Tuesday, July 29, 2008


I really don't know how I managed to raise two kids for 18 straight years. I just finished taking care of my 3-year-old grandson Bradley for a little over 24 hours, and I'm so exhausted, I can hardly type.

When I agreed to this, it was months ago. I'll say yes to anything if it's not scheduled for today. My son, Matt, had planned a surprise Las Vegas getaway for his and Sue's anniversary. How hard could it be? All I had to do was put out some blocks to play with, feed him a nutritious microwaved mac-and-cheese dinner, turn on some educational TV such as "So You Think You Can Dance" and put him to bed at 6 p.m. By the time he woke up the next morning, his parents would be back with our thank-you gifts and whisk Bradley back home.

"Here's the list of instructions," Sue said, handing over a folder filled with information. "He has soccer at 10, so he needs to put on his blue jersey and shorts, and he has to wear tennis shoes, not Crocs, 'cause Crocs give him blisters if he runs in them..."

I nodded, half-listening, knowing full well as grandparents, we don't have to follow everything to the letter. That's what's so great about being a grandparent. We have a little wiggle room; we can play a little fast and loose with the parenting rules. After all, our job is only temporary.

We headed for Bradley's house for the early morning handoff, ready to start the adventure. He was already dressed for soccer — check that box off. All he needed was to finish his toast and brush his hair.

"I'm not hungry. At all!" Bradley said, turning up his nose at the toast.

Okay, we'd pack it in a Baggie and bring it along in case he did get hungry "at all."

"Let's brush your hair and then we're off to soccer."

"I don't want to brush my hair!"

And so it began. As grandparents, we'd never had to make him do anything he didn't want to do. That was the parents' ugly job. We got to do the fun stuff, with no consequences. This was going to be a bumpy ride.

Thinking we'd better keep this kid busy, we headed for the Exploratorium in San Francisco. We spent the trip listening to The Wiggles. If you don't own the CD, just repeat these words over and over in an Australian accent: "Fruit salad, yummy yummy!" Then you won't have to download it on your iPod. It will stay firmly planted in your brain for the rest of the week.

After an exhausting day, we negotiated dinner — "If you'll eat this burrito, you can play Dora on the computer" — then negotiated just about everything else the rest of the evening, including bedtime. Of course, bedtime is only a concept to a 3-year-old. Sleeping is another matter. First we had to read books, have a snack, go potty, arrange all the stuffed animals, tuck him in his special blanket and repeat this several more times before he finally nodded off after 11.

At the crack of dawn, I found Bradley in my bed, his feet in my rib cage. After a breakfast of pizza, I ran out to Target and bought enough toys to entertain him until Christmas. The minute his parents arrived, we dragged ourselves to bed for a nice long nap — too tired to even feed the cats.

We had a great time with our grandson, but like I said, I don't know how Sue and Matt do it, 24/7. I need a relaxing trip to Las Vegas just to recover.

Monday, July 21, 2008


I just spent three hours washing plastic glasses and glass platters, wiping spilled drinks and food from patio tables, and collecting stray paper napkins from bushes and shrubs. I’m pooped. But I enjoyed every minute of it.

The mess is due to the aftermath of my husband’s 60th birthday party. And cleaning up that mess gave me a chance to relive the party all over again. After weeks of planning and preparation, making invitations that looked like mini-menus, turning the backyard into a Spanish Bistro, and hiring a special surprise guest, the whole event seemed to pass by as quickly as the last six decades.

No matter. Cleaning up gave me the time to recall every detail of Tom’s milestone birthday party. For his Big Six-Oh, I wanted something special. But when I asked him whether he’d like to go away for a romantic weekend, buy the latest electronic gadget, or spend the day on the golf course, he surprised me.

“Cook,” he said simply.

Cook? I should have known, after living with him for nearly forty of his sixty years. His dream has always been to open a bed and breakfast one day and cook gourmet meals for the weekend guests. Instead, we’d host a small dinner party for family and close friends—and he could cook the gourmet meal.

Perfect—except it didn’t seem very special for this monumental occasion. How could I make his 60th something he’d remember until he was at least 70? Easy. Invite a real chef from his favorite restaurant to be his sou chef for the evening. But would Rodney Worth from the Peasant and the Pear—who’d just been named Best Chef in the East Bay by Diablo Magazine—step up to the plate, so to speak? Well, dreams do come true. Rodney appeared at the front door an hour before the party was to begin and the two chefs donned their white jackets. By the time the guests arrived for their “dinner reservations,” the sangria was mixed and the appetizers were ready to be served.

“Hi, I’m Penny, and I’ll be your server this evening,” I said, greeting our friends and family. Unfortunately, my waitressing left much to be desired, but I managed to pass out the food and drinks without spilling anything on anyone but myself. Soon everyone was seated at tables covered in red and yellow Spanish flags. They were free to don the decorative Matador hats or cool themselves with the black lace fans while they watched the chefs “bam” the paella ingredients into a pan the size of Madrid.

After we finished stuffing ourselves, I brought out the favors—party bags filled with “unusual” cooking gadgets. Each guest had to match wits with Tom to name the kitchen kitsch. After several glasses of sangria, not even our master chef could identify the syringe-looking thing (flavor injector), the Wham-O-looking thing (corn cutter), the giant cookie-cutter-looking thing (pancake shaper), or the spice-rack-looking thing (Beer Can Chicken Roaster).

Rodney and the guests are gone, the kitchen is piled high with sparkling clean pans, the patio is slick from a good hosing, and the rented dishes are stacked and ready to be returned. Yeah, I’m pooped from all the clean up. But I can’t wait until my husband turns 70, so I can do it all again.

Monday, July 14, 2008

I didn’t get to see my newest grandson much this week. That’s because nine-month-old Luke has been with his daddy Mike every day. And believe it or not, Mike got paid for staying home to be with Luke. In fact, this is the third time Mike has been paid to be with his baby. He also got four weeks right after Luke was born and another week when Luke was about six months.

It’s all part of a relatively new law called Paid Family Leave (PFL). Unfortunately, lots of dads don’t know about this law, and that’s a shame. Luckily, Mike learned about it from his boss, who had recently had her own baby.

“At first,” Mike said, “I didn’t know what it was and didn’t want to use it. I didn’t think it would pay me enough. But I finally checked it out, looked at the website to see how it worked, and thought it was great.”
Paid Family Leave enabled Mike to be with his wife—a new mother—and his new son during those precious early weeks. He was there to help Rebecca with new baby chores, and bond with little Luke. “I couldn’t believe I could take all that time to be with him and even get paid for it.” Mike said. “Any time I can spend with Luke, I’ll take it. Of course, I found out fast it’s harder work taking care of a baby than what I do at my job. But it’s also more rewarding.”

My daughter Rebecca grinned at Mike’s confession that parenting is hard work. “Now he knows what I do all day.” But he also knows that when he’s at his regular job, he’s missing some important milestones with his son. “When I go to work, I don’t see him in the morning, when he wakes up so happy. By the time I get home, he’s tired, cranky, and ready for bed soon. But during the leave, I not only got to see him laughing and talking in the morning like Becca does, but I also got to feed him breakfast, take him for a walk or to the hardware store, join him for his swimming lessons. I even saw him really crawl for the first time. When I go back at work, I miss him. I email or call Becca and say, “What’s he doing now? Send me a photo!”

I wish they’d had Paid Family Leave when I’d had my kids. I could have used the help and support of my husband during that exciting but frightening time. Dads today are so lucky. Thanks to the State of California Employment Development Department (EDD), people can take time off work to bond with a new baby for up to six weeks within a twelve-month period. As for Mike and Luke, they seem bonded for life. I see evidence of that bond in the way Mike looks at his son, the way he holds him, cares for him, and plays with him. And I can see it in Luke when his face lights up just at the sight of his father.

“Becca has this great bond with him and I’m just around at the end of the day, and two days a week,” Mike added. “So this has definitely made a different in our relationship. Luke is only going to be this young for so long and I don’t want to miss a thing.”


Thursday, July 10, 2008


I never planned to be a writer. I wanted to be a detective like Nancy Drew. But now that I’ve had over 50 books published—including THE OFFICIAL NANCY DREW HANDBOOK—I can’t imagine doing anything else.

If you’re a writer, you’re well aware there’s something festering inside you that must come out on paper—and it’s not just your grocery list, as well written as it might be. At least, that’s what it’s like for me. So after giving up a promising career in sleuthing to become a mother, I began to write.

My first works were non-fiction, based on topics of interest to me at the time. Since I’d just given birth to my first child, I was hungry for anything that had to do with babies—what to feed them, how to play with them, what to do with them all day long. After checking the bookshelves and finding little more than Dr. Spock’s tips on diapering and drooling, I realized there was a gap in the market that need filling. So with my background in Early Childhood Education and Special Ed, and my “vast” experience with my new baby, I realized I was practically an expert in this wide-open field of parenting.

With dreams of quickly typing up my first book, choosing a prestigious agent who would get me an advance large enough to pay for a summer home near Disneyland, and watching my publisher get me on Oprah (or at least Jerry Springer), I wrote a proposal. I figured, why write the whole book in case it doesn’t actually sell. Without an agent, that first proposal for a book called HEALTHY SNACKS FOR KIDS saw every publisher from Acme to Zero. I rapidly collected enough rejection slips to paper my “summer home.”

Just about the time I’d given up hope of selling the book, I got a phone call from a local publisher interested in buying it. After doing a joyous happy dance, accompanied by more visions of glamorous pub parties, multi-city book tours, and carpal tunnel from signing so many autographs, reality quickly set it. The advance would barely pay for the cost of my paper. My name would be in a size two font. And my request for a sizeable publicity budget would become the publishing house joke.

Still, I had my first book. Published. By a real publisher. With my name on it (in a size two font.) Meanwhile, I’d learned a lot about the publishing business in the process. I learned that I needed an agent to help me find the right publisher for the book (and avoid posers like iUniverse and Alibris). I needed an agent to get me the best possible contract (I was so grateful to be published, I would have paid the publisher!) Most of all, I needed an agent to help me plan and manage my career (otherwise I’d still be writing SON OF HEALTHY SNACKS FOR KIDS, BRIDE OF HEALTHY SNACKS FOR KIDS, and so on.).

So after 30 years in this business, I still love it. There’s nothing like the high you get when your agent says, “I sold your book!” Likewise, there’s nothing like seeing your “baby” in print for the first time. But I consider myself a working author. I still don’t have a summer home. Not even a yacht. But my advances and royalties, while not even close to Stephen King’s, have paid for my kids' orthodonture, their college education, and a new patio for my husband. (According to my agent, 80% of advances are under 20K. I’ve also heard that most writers make less that $4,000 a year!)

Since my first advance was so low, I’m grateful for whatever amount my agent can get me above that. And I know how the business works—it’s slower than watching ink dry—so I try not to call my agent every day “just to check in.” I spend that time working on my next book while waiting for that exciting phone call. I also know I’m going to have to rewrite that proposal several times to make it perfect, find a “platform” (whatever that means), and create a realistic marketing plan that doesn’t use up my entire advance. And I know that when my book is published, my editor isn’t going to fly me to New York for lunch, rent billboard space announcing my latest title, or get me on The View, let alone Jerry Springer.

But like I said, I’d rather do this than anything else—solve crimes, host parties, play with kids. I can do all that and more—on paper. And with my last advance, I finally bought myself a roadster.