Sunday, August 30, 2009


As an author of several party books, I’ll use any excuse to host a party—even Labor Day. Not the pregnancy kind of labor day. It’s difficult to have a party when some woman is screaming “Get this baby out of here now!” No, I mean the upcoming holiday that celebrates the fact that we can finally send the kids back to school!

But I’m also lazy and don’t like to work too hard on hosting duties, even if it is “Labor” Day—the one day when we actually celebrate “work.” (Who came up with that idea? Somebody’s boss?)

So I’m here to help you plan a no-fuss, “no-labor” Labor Day Party, because it may be your last opportunity to party until Halloween. Begin by choosing a theme for your party. Hosting a plain old Labor Day Party doesn’t sound too inviting. Your guests may think you’re having them over to help you paint the house or build an extra bedroom. That’s not a party. That’s a scam. And if you’re inviting me, I’m busy that day. Instead, give it some personality and make it “The Greenbrook Grill Gathering,” “The Back Lot Bar-B-Q,” “The Pothole Lane Pot Luck, or “Meet Your Reclusive Neighbors Block Party.”

Set yourself up as CEO, then micro-manage the party by dividing the neighbors into groups (according to how well they get along). Give them important names like “The Invitation Committee,” “The Food Group,” “The Decorating Team,” “The Games and Activities Tribe,” and “The Clean-Up Crew.”

If you’re having the classic Neighborhood Block Party, make invitations by first enlarging a map of your neighborhood. Make copies, label each of the homes with clever names, such as “The Wacky Warners” or “The House That Never Sold” and mark the party place with an “X.”

Block off the street with police tape and set up the party in the middle. Or have it in someone (else)’s backyard, a nearby park or the homeowner’s association clubhouse. Ask everyone to share their folding tables and chairs, or other spare furniture such as those front-porch couches, then decorate them with colorful balloons. Have personalized T-shirts printed with words like, “Killer Labor Day Party 2009!” or “Our Street’s Cooler than Your Street!”

Ask guests to bring a special dish that covers one of the four casserole food groups—meat casseroles, salad casseroles, veggie casseroles and dessert casseroles. To keep the crowd under control—and the teens from toilet papering your house—have a few games and activities on hand, such as a corn-husking contest (blindfolded), a scarecrow-stuffing contest (go goth this year), a pie-eating contest (cherry makes the best mess), watermelon seed-spitting contest (the gals will love this one), and a pumpkin toss (from the roof.)

For clean up, write down tasks such as, “Fold up the chairs,” “Throw away the paper products,” or “Call in a Crime Scene Cleaner.” Have guest pick a task from a bowl—and don’t let them leave until the place is spotless.

Or, since it’s Labor Day, just make the kids clean up everything. That way they’ll be glad to get back to school.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Next week I go back to teaching Child Development at DVC’s San Ramon Campus. And I feel like a fraud. I’m supposed to teach the students about the stages of a child’s growth and development, which I do. But what I don’t do is cover the stages that no one ever talks about. Now that I’m a grandparent of three, the truth is rearing its ugly head.

I realized it last year when my four-year-old grandson Bradley, a budding artist, got a hold of a colorful marker and drew a “picture” on his mommy and daddy’s bedroom wall. This was never covered in the textbooks. I was reminded again last week when he decided to decorate his baby sister’s face with a black marker. The shocking thing is, no one ever told Bradley’s parents there’d be days like this.

But I knew.

Back when I was a baby my mother had only one child development book available to tell her what to expect—Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care. When I had my first baby, she handed the book down to me. Today parents have a plethora of child development books to choose from, the most popular being What to Expect When You’re Expecting.

But now that I’m heavily into the grandparenting years, I realize what a crock all these advice books are. Sure, they cover the basics like toilet training (“Get a musical potty!”), but they neglect to include the truth behind these developmental milestones (“Never let a newly toilet-trained child be a flower girl in a wedding.”) So while parents arm themselves with Dora The Explorer toilet seats, they’re blindsided by the surprises that come with actually raising a child.
I’ve decided to write an expose and tell the truth about “What to Expect After You’ve Expelled (the Baby).” Nothing will be spared. I plan to include the following:

Age 1 Month: Developmental stage: Baby has a grasp reflex. In truth, baby will “grasp” your hair with one hand and pull it out by the roots, while “grasping” your eyes out with the other hand.

Age 6 Months: Developmental stage: Baby can sit upright. In truth, when you place baby in a high chair, she will arch her back, slide out of the chair and escape the premises before you can even buckle her in.

Age 9 Months: Developmental stage: Baby begins crawling. In truth, baby will crawl around picking things out of your carpet to snack on while heading for your purse to find your lipstick and draw on her face, teeth, cloths, and couch.

Age 1 Year: Developmental stage: Baby says first word. In truth, baby will not only call everyone male “da-da,” but loves to say “truck” with an “F,” loudly, in church.

Age 2: Developmental stage: Baby uses independence skills. In truth, baby will be able to use scissors for cutting his own hair, will dress himself in either the same shirt for a week, his Halloween costume, or just his pajama top, and will punch “911” on your landline, bringing the police who consider calling Child Protective Services.

This is just the tip of the iceberg we calling “child development.” Just wait until I write the sequel: “Your Teenager: Military School or a Convent?”

Sunday, August 2, 2009


Although I didn’t plan to become a fiction writer, I was already making stuff up during my school days. Any time I had to do a paper that required research—which I hated—I always wrote from my imagination and hoped it sounded realistic enough to fool the teacher. I made up stuff on everything from visiting historic California Missions to interviewing experts on the importance of Atomic Energy. And back then I didn’t even have the Internet for help.

Now that I’ve morphed into a fiction writer, I’ve come to love research. In fact, I’d much rather research a person, place or topic than actually write the book. I’m currently writing the second book in my mystery series and it requires a lot of research to make the story sound authentic. For example, last weekend I spent the day just doing research. First, I sat inside one of those teeny toy Smart Cars to see if my broad-shouldered love interest could fit. I found the car amazingly roomy inside, great for making U-turns on one-lane mountain roads, and perfect for a car chase on the sidewalk. I almost bought one but they were out of yellow.

Next I went to the San Francisco County Jail to see what it would be like to visit a prisoner, just as my protagonist must do in order to save her BFF. Sure, there’s plenty of information on the Internet about visiting the jail, like “No cell phones, weapons or gang colors.” And good thing, since I’d planned to wear something colorful. But I wanted to know more. Such as, what color are the walls? (Somewhere between Shenandoah Taupe and Caramel Apple) and what does it smell like? (A cross between a hospital hallway and high school locker room). Those are details you just can’t get from the Internet.

The characters in my books like to eat between action scenes and romantic interludes, so I had to check out San Francisco cafes, diners, and bars that would make interesting backdrops for their clue-filled conversations. I discovered a wonderful French café hidden in San Francisco’s trendy South Park, filled with pony-tailed hippies and spike-haired hipsters, computer techs in logo t-shirts and bike riders in colorful Spandex, all gobbling blueberry crepes and croquet-monsieurs. They’d be perfect for an appearance in my latest mystery. While sipping a café au lait, I eavesdropped on conversations that ran from dramatic break-ups to outlandish adventures. And I took notes.

On the way home I swung by Treasure Island, the primary location for my book, to see how I could make that unique setting become a character in the story. That meant attending a wine tasting (I bought a bottle of Treasure Island Wine because the label featured a pirate flag), talking with the security guard (who filled me in on the new TV show “Trauma” being filmed there), and chatting up the Commodore at the T.I. Yacht Club (he tipped me to the best garlic fries on the Island).

Although I’ll probably use only a small per cent of the things I’d learned, it was those “telling details” that I hoped would make the book come alive.

You just can’t make that stuff up.