How to have a happy December

In the spirit of having a low-key December (I know that’s not really a thing), I set modest goals before we packed up to go to my mom’s last week. 1. Finish all the laundry–that’s essential, because coming home to a stinky pile of clothes is not relaxing. 2. Pack–the kids packed their own clothes for the first time, which was more relaxing than I anticipated, once I realized it didn’t matter, they’d spend the whole week in pajamas. And 3. Vacuum–who was I kidding? That didn’t happen.

This was the second Christmas without my dad, and his presence still fills the house. For me–and I know it’s different for everyone–it hasn’t faded, which is mostly a testament to the power of his personality. Dad was almost a caricature of himself in many ways. Not one to do things by halves. Even if, as was true so much in the last few years of his life, that meant sitting in his favorite chair and watching golf or Fox News with his favorite drink at hand. By God, he did that in such a way and so often that to this day I can’t look at that chair without picturing him in it.

I think he would have really enjoyed this Christmas. Many Manhattans were drunk in his honor. There are new ornaments on the tree–a golf ball and a miniature bottle of Jim Beam–to hang next to the mementos he and Mom collected over the years. And between the quiet moments when we were overwhelmed by missing him, the laughter was back. Sometimes so hard it brought tears to our eyes.

Laughing as a family–it doesn’t get any better than that. It was worth the 700 miles of driving. The who-was-I-kidding-frantic hours of preparation. The headaches and the messes and the dishes, oh my god the dishes, but at the end a meal we all ate together. There is no such thing as low-key this time of year, not when your family is half a country away in the heart of the Great White North, not even if it’s a god-awful sixty degrees, which is almost worse, because then what do I do with the kids when I can’t throw them out in the snow?

But there are surprises, wonderful surprises. Cousins putting down their iPads and opening a Season Workshop, working all day to make (and sell!) construction paper crafts. Beautiful art, carefully colored. Beloved aunts and favorite uncles. Cherished gifts.

I put these gifts in my heart–there’s room, because that last load of laundry? I didn’t actually do it–and know that my dad will keep them safe.


How to have a happy road trip: Bring the dog!


Do Reading Logs Make Reading Horrible? Here’s a Handy Short-cut!

I don’t know about your school, but my kids’ school is pretty cool. If my kid wants to take his shoes off and run around in his socks, he can. If my daughter needs to chew gum because it keeps her from chewing her hair, no problem. I walk into the lobby, and I’m surrounded by children’s art, friendly faces, and good vibes. For the first four years, the only homework is “read to your child thirty minutes at night.” School rocks.

Except for reading logs.

Now, just to be fair, I know that teachers are just trying to hold kids accountable. And some kids embrace these with vigor, charting their hours read with enthusiasm. I admit, I might have been one of those children—I keep lists for everything. Food shopping? I’ve got a separate list for each grocery store. I’ve charted our kilowatt hours and carbon footprint for five years running. Packing for trips? Don’t get me started—there’s a whole spreadsheet. OK, so a five line reading log would not have been a hurdle.

But reading logs totally suck the life out of reading for my kids.

My son loves reading. I can’t get him to STOP reading at night. “Just one more chapter” is the most common phrase heard in our household after dark. But next to trying to get him to WAKE UP in the morning, getting him to fill out his reading log is the thing I nag him most about.

So if your child is like mine, I’ve prepared a handy PRE-FILLED READING LOG! As an example, I’ve used TIMBER HOWLIGAN, SECRET AGENT CAT! (Don’t have the book? No problem! I would never advocate using a homework crutch for a book your child has never read. The book is available HERE!) This won’t solve all your problems. But it might get you through one week, and if you’re like me, you’ll take that!


Use this handy, pre-filled reading log to get you through a difficult week!

You might notice certain key phrases that may be of use to your child on future reading logs, such as “I wonder if . . .” and “My favorite part . . . ” and “A lot of things go wrong, but (main character) saves the day.” Feel free to re-use these as often as needed. And if your child grows up to be a double-agent, don’t blame me.

The REAL way to be a bad parent

There’s a list out there of “Ten Ways to be the Worst Mother in the World” (I can’t find it, but trust me, it’s out there) but it’s a total lie, because I read it to my kids, and they said, “You do all those things and they make you a great mother.” They’re not hard, and you probably do them too—it’s things like “Teach your kids to say they’re sorry” and “Don’t always buy the newest things” and “Make them eat things they don’t like, like vegetables.” OK, this isn’t terrible parenting, this is Parenting 101.

Here’s the real list of things that make you a terrible mother. I did them all. In one weekend.

1. Take your kid to the beach without his flip-flops. Make him wear the cheap-o sandals they gave out at “Cave of the Winds” at Niagara Falls instead, because these are the only waterproof shoes he owns. (But, total point for not buying all the newest things, right??)

2. Then, when he runs and trips on concrete (because the sandals are a death trap waiting to happen—BUT YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO WEAR THEM AS YOU WALK UNDER A WATER FALL) make him go in the ocean, even though the salt water makes him cry as soon as it hits his scrapes.

3. Cover your kids in sunscreen and leave them out all day in the sun. But forget that THIS sunscreen is not the same as the LAST sunscreen (with the SAME LABEL) that actually worked. They changed the ingredients. And now your kid is so sunburned, she can’t eat. Or sleep. Or do anything but cry.

4. After leaving your kids all day to play in the sun and the water, eating nothing but Doritos and chocolate, drive home without feeding them dinner (because you want to get them home for BED). When they complain they are hungry, feed them sandwiches and granola bars. When they are STILL HUNGRY, feed them leftover tortilla chips. That you salvaged from the ants.

5. When they are STILL HUNGRY when you get home, make them scrambled eggs, the first healthy food they have seen in ten hours. But for some reason, their stomachs hurt. Maybe this is because you fed them too much junk food in the car. But wasn’t it better than stopping at Taco Bell? Really?

6. Wake up for school, look at kid’s homework folder and realize—he was supposed to finish his writing assignment. Oops. You were supposed to check this before leaving for the beach on Friday. Write a note to the teacher and hope for the best.

7. Take your kid to school the next day after not enough sleep. Her stomach hurts. She still can’t do anything but cry. Maybe this is not just sunburn? Maybe you should have thought of trying Tylenol 12 hours ago, Mom.

8. On the bright side, we got to the library Friday afternoon. They each read four books this weekend. So I’m not a completely horrible mother after all. On the other hand, our detour to the library made us about three hours late getting to the beach because we got stuck in rush hour traffic, soooo . . .

9. Fight in front of the kids. Yeah, that’s always a good one.

10. On the way home from school with sick child, stop by the grocery store because you are completely out of bread, milk, and other necessities . . . like granola bars. Lord knows that child can’t go a day without granola bars.

We all do our best. That’s all I got.

The Latest Fight Against the Machines

Me versus device time...

Me versus device time… (All image rights to the current holder)

No, this has nothing to do with Terminator Genisys. But yes, it is a rehash of a familiar plot—not sending robots back in time, but my perpetual battle against my children and their “device time.”

Why do I have to be the bad guy? Yeah, I’ve got something in common with Arnold, and I’m proud of it. Did you know he wanted to play the hero in the original movie, and James Cameron talked him out of it? (Saving his career, and the world, from a worse fate: OJ Simpson as the Terminator. I kid you not.)

It’s summer. PLAY OUTSIDE. I don’t care if there are ticks. I don’t care if it’s 100 degrees out. I don’t care if you get poison ivy, sun burned, or eaten alive by mosquitoes—they won’t kill you. Well, okay, I forgot about West Nile Virus. Here’s some bug spray.

No, I’m not having “device time.” I’m WORKING. Okay, technically it’s not “work.” No one pays me for this. But it’s NOT EASY. Now go outside.

It’s raining?

Play in your room. Build a fort. Draw a cat. Throw pillows at each other. Something. Anything. Just let me have five minutes to myself, or this household is going to fall apart because I haven’t paid bills since school ended. Plus, I haven’t had my coffee yet.

I am such a good mother at the beginning of the summer. I have a calendar. I have a chart. I have a checklist of “Things You Have to do Before You Can Look at a Screen.” There’s a stack of library books in a ridiculously hopeful plastic bucket, next to their beds.

At the beginning of the summer, this was probably alphabetized.

At the beginning of the summer, this was probably alphabetized.

Six weeks later, I’m standing at the kitchen sink screaming “When I say go upstairs I mean it! Turn off the iPads now!” (For the record: I was looking at my children as I threw this tantrum, not randomly hurling my vitriol at a helpless wall. Not that I haven’t done that too.)

I hate using the big voice, but it worked. Two little heads popped up. Four little eyes, wide open, stared at me. Then drifted back to their screens. . .

Oh no. I’m going to win this fight, whatever it takes. This fight is for the future of humanity.

“I am having a conversation with you. Right now. Who is more important—me, or that iPad?”

“Um . . . you?” my son says, though his eyes are still darting downward, and his fingers are twitching.

“You,” my daughter parrots. She does a better job of faking paying attention—she snaps the device off. But her eyes go upstairs. She doesn’t want to be here either.


They weren’t expecting that. They look at each other. They look at the iPads. Finally they look at me.

“Because you’re a parent?” my son guesses.

“No. Because I’m a person. And. . .”

They should know the answer. They totally don’t. They shrug, unconcerned.

“Real people are more important than . . .” I prompt.

“Devices!” They remember the mantra. I’m wondering if it’s accomplished what I hoped it would.

Relieved that they got the answer right, they run upstairs—finally!  I should feel great. I won this battle.

Instead, I start preparing for the next one. Should I hide the iPads? Accidentally run them through the dishwasher? At the very least, I’ll just implement a device-free weekend. My work isn’t over—those little vulnerable minds have a lot to learn, and the machines are relentless. They are everywhere. And compared to playing outside when it’s 100 degrees out, they are way too much fun.

I’ll be back.

Timber Howligan First Month Update: Success!

Self-publishing is a business, so here’s the accounting: I promised to donate any proceeds to charity, the animal rescue organization Alley Cat Allies.

Here’s what Timber earned in his first month out in the world:

$4.07 from CreateSpace (11 copies)

$11.87 from Draft2Digital (5 copies)

$85.70 from paperbacks I sold directly (28 copies, including 12 to my mother, who made an extra $20 donation. This might have been out of the goodness of her heart or a math error and knowing her, could have been either…I’ll assume the best. Thanks, Mom!)

That makes just over $100 to donate! Not bad for a cat who only recently learned how to use an iPad.

Screenshot 2015-07-03 15.07.11

They are not kidding about the “wealth of information” part…beware becoming part of their email list. Good thing I REALLY like cats.

I’m not going to get much into the nitty-gritty business details, except to say that you might notice I made less royalties on CreateSpace (paperback sales, mostly) than Draft2Digital. However, if I’d raised the paperback price to $12 or $13, the royalties might be more—it’s all about how you price your books in the self-publishing world. So I still think CreateSpace is a pretty good deal, I just didn’t take full advantage of it by raising my price. Not that I don’t think authors deserve to make every cent they manage to earn on their hard won literary sweat and tears, and not that I don’t think my book is awesome, but I’m not bold enough to put my first offering out there at the same price as something by someone who’s been doing this professionally for thirty years.

Some might not call a first month’s tally of less than 50 books sold a “success,” but I’m actually very happy. First, I’m DONE. Getting this book ready for publication happened to coincide with my children’s last few weeks of school—what the eff was I thinking? So while I was pulling together class projects, class gifts, and generally overdoing things in my usual style, I was trying to figure out how to put together an ebook with illustrations (Note To Self: do NOT leave this until the last minute), maniacally fix every last typo, and still put dinner on the table every night.

Some things slipped through the cracks. I did not win a lot of “warm fuzzy spouse” points during those last hectic days. My husband did not put it so gently.

But he DID read the book, and he laughed his…butt off. So that is the SECOND reason I call this release a success: I have fans! Not all of them are related to me. At least two friends have texted me to let me know their kids were engrossed in the book, and one was already asking for a sequel. That’s kind of cool.

The most important reason Timber Howligan is a success is that feeling you get when you know you’ve finished something big, something that will last. This is a book that will be on my children’s shelves for years. You can drive your kids to school every day, feed them dinner every night, and they will forget it by morning. But write them a book, and they will remember it forever—forever! Ha! Parenting subterfuge at its finest!

Summer reading fun, device-free

We work hard around here to protect our reading time. It isn’t easy–those long summer days are great for swimming, bouncing on the trampoline, and once school ends, there’s the biggest temptation of all:

Device time.

When my son turned eight, he earned himself the right to an iPad mini by being a voracious reader of ebooks. He mastered the on-line dictionary. He installed OverDrive and figured out how to browse for appropriate library books. “This,” I thought, “is a parenting success.”

Two years later, our daughter turned eight and waited eagerly for her birthday, knowing what was coming. We didn’t disappoint…although we too knew what was coming. Sure enough, the next day she woke up early and snuck her iPad into her room to binge watch Shaun the Sheep on Amazon Prime. “This is the reason people say kids shouldn’t own iPads,” I thought.

Now we regulate device time a little more carefully. Inspired by this post from Hands Free Mama on saving summer from the screens, and this linked post from Narrow Back Slacker on how she limited her kids’ screen time by offering unlimited screen time, I immediately posted a list of “No Glowing Screens Until.” Knowing that if I included an unlimited screen time option, my daughter would see that and ONLY that, I retained the right to limit usage to the American Pediatric Society’s recommended two hours a day (which seems reasonable to me). I also told them there would be optional “device free days,” to be instituted at Mama’s Whim. We tried this list for a weekend, with success: Once the kids got started doing something creative, they tended to stick with it. Narrow Back Slacker’s momentum theory worked.

My daughter's "edited" (but unapproved) version of my checklist

My daughter’s “edited” (but unapproved) version of my checklist

I like devices. But I also love the time I spend doing other things…and like so many parents, I want my kids to grow up having real memories, especially of summer vacation. Remembering the smell of fresh cut grass, of sticky sap on their fingers and sweet tangy lemonade on their tongues, of hot sun and cold water and tired, tired bodies after a day outside. When they finally sit down at the end of that day, I want them to reach for a book.

Yesterday, we had a device-free day. We all needed it–the day before, my son had been home sick, and his entertainment of choice is “Smarter Every Day” or “King of Random” videos on YouTube. They’re great, though my parental opinion is they are best in small doses. That is largely based on their not-inconsiderable-potential to turn my son into an evil genius mad scientist. He watched them for four hours straight. That same day I spent converting “Timber Howligan Secret Agent Cat” to ebook–I’d seen plenty of glowing screens. And my daughter, though she spent the day at camp running around in the woods and swimming in the river, still managed to level up on Hay Day.

So yesterday while my daughter was at camp, I took my son–still home recovering from his illness–to the library. We stocked up on books. He came home, plopped on the couch, and finished “Timber Howligan,” laughing out loud in all the right places. I even stuck to the “no screens” rule while my husband and I dragged my son to the lawyer’s office to refinance our mortgage. He played solitaire–with a real deck of cards–in the corner for an hour. And last night, we got out a card game we’ve had since Christmas but never played: “Zombie Run.” It’s ridiculously easy to learn and fun to play. All in all, a great day. I didn’t miss my iPad…much.

This morning, my daughter woke up and immediately asked if she could check on Hay Day. But we will take our successes where we can get them. And have another device-free day SOON.

The Common Core— Is it a plot by evil bureaucrats to make our kids stupid?

Yesterday I asked the director of my children’s elementary school this question. He surprised me by not laughing or scoffing as I expected. “No,” he said simply, quite seriously. “But there are people who don’t like it.”

That’s why I like him. He has a gift for understatement.

I stumbled into the quagmire that is the deep loathing for all things Common Core when I saw one of those “Third Grade Math Examples” on social media. You probably know it. If you haven’t seen it, it goes something like…

How the "Common Core" supposedly teaches three-digit subtraction

How the “Common Core” supposedly teaches three-digit subtraction


Is this really how the Common Core teaches third-grade subtraction?

Looking at this math problem, a few things jumped out immediately:

1. This was not how my third-grader (last year) was taught how to subtract three digit numbers. They use the Common Core in NC (at the moment). In my opinion, our school implements it much better (more on this later).

2. Despite that, I still had no problem following this example.

3. It seems to me this example is not designed to teach a rapid method of calculation (my son was still taught to do it the quick way, with borrowing and everything.) This example illustrates the theory behind the calculation, which is in line with the Common Core’s mission to teach higher-order thinking skills.

4. People hate the common core. I mean, really hate it. The comments following this example accused the Common Core of everything from rampant statism to evil plots to blatantly trying to make our kids stupid and make parents look bad because we’re no longer qualified to help them with their homework.

I am not an educator, but I care deeply about my children’s education. I have never felt like my children’s teachers felt otherwise. The idea of a far-reaching conspiracy with such nefarious goals seems ludicrous at best, not to mention overly-complicated.

Yet whoo-boy, people sure seem to think otherwise.

What was I missing?

What is the Common Core?

Maybe the Common Core was just misunderstood. Or maybe I misunderstood it. I honestly didn’t know much more than my kid’s teachers had told me—and they liked it. But my brother was an educator and school administrator in New York state, and he didn’t.

Somewhere, there was a disconnect. Clearly, I needed to know more about this potentially evil plot.

The Common Core was developed by a small group of politicians and educators following evidence-based best practices and launched in 2009. Given the state of education in America, I have no problem believing the standards were developed with the best of intentions:

The standards emphasize critical thinking and spell out what reading and math skills students should grasp at each grade level, while leaving how those skills are mastered up to districts and states. The hope was that higher standards shared across state lines would allow for shared resources, comparable student performance measures and smoother school-to-school transitions….” (From Real Politics article.)

Sounds harmless enough. This so-called “state-led effort” was initially embraced and signed onto by most states. The federal government got on board by tying educational funding to participation. Now states are pushing back.

GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal…has sued the Obama administration, accusing Washington of illegally manipulating federal grant money and regulations to force states to adopt the Common Core education standards. …Jindal initially supported Common Core… because the standards were first presented as a bottoms-up approach, but “the reality is what it has become is another tool for the federal government to try to dictate curriculum.” (Real Politics article.)

Part of the controversy is the link to federal funding, the other part is having teacher evaluations linked to student performance—but this is a political issue, not part of the educational standards at all.

Clearly the issue has become over-politicized. Part of the problem is that when people think they hate the Common Core standards, the standards aren’t their implementation. It’s like criticizing a language’s words. There’s some power in the words, but more in how they are put together.

Why was the Common Core working better in my children’s school?

What made the Common Core work so well in our school, where they are flopping elsewhere? That’s why I cornered our director outside his office yesterday. This is a paraphrase of the conversation, as I wasn’t slick enough to turn my iPhone to record:

“Can I ask you a question that has absolutely nothing to do with either one of my kids?”

“Um…” —trying not to look at the clock— “Sure.”

“What do you think about the Common Core?”

Eyes widen, as he perhaps realizes it would have been easier to talk about the kids. “I like it…as an educator at a project based school.” I noticed that he emphasized the caveat. He goes on, the gist of which is, “They emphasize oral communication skills as well as written, which works well with our mission.”

Short and sweet. I ask him what people don’t like. He has plenty of examples.

“They’re tied to the publishers, for one thing. So people worry about that. And even though it’s not a federal program, there’s federal money attached to it. If you’re worried about big government, you’re probably not going to like the Common Core.”

Finally, I ask why the teachers at our school don’t mind it. I tell him my son’s experience last year. “The third grade team got together, went through what they were supposed to teach, and decided when and how to do it. They didn’t seem to feel constrained.”

“But we’re a charter school,” he says. “We have more flexibility.” He explained that in a lot of school districts, lesson plans are handed down from the superintendent.

I didn’t know that. But it might explain the push back against “the new way of teaching,” especially if teachers aren’t getting a choice in how they approach their new lessons.

He agrees. “Maybe,” he says, “more schools should watch how charter schools take the initiative with implementation.”

The difference between a standard and its implementation

Like any standard, there are many different ways to implement the Common Core—some good, some bad. Yes, it’s been politicized—sadly, there doesn’t seem to be a way around that. Let’s not throw out the good that the Common Core was trying to accomplish.

The Common Core was trying to raise the bar and improve consistency in education. I think those are noble goals. Believe me, the people who create standards are passionate about their work. It takes a special kind of person, in love with nit-picky details and consistency. I worked on a standard trying to define the terms in one medical document, and with a group of over ten people it took two years. Can you imagine how massive a standard covering all of K-12 education must be? It’s only five years old. Some of it is bound to be flawed. Not through evil intent, I believe, but because no standard survives its first round of implementation intact.

Here’s an example that supposedly rips apart “The Common Core“, when if you look closely, each worksheet’s flaw is in implementation (like the one that is missing the shaded parts. And I’m going to go out on a limb and add that some of them actually made sense–I have a fourth grader and a second grader, and I understand how their math is being taught, i.e. from bottom principles up. Some of these examples DO make sense, in context.)

The politics aside (I have no solution for that), maybe we don’t need to throw out the Common Core standards themselves. Some of the criticisms against them are no doubt true–maybe the people who created them were out of touch with what educators really teach. Maybe not enough early childhood educators were involved. What’s the solution? Watch how they are implemented in places that have the passion and the time to implement them well, such as charter schools. Listen to the feedback about where they didn’t hit their target… then fix them. Politicians have no patience with imperfection, but this is the real world.

As this article puts so well, “We’re still in a war of explanation over Common Core,” and it’s too soon to tell whether it’s a success or not. American education is going through a period of change. Have hope. Assuming the Common Core isn’t an evil plot designed to ruin us all through our children*, things will probably get better.


* I believe that would be Minecraft.**

** Just kidding. I love Minecraft. Really. But the Sims are another matter entirely…..