The Quiet Milestones

Parents like to celebrate a lot of “firsts”, don’t we?  Some are commemorated in a big way, with photographs, words in a baby book or scrapbook, video… like first smile, first solid food, first steps, first tooth, first word, first birthday, first haircut.  As kids get older, firsts occur less frequently, but we still try to look for them and celebrate them—first lost tooth, first day of school, first time to ride a bike…first time at summer camp, first time to get ears pierced (who’d have thought there’d be a second time?), first car…celebrating “firsts” adds fun to our often mundane lives and helps kids feel special.  And I think it helps parents feel, well, like parents—proud, happy and sometimes sad, all rolled together.  But as we all know, the second child and all others to follow usually get shortchanged in this commemoration.  There are definitely less photos of “firsts” in our house for Emmie than for Allison.  I remember when I finally got around to grabbing the camera to take a picture of Emmie’s gaping hole where her first lost tooth had been, the new tooth was already showing itself quite nicely.


But even when I don’t make a big deal of milestones, I’m quietly commemorating them in my heart, often ones that other parents might not give a second thought…  I can remember the first time I was caught in the rain with Allison and the first time she was big enough to sit in the front seat of the car.  I remember the first night Emmie slept in a “big girl bed” instead of a crib– that look of happiness and pride is unforgettable.  I remember the first time she jumped off a diving board at the neighborhood pool.  There was that look of happiness and pride again.   And recently I’ve noticed another quiet milestone going on, throughout this school year, that I don’t think Emmie’s paying as much attention to as I am—she definitely doesn’t share my twinge of sadness, which is probably good.  This is the year that pretend play is ending.  She’s 11 years old and in fifth grade, so I guess I should consider myself lucky that it’s lasted this long.  And guess I should be happy that I’m going to have more space in my house, since there is much more to our spring cleaning this year than usual.  All those costumes I’ve saved over time, all those costumes I’d buy on cut-rate special the day after Halloween and use as great Christmas presents and the girls would have hours and hours of fun with them…not long ago I realized that not only do most of them hardly fit Emmie any more, but “dressing up” is no longer how she and her friends want to spend their time together. At least not dressing up like princesses and fairies.  Time to give some costumes to her younger cousin, as well as all the crowns and plastic dress-up shoes that go with them.  Bratz Dolls? She recently gave them to a charity.  The play kitchen and plastic food? Ditto.  The toy vacuum cleaner, fake cash register, doll stroller, and doll bunk bed? Given to a cousin last month.  All those Webkinz stuffed animals Emmie so carefully saved money to buy and was still collecting less than a year ago? They are now “too childish” and have been put in a “to be decided later” drawer.  Waiting in the wings to be boxed and given away are “tons” of tiny Polly Pocket dolls and accessories and something called Littlest Pet Shop…


Not only has she outgrown pretend play this year, she says she’s outgrown the color pink and wants to re-do her pink bedroom.  Since Andy and I are not quite ready to do that, she decided last week to make a few changes to her room on her own, to make it feel more “hers”.  All by herself, she re-arranged furniture and moved out “stuff” she didn’t want.  This morning after she went to school, I found myself standing in the doorway of those four still-very-pink painted walls, looking at the result of her efforts and noticing how it’s like a perfect “diorama” of the current transition in her life… several Barbies and her two American Girl dolls still sit on shelves; her electric and acoustic guitars are also on display, propped on stands on the floor next to her amplifier; a satiny pastel purple poodle skirt made the cut from the costume collection; the gigantic face of Robert Pattinson broods out from her Twilight “Team Edward” blanket which she’s thrown on her bed, covering up her “flowers and butterflies” bedspread…  and a small cardboard box “bank” she created for herself sits on top of her chest of drawers, covered in construction paper with the words “Money for My New Bedroom” scrawled in marker on the sides… (there were a few coins in it).


I don’t think a scrapbook page would do this scene justice, so I’ll count this milestone memory as another that will just have to be photographed on my heart (and written in my blog).


Not gaga for GaGa

(Note: the following post is probably going to generate some weird ads showing up in my Google frames on the sidebar, based on some of my words– bear with me as I try to block the bad ones…)

Boy, does the entertainment world make it increasingly hard to keep from being a helicopter parent these days. On the one hand, I do not want to be like some parents I know, who routinely listen to their teens’ Ipods and punish them if they hear something objectionable, or get all bent out of shape if their teen watches a movie that includes cussing.  Like I always say, if you’ve taught your children well, micro-managing them undermines your show of confidence in their ability to take that information, make good decisions and see past the trash.  Yet on the other hand, I do think parents need to be aware of what’s going on out there, even try to stay one step ahead, so that they can be more informed when they do talk to their kids and yes, be a censor when pop media takes things too far. 


It may “take a village” to raise kids, but I believe there are an increasing number of people in this village, moreso than ever before, who don’t have a child’s best interests at heart.  It’s like they get some kind of sick pleasure in making money off of, and hurting the lives of, our youngest citizens.  Dan Akroyd’s “Bag of Glass” skit from the early days of Saturday Night Live isn’t so far-fetched anymore…


Is it really healthy for kids to play certain video games, over and over, where they kill people, and make decisions on who to kill, and, according to game reviewers, really feel shaken up when it’s all over?  And every year, the games get more and more violent…The makers of energy drinks say they’re not marketing to kids, yet their increasingly colorful graphics and crazy names do just that, and according to the Nutrition Business Journal, young teens are a significant part of the drink’s purchasers, and caffeine intoxication is on the rise…  Modern parents, including myself, are used to fending off the sexual messages that are everywhere in pop culture, but give me a break—now today’s kids are being bombarded with encouragement for sexual threesomes in kid-targeted shows like Gossip Girl, and in Britney Spears’ song “Three”—did the people who were worried way back when about Elvis and his hips really think things would “progress” to this? And even if your kid watches and listens to everything and turns out just fine— does every child? We all know that many kids spend more time with media than with their parents, so for them, media is where they get most of their advice about life. 


This point was made clearer to me the other day when I received the following video in an e-newsletter from Common Sense Media. 


Common Sense ( is an online site I head to when I want to learn about the content of movies, etc. if I’m ever not sure about whether something is kid-appropriate.  (There are many online sites that make this task easy and I like several—this one is very “common sense” and straightforward, involves a ton of reader feedback, and doesn’t have a conservative or liberal slant to it.)


If you don’t have time to watch the video, it’s a Common Sense posting of a You Tube video they found, of young kids singing and dancing to a Lady GaGa song called “Love Game”, where she tells everyone she “wants sex bad” and wants to take a ride on someone’s “Disco Stick” (she was very frank in Rolling Stone magazine about explaining that a “disco stick” was in fact a male body part and how she uses a giant light-up sex toy onstage when singing the song…).  In the YouTube video, the images of  sweet young kids licking their lips and singing the suggestive lyrics were really disturbing…


Did it make me want to instantly yank all Lady GaGa songs off my kids’ Ipods? No. Hopefully after I let them know more about her, they’ll do it themselves. Most of what they usually choose to download is fine, anyway—I actually think they are developing a pretty good value system when it comes to detecting true trash.  Will I start turning the dial whenever GaGa or numerous other skanks sing on my car radio? Absolutely.  The video also reminded me that we all vote with our time and our dollars when it comes to the marketplace, and Andy and I need to make an effort not to vote for sleaze-hawkers like GaGa anymore—ever so often, when our girls have used up any ITunes gift cards they’ve received, they each give Andy a list of songs they’d like on their Ipods and if he’s feeling generous, he’ll take the time (and money) to download them, not paying much attention to their choices.   We’re going to be paying closer attention to those lists from now on. I don’t want any more of our time or money going toward people who blatantly seek to reel in children and then bring them down. 


Some may argue that those entertainers are not Barney, that they never asked for kids in their audience.  Oh, really? Is that why Madonna wrote children’s books? Is that why Britney worked with Play Along Toys to develop the Britney Spears Fashion Doll? And is that why Lady GaGa dresses like something out of Willy Wonka and went public a few months ago in talking about her lust for the Jonas Brothers?


Hmmmm,  and if my memory serves me correctly, she requested a threesome with them…





Road Ill

We are a family that loves to travel, yet…seems like it never fails, one of us is always battling something health-related when we hit the road or once we’ve reached our destination…whether it’s sunburn or allergies or a full blown cold, there’s always something to deal with…I don’t know why I don’t just pack an entire suitcase as a mobile medicine cabinet.  I mean, our track record is not great…Andy came down with the flu on our honeymoon in Colorado…Allison got sick at a dance convention in Houston and had to see a doctor…then had an allergic reaction to the antibiotic to where her eyes almost swelled shut…Emmie busted her head open on a diving board just prior to our 2009 summer vacation and had to visit a doctor on the road to get her stitches taken out…Allison got sick on our first visit to California and we were delayed going to the San Diego Zoo because we had to wait at a drug store to pick up a prescription called in by our family doctor…Andy once spent almost an entire family ski trip holed up in the hotel room with a stomach bug…guess it was time for my name to be added to that illustrious list!  In the midst of our “drive around Texas” Spring Break vacation this past week, I came down with a nasty sinus infection and nonstop sore throat to the point where the “bed” part of a Hill Country bed and breakfast was a highlight of the trip for me…other highlights were Ibuprofen, a hot bath and chamomile tea.  I didn’t stay in bed, however– I was a trooper, trying to keep down the pain and move on, but darn it, it’s no fun being sick on vacation…we hiked to the top of Enchanted Rock on Wednesday and of course I was slower than everyone else…we saw gorgeous blooms while walking around Austin but of course I couldn’t smell them!!  Really, I’m surprised I don’t get sick every trip…I always stay up so late right before we leave, getting everything ready– this latest adventure was no exception, as I was up until 2:45 a.m. on the eve of our trip and we had to be up at 5:30 to leave…insanity, I know…but hey, in spite of everything, we’ve made some great memories…A gray wolf licked my face at a wolf sanctuary…Emmie got an impromptu guitar lesson on stage at the famous Hill Top cafe from its famous owner, Johnny Nicholas…Allison, normally the most whining hiker around, was the first of our bunch to reach the top of Enchanted Rock and didn’t even complain when we had to wait an hour in traffic to get inside the park, less than a mile from the gates…Andy got in some solitary biking along miles of the Galveston seawall and also enjoyed rollerblading around Austin…I got to meet my new great nephew and spend time with dear friends I hardly ever get to see…and the whole family had some great conversations in the car along the way…so it was definitely worth putting up with some pain and discomfort.  But now that we’re back home, I just want to go climb in my own bed and get some R and R, but there are suitcases to be emptied, and mail to be opened…
Does anyone else have any “sick while on vacation” stories? Misery loves company!

Remembering “Slug Bug”

In honor of Spring Break this week, and the many families that are “hitting the road” for a family trip by car (including us), I thought I’d “re-release” a column/essay of mine that ran in The Dallas Morning News on June 29, 2001 under the heading, “Slug Bugs Are A Hit With Kids”.
Update 4/2/10: I think it’s a hoot that VW is now using this game to promote its cars.  Have you seen the ads for “Punch Dub” Days? And to think the guy I interviewed for this story said Volkswagen didn’t want to associate themselves with it…)
I heard a sound coming from the backseat of my minivan a few weeks ago that I hadn’t heard in at least 25 years, and it made me smile– “SLUG BUG!! No Tag-backs!!”  Now that Volkswagen has breathed new life into its Beetle, it seems the Slug Bug game has been resurrected as well, and mysteriously, both my six-year-old AND my two-year-old know how to play. (For those of you who somehow missed out on that, when you see a Beetle on the road, you’re supposed to elbow the person next to you while yelling out, “Slug Bug!” Some kids keep a running tally going to see who can spot the most.  The “no tag-backs” line is added by more seasoned players, meaning, You Can’t Elbow Me If You See the Same One!)

I never cease to be amazed at how games, myths, jokes, and rhymes get passed down through the ages and across the country.  My husband grew up in Texas and I grew up in Iowa, yet as kids, we both knew every word to the Batman version of Jingle Bells, long before the Internet and Cable TV.  And, we both played the Slug Bug game.

I think I still have marks on me from all the slugs I got from my brother,” says a Volkswagen public relations representative who wishes to remain unnamed. While  Volkswagen of America, Inc. has no official printed history or rules for the game (the unnamed PR representative said they wouldn’t want to associate with anything where children could get hurt),  a local VW enthusiast says it originated at least 40 years ago. 

I remember first knowing the Slug Bug game in the early 1960’s,” says Louis Harris, 61, of Dallas, who, along with his wife, Janet, is the local representative for the Vintage VW Club of America. He says though the Beetle was first brought to the U.S. in 1949, the game probably didn’t become popular in the United States until there were enough Beetles on the road to make Slug Bug playable.  “The Beetle really took off in popularity in the middle to late 1950’s.”  He says his two daughters, now aged 25 and 30, loved to play the game as kids, and says his wife credits the game for helping the girls learn colors. “They’d call out ‘Slug Bug!’ and she’d ask them to identify its color.”  

New Slug Bug-ers (or even “veterans” like myself) may not know that for each year that the Beetle has been around, there are probably just as many interpretations of the game, based on the Slug Bug websites I found. One says that if you grew up on the East Coast, you may know it as “Punch Buggy” (yep, that sounds pretty Ivy League, all right). Another discusses the finer points of the rules, such as “you can not slug the owner of a Beetle if you see their car” and “looking away from the Beetle and looking back does not give you the chance to slug again”.  (But walking away from one in a parking lot and seeing the same one again when you leave is eligible for slugging again.)   Another website extols the fun of the “adult” version of the game (using points, not slugs) and lists a printable point chart, including more points if the Beetle is yellow or if it’s a convertible (you really hit the jackpot if it’s a yellow convertible), and negative points for shouting out when a Beetle’s not there. This site even has a Slug Bug Council which you can contact for a ruling on Slug Bug game disputes, such as “Does the Beetle count if it’s on TV?” (yes, they say, as long as the other players are present).  

While some of you may be thinking, ‘Get a life, people’, the Slug Bug game, even in its simplest version, can sure make riding in traffic or on long car trips a lot more interesting, and even fun, provided any slugging is done with restraint.  And it must be a marketing and advertising bonus for Volkswagen. Think about it. Kids delight in spotting the brightly colored cars while playing the game and may dream of someday driving one. 

Based on the amount of daily slugbugging that has been going on within earshot of me lately, a lot of people ARE driving them.  Even Barbie drives one.  And now that our neighbors across the street have a bright greenish-yellow one, I get to hear the word yelled inside my house as well as in the car (and I get to experience getting slugged in the leg while opening the front door!).  All pain and noise aside, in this world of fast changes and sophisticated technology, it’s nice to know that some simple things stick around. 

There is a new game in town, however.  Just when I was wondering if another car manufacturer would ever try to start up a game like Slug Bug, it seems they (or their kids) already have.  A teenager riding in our car the other day yelled out “P.T. Cruiser Bruiser! No tag-backs!” and elbowed my six-year-old when she saw the unique-looking car rolling along beside us. 

Sorry, Chrysler, but it just didn’t have the same ring.  If you’re going to slug, it’s got to be a Bug.

Continuously Contagious

One of my mother-in-law’s favorite sayings is “If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.” In other words, “Choose your friends carefully” (although she also uses that phrase literally in enforcing the “no animals on beds” rule at her house…J).  Now it appears there is scientific research to back her up, as well as every wise parent and grandparent who’s given similar advice to their kids.


You may have heard of the researchers, James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis, or at least their work. They’ve been in the news this week, as their latest research proves the concept of “pay it forward”– in studying a large group of people, they found that good deeds really are contagious, and spread to hundreds of people.  In the March 8 news story, it also mentioned the pair’s previous work in studying groups and the influence of close friends, so I Googled it to learn more.  Seems these two were in the news last fall, even on Oprah, with their book Connections: The Surprising Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. Their past studies showed that starting or stopping the habits of overeating and smoking was highly influenced by close friends and co-workers (especially those of the same sex) and that it was a “domino effect”.  If someone loses weight, that person positively influences her close friends to lose weight, and some do, and then their close friends lose weight, etc., etc.  If you work among a bunch of smokers, you’re much more likely to smoke, and then so will some of your friends. 


I couldn’t help but think of our former teen neighbor who once abhorred smoking but embraced it wholeheartedly once she became friends with a bunch of smokers.  I also thought of what these studies’ results meant to other youth behaviors, such as drinking and drug use…the results would probably be the same. 


Yes, there are people who defy the influence of others, kids who hang out with “unsavory” friends but don’t look or act like them, and these researchers aren’t saying it’s impossible, but what they’ve shown is that group influence really is “contagious”, and their statistics back them up. 


Fowler and Christakis have also done some fascinating research with happiness.  According to their 20-year study that ended in 2003, happiness is contagious.  “Surround Yourself With Positive People and Your Life Will Be Good” isn’t just a silly phrase inside a fortune cookie.  They’ve scientifically proven that if you’re happy, others around you are more likely to be happy and pass it on, and the lives eventually influenced are numerous.  This chain reaction effect is also true with bad moods, but luckily to a slightly lesser extent.


Parents can utilize Fowler and Christakis’ body of work in many ways.  Not only does it encourage us in advising our kids on friend selection, it’s a wake-up call to staying savvy (not helicopter) to who those friends are (for starters, get a Facebook page, parents!!!) It also underlines the importance of parental decisions when making choices about schools, activities, and other groups to which our kids belong. 


And, it’s also information that can help our kids.  I once asked my Girl Scout troop, at the time composed of 15 ten-year-olds, if they felt they had any power in their daily lives (we were studying leadership and community service, and we started out by learning about the “Power of One”.)  Not one girl said yes.  “No way!” said some of them, shaking their heads.  I explained to them how helping their parents make breakfast or doing good on a test was personal power, but I’m not sure they all “got” it.  I thought about showing them the movie, “It’s A Wonderful Life”, but figured all the “building and loan stuff” would stump them…and I forgot about the movie “Pay It Forward”…but the Connected studies could have helped get the point across.  Kind of like a science fair experiment.  Because all of the people studied by Fowler and Christakis were not adults—kids and teens were involved, too.  Hidden among the formal, published “Conclusions” of their work is the unwritten notion that kids and teens are not as insignificant as they may think, and that their habits, their deeds, and their moods really do influence their friends and the people around them, plus a  whole lot more.  

The Dreaded “B” Word

In an effort to help my husband and I “see the big picture” better and help my teenager realize that money truly doesn’t grow on trees, I spent most of Friday afternoon and evening with an old software version of Quicken (I didn’t like the new fancier versions) and I set up (gasp!) a budget.  Yep, one in which I set up yearly allotments for everything—food, clothes, even school supplies and dog grooming. And while I think I did a pretty good job, Allison was not happy with it one bit.  Oh, I don’t think I’m going to let her see the whole thing, because she’d get even madder if she saw that other “stupid” things like UTILITIES got more than she did.  (Wait…then again, maybe it would make her turn off more lights and quit taking 30 minute showers, if she thought it would mean more money in her pocket!)  But I did let her know the amount she’s been “allotted” for spring clothes, since she’s been chomping at the bit to go shopping for weeks, and according to her, the amount she’s been given will “barely cover underwear and one pair of shoes” (not true, unless maybe you’re Paris Hilton). 


With her tastes, she is going to have to either learn the joys of bargain hunting or get creative in coming up with ways to earn money.  And, she’s going to have to stop getting upset with what she’s given— because she got so mad about the new budget, she threw papers around my office and clothes all over the front hall.  And as a result,  she now has no one to take her shopping this weekend, anyway!


Punch-drunk on Punch Cards

The main zipper on my favorite (and only) wallet jumped the tracks the other day, and I think I know why:  too many punch cards.  Nope, it’s not too many credit cards (and certainly not cash) that have caused my favorite brown leather four-compartment wallet to bulge at the seams—it’s those darn punch cards and reward cards that every place of business seems to be giving me these days.  And I can’t resist a bargain, so I can’t resist those cards.  I mean, if I buy 5 pairs of pointe shoes for my ballet dancing teen daughter, I can get one pair free? Never mind that it will probably take 4-5 years before the card is filled and she will be in college by then— by golly, at $50 a pair, I’d better get some kind of gold star for purchasing them.  And that little signature and checkmark they put on the card gives me the tiny sense that I’m getting some kind of a deal—even though I’m probably not. 


I’m also a card-carrying member of the JC Penney Watch Battery Club, the Ulta Beauty Club, Borders Rewards, OfficeMax MaxPerks, Blockbuster Rewards, Tom Thumb Rewards, Delia’s Frequent Buyers, Corner Bakery’s Cup of Joe Club and the “Cool Rewards Club” at Cool Cuts 4 Kids (Gee, can I put all those memberships on my resume’?  Well, a stay-at-home mom’s gotta have something!) I’m a Freebirds Fanatic and also carry “loyalty” cards for Which Wich, Great Harvest Bread, Albertsons, Hallmark and CVS.  And not only do I have a card from Sandy’s Dancewear for pointe shoes, I have one for Jazz/Lyrical, Ballet shoes, and Tights.   


Oh, sure, I could keep them in a drawer or file at home and only take them out when I need them— but seriously, what busy mom can remember that? It’s hard enough to remember where I put my keys, and remember to take along my environmentally-friendly cloth shopping bags when I go shopping, and remember to then grab them out of the car once I get where I’m going.  Remembering to also grab the right punch cards just isn’t going to happen.  And besides, I don’t always know when I’ll need them.  When I’ve tried keeping them at home, I end up at Smoothie King with the kids for an impromptu after-school snack, without (horrors!) my Smoothie King Frequent Buyer Card, and I can’t stand not getting credit for my purchase, and so what happens? I get another punch card.  “Just combine the two to get your next free smoothie,” says the nice dark-haired lady behind the counter.  Great.  Two-for-one.


And so, the stack of buyer cards keeps growing, and my wallet just keeps getting fatter.  Maybe I should get one of those business card holders to house them, and throw that in my purse. Or get a purse with an extra compartment. At the very least, get a new wallet with more room. It looks like I’m going to be forced to do that, anyway.  While I miraculously fixed that broken zipper (and for any of you who have tried to fix a broken zipper on a wallet, you know that is no small feat), the next day, even though the zipper teeth stayed in place, the fabric surrounding it ripped away from the rest of the wallet.  Must have been that new Whole Foods Vitamin Card I just got…