Monday, December 31, 2012

This is Now: Auld Lang Syne

I didn’t read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books as a kid. And I was much more interested in sneaking in an episode of Dallas than I was watching the TV show when it aired. But my daughter and I have spent to past few months slowly working our way through Little House in the Big Woods, the first in a series we’ll surely finish before she heads to college.

Little Laura, the Wisconsin girl, living with her family in the 1870’s, taught us a lot about life back then. I was struck by how entirely self-sufficient the family was, especially the mom.

She could make butter, maple sugar, cheese, straw hats, calico dresses, and feed the cows.

She had a day for everything:
Wash on Monday
Iron on Tuesday
Mend on Wednesday
Churn on Thursday
Clean on Friday
Bake on Saturday
Rest on Sunday

And then there was Pa. He played the fiddle and told stories at night, set traps during the day, hunted, and went to town to trade. His constant companion, essential to his protection from bears and panthers and the family’s supply of food, was his gun. It, like Ma’s schedule for work, functioned as part of a methodical system, cleaned, dried and stored high above the door when not by his side.

I learned a lot about the origins of particular phrases and customs. Even a hundred and forty years ago, they were eating cheese curds; white sugar used to be special, and a clearing was an actual clearing.

Towards the end of the book, the big machine and threshers came to work the wheat. “Eight horses were hitched to it (the machine) and made it go, so this was an eight-horsepower machine.” It did the work in one day that would have taken two weeks and four men.

And I saw the personality or spirit that I associate with my husband’s grandmother and the Oklahoma pioneers to whom she is related. It’s a spirit little Laura is proud of, one that her Pa described in saying this about the machine he brought in for the wheat: “Other folks can stick to old-fashioned ways if they want to, but I’m all for progress. It’s a great age we’re living in.”

In the final pages of the book, after we’d spent 200 pages immersed in the past, I realized the great inversion Wilder had played on me. The book was not about the past. It was about the present moment.

Ma sits in her rocker by the fire. Pa plays his fiddle. For a moment, I was haunted by the idea that Ma was next to me, her flesh and bones more than a century old, rocking all the same in the dim light.

Pa sings: “Shall auld acquaintance be forgot, And never brought to mind? Shall auld acquaintance be forgot, And the days of auld lang syne? And the days of auld lang syne, my friend, And the days of auld lang syne, Shall auld acquaintance be forgot And the days of auld lang syne?”

And as the book ends, Laura thinks about the meaning of the lyrics and her parents in the warm room.

“This is now,” she thinks.

Wilder writes:

“She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the fire-light and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.”

Dear Readers: Happy New Year. I am starting 2013 with a new post on a new blog I am a part of called The Educated Mom. It is the official blog of a new education technology company here in Princeton. 

I will still be writing Lunch Box Mom, but I invite you to visit The Educated Mom when you feel like talking about education and our kids. I hope you'll add your two cents.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Thoughts for Tomorrow and the Road Ahead

The link to The New York Times Motherlode blog, How Not to Talk With Children About the Sandy Hook Shooting, by KJ Dell’Antonia, could not have come at a better time. It’s Sunday. I am thinking about school tomorrow, not only because of the big picture issues, but also because of the small, personal ones.

My seven-year-old knows nothing about the school shooting. What if a classmate brings it up? Will she feel more afraid because she’s hearing about it from a peer? Should I bring it up first?

This dilemma lives somewhere in my mind next to the other tugging thoughts- empathetic grief for the parents in Connecticut and sadness that until now a rational discussion of the impact of gun violence has been a polarizing issue filled with fear and deflection, instead of an opportunity for leadership.

My dear friend from high school wrote to me on Friday, wondering what I might be thinking about the events in Newtown, Connecticut. But it was her own Facebook post, borrowed from her cousin that I kept firmly in my mind that day. It was a quote from Mr. Rogers: "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of "disaster",  I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers - so many caring people in the world."

Late Friday night, awake with a fever, my four-year-old hopped into my bed and after some Motrin, slept the rest of the night snuggled up next to me. The first words out of her mouth on Saturday morning, when she woke up and looked at me were:

“I don’t want to be shot at school.”

We’d had no news coverage of the Sandy Hook shooting in our house: no TV, no radio, no newspaper. She hadn’t overheard a conversation.

Did she have a fever-induced nightmare? Did she absorb my worries, sleeping so close to me all night? Was she attuned to something spiritual hovering in the air? Or was she thinking of the kind of shot she gets from the doctor?

I don’t know.

But a seed of worry had been planted in her head. I tried to talk with her about it without confusing her thoughts with my own. I tried to listen to what she was expressing, instead of assuming it was what I was thinking. I am not sure I handled the conversation well. But since then I've read the Motherlode post, which offers concrete advice on, among other things, how not to talk about Sandy Hook.

How about you? Did you speak with your kids? Did they come to you with questions? What are your thoughts for tomorrow and the road ahead?

Monday, December 10, 2012

Catalogs: Are We Buying It?

Catalogs. They are not exactly the portraits of John Singer Sargent, but each day when another batch arrives, I flip through them, wondering what they say about life in 2012.

My friend, the playwright, Jessica Provenz, suggested I end my conversation with this environmentally unfriendly house guest by visiting a site such as Catalog Choice or 41 Pounds, but I am not ready.

It was through overexposure to the Barbie Collector Edition catalogs that my seven-year-old became inoculated. “Does Barbie dye her hair?” she asked, not long ago. Metaphorically, at least, her roots were showing.

And, how else would I know about Nova Natural Toys, whose catalog I received for the first time this year. My kids may be too old, but it seems the next wave of kids can pine for the $79 Fair Maiden Dress made of linen and cotton, or a Knight’s Leather Tunic, with laces on the side, made in Germany. Girls and boys appear in separate parts of this medieval fiefdom, but rayon and pleather have at last been vanquished.

To be fair, the toys and clothes look dreamy, but the breakdown of them so strictly by gender, as I noted when I critiqued the 2010 Fisher-Prince summer catalog two years ago, remains a curiosity to me.

So I understand the paradox when I say that the one toy catalog that I feel best-reflects life as we know it in 2012 is the one that does not reflect catalog-life as we know it in 2012. Perhaps, in the true spirit of consumerism, it is aspirational. The HearthSong catalog is what I want life to be like.

Is it old-fashioned or forward thinking? Does it capture an element of today’s zeitgeist? I am no longer sure. But I know the HearthSong catalog stands out for two reasons: it depicts childhood as a time of exploration and creative play; and it shows girls and boys playing together—with the same toys.

I called the HearthSong Director of Marketing, Beverly Fries, and asked her if the depiction of boys and girls playing together was something they planned.

It was a silly question. Nothing seems un-staged in the pages of most catalogs. But how often do we dismiss an alternative depiction as simply an oversight or a matter of convenience? If we felt it was deliberate we’d be more outraged. We’d be like thirteen-year-old McKenna Pope who, inspired by her four-year-old brother, gained 30,000 signatures in an effort to get Hasbro to change the way it markets Easy-Bake Ovens.

"I don't want them to make a boys' Easy-Bake Oven and girls' Easy-Bake Oven. I want them to make an Easy-Bake Oven for kids," she said in an AP story this month.

So how did HearthSong create a catalog that presents girls and boys with equal creative opportunity?

“We go through daily discussions about that. It’s something we strive for,” Fries said, when I spoke with her last week. It goes back, she said, to the original owner, Barbara Kane, a California mom who started the company in 1983.

“There’s not a differentiation between girls and boys. They all have imaginations. They all learn from social interaction,” Fries said.

Yes, HearthSong has a few pages of pink. And, for the most part, it’s girls playing in the Pink Party Pavilion. And, we all know a few girls who would love to, too. My four-year-old included.

But, check out the girl and boy playing together with the Domino Race set, or the girl and boy each using hand tools. Notice two who look like siblings working together on the Vortex Glow-in-the-Dark Marble Run, or a boy and girl standing at the Gourmet Chef Kitchen. And then there’s the girl modeling a tree fog t-shirt standing next to a boy dressed as a raptor who doesn’t seem to think she will give him cooties.

It’s not by accident.

“We value the experience of childhood so much,” Fries told me, “we want to make sure we are not contributing to the stereotypes.”

In the chain of command that turns out a catalog, I wanted to know where the buck stopped. It was clear from speaking to Fries that it’s just as important to ask where it starts.

Does any of this matter?

Ginia Belafante’s recent story in The New York Times, “The Great Divide: Now in the Toy Aisle” spoke of the dichotomy between the types of toys sold at Toys “R” Us and the educationally-minded ones sold in smaller, more expensive shops. Even if the ones claiming to boost cognitive ability can’t prove they do so, she says:

“At the very least, though, they signal to a child a parental investment in ambition and accomplishment, in active absorption over passive observation. It would take a very expansive view of the iCarly Truth or Dare Bear to believe it might do the same thing.”

The idea that value can be derived from a message as much as from substance applies to catalogs as well. When it comes to signaling the investment of a company in the people it professes to serve, it’s clear a picture is worth a thousand words.
HearthSong's Vortex Marble Run

Thursday, November 29, 2012

We Were Bored and We Liked It

Somewhere around hour four of a five-hour flight, my seven year old uttered the inevitable words of a child traveler: I wish we were there already. I shared her sentiment but took umbrage.

She had a bag full of books, puzzles, and an iPod and headphones. I had food stashed in every carry-on: squeezable applesauce, Pirate's Booty, granola bars. I had three flavors of gum, pomegranate lollipops, and a few Starbursts hidden in my purse. I could not fight the Jetstream, but surely my preparation could rebuff hunger and monotony.

Five years before we had made the same journey. It was well before iPods and iPads, and before she had a fondness for Hot Chelle Rae. (To be fair, it was before anyone had a fondness for Hot Chelle Rae.) I had a bag full of stickers, some small cards with ducks, goldfish and a clumsy mini DVD player. Elmo’s World would entertain, in the moments when such devices were permissible, and in the others, she amused herself by head-butting her father. A good time was had by all, until the fun and games ended by an altitude-induced bloody nose.

In my day, I thought now, we were bored all the time. And we liked it.

I do not remember many plane flights from my youth, but I remember many long car rides. My mom would pack some hard-boiled eggs, and my older brother and I would occupy ourselves by monitoring the cloth line that delineated the sides of the back seat. Eventually, my brother would convince me to crouch down where one’s feet usually rest, and he’d stretch out.

He also got me to eat puppy chow, but that’s a story for another day.

The point is that most of the time we expected to be bored and nauseous. It was a tacit understanding and that, I suppose, is where I have put myself into a tough spot. My mother never said, “What do you mean you’re bored? You have hard-boiled eggs and a new Billy Joel tape?”

But, how often do I hear myself saying, “You can’t be bored. You have your iPod and Flavor Blasted Goldfish.”

In the not-so-long-ago past of stickers and Elmo, it was common wisdom to keep the airplane goodies a surprise. Novelty was the name of the game. Anything new—no matter how small-could entertain. But now, the ante must always be upped.

Common Sense Media recently released a study that puts this phenomenon in another context: school. In a report published this November, 71% of teachers surveyed said entertainment media has hurt their students’ attention spans.

The findings have bigger implications for the classroom, both in terms of how students handle obstacles and communicate and in how teachers might attempt to compete, or not, with the format of video games, apps, social networking sites and other forms of digital entertainment.

But what does it mean for the road trip? Or 39,000 feet above the ground? In many ways the plane flight is more complicated than a car ride because you can not pull off to the side of the road to fetch something from the trunk, make a pit stop to stretch your legs, have a picnic in a state park, or swing by Arby’s to get your dog a roast beef sandwich (we only did that once.)

Then, as with now, you eventually have to put the Walkman down. The stickers are all used up. The iPod is no longer amusing. You just have to lean your head against the glass and stare out the window.

To sit quietly with one’s own thoughts, to allow for silence, and to accept that doing nothing may or may not feel like boredom is a noble experience. But if it is not practiced on the ground, there’s little chance that a four or seven year old is going to be happy about it in the air. And the trouble then is that it’s not just the parents who hear and feel their child’s frustration; it’s the entire plane. So we fight against boredom instead of letting it creep in and a victory is never absolute. It’s relative.

On our return, with the Jetstream in our favor, and after we’d gotten off the plane and begun our walk to baggage claim, my husband remarked, “Well our kids were not the worst behaved ones on the plane.”

He wasn’t damning them with faint praise, he was ranking the behavior of kids on the plane and, truth be told, ours actually weren’t the most poorly behaved. That distinction went to the kids in the row in front of us. Three kids crammed into two seats, who at various points cried and squirmed, without a parent in the aisle.

Why this seating arrangement?

They all needed to share the same iPad.

Photo credit: Itsramon, wikipedia commons. 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Let's Talk Turkey with Chef Daniel Gallo

Let’s talk turkey, and a few other dishes, with a man who knows what he’s talking about. Chef Daniel Gallo is the owner of Little Pig Catering in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He’s worked in restaurants all over the country, including ventures as sous chef in two named to Bon Appetit’s Top 10 New Restaurants list. Dan is sharing some tips with readers this week. He’ll also offer “hotline” assistance by answering reader questions sent to his email address. And, local folks can get 10% off a catered meal or event if you mention this blog post now or even after Turkey Day. So, with less than a week before the big meal, let’s dish with our own top chef.

Dan starts the conversation by offering this preface: Thanksgiving is my mother’s holiday. I have cooked during the years when I lived too far to come home, but when I can make it home I only help. It doesn’t matter how many great kitchens I have worked in, on Thanksgiving my Mom is the boss. 

1. Let’s start with the turkey. What do you think is the most common mistake people make when making the Thanksgiving turkey? How could they avoid this? 

I think that the most common mistake people make in regards to the turkey is simple; they over think it. I think that people build it up as the MAIN course on the big Holiday and they feel pressure to make it “perfect”. Don’t over think it. Use a fresh turkey, pre-heat your oven and give it a little butter under the skin or some olive oil. Season it well with kosher salt & black pepper and then just be patient. Always use a digital probe thermometer and set the temperature (let the probe do all the guesswork of when it is done), and make sure to let it rest before slicing.

2. I often make a very rich potato and fennel gratin but even though we only have it once a year, it’s beginning to get old. What might be a new take on a gratin or casserole you’d recommend?

I love roasted winter squash and it makes a delicious casserole. I like to roast some Butternut and Delicata Squash, assemble the gratin and have it chilled and ready to go.

3. Speaking of potatoes, how can a person make mashed potatoes that don’t end up like glue?

Potatoes end up like glue because they are over cooked (which soaks up water) and then over worked, which releases the starch. Russets or Yukon Gold’s make great mashed potatoes.
 · Simmer the potatoes, don’t boil.
 · Drain when they are just tender, do not let sit in the water.
 · Heat cream and butter in a separate pan, mash briefly, stir in hot cream until just incorporated.

 4. Would you share some tips for preparation and getting the timing right when planning a large meal for a lot of guests? 

Stay organized; lists are your best friend. Make a shopping list, then make a list of all the cooking that you need to do (this is a “prep” list). Look at the list and start to figure out what you can do ahead of time, and when you have time to get it done. The turkey needs to be cooked on Thanksgiving, but plenty of sides can be prepared a day or two ahead…in fact some items get better after a night in the fridge (i.e. soups & stews). Finally, make another list for Thanksgiving (this one should be a timeline) and try your best to stick to it.

5. What is an underrated dish that you think could be more appreciated on the Thanksgiving table?

Dinner Rolls. Most times they are an afterthought or store bought, but there is nothing better than a warm, flaky biscuit or a buttery-yeasty Parker House Roll.

6. Can you tell us about the most involved or complicated dish you make for Thanksgiving? The simplest?

I try not to make anything too complicated on Holidays, lots of simple sides. Sometimes I’ll make stuffed Pastas (roasted squash) but that is about as complicated as it will get. The simplest is Mashed Potatoes, not fancy Pommes Puree mind you, just good old mashed Potatoes.

7. Do you have any family recipes or dishes that you include out of tradition?

It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without the smell of my Mother’s Pumpkin Bread.

8. You like to work with local ingredients. What is on your list this year and where have you gotten them?

I am still getting introduced to all of the wonderful local markets and farmers that make Bucks County great, so I feel like I am always finding something new. I would have to say that my current favorite is the Stone Ground Grits and Cornmeal from Castle Valley Mills. They make fantastic grits and cornbread…..outstanding.

9. Have you ever catered an event or done a private party and you’ve had to improvise or change direction on a dish at the last minute? How did that play out?

Well, that question pretty much applies to every single Saturday night I’ve ever worked in a restaurant kitchen. You adjust and do your best. I’ve had power go out on an event before, in which case I can say that I am thankful for portable burners and candles!

10. What is the best use of leftover turkey?

I would really love to say a casserole or something fancy, but I can’t…..Turkey Sandwiches. Roasted Turkey with Bacon, Avocado, Lettuce and some Spicy Aioli makes a great club sandwich.

11. Would you share a recipe for one of your favorite Thanksgiving desserts?

Thanksgiving is the ultimate Holiday for the home cook, and for home cooking I always turn to Martha Stewart; her recipes are really consistent. I love making her Pumpkin-Cheesecake.  I substitute Gingersnap cookies for the graham crackers in the crust, and I add 1 teaspoon of cinnamon and ½ teaspoon of allspice. It is delicious.

12. Bonus question: What should we serve in those wine glasses?

I would have a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and a good Chardonnay (light on the oak) open at all times; but I think the Holiday itself calls for a good cocktail. I would simmer some apple cider with a cinnamon stick, clove and a little maple syrup. Serve warm or chilled with a generous dose of brandy and you’re good to go.

Have a question for Chef Dan Gallo? He’s generously offered to be your go-to-guy for Thanksgiving cooking questions. Where was he when I cooked my first turkey upside down? Send Dan an email at: 

You can also follow Dan on Facebook or reach Little Pig Catering to plan an event: 610-742-4441.

And, in case you’re wondering, Little Pig, despite its logo, is named in honor of Gallo’s Boston Terrier, who, like many on Thanksgiving, earned the nickname.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Everymom

We’ve all seen the mothers and fathers who bring enough food to feed an army, or more precisely, an entire cast of a play, or basketball team. Parents who volunteer to help and are counted on not just by a school but also by kids who, while they might not want to see their own mom or dad in public, are happy to see someone else’s.

There is a sense that one’s family has been extended, at least for a while, and anyone’s mom becomes everyone’s mom. I saw this as a teacher many times, and while some kids were bold enough to state their thanks to such parents, many showed it in subtler ways. But you knew they were filled with something that let them be, if nothing else, kids for a while, well fed and safe.

As a parent, I have felt the status of Everymom occasionally, although not with food. It has come more often when I arrive at school with information, able to tell my daughter’s friend that her own mother might be running late. Not to worry, I’ll stay here until she comes. My Everymom powers never felt stronger than they did a few weeks ago when I walked into a room after school and had three girls—none my own—come to me in a flash, expecting an update on their rides. I was, for the moment, home base.

Kids run from base to base sometimes at school but also out of it. And perhaps my friends and I did so even more without the structure of playdates or official carpools. How many times did we end up at our friend’s house, staying for dinner and getting an impromptu ride home?

Many a mom looked the other way when we raided her pantry to invent a cookie recipe. Rides here and there, dinners that turned into sleepover parties; so much of what we thought was freedom was facilitated by the parents of our friends who opened their homes and, in their effort to raise their own kids, by extension raised us, too.

I am feeling sentimental about this today, a few hours after hearing that one of the mothers of such a friend died last week. When we’re kids we may say “thank you” for the food or for the rides. But we often forget. And as parents, we are aware of our roles, both to our children and to their friends, and hope that by extending our reach, the circle around our own family is made larger and stronger.

But as a parent who remembers being younger, in this case, a teenager, I can’t help but think that the sentiment is not shared enough. Thank you to the Everymoms. Kids, especially teens, need more than their own parents at times; other families to connect with or to learn from or catch a meal.

In my case, my friend’s mother became my Facebook buddy, commenting from a distance, always supportive, never judgmental. She was, as before, simply extending the net of friendship and comfort that the Everymom always does.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Friends in 2024

My seven year old registered to vote a few weeks ago. The hardest part for her was signing her name in cursive. I am speaking about an unofficial voter registration form, of course, part of a packet designed for kids by the website Great Schools that I have to say was pretty great.

I found the packet online and after printing the 15 pages, I handed it to my daughter without much explanation.

“When you can’t sleep, just do the word-find about the electoral college,” was the gist of my introduction. She completed most of the pages in her closet with the aid of a book light, which, like reading Harry Potter on her own, means she was into it.

Many of my friends, and perhaps readers of this blog, have taken a more active role in bringing their kids into the political process. For whatever reasons, and I am not sure I can articulate them, I have been more passive in this with my daughter than I might have been.

We have looked at big themes: read books on Elizabeth Cady Stanton; talked about the government; she has gone with me to vote ever since she could walk. But she is a sensitive kid, and although she likes ideas and debate, she does not like conflict. And I cannot explain to her much of what I perceive in this political climate without entering into that realm.

The brilliant thing about the Great Schools handout is that it does not shy away from explaining one of the sources of this conflict or what kids might recognize as behavior they certainly are expected to rise above. This is the section on “Political Ads” defining them as positive, negative or ones that exaggerate.

She was to identify the quotations accordingly:

“My opponent secretly hates ice cream.”

“I like ice cream and I support people eating it.”

“Ice cream has calcium, just like milk. That’s why we should all eat ice cream more often. Maybe even every day! Most doctors agree with me.”

A few weeks ago, my daughter came home and told me she’d been talking to a boy in class. He was supporting a different candidate than she. But that was ok. They could still be friends.

If "being friends with someone who holds a different opinion" is a concept she holds onto as she begins to learn more details, takes a more active voice and matures to hold her own opinions and finally votes—for real—in the year 2024, I will be happy. It is naive and out of touch with the urgency of political issues, but it is the lesson I will continue to teach.

How she feels about ice cream is a different matter.

The devastation Sandy brought continues to leave people in my region without power or even their homes. My particular New Jersey neighborhood was not hit as hard, although many friends were without power for days. Thanks to those who checked in, or mailed me a lantern.

I try to only update once a week and not clutter your newsfeed, but you may not get notifications to those once-a-week posts if you don’t update your settings on the Lunch Box Mom Facebook page.

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Monday, October 29, 2012

Waiting for the Storm

The question now, as I write this on Sunday night, is not if we’ll lose power, but when it will go out. I had intended to write about other things this week, but it’s hard not to think almost exclusively of Sandy and what the next few days, or weeks, will bring.

I went to the store before the weekend and stocked up on water and bread. Anyone who read my post a few weeks ago knows that thanks to Amazon I have plenty of granola bars and batteries. But I woke up at 6am thinking of avocados and boxed milk and felt compelled to hit the grocery store one last time.

The parking lot at Shop Rite was not as empty as I had hoped and the feeling inside was more of an all-nighter than fresh sunrise. One worker I spoke with had red eyes, the result, I imagined, of my catching him at the end of a long shift. The rest of us pushed our carts around in a kind of delirium, looking through picked-over cans of nonperishables and at half-empty aisles of bottled water.

I found my avocados. Perhaps they were not tops on most people’s storm preparation list. But the boxed milk was sold out. So, I headed over to the soy milk area and found some flavored with vanilla.

At the check out, the man in front of me had three small jars of salsa and some pudding. We all have our comfort food, I suppose. The woman behind me had a variety of things but not what she needed most: D batteries. She’d already been to three stores and none were to be found. Only a day before my neighbor told me she’d been to a big box store. Everyone was buying batteries. She didn’t need any but tossed some in her cart, not wanting to be left out. Panic had generated real panic.

When Irene passed last fall, we had no power but the weather that followed was warm and sunny. Neighbors gathered in the street and shared stories about who had flooded and who hadn’t. They forecast we’ll be more homebound this time around. My oldest, inspired by Little House in the Big Woods, wants to do chores by candlelight. The youngest, no doubt, would rather eat PB& J and learn how to play Texas hold ‘em on my husband’s new poker set.

I feel fortunate I am not nine months pregnant right now or in urgent need to get somewhere. School has been canceled for Monday and Tuesday and we’ll see what Wednesday brings. I predict our roof will weather this storm better than our stash of Halloween candy.

I wish everyone well in the days to come.

Monday, October 22, 2012

How the Blank Did I Forget Today is a Half-Day? And Other Musings of Mid-October

A few days ago I pulled into the parking lot of my oldest daughter’s school and could not find a spot. Something was up, I said to myself, and then noticed a crowd of kids and their parents buzzing about the lawn. The kids had built an arcade of sorts, games made out of cardboard and ping pong balls, and everyone was playing and celebrating the accomplishment.

Everyone except me, the one mother in the universe who had forgotten the event was open to parents. Not a big deal, you might say, but it came on the heels of a messier near miss.

Only days before I’d bought ten tulip bulbs, packed them in a brown paper bag along with a spade, and told my husband he needed to accompany our second grader when she planted the bulbs at school. A great tradition, but one aimed at first graders.

It was my seven year old who cleared up the bulb confusion, but as I joined the arcade while others were leaving, I asked myself, “Am I losing my grip on this stuff?”

From what I’ve read on Facebook, I am not alone. It is a mid-October slump. We parents have been so good about getting through the back-to-school schedule of open houses and meetings, and we know holiday madness is around the corner. It makes sense to find ourselves at a low point. At least unlike a professional athlete, we can’t be traded to another team.

“How the F did I forget that today is a ½ day?”

So posted Jenine Lansing a few days ago and boy did it make me feel better. Not the thought of her daughter standing at the bus stop wondering where her mom was, but that someone else could miss the boat on communal information as thoroughly as I could.

My friend in Arizona, Libby Seiter Nelson, faced confusion not with days but with houses, when she engaged in the covert good-deed pranking of “Boo”.

She posted this on Facebook last week: “We just tried to "boo" some friends and I wrote down the right house number but not the right street. Had a sinking feeling we left our treats at the wrong house and by the time we verified it and drove back to try to make a switch, the "wrong" recipients had picked up their treasures. Ooops.”

My frustration with my recent round of “oops” is not that it reveals imperfection, I’ve given up on that, but that it could mean the system I’ve used to try to stay on top of things is not keeping up with the “things”. Does a mistake necessitate some self-compassion or a review of my method for keeping it all together? It can be hard say.

I teetered on the brink of an organization overhaul even before the tulip bulbs when a notice from the public library arrived saying we had six overdue books.

“This is impossible!” I said, looking over the list. “We just checked out three spooky stories about Halloween, we could not still have You Wouldn’t Want to Be a Samurai! I have a system.”

That system, I might mention, was developed after an unfortunate rental of the DVD “Barbie Princess Charm School” one November. It took me more than two weeks to hand deliver that disc to the checkout desk, the drop box not permitted, and that lesson in charm cost about $20 in fines. That was followed by $25 for returning books after a long vacation.

So I’d gotten strict about checkouts. No more DVD’s. No books before holidays. And, never, ever, no matter what, do we check out books if other library books are still in the house, even if they were not yet due.

That last rule was what I put my faith in.

“You, see,” I explained to a library volunteer over the phone, “I couldn’t possibly have You Wouldn’t Want to Be a Ninja Warrior, because I recently checked out The Witches Supermarket.” She said she’d check the shelves, but I never heard back. This was a job I needed to do in person.

“I have a system,” I said, a little less confidently, this time to the librarian on duty. She took pity and pulled up my account. Then she went to the shelves.

And sure enough she found book one. Then the next. And so forth. The Charm School Rules were not only in place but they were working. I had new hope that I’d bounce out of my mid-October slump and rally for the demands of November.

I will sync my calendars. I will read the emails from the class parent. I will remember that I am the class parent. And we’ll take those bulbs and plant them in our own yard. As long as we remember where they are.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Subscribe and Save Me

It all started about a year and a half ago when we ran out of dental floss. 

My husband asked if I could pick up some while I was out with the kids. Sure, I said. I went to Target and remembered to buy sunscreen. I went to Whole Foods and remembered to buy dal burgers. I went to Stop and Shop and remembered to buy paper towels. For two weeks I remembered to buy a lot of things but I never remembered dental floss.

One day my husband sat me down and said he wanted to show me something. It was a feature on Amazon called Subscribe and Save and he’d just signed us up for dental floss. My services in this department were no longer needed.

I mocked him when the shipment arrived. The box contained six packs of dental floss. Were we going into wholesale? We might have been. Soon after came more items from Amazon all sent in large quantities: tooth paste, toilette paper, shaving cream, batteries, light bulbs. If it was nonperishable and we used it on a regular basis, we were subscribed. The genius of the program was that it made everything simpler. How could I argue? 

You want a discount—you got it. You want it delivered—shipping is free! You want someone else to remember when you’re going to run out—that’s why you subscribe! You want to relish in the de facto tax-free nature of Internet shopping—of course!

I considered writing a note to our UPS man. “I am sorry,” it would have begun, “for the recent frenzy of large boxes. In case you are wondering, we are not doing anything illegal. We just needed a six week supply of granola.”

Yes, we’d moved onto food. Granola, granola bars, coffee, tea, instant oatmeal, boxed mac & cheese. We got the same brands we would have bought at other stores but now we had an inventory six weeks deep.

My trips to the supermarket were becoming less frequent. When I did go, I had no need to walk to the far end of the store or get lost in shelves of laundry detergent. “Bring your sweaters kids, we’re only hitting the dairy aisle.” I could linger on the parts of grocery shopping that were more interesting. “Who wants to sample freeze-dried kale?” I could say, instead of scooting by in a hurry.

But I became a true convert when my four year old came to me with her portable music player. It’s the kind that is buffered by a cushion so she could drop it down the steps and it’d still play Laurie Berkner songs. For some reason it no longer worked. “Of course, it needs to new batteries!” I said, diagnosing the problem and realizing a new one. It took four “C” batteries. To a parent, is there a more troublesome battery?

I opened the cabinet. “I don’t know how to say this,” I told my four year old, “but we have four “C” batteries here and I can fix your music player.”

There are downsides to having a healthy inventory. Space, of course, or how you use it, is one such consideration. When we got our semiannual supply of tissues this August, my husband placed them in different rooms around the house. After about a week I realized why they depressed me. “We don’t have the sniffles yet,” I said, taking a box off the dining room table. Gourds I could handle, but a centerpiece of Puffs made me think I was coming down with something.

There’s an environmental impact to all of our consumption and I read a bit about the debate between online and in-person shopping. I am glad Amazon has consolidated our things into one or two large boxes, but know it’d be better if the packages within those boxes were more efficient. Even better, say some on Terrapass would be to bike to a local store and consume less.

Last May, I read a story in The New York Times that signaled the end of an era for our Subscribe and Save heyday. Amazon had already sent me a survey about my usage. Did they want to improve the service, in which case I feared it was not popular enough to keep around, or take options away? In either case, I worried. But the story was about something I hadn’t seen coming.

 “They are building warehouses in New Jersey!” I said, putting my spoon in my bowl of Subscribe and Save cereal and standing up with astonishment.

My husband left his granola and came to my side. “It will be okay,” he said, “we still save 15 percent.”

He was right. And we still had dental floss. The convenience. The “C” batteries. Not standing in line at 5pm to get one box of raisin bran. But warehouses in our state of New Jersey meant we would no longer part of the Amazon tax-free euphoria. Fair enough. Our time had come. Subscribe and Save was about to become something else. Local.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Typing or Automaticity and the Italian Octopus

The manual Royal typewriter in my basement is in pretty good shape although it needs a new ribbon and some dusting off. It had sat in my late grandmother’s garage until last year, unused for the past thirty or possibly fifty years. It was last week that my seven year old took an interest in the typewriter. She pounded the keys, asked me how to load paper, and finally, after mastering the carriage return, turned to me and gasped, “Oh! This is not like a computer.”

Just wait until I show you an old Walkman, I thought.

I was a bridge to the technology of yesteryear.  Not only did I know how to work the old typewriter, I had memories of its not so distant cousins: the snazzy new electric typewriter my brother took to college and the oddly shaped word processor my freshmen year roommate brought with her from New Jersey, a machine I thought only “authors” had, whose black screen glowed with green type.

The one relative constant, generally speaking, and the reason my daughter felt a kinship to the typewriter if not an understanding of its mechanical use, is the QWERTY keyboard.

At school, she’s learning to type on a Mac, with the help of an online program out of England featuring a talking donkey and Italian octopus.

I surveyed a few dozen friends and blog readers and discovered that many of us didn’t learn to type until high school.

We learned on manual or “electric typewriters with blank keys.”  One reader had typing with “a weird little old lady who taught summer school. I kept fainting it was so hot.” Another with a teacher who “had the most monotone voice on the planet.” Some teachers had students take tests blindfolded. One person practiced at home with a tape recording his father made, “…. I sat at the dining room table and practiced on a typewriter while I listened.”

Nobody said learning to type was the most thrilling experience of his or her life, but many said it proved to be vitally important.  (There was one experience that contained some giddiness: the reader who took typing at Princeton High with some senior boys whose band, Blues Traveler, was about to become famous.)

Most respondents 17 to 25 took typing in elementary and middle school. Although they defined themselves as proficient at typing, when asked to describe how they use a keyboard all but a few selected the answer: I use my own method and do not have to look at the keys. Compare this with an almost unanimous  “I use the “home keys” and type without looking at the keys” from those over 30.

I did not survey five year olds. But moving to this age group, it is fair to say many are using computers and iPads at home and at school.  Will the majority have the opportunity to learn how to touch type?

It’s an important question, as Anne Trubek points out in a 2011 post, “Out of Touch with Typing” on MIT’s Technology Review.

“Does it matter how we type? Yes. Touch typing allows us to write without thinking about how we are writing, freeing us to focus on what we are writing, on our ideas. Touch typing is an example of cognitive automaticity, the ability to do things without conscious attention or awareness. Automaticity takes a burden off our working memory, allowing us more space for higher-order thinking. (Other forms of cognitive automaticity include driving a car, riding a bike and reading—you're not sounding out the letters as you scan this post, right?) When we type without looking at the keys, we are multi-tasking, our brains free to focus on ideas without having to waste mental resources trying to find the quotation mark key. We can write at the speed of thought.”

Trubek says some schools are dropping keyboard instruction because they believe kids arrive having already learned to type.  But knowing how to get around a keyboard doesn’t mean touch typing or typing with accuracy and speed.

I spoke with a parent of a sixth grader who said her son exemplified the self-taught typist who’d never had formal instruction at school.  She watched as he labored over typing a report. Finally, she said, she broke down and typed it for him.

She wouldn’t have helped, she told me, “If I didn’t know for a fact that ever other mother was doing the same thing.”

If you have a chance, Anne Trubek’s article and the comments after it on Technology Review is well worth reading. She mentions the “duel” in 1889 from which emerged the winning “home keys” system of typing. And the comments afterward propose fixes to what she calls the sacrifice of cognitive automaticity we’re making with our shifting keyboards and lack of instruction. Some suggest voice recognition; others say revamp the QWERTY keyboard. The roadblock to that? Those among us who spent hundreds of hours learning how to use it. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

Trendy Love

I don’t know if someone you love sends you articles from the newspaper, but when my mom does I usually spend a few minutes deciding which side of the clipping she wanted me to read.

Was it the story about a crackdown on frat parties or a look at different types of cheese? Both topics would be interesting but she’ll only ask me about one the next time we speak.

I was less confused a few weeks ago, however, when I opened her letter and found a glossy page torn from London’s Sunday Times Magazine. The headline read LOVE GAMES—can game theory and the art of strategy favoured by economists, save your marriage? An American Author claims it is the secret to wedded bliss. Shane Watson Investigates.

My marriage did not need to be saved by game theory it was living proof that it can survive its application even when only one party fully understands it.  So with my tenth wedding anniversary a few weeks away receiving the article from my mom had the subtext, “hey, maybe you’re not a fluke,” in the supportive way no greeting card could capture.

The story was about the book, It’s Not You, It’s the Dishes by Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson. Watson’s investigation is a positive take on the book’s premise, one that can be partially explained by the book’s original title: Spousonomics.

It’s Game Theory that Watson seizes on saying it “comes into play when two or more people have choices to make, preferences regarding the outcome, and awareness of the other’s choices and preferences.”

She says the authors liken marriage to a business rather than just a romance, and suggest people adopt strategies that keep the best interest of the marriage in mind. Doing so ultimately serves one’s individual interests as well.

I have found that this strategy requires two difficult things: thinking ahead or predicting the outcome of my actions and words and prioritizing a potentially good outcome achievable in the future over an immediate emotional release, i.e. fight.

It’s my husband who has the temperament and training to more naturally apply this type of thinking when I’m staring at an overflowing garbage can and holding a handful of eggshells. I think salmonella; he thinks about how much tension he really wants while eating breakfast together. Solution: he takes out the garbage. You see why I’m a convert.

And I really am.  But other couples probably choose or stumble upon their own unique strategies. So it’s not this marriage trend I am most happy to be a part of but another.

And that is that a lot of folks are celebrating their wedding anniversaries these days. Specifically, those of us in Generation X.

Although her article was about divorce, Susan Gregory Thomas summed up the state of marriage for those born between 1965 and 1980 in her article “The Divorce Generation” in The Wall Street Journal last year.

Divorce rates, which peaked around 1980, are now at their lowest level since 1970. In fact, the often-cited statistic that half of all marriages end in divorce was true only in the 1970s—in other words, our parents' marriages.
Not ours. According to U.S. Census data released this May, 77% of couples who married since 1990 have reached their 10-year anniversaries. We're also marrying later in life, if at all. The average marrying age in 1950 was 23 for men and 20 for women; in 2009, it was 28 for men and 26 for women.”

Is it too early in the marriages of Generation X to tell what this means? Maybe, but the Census Bureau reports that marriages are most vulnerable to divorce in the early years.

So, Happy Anniversary Gen X-ers, whether you are a game theorist or a lover of games. Longevity in marriage may not equal happiness, but let’s hope it can. Because unlike flannel and Jordache, this is a trend we might not regret.

Monday, September 24, 2012

This Is Going To Be a Good Day Charlie: Taking a Cue from the Astronauts

“This is going to be a good day, Charlie.”
Astronaut John Young said this to Charlie Duke while walking on the moon in April 1972.
I heard it a few weeks ago while watching an episode of the documentary “When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions."
Although Neil Armstrong had been in the news more, it was John Young’s phrase spoken during an Apollo 16 EVA that stuck in my head.
It wasn’t going to be a “super-duper” day or a “really dangerous” one.  It was going to be good. And with the force behind the voice—so confident and direct and undaunted by the exceptional situation at hand—one imaged it was.
I’ve developed a new fascination with the men on the moon.  It started with the news of Armstrong and an interest in revisiting what I had clearly never really learned about Apollo 11. But soon I found myself at a science center buying a book on the Original Seven, and then renting "The Right Stuff".  And deciding I’d never find my paperback from Mr. Warren’s high school English class, I ordered a new copy of Tom Wolfe’s classic.
If it’s fair to say our era is one in which information has replaced knowledge, these books and documentaries are about a process that stands in contrast.  Success came step-by-step with each mission developing levels of understanding that moved the next mission closer to a goal. And there’s the overwhelming display of competency and cool headed assessment and acceptance of risk.
That righteous right stuff.
Jim Lovell, speaking about heading up in Apollo 13 in the documentary said, “You know you’re sort of relaxed because there’re two things that are going to happen. Either it’s going to go as planned or something is going to go wrong.”
While I may have liked Young’s “This is going to be a good day Charlie,” comment delivered more than 200,000 miles from earth, he got more attention when he commanded the first Space Shuttle. His competent but less experienced crew member’s heart raced to 130 at lift off, while his stayed well lower. And yet, he said, "Anyone who sits on top of the largest hydrogen-oxygen fueled system in the world knowing they're going to light the bottom-and doesn't get a little worried--does not fully understand the situation."
 A person, especially one who doesn’t even like elevators, might ask, how did he and others remain calm?
An article by psychologist Stephen Benedict-Mason published in Psychology Today touched on part of an answer.
People who can remain cool when blasting off into space have a cerebral cortex that limits the amount of information their brains process during a launch. They are keenly aware of everything that needs to be monitored but all extraneous information, such as the myriad of things that might go wrong, are filtered out. Where the average person would experience sensory overload and panic, the professional pilot attends only to what is absolutely necessary.”
It is something deep and out of reach for my constitution. But I decided to let a tiny bit of astronaut mojo influence my interaction with my oldest.
The first day of second grade was approaching and she’d expressed a few worries about finding her class and making friends.
I said, “Listen kid. We’re going hook you up to a preclass simulator and I’m gonna toss some curve balls at you: a late teacher, fire drill, malfunctioning locker. Meanwhile, I’ll have your vitals monitored for any rise in heart rate or blood pressure.”
Not exactly.
I talked her through the day. I drew a map. I named all the kids in her class. We thought of a few buddies. I moved a bit away from my inclination to overprotect and a bit more towards preparation, game plan, and back-up plans.
Then when the time came I walked her down the hall and said what I’d rehearsed. 
“This is going to be a good day,Charlie.”
Except I didn’t call her Charlie.

Photo of John Young on the moon. Credit: