Excuse me, but I think you’ve confused me with someone else. Everyone keeps telling me that my oldest daughter is about to turn 11 years old, but you see, that can’t be possible. She is still two. I am still 29. I’m a carefree mom—not this bizarre worker bee you’re pointing at. THAT woman is inundated with projects and looks like a frenetic dump. I’m dozens of pounds lighter than THAT lady, who clearly hasn’t had time for the gym in a few years. She ought to be ashamed.

I can’t have an 11-year-old child. My 529 looks like a spending account at camp, not something you’d use to fund college in less than a decade. And I’d have obtained a nice, neat, safe SUV for my kid to inherit in a few years. No way I’d still be driving this ratty minivan. Who do you take me for?

Also, if I had an 11-year-old, I’d have written a book by now. That was part of the plan, you see. I think my graduating high school class even predicted it. My book would have been well received, and I’d be working on the second. At least the second. That woman you’re talking about? The one with the 11-year-old? She just writes marketing copy. Sure, she’s branched out to graphic design and Web development, and I’ve never even thought about doing that, but still. SHE hasn’t written a book. I would have done that by her age.

Just look at her. She’s so busy she hasn’t been to the salon in half a year. Just the other day, her gray roots received a “compliment” from a third grader on her Girls on the Run team. (Okay, so she coaches a Girls on the Run team twice a week, for the third year in a row. That’s cool—but she’s letting herself go.) If I had an 11-year-old, I’d be that almost-40 mom that has her act together, with regular hair appointments and trimmed nails. I’d have a closet so organized they could use it in shelving commercials. I’d TOTALLY have figured out a system for doing laundry on a regular basis. SURELY by the time I had an 11-year-old.

Yeah, there’s no way that could be me, folks. I still giggle like a teenager when my college roommate visits and someone makes a toilet paper joke. I’m still that 20-something Gen-X-er who wears pajamas all day when I don’t have to go out in public. If I had an 11-year-old, I would NOT be laughing like Beavis and Butthead whenever someone says the word “fire.” I would have had that older-woman responsibility gene kick in by now. Right? I see all these other moms with it, and they’re older than I am. They’re like FORTY. And they are all so put together. There must be a gene on a timer.

Still, I do have a daughter with a birthday coming up in a week. And then I have another daughter, and her birthday is a few weeks after that. And I have a son. Sometimes I forget how old he is, because my memory is not what it used to be. Honestly, I have a hard time remembering the score in a tennis game from one point to the next. I think my son is 5. Anyway, with these birthdays coming up, I keep feeling like I should be planning something or buying gifts, but the oldest one doesn’t want toys anymore. She wants an iPad Mini.

What the heck? When did THAT happen? One moment, it was all princess shoes and Justice gift cards, and now it’s an iPad Mini and leave-me-alone-I’m-listening-to-Fun. Who IS that kid? Where did my two-year-old go? Did someone swap her when I was sleeping?

Fat chance. Nothing gets past ME at 3 a.m. when I’m wide awake, churning through all the things I have to do the next day, or staring blankly at the clock and wondering how much time should elapse before I officially say I can’t sleep on Facebook. I most definitely wasn’t sleeping.

So you see, that’s not me. I’m not even sure that’s my kid you’re talking about. You’re simply misinformed. I like to listen to Fun., too. I like to blast the radio and belt out Bruno Mars songs in the car. I would rather pile up the dirty laundry and dishes in the evening than lose 20 minutes of “House Hunters International.”

Is that something the responsible mother of an 11-year-old would do?

I rest my case.

I have a history of almost ruining Christmas. I never mean to do it, and sometimes it’s not even my fault, but I have this history nonetheless.

First, there was the time when I was about 11, when I’d asked my parents for a very fancy Casio keyboard—the kind with the drum beats and the different melody sounds. My parents didn’t always get me what I asked for, and sometimes they really botched my request. (Like the time I asked for a trampoline, and instead of getting the big kind you can do bone-breaking gymnastics on—which is what I meant—they bought me a small jogging thing Jane Fonda might use. Um, not what I had in mind, Mom and Dad.)

Anyway, I asked for this expensive keyboard, and—with good reason—I was afraid they either wouldn’t get it, or possibly worse, they’d get me some kind of miniature doll piano instead. So one afternoon, when both parents were out running errands and my brother and I were flying solo for a few hours, we decided to canvas the entire house in search of Christmas goodies.

I swear, I never thought I’d find anything. I wasn’t crawling in the attic or opening hidden passageways. But it was right there, on the top shelf of the guest room closet, still in its box: a HUGE Casio electronic keyboard. The exact one I’d asked for.

I was stunned. On one hand, I was ecstatic that my wish would be granted, but on the other hand, I couldn’t believe I had just ruined my biggest Christmas surprise. Not only that, but I had ruined my parents’ big surprise.

What parent doesn’t love seeing the kids’ faces that morning when they open THE BIG THING they hoped and prayed for? Next to the real reason-for-the-season, it’s like the Best Thing Ever. I knew, even as an 11 year old, that I now had to pretend to be surprised on Christmas morning. There would be no giant, uncontained smile of real glee. Oh, the shame.

I never poked around for presents again. I also never shook a present or tried to guess the contents. I don’t let my kids lay one finger on any wrapped presents that appear under the tree early. And today, I have really, really good hiding places. Sure, Christmas is a joyous religious event, and a family gathering day, and all those warm and fuzzy things. But underneath it all, isn’t Christmas really about secrets?

Christmas is also about timing and health. I’m not so good with those things.

Take, for example, Christmas 2002. I’m married and pregnant with my first baby. Christmas morning arrives, and Matthew and I are celebrating with his mom in our house in California. We put out a cheese and cracker tray after opening presents, and then settle in on the sofa to watch a movie together.

Next thing I know, I start having this tremendous pain behind one shoulder, down into my rib cage. Being pregnant for the first time, I’m wary of any pain. And it doesn’t go away. I try lying down in my room for a while. Hours pass, and the pain intensifies. Finally, I tell Matthew to call the doctor. They tell him they don’t think it sounds like labor, but I better come in to the hospital.

The Christmas dinner preparations fall by the wayside. Matthew drives me to the hospital, where they put me in the L&D unit hooked up to a variety of machines that tell them a whole lot of nothing. No contractions, no apparent labor (I wasn’t due till early April anyway). They pump me full of fluids because that’s all they can do, so I lay there bored senseless (no iPhones back then!), uncomfortably pregnant, and swollen with saline to the point of cankles. Matthew eventually leaves me at the hospital at my request. Cankles and Christmas do not mix.

By the time Matthew brings me home at about 11:30 p.m., I’m under orders not to eat anything because the docs aren’t sure what’s going on. I’m exhausted. He’s exhausted. And so, for Christmas dinner, we sit at the dining room table and share bowls of lukewarm vegetable broth.

(Turns out I had gallstones. Go figure.)

I had another sick Christmas, in 2006. I’d been fine the night before at church. But by morning, I woke up knowing I was horribly ill with the flu. I had a fever and chills and nausea. As a mom, though, you can’t call off Christmas when there are little kids in the house. I tried to make it through, curled up on the sofa through the present-opening extravaganza, barely able to focus on my daughters as they tore through paper and ribbons.

I have few memories of that morning. Of the whole day really. After the presents were finished, I couldn’t fake it anymore. I had to go back to bed, where I remained comatose for the rest of the day. I stranded my poor husband and kids, along with his mom and my parents, to prepare and eat Christmas dinner without me. (They made omelets.) I felt terribly guilty—especially when my mother-in-law came down with it a few days later—but it was out of my control.

The reason I said that I have almost ruined Christmas, though, is because—miraculously!—Christmas hasn’t been tainted for me. Not in the slightest. I might have irritated the heck out of my family over the years, but I’m still a five-year-old kid when it comes to the holiday season. I get psyched for Santa. I throw parties. I decorate, PROUDLY, the weekend after Thanksgiving. I own not one but TWO horrendous Christmas sweaters, along with tacky snowman earrings. I prefer Elvis and Bing Crosby singing my Time Life Classic Christmas Carol favorites. I pull out the Reader’s Digest Merry Christmas Songbook that my grandmother gave me in 1980 and muddle through “The Christmas Song” on the piano when I’m alone in the house. I bake my mother’s pumpkin bread, Christmas cookies, and peanut butter cups. And I WILL NOT TOLERATE artificial trees.

Still, I wonder what I’ll do to almost blow it this year. Cross your fingers for me.

This is the month you’re expecting to read about Halloween, but I’ve got something truly scary to discuss with you.

On September 7, my husband and I began Phase 1 of the Liquid Amino Diet—a strict 30-day detox/eating regimen. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say that this first stage of the plan is targeted at fairly rapid but healthy weight loss, as well as detoxing your body, balancing hormones, maintaining muscle mass, and eating totally clean. You consume quality calories mostly comprised of proteins, vegetables, and fruits. No artificial sweeteners. And most importantly, no alcohol.

See, it’s scary? Right?

We started out great. Both of us dropped over five pounds in the first three days. We slept well and drank copious amounts of water. We kept up with our regular workouts—Matthew with running and cycling, and me with tennis.

Now before you jump ahead thinking that it was all bogus and we’ve gained everything back, rest assured we have NOT. I’m writing this on Day 16 out of 30, down about 10 lbs; hubby is down about 11. The diet does work. Well, if you can hack it.

That’s the problem.

We lasted 7 days before we started “cheating” in some way or another. We were desperate to get out of the house and sit somewhere together and have a drink. (Remember, we both work from home, so we are always there, smack in the middle of chaos.) So it started like that, a furtive two-hour stint at the bar at Red Dog Right, not touching the popcorn or any other food. Sticking to our calorie count, but allowing ourselves a grown-up beverage and some much-needed sanity out of the house. We made a plan: We’d give ourselves one night a week to get out. No eating, just a few drinks, never to excess. That would make the plan more livable.

That lasted about 20 hours. The next day, we talked ourselves into another glass of wine. And the next. Pretty soon, we’d just decided that as long as we stayed within our calories, we’d be okay. And we were still losing weight and feeling good. No harm, no foul.

Then the next week, we added the popcorn at Red Dog. I am a SUCKER for popcorn. A few days later, after failing to eat our five daily massive bowls of roughage—amazing how quickly one can tire of vinegar as your only dressing and plain mustard on soggy Boca Burgers—we were ravenous with no time to prep anything. We were out at Red Dog again with our laptops, working on deadlines (we love the free wifi and getting out of our home office), and we caved and had the chips and queso. We just needed something that didn’t involve lettuce and vegetables.

And then, the downfall. After a morning camped at Starbucks finishing more work for a client deadline, I succumbed to the big temptation. Mi Cocina. I’d skipped breakfast to make a morning meeting, and there it was, right across the street, taunting me. I texted Matthew and twisted his arm (without much twisting required). He drove over and joined me. We went a little crazy. We got ALL UP in that queso blanco and the margaritas and the tacos… Oh, the shame. And the very next night, despite saying we would be good now that we had it out of our systems, we fell for a pizza craving and went to Coal Vines for our favorite regular pie with jalapenos and olives. AND IT WAS SO GOOD.

I’m not writing this as a form of confession, and I’m not advocating any diet plan. I’m just chewing over the reality that we all know is true, but that is so often difficult to accept: Everything in moderation.

I honestly thought we could handle 30 days of anything. I thought we’d be like Morgan Spurlock, doing his 30-day experiments for the greater good. And I guess, if you were to stick me on TV like Morgan, or put a gun to my head, or offer me a million bucks, I still could do it. (I’d actually do it for $100,000, if anyone’s looking to pay me.) But short of extreme motivation, and living my daily reality with work and kids and volunteer commitments, I cannot function in a vacuum. That kind of deprivation made me a lunatic. I thought I needed to have my vices totally restricted in order to change my lifestyle. As if prison would somehow set me free. But I couldn’t have been more wrong.

In the guidelines for our diet plan (which you can read about here: www.liquidaminodiet.com), the doctor behind it all said that food was just fuel for our bodies. That was its only purpose. I guess at face value, that’s true—but in the real world, food is a whole lot more. So is drink. For me and my husband, these are critical elements of socializing, spending time together, even expressing ourselves. I know that’s not true for everyone, but that’s just how we are. When we couldn’t go out to eat or drink with friends, we felt isolated—not detoxed. When we couldn’t invite friends and family over for the Sunday football game and a spread of food that matched the coming fall season, we felt a bit lost. We love to cook and entertain. That’s not to say food and drink must be decadent. But there is enjoyment in cooking and eating together. And you can cook and eat healthy food without it being so limited. I can’t imagine a world where I ranked food next to gasoline. And I don’t want to try.

The long and short of it is that this diet both works and doesn’t work. From my experience so far, parts of it are very doable and definitely make sense. Eat smaller, more frequent meals. Lay off the starches and processed foods. Pay attention to sugars. But I’ve realized that if the point of doing this detox/clean living thing was to make behavior changes, I’m better off with a long-term game plan. One I can live with—not just for 30 days, but beyond.

That being said, we are going to do our best to finish out our 30 days on the eating plan, for the most part. We said we’d do it. Plus, we’re a little hooked on our protein shakes, our roasted tomato soup, and the fun of our new Kitchen Ninja blender. But I’m done with total restriction. If we indulge a bit in moderation, the world won’t end. I know, this is obvious stuff. But it’s honestly eye-opening when you test the theory.

Here’s the cold truth, folks: I survived a Southlake Women’s Club luncheon without touching the chocolate cake, and I made it through book club drinking only club soda. But I’m going to have REAL dip with my veggies during the games this Sunday. And you’re going to catch me on Facebook checking in to the Ginger Man at Monday’s opening. (And maybe a couple times after that.)

By the way, we planned our 30 days to end just in time for the last day of Oktoberfest and the Carroll Education Foundation’s big Culinary Celebration. I am counting the minutes…

Don’t be thrown off by that title. I’m not talking about teenage paranormal romance novels. We have a REAL vampire crisis on our hands, people.

There are literally creatures out there RIGHT NOW that feed off our blood. EVERY DAY! In fact, I just swatted one, but I was too late. He already got me. Like 47 times.

You think I’m being cute? I’m not. Some people might say that they can’t stand mosquitos, but I’m for real here. I freaking HATE the things. They are the bane of my summertime existence. They are a scourge. A pestilence. A bonafide plague.

Why can’t someone stop them already?

We can put people in space. We can make CARS. We’ve engineered extremely clever sandwiches, iPods no bigger than matchbooks, and TV shows that air new episodes for over a decade! We build MECHANICAL BEATING HEARTS, for crying out loud. We humans are pretty seriously brilliant. Right?

So what gives, science people?! What is so difficult to master about these miniscule weapons of mass annoyance? Why can’t any of you umpteen Nobel Prize-winning researchers figure out how to create a bug repellent that, oh, I don’t know, ACTUALLY REPELS BUGS without otherwise harming me or the environment? Or, better yet, why can’t you create a pill I can take, same as above, minus the sticky-greasy feeling that compels me to shower at 11:30 p.m. when all I want is to fall in bed? Or, at the very least, why can’t you make an anti-itch cream that actually STOPS ITCHING (!!!!!)? Even movie people can turn fossilized mosquitos into dinosaurs, for Pete’s sake! What have YOU guys done??

Look. I get it. You’re probably all busy trying to cure cancer or solve world hunger or provide clean drinking water to third-world countries. (Incidentally, mosquitos are a pretty big deal in those third-world countries. Like you can get really sick! And I know you know that because you HAVE apparently found time to make a pill to prevent malaria. Ahem.) But I’m not asking for a big miracle here. I’m not begging you for a time machine or a clone of myself. I’m talking about killing some bugs. Not even ALL bugs—just this one ridiculous, tiny species. You can’t fit THAT into your schedule?

Is it the pay? Not enough noble glory in the extermination trade? Please. The person that solves our global mosquito epidemic will surely go down in the annals of history as a dang genius. You’ll get book deals. And I will tell you right now that I would pay $1,000 a year (maybe) for one of you to finally get it right. I mean. Hey. That’s money. Think lots of people. Large scale.

Or maybe it’s just your priorities. Maybe big-time scientist folks are somehow wired differently inside, and they just don’t get BIT as often and as badly as I do. Is that it? You just don’t think it’s THAT big a problem. You’re the people who prance around saying, “Oh, I don’t need bug spray. Moqsuitos never bother me!” Hogwash. People like you just hang out next to people like me when you go to barbecues or backyard parties, and we get all the flak. Yeah. We’re your flak jackets. And on you go, thinking mosquitos just don’t like you. Well, they don’t. NO ONE likes you.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m writing this outside. Where I was sitting happily. On a lovely afternoon, with my family, on my patio, attempting to enjoy myself on a blue-skied June Saturday. BUT NO. The plan is foiled. Two minutes into sitting down, I start to feel the telltale prickly heat on the back of one leg. Next, on the back of one elbow. I start to see the huge welts appear. I can’t sit still, squirming around like a two-year-old in church. I DO NOT WANT TO SCRATCH. I am 38 years old, and I know not to scratch. I’ve just told my four-year-old son to stop scratching and looked at him like he was a sad and pathetic little boy because he couldn’t control his impulses. And then here I go, digging a fingernail into the raised bump, slyly rubbing the condensation off my water glass and dabbing it on the bites and then blowing on them. Trying to apply both AfterBite (EPIC FAIL, folks) and some generic Benadryl cream that seems to think it can block histamines (which must be code for DOES NOT WORK). Spraying useless “family-friendly” Off—which, for all the good it does, might as well be mustard—all over my body.

And don’t think you can come at me with your stories about the misting systems that “reduce” the number of mosquitos in my yard. I don’t want a REDUCTION. I don’t want an IMPROVEMENT. I need a cure. I want those suckers ERASED. I’ve had enough.

So, get on it, all you brainiacs. Stop building cars and manufacturing hair-loss creams. Otherwise I’m going to start parading around with a garlic necklace, carrying wooden stakes. Don’t make me go all Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, out there. Please. I beg you.

I’m getting old. My 20-year high school reunion is officially around the corner, and I am SO NOT READY for it. For a variety of reasons.

Where should I start?

I’m not a doctor or a lawyer or a future Nobel Prize candidate. Haven’t written a novel yet. Never saw the point in graduate school—or at least, not after that time I applied for my MFA in 1995 and didn’t get into the writing program I wanted and then gave up altogether like a little crybaby. I FINALLY achieved a decent skinny size about 8 years ago, and even got back to it like a champ after babies #2 and #3 were born…but then I proceeded to screw it up about 3 years ago for no particular reason, and today, no matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to give a hoot (so I don’t try that hard). I also cannot afford a lake house. My family of five survives on one car (a decrepit minivan), and it’s got more trash inside it than a Nikki Minaj album. My tennis is passable at best, and I have never in my life done a real chin-up.

Sigh. I’m just so average.

I could take this moment to wax poetic and sentimental about being grateful for the all blessings in my life. Sure, I’m very happily married to a bonafide genius Renaissance man who rocks my world. I can lay claim to the three MOST PERFECT children in the universe. My work is something I find enjoyable, and I’m pretty good at it. So there’s all that. Blah blah blah.

Let’s just call it like it is, people. This is a milestone reunion. And it’s not some Romy-and-Michelle affair either—since my graduating class held all of 80 girls (yes, I went to a girls’ school for 12 years). There won’t be any pathetic soiree in a high school gym full of balloons and balding men and dark corners where you can hide out with a bottle of gin and go unnoticed. This will be a lovely luncheon on campus, and a family picnic, and a dinner party, and photographs, and ample room and time for intimate conversations and catching up. Everything will be beautiful, and everyone will be so nice. Truly.

So, like any resourceful woman feeling totally inadequate for no good reason, I’ve devised a list of the Top 10 Tactics to Boost My Confidence When Facing Blasts from My Past:

1)      I will start posting progressively more hideous photos of myself on Facebook. My goal is simple: To lower people’s expectations. I figure if they’re anticipating my appearance as a bag-lady-dinosaur, I could really wow them with that $50 dress from Kohl’s and an old pair of heels.

It pays to set low standards for your appearance.

It pays to set low standards for your appearance.

2)      I will arm myself with a hidden list of the more embarrassing things that I remember about my fellow classmates. Then, if anyone unwittingly makes me feel like an ugly failure, I can reach for the list in my purse, like a talisman. Or a voodoo doll. (Of course, I’ll also need to quickly align myself with any one of the 20 girls who did become a laywer. Someone is bound to remember the stunts I pulled, too, and I reserve the right to remain silent.)

3)      I will bring a puppy. Everyone loves puppies. People with puppies are unflappable heroes.

4)      I will take copious notes during every conversation and tell people, “It’s for my exposé.” Fear and power can be an intimidating cocktail.

5)      I will casually offer to pre-arrange the marriages of my children. Nooooo, not to be a suck-up and mooch wealth wherever possible. What do you take me for? I’m just looking to ease the busy planning schedules of some of our more successful graduates. I’m altruistic like that.

6)      Self-tanner. Like, top to bottom. I’ve heard it works miracles.

7)      I will pretend I’ve moved to a distant exotic country, like Brazil, and that I really only speak Portuguese now. Oh, wait. We’ve already got one of those in our class. Plus she’s like a marathoner and a supermodel now. Maybe Papua New Guinea? Do women wear muumuus there?

8)      I will pretend I got lost on the way to the party and show up only for the last five minutes. True, being unable to find something these days with all the GPS technology available will likely make me look more stupid. But at least I’ll breeze in and out so fast that all photographic evidence of me will seem as doubtful as a Bigfoot sighting.

Take that, Class of 1992. You'll never prove it was me.

Take that, Class of 1992. You’ll never prove it was me.

9)      I will stuff a (small and probably unnecessary) pillow under my dress, and tell everyone I’m preggo with #4. Upside: No Spanx required. Downside: Unoriginal. I was pregnant at my 15-year reunion. Plus I won’t be able to drink anything without seeming deplorable, and we can’t have that.

10)   I will simply send someone else in my place. I’ll rig the skinny bi#@% with an earpiece and a microphone so I can hear everything and feed her all the right lines. She will be paid extra for witty banter and memorizing names. (Cuddling with my hubby, however, will be grounds for dismissal—so ladies, if you see her make a move, text me, ok? I’ll be out in the car eating Cheetos.)

Note to all my classmates who might be reading this: You know I’m just kidding, right? Right? You SAW me do that chin-up in 1989…in the weight room in the new gym…remember? But seriously, I’m looking forward to seeing you all in a few weeks. Pretend I look awesome.

When we moved from San Jose back to Texas in 2005, my husband and I promised ourselves we would continue to visit our beloved Bay Area—our home together for over a decade. At least once a year, we said.

At first, we were true to our plan. We went back several times to visit friends and wine country. But after spring of 2006, the timing never seemed right. Airfare skyrocketed. Then I got pregnant again with our son, and he was too little (i.e., annoying to fly with). Emma, our oldest, was in “real” school now. One heap of inconvenience after another.

The next thing I knew, it was 2010, and I realized I hadn’t been on airplane to anywhere in OVER FOUR YEARS. Which was just wrong. I could stop party conversation entirely with my horrific announcement of freak-ness.

Luckily, we had a wedding to attend last winter after Christmas, and our whole family got to experience The Miracle of Flight together as we headed to Baltimore for a few days. What joy. I love my kids dearly, but flying with a family of five in today’s security-happy world is not that simple. Explaining to a three-year-old that he has to remove his beloved Spiderman shoes and walk through the scary capsule-looking thing surrounded by guys in uniforms scowling because they have such awful jobs… well, it wasn’t natural. I longed for the easy days of jet-setting about with Matthew on a whim.

“Want to go to Seattle?” one of us would say to the other on a Friday afternoon after work.

“Why not,” the other would say. And we’d throw a few things in a backpack, buy a $100 round-trip ticket, and zip away for a few days of fun and exploration. We were the people that went to Antarctica on our honeymoon. We did crazy travel big-time.

It was in this spirit of nostalgia and serendipity that Matthew and I booked our tickets back to SFO last month. We spotted a great airfare sale, snagged a deal on a hotel, and—with the help of his mother to watch the kiddos—planned ourselves a four-night trip. Just the two of us and the quaint town of Healdsburg. That’s the Dry Creek Valley, baby. Wine country heaven. I did a happy dance almost every day for a month, until the day came to depart…and off we went.

Getaway trips for couples can be wonderful blessings. They can also be learning experiences. Our trip was both. I would like to offer you a brief summary of Our Trip to Wine Country 2011:

Lesson 1: Planes are SO UNCOMFORTABLE now

I’ve only flown First Class a handful of times, so I’m not spoiled on that or anything. I just remembered Coach being, I don’t know, HUMAN-SIZED. Nowadays, planes have:

  • First Class—which sat EMPTY for the most part on our flight out, taunting me with its ginormous seats from behind its stupid gauzy curtain. If you’ve seen “Bridesmaids,” you know what I was very tempted to do.
  • Main Cabin—where I was folded and stuffed into a doll’s seat with no elbow room, no foot room, and no ability to lean back because my husband put us in the row before the exit on our flight out, which I suppose I will forgive him for someday.
  • And…Main Cabin Select—which is what Coach used to be before planes shrunk and got cheap. We “upgraded” to Main Cabin Select on the way home, thank God. Hubby hates to hear me complain.

 

The lack of space wasn’t the only thing causing discomfort. When you buy a plane ticket for what you think will be a $99 round-trip fare, and then you add on the ridiculous $25 bag fee, and then another $24 to actually be comfortable, $8 for Wi-Fi so you can hear the Rangers game while watching Stanford annihilate Washington State, $6 for a crappy sandwich, and $14 to chase fear of turbulence away with Sauvignon Blanc, your price goes up substantially. At least the headphones and the screening of “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” were complimentary.

Lesson 2: No kids? Take your top off

I had booked us the practical (read: UGLY) compact car from the cheapest provider I could find, figuring whatever, it was just the vehicle that would transport us from winery to winery. About as important as a fork is to the taste of a meal, right?

Thankfully, the good lady at the Fox Rental Car counter heard we were having a getaway sans kids, back in Cali for the first time in years, and she took pity on us. For a paltry upgrade fee and a huge discount, we kissed that Focus goodbye and drove out of the airport in a rockin’ red convertible Mustang.

 

As we drove around top-down the next few days, wind in our hair and tunes blaring in what might arguably be the most beautiful place in the world, I have never been less consumed with buyer’s remorse. Finally, a splurge that was WORTH EVERY PENNY. (For the record, you should know I drive a minivan at home. That’s our ONLY car and has been for almost 7 years. To get that minivan, we traded in my beautiful Mercedes and Matthew’s awesome Yukon Denali. Practical sucks.)

Lesson 3: Find luxury needles in cheap-ass haystacks

If you hadn’t noticed, the theme of our little vacation was KEEP THE PRICE DOWN. When booking our hotel, I stayed away from the mammoth resorts and boutiquey B&Bs. I headed straight for inexpensive and found a great deal through, of all things, a Best Western. (Don’t laugh. I’m totally serious.)

I booked what sounded like a decent room with a king-sized bed, a fridge, even a little fireplace, in a good location in Healdsburg. It was really cheap—like $99/night cheap in big bucks wine country, which is unheard of in October—so I wasn’t holding my breath for perfection. Imagine our surprise when we checked in and it was honestly BETTER than we expected. Comfy bed, nice service, a cute little patio with a bistro table and chairs! Fluffy bathrobes! A courtyard view with a fountain! A Jacuzzi tub! Free breakfast! Flat-screen TV with movies! I highly recommend the Best Western Dry Creek Inn. And you should tell them I sent you, in case I get a future discount.

(Incidentally, the theme songs of our trip, which played incessantly on the radio, were Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger” and Adele’s “Someone Like You.” Both songs, at least twice an hour, like clockwork. I used to like them.)

Lesson 4: I am not 25 anymore

When we were fresh out of college and only visiting the Napa area on a day trip, Matthew and I would hit about four wineries and a good restaurant and then head back home. This rarely resulted in any distress. On this trip, because we thought we didn’t have to limit ourselves as much, Matthew and I visited 10 wineries, one brewpub, and a bar in the first two days alone. Big mistake.

Let’s pause and do the math. There were about five tastings at each winery, and we visited between the hours of 11:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. That’s 50 two-ounce pours of wine each within a 12 hour period—or slightly over eight ounces of wine every hour for six hours at a time. Shameful. And delicious.

By the morning of Day Three, after concluding Day Two with a raucous night out at the Healdsburg Bar & Grill watching the Rangers game with a bunch of new friends who were having an equally good time, I was ready to throw in the towel. I was tired and puffy. I felt old.

Fortunately, my longevity has taught me perseverance. At 37, I am not a quitter. It was Day Three of My Vacation Without Kids, dangit, so I put on a happy face and did some shopping in downtown Healdsburg all morning. We enjoyed a marvelous lunch at Baci, an Italian restaurant just off the square, where Matthew ordered a superb sparkling wine from Ramazzotti—which he drank and I mostly looked at with disdain, the way I imagine people stared at Benedict Arnold, that traitor. After we ordered it (and probably butchered the pronunciation), the waiter leaned in and whispered, “That’s the owner of the winery right next to you at that table.” Sweet. Cheers from the hungover Texans.

After lunch, I demanded downtime, so we headed back to the hotel. Unable to sleep, we hid in the dark room drinking Gatorade and water, watching “Midnight in Paris” without the distraction of children asking for stuff every five minutes. Miraculously, even after a Woody Allen movie, I felt alive again. We dressed up and hit the town for a glass of wine at Spoon Bar—where Matthew treated himself to a plate of oysters that he said were divine, and I will take him at his word on that because I find oysters disgusting. We concluded the evening with a late dinner at Barndiva, a restaurant featuring local organic cuisine housed in—you guessed it—an old converted barn. The chef worked for two years with Thomas Keller at the French Laundry, if that gives you an indication of the yum factor and the ambiance. Oddly, Matthew’s favorite thing there was the bread, which he said was perhaps the best artisanal bread he’d ever had—and that’s saying a lot because he makes homemade bread that’s criminally good. I ordered an agnolotti with baby summer squash and other assorted goodies. Tasty, tasty stuff.

Lesson 5: Oh, who are you kidding, join the clubs

Before we left home, Matthew and I swore right and left that we wouldn’t bring home any wine and we MOST CERTAINLY wouldn’t join any more wine clubs. We were managing a budget vacation, and we wanted to simply be grateful for the time away. We didn’t need to spend any more money.

Boy, we’re really dumb.

I’ll spare you the gory details, but after Day One and Day Two, we became the proud new members of wine clubs at Seghesio (six bottles every three months), Mozzocco (two bottles every three months), Quivira (twelve bottles every six months), and Hop Kiln (four bottles every three months). We also shipped home a case of wine we happened to pick up along the way. Needless to say, we’ve restocked our sad and empty L’Hermitage wine cellar fridge thing for the foreseeable future.

Lesson 6: I missed my kids

Sure, we have Facebook and cell phones and texting, and we didn’t go a day without talking to the little monkeys, but by Day Five, we were ready to see their faces in person. Okay, so we stopped at the Hyatt DFW sports bar to watch the Rangers get massacred by the Cardinals for an hour or so after our plane landed—but that was purely a logistical decision. If we had arrived home before the game ended, I wouldn’t have been able to focus on the kids and give them their souvenirs, and that just wouldn’t have been fair.

Still, I missed those mess-making fools a little more than I’d anticipated. We’re already planning our next trip out, this time with the whole family so we can visit our alma mater in Palo Alto and maybe catch a football game before Andrew Luck leaves the Farm. We’ll totally grab Main Cabin Select seats. And this time, the practical car will prevail.

I really want to write something witty and engaging for you this month, but frankly, it’s too hot. Seriously hot. Can’t-touch-the-steering-wheel hot. Cook-an-egg-on-the-driveway hot. Stupid hot.

Last month, I wrote from the cool climate of the Rockies, which made humor and creativity literally ooze from my pores. I could write a novel up there. A real bestseller. Back here in Texas, the only thing oozing from me is sweat. And possibly my IQ. I have trouble putting sentences together, even in my head. That’s because I’m constantly interrupting myself by thinking about how hot it is outside. Like, I’m trying to write this article, but OMG, it’s 104 degrees out there right now! And then I think that it might as well be 204 degrees since it’s trapping my family inside like a bunch of caged bears. Hot, caged bears.

Sometimes, I spend entire hours looking up the 10-day forecasts on as many online weather sites and apps as I can find. I tell myself that surely ONE of them will show a break in this ridiculous bake-brownies-on-your-dashboard kind of lunacy we’re dealing with!

But nope. All they show me are the intricacies of our particular heat here in Southlake. My Accuweather app, for example, offers a feature called RealFeel, which basically (and more tactfully) summarizes what the rest of us are thinking. 104? Yeah, right. This is, like, at LEAST 109. 110 in the parking lot. I personally love it when the RealFeel says something certifiably crazy, like 118. It makes me believe that it does, in fact, know how I really feel. One day, instead of a number, I expect the RealFeel to just say, “You don’t want to know.” Or maybe lighten the mood with a funny Southern euphemism. Hotter’n two jackrabbits wrestlin’ in a wool sock, let’s say.

Then there’s the Weather Channel. Oh, they started big and mighty, the king of the 24/7 weather reports, but they’re on my list right now. They’re supposed to offer accurate and unbiased predictions based on science, but I think the guy who inputs the data for the 10-day forecast is just messing with me. Every so often, when I look at the last day on the forecast, it promises a brief dip in the heat. Like maybe 98. With a 50% chance of rain. I think, MAYBE this will start ending. First it will be 98. Then 94. Then 87. And fall will slide on in, and we can forget all this hot nonsense ever happened.

But when I go back to look at the forecast again the next hour, the stupid thing says 108 again, with ZERO chance of rain. I’m convinced there’s a guy in a room somewhere at the Weather Channel just laughing his rear end off. “Hey, Steve,” he calls to the guy in the cubicle next door, “I totally did it again. Poor saps.” Then he and Steve go take a walk outside together. Because they can. Because it’s only 83 in Atlanta right now, where the Weather Channel headquarters are located.

Another great forecast site to waste time on is called Weather Underground—which is a misleading name, because they are actually predicting the weather ABOVE ground, where most of us are currently living in inhumane temperatures. Weather Underground, no matter how many times I correct it, insists that I am located in Grapevine. I always have to switch it to Southlake, which I hate doing, because for some insane reason, it’s a whole degree hotter here than it is in Grapevine. Is it because they have the big lake? Whatever. It’s so not fair. Weather Underground also likes to offer trivial data that makes you wish you had a private jet. For example, they tell you where the coolest recorded temperature in the state is. So if I had a private jet, and I knew where the heck Marfa, Texas was, I could zip over there in a jiffy and cool myself down a bit. But I don’t have a jet, so I’m stuck here in Heatsville.

By the way, have I mentioned that’s really hot outside? My thermometer now says 105. That’s some serious hotness.

Other things I do to take my mind off the heat include laughing at my husband. No, not really, but maybe just a little. He’s a runner, and while I try to warn him about this incredible heat wave business, he shrugs and goes running anyway. OUTSIDE!! He’s a big sweater by nature no matter what the temperature, so when he comes back dripping like he’s just had a shower in his clothes and moaning about the humidity, I do kind of chuckle. “I told you it was hot,” I say. Though in all seriousness I suppose I should be happy he’s made it back intact. People can bake out there when it gets this hot. Literally harden up and char like ants under a magnifying glass. I’ve read about it.

(Incidentally, he usually wears this obnoxious neon yellow shirt when he’s running, so if you should spot him in a puddle on the side of the road, he wears an ID band on his wrist with my phone number on it. Feel free to call.)

At least the kids are about to head back to school. I can stop worrying that they’ll pass out every time they try to play in the yard, especially when they do really smart moves like put on a long-sleeve shirt with leggings in the middle of August (which my 7 year old did yesterday). Someone needs to teach them some common sense.

I’d do it, but man, I’m just too hot right now.

It’s hard to be a chicken when your kids are watching, but man, I could barely hold it together once Chuck, the lead guide, started in with his “safety talk.” He was telling us what to do if we fell out of the raft. Don’t try to stand up—he’s known someone who died from having a foot trapped between two toothy, jagged rocks. Don’t swim toward any wood piles or strainers—you could faceplant or snap your neck. Swim toward the raft, he said. Be aggressive. You own the river.

I looked over at nine-year-old Emma, who was sitting next to me on the old school bus—our transportation from the raft shop to the river drop point—and saw the tears forming in her eyes when she realized he was serious. Never mind that he started our little discussion by telling us there was no reason to be afraid. Never mind that he said he was only required by law to give us these warnings. Chuck had a wild look in his eyes, like he had seen things, experienced things, that humans shouldn’t have to endure. Emma started to cry, and as I peeked over my shoulder to face my husband, in the row behind us, I came within seconds of scrapping the whole adventure. You know, for Emma’s sake.

Matthew had an arm around Lissa, who looked confused. At the age of seven, she understood words like “death” and “falling out,” but at a more esoteric level. Mostly it was Chuck’s tone that gave her pause. His gesturing hands and hoarse yell was telling her this might be more than just another ride at Six Flags.

I had no choice but to reassure my girls. “You’ll be fine,” I whispered. “You heard him. Nothing to be nervous about. He’s not trying to scare you.” (Inner monologue: He’s scaring the bejeezus out of us, isn’t he, girls? What’s wrong with this man? Does he not know anything about children?)

I forced a smile. Wiped a tear from Emma’s cheek. Thought to myself there’s no way they would let us go out there if we weren’t going to be safe. The problem was, I had these two mosquito-like thoughts buzzing through my head, circling me like the ripe target I was.

I’d been rafting three times before. And each time, EVERY time, I had been the one to fall out. In my memory, falling out was annoying. Maybe cold. Startling. But it never felt like I was dancing with death under the river, the way Chuck made it sound. I couldn’t get that thought out of my head. I was going to go overboard like an idiot again, this time in front of my kids and husband, so I’d have to master all this safety stuff he was covering in two minutes like rapid-fire exchanges between sportscasters on ESPN. I could barely remember my own name at this point, let alone remember what he said about how to get out from under the raft if you should happen to surface in an unfortunate location.

The other thought I couldn’t ditch was on everyone’s mind, and Chuck wouldn’t let us forget it. We were dealing with record late-season snowfall, snow melt, and rain. The Arkansas River was twice as high as its normal, exhilarating self. The flow rate was pure insanity for us beginners at almost 2,200 cubic feet per second. That’s about 135,000 pounds of water pushing down on you every second.

Chuck wanted us to get the significance of this pressure. “Imagine,” he barked out, “that someone is throwing a basketball at you!” (Great beginning, Chuck.) He then went on to describe how the force of the current river, swollen with the season’s drainage, would feel like someone throwing 135,000 basketballs at you simultaneously. In your face, up your nose, into your head.

This was the moment when I had to man up. Be the Mom. Make that tough decision. I knew that our friends in the row ahead of me were all smiles and bravado, but they didn’t have to see my terrified cherubs. I felt like I had to put a stop to this ridiculous idea of rafting down rapids destined to resemble the churning sea in “Clash of the Titans.” We were doomed! Doomed, I say!

But I couldn’t make myself form the words. I was being a complete and utter scaredy-cat, and I knew it. As I turned to check out the other passengers on our bus, I might have noted slight trepidation, but no one looked on the verge of a full-blown panic attack. I was being the moron Chuck mocked, the one who moaned about my life jacket being too tight. Grow up, he had told us.

Fine. Alright then.

We were asked, at long last, to get off the steamy bus and get ready to board our raft. Our group’s guide, Will, seemed energetic and pleasant, but I knew him to be nothing more than a young, unknowing sailor steering us into certain chaos. He, too, tried to give us some safety instructions, plus guidance on how to actually help paddle the vessel—very important if we were to all stay afloat when we hit the rapids—but I was too busy struggling with frightened kids worn from the heat and frustrated by splash jackets that didn’t want to go over heads. I gave up.

Fast forward five minutes. We were drifting in the drink, so to speak, all six of our crew plus Will, trying to find positions of safety and comfort, while practicing our “forward one” and “forward two” commands. I was trapped. We were moving, the course was set, we were motor-less and motion-full. And throughout those first agonizing moments where I sat poised and ready to yell, “I CANNOT DO THIS!” I kept checking on my girls, who seemed to be growing more and more at ease with each passing second. My husband was fine. He was up front, helping to take the waves head-on, and I had no choice but to smile like a rodeo clown, willing to be gored for the show of it all, for the applause.

I wish I could explain how exactly it was that I calmed myself down. I think so much of it had to do with seeing my children expand before my eyes, their confidence inflating like balloons attached to faucets, unable to stop from overflowing. They ceased to be afraid the moment we sat on the boat, I think. Maybe because they didn’t exactly understand the gravity of what could happen, but maybe because they did—and they just got over it. Emma paddled with us for at least 45 minutes, in sync with our commands, balancing herself like a pro. Lissa wore a grin the size of the state of Colorado itself, and with the exception of getting chilly towards the end of our expedition, that grin never left her face.

I also think I calmed myself down just by watching the water. I remembered how, when driving in snow, you could almost watch a single snowflake descend from the sky to the windshield, and it slowed the process down—made it more manageable. I began to see how each wave was distinguishable as it rose to the hull of the raft. I tracked them one at a time, each crest and trough, steeling my hips and thighs to carry the toss from side to side. I will not fall out of this raft, I kept repeating. You cannot make me.

At the most hectic of moments, the most ridiculous-looking gigantic rapid—a class IV lovingly called Seidel’s Suck Hole—I almost lost it. I saw the magnitude before me, and I shouted to my children to hold on, even as I tried to maintain my composure, hands on the paddle, ready to help my boat-mates. Oh, my heavens, if I could just convey to you how it feels to have your vision completely obscured for one incredibly long second, fighting off the invisibility of the world to open your eyes and verify The One Thing That Matters In the World: I still had two kids on the boat. Two open-mouthed, ecstatic kids who couldn’t have looked happier if Santa himself had just plopped onto the raft with a bag full of toys.

Altogether, we spent about five hours traveling through Brown’s Canyon that day. When we were headed into the last stretch, Will called Emma to come take the rear with him and give us our commands to get to shore. She briefly hesitated, wondering if she was supposed to say yes, but when we nodded, she was off. Literally buoyant.

“FORWARD TWO!” she insisted. “FORWARD! FORWARD!”

We careered toward the bank, nudged the sandy shore, came to rest. Will gave Lissa the important task of watching the raft while he took our equipment back up to the vans that awaited us. She sat like a hawk, holding the tow rope, in awe of being given such responsibility.

As we rode the cramped bus back to the shop, all of us tired and wet and carrying sand in places where sand should never go, I tried to process what had just transpired. How I had gone from a blithering coward, to a put-off mom insistent on saving her children, to a simple person watching simple enjoyment launch itself from the unlikeliest of undercurrents… it was too much.

I sat back, resting my hand atop my husband’s forearm. The wind buckled in through the open windows, threatening to steal my visor. I felt, for the first time in so many years, that I could change. That the power of the world around me could give me power. That I could learn again. What an open book I have before me. What gratitude I want to share. Oh, the things I owe my children.

 

 

You will never confuse me with a frugal person. In my opinion, money is made to be spent. It’s like a transmogrification miracle: Spend it, and money literally becomes something else. Maybe, if you’re lucky, it becomes something fun. Or shiny.

 

Money in a bank is never shiny. Money in a bank is boring and abstract, like The Economist.

 

This is how I justify shopping.

 

But fret not. While I’m clearly a four-year-old when it comes to balancing checkbooks, there are few things I love more in this world than a good deal. If I’m going to spend my money, I want to get the absolute most for it—which is why I’m thrilled with all these new email coupon lists that have cropped up. Do they deliver gold mines every day? Sadly, no. But if you are on the right lists and you keep your eyes open, you’re likely to spot a winner at least once a week.

 

How do they work?

 

It’s pretty simple: Businesses agree to offer a big discount on something because they expect a bunch of people to buy it in advance. You sign up online to receive these discounts daily via email.

 

Some sites, like Groupon, have a minimum number of purchases required before a deal is “unlocked.” Other coupon companies don’t have a required minimum. On all of them, though, you pay first and then receive a redeemable voucher.

 

What’s wrong with scissors?

 

Clipping coupons is fine—if you’re living in 1974.

 

In all seriousness, though, email coupons aren’t just better because they don’t require sharp tools. Here’s why they’re helpful:

 

  • They’re location-specific. For those of us in the bubble, that means deals often come from our favorite down-the-street stores and restaurants. That means value is extended to local retailers, who can now get targeted advertising without paying the big bucks.
  • They typically offer much greater savings. Most email group coupons start with 25% discounts and can go up to 80% or more. No more piddly 30 cents off here and there.
  • They’ve got heart. Fundraising is the new trend in email coupon lists, with percentages of purchase prices given back to local schools or charities.
  • They’re interactive. You can click a few buttons and share your deals with friends—not possible with traditional paper coupons.
  • They’re easily portable. No more carrying a big coupon binder in your purse. Many coupons lists let you use your smartphone to present your deal to merchants.

 

Ready, set…be smart

So you’re intrigued. You want the deals. What next?

 

  • First, check the company’s reputation. Before you offer any personal information—including your name, email address, or zip code—pop onto Google and check out the company behind the list. Better yet, see what your friends have to say.

 

  • Follow the directions for signing up on a site, but pay attention to what you click! Never give a site access to your address book or friend lists, or you’ll super-spam everyone you know. And remember, it’s okay to connect to a site through your Facebook or Twitter accounts so you can get extra incentives, but it’s never cool for a site to post or tweet as you. Click “no” to that option if it arises; this shouldn’t affect your ability to share deals.

 

Want more value?

 

  • Leverage the incentive programs. Most coupon sites offer ways to earn “bucks” for sharing your deal through social media sites like Facebook or Twitter. Sometimes, when you’ve made enough purchases through a site, you earn coupon codes that up your discount further. Investigate these options (look for “referral program” links) and discuss them with your friends.

 

  • Find charitable kick-back opportunities. Many sites give portions of purchases back to local schools or nonprofit organizations. Shop and support your local community!

 

  • Buy in bulk. Some sites limit how many coupons you can purchase, especially on great deals. Last holiday season, for example, Southlake Town Square did a $20 gift card for $10 through Juice in the City, but we could only buy one per person. (Everyone in my house bought one, so we managed a few extras. If they hadn’t limited it, though, I might have bought $500 worth. Darn you, Town Square.)

    If there’s no limit, though, go to town—like my friend Meredith did a few weeks ago, when another coupon site offered a fantastic deal for four-hour vouchers at Adventure Kids. After chatting and discovering there were codes we could earn to knock 20 to 30% more off our cost, Meredith ended up with over a dozen vouchers at a huge price break. She’s set on childcare for a while!

 

  • Shop other locations. We’ve got a good thing nestled here between Dallas and Fort Worth, so sign up for both city lists and get double deals! Going on vacation? Get on coupon lists in other cities. Give yourself a few weeks’ lead time. You might spot deals you can use while you’re traveling! And don’t forget to look at non-featured daily deals—you know, the ones that pop up on the sidebars that might be from neighboring communities. My friend Amy spotted an incredible deal from Virgin Airlines that way. She was able to scoop up three plane tickets for her Spring Break trip to Tahoe at an unbeatable price.

 

  • Buy through eBates.com. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention more of Amy’s online shopping brilliance. (She’s a professional “bean counter,” so her advice is probably better than mine.) She recommends setting up an account on eBates.com (free); then look for coupon pages like Groupon through this site. You’ll earn quarterly cash rebates on each purchase, which can add up over time if you’re a mega-online-shopper (like Amy is).

 

My Favorites

 

With over a dozen major coupon lists in play, which ones should you join? Take a look at this nifty table to see which sites I prefer. [INSERT LINK TO GRAPHIC coupontable.gif]

 

Comments, questions, or corrections? Please share them! And remember, if money runs short, it’s not because you need to spend less. You just need to make more. Happy deal-shopping!

With summer vacation in full swing, and a vacation in my family’s near future, I decided to set my 9 year old up with her own blog. Blogs have a lot to offer that private diaries can’t provide, and the interactive potential can be healthy for kids if properly supervised. Writing about their experiences online, for example, teaches kids to position their thoughts for public consumption. They learn how to formulate thoughts appropriately, defend their opinions politely, expand their horizons to other viewpoints, and even moderate discussions.

I thought, “Hey! Blogging for kids—that will make for an interesting article this month.” So I showed Emma how to log on to our family Web site. How to create a new post. Gave her some ideas to get her going. Showed her how to tag her topics. Then I walked away, eager to spy from across the kitchen as her creative juices began flowing.

Instead, what I watched was a lot of index-finger hunting and pecking. I think her first entry was about 12 words long—and it took her 15 minutes. The reality was clear: My poor kid couldn’t type. And that was going to be a problem.

I flashed forward five years to a frustrated teenager hunched over her laptop, battling recalcitrant fingers that refused to find the right keys. What would happen if she still struggled to put her thoughts into words on the keyboard? Would she opt for less complex paper topics, fewer words, because typing was too frustrating? At what point, I wondered, would her teachers expect her to just magically pick up the skill?

Well, forget that. I sat down with Emma at the computer again, this time with a new agenda.

“This summer,” I told her, “you’re learning to type.”

So far, we’ve started with the basic beginner stuff. A lot of “ff jj fjf jfj” and so on. I’m using a site called www.FreeTypingGame.net, and she seems to like it. There are both lessons and games, and the site helps you set goals and skill levels. It even calculates your child’s word-per-minute score, so you can track progress. The point is the repetition of basic movements with the hands; you want the muscle memory to become so ingrained that eventually, when the brain thinks “s,” the hands move to the “s” key without thinking about where it is.

Another decent site is www.learninggamesforkids.com. As the name implies, they have a lot of typing games, but not as many lessons—and I think kids should have at least some practice in basic keyboarding before trying these out. Most of the games require a bit of skill, and the last thing you want is to add frustration.

I have to admit I’m not impressed with the way our schools approach the typing dilemma. On the one hand (no pun intended), they want students exposed to computers and computer skills as early as Kindergarten, which is a good thing. On the other hand, though, spelling at that age is rudimentary, and most young children’s hands aren’t developed enough to reach all the keys yet, so teaching typing the typical way can seem sort of pointless during early elementary school. Unfortunately, this means we’re ending up with a bunch of students who are really good at using computers badly. They’re learning that the ends of using the computer are more important than the means.

Tsk, tsk. Imagine a child learning to play the piano simply by being taught just the notes to a song. She’s expected to play that song so that it sounds right—but she isn’t taught how to hold her hands, what the notes are called, where they are, any of that. It doesn’t make sense.

Add to this problem the fact that many of our younger children are now texting with regularity, and you have a new set of bad habits to break. What happens when kids are more comfortable texting shorthand with their thumbs than typing properly on a full QWERTY keyboard?

I’d like to challenge our schools to put new emphasis on keyboarding instruction designed for today’s elementary school children. Surely there’s a way to encourage good habits, to lay the foundation for proper typing that kids can grow with as their dexterity improves. After all, if we’re going to require that they learn to use computers, we should require that they really learn to use them—keyboards and all.

In the meantime, I’ll stick with my online lessons and games. Hopefully, Emma can conquer some of her hunt-and-peck instincts and get a few good blog entries out this summer. I suppose, if her entries start to reach the multiple-paragraph point, you’ll know she’s learning.

Welcome back, my friends. This is the season of go-go-go, of speed-breakfasting, bus-catching, and teleporting between home and school and dance and soccer. This is the resurgence of 20-minute stand-up dinners, bedtime warnings, homework checking, and nag-nag-nag. This is that place where your hands are cuffed to iPhones and car keys, where you learn to juggle kids and spouses, work and dirty kitchens. This is the time of first-grade mobiles and second-grade book reports and third-grade TAKS tests and mountains of unfolded laundry. This is the familiar highway with no exits.

 

Thrilling, isn’t it?

 

Okay, I admit it: I do thrive a bit on this feeling of perpetual motion. It reminds me of when I worked in a real office, spinning a chair between my desk, the computer, the file cabinet, the phone, the white board, doing thirty things at once and feeling very important. Very productive. I still feel that way sometimes when I enter school dates into my Outlook calendar, check school lunch accounts online, then turn to my newly minted third grader and oversee her intense project of gluing dog kibble into a jelly jar lid, and turn back to the Web site I’m working on for a client. I feel like I am gettin’ it done, man. I’m going. I’m moving. I’m telling my two-year-old to pick up the forty yards of curling ribbon he just unspooled throughout the whole downstairs, and I’m making lunches, and I’m planning neighborhood parties by email. I am the productivity master.

 

Well, I thought I was. Then I heard this guy on the radio the other night, and he blew it for me. He said that all my multi-tasking, particularly multi-tasking that involves all my beloved tech devices, might boost some productivity, but it also could be hurting my brain. Apparently there are neurologists who are studying what happens to us when we over-connect and try to do too much at once, even if all we’re doing is checking a quick email while we’re waiting in the grocery checkout line. He said something about how we could be losing the ability to form memories. And our ability to truly focus. (Or something like that—I was only half listening, and I can’t recall what his precise words were.)

 

Anyway, what I do remember is that he had specific advice from the brain doctors about how to remedy the situation. We apparently need downtime. And not just any kind of downtime. We need off-the-grid, longer-than-three-day VACATIONS. Regularly, he said.

 

 

So, my friends, as you get back in the swing of things this school year, and you start to feel like a cartoonist would draw a caricature of you as a spider, all eight appendages affixed to some child or remote control or a frying pan or a homework assignment, remember this (if you haven’t yet lost the ability to remember): You need to take an honest-to-goodness break from time to time. Go camping with the family and (I’m chastising myself here) stop documenting it hour by hour on Facebook. Take a weekend trip with your husband where neither of you checks email once. Stop telling yourself you can’t schedule it in or feeling like you don’t deserve it. You absolutely can, and you completely do. After all, you’re hurting your brain—and by consequence, your family—if you overwhelm yourself with the influx of data that happens this time of year.

 

Now, you’ll never catch me saying our reliance on technology is bad, particularly as it makes so many things easier on a mom during the school year. And sometimes, for me, downtime is the ten minutes I spend reading the newsfeed on Facebook after four hours of looking at “real” work. I don’t have to digest the information. It’s okay if it goes in one ear and out the other. But like this guy on the radio said the other night, technology is like food. “We know that some food is Twinkies and some is Brussels sprouts. And we know that if we overeat, it causes problems,” he explained. “Similarly, after, say, 20 years of glorifying all technology as if all computers were good and all use of it was good, I think science is beginning to embrace the idea that some technology is Twinkies, and some technology is Brussels sprouts. And if we consume too much technology, just like if we consume too much food, it can have ill effects.”*

 

Makes sense, right? I think so. I’m going to make it my mission this school year to power down at least an hour a day and focus on one thing and one thing only for the entire 60 minutes.

 

And maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll sell my husband on this vacation theory.

 

 

 

 

(*For those who are interested, the radio program I’m referring to was the August 24th edition of “Fresh Air with Terri Gross” on NPR. Her guest was Matt Richtel, a technology reporter for the New York Times, who is currently doing several series involving the topic of “digital overload.” You can read the transcript of the show here: http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=129384107 )

 

I know it’s no laughing matter, but I have to admit I thought it was a little bit funny. I have this friend who just had her email hacked—after which every contact in her email address book (hundreds) received a mysterious message. The subject line simply read, “HELP!” And the body of the message relayed, in grammar and punctuation that was less than perfect but far from atrocious, that she was in crisis. It seemed she and her family, while on vacation in Scotland, had just been mugged at gunpoint. All wallets and tickets were stolen. They apparently had no help with their credit card companies, and now they couldn’t access enough money to purchase their new tickets back home. They needed some “financial assistance.”

To me, the message was blatantly fake. That might be due in part to the fact that my husband makes a living as a network security director. It might also be due to the fact that this particular friend is also my neighbor, and that very day, my mother-in-law was babysitting her children. I knew they weren’t on vacation anywhere, let alone in Scotland. Yet throughout the day, I received multiple calls, emails, and in-person questions from people who just needed to be sure this wasn’t real. My friend had the same experience; her cell and home phone practically rang off the hook all afternoon, largely from people she hadn’t spoken with in forever, who thought it was a hoax but were willing to help if it was real…but they weren’t certain.

That evening, as my friend and I sat with our husbands over a beer, we commiserated about this awful email hacking problem. We all know someone who’s been through it. The victims always wonder what they did wrong, why were they targeted, what do they cancel, and are they safe? My friends had to cancel numerous things, change email addresses, chide Google (who was rather unhelpful, to say the least), and generally step up security—it really was not funny. It was a violation.

Except, on one level, it was slightly comical: How ironic that, some 15 years after most of us ought to have formed a rather intimate relationship with communication via email, we still have just the tiniest smidge of difficulty discerning truth from fiction when corresponded with electronically.

Ah, email. You clever, handwriting-less, tone-less, ambiguous faux letter, you. You trick us with your convenience, your speed, your seeming efficiency. But how many times have we—as employees, friends, or family members—been just a teensy bit baffled at that double exclamation point, the random winky face, or that one correspondent who insists on using ALL CAPS? Is that anger we read? Humor? Condescension? Flirtation?

So, sure, I get it. You see an email from a close friend, or maybe just the agent who sold your house a few years ago, and it says, “HELP!” and begs you, in a roundabout, quasi-plausible way, for money. And it doesn’t tell you where to send it, and it seems…well, it’s Scotland. We’re in Southlake. It seems like a place that someone you know might go on summer vacation. More believable than, say, Nigeria? I don’t know. It’s just enough to confuse you. So you write back, and you ask, “Is this for real?”

And then they have you. Ta-da! They immediately follow up with instructions on how to get the money to them, maybe drop a few more tidbits they picked up from your personal profile on email, or the Facebook account they also hacked into, enough to convince you they’re legit, and they get $50 from Aunt Beatrice and $250 from your old college frat brother, and so on… and that’s how they do it.

There are several morals to this story:

1)      The cynics out there (ahem, my husband) will tell you first to never, ever use (or repeat) a simple, predictable password for any account you use online. You can download an application called a password manager that will randomly generate and then store all your passwords for you. You won’t ever have to create or remember a single one. I personally think this won’t do much to protect you from those who just buy illegal password databases on eBay (yes, they do that!) or the “bots” (the automated programs that spew out possible letter/number combinations between usernames and passwords until they reach a match), but I suppose it’s sound advice. Remember that a password broken in a “harmless” account can many times open a path to a more valued account. If you are ever hacked anywhere, change ALL of your passwords.

2)      Just as important as the whole password thing: Try not to check private accounts when you’re communicating over an unsecured network. I’m talking about that bookstore or coffeehouse with public WiFi when you’re on your laptop or cell phone. The walls have ears, if you catch my drift. Paranoia? Perhaps. I’ll let you talk to my friend about that.

3)      Tell all your friends, relatives, coworkers, and neighbors that you will never, ever send them an email asking for money if you are in a serious jam. That’s why we have cell phones, pay phones, police stations, and the like. If you’re a James Bond type and envision some dastardly scenario in which there’s a fraction of a chance you might EVER ask for cash by email, come up with a passphrase that only you and your close friends and family—you know, the ones you might actually go to in a pinch—will know. The hackers are getting better at their English grammar, and one day, they might confuse even the most cynical among us if we don’t have an extra safety measure in place.

4)      Trim your contact list. If you’re going to get hacked, do you really need the 800 people you emailed over the last 10 years to know about it? It’s not a Facebook friend count, it’s your address book. No prestige here, folks.

5)      Practice good email etiquette. If you are going to communicate by email, then learn how to write it and read it. Believe it or not, there are entire books written on the subject. Because we cannot gauge handwriting or hear voices, we have to rely on the visual in email: punctuation, capital letters, the use of images, and so on. Establish an email identity for yourself that’s uniquely yours—akin to the way you’d wave your hands while telling a story, or dot your i’s and cross your t’s. The people you correspond with will learn how to understand your tone by your consistency, and they’ll never confuse you with a spam artist.

All the security stuff aside, I should mention that I’m writing this from Brazil, where I happen to have misplaced my purse, and I was wondering… could you send me some money for a 5-star hotel?

When I was a little girl, my family drove everywhere. My parents revered all things practical and efficient, and cars fit the bill perfectly. They got you where you were going, they were much less expensive than airline tickets, and—unlike buses or trains—they enabled you to remain in control of your own journey. It didn’t matter that there were four of us and a dog crammed in a company Chrysler with lousy air conditioning for an 850-mile jaunt in July. It didn’t matter that my father usually had to draw an invisible line down the middle of the backseat in order to keep my brother and I from tormenting each other. In my family, cheap always triumphed over comfort.

And so, over the many years of driving between Texas and Colorado, or Texas and South Dakota, or Texas and Florida, I learned to love road trips. My brother and I became experts at entertaining ourselves over long stretches of plains and nothingness. We mastered the license plate game. We could outwit our parents at 20 Questions. We drew flip book cartoons and recreated Peanuts comics. We napped. We quoted our favorite Bill Cosby jokes back and forth, cracking ourselves up no matter how many times we’d heard the punch lines. Sometimes, we actually just sat there, staring out our respective windows, and enjoyed each other’s quiet company.

As we got older, our entertainment changed. We started to pack more travel games, those mini magnetic favorites like Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit. We packed a tape recorder and microphone, and we pretended to host our own radio show. And eventually, I had my yellow Sony Walkman, and my brother had one, too, and we made mix tapes to take with us on the road—little soundtracks of what mattered to us at that point in time, marking our ages and places in the world. I still can’t hear “Summer of ‘69” or “The Power of Love” without remembering the feel of the cold car window glass against my cheek, with my legs tucked under me, watching fields of dry brown grass fly by in neat rows.

I know some people think things have changed. Today’s road-tripping kids pack video games and DVD players, or iPhones or even laptops. They don’t know how to play dots and boxes on scraps of paper. There’s this idea that all our gadgetry has separated us and robbed our kids of what made our own childhoods special.

I don’t buy that for a second.

When we road trip (and with a family of five, boy, do we road trip), my kids still fight over who gets what spot in the backseat. We still have to draw lines and threaten to pull the car over. Video games or iPhone games, it doesn’t matter—the kids still play games together. And they still have those quiet moments with their iPods and headphones on, listening to movies or books or songs that they get to choose, words that mean something to them and that will forever be tied to the view rolling by outside. In many ways, as we start incorporating our personal devices into our travels, travel actually becomes more personal.

I actually pity the people who fly everywhere, who don’t know what it’s like to be confined in a single small space with your family, away from the world outside, forced to take time slowly. Unlike the short plane ride, the road trip is part of the vacation. Which is why, when everyone is buckled in, when we at last hit the highway, the air itself seems infused with anticipation, with the inevitable question, “Are we there yet?” And which is why, when the answer is no, we’re not entirely disappointed.

Someone recently forwarded my husband a link to an episode of “South Park” where the primary topic is Facebook. Now, I’m sure there are many who take offense at “South Park” humor, but I admit, I’m a fan. (For those not in the know, I’m talking about an animated TV show on Comedy Central, whose main characters are adolescent boys living in the fictional town of South Park, Colorado. The show is known for its, shall we say, satire and vulgarity. I’ll leave it at that.)

I don’t watch “South Park” anymore, but I did in my post-college/pre-kid days. So of course, I had to turn around and look at my husband’s laptop the second I started hearing it play the familiar voices of Cartman, Stan, and Kyle. And then I couldn’t stop watching. It was typical South Park humor, and fairly hilarious—but it was the subject matter that got me thinking.

Here’s a recap from the popular social media guide Mashable:

The episode, titled “You Have 0 Friends,” captured perfectly how obsessive Facebook can be. Stan, the lone child not yet on FB, is forced to join at the behest of his friends, which leads his girlfriend to jealously pour over his profile (we’ve all been there) and his father to insist that he add every one of his relatives — and to “poke” his grandma.

When he deletes his profile out of frustration… well… let’s just say he probably should have opened an Entrustet account. Meanwhile, Kyle friends a FB loser, which leads to a steady stream of unfriending and a breakdown of sorts.

Now if that doesn’t get your interest as an avid Facebooker and mom, I don’t know what will. I started wondering how I would act if my children wanted—or, later on, didn’t want—to join Facebook. Would I monitor every second and action? Would I let them friend people I didn’t know personally? Better yet, would I let them see my page—my sacred outlet and connection to the world? Would I make them friend my friends, or would my friends friend them without telling me, and then they’d become confidantes without my knowledge? Ah, what a mess.

And how would my kids act? Would they judge themselves or others by their number of friends? Would I judge them?

Honestly, I have no idea. I personally (and thankfully) feel all three of my children are way too young right now at 2, 6, and 8. But it seems that, when it comes to kids and technology, our standards of acceptance fluctuate a great deal as social norms change. So I put on my reporter hat and posted a note on my wall, trying to round up insight from my mom friends who already had kids on Facebook.

I asked them how old was old enough for Facebook, and how young is too young? I asked about parental supervision, and about how much they share their own details with their children. Finally, I wanted to know if moms thought their kids shared the same notion of the meaning of “friends” on Facebook.

I have to say, I got some really thought-provoking and wise responses.

Regarding age and Facebook, most of my friends found it appropriate and somewhat unavoidable for a child to have his own profile somewhere between the 9 and 11 year old range. As one mom cautioned, though, “It depends on each child and their maturity level.” She monitors each of her children differently, according to their personality. Sage advice.

Most of the moms also agreed that regular and complete monitoring of a child’s FB page is necessary. And it’s not just a matter of safety—it’s about reputation. “Anything that I should not be seeing,” reminds one mother, “college recruiters or future employers should not be seeing as well.” How far should you go in administering the security of your child’s page? Pretty far—and fortunately, Facebook makes it easy to control privacy settings down to a very specific level. One friend of mine offered this description of her involvement in monitoring her children’s pages: “I am the one that set up their accounts and set their passwords (which they do not know). They are logged in on their laptops but cannot log in anywhere else, including friend’s houses, etc. and cannot make any administrative changes. Only friends can see their pages (not friends of friends).” She takes it a step further by having her children understand that the use of Facebook is a privilege to be earned, stating that she “can temporarily deactivate their account for any reason, such as bad test scores, not doing chores, etc.” (Good thinking—that would certainly motivate me!)

My friends were a bit split on whether or not to let their kids see their own pages, however. One mom who is very active on Facebook and who, like me, uses it in a rather cathartic blogging kind of way, said no outright. She doesn’t want to edit herself, which I can understand. Another mom, though, wholeheartedly supported her children seeing everything on her page. “If it isn’t appropriate,” she wrote, “then I probably shouldn’t be writing/saying/posting it in the first place. If it is private, then I send a message.” I also agree. Still… I am possessive of my page. Already, I can see myself creating an alter ego with a separate profile….but I digress.

One of my biggest concerns personally with young kids on Facebook is that they don’t think of the idea of “friend” in the same way we parents do. This is readily obvious when you go to, for example, a parent’s page and find they have in the neighborhood of 100-300 friends, on average—and then you look at the pages of high school students, and they typically have upwards of 700. Could it be they have that many actual friends? Not likely. Most of us moms who discussed the topic agreed that kids on FB tend to accept any (and sometimes every) acquaintance in the world as a FB friend for the purpose of driving up the count, whereas parents tend to be more discerning. Says one mom, “I have ignored people who I didn’t really know that well.” Same goes for me—and I admit that I also tend not to seek out people I work with on a regular basis. The Facebook side of me is not, ahem, always that productive. (And that’s what LinkedIn is for!)

But what does it say that our kids are equating friends with acquaintances? Or that they, like the South Park kids, are judging each other based on their friend counts? I think these trends simply point to the evolution of semantics and normalcy that comes with changing social media technology. Facebook makes it so easy to speak in shorthand and to connect immediately that we can be tempted to over-connect if we’re not careful. Moms need to help their kids see that Facebook, like most social arenas in life, is a place to exercise moderation and good judgment. And moms also need to understand that the openness of the forum can present many new opportunities for disturbing behavior, including cyberbullying. It’s our job as parents to educate ourselves about the reality of the Facebook world.

All this said, most of my mom friends agreed that Facebook is still a wonderful invention that brings us closer to friends, family, and neighbors. I’ve used it many times to host impromptu gatherings, schedule random playdates, bump into friends when we realize we’re out and about in the same place at the same time. Lots of moms are using it to keep tabs on their kids, but also to play games with them and “meet” the people with whom their children spend time—which can sometimes be more informative online than in person (because online we can peek at their profiles!).

Is it an easy and well-defined road to walk? Probably not. And I have a few years before I’ll be on it. But I’m thankful, in the meantime, to have my Facebook mom connections to guide me. Who knows where I’d be without them! In fact, I better go post that in my status…

Last year, my oldest daughter turned seven—and, if you recall my article here on SouthlakeMoms.com, she desperately wanted an iPhone. Tech freaks though we are in this house, we ended up saying no. The poor girl didn’t know how to make phone calls yet, so what was the point in getting the fanciest cell phone out there? Instead, she got a regular old phone that plugs in the wall, which thrilled her. For a while.

 

Times change, as do little girls. And moms.

 

For a year, my daughter practiced making and receiving phone calls, and she proved herself pretty responsible—with one small exception, when she left her phone plugged in during a party at our house and someone’s child (we don’t know whose) apparently called 911. (Yes, the police paid us a visit.) At any rate, she learned how to dial the numbers, how to politely address adults who answer the phone, and how to ask for her friends. (We’re still working on the finer points of ending a phone conversation. Apparently second graders, like characters in movies, like hanging up directly when they’re finished talking.)

 

This year, for her eighth birthday, my daughter scaled down her request and asked only for an iPod Touch. (Only. Sigh.) Yet, despite the cost, we felt this was now do-able for her age and the effort she had made over the year to increase responsibility. (And we were excited about one fewer kid in our house asking to play on our phones every minute. Even our two year old son wants in on the action.)

 

Then my husband had his genius idea. Turns out he was due for an upgrade on his iPhone. He could get himself the latest model for $199—exactly the cost of the Touch. Meanwhile, his old phone, when deactivated, still offered WiFi connectivity and could play apps and music. In other words, we could give our daughter what she wanted (essentially a Touch), and it wouldn’t cost us a dime. (Or at least not a dime my husband wouldn’t have spent anyway!) And the best part? It’s still an iPhone! When she is ready, my daughter will now have a cell phone that can easily be reactivated on our family plan.

 

The most brilliant aspect of this gift, however, is what she is now doing with it: connecting with her parents in a new way. I recently became addicted to the app called Words with Friends. For those who haven’t yet played, it’s just Scrabble on your iPhone. Plain and simple. No fancy music or graphics. You get your letter tiles, you make your words, you get a score. And now, equipped with her iPhone/Touch gizmo, my daughter is playing Scrabble with her parents every chance she gets.

 

I have fond memories of board games with my parents when I was a child, Scrabble among them. There was something elevating about being able to compete with people you hold in high esteem, largely because it means they hold you in high esteem. It means you are growing up. Becoming worthy. The problem nowadays? Finding the time to actually sit around a table to play a game like this, start to finish. I’m sure plenty of families do manage this, but our kitchen table seems to spend more hours serving as a laundry holding and folding zone than it does as a meal location. Between my work, my husband’s work, the distraction of a two year old son, and the older girls’ activities, our best efforts at family time often fall short. So I am thrilled to find another way to share something with my daughter that lends convenience, educates her, and speaks to the fact that we are among changing generations. Words with Friends might sound like a cheesy way to connect with your child, but it works for us. We can both start games whenever we choose, take our time on turns, swap knowing smiles when one of us gets a new word and sends it on—it’s just good fun. My daughter is even playing Scrabble games with other kids that have iPhones or Touches now. Try coordinating that on a family game night!

 

I should mention there’s a downside here. We have another daughter about to have a birthday. She’s only turning six. And now she wants a deactivated iPhone, too. Good thing I’m also due for an upgrade.

 

Several weeks ago at the bookstore, while waiting on kids and poking lazily through the new releases table, I found a title that intrigued me: The iConnected Parent. I grabbed it because I thought it was one of those diatribes against technology and children, and I always get a kick out of seeing how people think my precious gadgets are undermining my family values.

 

Well, you know what they say about judging and book covers. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the selection was not subjective, but rather a research-based account from Dr. Barbara Hofer, a professor of psychology at Middlebury, and Abigail Sullivan Moore, a journalist on various adolescent topics for The New York Times. The subject? An interesting phenomenon occurring between today’s uber-wired kids and their parents when the kids leave home for college.

 

The twist is that the authors weren’t looking at how children were over-using technology or frying their brains; they were looking at how parents—having become accustomed to communicating with their children anytime, anywhere—are having a harder time letting go when kids fly the nest. They were curious to see how our new forms of constant connection might affect a child’s ability to become independent at a time when, traditionally, independence is the ultimate four-year degree.

 

Before I go any further, I want to state that I haven’t yet read this book in its entirety. I intend to, but (shockingly) I haven’t had time. I have, however, read about the book in several locations, and I’ve read interviews with the authors. And frankly, I’m fascinated by the subject because I have three young children of my own. It comes down to this: If they are writing about what today’s college students are facing thanks to ubiquitous cell phones and the ease of email, what on Earth will go on when my own kids are headed out the door? Today’s freshmen didn’t grow up watching SpongeBob on the iPad, Skyping between upstairs and downstairs, or texting each other at age six while sitting on the same sofa.

 

What am I in for?

 

Back in my day…

 

When I left home for college in the fall of 1992, 18-year-olds did not have cell phones. Most did not have laptops. I had never heard of email. I took with me a Smith-Corona word processor, which I thought was pretty darn cool, plus a bunch of boxes and a bicycle. I flew from DFW to the San Francisco airport, and in a matter of hours, I was in a new world and a new time.

 

When I checked in with my mom and dad later that evening, I did so with a hasty call on a corded white telephone with large black number buttons. I remember that phone well. Over the course of my first year away from home—a year that saw so many changes for me and for my family—that black and white phone was how we stayed connected. In fact, with the exception of a few care packages and cards, and one or two in-person visits, that phone was the only way we stayed in touch. We spoke maybe two or three times a week.

 

Through that phone, on an October evening, I delivered the news that I wasn’t going pre-med after all. A killer organic chemistry midterm dashed my hopes and drove me to new studies. Through that phone, I was summoned home rather abruptly for Spring Break when I hadn’t been planning on going home at all, only to learn when I arrived that my mother had breast cancer. Through that phone two months later, on my birthday, I called to check on my mother and heard her weak voice trying to sound something other than pained as she—prostrate on the bathroom floor with chemo nausea—wished me a happy day. And through that phone, I immediately called a florist and had get-well flowers delivered; it was a pathetic attempt to offer relief and love from across an unbearable distance.

 

Constant Contact Generation

 

Needless to say, things are different these days. Most kids who leave for college look like they just robbed Best Buy and the Apple store. But more important than the devices they bring with them is the way kids and parents have come to depend on those devices for round-the-clock portable communication with each other. Moms can check up on their children by cell phone, by email, by calling professors, Skyping, Facebooking, logging on to school grade systems. And rather than look for their own answers, kids can contact moms and dads so easily for any kind of question imaginable.

 

Let’s look at some of the findings from the group studied by Hofer and Moore in The iConnected Parent:

 

  • On average, students and parents communicated with each other 13.4 times per week; the students were initiating the contact almost as frequently as the parents. (To put that in perspective, that’s almost twice a day, every day of the week. For some, it was even more often.)
  • Conversations were mostly between kids and their moms, and this did not vary by socioeconomic status or other variables. (It’s interesting to note, though, that almost a quarter of the research group indicated they’d like more contact with their fathers.)

 

After I read these statistics, two questions came to mind immediately. First, what on Earth are they communicating about every day? And second, is it a badthing for kids to be so in touch with their parents?

 

Hofer and Moore looked at these questions as well, and they found there was an apparent link between how often students and parents communicated, what they talked about, and how the students felt about their control over their lives away from home. In an online interview with Inside Higher Ed on September 10 of this year, Hofer explained:

“Some of these students have parents who are using the calls to continue regulating their [students’] behavior as they did in high school, reminding them what and when to study, for example, and these students are the least satisfied with the parental relationship, describing it as controlling and conflictual. Others report a ‘best friend’ phenomenon with their parents, wanting to talk to them daily to tell them everything that is going on, and these students seem to be trading off autonomy for closeness. By contrast, there are families with moderate contact who have learned how to maintain a connection but in healthy ways that permit growing independence of thought and behavior.”[i]

 

So the long and short of it is that parents are tempted to use 24/7 contact options like email and cell phones to stay on top of what a child is doing while away at college, much the same way they did while the child lived at home and went to high school. While this is an admirable thing—to want to see your child succeed and help them manage the often daunting workload—this is not always what a child wants. Nor is it what we have traditionally allowed to transpire when kids leave home. They need to make mistakes and learn to handle responsibilities. If we interfere too much in this process, we risk robbing them of valuable life skills and lessons. And frankly, I think we go against what we, as parents, have been guiding them towards since the day each child was brought into this world: independence.

 

Hofer and Moore also found that students were equally guilty of running back to their parents for assistance with schoolwork or other problems. The less independent kids would sometimes email papers back to Mom and Dad for a final check before turning them in—which some students and professors thought of as cheating, while other students, according to Moore, “simply saw it as one more resource to which they had access.”[ii] And this dependence didn’t always end when students graduated from college. Says Moore:

 

“The close connection between parents and their college students carries over into the work force, with parents accompanying kids to interviews or trying to help negotiate salaries. Parents are also pushing the boundaries of standard business etiquette. For example, in lieu of a spouse or significant other, some young employees bring their mom to the office holiday party, summer barbecue or on a business trip. One young employee got reprimanded for spending too much time on Facebook while at work. His excuse? He had to respond constantly to mom’s comments via Facebook.”[iii]

 

Really? I’m not sure I buy the excuse, but I can see how there would undoubtedly be some weird, new response instinct that forms when parents and children have years of experience communicating via instant social media. Your phone dings at you—and you know you have a comment to reply to, a text message to reply to… how do you ignore it? Should you ignore it? After all, it’s Mom.

 

Building self-sufficiency in a wired age

 

In The iConnected Parent, Hofer and Moore offer some valid suggestions—based on research—about how to avoid some of the traps that today’s round-the-clock technology has set for us. Here are some of their tips:

 

  • Be mindful of who is initiating communication: let your child take the lead. If your child sounds annoyed when you call, back off.
  • Before you pick up the phone, decide who will benefit from this call: you or your child.
  • Give your kids space to lead their own lives at college, and know the boundaries. Respect their privacy.
  • Know how to recognize and respond to venting. Listen, but don’t rush to problem solve.
  • Don’t be afraid to let your kids stumble or be unhappy temporarily.[iv]

 

I’m still baffled by how this will unfold for my children. They are so young, with so many years ahead of them for even newer forms of communication to emerge. Ultimately, I think I have to ask myself what “independence” means today, and what it will mean in the future. Is it a state of emotional well-being, where kids are mentally prepared to handle life’s challenges on their own? Is it the maturity to know when to go it alone and when to seek help? Is it the ability to cram seven whole days into a one weekly phone call with the parental units—and feel okay with the idea of not sharing every little thing?

 

In all honesty, I think it’s a realistic combination of all these things, and it’s something that parents start practicing very early, when we are forced to make difficult decisions regarding discipline. That’s because, as I see it, discipline is a thing that reminds parents that we, too, must learn to be independent from our children from time to time. We, too, must make hard choices on our own—and it’s not always easy.

 

Here’s an example. When I was almost four years old, my friend Emmy and I thought it would be tremendous fun if we “washed” her mother’s good dining room chairs with shaving cream. They had blonde-toned straw seats, and the shaving cream felt delicious as it squished between the coarse strands.

 

Until Emmy’s mom walked in and caught us in the act.

 

I don’t remember what she said or did, but I remember fleeing like a bandit with Emmy on our Big Wheels. We pedaled frantically over the gravel driveway and down the cul de sac to my house, where we went into hiding.

 

I often reflect on this stigma from my past. What did Emmy’s mother say? Did she tell my mother? What did my mother say? I’m curious, of course, because I now have a three-year-old who is quite capable of committing such an act (or worse), and I wonder what I would do in the same situation. Laugh it off? Ground someone? In my memory, I can only recall looking for a safe place. I wanted to find my mom and some comfort because I was scared of getting into trouble, even if my mom was the one punishing me. Did my mom and Emmy’s mom allow anger, frustration, and love to coexist peacefully?

 

To me, this is the toughest parental challenge: teaching independence without sacrificing the idea of home, of safety, of Mom and her apron strings. We want our kids to learn right from wrong, how to stand on their own two feet, but at the same time, we know there will never come a time when we wouldn’t offer a hug to a child in need of one. I’m 36 years old, and I still need hugs from my mom. We call, and we email, and sometimes it’s mundane. But it’s always meaningful. When you leave home, after all, you don’t go back. Whatever conversation exists beyond that point is not just the entrance to a new relationship—it is the relationship.

 

So why didn’t anyone tell me that the last night I spent in my bedroom before leaving for college would be my last actual night as a child in the home of my parents? At the time, it just seemed like I was going to sleep on the night before a trip. I was merely packing and moving some things, getting on a plane to California, and heading to a different school. No one pulled me aside and said, “Hey, you do realize this is it, right?” No one asked me if I was ready. I didn’t know it was time to be ready. I wasn’t sure what I would need to be ready for.

 

I think that’s how independence washes over us, like a slow and subtle sunrise; it isn’t until the sky is fully light that we realize the darkness has disappeared. We can’t pinpoint the moment that it happened, or how we felt, but it takes place nonetheless, and there is no turning back. I didn’t begin a transition to independence on that morning I left for college. I began 18 years earlier, learning day by day by day how to walk that fine line between “I need you” and “I’ll do it myself.”

 

That line doesn’t end. We never completely sever the apron strings. I think—whether they are phone cords or Ethernet cables—we’re okay if we just untie the strings and let them dangle, loose enough to be unrestricting, but easy to grab onto when we all need something to hold.

 

[i] http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/09/10/hofer (Golden, 2010)

[ii] Ibid.

 

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

School is now in session. Let the chaos begin!

 

Mind you, I’m not just talking about school mayhem. Some of you, like me, have extended obligations beyond your children to include “paying” work, volunteer commitments, and community involvement—all of which seems to pick up in September. And maybe a few of you, also like me, have some trouble saying no to activities. It’s not because you feel cornered by the people who ask for help. It’s because you want to be out there, doing things. You want to meet people and put your hard-earned skills to use.

 

The problem? You can end up overwhelmed with scheduling hassles and numerous deadlines when school season begins anew. First-time school moms might really feel the pain, as they struggle to find new balance between work, family, school, and self.

 

I’m not one of those people with a built-in clock for dealing with my many chores. I need help. (Ask anyone who knows me.) And over the years, I’ve learned that without the right strategies for managing my time, I will lose sight of what’s going on. Allow me to share a few tips on how everyday tech tools can help you tackle this new school year full-force.

 

  1. Put it on the calendar. When I was a little kid, I loved using those teachers planning books. As I got older, I tried migrating to a DayRunner. But I was awful at writing things down. And, as with handbags, I acquired too many planners—and never had what I needed when I needed it. Nowadays, I stick purely to my Outlook calendar on my laptop and my iPhone, as I’ve mentioned before. It’s worth mentioning again, simply because Outlook is one of those things that gives your schedule portability. Google and Yahoo also have portable calendars you can access from phone, laptop, or desktop. Wherever you are, keep a calendar within reach. When you are handed an important date—and this is the key part—put it in the calendar right away. Your computer and phone will sync later, and your calendar will be updated everywhere. If you’re the one booking an event, use your calendar application—or even Evite, if you’re throwing a big shindig—to send invitations to others involved. It’s a great way to track RSVPs or meeting attendees. Plus you can be green and save paper!

 

  1. Make a big to-do. Whether I’m feeling overwhelmed or totally in control, I always make a list of what’s on my plate every day. In fact, I’m so ridiculously in love with lists, that I sometimes make lists of my lists. I do them on paper that I carry in my purse, or I type them on the computer and print them out. There’s just something about seeing what I have to do in numbered order in front of me that makes it all more manageable. And there’s no greater satisfaction than crossing off that last item. (I even make lists for my husband.) Another great thing about Outlook (Microsoft should be paying me right now) is that it offers a “Task” function where you can manage to-do’s with timelines, categories, and more. The application sorts lists whichever way you choose and reminds you when due dates approach. I find this handy when trying to juggle unrelated things like school pictures, work deadlines, homework assignments, board meetings, and teacher luncheons. And yes, the popup reminders go through to my iPhone, so wherever I am, I am not allowed to forget.

 

  1. Use Web sites and email lists. This being 2009, most organizations and schools now offer information on their Web sites, updated regularly. Many also make use of email newsletters to communicate important items. Sign yourself up! Instead of wondering when things happen or who’s in charge of what, use these resources to answer questions quickly—even during non-business hours. And, as the person managing several local organizational Web sites and email lists, let me also say this: If you find a site or newsletter isn’t useful, doesn’t answer your questions, or isn’t updated often enough, please let the responsible group know. Feedback is very useful in making things more user-friendly. Be aware, though, that most of the people behind these resources are volunteers. We do what they can, when we can—and we could use help if you’re savvy! Incidentally, if you weren’t aware, CISD has a weekly eNews list. <Sign up here.>< http://www.southlakecarroll.edu/cisd-news.aspx>

 

  1. Don’t throw caution to the wind. As you get immersed in the multitasking thing, watch out for cell phone calls and texting while driving. True, it can be tempting to conduct business at every moment to save precious minutes, but don’t let the need to be prompt or to know everything supersede your need for safety—especially if your most precious cargo is in the car. Remember, Southlake now bans all cell phone usage while driving in school zones. Put your phones down in the car!

 

  1. Forgive yourself. No matter what, you cannot do everything. There will always come a time when you have to say no to something you wish you could tackle, but do with it the understanding that you’re making the right decision from a time-management perspective, from a family perspective, or from a personal perspective. You don’t do anyone any favors when you let the ball drop because you bit off more than you could chew. Know your limitations, and live, happily, within them. Reassess your schedule from time to time. And if you make a mistake, own up to it, forgive yourself, and move on.

 

  1. Turn yourself off. Remember that, like an overloaded computer system, you too can crash. Power off for a while. Give yourself the opportunity to feel obligation-free for at least a few minutes—if not hours—every day. Sometimes the best technology is the button that turns on your Jacuzzi or your blender. If you feel like you’re spending too much time on the kids’ schedules or in front of a screen, try carving out some hours for community activities or to simply visit with other adults—your friends, your spouse, whoever keeps you sane. Most neighborhoods in Southlake offer social gatherings for women and men every month. I know mine has groups for bingo, bunco, book club, and more. Check your neighborhood Web site for details.

 

Don’t deny yourself the opportunity to be a full member of your community or school, or to branch out into some type of work (or pursue advancement in your current career), simply because you’re afraid of scheduling conflicts or overload. With the right tactics in play, you can take on the world. Or at least look like you can. And sometimes, the appearance of control is just as effective as the real thing.