Thursday, August 27, 2015

Getting The Perfect 1st Day of School Picture

If you’ve got kids, you’ve got to post the perfect first day of school picture on Facebook / Twitter/ Instagram/ Periscope.  You’re little sweety waving & smiling as they board the bus. Or blowing you a kiss thru the car window. Hanging up their backpack in the perfectly neat row of cubbies in their new classroom. And then a mom and kid pic – you smiling with your trying to look like you woke up like that make-up on, hair combed and a clean blouse and cute still-summer shorts.

As if the first day of school isn’t stressful enough!

Because this is probably the first day in almost two months that you’ve had to wake up your whole family before 8 am.  And if you are lucky enough to have high schoolers, you’ve had to get up at the break of dawn. Then you had to pack lunches, and realized that since you went to the grocery store last week, the kids ate all the snack bags of chips over the weekend and handed out the juice boxes to their friends at the pool.  And where are all those dang forms, especially the one that proves your kid got his measles shot this summer so they will let him in the school door?

You spent a mortgage payment on back-to-school clothes, but the little one refuses to wear the new outfit you picked out – the identical pink dress or red and blue striped shirt that they wear every year so that it looks so cute in the scrapbook on the “how they are growing” page. Instead, they want to wear their favorite summer movie t-shirts, so your daughter is wearing a Minion t-shirt and overalls with fake black glasses and your son is wearing a Straight Outta Compton t-shirt and jeans and won’t smile.

And they changed what time everyone goes to school this year, pushing it back 15 minutes – just enough to screw up your schedule, but not really enough time to get any sleep that makes a difference – and changed the bus routes, so you actually have to check the bus route schedule this year for the bus your kids have been riding for 6 years to figure out what time its coming.  But what mom worth her coffee puts her kids on the bus on the first day of school, so you’ve got to drive them to the door to prove to everyone that you aren't one of those free-range willy-nilly parents.

But before you load up the kids in the car, you’ve got to fix your hair and swipe on some lipstick and put on a real clothes. You cannot do the in-pajamas drop-off today because you know that other mom in your kid’s class is going to be there in an outfit that matches her kid’s, with a full face of make-up, unchipped manicure and hair fresh from the salon.  She’ll be there with that cute-sy sign she made stealing an idea from Pinterest, a chalkboard with cute-sy lettering announcing the first day of school and the new grade. (She also wrote a funny haiku for her kid’s lunchbox, you’ll hear about that from your little on after school.)

There's just enough time to pour coffee in your car mug, search for the top, get the kids to stand on the front steps and not poke each other.  Try to get a couple good shots of them smiling without making those goofy faces they usually do when you pull out a camera, but they never do when they are taking selfies.  Hurry to school and try to get towards the front of that nightmare of a drop-off circle. And before the teacher on drop-off duty blows her whistle at you, you snap a couple more pictures of the kids in front of the school before they see their friends and you get one last picture of the back of their heads as they run into the school.  Waving from the curb is the PTA President and if you make eye contact for too long, she’s going to ask you to chair the fall festival bake sale or to join the healthy food committee, so you wave, jump back in the car, and knock over your coffee onto your nice clean outfit.

Now to get home, flip through the morning pics, and find that one good picture of your lovely darlings and try to think of something new and catchy to say, but its been too hectic a morning for all that so you’ll just go with “first day of school – when did they get so big – tears” like everyone else.

Whew. Relax. Finish your coffee and clean up breakfast. In six hours, it’ll be time for the “home from the first day of school” picture.

Happy Back-to-School Day!

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Thursday, August 20, 2015

How to Get Thru the Parent Homework (i.e. back-to-school paperwork)

My desk (i.e. kitchen counter) is full of papers and calendars and reminders and notices.  All stuff that has to be read and filled out and returned for school and extra-curricular activities.  With four kids in three different schools (elementary, middle and high school) there’s quite the assortment and very few duplicates.  I’ve piled it all up and will sit with a cup of coffee, my calendars, checkbook (you know that's got to be in there), envelopes, and folders and sort it all out.  It’s all part of the back-to-school parent routine.

For all the forms required for school, a copy machine and/or scanner is one of my favorite tools for trying to keep some order.  I copy everything!
  • Health forms - At your kids' pediatrician appointments, ask for the school required paperwork then, especially the sports clearances, even if you think your child will never play a sport.  Make a copy and send this to school when requested; save the original at home.  This saves the trouble of going back to the pediatrician (and paying for another copy plus a rush fee) when needed.  Its also helpful to have one on hand when I need to know when was their last tetanus shot.
  • Emergency forms - How many times can you write your name, address, and phone number?! If you have kids in the same school with the same forms, fill in the basics – home address, parent phone number, etc. – make copies of the form, then fill in each child’s name, teacher, other personal info on his/her copy.  Make a copy of all of them and file them away, just in case it gets "lost" (middle-schoolers especially are known to lose important papers in their backpacks). 
  • Absent/tardy notes.  I have a pre-printed, fill-in absent/tardy note that I created myself, a version for each child.  Pre-printed is the child’s name, teacher’s name (for the elementary students; blank for the middle-schoolers), my name and contact information.  Then I have a check-off list of why they were absent or late, why they need to be excused early, and a blank for anything else I need to mention.  They are especially handy when we’re running late – who has time to write a note?
Dear Teacher....

And all those checks?  I probably go through a whole checkbook in the month of September - PTA dues, lunch money, early quarter field trips, payments for year-end field trips, sports uniforms, spiritwear.  I know my kids and there's no way that I can hand them a pile of checks and expect that they will get to  the correct person in the correct office.  Each check and accompanying paper goes into its own clearly marked envelope.  

Considering the mountain of paper involved in back-to-school, I do try to recycle and reduce paper uses as much as I can.  A few ways, other than putting all the stuff I don't need in the recycling bin:
  • Make 2-sided copies
  • Print the absent/tardy notes on the backs of unneeded documents (old flyers, notices from school, rough drafts of school assignments)
  • Use those payment envelopes that come with the bills to send checks back to school
  • Write any necessary responses to a note on that same paper, rather than on a separate paper
Sometime during that first week of school, I make a pile for each kid, then paperclip it, put it in an envelope or put it in their homework folder, then wish them a safe journey and assume that they will make it to the appropriate school office.

This post has been updated from a previous post I wrote a few years ago.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

11 Tips For the College Freshmen

This spring, my mailbox was full of high school graduation notices and now the Facebook farewell and off to college posts have begun.  And mine are not too far off (I’m still trying to wrap my brain around my oldest starting her junior year in high school in a few days.)

While the kids are unpacking and the parents writing checks and shedding tears, here’s my advice as they head off on into those hallowed halls of education.  I’m posting 11 points, in no particular order, but I’m sure I’ll think of 25 more afterwards, but it’s a start.

Watch out for the “freshman 15”. It’s real. It’s not even that campus food is so great that you eat mega-proportions. It’s that there is food available all the time. Either in unlimited amounts because you are on some kind of 24-7 meal plan or you pay in these invisible points that seem to magically replenish themselves on your dining card (thank your parents.) So you end up eating a sundae every night. And by winter break, none of your clothes fit. And when you look in the mirror, those baby fat cheeks are back. Eat with some sense, walk to class, go to the gym.

Be aware of your surroundings and who surrounds you. This is particularly for the girls, but an equally good message for the boys. I remember so many “she was drunk” and “she left without her friends” stories ending badly. No, this isn’t about blaming the victim – but you really need to do your best to not put yourself in questionable situations. So, I’m going to go out on a limb and say, yes, in college you might have a few alcoholic beverages. That doesn’t mean you have to be the girl who guzzles the whole keg or does a dozen shots of vodka faster than any of the guys (same applies to the boys.)  It won’t be pretty, at best. Be careful and mindful, always.

Use your electives to explore that thing you really want to learn.  You’re going to have to take a gazillion required credits, make your elective something fun, something that stretches you a little bit in a different direction. I took Ice Skating as one of mine, as well as literature.  This is where you learn to love learning. It will also give you a break from your regular thinking.

Be open to a “stranger” as a roommate. Back in the olden days, you found out who your roommate was sometime mid-summer and then you could write them a letter or call them to introduce yourself and figure out who was bringing the fridge. But you were pretty much stuck with that person. My niece is heading off to college and has already talked to her roommate, friended her on Facebook, knows all about the girl and even has the option to switch to a different stranger.  My sophomore roommate was a girl I didn't know, was a different religion and I was a bit nervous how that would work out. Though it took her all of fall semester to convince me that pepperoni was pork, we grew to be great friends.  Take a chance, embrace a new potential friend.

Join something. A sports team, the choir, glee club, student government, cultural club, something tied to your major, sorority or fraternity – there’s so many choices on any college campus.  Embrace one of your passions or try out something absolutely new.  You’ll meet more people, have a wider range of experiences, and continue to grow.  Some of them will turn into life time commitments (I just celebrated twenty-six year membership in my sorority) or at least a great cache of memories.

Study abroad. Travel and exploring new lands and places is such a wonderful experience. If you can’t afford it, because it can be more than your regular tuition, check with the financial aid office or someone in your college and ask about scholarships or financial aid. Some colleges also offer study elsewhere in the U.S., so if you’re in school in New York, you can spend a semester in California instead – that counts, too! I never did this, it’s one of my biggest college regrets, and one I hope to be able to afford for my kids.

Get a job. No, really, get a job.  Then open a bank account.  College is expensive, even if you are on financial aid or scholarship, there are still more expenses.  Show your parents that you’re making some efforts to cover that bottom line. Learn to be employable and to manage your money and to file taxes while you can still do the 1-page EZ form. Ask around on campus or somewhere nearby. A few hours a week, something manageable. And won’t you feel so good to have that check you earned yourself?

Don’t make excuses.  I have several professor friends and one of the most common themes of professor stories is along the “student came to me at the semester’s end, questioning why he was failing” line.  What should they have done? Read the syllabus, marked those key due dates on their calendar, gone to office hours, asked for help before they walked into the final exam room, not depended on their cute dimples to get them through the class.  Do the work, remember why you are in college, seek help when you need it, not after the grades are due.

Call your mother. She misses you, she worries about you. Don’t just send a text before you run to the party. She wants to hear your voice, make sure that you sound okay. Trust me. Even now, my mom doesn’t text, so I have to call her. And when I’m away, I can text my kids, but its still much better when I talk to them. Hearing that special voice is different than characters on a screen.  So call your mom. And your dad, too. They are paying the phone bill, afterall.

Make a good impression, the first time. You only get one chance to make that first impression, you’ve heard that a bunch of times by now.  Keep it in mind. Don’t make people remember you because you were the boy who wears his five-sizes too big pants backwards or the girl who curses everyone out, the boy who is always the drunkest at the parties or the girl that all the guys know. Be the kid who always has a joke, the one who is the great dancer, the student who always sits up front, even the kid who wears the best hats. Be the smartest in the class, that doesn’t hurt, either.  But make it good. I know, that sounds corny, but it will serve you better in the long-term.

Enjoy these four (or more) years.  There will be a lot of emphasis on preparing for the career and life to come, being the super serious adult prepared for the world. Admittedly, there’s some of that in this very list. But while in college, you will have to be in class maybe 3 hours a day (if you plan your classes right), be surrounded by hundreds or thousands of folks your own age, young enough to learn anything and with a world of possibilities still open to you. Enjoy it all while you can.

Finished college and have some advice? Feel free to add anything I’ve forgotten in the comments.

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Monday, August 17, 2015

James Harrison Says "EARN a Trophy" - And I Agree

Steelers' football player, James Harrison, posted on Instagram that he was sending his sons' sports "participation" trophies back - they get no trophy for just showing up and its sent the internet all a-buzz.  Was he right, was he wrong, is this a great example of fatherly lessons or bad parenting?

James Harrison's Instagram post of sons' sports trophies
Here's my 2 cents: I have to agree - everyone shouldn't get a trophy - aren't these for the winners?  It reminds me of a Tae Kwan Do belt test where my son earned a patch for best kicks in the class and the mother next to me muttered something about "he's the only one? only one kid gets a patch?" Yes, ma'am - it's best in the class, you can't have a bunch of those.  From them on, my son worked hard b/c he wanted to earn that again and knew there was only one to be earned.

Now, he's a swimmer. At the end of the summer season, his team gives out a trophy for the swimmer who has earned the most points in the season. There is only one and everyone knows you have to work hard all summer to earn this trophy.  And it doesn't even matter what age you are - the team ranges from 6 to 18 years old and there is one prize for the boys and one for the girl.  Does this discourage my son or the other kids? No. It gives him a goal, something to aim for.  He knows he cannot slack off or he may fall out of the running for the trophy.  His motivation would be different if he knew they were all going to get the same trophy.  And another thing - it makes each person recognize the contributions and hardwork of their team mates. They cheer for the guy and girl who win this trophy and congratulate them for their efforts during the season.  Being able to say "congratulations" to someone else, having the humility to appreciate someone else's achievements over your own, is as important (maybe more) than patting your own self on the back.

We're letting the kids off too easy by not ever allowing them to lose or know the feeling off loss.  We're also doing them a dis-service by not teaching them how to take a loss.  Yes, that's why I don't even let my kids beat me in anything - if they win (and they often do) they know it was a true, honest win. If they lose, they know they've got to get their game together to beat their old mom.

There's nothing wrong with losing and learning to deal with it.  In life, we will not always win.  We won't always get the solo or into our first choice college or the job we want. We will face losses and coming in second or third or seventy-fifth. Part of life is learning how to cope, how to dust ourselves off, figure out what went wrong, make some corrections, lean on our faith that we'll "win" one day, and try again.

So if this becomes a movement, I'm all in.  And can we add getting rid of all those daggone snacks, too!?

What do you think of the ribbons & trophies for participation?  

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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Host Your Own Paint Party

Painting with friends is one of the new trendy things to do - girls night out, birthday parties, hanging out, bachelor parties, date nights, whatever excuse you need to get together with folks and have a drink.  Since I think that painting might be one of my untapped talents, these events were made for me.  Instead of going to one (because that requires such activities as planning ahead and remembering to show up), I decided that the kids and I would have one of our own.

I bought a stack of art canvases, a couple dozen assorted paintbrushes, and bottles and tubes of our favorite colors in acrylic paints.  Luckily, Michael's was having a sale on paint supplies when I had this surge of creativity so it all cost about $60 - not bad for 5 people, especially since there's enough for each of us to do two paintings.

For some inspiration and basic how-to, I wandered around on Pinterest, pinning ideas and pictures of flowers and butterflies and struggled to find some boy-thing for the son.  That was so not necessary as all the kids had already come up with their own idea of what they were going to do, so lesson learned: let the kids figure out their own inspiration.

We covered the table in newspaper, laid out the canvas and paints.  Some of us sketched the designs in light pencil on the canvas. After that - just paint! To add to the paint party fun, we also had chips, drinks (age appropriate) and cupcakes.  Here's what we came up with.

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Tuesday, August 4, 2015

I Wonder What My Kids Are Having For Lunch

180 days, August through June, I pack four lunches.  Sandwiches, quesadillas, bowls of rice - I try to pack a variety.  Some cookies or chips, a box of milk or juice, a bottle of water, a bag of grapes. I think I do pretty good for my own fast-food to-go operation.  Add to this the to-go dinners on sports practice and game nights.  So when summer comes - the folks are on their own.

I don't think I've made lunch since the last school bell. I do my part - I buy bread, sliced turkey, cheese, hot dogs, peanut butter and other random lunch fixin's.  And because of morning swim practices, I haven't really been on schedule to cook breakfast, either. But I do sometimes because I love a hot biscuit and a bowl of grits every now and then.  In general, however, I assume that at some point, my able bodied children will realize that they are hungry, amble from the couch all the way to the kitchen and fix themselves something to eat.

I used to feel guilty about not making them breakfast, lunch and dinner during the summer months. What if they whither away to nothing, go back to school all emaciated and CPS comes looking for me?  I've since decided that that's not even a close possibility.  I've determined that I am not abandoning my children, I'm teaching them to feed themselves.

Yes, there are some days that its about 5 o'clock where one of them realizes that they haven't eaten all day and hey, what is Mommy going to do about it?  But for the most part, someone hears their stomach grumble, remembers that someone has already done the hunting and gathering, and all they have to do is put it all on a couple slices of bread.

They seem to be surviving.  Next step - get them to make me something, too.

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Friday, July 31, 2015

Packing the Perfect Vacation Read

What book will I read next?

Such is the angst of the avid reader packing for vacation. Because there is definitely a book (or two or three) going into the totebag or suitcase. For this finite time, for this limited stuff I can carry period, the choice of book is a weighty one.
What makes a good book to pack for vacation?
Of course, the invention of the iPad and e-readers has made the decision a less stressful one. You can carry all hundred of your books with you without an added suitcase.  But if you are like me – you’ve got to take a physical book, too.  Why? Sand, water, spilled drinks.

On a beach vacation, I’m taking my book to the beach. And I might even sit in the pool or at the edge of the water while reading. And that lazy river ride? Perfect (even if everyone else is looking at me like “what – is that a real book on a water ride?”)

Here’s my criteria for that real book that’s going in the suitcase.
  • Must be paperback. It’s a weight thing.
  • Got to be good. The frustration of taking a book that by chapter two I know I’m not going to like. Then what? Finish it? Leave it behind? And what do I do in the meantime?  Friend recommendations are a good choice. Sometimes a re-read of the classics is a good option, too.
  • Okay to lose and/or mess up a little bit. See my comments above about sand, water, spilled drinks.   There’s many times I’ve woken from a sun-induced nap to find my book covered in sand or a victim of high-tide.  Add to that, general vacation distractedness.
  • Doesn’t require too much concentration. Beach read usually means light and happy, that’s how I’ve described my own novel, Life in Spades.  But I’ll take a not so light book, too. I read Little Bee on the beach and while reading a particular scene (you know if you read it) wiggled my fingers in the sand.  I also was reading Ghana Must Go on the beach when I happened to be on the beach chapter in that book, and a wedding party showed up (in real life, it was a different gathering in the book.) 

Then what do you do with the book when you are done? Take it back home, leave it at your hotel?  I've stayed at some resorts with a library, where you can borrow and leave books. The library in Ocean City, Maryland also has a system that allows you to borrow books without needing a library card or donate books when you're ready to go home.  Some people leave their books in a public place, with the hopes that someone else will pick it up and enjoy it. A program like BookCrossing can help track your book's travels.  I haven't tried this, but considered it; sounds like it could be interesting. It reminds me of the Flat Stanley project from elementary school (am I showing my age?)

We’ve got a couple more weeks of summer vacation. A few more lazy afternoons at the pool. I'm hoping to get in at least a few more sand-filled, water-logged, rum-soaked books before it's all over.

What are you reading on vacation?

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