Sunday, October 2, 2011

Can You Teach An Old Dog New Tricks?

In this case, of course, the dog would be me.

Whether or not I am old depends on your perspective, but in dog years I am 259.

And twice a week, for much of the fall, I head to night school. The class is a requirement of my new job.  It’s part of an alternative route to becoming certified to teach in the public schools for those of us who spent our undergrad and graduate years meeting requirements that had nothing to do with the real world.
In my case that was by design; I was studying theatre.

Now I am studying the art of teaching.

It’s been about ten years since I was a student (at NYU’s School of Continuing Education) and even longer since I felt, as I do now, that I am new at something. I am not inexperienced at teaching, but I am to this kind of teaching—the jargon, the acronyms, the trends in philosophy that define this moment in education.

Perhaps it's the nature of the class I am taking but I often ask myself: am I still a good student?

Unlike my experience as a student before, this time around I am a mother. And that means that in a lot of ways I embody the traits of a slacker.

I arrive to class late. I drink out of a mysterious thermos. I reach for my cell phone.

I have my reasons, if not excuses. I'm often late because I'm handing the kids off to a baby sitter. As for the thermos, it was more of a sippy, and that was because my water bottle was lost.  And I needed to use my cell phone to text the sitter to make sure the stove was off.

Yet, somehow, despite all signs to the contrary,  I know I am understanding, absorbing, and learning as well as I ever did.
A study released this past summer, and discussed on the webiste ScienceDaily,  might explain some of that. While it didn’t look at the distractions that come with being a student and mother of two young kids, it did look at the difference between young and old brains when it comes to learning new things. Researchers at the University of Montreal found:

“Funny enough, the young brain is more reactive to negative reinforcement than the older one. When the young participants made a mistake and had to plan and execute a new strategy to get the right answer, various parts of their brains were recruited even before the next task began. However, when the older participants learned that they had made a mistake, these regions were only recruited at the beginning of the next trial, indicating that with age, we decide to make adjustments only when absolutely necessary. It is as though the older brain is more impervious to criticism and more confident than the young brain," stated Dr. Monchi.”
 I don’t think I am as old as the participants recruited for this study, but I feel light-years away from the young college student I once was. Whether it's slacking, or multi-tasking, or juggling, the result is I am an old dog (or thirty-something mother) learning something new. The only way to do that is to have a few tricks of one's own.

 I am not sure how the researchers define mental confidence, but I can say that not understanding something the first time around, or even getting it wrong, does not bother me anymore.  And that's not because I'm a slacker; it's because I am a mother.

A few years ago, the economic downturn prompted an increase in adults going back to school. had an article with 5 Tips for Going Back to School as an Adult. The one commodity needed to achieve most of these goals is one that can be managed but not created: time.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

How Anyone Does It...

One of the most interesting things about reading Lisa Belkin’s Motherlode column a few weeks ago, and Stephen Holden’s review, both in The New York Times and both in one way or the other about the movie, I Don’t Know How She Does it, was their discussion of what’s changed in the ten years since the book was a best seller.

Belkin notes the adaptations the movie has made to be more current, especially with regard to parenting. There are the changes in technology (the instant communication provided by a BlackBerry); the “kinder” portrayal of men (whose roles and desires in the work/family balance have evolved she suggests) and then the new ending –spoiler alert--in which the main character creates a version of having it all that is, arguably, more reflective of 2011.

Stephen Holden’s film review, in contrast, is about how the movie “seems stuck in the past.” The film’s star, Sarah Jessica Parker, in his description, embodies both Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw and the movie’s main character, Kate Reddy, in a case of what he calls “Parkeritis”.

The condition is fatal only to a film, evidently, and means the star brings with her the ethos of an era in which “Ms. Parker was in her early 30’s, and well before Sept. 11, two wars and a major recession dampened American exuberance.”

We are, Holden makes clear, no longer in the glory years.

But, by Belkin’s account, as mothers and wives and women with jobs, perhaps we finally are.

What has happened in the past ten years?

I can’t speak to the book or the movie, but I was interested in hearing the marriage historian Stephanie Coontz interviewed last May. Looking at what she described as longitudinal studies of women, both working and stay-at-home, she says the mommy wars are over.

What really matters is that a woman is doing what she really wants to do, and that her employment is one that is “high quality.” Kids are happier if a mother is happier, and those two standards were seen as protecting a mother from unhappiness or depression.

Over the past five weeks, I’ve moved from stay-at-home mom to full-time working-outside-the-house mom.

My husband takes the kids to school, a seminary student walks our dog, teachers fill our girls’ days with purpose, and a college baby sitter rounds out dinner and bath time on evenings when I take my night class.

I Don’t Know How She, or for that matter anyone does it.

Right now, it takes a team.

In Holden’s review of  I Don’t Know How She Does it, he criticized Parker for bringing too much of her former character and spirit to her current role. It’s probably a fair critique for him to make of an actor.

But I felt bad for the person, mother, and working woman behind the critique.

Throughout our transformations, we, unlike a Hollywood actress, don’t have to completely reinvent ourselves, or pretend that whatever we’ve been doing for the past ten years (staying at home, working outside of it) never happened.

Maybe that, in keeping with Belkin’s more optimistic view of the way things are now, is another good thing about being a parent in 2011.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


Diamonds are forever but the little prongs that hold them into place are far less eternal. Two of mine gave out about a month ago, breaking off cleanly from the side of my engagement ring and taking with them the half-moon diamond that had hugged the exalted sapphire to their side. I would have searched my car, my house, and every blade of grass between the two had I not known, in my gut, where the diamond most likely was: the isle of Manhattan.  We’d just returned from a weekend in the city, an urban haystack for the most expensive needle I could have lost.

I am not sentimental about objects but as I’ve tried to get this little diamond replaced, I’ve had to face the fact that it had symbolic meaning.

My husband, Tom, pulled that diamond, and the ring of which it was a part, out of his pocket on September 15, 2001. 

Five nights before, on September 10, I had been finishing up work on a story during my stint at CBS NEWS/48 Hours. I was in Florida and needed to get back to New York City but my plane in Tallahassee had mechanical problems. A call to Tom and I got a pep talk.

I flew on to Atlanta.

The next flight, if I could get on it, would get me into New York late that night. I was tired and superstitious, and considered staying in Atlanta and catching a flight early the next morning.

Tom convinced me to get home as soon as I could.

I remember several details about that flight home to New York on September 10, 2011. An unusual bomb-detecting wand at security in Florida, the cockpit door the pilots had left open until we were practically taking off, and the raucous, intoxicated atmosphere on what felt like a party-plane that I rode from Atlanta into Newark in the darkness of night.

And I remember a feeling of relief when I finally saw Tom and his shoebox apartment, and the little fish in his aquarium we’d just given names to.

 The next morning I took a cab across town to my apartment and dropped off my bags. I needed to go downtown to my old voting precinct to vote in the mayoral primary.

I don’t know if it was the obligation I felt to get to work on time, or the lessening of pressure I felt to fulfill my civic duty that came with the distraction of falling in love, as I’d been doing that summer, but I never hopped the train downtown to vote that morning.

At 8:46 am, I was in an office building at West 57th instead of somewhere south of Canal Street.

The next weekend we’d intended to head to Washington, DC to see my folks.

We stayed in New York instead. And, somehow, on that Saturday, September 15, made our way past suits of armor and tapestries and up to the top of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After days of feeling the erosion of everything that was knowable, Tom took me to a place that was a reminder of what was enduring.

The atmosphere in New York was still heavy with a grieving, mystified uncertainty.  But Tom took out the ring and asked me to marry him, with a sense of calm, that was then, as it is now, unshakable.  

So, my little diamond, the rebel who has broken free from the trio of stones that have sat together for the past decade, it seems you have returned to Manhattan.

You’re a silly thing to miss, especially on a day like today. But, for me, and perhaps other husbands and wives who've felt stronger because of the love, glimmering or internal, that their spouse has given them, you’re a good thing to remember.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Stirred But Not Shaken

The garbage truck that made a special Saturday pick up in advance of Labor Day only made it half way down my street; it was apparently  too full or overtaxed to finish the job. House after house had stacked the curb with black bags and torn up, water drenched carpet, warped furniture and other objects from basements that had seen too much of Hurricane Irene.

We lost power at 2:59am last Sunday morning, a fact announced quite loudly by my six year old who seemed kinesthetically in tune with the weekend’s storm, and marked by a stove clock that stopped ticking when the power failed.

August had come in like a lion and out like a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Thunderstorms, an earthquake, and finally a hurricane. The last, of course, being less of a surprise thanks to meteorologists who were following its path.

But waiting for Irene to arrive felt a bit like closing your eyes and asking for a punch. Who knew when or where or how intense it would be when it finally came?

I prepared by going to the store three times, each time somehow forgetting the essential characteristic of nonperishable food, particularly what the prefix “non” suggests. I am accustomed to snow storms when having a gallon of milk on hand is a boon, not one more thing that inevitably gets poured down the drain.

I shouldn’t cry over spilled milk.

We were somehow spared what others were not. Perhaps having our roof leak and then our basement doused with water from a sewer line failure three weeks ago fulfilled part of our quotient of August angst.

We know some who still don’t have power; we’ve read about a local man who died by being swept into a sewer from rushing water and a rescue worker killed after an attempted recovery of a stranded vehicle. We see others, perhaps half of our neighbors, who after getting a foot or two of water in their basements are throwing out water-logged memories. Daily commutes have been detoured; trains to New York suspended.  And, then there was the tree we saw stretching its way across Main Street, holding on by its deep roots lest it finish its fall into the house it had looked out on for probably the last hundred years.

We spent our 36 hours without power listening to a battery operated radio, reading books by windows, paying bills by candle light, and trying, in vain, to explain why the nightlight in my three year old’s bedroom would not be working.  I fell asleep wishing I’d had a shower, but happy to hear the sound of voices outside the window, neighbors chatting on porches instead of isolated in front of their TV’s.

When the power came back, I retrieved a voice message from our water company warning that power to the treatment plant was still down so we were to limit our use to only essential needs. Seeing someone’s sprinkler system shooting water onto an already drenched lawn a few hours later, I had to think our pre-programmed gadgets had not gotten the message.

But we humans had. By natural disaster standards, we had gotten off easy. But experiencing the fringe effects of an earthquake and hurricane within the same week has been a reminder that we live on a planet not only a street.

There is sedimentary evidence of hurricane action in New Jersey from the year 1278, and, it turns out my region has not only had small earthquakes before, we had one earlier this summer, according to a story in my local paper.

 No one seemed to notice.

 I think the past few weeks have stirred us to a new understanding.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Pop Culture Osmosis or How My 6 Year Old Heard About Justin Bieber

Distinguished readers, colleagues, mom and dad. Thank you for joining me today as I present my research on the theory of pop culture osmosis, also referred to as, How My 6 Year Old Heard About Justin Bieber. In the interest of clarity I'd like to note that although it’s reported that many two to four year olds say Justin Beaver, it is the same Bieber about whom we speak, and who shall henceforth be referred to as JB.

First, I’d like to establish the fact that at no time did my husband or I speak about JB in our house, play his music, or put his autobiography, First Step 2 Forever on request for interlibrary loan.

A simple hacking into my iTunes library will prove that my pop culture literacy blossomed with Natalie Merchant’s debut solo album and pretty much stayed there. While my husband’s musical tastes are more expansive, he has informed me that he’d rather listen to Selena Gomez.

It is possible that our six year old turned on the television without our knowledge and accessed a channel featuring JB but we highly doubt it; certainly her three year old sister would have tattled.

We therefore conclude that it is due to external contact, i.e. association with peers who do know about JB, that our daughter was exposed and now indoctrinated in the adoration of JB. Symptoms of this exposure reached a feverish peak last Thursday, August 18 while eating a plain bagel with cream cheese, when she said, “Mom do you know who Justin Bieber is? He sings Dynamite. And I want an iPod.” (*We've been informed that JB doesn't actually sing this song, but as long as she and her friends think he does that fact is irrelevant.)

What is noteworthy, however, is the hierarchy of the transmission which starts, we believe, in households with tweens or teens.

To be influential, these tweens or teens must have younger siblings with whom they love to spend time or detest. In either case, the younger sibling will dote upon the oldest and assume his or her musical taste.

This younger sibling is then sent to play with his or her peer group and brings with him or her knowledge (accurate or not) of the life and culture of the older age-set. This youth may even be an early adaptor of gadgetry, given an iPod, for example, so he will not break an older sibling’s or worse, learn how to use it more adeptly in front of them.

This younger, culturally advanced sibling is a transmitter of fads and knowledge and gains status as the gatekeeper of what’s to come. No doubt this trend explains our own youngest daughter’s playground talk during which she’s been known to trash-talk "Sesame Street" in favor of her sister’s preference, "The Electric Company."

We believe the JB exposure was gradual, but that our six year old finally connected JB to a piece of music and the versatility of an iPod to play such music ad nauseum when she was tossed into a mixed aged pottery class because of the astonishingly poor judgment and discretion of her naive and foolish mother, me.

Not only were there multi-aged siblings in attendance, there was a tween, and perhaps a teen, creating the perfect storm of access, interest, and very bad odds for the instructor.

After four days, knowledge of JB eased into the susceptible membrane of our six year old’s pop culture knowledge base as naturally as water into an area of higher solute concentration.

As with many things, we have been told that exposure breeds inoculation, and that within a year or two our six year old will fight off JB in favor of something more shocking. We can only hope. At present, the obsession is so complete that music not even sung by JB is now being attributed to him despite intervention.

In conclusion, while JB adoration may be a passing fad, we believe pop culture osmosis is here to stay.

On a side note, if anyone does have a copy of First Step 2 Forever, I have a friend who says she’d like to read it.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, posted by Daniel Ogren.

PS: Readers might remember the story I did on Danielle Gletow, the founder of One Simple Wish, an organization that grants wishes, or requests, to children in foster care. This September 24 at 6pm One Simple Wish is holding an evening to honor foster children and celebrate supporters who've helped them grant over 1,600 wishes. Local folks who might want to attend this night at the Trenton War Memorial can find more information about A Night of 1000 Wishes by clicking here.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Postcards From the Edge

The number of emails a person can handle a day is said to be about fifty, according to a  2010 survey commission by an email provider Intermedia.

Last week, as we headed west from New Jersey on a two day drive to Fontana Village, North Carolina, I handled close to zero.

That was because the only network I had deep in the Smoky Mountains was one formed by the relatives we’d traveled so far to see; Verizon’s web of connectivity was lost somewhere in the North Carolina dust.

To be without Internet and cell reception for four to five days is no heroic accomplishment, but it is different, at least for me. There was one spot in the Village that had Wi-Fi and cell reception and I asked to go there one time especially. “I just need to call the guy who’s building our fence,” I told my husband, “to remind him he can’t reach us.”

The irony did not escape me, nor did the fact that even if the builder could reach us, what good I’d be to him hundreds of miles away should he hit a pipe or knock a tree into our house was questionable.

Still, this was my first lesson in disconnecting: I felt an obligation to explain my absence.

The other thing I learned was that when a phone’s primary purpose is rendered ineffective, it’s ancillary ones seem less urgent. The result: I didn’t tote the phone around to take pictures, and now, looking back, I have memories, but few photographs.

If I didn’t miss email, or too much of Facebook and the Internet, there was one moment when having the ability to use cell phones felt like a security blanket we’d forgotten to pack. I missed it when we dropped our kids off at my parent’s cabin and went five minutes down the mountain to a little recreation center to watch a black and white documentary on the building of the local dam.

How, I wondered, would my mom reach us if she needed to?

Ah, yes, a landline. I seemed to remember those....

How quickly older forms of communication seem ancient. I thought of the box I was given a few months after my grandmother’s death, a Mi Choice Chocolates from Bunte of Chicago.  Inside were about a hundred postcards once belonging to her mother, my great-grandmother Ceil.

I’d hoped to follow a love story, or get a glimpse into the saga of her family’s life reading the postcards. What I learned was that these notes, at least in her circle, were the text messages of our world. And I don't mean the kind that make headlines and bring down political careers.

No, these were more like post-it notes, or quick little voice mails. Just enough to say, days after the fact, that “we’d made it home,” or invite someone to “come on down” for a visit.

According to a website on postcard history, the cards I have from 1909 to 1915 represent some of the advancements in the peak of postcard communication.

Souvenir Postal Cards entered the scene in the late 1890’s, but the novel  “divided back” post card with a special section for an address as well as personal note arrived in 1907. And it’s these that fill most of my great-grandmother’s collection. She was born at the turn of the century, meaning that just as the teens of today turn to their G4, Ceil turned to her fancy cards.

Postmark December 30, 1909

We received yours and tell mama to write and give me her address, for she says you have moved. From Mr. & Mrs. Jackson

Postmark June 30, 1914

Dear Cecilia,

We got home safe and hope you got home safe too. Best Regards to All. From Edwin Miller

Postmark January 15, 1915

Dear Cousin Celie,

Received your letter but I’m sorry to say that we are going to Stella’s Birthday party Sat. with Irma. Sun. afternoon to Fort Thomas to her aunts. If I am home next Sat. will let you know and you can come down Fri. after school and then we will go to town Saturday afternoon. With love from Elsie. Tell your Ma and Pa to come down.

I can image how excited my fifteen year old great-grandmother would have been to get a note from her cousin and that she probably sat down to write her back later that day, sending her communication the fastest way she could, then checking the mail every day to see if there was news.

While she undoubtedly wished her messages could be conveyed even more swiftly, now it seems we have to take ourselves deep into the mountains or swim against a broadband of access to slow it down just a bit.

Then again, maybe I'll buy some 29 cent stamps and start writing postcards.

Video, featuring a few of my great-grandmother's postcards.

Monday, August 8, 2011

This Week...

This week I am on vacation, which means the title of this post should actually be 'Next Week', because that is when I will return with a new Lunch Box Mom post. After 97 consecutive weeks it's both hard and easy to take a week off. Back again with a new post on August 14th.

Monday, August 1, 2011

What To Expect: How About a Book

What to Expect When You’re Expecting is such a standard reference book for pregnant women it’s easy to forget that someone actually wrote it.

Amazon says the book is, “a perennial New York Times bestseller and one of USA Today's 25 most influential books of the past 25 years. It's read by more than 90% of pregnant women who read a pregnancy book--the most iconic, must-have book for parents-to-be, with over 14.5 million copies in print.”

These days, the website is also a hit, with the second-largest audience of moms-to-be online. Still, it was the book that I kept on my nightstand for both of my pregnancies. I’d alternate between reading it and thinking about the child developing within me and turning to a book of baby names, thinking about how this individual would be identified by the world once she was born.

What to Expect is exhaustive, but for the nine months I read it, I didn’t realize it had solved the baby name search, too. I discovered that several months after my oldest was born when I finally took a closer look at the cover of the book, a page I’d skipped over when I was eager to get to the chapters within.

The name we had sought was right there all along. We found it, however, a different way, joking with my grandfather who would ask, "How is Heidi doing?" whenever I called during my pregnancy. One day my husband and I looked at each other and said, “Well, why not Heidi?”

So, Heidi it was and Heidi it is.

And it’s Heidi Murkoff whose name you’ll find on the cover of What to Expect When You’re Expecting.

If you’re expecting, or know someone who is, and think they’d like to name their child Sharon (the co-author listed on the cover), send me an email. I don’t usually do give-aways, but when Heidi and her crew asked, I thought I could make an exception.

What to Expect: The Second Year. You're braver than I was if you want to read about the second year before it happens, but if you do, let me know. They'll give away one of these, too. And, What to Expect: The First Year goes to Jessica Provenz, a reader, writer, and new mother, who, I think, managed to comment on a blog post while in labor.

From the emails I get, I'll pick the winners out of a hat on Wednesday of this week and then I expect to get back to non-give-away life as we know it.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Nearly Extinct: The Jungle Gym

A few days after I wrote about my family’s trip to the ER, a story by John Tierney in The New York Times, “Grasping Risk in Life’s Classroom” sent the clear message that it was time to head back to the playground. Never mind that most of my children’s boo boo’s have occurred at home, the real point of the article was that taking risks at the playground, especially by climbing high, had an “anti-phobic effect.”

Doorknobs in my book are still wily little devices, but monkey bars? Evidently, letting a child test her skills and assess her own ability ten feet off the ground was just the thing.

“Risky play mirrors effective cognitive behavioral therapy of anxiety,” the article states, quoting an article by Dr. Ellen Sandseter and Leif Kennair that was published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology.

The psychologists conclude: Paradoxically, we posit that our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology.

One object that has been a casualty in the controversial attempts to make playgrounds safer, the article notes, is the classic jungle gym. And its absence is what I noticed most when I returned to the playground scene with my own kids after a twenty year hiatus. Decades of transformation had driven my favorite feature to near extinction.


Not only had there been “parental concerns, federal guidelines, new safety standards set by manufacturers,” but there was also what Tierney describes as the “most frequently cited factors—fear of lawsuits.”

I decided to take a look at the playgrounds in my area in a quixotic search for the Mount Olympus of my youth, an old fashioned jungle gym.  Perhaps someday we will make a pilgrimage to one of the few parks in New York City whose classic jungle gyms have been preserved, but in the meantime, we took advantage of the heat advisory and dearth of activity at the playgrounds to capture some early morning images.

Along the way, we discovered one place of play whose potential for risk and adventure has remained untouched.

If the video does not load, you can find it on the Lunchboxmom YouTube channel by clicking here.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

We Interrupt this Summer for a Trip to the ER

It’s not my imagination; summer brings more trips to the Emergency Room. According to an article from Prevention posted on MSN, hospitals have an 18 % increase in emergency room visits between the months of May and August.

If you’re interested in learning how one might avoid these trips, you can check out the tips from ER and pediatric doctors shared in the article. After that, if you’d like to know how my family ended up supporting the 18% increase, you can read this blog.

While I microwaved some hot dogs, my oldest slammed the bathroom door, believing, incorrectly, that her younger sister would get out of the way.

That about sums it up.

In the blink of an eye, ten feet away from me, in a moment of sibling squabbling, the accident occurred. The door knob, shaped more like a lever, hit the back of my three year old’s head in just the right way to cause a laceration.

One paper towel saturated in blood. Then another. And then a cloth towel. I called 9-1-1 and did a very bad job staying calm. The EMTs arrived and took us to the hospital. A kind nurse assessed the situation. A wonderful physician’s assistant followed up, saying my daughter would be fine, but she’d need some staples on the wound to help it heal.

Ten days, no swimming. And, here, “You’ll need your own staple remover. Most pediatricians don’t have them.”

I do not know how parents remain calm in the face of more serious accidents. I hesitated to even write about this incident because I did not want to suggest, in any way, that the relatively minor distress we experienced compares with the grief and uncertainty other parents may have confronted during trips to the ER.

And yet, there is value in writing about an accident such as ours. In the midst of chaos, tears, and blood, it might be a reminder that simply because the world feels as if it just got turned upside down, doesn’t always mean that it has.

My children are stronger and more resilient than I am in many ways. I braced myself every time I applied the Neosporin to the wound beneath those three staples on my three year old's head, reminded each time of how the injury happened and how vulnerable we all felt.

She, however,  kept on dancing.

This very short video is a glimpse into that mindset. I intend to vlog about broader topics and not my kids in weeks to come, but because this was my first effort using imovie, I thought I’d better focus on participants who didn’t mind a “do-over” when I inadvertently forgot to push record.

If the video does not play, you can access it on the Lunchboxmom YouTube channel.
*on this blogger page, if the image does not load, but the "play button does" try clicking on the play button and image will load shortly after.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Some Thoughts on the News

The most recent stories about Leiby Kletzky, the 8 year old boy who was kidnapped on his first independent walk home from camp and killed, the police say, by a man from his neighborhood, touch on a natural worry among parents: could this happen to my child?

A New York Times story, “With Boy’s Killing, Parents Confront Worst Fears” begins with what it calls the “maxims passed down for generations: Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t sit in the last car of the subway train. If you are lost, look for someone in a uniform. If something bad happens, scream! “

But there's reason to look beyond the limited protection these maxims offer to strategies that might reduce our risks, if not our fears.

That’s one of the reasons Gavin de Becker’s book, Protecting the Gift, is worth taking another look at.

I can’t do justice to the clarity of thought, analysis and blunt advice given in de Becker’s book, but two things strike me as particularly important to remember in the context of this most recent story.

First, de Becker debunks the idea that children should never speak to strangers. The book suggests that in fact, children should be taught how to select the right stranger to talk to should they be in need of help. While that sounds complex, de Becker helps us narrow things down quickly by suggesting that women, rather than men, prove to be better choices.

Second, there’s the idea of “looking for someone in a uniform”. The problem with that is that it’s hard to tell the uniform of a police officer from that of a security guard. The suspect, Levi Aron, once worked as a security guard, it’s been reported, reinforcing de Becker’s general assessment of that group.

Politically correct? No.

And nothing will explain the incomprehensible cruelty one human can inflict upon another.

But, if you want to move past the fear and take a look at some blunt strategies, I think de Becker’s book is one of the most helpful books a parent can read. Especially right now. Not only because of this heartbreaking story, but because the schedule of summer often challenges the routines and experiences we've grown accustomed to throughout the school year.

My only other thoughts on this news are those of deep sympathy for the family.

Post Script: I recently heard from a long time friend and reader who lives in Brooklyn. She wrote "I organized a collection in our neighborhood (which borders two of the neighborhoods involved) to plant a tree in Prospect Park in Leiby Kletzky's memory. Planting a tree is a Jewish tradition and the park is used by all communities in Brooklyn so we thought it would be a nice gesture. We are all so desperate to DO something." Contributions to this Prospect Park fund can be made at this site, with "Leiby Kletzky Tree Fund" noted in the comment section.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

How Do You Become #1 on Amazon? Ask the Mother of Reinvention

Kelly Lester and
husband, Loren Lester.
It would be one thing if Kelly Lester and her EasyLunchboxes came of age in the thriving world of social media, but what makes her story exceptional is that she first became an inventor and entrepreneur when  Mark Zuckerberg was about 12. Her product then, decorative light switch covers, was made in the United Sates and sold in brick and mortar stores and museum shops.

Her website, was the only game in town back in 1996, when buying a domain name on the nascent World Wide Web felt like riding into an unpopulated frontier: search for switch plates and her company easily came up first.

In 2009, a few years after selling her first company, Kelly started a second. She launched the website.

“If computers had crickets, we heard crickets,” she said. "If you're not on page one or two of search engines, you don't exist."

And so began the reincarnation of a mom entrepreneur. She looked for mom bloggers to do reviews, schooled herself in Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and recently, she got her lunch boxes listed on Amazon. Last week she announced she’d conquered the mighty river of free shipping: in two months her product has became the site's number one selling lunch box.

EasyLunchboxes, containers
and cooler bag.
The story of this second innovation, a single lid bento-style lunch box, began as an obsession. She had three kids in school, three lunches to pack, and no lunch box that streamlined the process. Packing lunches was something she’d done since she was a kid, when she’d toss cheese sandwiches and some store brand Oreos into brown paper bags for her four brothers. For her own three daughters she needed something different.

“I wanted to make the same lunch for all three of them. I wanted it to all be uniformed so I didn’t have to think so hard.”

Using multiple containers (three containers and three girls equals at least nine containers a day) was driving Kelly, “absolutely insane.”

She searched in stores, on Google and Amazon but didn’t find what she was looking for. So she called plastic manufacturers in the United States. Finally she reached a man who told her what she’d need to make her own lunch box.

A mold. And $75,000.

That’s when Kelly turned to China.

She contacted a liaison in America who helped her work with a factory in China and made her EasyLunchboxes for far less than the American quote.

Instead of selling her product in stores, she focused on the website. A few months ago, an associate helped open the door with Amazon. The burden of shipping costs, something that hurts a small business such as hers, has been lightened.

“I can just send them (Amazon) thousands of pounds of product for pennies of what UPS can usually ship.”

Using her own fulfillment service and shipping without Amazon’s discounts costs the consumer $8.95. But it costs her even more.

“People want stuff for free and they want it now,” she said, describing the benefit of Amazon.

Kelly’s sourcing agent has an office in China and one not far from her in California. A third party tests the products. The polypropylene plastic is BPA-free and the cooler bags are tested for lead.

Early in the process, she had to send her shipment back three times until it came back right, meeting FDA standards, but the relationship with her overseas producer has been worth it, she says. Cost was not an irrelevant issue for her, "I'm a thrifty kind of shopper," she said, explaining what she'd look for in buying a lunch box for her own kids.

California is home to another bento style lunch box system also invented by moms but manufactured in the United States. The style is different than Kelly’s single lid system and constructed with what’s described as a durable plastic. The system also comes with a plastic water bottle. But a comparison of a price speaks to the issue consumers and mom entrepreneurs face:

EasyLunchbox system: four plastic containers and cooler bag (made in China): $21.90

Laptop Lunch B630 Bento System 2.0, (made in the US): $39.99

*Both are available for free shipping with Amazon prime.

Lunchopolis, another lunch box system on Amazon and one that has been sold at Whole Foods, explains its manufacturing on its website:

"...although we continually attempt to source manufacturing in either the United States or Canada, we have been unable to find cost effective production. We estimate that if we sourced this product in the United States, the retail price would be more than 45% higher.”

One of the few Lunch box options on Amazon with a similar style but made from stainless steel instead of plastic is LunchBots. A shopper would get one stainless steel container for around the same price as the four included with Kelly's package, but still discover the product was made in China.

Occasionally, the "Made in China" label has been a deal breaker for Kelly’s prospective customers. And, she says, she understands.

“But are you watching your big screen Hitachi?”

There have been times when the cost of working with a manufacturer in China has been steep, however.

“We sold out for three months. They just shut the power grid off." No one knew when it would be turned back on so that the factory could get back to work and finish her order.

“My hair fell out, it was very stressful.”

To avoid that scenario she said she now spends more upfront and maintains a huge stock in the United States.

Jenny (18), Lily (13) and Julia (11)
Having a large demand that can be met, of course, is the whole idea, and it’s one of the reasons she has turned to YouTube to create a series of videos. Filming and editing the video has been a major project for the Lesters, but it helps that she’s an actor, her husband Loren Lester is an actor and director, her brother is a song writer, her 13 year old is a good script supervisor and that Kelly went to UCLA with Sam Harris, a Broadway performer and recording artist. Kelly’s most recent Facebook and YouTube postings feature her two youngest kids, Lily and Julia.

“I would like to influence people to take responsibility for their eating and stop waiting for school lunch programs to get better. It makes me really happy to be able to help people pack healthy lunches for their kids,” she said.

She’s heard from one mother of an autistic boy whose sense of independence was opened up because of her lunch box system. “My lunch box was the simplest for him to use.”

With her first business, Kelly never told people she was making sales calls out of her den in her pajamas. This time around, she says she's made her home, her kids, and her personality "part of the charm."

Before my interview ended, I did take advantage of my time with an original lunch box mom to ask the all important question.

When do you have time to pack the kids’ lunches?

The key, she said, was to pack them at night, sometimes while making dinner.

She tried having her kids make their own lunches, especially as they got older. But, she said, “I like knowing they are taking something of me.....I don’t think I am the best mom in the world but I really want to feed them right, and making cute lunches...that’s not that difficult.”

In fact, making it easy, is what her lunch box is all about.

Being a small business owner, even one who has seized the power of social media, is not different from being one fifteen years ago in one important respect, Kelly mentioned.

It’s still a whole lot of work.

Click here for: Kelly's Webisode with Sam Harris and The Behind the Scenes: see what it takes.

Recently, I was contacted by a mother who had an idea for an invention. "How do you get one made?" she asked. I had no idea, which is one of the reasons why I decided to "do lunch" with Kelly Lester this week.

This is the second in a periodic series, Lunch With, profiles of Lunch Box Mom readers. I met Kelly thanks to Google Alerts, which sends me stories about "Lunch boxes and Moms". For obvious reasons, Kelly is a real Lunch Box Mom. I only stand on them, something she does not recommend with her product.

And in the interest of full disclosure, when my daughters' school asked us to stop using Ziploc bags, I bought a Lunchopolis lunch box, and a LunchBot, and now have two EasyLunchboxes. Given how many times we leave our lunch boxes at school, we seem to need a few extra.

Find Lunch Box Mom on Facebook. And, soon, YouTube, under Lunchboxmom.

Monday, July 4, 2011

American Dreamers

What is the biggest problem facing kids (and their parents) today? That was the question asked of Success Magazine blog readers by relationship experts Richard and Linda Eyre .

Recently, they wrote about their results.

Of the multiple choice options, Peer Pressure, Excessive Technology and Gadgets, Bullying, Entitlement, Drugs and Substance Abuse, Sexual Experimentation, and Sibling Rivalry, A Sense of Entitlement left the other answers far behind, earning 53 percent of the responses compared to its nearest rival, Excessive Technology and Gadgets, at 16 percent.

When the Eyres, who have a book, The Entitlement Trap, due out in October, followed these results by asking if the sense of entitlement was a bigger problem for this generation of kids than with previous generations and who might be to blame, the answers were: “Yes,” it’s a bigger problem.  And no need to look around parents:  it’s our own fault.

Parents, “...give their kids too much, and they set a bad example.”

The responses were similar, the Eyres said, when they posed the questions to an audience in Southern California.

Could it be that the biggest threat to our children reaching their full potentials is one we’ve created ourselves? A crisis made and possibly solved within the family?

Interestingly, the family and its breakdown was one of the most popular answers to another survey, one administered not to parents but to California’s youth, and to a demographic presumably less affluent than the readership of Success Magazine.

This second survey was released by New American Media and the University of California Office of the President back in 2007. The poll reached 601 young people between the ages of 16-22 in one of the first polls to call people exclusively on their cell phones. The results are summarized in a report called: California Dreamers: A public opinion portrait of the most diverse generation the nation has known.

What did these respondents say was  The Most Pressing Issue Facing their Generation in the World Today?

Family Breakdown: 24%

Violence in Neighborhoods and Communities: 22%

Poverty: 17%

Global Warming: 14%

Anti-Immigration Sentiment: 7%

Others responses

Considering one in eight of our nation’s young people lives in California and according to the report,  nearly half of those are immigrants or the children of immigrants, the answers are significant especially as they relate to the attainment of something the report said the generation believes strongly in, “The American Dream”.

These young people, “harbor deep concerns about family stability, cite marriage and parenthood as life goals, and are as apt to define their identity by music and fashion taste as by the color of their skin.

Despite obstacles, they expect to create successful lives for themselves and imagine a more inclusive and tolerant society for one another. This collective optimism represents a unique source of social capital for California, and a mirror of what the U.S. is becoming as a global society. ”

The pressures weakening the family make-up that concern the young people surveyed by New American Media four years ago and whatever forces driving the parental struggle related to the epidemic of entitlement are different.

But they speak to a common idea: in our hope to attain or foster independence in the next generation, it’s the interdependence and functionality of our family life that is foremost on our minds.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Muppet Show: Now That's Educational TV

It’s hard to state the educational benefits of Pigs in Space.

And, yet, it’s possible.

But we’ll save that performance for the final act.

First, let’s talk about the rest of "The Muppet Show". Dig deep into your memory of the late 1970’s when the show ran weekly at 7:30pm. Kermit the Frog led a troop of variety show performers including the great Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Rowlf the Dog, back in the day when taking a bath and getting into your jammies quickly actually meant something. If you were late, you’d miss the intro.

I was giddy when "The Muppet Show" DVD’s arrived at our house from Netflix recently. When it’s time to start the music, when it’s time to light the lights, I feel for a moment like the five year old I once was; the one who sat three inches from a Zenith and wondered how Gonzo would end the song.

But after the third sketch in which a female guest star had to fend off a monster with dubious intentions, I had to ask: Was the TV of my childhood good for my own kids?

It was a question first faced by Generation X about four years ago, when, as The New York Times reported, Sesame Street Old School was released with this warning, “These early ‘Sesame Street’ episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child.”

Unlike Sesame Street, "The Muppet Show" was not even made primarily for children. It ran on CBS stations in the evening a half hour before prime-time. And it was created by Jim Henson, in part they say, to break him out of the kids’ niche.

Once my youngest caught sight of Animal, however, she was smitten. Still, I wasn't so sure if I’d invite Kermit and his cast into our house again.

Then, somewhere in season one, Candice Bergen appeared as a guest. Piggy is referred to as “Ms. Piggy” and the leading pig and Bergen unite in a show of female solidarity that is both refreshing and ridiculous. It was then I realized the particulars of the era that break through the otherwise timeless comedy were the very reasons the show was good for us: this was educational TV.

The pro-social messages of Nick Junior and "Sesame Street"’s Letter of the Day have nothing on Elton John in a pink jumpsuit singing a duet with Miss Piggy.  Because, just as many of us learned later that Alec Guinness played Hamlet long before Obi-Wan Kenobi , our kids may begin to see their world and its culture in a larger context. Something came before; something will come after.

Steve Martin playing the banjo—you’ll see him, kids, when you watch the remake of Father of the Bride, but as he proves with Fozzie, he was once a wild and crazy guy.

Florence Henderson: her appearance begged me to explain to my kids the premise of the "Brady Bunch" and the meaning of Marsha Brady Hair, but she’s also a link to Broadway musicals of the 50’s. One day, we’ll watch her segment on the Ed Sullivan show with her cast mates from Oklahoma!, Barbara Cook and John Raitt.

And, Candice Bergen, I promise you, my little ones, you will one day hear a professor refer to Dan Quayle’s Murphy Brown speech and thank me for our Muppet Show experiences.

The Muppets themselves reveal characteristics of archetypes. Sam the Eagle, the “self-appointed censor” of the show, speaks with absolute confidence when he scoffs at the “so called conservationists” who want to protect a group of endangered species. The list, he discovers as a bald eagle, includes his own.

Finally, we come to Pigs in Space, which, like Veterinarian’s Hospital, is a  brilliant example of parody. The interesting thing will be to explain what they spoof. In a time long ago, we watched "Star Trek" and the nearly extinct genre known in daytime television as The Soap Opera.

My cousin, Ben Maraniss, a screen writing instructor at the New York Film Academy, told me about his use of  "The Muppet Show" with his students.

The character Scooter, a gofer whose uncle owns the Muppet’s theatre, “comes up as a reference point with the Film Making students because, sooner or later, they all realize that their most important job is trouble shooting for their productions themselves or finding a "Scooter-type" that can do that for them.”

And, those two grumpy guys, Statler and Waldorf, who mercilessly heckle?

“They come up more often in the writing classes because their function on the show is to shoot down every act that makes it to the stage. This is what table-reads feel like at their worst.”

Not long ago, my family watched an episode with the ballet dancer Nureyev. He put on his top hat, he put on the Ritz, and then I asked my husband, “I wonder when Nureyev defected?”

And in less than a minute we went from Muppet Mania to explaining the fall of communism.

The best moments, though, are the ones when we’re all simply silent, absorbed in the show that, in most ways, never grows old.

Next week: A look at Family Values and The American Dream

Saturday, June 18, 2011

There's a Card for That. Or, Maybe Not.....

The third reason we celebrate Father’s Day in our house, after the more noble ones related to giving my husband his day and showing our expressions of love, relates to reciprocity. I need Mother’s Day, therefore Father’s day must be observed.

Leave it to my husband to turn the tables.

“Is there anything special you’d like?” I asked a week or so before the big day.

“Ah...” he said, “I haven’t even thought about it.”

With one deft stroke he released himself from the tacit quid pro quo I’d established.

But I wasn’t giving up. The kids and I would do something nice for him and he was going to like it.

I needed inside information and I needed it fast. I snuck off to the online pages of Esquire to glean what I could from the self-defined magazine for men.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Summer Catalogs 2011: What's Wrong With This Picture?

I don’t know what my mail carrier thought when he delivered a Victoria’s Secret and a Fisher-Price summer toy catalog to me last week, but I can tell you my reaction: this is outrageous. And, that’s what I said flipping through the one from Fisher-Price.

Actually, the one from Victoria didn’t make it into my house. Something about it seemed ridiculously out of touch with what I was looking for in a swimming suit this year. But after looking through what I thought was the innocuous toy catalog, I had a similar thought: this is not for me. And, more to the point: I don’t want my girls to see this.

What would they think looking at the photos in the Shop-at-Home Summer 2011 catalog? The first nine pages are devoted to images of boys playing with Cars (mostly Disney PIXAR Cars 2) and the accessories designed for them. After the cars, we get to an entirely male cast of Rescue Heroes, and eventually a golf tee, basketball hoop, soccer net, and batting tee, shown in the photographs to be used exclusively by boys.

In case you think I’ve just got too much time on my hands and have a chip (the homemade chocolate cookie kind) on my shoulder that is filtering my view, head to pages 26 and 27. We find mirror images of the separate worlds of role-playing featuring the “Grow-With-Me Workshop” used by two boys opposite the “Grow-with-Me Kitchen” photographed with, you guessed it, two children who are not boys.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Class of 1996

Somewhere in the mix of kindergarten registration or graduation, second grade talent shows and award ceremonies, those of us who graduated from high school or college in the 1990’s are feeling the tug of our own academic past. It’s reunion season and we’re heading to a midpoint: if we were 18 or 21 when we graduated, it’s been nearly as many years since. A lifetime before—and a lifetime after.

I was thinking about that as I walked the campus of a school I didn’t even attend, but one that is now a part of my life: my husband’s alma mater, Princeton. I went to his fifth college reunion as his date. We pushed a small stroller through rain, mud and hay at his tenth. And at his fifteenth last week, he pulled our two girls in a red wagon as offspring of other members of the class of ’96 , stir crazy from long plane trips or car rides, made unannounced head dives into our kid magnet to join them.

Forget renting a convertible, if you want to make an impression at your fifteenth, bring a Radio Flyer.

Not that anyone was trying to make an impression. Most of us were just hoping to find some shade and refill our sippy cups. The kegs that would flow freely at night had not yet been tapped but there was water and Sprite and plenty of tables to string-your-own necklace (orange and black beads) or decorate your own foam visor.

My husband took us on a walk to find his freshman dorm, which was, we discovered, no longer there. But we found his old roommate and, best of all, his young daughter who reassured my six year old that being a Daisy next year would be just great.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

For The Good Guys

If you’re a contestant sweating your way into Final Jeopardy against a former history teacher and a Harvard Law student you might hope for one thing when Alex Trebek announces the category of question on which your fate (or cash winnings) will ride. That is, if you’ve been making your living as a translator.

And that one thing is just what Sandra Alboum got:

“Official Languages”

When she heard that announced as the Final Jeopardy category Sandra said to herself, as she explained to me in a recent interview: “There is a God.”

This Language is an official language in around 30 countries second only to English.”

Sandra picked up her stylus and quickly wrote “Spanish” on the flat screen in front of her.

That was too easy, she then thought. And wasn’t Africa, after all, full of former colonies?  And the question described the language as “an official language” not “the official language”.

Before time ran out, she changed her answer.

(If you’ve been humming the Final Jeopardy tune to yourself, it's time to wrap it up and find out what happened.)

The history teacher, it turned out, wrote "Arabic".

The guy from Harvard (smart but no Ken Jennings, in her estimation) had written "French".

She’d written French, also, and she, too, was correct.

But unlike the law student, Sandra had wagered enough to win.

She won one more game, and eventually walked away from her stint on Jeopardy with enough after taxes to save a bit and to finally buy the really nice dining room set her husband had said was too expensive.

But a life of translation is not all fun and game shows.