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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

7 Ridiculously Simple School Hacks That Will Make Parents Go, "Ahh!!!"

Life is supposed to get easier once all the kids go off to school, and in many ways it does: there are no more diapers to change or naps to tiptoe around; you’re no longer responsible for filling 100% of your child’s day with the optimal combination of activities to stimulate mind, body, and soul; and if you play your cards right you can once again enjoy chunks of uninterrupted time just for you. Fist pump!
But school also comes with a whole new backpack full of hair-pullers: morning clothing meltdowns, troves of paperwork that you would swear multiply every time you turn your back on them, and scheduling conundrums that make your existence an absurd, life-size Tetris game.
After a decade of experiencing Operation Shock and Awe school life, our household has uncovered a few hacks that help tame the chaos.
Clothing Cubbies
Available at Amazon. 'Cause what isn't?
Clothing cubbies, especially for young kids, are the best thing since potty training. (I mean, since the results of potty training. Not the potty training itself. I’d rather give an alligator a bubble bath than potty train another child. Shudder.) I got this hack idea from a friend of mine who is always one step ahead of me in everything. I used to be indignantly jealous. Now I just appropriate her very good ideas, and my life is better. (Thanks, E!)
HACK: Get a hanging shelf system for the closet, or if you have the space, a free-standing shelving unit with five horizontal slots in it. Label the shelves Monday – Friday. Add stickers for special stuff, such as P.E. days when pants are necessary for the girls. On Sunday, put outfits, complete with socks and Fruit-of-the-Looms and hair accessories (if applicable) in the cubbies. The rule in our house is that a child can replace any outfit I made with one of his/her own, but only if the swap is completed prior to bed the night before. Once you get up in the morning, you wear what’s in the queue for that day. No more 7:00 a.m. clothing crises!
The Folder Of Destiny
Oh, the paperwork associated with school: first-day forms, field trip forms, health history forms, announcement flyers, calendars, schedules, sports info, classroom rules… and that’s just the stuff for the kids’ lives. Organizing and managing all the papers that filter through my fingers each day proves one of the most demoralizing aspects of life on this mortal coil.
I got enormously fed up with stuff littered across my countertops, jammed into the past-month pages of my wall calendar, and piled atop my bread machine, which never got used, hidden as it was beneath a mountain of I’ll-Deal-With-This-Later and If-I-Lose-This-Thing-Life-As-We-Know-It-Will-Implode-Like-a-Dying-Supernova documents. (Now the bread machine doesn’t get used simply because I’m too lazy.)
So I spent twenty cents on a two-pocket Folder of Destiny.
HACK: Keep your Folder of Destiny handy in the kitchen or dining room or whichever room you do paperwork, scheduling, and organizing. Put in the left pocket everything you need to keep (bus schedules, field trip info sheets, club schedules, parent address/phone directories, etc.). The right pocket holds TBD stuff that you can’t enact or decide on immediately (e.g., afterschool club applications, holiday requests, summer activity fliers). I use my Folder of Destiny for everything I need to hang onto, not just school stuff, and purge it every month or so.
Field Trip Forms From Hell
Public School Field Trip Form
(Well, it feels like it.)
Photo by Phillip Wong

For years a little piece of my soul died every time one of my children brought home a field trip form. Of course I want my cherubs to experience stirring performances, browse magnificent museums, and encounter awe-inspiring insights into history. But although the front page of the permission slip needs only a few checked boxes and a signature, completing the back page rivals filling out a car loan application. Or penning your Last Will and Testament. Or applying for a no money-down, post-bankruptcy mortgage.
If you figure it takes about five minutes to dig up all the account numbers and addresses and phone contacts required to fill out each Our-Lawyers-Say-We-Need-All-This-Stuff-So-You-Can’t-Sue-Us-Later-and-Singlehandedly-Dismantle-the-American-Public-School-System form, and assuming kids go on six or so field trips a year, that’s about thirty minutes per school year of filling out field trip forms for each child in your family.
We have three.
I really did smack myself in the forehead and cry mingled tears of joy and regret (that I’d squandered so many hours of my life thus far scribbling out forms) when I finally figured out a work-around for this pain-in-the-neck aspect of school paperwork.
HACK: Next time you fill out the generic insurance/contacts/mother’s-cousin’s-doctor’s-wife’s-dog’s-maiden-name page of a field trip form, scan or copy it before you send it back to school with your kid. Print out twenty or thirty and keep them tucked inside your Folder of Destiny. From now on, you only have to fill out the easy-peasy front page and staple one of these pre-filled-out copies to it. Sweet! Go enjoy a milkshake with the five minutes you just saved.
The Obento Full of Leftovers
Hang on. Before you get all, “So you’re one of those women, huh?” and assume that I advocate the hyper-neurotic, Facebrag-photo post, I’m-a-better-Mom-than-you school lunch competition for the psychotically judgmental, hear me out.
I do obento-style lunches for my kids for four reasons:
1. They’re cheap.
2. They’re easy.
3. They’re environmentally friendly, while still being cheap & easy.
4. A packed lunch lets my kids eat for all twenty minutes of their allotted meal time, as opposed to stand in the cafeteria line for ten or fifteen minutes out of their scanty little lunch periods.
Photo by Atsuko Smith
HACK: Get a plastic food-saver box with a snap-on lid for each kid. If you’re feeling especially Pinterest-y, you can use some silicone baking cups as dividers. In the evening, when you’re cleaning up after dinner (or stacking the take-out bags in the fridge) throw some leftovers in the obento boxes: cut-up pizza, hot dogs, quesadillas; chicken nuggets, meatballs, fruit/veggie chunks. Round them out with yogurt tubes, cheese sticks, granola bars. Toss them in the fridge. They look pretty tasty, and when you get up in the morning lunch is already done.
White-Board, Out-the-Door Calendar
“Who has P.E. today? Wait—it’s Wednesday, right? So you have art club after school and Jennifer’s mom drives you home after. Or is today Spanish club, and I drive you and Erika home? What do you mean it’s early-release?!?”
Navigating a multi-person weekly schedule can feel like driving a car with bald tires. In an ice storm. With the accelerator stuck to the floor. And no steering wheel.
HACK: Make a white-board calendar, with the kids’ names down the left side and the days of the week across the top. In each KID/DAY grid write their school specials (P.E., art, etc.) and any afterschool clubs/sports/activities. Glue a bright red button or pom-pom or stray board game player piece to a magnet (one for each kid) and use these to mark the passing days. On Sunday jot in any one-off stuff you need to account for that week (like a field trip you’re supposed to chaperone). Everybody checks the board on the way out the door to make sure they’re prepared for the day. Use the cache of brain space you just freed up to memorize your kids’ social security numbers.
Message Board
This hack prevents you having to talk to your children.
No, not really. It just makes communication and information dissemination more efficient. Because the kids get mail, right? And they leave their crap lying around the house, right? And you realize at ten in the morning that you have to know today if they want to sign up for soccer or drama camp for summer vacation, right?
HACK: Get another white board and divide it into columns, one for each kid. Get a magnetic clip for each section. When a magazine arrives for Susie, stick it in her clip. When you buy Bobby that video game he wanted, write a You-Owe-Me receipt on a sticky note and slap it in his column. When some punk name Jake calls and wants to talk to fifteen-year-old Ella, slip a copy of the Application to Date My Daughter under Ella’s magnet, to be passed along to Jake.
The I-Made-You-This-in-School-Today-Mommy! Box
We're considering therapy
for the child who made this.

When your kid enters preschool, every hand-drawn picture, every illegible sentence, every picture/macaroni sculpture/clay… something is a priceless gem to be enshrined on the holy refrigerator or kitchen windowsill of your child’s unbelievable amazingness.
By the time first grade rolls around, the arts and crafts and gold-starred homework and adorable budding-novelist compositions will have taken over your house with the multiplicity of a box full of horny rabbits.
You must reign in the fertile bedlam.
HACK: Put a box somewhere off the beaten path, like a den or office. Display on the fridge/walls/shelves only the most magical and marvelous of your child’s creations; everything else goes in the box. If the child complains, say, “I’m saving it to put in a scrapbook of your wonderfulness!” At the end of the school year set aside an hour to go through the box. With the perspective of time and the abundance of material, the truly keep-worthy stuff will emerge. Deep-six the rest. Put the treasures in a photo box, labeled with your child’s name and grade. You will never look into these boxes again, but having them will palliate Mom-guilt, and give you something to deposit at your child’s house as soon as he gets his own place. And then you’ll have fresh closet space!
Mother Teresa said, “Everybody today seems to be in such a terrible rush, anxious for greater developments and greater riches and so on, so that children have very little time for their parents. Parents have very little time for each other, and in the home begins the disruption of peace in the world.”
My wish for all parents of school-aged kids today is that we’ll find ever more ways to alleviate the crunch, the chaos, the stress of everyday life, so we can find time and space for peace and joy and relationship.
And maybe even a milkshake or two.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Joy of Eating (Out)

Photo by Thomas Hawk

On a twenty-minute drive across town with the cherubs I realized we eat at restaurants way too often.
“Ooh! There’s Hard Times Cafe! Can we eat there tonight?”
“The Melting Pot! The Melting Pot! Let’s go there!”
We tried The Melting Pot, a spectacular cheese-, oil-, chocolate-, and calorie-chockablock fondue place, on my birthday last year. For the five of us dinner cost as much as one month’s rent on my first apartment.
“No, we’re not going to The Melting Pot tonight.”
When your eight-year-old not only knows what Sichuan is, but can pronounce it correctly (by English-speaker standards, anyway), you start to wonder what kind of gastronomical monsters you have created.
“We’re eating at home tonight.”
“At home?!? Why?!?”
“Because eating out is expensive and we don’t need to do it every night.”
“How about every other night? We haven’t eaten out since… Tuesday!”
Forehead to steering wheel.
“What are we having for dinner?”
“Pork chops.”
“I HATE pork chops! I want Thai food! Or Lebanese! Or Southeastern Hindi Fusion!”
On the upside, my kids are fairly savvy on world geography, unlike most of us The-Five-States-That-Border-My-Own-Comprise-The-Known-Universe Americans.
I blame the hubs for this situation. He loves to eat out, and would likely do so every single night if I allowed it. When he walks in the door at six o’clock I merely put the back of my hand to my temple and murmur, “I’m not sure what to have for dinner.” He responds each time with the foolproof predictability of an if-then series of software code:
If wife cooking=0, then restaurant.
If wife cooking=yuk, then restaurant.
If wife cooking=yum, then restaurant for dessert.
If you know me, you know I don’t even like cooking. Baking, yes—if the recipe calls for flour and sugar, I’m your girl. But the meat-and-vegetables stuff, not so much. I have a few friends who make their livings as chefs, and when one of them comes to my place for dinner I don’t even try to impress, because I have about as much chance of success as I do of finishing an Ironman Triathlon (while continuing to be alive) or being crowned Miss America. My goals when entertaining gourmet types are that the smoke alarm does not go off while they are present, and that no one experiences foodborne illness during the first twenty-four hours post-my-cooking.
But this eating-out thing may be getting out of hand.
Our kids know which restaurants offer what perks to entice the little ones to drag their parents (i.e., their parents’ wallets) into the establishment:
Chevys gives out balls of tortilla dough. Every single time we go there the kids argue for baking the dough after we get home, and I insist yet again that no one is putting that crap into his mouth after it’s been rolled on a public surface between fingers that an hour earlier were catching worms, scratching body parts, and booger-digging.
Crackerbarrel puts one of those wooden triangle/golf-tee board games at every table. Which would be great if you popped out or adopted only one offspring. Is there ever an empty table anywhere near you at that place? Never mind two.
Paradiso, an Italian restaurant far enough away that we would never go there but for the irresistible lure they cast, has a separate room for the ten-and-unders. Genius. With picnic tables and G movies and two servers of their very own, kids need not even interact with their parents. Mom and Dad can keep an eye on the progeny through the one-way mirror that takes up most of the wall between the rooms. I’m pretty sure I heard angels singing the Hallelujah Chorus to my husband and me the first time we went there.
But the reigning king of kid-friendly eateries is Buffalo Wild Wings. Each child gets his own tablet to play with. And I’m not talking Sumerian clay plates. Honestly, when we go there it’s like having a date night. None of the kids even talks to us or to each other because they’re all busy interfacing with their new electronic best friends. We probably wouldn’t have to order food for them, because odds are they’d never notice.
But is eating out as much as we do really a problem?
We’re not overspending to the point that it’s taking a toll on other, higher-priority financial needs like paying the mortgage. Most importantly, I can still support my yarn addiction. And my baby-daddy travels for work so much, he rationalizes both that I need a break after long days of single-parenting, and that our dining habits are supported by his unused per diem.
We all enjoy eating out, and it offers practice in crucial life skills such as decision-making, compromise, and self-advocacy. We’ve also gotten comments from waiters on the kiddos’ articulacy in ordering for themselves. (It’s pretty stinkin’ cute to hear a second-grader ask, “Can I have the chicken fingers tossed in Buffalo sauce, please? Yes, I’m serious.”)
And what is the point of eating meals, anyway? Sure, you need to fuel up the bod so it will continue to function, but you could do that with Soylent, an engineer-designed, tasteless, liquid food substitute that really should’ve been named after something besides a movie whose big reveal is that [SPOILER ALERT] people are being fed other dead, liquefied people. (There’s a reason manufacturers hire marketing firms, dude.)
But besides replenishing the body’s nutrient deficiencies, meals also serve as platforms for relationship-building. Studies have shown that eating together—while interacting in a positive way—is one of the most valuable things families can do to promote child development and general well-being. Anne Fishel, co-founder of The Family Dinner Project, reports that, among myriad other gains, dinner is the most reliable way for families to connect and find out what’s going on with each other.”
So, hey! Going out might not be as bad as I thought.
If—and here’s the rub—we’re actually having family time.
Holy cow. Look at the clock. Hubs just pulled into the driveway and I got zip going on in the kitchen. So much for those pork chops.
Back of the hand to the temple. “Kids! We’re going out!”
“Yay!!! Where are we going?”
“Somewhere that there’s nothing for us to do but nourish ourselves and relate to each other! ‘Cause we’re having family time!”
Grumble, mutter, hiss and moan. “Can we at least go to The Greene Turtle? They’ve got an arcade!”
An arcade?
An arcade’s pretty interactive, right?
The chitlins do have their own coinage. They’ll be learning practical life lessons about things like spending vs. saving, opportunity cost, and house advantage.
And the man and I could have fifteen or twenty whole minutes to ourselves.
“The Greene Turtle it is!”
Awesome parenting at work here.
That’s what I’m going to keep telling myself, all the way to the sports bar and grille.
The use-by date on those pork chops is just a guideline, anyway.


Saturday, April 2, 2016

Online Reviews for the Busy and/or Composition-Challenged

Photo by Alan O'Rourke

It seems many people don't post online reviews of products and services because they either can’t eke out the time, are flummoxed at the thought of penning their own original paragraph, or some combination of both.

     But reviews are the lifeblood of products and services, and can mean the difference between growth and death for a small business or businessperson. A 2014 study conducted by found that 88% of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations and that 72% of consumers will place their trust in a local business if they’ve read a positive review about it online.

     Even negative reviews can have a positive effect. According to 63% of customers are more likely to make a purchase from a site which has customer reviews, online question-and-answer interactions increase purchasing likelihood by 105%, and reviews are more trusted by consumers when they find a mix of positive and negative reviews for a product or service.

     Therefore it is my pleasure to offer as a public service the following Sample Review Templates for your personal use. Plagiarize them word-for-word or adapt them at your discretion. I remain your humble ghostwriter.

Five Stars      


Love, love, love! This book (product, service) is the most amazing thing since “Anna Karenina” (the wheel, home pizza delivery). Seriously, it’s the best (insert price here) I ever spent. You’ll laugh; you’ll cry; you’ll wonder how you ever lived your life to this point without it. The author (manufacturer, owner) will one day be canonized as a saint, granted angel wings, and memorialized with a fifty-foot marble monument. I’ve already named my unborn child after him/her.

Four Stars   


This is a really good book (product, service). It’s useful and interesting and well-written (-made, -organized). I learned (saved, appreciated it) a lot. The author (manufacturer, owner) is obviously well-informed and highly skilled at his/her work. And I looked him/her up online—total hottie, folks. Only one or two places (glitches, hitches) gave me momentary pause, but overall the item is a tremendous value. I’d definitely buy it again. Especially if it came in periwinkle.

Three Stars


This story (thing, business) is okay. Not a total waste of money, but given the chance I’d probably put my (insert price here) towards a cup of Starbucks or an eyebrow/back wax. I’d like to have experienced a little more pathos (utility, customer service) than I did, but I don’t feel like I got totally rooked, either. It did the job, but just barely. I’d probably try this writer (manufacturer, service) again, but might look around a little more next time. The experience was kind of like taking your cousin to the prom: s/he is a date, but only by the most generous definition of the word.

Two Stars


It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever paid money for, but it comes close. The font (color, location) is acceptable, but if you were hoping for intellectual stimulation (a useful life-hack, a living & breathing serviceman) your chances are about as good as that of putting together a nice dinner out of a dumpster dive at the back of the 7-11. It is possible to repurpose the item, however, into a doorstop (makeshift weapon, phone contact that makes you look like you have more friends than you actually do). But honestly, you could turn your cash money into paper airplanes and have more fun watching them fly away than spending them on this crap.

One Star

Lousy novel (product, company). Whoever came up with this must’ve worked on it while simultaneously binge-watching Netflix and swilling Two-Buck Chuck. I’ve honestly procured better reading (stuff, service) from people who showed up at my door in dirty denim overalls with a piece of wheatgrass stuck between their two front teeth. Only saving grace of this book (item, outfit) is that it serves as an awesome cockroach hammer. I only bought it because it’s a friend of my sister’s roommate’s ex-boyfriend, and he begged me on Facebook. I’ve since blocked him. And the roommate. And my sister.

     So no more excuses, people! Next time you purchase a product, do the author (manufacturer, business) a favor and leave a review online. With this kind of assistance, it really is the very least you can do.
Happy buying!