Halloween’s No Treat



I have a confession to make. I hate Halloween. Although I seem to remember having fun as a child dressing up and loading up on candy, I now find the holiday exhausting and not much fun.

Maybe what I dislike is the completely kid-centered nature of Halloween. After all, the other big holidays – Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and Easter, to name the most obvious – all center on families and being together. There is also a religious element that gives them meaning. But Halloween? It’s all about scaring yourself and getting a pillowcase full of candy.

Since becoming a parent, I have learned to dread the approach of All Hallow’s Eve. Round about August, my kids would start talking about what they were going to be for Halloween. They usually changed their minds numerous times, driving me insane as I spent way too much time in our local party stores arguing with them about costumes.

The costume dilemmas only get more difficult as children get older. Schools have strict rules about the presence of blood, gore and fake weapons, for instance. So my sons would complain there was nothing good to choose from. Tween girls pose an entirely different problem, as most of the costumes geared towards them look like something from Frederick’s of Hollywood.

And then there’s the candy. Truck loads of it wound up on our family room floor, where my kids would dump, sort, and trade with each other – all while eating too much sugar and strewing the carpet with candy wrappers. Already hyper from their school’s Halloween parade and party and then running from house to house with friends, my kids were hard to settle down and get to bed on a school night.

Over the years, I have tried to overcome my dislike of Halloween. I try to get into the spirit by dressing up in a costume and inviting friends over for a bowl of chili and a beer. And I do enjoy answering the door and handing out treats to the adorable little neighborhood kids. But let’s face it. If there were a Halloween Grinch, I would be it.

After the Christmas holidays, I am always a bit sad as I dismantle the tree and take down all the festive decorations. In contrast, my Halloween decor, which has gotten less and less elaborate as my children have gotten older, is down and packed away by midday on Nov. 1. Good riddance, Halloween, I Grinch-ishly hum to myself.

Then I go through my kids’ candy stash, put my feet up, and enjoy a well-deserved rest.

Soccer Cleats and Slot Machines



This past weekend, my daughter and her team participated in the Las Vegas Mayor’s Cup International Soccer Tournament. As a Las Vegas “virgin,” I approached the trip with some trepidation. Would Sin City be as decadent as I imagined?

Well, with a 13-year-old in tow, there’s a limit to the wildness one might experience in Vegas. Yet our visit confirmed to me that there’s a good reason for the saying, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”

Upon touchdown in Las Vegas, we saw gaily colored slot machines throughout the airport. And on the taxi ride to the Strip, my daughter pulled out some cards with pictures of bare-breasted women, asking, “What are these for?” Oh, my. Vegas was going to need a lot of explaining to this group of 12- and 13-year-olds.

As the weekend went on, there was seemingly no limit to the strange and inappropriate things we saw glimpses of. Our girls seemed to be the only children staying in a huge hotel on the Vegas Strip, and I’m sure a few people dialed child protective services behind our backs. Whether it was the scantily clad women dressed as plumed show girls or the man in the g-string being escorted away by police, our daughters certainly got an eyeful. And I haven’t seen so many people that inebriated since college!

Our first night, I had a lot of trouble sleeping. I kept waking up on the hour from 3 am on. Later, someone told me this is because the hotels pump oxygen into the building to keep people awake. Truth, or urban legend? I’ll never know. But I finally decided to get up at 5:45 am and go seek coffee. As I descended toward the lobby floor, I heard raucous laughter. To my shock, people were gambling, drinking, and shouting as they sat at the black jack tables and roulette wheels. I thought New York was the city that never sleeps.

The girls played some awesome soccer and enjoyed the camaraderie of a weekend together in a foreign land. They explored the Strip, stocked up on candy at Hershey’s Chocolate World, and monopolized the hot tub at the hotel pool. We parents went along for the ride, but one of the moms regretted that she hadn’t had the chance to play the slots in the hotel casino.

We capped off our experience by getting our boogie on at the Britney Spears show. I counted myself lucky that my daughter didn’t ask why Britney was walking a man on all fours on a leash.

We were a somewhat bedraggled but happy group as we headed home to our very suburban, reassuringly boring existence. But I think my daughter and her friends made some memories that will last a lifetime.

In fact, I’m betting on it.

Plank in the Eye



Recently I was describing an acquaintance of mine to my husband.

“She’s not a very happy person,” I said. “She’s always complaining about something.”

My husband gave me a sidelong glance and said nothing.

That’s when it hit me; I was describing myself.

In the New Testament, Jesus asks his followers, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”

It is so easy to see the faults of others yet very hard to see our own. I like to think of myself as a happy person, but the fact is, I can be very negative. I have complaints about my kids’ schools and teachers, my friends and family members, and myriad strangers who don’t measure up to my standards. And if I’m being honest, I usually see the glass as half empty.

I have heard that if there is something you really hate about a person, it is because you possess that trait and wish you could get rid of it. This makes sense to me. In my family I have my biggest clashes with the children who are most like me. Last school year, I had a problem tolerating one of my children’s teachers. Why? Because she reminded me of myself when I was a young teacher. Looking back, I wonder how parents tolerated me.

My one saving grace is my ability to laugh at myself. When I caught a mirrored glimpse of myself in this negative friend, I laughed. Of course, this gave my husband permission to roll his eyes and say, “Sounds like someone I know. You two could be twins!” This made me howl even more, and I laughed until I cried.

Which was a good thing – because I think it washed that plank out of my eye.

The Terrible Tweens



There is an age when we are not quite grown up, yet not quite a child anymore. It’s the age of the “tween.” The word “tween” is perfect because it depicts a phase of development during which kids often feel awkward and as if they don’t belong. It is also a difficult phase for parents. One moment our little darling is hugging us tight. The next minute she is launching the “death stare.”

Recently my own daughter exhibited the maddening contradictions of a typical tween. It was a Sunday night. The pressure was on to finish that essay, get the gym uniform washed, and ready ourselves for another week in the stressful world of middle school.

I can’t even remember what we fought about now, but as my daughter made one scathing remark after another and fixed me with a withering glare, I remember thinking, “I don’t much like my child right at this moment.”

At times like this I usually give myself a timeout. Most moms can relate to those moments. You lock yourself in the bathroom and take several deep breaths to keep from punching a hole in the drywall or uttering the evil thoughts that are swirling in your mind.

So I marched upstairs to my bedroom and slammed the door. As I sat on my bed and tried to unclench my fists, I could hear my husband attempting to corral the unruly tween in her own room. There was a lot of banging, and I could hear her angry protests through the door.

Then I heard her ask plaintively, “Is Mom going to tuck me in?” There it was – the child inside the burgeoning adolescent. She couldn’t bear the thought of going to sleep without me, and I didn’t have the heart to make her.

As we said prayers and I tucked her long, lanky body under the covers, I realized that my tween is not going to need me forever. She is going to go to high school, learn to drive, start dating, and stay up long past my own bedtime some day.

For now, I will be happy to exist in that in between space with her so that when she is ready, she will have the confidence of knowing she is loved no matter what.

Driven to Distraction



Everyone knows that it’s not safe to text and drive. Most states have laws prohibiting such activity, and both TV and the internet are filled with PSAs regarding the dangers of texting while driving. Many states, Illinois included, also have restrictions on cell phones, usually limiting their use to handheld devices only.

However, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to distracted driving. Hands free or not, when I am talking on a cell phone while driving, I have been known to miss my turn or forget where I am going. I’m not sure why conversing by cell phone is harder on our concentration than talking to other passengers in the car. And cell phones aside, modern drivers do so many other things that are distracting.

Eating and drinking are activities that can interfere with safe driving. Have you ever tried to open your sandwich wrapper or the little gizmo on the top of your coffee cup while behind the wheel? I know people who eat soup and yogurt – with a spoon, no less! – while driving. Even the simple act of glancing down to eyeball your drink before picking it up can cause a fender bender – or worse.

I have seen people apply makeup, do their nails, put on and take off clothing, and even read a newspaper while driving. Surely these activities are at least as dangerous as using a cell phone while behind the wheel.

Then there are those small, yet significant, distractions called “children.” I wish I had a dollar for every time I yelled at explained to my kids that their fighting, whining, or shouting was going to get us in an accident. Many of us can remember car rides with our families, kids jammed in the back seat, Dad with one hand on the wheel and the other swatting or separating squabbling children. It’s a miracle we grew up at all.

Why do we insist on doing so many things in cars going anywhere from 30 to 70 miles an hour? Maybe it’s that our lives are so busy that we try to cram additional tasks into our commute. Or maybe we are so used to driving that we don’t recognize the dangers of distraction.

Many experts warn that our attempts to multitask are in vain. We can only really concentrate on one thing at a time. Sure, I can walk and chew gum at the same time – or drive and chat with my passengers. Beyond that, I think it’s safest if I keep my hands on the wheel, my eyes on the road, and my head in the game – of staying alive.

To Hell in a Hand Basket?



The news these days can really get a person down. I am talking some serious hand-wringing. Just this morning while watching TV news, my husband remarked, “The world’s going to Hell in a hand basket.”

To be sure, reports on ISIS alone – what with all their threats, beheadings, and enslavement of women – are enough to give one pause. Add to that the Ebola scare, unrest in Hong Kong, and Russian incursions into Ukraine, and it can be hard to sleep at night.

Yet I hesitate to agree with the doomsayers. Although things seem really bad right now, they have certainly been worse. The two World Wars of the 20th Century were horrific conflagrations that involved virtually the entire planet. And let’s not forget the horrors of slavery, the ethnic cleansings, and the atrocities committed in the name of patriotism or religion over the past centuries.

Yesterday, the Chicago Tribune‘s retrospective featured the year 1968. During that one year, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot and killed, leading to widespread riots. The Vietnam War raged and took the lives of thousands of Americans. There was unrest at the Democratic National Convention, and the homicide rate in America was nearly 50 percent higher than it is today. The U.S. even lost a nuclear bomb!

Every era has its share of dangerous and horrifying situations. I am currently reading a novel set during the time of the terrible Spanish flu, which claimed nearly 50 million lives (flu.gov). We have gotten through the Cold War, during which time the only thing that saved the planet was mutually assured destruction from the thousands of nuclear warheads possessed by the major super powers. And how about those Dark Ages?

I am not trying to minimize the real seriousness of world events. I can’t be totally sanguine while people are in danger of torture, murder, enslavement, or succumbing to a deadly virus. At the same time, for many people, life has never been better. People are living longer, and medical science continues to develop ways to promote health and prolong life. Technology has made many lives easier as well with labor-saving devices and safer equipment.

As journalist Daniel Gardner says in his fascinating book The Science of Fear,  “We are the healthiest, wealthiest, and longest-lived people in history. And we are increasingly afraid. This is one of the great paradoxes of our time.” (source:goodreads.com)

I think what we need is a balance, so that instead of feeling afraid and helpless, we take reasonable steps to protect ourselves. We also need to remind ourselves of all the good things in life.

That tumultuous year 1968? Well, that was the year “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” premiered. Goodbye, neighbor.

Snob Appeal



Most people are snobs. We all like to think we know best about some area of life – wine, music, food, fashion. Some people are even snobby about not being snobs. You know them. They are aggressively regular “(wo)man of the people” types.

I am a snob in a couple of areas. One is literature. I cannot read a book, however thrilling, if the writing is poor. I have tried to get on the bandwagon of some immensely popular bestsellers but could not get past the substandard writing style. Yet I am far from the worst literary snob I know. I know people who refuse to read any book on the Oprah’s Book Club list, for example.

I’ve also met many wine snobs. They have opinions on everything from certain vintages to storage to serving temperature to appropriate glasses for drinking. Yet when I read articles by wine experts, I find that many of the wine snobs’ opinions are wrong, or at least debatable. In fact, many studies have shown that even the most respected experts often can’t tell a prestigious wine from a $10 bargain brand.

Along with wine comes food, and being a foodie has become something of an art form in America. The prevalence of televised cooking competitions, the fame of chefs in big cities across the country, and the sheer number of upscale restaurants all speak to this tendency to take food a little too seriously. I enjoyed the animated movie Ratatouille because I loved imagining the looks on these food snobs’ faces when they realized a rat was doing the cooking.

Film aficionados, music buffs, fashion mavens – all spout their lists of preferences as if they were inspired by God Himself. I am fine with people having their opinions. After all, the purpose of these blog posts is to express mine. I just don’t like the implication that if my taste in something is different from yours, that means that it is bad.

I especially dislike the snobbery of “it’s so bad it’s good.” These are people who proudly proclaim their preference for cheesy B movies, corny old television shows, and cloying pop music. It feels slightly defensive, as if they are insulating themselves against criticism by being defiantly tacky.

It would be nice if we could all just enjoy our pastimes in peace without anyone sitting in judgment on them. But human nature being what it is, we will probably never live in such a world. So if you have negative thoughts about what I am eating, drinking, wearing, or watching, please keep them to yourselves.

In turn, I won’t say a word about that trashy novel you’re reading!

The Courage to be a Good Parent



I often say, half-jokingly, “parenting is not for the faint of heart.” As my children have grown, I have found that more and more to be true. In fact, sometimes I find myself actually afraid of my kids.

It sounds ridiculous, I know. After all, I’ve seen them in diapers. But a teenager can be an intimidating figure. It’s not just that my teenage son could pick me up and throw me if he wanted to. It’s also that I don’t want to lose my relationships with my kids. I don’t want them to turn away from me because I was too strict or overbearing. It’s really true that as parents we have to resist the urge to be our children’s friends. My children have plenty of friends. What they need from me are unconditional love, firm boundaries, and values for living.

Parental courage is on my mind because this morning I attended an informative and entertaining talk by Rosalind Wiseman, educator and author of the books Queen Bees and Wannabes and Masterminds and Wingmen, two excellent works about the social and inner lives of adolescents. One of the things I learned from Wiseman is the virtue of silence.  Parents, especially mothers, have a tendency to pepper their children with questions the moment they walk in the door or hop in the car. Wiseman recommends giving kids a little space so that they will willingly come to us to share what is going on in their lives.

I know from experience that she is right. I used to find my phone conversations with my son in college awkward and unsatisfying. I would rush in with all kinds of thoughts, advice and questions, leaving him little time to do anything more than react. So I started pausing during our phone calls, forcing myself not to fill in the silence. What happened was that my son started telling me about the interesting or important things that were happening to him, things that went beyond the basic information about his classes, fraternity events or practical needs.

Another point made by Wiseman resonated with me deeply. As an advocate of anti-bullying efforts in schools, she feels very strongly about the way kids talk to and about each other. She strongly encouraged parents to call out our kids and their friends on name-calling and insensitive labeling, such as using words like “bitch,” “gay,” and “retarded” to put others down. I had to admit to myself that I hesitate to confront such trash talk, which is prevalent among teenagers. I fear that taking a stand would make my kids social pariahs and that they would shut me out of their lives completely. Yet staying silent gives them the message that adults don’t really mind this kind of bullying behavior.

I may not become the most popular parent by being strict about drinking and curfews, expecting kids to respect me and each other, and insisting that they take responsibility for their actions. But doing these unpopular things will convey to my children what  values I hold for myself and for them as they grow into adulthood.

In our culture, we love to shower our children with all kinds of gifts – the latest tech gadgets, nice cars, cool shoes. But the greatest gift we can give them ultimately is the courage to be a good person. And we can only give them that gift by having the courage to be good parents.

Real Men Wear Pink



I love the month of October – when the leaves start to change, the air becomes crisp, and everywhere you look you see the color PINK?

Nowadays, in October the color pink has become as ubiquitous as pumpkin spice lattes and candy corn. It’s a lot of fun to see football players donning pink sleeves, gloves, and socks. And I am always tempted to purchase every scarf, pin, coffee mug and t-shirt for the cause that I see advertised during Breast Cancer Awareness month.

When I walked in the Avon Two-Day Walk for breast cancer, I enjoyed all the irreverent costumes inspired by the event. I saw slogans like “Save the TA TAs” and people sporting pink bras over their t-shirts. Motorcyclists who volunteered to help could be seen at busy intersections wearing pink kerchiefs and lounging next to the giant bras strapped to the backs of their Harleys.

One of my favorite t-shirts read “Real Men Wear Pink.” And it makes sense that men would support the women in their lives who are fighting this terrible disease. However, with all the focus on women and bras, one fact gets short shrift. Men can get breast cancer too.

To be sure, breast cancer is a lot less common in men than in women. The American Cancer Society estimates that about 1 in 1,000 men will get breast cancer in their lifetimes. Yet men are more often diagnosed at an advanced stage because they are less likely to see a doctor if they notice a lump or other change in the breast area.

Men need to be aware of the same symptoms that women do when it comes to early detection of breast cancer: a lump or swelling in the breast tissue, changes, redness or discharge in the nipple, and skin puckering around the breast area.

With all the emphasis on pink and girliness, it must be hard for men with the disease to find comfort and support when they receive a diagnosis of breast cancer. That is why I am so encouraged by the “Real men wear pink” perspective on breast cancer.

I hope it causes men to relate to breast cancer as a potential threat and get the early intervention that may save their lives.

If Women Ran the World



After a visit to the pediatrician when my son was about five years old, he innocently asked me, “Mommy, can boys be doctors?” I wanted to clap with glee. Clearly women have made great strides in society.

Yet from where I stand, we have a long way to go. So I have been imagining a utopia in which women were in charge. Here are some of the things that would happen if women ran the world.

If women ran the world, public restrooms for us would be twice the size of men’s at any given venue. There is nothing more frustrating than standing in a long line for the ladies room and watching men bounce in and out of the men’s room like ping pong balls.

If women ran the world, research money would be poured into finding a method of breast imaging that did not resemble a medieval torture device. Furthermore, each mammogram would come with a free massage and dip in the whirlpool.

If women ran the world, having your hair colored would be covered by health insurance.

If women ran the world, every household would have his and hers remotes – heck, his and hers TVs! – so that women would be free to binge watch “Scandal” whenever they wanted.

If women ran the world, Monday Night Football would be replaced by Downton Abbey.

If women ran the world, glossy magazines would feature shirtless hunks instead of anorexic models.

If women ran the world, spitting, crotch-scratching, and cat-calling would be illegal and punishable by being sentenced to 40 hours of housework.

If women ran the world, they would make 100 cents on the dollar as compared to men in the workplace.

So I’m calling upon all you women and girls out there to get busy glomming onto power – before I get too old to enjoy my massage.