Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Social Media and Our Tween

We have rules when it comes to technology. Unfortunately, sometimes just knowing that leads to a bit of complacency on our part (the parents, I mean). And other times, even those limits aren't enough to spare us some lessons.

Let me just say that we have two daughters, ages 9 and 12. We have one computer that lives in the kitchen where I spend most of my time, at least when the girls are home. There are parental controls on the computer, but they honestly aren't clever enough to let the girls use certain sites that are perfectly safe, so from time to time I let them use my logon so they can get around the really dorky restrictions. But only when I'm in the kitchen.

Both girls have their own iTouch devices with a free texting app. Lola, my 9 year old, doesn't have any other friends who have the ability to text, so she's pretty much out of luck but it doesn't seem to bother her. She'd rather play iPhyzzle or Angry Birds, anyway. Eve, the 12 year old, texts her friends all the time and knows that either Bubba or I will perform surprise spot-checks to read text messages on a whim. Neither of the girls is allowed to have their iTouch upstairs without express permission since we have wi-fi at home and these devices can let them surf the 'net. At night, the iTouches live in the "technology box" on the kitchen counter.

So, yeah, I feel fairly secure.
Until now.

Yesterday I had to run downtown to get the dog from the groomer. Both girls had just arrived home from school and Lola was changing for basketball practice. I decided to leave the girls at home to have a snack while I went out to get the dog - I would be gone for 20 minutes, maximum. The rules were this: no screen time (TV, computer, iTouch), no sweets. I was fairly certain that if either of those rules was violated, one of the girls would rat the other one out. As I was opening the garage door, Eve called out, "Mom, can I just check my email really quick? D was supposed to email me about the assignment we're working on."

I gave her permission to check her email. But only that. Again, Lola would take immense pleasure in throwing Eve under the bus if she strayed.

So imagine my surprise when, two hours later, Bubba calls and tells me that Eve has joined some social networking site. HUH? When? How?

It turns out that, while checking her email, Eve discovered a message from one of her school friends inviting her to join this group where they can all socialize. Seeing the email addresses of several other classmates, Eve clicks on the link to this site. She swears she didn't go so far as to sign up, but somehow as soon as she enters the site, her entire email contact list is snagged by this site and emails go out to everyone she knows, telling them she has just joined this site (Zorpia.com) and would they like to, too?

Bubba and I have some questions about whether or not Eve signed up for the site, but that's not the point. The point for us is that Eve didn't really understand the implications of what she was doing. Bubba sat with her and showed her around the site, pointing out the advertisements for "Find Hot Local Singles" and "Work from Home" scams. He explained that there are many of these kinds of sites around who use you for your email contact list and are not safe places for kids to build profiles.

Ultimately I am grateful that this happened, if only so that we could refine our guidelines for the girls.
First of all, if you go to a site that asks for your entire birthdate, month/day/year, that's a red flag.
If, upon determining that you are a minor, it doesn't tell you to get parental permission, that's a red flag. (The Terms of Service for this particular site says in teeny tiny letters that you have to be 16 to sign up, but even after Eve's birth year was entered, it didn't flag this or disable her account - hmmmm.)
If part of the registration process asks you what your sexual orientation is, that's a red flag.
If the site offers, as part of its main objectives, matches or dates or connections with people you don't already know, that's a red flag.
Before you join any site for any reason, check with Mom and Dad.

Thank goodness this site actually did SPAM all of Eve's contacts, or Bubba and I might not have discovered what was going on. It's questionable whether Eve would have actually had the opportunity to use this site anyway, given that the computer is in the kitchen, but I wonder how many of Eve's classmates have successfully created profiles on this site and opened themselves up to predators of all kinds.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Stuff and Nonsense (and a new book review)

My latest book review (a fictional novel which is a departure for me) can be found here. It is a quick, fun read about book-banning in a small town in the South.

Other things going on here over the long holiday weekend include some angst (on my part, anyway) about this little guy. I'd tell you his name, but there is some dispute about it, given that he doesn't really belong to us. Or maybe he does. I'm not sure at this point.

The day before Halloween I was in the driveway cleaning out my car (a weekly necessity thanks to the carpool snack consumption that goes on inside) and I heard a pathetic maiow. I looked up to see this skinny black kitten watching me and slowly, tentatively making his way toward me. I managed to convince him to come to me and I scooped him up and brought him to the garage. I called all of the neighbors to see if he belonged to anyone and we decided to keep him around until at least after Halloween to keep him safe. By the time I heard from one neighbor who claimed him, it was November 1 and he had settled in quite nicely to our garage and back porch with several periods a day of snuggling inside on the laps of Bubba and the girls. We couldn't let him live inside because of our other cat, but he seemed perfectly happy to play and sleep outside and come cuddle a few times a day.

When I told our neighbor I'd bring him back home, she said, "Whatever. He lives outside, anyway. He'll come back on his own." This cat was not destined to live inside their house, in any case, so she figured he would just roam the neighborhood at will and roost at their place. We disrupted that, I'm afraid.

At this point, two days after Thanksgiving, I'm not sure they've seen him at all. We have settled in to this pattern of feeding him in the morning, snuggling with him often during the day, and feeding him again at night. Bubba generally claims him for an hour before bed, messing with his tail and ears and paws in a show of masculine affection.

I know, I know. We have stolen the cat. I have considered not feeding him but that feels mean. We have plopped him back inside the fence of the neighbors' yard and he promptly jumps on top of the posts and follows us back to our place. They won't let him inside their house, so there's no keeping him away (and we're not terribly motivated to, in any case). Lola has expressed some concern from time to time that we are doing the wrong thing and I understand her sentiment, but this little guy is so lovely I can't stand it. I have this squishy morality going on in my head that says he can go home anytime he wants - roaming the neighborhood until he gets there (they live next door) and, if they offered him any affection, he would choose to stay. I know we're tipping the balance by feeding him.

But wouldn't you?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Miss Representation and the Beauty of the Internet

Newest Miss Representation Trailer (2011 Sundance Film Festival Official Selection) from Miss Representation on Vimeo.

A few weeks ago I saw that the OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) was offering an encore presentation of the documentary "Miss Representation" and I set my DVR. I finally found a couple of hours the other day to watch the show and my emotions alternated between disgust, rage and sharp sadness. The film breaks down the role of modern media in perpetuating negative stereotypes of women and girls in a clear, concise way that is an absolute call-to-action.

I found myself cringing from time to time as I agreed with some of the people interviewed for this documentary (among them Katie Couric and Lisa Ling and others who are not household names but are doing really important work). Not because I didn't want to agree with them, but because I have always identified myself as a bleeding-heart liberal - one who believes in freedom of speech and expression. The atrociously misogynistic Go Daddy advertisements come to mind. I can't stand them and the way that women are portrayed, but I have always respected their right to exist. I can't say I still feel that way after watching this film.

As they began to detail the ways in which female leaders are judged in the media (Hilary Clinton was not "assertive" or "certain of her convictions," she was a "harpy" and a "bitch;" Sarah Palin was not judged on her knowledge of issues - or relative lack thereof - but on the way her skirt highlighted her ass and whether or not she had gotten breast implants) I began to laud the physical anonymity of the Internet for helping women's voices and opinions be heard without this kind of scrutiny. Organizations like Moms Rising and Emily's List can amass the voices of many women and present convincing arguments - or at the very least, convincing power - without having to dodge the conversations about whether their leader is a dyke or a man-hater. Let's be honest, anytime a strong female role model has come out to challenge the status quo, regardless of her message, she is instantly judged by her physical attributes. If she doesn't look like one of the original Charlie's Angels, she is instantly pronounced a lesbian and that somehow is supposed to mean that when she opens her mouth, we hear the voice of the parents on every Charlie Brown special, "Wah wah, wah wah, wah wah." If she does look like a pinup, she is carefully examined for any trace of plastic surgery or asked about her exercise regime or diet, as if those things trump the message she is trying to convey. The internet eases some of the pressure in that way. The more women can clearly articulate their positions in writing and band together as groups to support a common cause, the less power the media has to derail their momentum by commenting on her boobs or her fashion sense.

While I still feel that it is important for us to address the way women and girls are treated in the media, I am relieved that there seems to be one place where our words speak louder than our looks. Now, go out there and use it to the best of your ability, folks!

And if you haven't yet seen "Miss Representation," please go see it. Whether you're single or married, have daughters or sons, are female or male, it is an eye-opening documentary that features the voices of men and women alike. Go here to find a showing in your neighborhood.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Holiday Musings

I officially broke the seal on Christmas last Friday and purchased the first holiday gift of the season. I didn't really mean to, but this particular item struck me as something Bubba and the girls would get a huge kick out of. So I got it and brought it home. It is sitting in my underwear drawer, buried beneath a pile of boot socks and in order to diminish the paranoia that someone will find it, I suppose later today I'll go dig out the wrapping paper and ribbons and Christmas labels and camouflage it for real.

And once the holiday wrap is out, it's all over. I will begin accumulating gifts and wrapping them as they show up on my doorstep (I do 99% of my gift-buying online - I hate shopping except for groceries and love that I can click a few buttons and have things show up on the porch for days afterward).

I have favorite sites for books, weird stocking stuffers, and lovely gifts for friends. Before kids, I loved to browse through craft stores and small, independent clothing or book stores, selecting just the right gift for everyone on my list. Inevitably, I would over-purchase, forgetting that I had Gift A at home in the closet for Susan and buy Gift B for her because it struck me as the perfect thing. As our family grew, both with our children and our siblings' children, Bubba and I realized that the expense was getting out of control. Not to mention the fact that our kids (and everyone else's) had one of everything and didn't need a dang thing.

A few years ago, we agreed (through much angst and negotiation) to draw names for the adults in the family on both sides and just buy for the children. In doing so, I also made my plea for minimal gifts for the kids. A science kit or craft kit, perhaps. Maybe one article of clothing and a nice book instead of an entire outfit and a series of books. Outings are nice - tickets to a play or an IOU for a pedicure with Grandma don't clutter up the closet and are fun to look forward to. I was cast as the Grinch in some instances.

It's not that I don't want my kids to have a lovely holiday. It's that I don't think they need stuff to make it lovely. And I know that Bubba's parents and mine waited a long time for grandchildren and they see it as their Universe-given right to spoil them, but I think we're sending the wrong message. Here we are three days before Thanksgiving and instead of seeing messages about gratitude and communities coming together, the media is trumpeting Black Friday Sales and economic forecasts for the holiday season. I love giving gifts as much as the next person, but I seem to be the one in the family who keeps trying to come up with ways to minimize the consumerism every year.

Eve had to do a project for school this week that highlighted a cultural difference between a South American country and the U.S. She chose to interview a family friend from Argentina about the way they celebrate holidays. In the beginning, it was fun to think about the fact that Christmas happens in the middle of summer for them and she had to remind herself that Argentineans have no reason to celebrate Thanksgiving. As the interview went on, however, it became clear that the differences run deeper than that. Leandro spoke about the importance of family gatherings on Christmas, New Year's and Easter and the way that they are centered around togetherness and food. Yes, the Easter Bunny has made it's way to South America, but thus far, he plays a fairly minimal part in their celebration of the holiday itself. It reminded me of my childhood Christmases as we traveled to Southern California to be with my mother's family. My mom's parents and her four siblings lived in Santa Barbara and there were four cousins for the four of us kids to play with. I don't honestly remember how they managed gift-giving. I do recall my mom sewing matching dresses for the girl cousins one year, but other than that, I have no clue whether she and her siblings exchanged gifts or not. For me, the memories revolve around going to the beach and playing hide-and-seek in my Aunt Barb's huge house. The gifts were those moments spent with my cousins.

So while Bubba and I continue to seek out ways to connect with our families over the upcoming holidays, I struggle to find ways to divert my girls' attention from the fanfare of gift-giving (or, to be honest, gift-getting) in favor of those spontaneous moments that are generally more rewarding in the long run. I'm not sure what they are yet, but here's hoping we can continue to emphasize the less tangible aspects of the holiday.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Planet Explorer Book Reviews

I recently began reviewing books for BookPleasures and my second assignment was this series of travel guidebooks geared toward children. The author has written several and I offered to review the ones she wrote for Chicago, New York City, and Walt Disney World. The reviews are below and, while the books are suggested for 8-12 year olds, I would say that I think anyone with kids over the age of four or five could find a vast array of vital information in these books. Here goes:

Planet Explorers Walt Disney World: A Guidebook for Kids
If you are planning a trip to Walt Disney World, this is the perfect companion for your travels. The sheer size of this massive amusement park can make it overwhelming to navigate, but Laura Schaefer’s guidebook breaks it down in a fun, easy-to-read style.
The park is organized in to different areas in this book, each with its own list of restaurants, rides and attractions. Schaefer offers a wealth of good information about each ride, having devised a way to catalog them for kids of all ages (S=scary, D=dark, A=awesome, T=thrilling, W=wet). She also posts height restrictions so you can skip the ones your kids are too small to ride without much drama.
Each section also highlights fun facts like when certain attractions were built or if there are renovations or new rides being planned. There are tips on when to go do certain things or how to find characters roaming around the park.
The illustrations and photos, maps and fun facts are a fantastic complement to the vast amount of information packed in to this book. Most of the sections contain hyperlinks to things they might want to know more about like Bill Nye the Science Guy or the Samurai swords.
This book is a great way to help plan your trip through the park and come to an appreciation of the work that goes in to maintaining a place like Walt Disney World.
Links to the other two reviews are here for NYC and here for Chicago. The books all follow a similar format, so the reviews are quite similar as well. That being said, if you are planning a family vacation anytime soon, Laura has written Planet Explorer books for Disneyland, Disney cruises and Philadelphia as well as the three I reviewed. Do yourself a favor and find one that fits your travel needs.

Friday, November 11, 2011

My Anti-Multitasking Experiment

Thank goodness for AJ Jacobs. This is a man who knows how to write for attention-defunct brains. His chapters are short and concise and sprinkled throughout with humor (to keep my monkey mind on task), and I can sit down to read one and complete it in a relatively short time, limiting the amount of interruptions, both external ("Mom! I need my jeans!") and internal (I probably ought to throw that load of laundry in pretty soon.)

He does all of this, in many cases backed up by research that he explains in a simple, digestible way.

When I was reading My Life as an Experiment on my recent vacation, I was struck by one chapter in particular where Jacobs spends thirty days avoiding multitasking. Like most of us in Western societies with access to a multitude of technological toys and the perception that we need to be PRODUCTIVE above all else, he noticed that he had become increasingly unable to do anything with his full attention. I could give you examples, but I suspect many of you are lowering your heads right now under the weight of your own realizations. He did some digging and discovered that there is more than one research study showing that multitasking is, in all reality, much less efficient and more time consuming than simply doing one thing at a time. It also tends to split our attention to the point where we don't produce quality work like we would if we were single-minded. Over time, multitasking erodes our cognitive abilities to the point where our attention spans become pathetic little fleas, jumping from one side of the dog's rump to the other to find a tasty meal. Yikes!

I thoroughly enjoyed the chapter describing Jacobs' attempts to eliminate multitasking in his own life and decided to try it on my own. Disclaimer: I decided this while on vacation - away from home without the normal tasks of cooking meals, keeping house, driving kids to and from school and other activities, etc. I suspect it wouldn't have seemed nearly as possible an undertaking if I hadn't been lying near the pool in the sunshine when I decided this...

Upon arriving home, I began. For ten days I resisted efforts to empty the dishwasher while making my latte, check Facebook or email while writing a blog post or a book review, help Lola rehearse her lines for an upcoming play while folding laundry and watching the Oregon Ducks play football. It was hard. Really hard.

But I learned some valuable things.

1. When I multitask, I often start 57 things and only ever finish about 20 of them in a day. I have this frantic perception that if I don't at least start something RIGHT NOW that I'll forget I wanted to do it and it will be lost to the ether. When I explore that notion, I realize that if I forget I wanted to do it, it probably wasn't all that valuable a task in the first place and, it doesn't much matter that I started it if I don't ever finish the damn thing.

2. The more balls I have in the air, the more I have to worry about one dropping. It turns out that only doing one thing at a time is really calming. When I'm writing a book review and force myself to trust that All of Those Other Tasks Who Shall Not Be Named will wait, some part of my brain is given permission to shut down and rest for a bit. And that book review or blog post or letter to a teacher gets written much more quickly.

3. When I practice not multitasking with people (typing an email while I'm on the phone with my mother, playing a board game with Lola while helping Eve with homework, etc), they feel good. I can honestly say that, while it was terrifically challenging, using this tactic with Eve on her most recent homework project contributed to our ultimate success in completing it.

It occurred to me yesterday that multitasking is overkill. When I think about it, our bodies are already working really hard on several fronts simultaneously - pumping blood, creating white blood cells to knock off that cold virus we picked up from our kids, taking in visual information and processing it, moving our bodies through space, breathing, the list goes on... To ask them to do more than that is cruel and unusual punishment.

My single-mindedness has fallen off a bit of late. Old habits die hard, I guess, and Bubba has been out of town a lot lately. But when I recall the feeling of utter calm that came over me when I asked myself to do only one thing at a time, I am motivated to continue striving to get better at it.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

6th Grade Homework = Migraine + Connection

As I sit here writing this, I have a splitting headache that has so far not responded to twice the recommended dose of Advil and I am sporting a grin a mile wide. Yes, you read that right.

I am sporting a grin a mile wide after a Sunday night marathon homework session with Eve. No, she didn't save all of it for the last minute - just the most complex stuff. And normally, despite the fact that the subject was Science and that is generally my forte, I would have asked Bubba to step in for me, but he is out of town for the next few days, so I was it. Whether we liked it or not.

Eve and I have always had a bit of difficulty doing homework together. I generally chalk it up to the fact that we are two peas in a pod. Twins separated by three decades. Ex-act-ly a-like. Eve starts out with a chip on her shoulder if she is forced to ask me for help with anything. She is fiercely independent, a perfectionist, a control freak and stubborn. She quickly gets defensive and degenerates into high-pitched squeals of indignance if I don't understand precisely what she needs from me on the first explanation. God forbid I ask to see the directions or her notes from class. Bubba? He can joke with her, sit for hours and puzzle over something, or just tell her to suck it up and dig in and she smiles sweetly and follows his lead. It used to drive me nuts. Until I remembered how I felt about my mother when I was Eve's age. Until I read The Four Agreements and learned how to not take it personally.

So Eve and I, we are a bit gunshy about doing homework together. But tonight there was no choice. Bubba was away and this assignment is due tomorrow morning. I would be lying if I said I wasn't worried. But I swore not to let it show.

As Eve began explaining the assignment to me, my inner self let out a colossal groan. She was supposed to draw 3-dimensional schematics for an invention she would craft using pulleys, gears or levers.

Permit me to digress for a moment. There are a few things that I absolutely cannot do. Things I used to struggle with but eventually came to terms with the fact that I am incapable of doing. Things I have "traded" in my own mind for other things that I am oddly accomplished at. Fortunately, I have managed to structure my life in order that I don't have to do any of these things. They are (in no particular order):

1. Tying a knot in a balloon. I don't care what you say - you cannot teach me to do it. Been there, tried that, can't do it. Won't even try anymore. Not important.

2. Iron an oxford style shirt. You know, with the collar and buttons and plackets and all that. Again, no interest. Tried a million times.

3. Visualize things in three dimensions in my mind. Nope, can't do it. Took Organic Chemistry in college and had to purchase a set of Tinker Toys in order to put the molecules together and draw them on paper. My brain simply will not wrap around imagining things in 3-D when they are described to me or rendered in 2-D on paper. I can't manage it. At some point my brain simply shuts down during the process of trying.

And now here, I had to help Eve visualize her invention in 3-D and draw it to scale in each of its different perspectives so that her teacher could fully understand it and so that Eve can build it out of foam core according to those drawings.


I will confess that at one point I had to go get a toilet paper roll and some ribbon to use as props so I could "see" it.

I will also say that about 20 minutes in, Eve was flat on the floor in my closet sobbing and squealing like a pregnant potbellied pig, certain that we couldn't do this.

Normally this is the point where I call Bubba in.

Instead, I dug deep, stayed calm and came at it from another angle.

Somehow, I managed to get her back on track and she responded.
Somehow, when we thought we were done and checked the assignment sheet only to discover that we needed two more drawings, of the individual components to scale, I was able to remind her of how far we had come and help her see that the finish line wasn't that far off.
Somehow, I found myself having fun.

As I played cheerleader from across the kitchen where I was putting dinner together and reminding Lola to tuck her completed homework away in her backpack, I suddenly realized I was enjoying this. Far from feeling frantic and unmoored, I was the picture of calm, pureeing ingredients for soup in the food processor while reminding Eve of the scale and fixing her compass when the lead fell out. No yelling. No reprimands. No whining about "too much homework" or "this is too hard." We were working it out. We had managed to get past the defensiveness and blaming, the intractable positions in our opposite corners, and get it done.

At one point it seemed that all was lost. There was one more component of the project that seemed insurmountable at dinnertime on a Sunday night. And then it happened. I thought outside the box. I lived up to the nickname some of my former co-workers gave me one day: "Queen of the Workaround." Not cheating. Not even a shortcut. But a way to stick our tongues out at that brick wall, turn on our heels and walk right around the damn thing without even breaking a sweat.

As Eve finished packing her now completed homework away I told her how proud I was that she stuck it out and finished. She walked over to me, wrapped her arms around me and gave me the most genuine hug I've had from her since she was a toddler. Resting her head on my heart, she snuggled in tight and murmured, "I love you. Thank you, Mom."

So, yeah. I'm grinning like a fool. Headache and all.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

It's Your Words That Matter (Stupid!)

As I puttered around the house doing laundry and tidying the kitchen and fluffing pillows yesterday morning, my local NPR station was on in the background. The host was interviewing Barry McCaffrey of Clinton-era war-on-drugs fame and I found myself intrigued. I recall him taking a very different tack from the Nancy Reagan "just say no" campaign, but couldn't really remember many of the specifics, so my ears perked up and I slowed my tasks down in order to pay closer attention.

It is easy to pay attention to General McCaffrey, given that he is a career military man and speaks with 100% authority. He has very strong opinions on seemingly every subject in the Universe and speaks about them with no equivocation whatsoever. When callers or the host disagreed with him, he was not condescending, but so sure of himself that I wonder if he often causes others to question their own rationale. I found myself agreeing with him on a few issues and disagreeing about others, but glad I wasn't in the room with him admitting my dissent.

Until he began talking about the drug policy his task force crafted for the Office of National Drug Control Policy during his time in the Clinton White House. It started innocently enough, with him advocating for developmentally appropriate approaches to drug resistance education. Okay, fair enough. I can see the logic in that.

Saying, "You don't tell a 17-year old who is smoking a joint that they will get lung cancer or throat cancer. They don't care about that. You say, 'Hey, Stupid! You're going to get pregnant or drop out of school and never get a job!"



How is calling someone "Stupid" a way to change behavior?
How is belittling someone and trying to frighten them a way to motivate or encourage?
How is making someone think you see them as an idiot going to help you understand them?

As a former teenager who smoked a lot of pot (thank goodness my kids don't read this blog), I can tell you that by the time I had made the decision to engage in this behavior, I had already written myself off. I didn't need anyone else to. The reasons I used drugs were several:

1. There was a community of other potheads who accepted me into their group.
2. On some level I felt invincible (common among teenagers, and doesn't bode well for Gen. McCaffrey's fear tactics. I was sure I wasn't the one who would get pregnant or get caught smoking pot).
3. I was trying to escape some of the difficult realities in my life.
4. I felt somewhat hopeless about my life.

Luckily, stronger drugs weren't really available to me at that time. Couple that with the fact that I was a control freak and I had some pretty strong notions of which lines I wouldn't cross, which is why I never drank alcohol.

Also luckily, I had a few supportive adults in my life who may or may not have known I was smoking pot, but who believed in my ability to live my dreams. They encouraged me to get to college which afforded me a different way to escape the difficulties in my current situation. I saw that as a clean break and a way to reinvent myself somewhat and I was able to separate myself from the drug culture I had immersed myself in.

I certainly hope that General McCaffrey's drug policy is not standard operating procedure in most of the schools around the nation. I believe that the only way to really change the way we treat illegal drugs and alcohol is by understanding the reasons people turn to them in the first place and supporting them as they learn to deal honestly with the challenges in their lives. I understand that game plan isn't nearly as clearcut as a military man might like, but I am certain that berating and belittling and attempting to scare people is not the way to go.
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