve grown. Mostly, we hope to see the two of you embrace the joy of throwing a checkers game.

But even this physical diminishment makes perfect sense to me. And if I am to shrink, may it be under the accumulated weight of hundreds of shoulder rides, and chicken fights in Great Pond, and boosts of your 50 pound bodies so you can glimpse what is over a fence. You can press us ever closer to the earth. We want you to see what lies beyond. And you can always look back when you need to, and I’ll be right there: the happiest, shrunken loser you ever saw, claiming my own kind of victory.

Way back in last place.

You Can’t Handle the Tooth.

Once upon a time, it was a lot easier to lie to your children. Santa. The Easter Bunny. The cat’s on the roof. This isn’t fish, it’s white steak (good one, Mom!).

The tooth fairy.

Cue the blues riff, if you must, but Back In My Day….

You lost a tooth.
You put it under your pillow.
You woke up, and there was a buck under your pillow.

Simple, but magical. The magic of it was….well, that you didn’t feel a thing as the tooth was replaced with the dollar. All of which lent some credibility to the idea that a winged, agile and industrious nymph carried out this deed. You didn’t wait up to try to catch her in the act. You didn’t expect other evidence of her visit. That you even knew her gender had less to do with the tooth fairy having a real persona than your innate sense that only a woman would agree to faithfully execute this thankless but loving task.

And so it was that I had never devoted much concern to how I would carry out this sacred untruth. While we carry very little cash in our wallets, I figured even we could scrape up a buck – ok, maybe two (for a reasonable cost of living adjustment since 1978), even if it had to be in change.

But the change I hadn’t counted on was that the whole tooth fairy business, unbeknownst to me, had undergone rampant and unchecked escalation. Turns out I was still playing Merlin, while the rest of the world’s tooth ferreting parents had up’ed the game to Wii Box, or whatever that thing is where people wave wands at their TV and call it exercise.

Maybe a year or more ago, my friend Julianna’s twins started losing teeth. I gave each a congratulatory kiss. Little did I know that these gummy trailblazers were whispering a whole new legend into Devan’s ear. For they each received a personalized letter – no, a magical fairy certificate! – from their own, personal tooth fairies. Each fairy shared some fun facts about herself, which revealed how very perfectly matched she was to her slumbering tooth donor.

To borrow a new favorite phrase (thank you, Jen Hatmaker): What fresh hell is this?

Fast forward to this afternoon, exactly four minutes after school let out, when I answered my office phone to Devan’s breathless announcement that she had lost her tooth at school. This landed her not only a coveted trip to the school nurse, whom I am convinced she contrives reasons to visit daily, but also a special tooth case attached to a necklace made of red string. As if this weren’t enough ecstasy to fill a Monday in mid-January, her great friend and classmate Izzy ALSO LOST HER TOOTH – AT SCHOOL – ALSO, MOMMY, LIKE I DID.

I squealed with delight, risking the irritation of my office neighbors, though I assume they have long since gotten used to me giving my daily splay of expletives a moment’s rest to talk to my children.

And then it dawned on me: it would be a Fairy night.

When I got home, Devan had a few questions, a few plans, a few overblown expectations.

Mommy, will the tooth fairy leave me a note this time?

Well, Devan, I’m not sure. She has a lot of kids’ teeth to collect. I mean, Monday is the most popular day to lose a tooth, so you have to consider her workload, plus travel time, and…

Mommy, I am going to write my tooth fairy a secret note, telling her what I want as my gift. And you can’t see it, ok, promise? It’s a secret.

Woah, woah, woah, lady. The tooth fairy doesn’t work like Santa, where you get to request a particular gift. There’s a reason you write to Santa weeks in advance, so he can make production plans and address inventory constraints. The tooth fairy doesn’t have reindeer, and she basically tucks a wad of cash in one pocket and keeps the other empty to fill it with teeth. So, you get what I’m saying?

OK, Mommy, remember, you CAN’T look at this, but how do you spell “Rancher?”

Devan, you get what you get and…

Goodnight!!!!

_______

When did all my fellow parents screw me over? This is like the moment I realized that DC had free pre-K. . . IF you’d applied by lottery six months prior. Or that people had done their estate planning, price compared when buying insurance, and made kale smoothies.

Before ducking out to Walgreen’s to procure a bullshit tooth fairy gift, I did a quick email survey among the most likely suspects who had set this dastardly drivel in motion – which is to say, my dear friends and mothers to Devan’s besties. I even used the red exclamation point, “High Importance” tag, to let these bitches know I needed some answers, ASAP.

My friend Debbie confessed that she “might” be to blame for part of the madness.

“Might” my ass.

The damning facts are these: her older daughter’s fairy is Felicity, who left a note asking her not to set little “fairy traps” for her in the future, as it might hurt her wings. And her younger daughter is visited by Fiona, who it just so happens is Felicity’s little sister. Fiona has a pet pegasus, and her favorite food is marshmallow fluff.

What the fluff.

Not to be outdone, Maribeth has confessed that Fluttershine leaves a personalized note for her daughter, which she prepares as her husband scours the CVS for fun fairy fare.

Julianna confirmed that Sunshine and Savannah respond to the adorable questions that her twins pose to them on each visit. She even encouraged me to check out a web site where the imagined fairies print pictures of themselves, their mushroom shaped house, and their puppy dog.

Keeping in mind that children lose approximately 20 baby teeth, and that the day on which each will be lost is an unknowable, I remain stunned by the betrayal that my otherwise sensible friends have wrought upon me.

Moreover, what does a fairy need with a dog? Seriously, how realistic is it to expect a filmy naif with wings to secure rabies shots and scoop dog shit?

Alas, with Devan now tucked into her top bunk, I faced a simple choice that boiled down to the classic beating or joining. So while my friends deserve and may still get a beating for unleashing this nonsense, I have decided to join. I raise my bicuspid-white flag.

But I’ll be damned if I’m not going to have some fun with it.

Devan, meet your tooth fairy.

Dear Devan,

You seem like a nice enough kid, so while I usually like to maintain some level of privacy about my personal life, I will make an exception in this case.

My name is Calliope. I’m a pretty good looking fairy, at least when I take the time to curl my hair and iron my dress before work. But the funny thing is, I didn’t start out a fairy at all.

I grew up in a railcar on the CrankTown Train Line. My mother sewed uniforms for the train conductors and engineers. Since she could fly, and could work a needle like magic, she could sew 10 buttons on a vest in 3 minutes flat. Think of that scene from Cinderella where the birds and mice fix up her dress, and you get the picture. My father worked the ticket counter and cleaned the station. Life wasn’t easy. Railroad life looks all glamorous on those Thomas shows your brother likes, but believe me, it ain’t no Island of Sodor. And I didn’t go to school and learn to read like you are, so I didn’t have very good prospects.

Plus, my whole life people told me I was a moth.

I left it all behind and struck out on my own at 18. Listen to me, kid, as angry as you may get at your parents from time to time, don’t ever do what I did. I’ve gotten a good look at your room, your dollies, your closet full of great clothes. Your freezer is always filled with Go-Gurt tubes. You have a good gig here.

I never meant to become a pickpocket. But after enough nights dreaming of marshmallow fluff, or a mushroom house to call my own, I flitted into the pocket of a rich Wall Street-looking type on the subway and embarked on a winged crime spree that I now deeply and utterly regret.

When I finally got caught by some eagle-eyed snot nosed toddler on the Chicago El, I had hit rock bottom. But luckily, I had a really good public defender. Lawyers are really, really important and special, and even though they have to work late sometimes and travel too much, they help all kinds of creatures who are in trouble. Even fairies. Remember that.

Since they don’t keep criminal justice records for moths, the judge didn’t know what to do with me. I had no priors. He gave me a year of probation and 100 hours of mandatory community service.

Anyway, as I tried to figure out what a flying, nimble handed, stealthy sprite could do to make an honest wage, my probation officer handed me a pamphlet and application to Molars to Morals: A Tooth Fairy Institute for the Wayward but Winged.

And that’s how I turned it all around. They got me a place to stay with other fairies in training, who couldn’t believe my luck at having such a killer fairy name.

When I first agreed to go, I figured, “hey, it’s three hot’s and a cot.” Instead I found my calling.

My mother turned up at my graduation. I think my lawyer had tracked her down. And get this: she told me the secret she’d kept from me my whole life: I was born a fairy, a direct descendant of Tinkerbell. Great Aunt Tink may have risen to fame, but the studio treated her brutally, and between the quaaludes, relentless dieting, and long hours, she really lost her way. Her daughters swore off fairy work then and there.

But when they put my first Tooth Fairy Gown on me that day, I knew I had reclaimed my birthright.

So take it from me, Devan Christine: you never know where life is going to take you. Things can always turn around. But never, ever, ever, do drugs.

To answer your other questions, I don’t have any pets. This job commands a lot of my time, and like your mom, I’m allergic to most animals.

And I’m sorry to say that I didn’t haul along a bag of Jolly Ranchers tonight (nice job on the spelling, though). I have limited space in my pockets, but I promise I will always find a way to at least get a buck under your pillow.

A few more thoughts, til we meet again (by the way, my money is on #24, your lateral incisor…)

Keep up the guitar practice. We love hearing you when we’re all at dinner before heading out on the Western Hemisphere night shift.

Tell Leah to tell Fluttershine I said, “hey.” She and I went through some times together.

And try to give your poor Dad a break. Nobody’s perfect, and he really is trying.

Keep it real, and hang loose (sorry, bad tooth pun!),

Yours truly,
Calliope Von Shankle