Welcome Back to Snake-Handling Preschool!


Dear Parents,

It’s September again, and you know what that means—back-to-school time! We’re so pleased that you’ve entrusted the education of your little one to the Church of God the Redeemer Preschool. As the only fully accredited snake-handling worship center in the tri-state area, we here at CGR understand our unique role in nourishing your child’s mind and spirit.

While most school policies are outlined in our brochure, “There are No Small Sins, Only Small Sinners” (check your mailbox), please keep the following in mind as we prepare for what’s sure to be an uplifting year:

• Drop off time is 9:30 a.m., with pickup at 2:00 p.m. sharp. Remember: God loathes the habitually tardy!

• Dress code: children are required to wear collared shirts, clean slacks or skirts, and reinforced, knee-high leather boots (no sandals!).

• In addition to safety scissors, Elmer’s Glue, and a 64-count box of crayons, please make sure your child’s knapsack contains at least one pediatric tourniquet, available at most medical supply stores and the I-34 Walmart.

• We ask that all students bring Kleenex for the classroom. Additionally, children whose last names begin with A-M should bring a 64-ounce bottle of Bactine, while those with names N-Z are asked to furnish gauze.

• The Lord loves volunteers, so sign up early! Our fall fiesta is just around the corner, so we expect all you moms and dads to bring in lots of cupcakes, fruit punch, and cookies. Also, anti-venom.

• As announced, we’re taking a broader approach to language arts this year. In addition to discussing The Little Golden Book of Sodom and Gomorrah, youngsters will be encouraged to “think outside the box” by making freeform Play-Doh sculptures of Hell.

• Finally, nothing matters as much to CGR as your child’s eternal soul. Through interactive Bible teaching, dramatic play, and the regular taking up of serpents, we intend to nurture God’s tiniest henchmen. And if the unworthy walk among us—as they surely do—don’t worry. We’ll find them. Anaphylaxis doesn’t lie.

So let’s make this the best school year ever. Get your youngsters to bed early, make sure they drink plenty of milk, and have those liability waivers notarized!

Tetanus boosters couldn’t hurt, either.

See you next week!

Yours in Him,

Donna Magdalene

Director, Toddler Program

This piece originally appeared in the White Shoe Irregular.

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Are Quality Book Reviews a Dying Breed?


Is the literary universe rudderless? According to a recent op-ed in the New York Times, it sure seems that way.

Plagued by the usual suspects – decreasing readership, risk-averse (and resource-depleted) publishers, a glut of celebrity-driven titles, etc. – the world of books feels more fragile than ever.

And its decline, says Colin Robinson, author of the Times piece, is only being hastened by a lack of high-quality book reviews, the kind that steer readers to hidden treasures they might otherwise never discover.

“This variety of channels for the expert appraisal of books has been replaced with recommendations thrown up by online retailers’ computers,” writes Robinson. “But as with so much of the Internet, the nuance and enthusiasm of human encounters is poorly replicated by an algorithm.”

Which is where the Washington Independent Review of Books comes in.

Since 2010, we here at the nonprofit Independent have dedicated ourselves to bringing our readers the very appraisals Robinson fears will soon be extinct: intelligent, insightful opinions on everything from bestsellers to mid-list gems.

With no corporate overlords to serve, we’re free to guide readers toward what we feel are the most compelling new books out there. We’re also free to ignore whatever pop-culture-driven Flavor of the Week may be lining the shelves.

Does this devotion to providing comprehensive, well-reasoned book reviews in a world obsessed with all things quicker, shorter, and snarkier make us different? Probably. Is that a bad thing? No.

We’re firm believers that there will always be thoughtful readers out there, and that those readers deserve equally thoughtful and entertaining reviews.

So while we agree with Mr. Robinson that the literary world is growing less hospitable to writers – and readers – by the day, we have to insist that rumors about quality book reviews’ death are greatly exaggerated.

This piece originally appeared in, you guessed it, the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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The 5 Best Books. Ever.


You probably have your own ideas about which are the world’s greatest books, but what do you know? Here, in no particular order, are the five best books. Ever.

  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
  • Atonement by Ian McEwan
  •  Mila 18 by Leon Uris
  •  Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
  •  Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945 by Max Hastings

Did I miss any? Didn’t think so. Happy reading!

This article originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books, where commenters somehow disagreed with my choices. Weird.

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A Classic to Avoid: “On the Road”

OntheRoad“On the Road is the quintessential American vision of freedom and hope,” gushes a review on Amazon.com. “[It] is a book that changed American literature and changed anyone who has ever picked it up.”

It sure changed me. It taught me that reading time is precious. And the hours I spent plodding through this “quintessential” novel?

Yeah, I won’t be getting those back.

What’d been hyped as a transformative story about a young man finding his way in post-World War II America turned out to be, as far as I can tell, a travelogue about two underemployed guys binge-drinking their way to Mexico.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But still.

Overly long by 100 pages, On the Road felt tedious where it should’ve been taut, redundant where it should’ve been revolutionary.

Does the novel contain flashes of brilliance? Sure.

Will I be diving back in to find them anytime soon? Only if I lose a bet.

(By the way, that scroll in the picture isn’t the Torah; it’s the manuscript of On the Road as Kerouac wrote it.)


This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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Chicken Soup for the Pedophile’s Soul

Mr. Warren Summers, ChickenSoupInmate #5381

Terra Haute Federal Correction Complex

Terra Haute, IN 47808

Dear Mr. Summers,

Thank you for your continued interest in Health Communications, Inc. Regarding your inquiry into our decision not to purchase your book, Chicken Soup for the Pedophile’s Soul, allow me to address a few of your specific concerns:

  1. First, while it’s true your manuscript speaks to an underserved, potentially lucrative niche market, we’re not convinced that “Jack Canfield’s formulaic gold mine,” as you put it, is appropriate for this particular segment of the literati.
  2. Second, our attorneys advise us that it would be a felony merely to allude to chapters four through eight, let alone to publish them.
  3. Yes, even in Bangkok.
  4. Though we appreciate your frustration at incurring significant research-related expenses, it has never been our policy to offer unsigned clients an advance against bail and/or court costs.
  5. Finally, we realize that your deposition from case no. 345-87-L, “W. Summers v. the Jefferson High School Varsity Chorale,” was forwarded to us in error; it will be returned forthwith.

Again, thank you for your interest in Health Communications. Although we politely refuse to accept from you any further written correspondence, phone calls, or email, we wish you much luck in your future literary endeavors, as well as with the Indiana state parole board.


Mitchell Jenkins

Associate Publisher

Health Communications, Inc.


This piece originally appeared in the White Shoe Irregular.

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A Stranger among Us

file0001362503108My daughter is Wink Martindale. She wakes up fluttering near the edge of nirvana, and her mood surges steadily upward from there.

Naturally, her father and I are horrified.

It’s not that we don’t enjoy our daughter Sadie, it’s just that we don’t know where she came from. Obviously not from us. We aren’t terribly joyful people. While the optimism train was pulling out of the station, we were back at the terminal trying to buy Excedrin.

When our first daughter, Anna, was born, she didn’t cry; she brooded. She was pensive, reserved. Exhibited a hereditary disdain for all things giddy. She was one of us. Then a few months ago, our second child, Kathie Lee Gifford, pranced into our lives, and the world lost its comforting shade of grey.

It had to be a hospital mix-up. A “switched at birth” scenario would explain how the Addams Family ended up with Strawberry Shortcake. This Disney character couldn’t be ours. Surely our real baby was off by herself somewhere, wearing a black Onesie and reading The Little Golden Book of Sylvia Plath.

But, no, the nurse insisted that Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm belonged to us, and not to the Cleavers in the next room.

We spent an entire month blaming Sadie’s first smiles on gas. Alas, they were genuine. The hours I’d spent listening to Pink Floyd during pregnancy had proven fruitless; I may have been comfortably numb, but yummy yummy yummy, she had love in her tummy.

Even Anna, who understood that life was fraught with doom, couldn’t change her.

Not that she didn’t try.

During those first few weeks, Sadie became her Waterloo. If anyone could cram a healthy dose of reality down the baby’s throat, it was the Gloom Nazi. She could reduce Barney the Dinosaur to suicidal despair. But despite the legions of pacifiers flushed, bottles dumped, and naps interrupted, Sadie remained undeterred.

Our perky little genetic blip began to de-ice the winter of our discontent, like it or not.

Maybe Sadie does share a gene or two with her father and me. I recall my relatives toasting each other one Christmas while proclaiming their heartfelt love toward their fellow man. Of course, that was the same year my sister and I were sent to 7-Eleven for another carton of Camels and some more Stroh’s. And come to think of it, Jack Daniels was usually the guest of honor at holiday get-togethers.

Obviously, Smith family euphoria stems more from J&B than DNA.

Then how about the in-laws? Smiles don’t exactly gush from their old black-and-white photos, but no one ever said 1930s Eastern Europe was a fun place. My three siblings-in-law seem content. Could they be the missing links in this genealogical mystery? Nope. Like the other buds on my husband’s family tree, they were miserable, colicky babies.

So Sadie’s a fluke. Mother Nature mixed 23 chromosomes from me with 23 from my husband, threw them in the crockpot, and then wandered off while the whole mess boiled over. Nine months later, I gave birth to a tiny goodwill ambassador from Planet Dopamine.

We should bottle her. People could toss out their Lexapro and take a teaspoon of Sadie instead. She’s gentle enough to use every day, and the only side effect is a sudden urge to hum show tunes.

On the other hand, with all of her infectious charm and enthusiasm, her calling may be elsewhere. After all, that Brooklyn Bridge is just sitting there, and eventually they’re going to need someone to sell it.


This piece was written a long time ago. Sadie is now 17 years old and as freakishly sunny as ever. She tries to be surly every now and then, but she’s not fooling anyone.

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You Can’t Take It with You

file0001324983978Struggling to find that truly special, one-of-a-kind holiday gift? Here’s an idea: Instead of looking at the mall, look in the mirror.

It’s you.

Or, actually, your body—once you’re done with it.

Granted, it’s not all that spectacular. (Fell off the ol’ 100-squats-a-day wagon again, eh?) But to med students learning anatomy, EMTs needing to practice lifesaving procedures, or creepy researchers eager to do god-knows-what with various parts and accessories, your body is perfect.

(I’m kidding about researchers being creepy. I’m sure they’re perfectly lovely, normal people who happen to enjoy hanging out alone in labs and pickling dead things. It’s really no different than your awful scrapbooking habit, if you think about it.)

Here in Maryland, we have the country’s only state-sponsored body-donor program (yet crabs get all the press on our bumper stickers). Once registered, future deceased Free-Staters are promised that their bodies will be collected (and organs donated), used for appropriate research, cremated, and then returned to loved ones. All at no cost.

Beat that, Walmart.

Squeamish about the spiritual implications of becoming a glorified science project? Think of it this way: If there’s a higher power and an afterlife, you won’t need your body when you’re dead. And if there’s no higher power or afterlife, you won’t need your body when you’re dead.

So consider donating your body to science—and don’t keep your wishes a secret. Tell your family about your plans (just not on Christmas morning; you know how they are), and take comfort in the fact that yours will be the gift that keeps on giving.

After all, ‘tis the season.


Whaddyathink? Would you consider donating your body to science? Let me know!


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3 Fun Thanksgivukkah Rituals


Need more proof the holiday gods loathe interfaith families like mine who celebrate everything? Thanksgiving and Hanukkah arrive together this year. (Yes, dutiful observers: Hanukkah technically arrives the night before Thanksgiving. Thanks for the reminder why nobody likes dutiful observers.)

Anyway, in honor of this only-in-a-shiksa’s-worst-nightmare scenario, I hope you’ll try some of my family’s favorite Thanksgivukkah rituals. The more of them you enjoy, the more likely we’ll be to bump into each other at therapy.

Happy Thanksgivukkah! And may the odds be ever in your favor!

  • Finding the Menorahs. Remember when you took down last year’s Christmas decorations, blithely chucking dreidels and blue table runners into any old red-and-green Rubbermaid box that would hold them? Well, the calendar may say “November,” but it’s time to dig through those boxes—yep, every one of them, right now—in search of your family’s Festival of Lights detritus. And be sure to get the kids involved. The thrill of crawling through the spider-webby, unfinished part of the basement knows no age!
  • Buying the Candles. You didn’t really wait until the last minute for this one, did you? Oh. Anyhow, the good news is there are still a few boxes of menorah candles to be had down at the Safeway. The bad news is they’re buried in the seasonal aisle amid the mini marshmallows, pumpkin puree, and jars of giblet gravy. (Giblet gravy? Seriously, people?) The place is bound to be a wee bit crowded, but it could be worse. It could be raining. I said, IT COULD BE RAINING.
  • Recounting the Miracle of Thanksgivukkah. According to legend, the Pilgrims had only enough bland, starchy food for one night. But the leftovers—from the candied sweet potatoes to those disgusting creamed onions nobody even likes—lasted for eight nights. So as you celebrate lo these long days, remind the little ones that their crippling stomach cramps and early signs of scurvy are all part of the fun. Next year at Plymouth Rock!

What’re your most dreaded, er, favorite holiday rituals? Tell me about them!

[Image courtesy of JewishBoston.com]

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12 Truths about Parenting


My kids are now 22, 17, 12, and 6. I’ve been a mother since the Dawn of Man. And you know what I’ve learned? That as much as I alternately love and loathe parenthood (and occasionally fantasize about retroactive birth control), the only thing harder than waiting for your kids to grow up or trying to keep them little forever is realizing you have no control over the speed either way. In fact, when it comes to parenting:

  1. If you call in your beer order ahead of your arrival at Chuck E. Cheese? It goes too fast.
  2. If you spend every moment of every day eye-level with your toddler, immersed in his world of stackable cups, LEGOs, and all things sold separately? It goes too fast.
  3. If you rush your kid through each milestone and yearn for the day she’ll be able to feed/clothe/bathe herself? It goes too fast.
  4. If you savor every precious midnight tummy ache and search for under-the-bed monsters? It goes too fast.
  5. If it takes three margaritas for you to even consider breaking out the finger paint? It goes too fast.
  6. If you cuddle with your baby for hours under a blanket, tenting it over you to keep the world out? It goes too fast.
  7. If you handcraft origami pumpkins and marshmallow snowmen for your kindergartner’s classroom parties? It goes too fast.
  8. If you frantically race to the store at 7 a.m. for 20 juice boxes because you forgot it’s your turn to bring drinks to your kindergartner’s goddamned classroom party? It goes too fast.
  9. If you ignore your home’s general stickiness and instead enjoy long, lazy days filled with dress-up, coloring, and block towers? It goes too fast.
  10. If your secret desire is to spend just one more hour at the office? It goes too fast.
  11. If you wish your kids would never grow up? It goes too fast.
  12. If you wish your kids would just grow up already? It goes too fast.
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Death with Father


A dream. The guests mill around noiselessly as I scan the room for my father. I’m peering through gauze. This must be a party, because Dad’s wearing a tuxedo. He’s only worn one a few times, and I’m tempted to go up and ask him when the canapés are being served. Now doesn’t seem the time for joking, though. Dad’s busy floating from person to person. He keeps glancing at his watch.

“If he hadn’t given me this sick sense of humor, I’m not sure I could handle this,” says my older sister, Rachael. She and I linger in front of Dad’s open casket; he’s handsome like Ned Beatty at last call.

We search for appropriate words, but all we manage is mimicking an old Bill Cosby routine, where a dead man has a tape recorder in his coffin. As friends file by, the tape plays, “Why, hello, Bob. How’s the wife and kids? You’re looking well. Don’t I look well?” We giggle quietly, not wanting to alarm the guests. If Dad weren’t indisposed, he’d be playing right along with us.

Down the hall in the mortuary’s lounge, my relatives chain-smoke. Puff, ash, mourn. Puff, ash, mourn. They could etch their initials in the dusky air. I don’t point out that Dad’s passion for cigarettes is precisely what earned him this sudden, permanent vacation in Flavor Country. No one would grasp the irony.

Dad finishes speaking with everyone and tells me he has to go. His face is expressionless. “Wait, I’ll go with you,” I offer. He looks at me. “You can’t, you’re too young. I have to go by myself.” I cajole him like I’m 16 again and want the car. “Come on, Dad. It’ll be okay.” He watches me for a moment and then leaves the party. I follow.

The viewing room is stuffed with people I’m told I know. “Come on, you remember Mr. Nameless Pinstripe Suit! He worked with your father at the old office.” Oh yeah, him. I was just 4 when Dad worked there, but I’m still embarrassed at my ignorance. My only shot at being the thoughtful daughter of the deceased father, and I’m totally blowing it.

“You’re so young to lose your father,” a heavyset woman says to console me. I’ll buy that. I’m 22 and already the mother of a toddler, but there’s nothing like burying Daddy to make you want to drag the Dr. Denton’s out of mothballs. Were we normal, my siblings and I would mourn openly, sopping up the flood of sympathy like grief-wracked sponges. Instead, we work the room.

“Dad always said he wanted to go to Hell,” I joke to his old receptionist, “because all his friends would be there.” She smiles at me nervously, not sure how to respond. As she shifts from foot to foot, I decide against regaling her with one of his best vasectomy jokes.

Dad’s driving fast, but I keep up in the car behind him. I’ve never met this dry road, but it knows me. It grips my tires as I navigate the turns. Dad, I think, where the hell are we going? No matter which direction we drive, the sun always lies behind us. It sinks as Dad continues without his headlights. It’s night.

“I’ll be one of the pallbearers,” I tell Uncle Doug at the burial site. I’ve never been one for symbolic gestures, but I feel obligated to carry Dad. How many times has he carried me?

In high school, I had to dissect a cat that looked a lot like my own. “It’s just cells, it’s not a cat,” I’d chant to myself with each cut. Now, clutching the casket’s brass rail, a cold weight shifts inside. “It’s just cells, it’s not a dad.” It doesn’t help.

We carry Dad up a small ridge and rest him on the Astroturf surrounding his new grave. He always preferred playing on natural grass, but this may not be the time to say so. A white-and-green striped awning canopies the audience. If I squint my eyes, this is a party. Maybe I’m deaf, because I can’t hear the comforting words oozing from the minister, three feet away.

Dad must think it’s a shame that all this prime golf course acreage is being squandered on dead people. Were it not for this previous engagement, he’d be teeing off right now. Five days ago, I teased him that golf’s not even a real sport. If I jam my tongue into the roof of my mouth any harder, I’ll choke.

Everyone gets up from ringside, and it’s done. Dad’s sister lights a Pall Mall 100 and smokes to better days. Now it’s time to say goodbye to Jed and all his kin. We head to our cars, pretending there won’t be an empty seat.

Dad reaches the top of a wide, sloping hill, and parks. He gets out and walks steadily to the edge of a freshly dug grave. I try to run to him, stop him, but my legs are marshmallows. The air smells of electrified earth. Dad glances back, “I told you I had to go alone.” I grab for his hand, convinced that I’m strong enough to keep him here. “Dad, please,” I say, my voice raspy and small, “you don’t understand. If you go, you’re never coming back.” He looks at me gently. “No, honey, you don’t understand. I’m already gone.”


*A version of this piece appeared in Virgin Territory: Stories from the Road to Womanhood by Cathy Alter.

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