My Convertible Life

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

5 Places to Shop Small Business Saturday in Raleigh

I don't do Black Friday. Fighting my way through crowded stores filled with frantic bargain hunters does not put me in a holiday spirit.

That's among the reasons why I love Small Business Saturday -- I'd rather rest on Friday and only visit smaller, locally owned stores on Saturday. I also love the idea of supporting stores in my community, including one where I get greeted by name when I walk in.

Raleigh has lots of fantastic locally-owned small businesses. With a plethora of shopping areas outside the big malls -- like Seaboard Station, Glenwood South, Cameron Village, North Hills, City Market and other downtown spots -- there's no shortage of options. But in case you need help getting started, here's my pre-Friday's Five:
  1. Stone's Education & Toys: I've already shared my kids' lists of favorites from this beautiful store. Go here for toys, book, school supplies and lots of fun, plus a great space with a great staff.
  2. Quail Ridge Books & Music: One of the last, great independent book sellers, you just can't go wrong here. Books for everyone on your list, plus CDs, calendars, tote bags, note cards and other bits, with a knowledgeable, friendly staff.
  3. Vestique: I discovered this shop last week thanks to my Instagram feed (because I'm not young and hip enough to have known about it sooner) and spied exactly the sweater I'd been looking for in their online store. I'm pretty sure the salesperson who advised me was Haley Dunphey, and she was super helpful. Plus, their prices are more reasonable than the typical fashion trend boutique. 
  4. Papa Spud's or The Produce Box: You might not think of your local CSA for holiday gift buying. But in addition to buying a membership for someone (or yourself), you can also use your CSA to get delicious locally-grown and locally-made treats. Jams, jellies, sauces and mixes make tasty stocking stuffers, or bring a prepared pie for your holiday hostess. I've written about The Produce Box before, but recently got to meet the fine folks from Papa Spud's -- use this link for a $15 off deal. 
  5. DECO Raleigh: If you can't find something you want at DECO, then you're just not paying attention. Every time I go in, I want to buy at least 47 different things -- jewelry, tshirts, pillows, prints, napkins, baby books, glasses, soaps, ornaments, you name it -- and loads of it made by local artists and designers. Be sure to look for items from my friends at Posy!
Can't get to Raleigh for your holiday shopping? All of the above (except for #4) have online stores, so you're not left out of the fun.

As a side note, if you have an American Express card, be sure to register it before you shop on Saturday to get a $10 credit at participating stores. Deco and QRB are on this year's list.

Leave a comment below and share your favorite local stores.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Top 5 (or 20) Holiday Gifts for Kids

Last week I took the kids with me to wander around Stone's Education & Toys store -- it's a beautiful, environmentally-friendly, sunlit space at the border of Raleigh and Cary near I-40. I wanted to get an idea of what they'd like for Christmas beyond their usual requests of LEGOs and an American Girl doll. There's nothing wrong with either of those -- it's just that we already have 8,473,922 plastic bricks and I simply can't bring myself to spend that much money on a doll that will wind up shoved in a closet.

While in the store, I could barely keep up trying to follow the kids around to get their recommendations. Amazingly Junius only glanced at the LEGOs and Pippi didn't even notice the Frozen display at the entrance. They were too busy checking out everything from teacher-supply-sized packs of writing paper to sample sets of magnetic building toys.

Not surprisingly, they wanted one of everything.

When it comes to making Christmas wish lists, it turns out I'm no better than my kids at keeping it short. Particularly when I've spent an hour (or two, who's counting?) at Stone's, it's nearly impossible to pick just few favorites. But in case you're looking for gift ideas for elementary-school-aged kids, I'm sharing my top five lists in four different categories. (Yes, I realize that's actually 20 items. Shhhhhh...)

For the record, all prices listed are rounded to the nearest penny to make them easier to read.

Junius's Top 5

Junius is 9 and in 4th grade. His room is littered with the aforementioned LEGOs, Snap Circuits, robot parts, biographies and hockey gear. 
  • Snap Circuits Motion or Snap Circuits Light ($80 each, or $35 for the starter set of Snap Circuits Jr) -- Just look how excited he is in this photo! But seriously, he has the Snap Circuits Jr set plus an add-on set and he can't get enough. 
  • Youth Football Goal Post Set ($40) -- I'm envisioning Charlie Brown, but all he sees is his future NFL career. Either way, he's outside burning energy.
  • MicroPro Microscope Set ($40) -- When I asked him why he wanted a microscope, he replied, "So I can study all the things in my room and see what they're really made of." I'm wondering if he'll start with the funk growing in his hockey bag.
  • Crystal Growing Experimental Kit ($20) -- He got a taste (not literally) of this project at science camp during the summer and he loved it. 
  • Ultimate Dino Dig ($16) -- After a few science museum visits, I think he fancies himself an archaeologist. This seems cheaper and less messy than digging up the back yard looking for fossils.

Pippi's Top 5

Pippi is 6 (and-a-half) and in 1st grade. Her bedroom walls are covered in her artwork while the floor is strewn with clothes, stuffed animals, books and still more LEGOs.
  • Color a Dog House ($35 - link is to Color a House, but they have the dog house in the store) -- That face says "Mommy, I know you won't get me a puppy, but will you please love me enough to get me a cardboard dog and doghouse that I can color?" I don't know how she'll fit it in her room, but at least it won't shed or pee on the carpet.
  • Young Artist Essentials Gift Set ($50) -- She's almost 7, so I think she's finally ready to ditch all the broken crayons and nubby pencils for something nicer. 
  • PlushCraft Pillows ($18 each) -- She wants the fox, of course. Another mom who happened to be in the store commented that her daughter had made one of the pillows and absolutely loved it -- it's become their favorite birthday gift for friends this year.
  • Fuzzy Wuzzy Knitting ($25) -- She's fascinated by the scarf that Nanna has been knitting during her visits. Maybe this way they can knit together without Pippi trying to take over Nanna's needles. 
  • Goldie Blox and The Movie Machine ($30) or Goldie Blox and The Builder's Survival Kit ($60) -- She got the first Goldie Blox set last year after the Rube Goldberg video won me over. She still plays with it some, but she needs more parts to try out new ideas. 

Shared Top 5

I'm a big fan of giving Christmas gifts that lead to fun family time. And by that I mean things that will entertain my kids at the same time so that I can actually sit down for a few minutes. These are the items that both kids wanted -- and all are things they could play with together (although we'd have to get two stunt cars to reduce whining).
  • Sands Alive! Sunken Castle Discovery ($40) -- Craziest feeling stuff you'll ever play with and shockingly not messy.
  • Turbo Twister RC Stunt Car ($28) -- Finally a remote control car that can break dance and doesn't get stuck on its back.
  • Doink-it Darts ($30) -- Magnetic dart board, so no sharp ends to poke an eye out with.
  • Squeeze Popper and Sticky Target ($20) -- Silly, competitive fun and the most satisfying popping sound ever.
  • Roller Racers or the EzyRoller ($100) -- Could not get them off the test racers they were driving all over the store.

Stocking Stuffer Top 5

How do you get small gifts for friends or stocking stuffers for the kids that don't involve a) candy or b) crap that you'll just want to throw away? Try these gifts.
  • MadLibs, coloring books and "Who Was" series -- Fun for days, alone or together.
  • Tapeffiti Caddy Set ($14) -- Last year we gave Pippi a roll of scotch tape and it was almost her favorite gift. Colorful tape is almost too much awesome to bear.
  • Toob ($.60-.90 per figurine) -- Anything you can think of in a tiny figurine, from the Arc de Triomphe to hippos.
  • Thinking Putty ($11) -- Impossible to put down.
  • Tornado Tube ($2.50) -- Junius recognized this from school and pronounced it "very cool."

Okay, I'm going to stop now. Back away slowly from the wish list. But if you're heading over to Stone's, be sure to pick up their catalog and get the coupon on the back -- $10 off $50 purchase or $20 off $100 purchase through November. 

Full Disclosure: I was invited to visit Stone's to write a post about my top 5 or 10 Christmas gifts. (Yes, again, I know there are 20 here. Shhhhh.) They gave me a catalog, a $50 gift card and the same lovely customer service they offer to everyone. They did not attempt to sway me or my crazy children into selecting certain toys or influence the writing of this post.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


My nephew Andrew died last week.

That's not a sentence I ever expected to write.

When I was maybe 13, a boy whose family went to my church was killed in a freak bicycle accident. I think we was probably 10 years old or so. And I remember my father being so sad, even though we didn't know the boy very well.

At the time, I didn't fully appreciate what my dad told me: "When you're an adult, you expect that at some point your parents will die. And you know that there's a chance your spouse will pass before you do. But you never, ever expect to have to bury your child."

Andrew was 22 years old and in graduate school studying entomology -- an adult by most standards, but still his parents' child. My mind will not allow me to comprehend the heartbreak that is bringing them to their knees.

He was 9 years old when I married his uncle and became his aunt. We always lived in different states, so we mostly saw each other at weddings and biennial Thanksgivings. I'm sorry to say I didn't know him well.

But the news of his death -- so sudden, so unbelievable -- seems impossible to process. As a parent, I now understand what my father meant all those years ago. When any parent loses a child, all parents join in their grief.

So I've been reading the tiny, beautiful, honest and sometimes funny eulogies left by his friends on his Facebook page, getting to know bits and pieces of a life well-lived. I've been saying steady prayers for Andrew's parents, brother and grandparents, along with the rest of the family. And I've been squeezing my own children a little tighter, a little longer to remind myself of what a gift I have in them.

I think my sister-in-law, another of Andrew's aunts, probably said it best, so I'll leave you with her words shared on his page:
"Andrew touched the lives of so many people through his love, friendship, words and actions. You, in turn, have helped make the world a better place because of his influence on you. At the risk of sounding corny, go and do a good deed for someone. Take a hike or walk outside. Look at the roly polys and the ants. If you're so inclined, share a beer with a friend. Life is too short. Let someone know that they have made a difference in your life."


Monday, August 25, 2014

Sampling Some Super Sunscreen

We don't leave for the beach until Saturday, but I've already started mentally packing. Books, towels, chairs, swimsuit, sun hat, umbrella, gin, tonic, limes. What else could we need?

Sunscreen, of course.

If you're a regular Convertible Lifer, you know that sunscreen is serious business around here. After losing chunks of my forehead, part of my back and countless little spots here and there, I don't mess around with keeping my skin protected -- but I also still really like being in the sun.

So when I got an email earlier this summer from a company offering to send me a sample of their new sunscreen in exchange for a blog review, I was intrigued. SmartShield claims to be "serious sun protection" -- sounded like a good fit, but wouldn't it have to be sticky, smelly and thick to really be serious?

For the past two months, I've been wearing SmartShield's Rehydrating Face Cream with SPF 45 almost every day. Billed as "a luxury face cream with a unique formula for sports enthusiasts and professionals," it is the best everyday sunscreen I've found for my face. It's rare to find an everyday sunscreen with an SPF as high as 45 -- and this one isn't sticky, smelly or thick. In fact, it made my skin feel really soft and lovely, which was a total surprise. Make-up goes on easily over top and doesn't slide off halfway through the day because the sunscreen is oil-free. But even more importantly, it works -- even when I found myself in a sunny seat at the baseball game with no hat on (shhh, don't tell my dermatologist!), I didn't get sunburned.

In short, it's great.

Now you'll have to take my word for it that this is an honest review and in no way tainted by the free sample. If I were just sucking up to SmartShield, I probably would have written this review two months ago when they first sent me the sample, so maybe that helps with my credibility (or maybe it just shows that I've missed nearly every deadline all summer). And I will add that there are a few items on the ingredient list that might not appeal to those who are cautious, close-readers of labels, but I have to balance that with finding a product that works well.

Actually, I'm hoping they'll send me some of their other sunscreens, lip balm, insect repellent and the self-tanner to try out -- but I'm probably just going to have to buy them like everyone else.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

J-Fest 2014: The Last Single Digit Year

Dear Junius --

Technically it's still your birth month for a couple more hours, so I'm going to just call this a victory. If you're reading this years later and you don't remember, I promise we didn't miss your actual 9th birthday -- I just missed writing about you on the day, that's all.

When you were younger, I remember thinking that I'd have so much more time to write once you and your sister were older and in school. That's just one item on a long list of things I've been wrong about when it comes to parenting.

I'd like to claim that the reason I haven't written a whole series of posts about you and your birthday this month is because I've been so busy spending time with you and treasuring the fantastic little man that you're becoming. But the truth is that I've been overwhelmed doing pretty much the opposite of that -- ignoring you in order to squeeze in more than my scheduled hours at work and then collapsing on the couch when we are finally home together again.

It hasn't been the July I was hoping for.

We are both first borns, you and I. Not just any old first borns either -- we are textbook cases. We want everything to be fair and everyone to love us. We want the whole world to be happy and we want at least partial credit for making it that way. We want to know the plan in advance. And sometimes we just want to be home where we can control the little space in our own rooms because everywhere else is too crazy. I watch you crumble sometimes as you wrestle with reality and I ache for you. It is all painfully familiar.

But there are some things you've already figured out that took me much longer to discover. Even when you'd rather stay safe at home, you put on a brave face and walk into spaces where you know no one in hopes that it might be worthwhile. You volunteer to be the first to fight Darth Vader, or skate onto center ice and fist bump NHL players before the national anthem. You're developing a tough side that you can hold together for at least a few minutes. You attract friends among strangers easily. It is all quite impressive.

This crazy July, in between the billable hours, I have managed to teach you a few things that seemed worth passing on. You're now hooked on solitaire, a perfect game for the kid who likes rules and fairness. You've discovered the power of the pointy elbow, that family trait useful for boxing out and pushing through. You can fry an egg and cook chicken nuggets, which gets you two of your favorite meals. And you've learned to keep a book in your bag at all times, just in case you've got 15 minutes to spend reading while you wait.

I am hopeful that we will find times to slow down and appreciate your being 9 this year. Your next birthday brings double-digits and I don't expect I'll handle it well.

But I worry that life is going to get in my way, so I'm asking for your help. Maybe now and then you could remind me to say yes when you ask me to play horse or Monopoly. Maybe sometimes you could let me skip Monopoly and play solitaire at the kitchen counter while I make dinner. And maybe some days you'll just tuck in beside me on the couch when that's all I've got left.

I love you, my firstborn. Thanks for being patient with me.
- Mommy

Thursday, July 3, 2014

A Friend In Deed

Two weeks ago, a dear friend of mine sent me an early morning email that was exactly what I needed. She's one of those friends who has known me long enough to love me anyway, despite the fact that I almost never call and rarely visit. We've been roommates in more than one country, seen each other through boyfriends who turned out not to be husbands, stood together at weddings and a funeral. 

I don't know what I did to deserve her, but I'm so very grateful. In fact, I could never have earned all the wonderful friends that I have -- and thank goodness we don't have to earn them. This particular message was too beautiful to leave in my inbox, so I'm sharing it here with you (names changed to protect her boys). May you all have a friend (or two or twenty) who can show you in small ways that she loves you. 


Some days you just need someone else to make your coffee. Or tea. Or, Jonah's recommendation, chocolate milk.

I must feel that way often. At least, Starbucks has been keeping track because, to my surprise (though perhaps not my husband's), they sent me a gold card which meant I had visited their fine establishments 30 times last year. I don't know whether to be boast or cringe about my new status. Regardless, there were 30 days last year when I just needed someone else to make my coffee.

Two times had to do with rites of passage. Right after I dropped Cam off to big kid school because the bricks I placed on his head didn't stop him from growing, I drove myself to Starbucks and stood in line behind a mom and dad who had just undergone the very same knife-to-heart ritual. That day called for a Venti, with extra caramel and yes please some whipped cream on top and why don't you stock alcohol here?

Weeks ago, I stood in that same line -- where they now know my name and my usual -- just minutes before picking him up for summer vacation. Not my usual, but it was a Venti day again, somewhat in celebration that Cam and I would be back together for the summer. But mostly because I needed that big of a cup to soothe my insides drained raw from a year of missing him. It was a "Whew, I can't believe I made it. I'll have a Venti."

During these 30 visits over the last year, Jonah became well acquainted with the love of someone else making mama's coffee. The benefit to him was a more aware and relaxed mama. As I market the deal
to my husband, it's cheaper than therapy. And sometimes at these visits, on the whims of mama, Jonah would score a milk, usually vanilla but once in a while, chocolate.

Even if all mama gets is a straight coffee, Jonah likes to be hoisted up in a spot right beside the sugar-in-the-raw cubby where he can peer behind the counter and "watch the magic happen." His word choice has won him many barista friends. Also a dead giveaway that mama saved on therapy 30 times in the last year.

Well today, with your dad having his procedure, I thought you just might need someone else to make your coffee. Or tea. Or I won't tell if you get chocolate milk. I hope it will soothe your insides and let
you know that you all are loved. This Venti's on me*; after all, I need to keep going to maintain my gold card status.

* Starbucks e-card will be coming to your inbox.


That afternoon, while my kids were at camp, I left work early and headed for Starbucks. I'm not a coffee girl, so I seriously considered Jonah's chocolate milk recommendation before opting for a fruit smoothie. Dropping into a sunny seat, I savored the sweetness of a rare moment alone to say a quiet prayer for my dad (who is fine, thanks for asking) and one for my friend (who is far too good to me). 

Friday, May 9, 2014

Mother's Day Gifts

It was the verbal equivalent of the old yawn and stretch maneuver that you see a teen-age boy use in 1950s movies to inconspicuously put his arm around a girl’s shoulder.

“So… mom… What’s your favorite breakfast?” he asked casually on Tuesday night. “I mean, if you didn’t have to make it.”

When I started to tell Junius my preferences -- two eggs over medium, bacon, fruit, maybe half an English muffin -- he asked me if I could write it down. You know, casually.

"No," I replied with a smile. "But you can."

The conversation continued as he carefully wrote down my breakfast menu, then moved on to asking about my favorite restaurants for dinner. You know, just because, no reason. Not like Mother's Day is coming up or anything.

When he finished writing, he folded the paper in half, turned away from me to write "Mothers day" with three underlines on the outside and took the page upstairs.

It was about the cutest conversation I've had with my son in a long time. Even if he doesn't manage to use the list (although I suspect my lovely husband will help make it happen), watching him delight in his sneaky strategy to be nice to me was a gift in itself.

For those of you wondering what to get your mom (or the mother of your children) to celebrate her day on Sunday, here's my suggestion: Think luxury.

I don't mean a luxury automobile or a luxury vacation (although if that's within your budget, those are totally good options). Instead, think of the little luxuries that mom wishes she had time/money for and give her the means to enjoy them -- even if that little luxury is her favorite homemade breakfast or just a quiet hour alone in the hammock with a good book and iced cocktail.

But if you really want to be impressive, here are my suggestions of everyday luxuries I'd love to have in my weekly or monthly budget -- and I'm betting lots of other moms would, too:
  1. Housekeeper: There's nothing better than coming home to a clean house when you didn't have to do any of the work. Okay, maybe coming home to a clean house where the maid service didn't turn on your gas fireplace and leave it burning when they left the house hours earlier -- but that's a different story. Anywho, even if it were just an occasional deep clean, it's always nice to enjoy your house without having to think about the mess.
  2. Car wash: I hate a dirty car. And with two kids (plus the occasional friend) in the back seat every day, there’s no way to keep all the dirt on the outside. Between the raisins and the tissues and the string cheese wrappers and the leaves and the mud and… well, it’s gross back there. Plus all this springtime pollen makes a mess of the outside, too. A clean car just feels more civilized.
  3. Massage: Even when things are going well, life can be stressful and exhausting. Between keeping up a more regular exercise schedule, working at a desk and generally chasing my children around, I’d love an hour – okay, maybe 90 minutes – to close my eyes, listen to soothing (if a little cheesy) nature-sounds music and let go of the stress. 
  4. Mani/pedi: I love a pretty polish (especially on my toes), but this one isn’t really about having colorful nails. It’s more about having healthy-looking (and feeling) hands and feet. Again, between the exercising and the dish-washing, my extremities get a little rough. And it’s just so nice to be taken care of by someone who doesn’t need anything from me. 
  5. Haircut: If you have short hair, you know that you really need to get it cut at least every six weeks. I try to stretch it to seven or eight weeks to conserve cash, but I always hate my hair that last week or two. If money and scheduling were no object, I’d get a haircut once a month. That way it always looks fresh – and I’d look like I just stepped out of a salon more often.
  6. Fresh flowers: Even if my house isn't really clean, it looks cleaner if there are fresh flowers by the front door and on the dining room table. It's like I can't even see the piles on the counter or the dishes in the sink when there's a vase of white hydrangeas in view. Shoes scattered around the foyer seem to fade away if I'm greeted by a wildflower bouquet. They don't have to be formal or fancy, just fresh. 
Let us know what's on your little luxuries list... leave a note in the comments.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

It's a Girl

This post is from my piece at last year's Listen to Your Mother show in Raleigh. You can watch me here, but I realized I never posted the text. Excited to go see this year's show tonight as an audience member!

When she’s older, my daughter will probably hate me for saying this, or even thinking it. But I didn’t want to have a girl.

My son was about to turn two that Father’s Day morning when I peed on the stick and realized we were going to have another baby. Junius was finally starting to sleep more at night. Life was just beginning to feel manageable again. While I was excited to be pregnant, I was equally overwhelmed by the idea of beginning it all again.

As the weeks went by, my second pregnancy mirrored the first. I was tired, but never sick and only occasionally queasy. Girth increased steadily with weight, matching the first pregnancy pound for pound and inch for inch week by week.

This baby is a boy, I thought -- just like the first. If it were a girl, I would know. I would feel different and I would be vomiting. But everything was the same and I was relieved.

I imagined we would become “Cyndi and the boys.” Our sons would be buddies and build LEGOS and play basketball. My husband would take them camping and fishing on weekends while I stayed home and went for pedicures and read books. Yes, they might be loud or messy, but it would be worth it.

It’s the American way: boys love their mamas. They would love me, cherish me and never, ever turn on me.

Because ladies, let’s be honest. We save the really bad shit for our mamas.

I wasn’t a crazy or rebellious kid. I have always had a good relationship with both of my parents. But in my teen years, something changed. I was mean to my mother and treated her in ways that I never would my father. Even when I wasn’t upset with my mom, I still held back my disaster meltdown moments until she was the only one around to deal with me.

The best of daughters seem to go through rough times with their mothers. And that’s the good ones. The rest wind up hating their moms, vowing never to be like them, and rolling their eyes and yelling obscenities at them.

So when the ultrasound revealed that this new baby was a girl? I was terrified.

And I hated myself for it.

I was supposed to be excited. A son AND a daughter. One of each! Isn’t that what everyone wants? Slugs and snails meets sugar and spice. The perfect family.

Except that I wanted a matched set. Wouldn’t it be so much easier -- and so much less frightening -- to have another boy? I was getting good at being a boy mama. Starting over with a newborn was scary enough without the specter of one day having to share my house with a hormonal pre-teen girl.

For two weeks, my husband and I didn’t tell anyone we’d found out it was a girl -- not even our parents or our son. We practiced at home saying “she” and “her” instead of “it” and “the baby.” We talked about girl names. We thought about friends who had painted nurseries pink in preparation, only to discover on birth day that their baby had been hiding his little boy parts when the ultrasound tech was looking. Maybe the ultrasound was wrong?

Of course it wasn’t wrong. Our baby girl arrived as scheduled on Feb. 22, 2008, beautiful and round and perfect.

It turns out that I was wrong about not wanting a daughter. The last months of my pregnancy gave me time to get used to the idea. When she was born, I already knew her -- and I loved her immediately. Five years later, Pippi is sweet and funny and crazy smart. She sings and dances constantly through each day, strutting her stuff in pink cowgirl boots and mismatched outfits. She possesses a powerful confidence at age five that will hopefully carry her far in life.

But it also turns out that I was kind of right to be afraid. Pippi may only be five, but she’s already giving me a run for my money. She saves her worst behavior for me and her best for her teachers. She tells lies and tests limits and pushes my buttons in ways that make me grind my teeth and bang my head into my hands. She is a Daddy’s Girl -- apparently it takes one to make one -- and she already seems to know that she can be meaner to me than she treats him.

She is the best and worst of having a daughter. And I am lucky to have made her.

So I try hard to give her the most important things my mother has always given me. A patient ear. A loving heart. A shoulder to cry on. And a wonderful father for the many times ahead when she doesn’t want any of those things from me.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Road Trips

My family didn’t take many big trips when I was a kid. We spent most summer vacations at North or South Carolina beaches or visiting my grandparents in Virginia.

On the occasion that we went somewhere more exotic -- like Washington, D.C., or New York --  we always drove and we always checked out any colleges that were nearby. But a college visit with my dad didn’t usually involve an official tour or a trip into the admissions office. Instead, we mostly just drove through campus and saw whatever we could see from the car, then we kept going.

These little side trips became known as The Dave Drive-By.

Then the summer after my freshman year in college, my parents, brother and I took our first big family trip on an airplane – we flew to San Francisco, where we rented a big white Lincoln Town Car. I think the trunk on that thing was bigger than my first dorm room. Two weeks -- and four states, three national parks (four if you count Las Vegas), more than a dozen friends and relatives, and at least three colleges/universities -- later, we flew home from Phoenix.

That trip went down in family history as the Official Drive-By of The West. It was kind of a strange trip – I was 19 and used to living away from home, my brother was 15 and probably used to having me away from home. All four of us shared hotel rooms (when we weren’t staying with friends or family) and did pretty much everything together for the whole two weeks. I think back on it and wonder if my parents were crazy or clueless or both.

But I also can’t stop myself from grinning any time I think about that trip. My brother and I cracked endless jokes about the distance between the front seat and the back seat of the land yacht. We met relatives who last remembered seeing us when my brother was in diapers. My all ventured a little out of our comfort zones, saw places that were completely different than anywhere we’d ever been. We listened to a lot of Toad the Wet Sprocket.

More than 20 years later, that trip stands out as a mile-marker in my family history.

So far this year, my husband and I have taken our kids on our own version of The Drive-By in two opposite directions. In January, we drove to Pittsburgh (because who doesn't want to go to Pittsburgh in January?!) to see friends, tour the science center, ride the gondola, drive by the house my parents lived in when I was born, visit the Cathedral of Learning at Pitt, go ice skating outside and see the Penguins play hockey. In February, we drove to Disney World for the first time -- a more traditional kind of kid trip that still had that Drive-By feel as we whizzed through three parks in three days.

I wonder if my kids will remember 2014 as the Year of the Road Trip. Actually, I wonder if they will even remember 2014 at all. I’m pretty sure we were crazy for driving nearly nine hours to Pittsburgh, spending two days there and driving what turned into more than 11 hours back through a snow storm.  Pulling them out of school for two days to drive to Florida and back doesn't exactly seem logical either.

Even still, I find myself wondering how our kids will remember these trips and how their memories will be different from mine. Will Pippi recall the long, boring drive, or only the fact that she got to swim in the hotel pool and order room service for dinner? Will Junius wish we'd flown to Florida, or just laugh when he thinks back to shouting "THAT WAS AWESOME" on his first roller coaster?

And will either of them ever know how lucky they really are? Guess we'll keep planning Drive-Bys to remind them.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Good Sport

For a woman who never played organized sports growing up – unless you count driveway kickball, which wasn’t really all that organized but was highly competitive – I’ve made a real commitment to team athletics for my kids. Like many suburban moms, I drive them to and from practices, bring snacks, cheer for everyone and spend large chunks of my life sitting on bleachers in conditions that are often too cold or too hot to be pleasant.

While it’s nice to imagine that they might turn out to be college-scholarship athletes, I’m not overly concerned that they excel at the sports they play. As hokey as it sounds, I really just want them to learn how to be a good teammate, engage in healthy exercise, develop a few leadership skills, and have a lot of fun.

It’s more important to me that they learn how to be good sports than to be good at sports.

In his most recent basketball season, Junius and his team had a perfect record – they managed to go eight straight games without winning a single one. Coming off an undefeated season with his hockey team, I worried that he might lose interest in basketball – or at least in his teammates – given their apparent lack of success.

During the final game last month, Junius scored a personal best 14 points. But the game highlight occurred when the ball wasn’t even in play.

As he followed his team back into the gym after halftime, Junius ran in front of his team’s bench, launched into a halfway decent cartwheel and burst out laughing as he bounced down next to the other boys.

When I asked him after the game why he did the cartwheel – an unusually showy move for him – he replied simply, “I wanted to rally my team, mom!”

That cartwheel rally didn’t affect the game’s outcome, but it made an otherwise losing season worth every butt-numbing minute in the stands.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

First Time

Last Wednesday, my husband and I picked up our kids from school at lunchtime and announced that we were taking them to Disney World for the first time. As in, right now, the car is packed, let’s go make dreams come true, we have three days to live the magic.

We expected their reaction would be something like this:

Children’s mouths drop, we beam at them lovingly. Their eyes light up as they shout, “SHUT THE FRONT DOOR! THAT’S INCREDIBLE! YOU ARE THE BEST PARENTS EVERRRRR!” And then we all melt into a group hug and sing Disney tunes for nine hours in the car.

Instead, it went more like this:

Children’s faces remain blank. They look skeptical and mutter, “I don’t believe you. Are you serious?” We show them the packed car and the magic bands and promise that we are telling the truth. They complain, “But it’s Wednesday. We don’t want to miss P.E.” And we suggest that perhaps three days in Disney is even better than P.E. And then they both say, “Can I play on the iPad in the car?” Twenty minutes down the road they start asking if we are in Florida yet. The only Disney songs we sing are from the Frozen soundtrack on continuous loop.

Hmph. I don’t know what Mr. P is doing in those phys ed classes, but it must be incredible.

The good news is that they got progressively more excited throughout the nine-or-so-hour drive and were totally wound up by the time we checked into our hotel at 10 p.m. Awesome.
Now that we’ve been back home for a few days, I’ve realized that taking your kids to Disney World for the first time is a lot like having your first newborn.

While you’re in the midst of it, you’re completely overwhelmed by the rapid swings between totally amazing and amazingly hard. But once it’s over, you forget all the crying and the exhaustion and that inexplicable sticky mess on your shirt. All you remember are the sweet, fun, photogenic moments and you decide you must do it again because you’ve learned so much from surviving the first one and you want to see if you can do an even better job the second time around.

At least the next time – if our bodies and our bank account can survive a next time – I’ll be expecting a different reaction when we give them the good news. Maybe it will go something like this:

Wow, Mom! That sounds even better than a whole day of P.E.!

Monday, February 10, 2014

To Teachers, With Love

The 11th grade students who were in my class during my first year as a high school English teacher are now in their mid-30s. Most of them I lost touch with after they graduated, but a handful kept up with me over the years or found me later on Facebook. A few were in college in the same program where I attended graduate school, passing me in the halls now and then. A couple are still on my Christmas card list.

Earlier this month, as I got in line to pay for my pre-snowstorm eggs and milk, I ran into one of those former students, now a mother of two and a teacher herself. We hugged each other and laughed about how we were both buying groceries in advance of the snow predictions.

“Have you met M before?” she asked, motioning to the man behind her.

“I don’t think I have,” I said, introducing myself to her husband and shaking his hand.

“No, this is S__,” she said to him, emphasizing the name they called me back in 11th grade.

His eyes brightened with recognition and he pulled me into a bear hug. He knew who I was – and in a good way. He knew my name, 18 years after she was in my class.

That afternoon, she posted a sweet note on Facebook about our chance meeting. When I went online to “like” her post, another former student – one that I hadn’t kept up with – had already left a comment: “Wow! She was a great teacher!”

I almost printed it out and framed it for my wall.

Today, North Carolina’s governor announced a 14 percent pay increase over the next two years for beginning teachers, bringing starting teacher salaries above those of neighboring states. The plan sounds like a good start, but doesn’t offer anything for mid-career and veteran teachers already in the classroom. That may help with recruitment, but it doesn’t do much to retain or respect teachers in the trenches -- teachers who haven't had a real raise in more than five years.

Most teachers will tell you they didn’t go into the profession for the paycheck – it’s not exactly news that teaching isn’t a lucrative career (click here for the 2013-14 salary schedule in NC). But it is a profession – one that requires a college degree, licensing exams and coursework for continued certification. And it’s a job path that ought to provide a living that doesn’t include qualifying for federal aid programs to feed your children.

So while we wait for our policy makers to find the will – and the funds – to pay teachers what they’re worth, we can all show a little love to the teachers who have made a difference. You may not have the chance to run into them at the grocery store or on Facebook, but you can still thank them for all that they do.

Over the past couple weeks, teachers (and those who love them) have turned to Twitter using #evaluatethat to share the many ways – big and small – that teachers make a difference in students’ lives. The hashtag takes a swipe at the notion that standardized tests and evaluation formulas can assess a teacher’s quality and effectiveness.

Take a moment to tweet your own #evaluatethat story, write a note to your child’s teacher, or track down that educator who made a difference for you. Feeling appreciated and valued won’t help teachers pay their bills, but it sure still feels good – even 18 years later.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Warm Heart

Parenthood is filled with lots of crappy moments.

Kids are whiny and messy and exhausting. There are snow days that you have to juggle with work that doesn’t close when school does. You make dinner every single night, half the time working like a short-order cook, and still they complain. They never clean their rooms without being asked – and still don’t do it when you do ask them. They pick and fight with each other. They are demanding.

But the beauty of parenthood is found in just as many tiny, lovely moments.

Even as they grow, they’ll still snuggle on the couch with me. They look like angels tucked into their beds, sleeping soundly as they snore. Sometimes they love my cooking, announcing loudly that no one makes better pancakes than mine. They give hugs and kisses freely. There are chances to be proud of them in public. Once in a while, they even ask me how my day went and actually listen to my response.

Yesterday – after the mess of putting on and taking off snow pants, snow boots, snow-covered gloves and hats, after lunch custom-made for each child because they couldn’t possibly eat the same thing, after the whining about what can we do and why can’t we watch another show – the kids and I headed back out into the cold to find some friends for sledding. As we started up the hill, each child dragging a sled, Pippi started complaining that her sled was too heavy.

“Hey, Mom,” says Junius, smiling. “I’ve got an idea. You pull my sled and I’ll pull Pippi in her sled!”

“Thank you, Junius!” Pippi replied, as he held the sled for her to climb into. Then they headed on up the hill together, with me just behind them.

My feet were cold, but my heart was melty.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

To Cancel School or Not to Cancel School...

In a big district like Wake County – with more than 153,000 students in 170 schools scattered across 857 square miles – there is probably only one job worse than being the person in charge of student assignment: 
Being the person in charge of cancelling school due to inclement weather.

Last night, as our local meteorologists sent everyone racing to the store for bread, milk, eggs and wine (the essentials, assuming you already have a stockpile of chocolate), the Wake County Public School System went ahead and canceled school for today. 

As of 4 p.m., when the school day would have been over across the entire county, we still hadn’t seen the first snowflake. We finally saw a few flurries just after 5:00.

For parents whose days were turned topsy-turvy (or worse) with kids at home, it was frustrating knowing we could have had a completely normal (albeit very cold) day. Instead, we have a snow make-up day for a day that didn’t include snow.

So here’s what makes that job – the one that has to make the call about if and when to cancel school – so terrible. If they hadn’t cancelled school and the snow started at noon (as was possible, according to the weather maps), parents would have been furious that kids were put on buses after the weather started to turn instead of before. You can’t win for losing.

As much as I wish we’d had school today so that I could have had a normal day at work, I don’t blame WCPSS at all for the decision they made. Here’s why:
  1. Wake County runs a multi-tier bus system – that means that one set of buses picks up a round of kids and takes them to school, then picks up another round of kids and takes them to school. Then they refuel and do the whole thing in reverse. On early release days, our school starts at 8:30 and gets out at 12:30 – I think that’s about as tight a turn-around as the buses can manage, meaning the last schools are released at 1:15. If the snow had started at noon as predicted, that would have been too late.
  2. I’m still scarred from January 2005 when a fraction of an inch of snow fell in the early afternoon, immediately turned to ice, and caused total gridlock across the county. My usual 15-minute drive home from work took three hours – and I had to walk the last few blocks, pregnant and frozen, because I couldn’t get my car up the icy hill around the corner from my house. As it turned out, three hours was a blessing – many people spent upwards of eight hours stuck in their cars while some children (and their teachers or administrators) spent the night at school when their parents weren’t able to get there to pick them up. Ask the people in Atlanta today if they know what I’m talking about. 

Now at 9 p.m., it’s still snowing – although it’s a wimpy sort of snow so far. With any luck, there will be enough to justify suiting up to go out and play tomorrow (obviously school is cancelled again) – but not so much to cause that poor person to have to cancel school again on Thursday.

PS: If you’re not following @wcpss on Twitter yet, you might be the only one. Go follow them now.
PSS: That's Junius earlier today (in the photo), wearing his snow pants over his pajama pants, coat at the ready. You know, just in case.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Choosing Kindergarten

When I was a senior in high school, I applied and was accepted to four universities. That was great – except that the only one I could afford to go to was my last choice.

Thankfully my last choice was still a very good option and it only took about two weeks on campus before I was completely on board. By the end of my freshman year, I couldn’t imagine ever going to the other three schools.

What I learned through that experience (among other things) is that college was ultimately what I made it. If I showed up ready, made an effort in my classes, talked with my professors, spent time making good friends and really invested in the school, then I was going to love it.

I feel the same way about my kids’ elementary school – and I want to say that to parents of rising kindergartners around the county as they fret over choosing the right school for their children. 

It’s time for families in Wake County to register for kindergarten, a milestone packed with emotion. And here, in addition to the angst over letting your little person spend the better part of five days a week with kids and adults you’ve never met, there’s the added stress of deciding on which school(s) to choose -- or wondering if you really even have a choice. We’re lucky here to have a lot of good options, but that creates its own challenges.

All over the district, parents are touring magnet schools, visiting their base school and weighing a host of other options both public and private -- although depending on where they live and what their circumstances are, some may have more real choices than others. A few years ago I was where they are now and I remember how worried I was about making just the right choice – a choice that was ultimately controlled by where the district had space for us.

Now that we’ve been in two different elementary schools over the past four years (through our choice, not a reassignment), I can see that we are fortunate to be in the same position I was as a high school senior. All of our options were good ones – some a better fit than others, but none of them bad. And ultimately what we – both the kids and our whole family – get out of the school is based on what we put into it.

Our children showed up prepared for school – a luxury that not every child starts with, I realize. My kids make an effort in their classes, learning to read and write, add and multiply, think and talk. They’ve made friends, in class and on the playground – and we’ve made parent friends, too, helping on field trips or waiting at school pick-up. As a family, we have invested in elementary school, not just through our donations to the PTA, but with our time and energy, through our communications with teachers, in our conversations at home with our kids.

So if you’re one of these parents in the midst of school decisions, here are a few thoughts:
  • It’s okay to feel overwhelmed. This is a big deal.
  • Kindergarten rocks. It’s absolutely incredible to watch those little people grow.
  • Go visit all the schools you’re interested in. There’s a lot you can learn from the way a school feels when you walk through it.
  • Talk with parents whose kids actually attend the school. Don’t put stock in hearsay and rumors. 
  • Know that every school will have teachers you love and others who aren’t as good a fit for your child. No school is perfect, not even Hogwarts.
  • Keep in mind that numbers – test scores, demographics and the rest – only tell part of the story. Don’t make assumptions.
  • Remember that your attitude toward the school sets the tone for your child. 
  • Trust that if you invest in your school, you’ll get a great return. 

Oh, and pack some tissues for yourself on the first day of school. It’s a doozy – but it’s worth it.

More thoughts on kindergarten and school choice:

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Being in the Bee

Junius participated in his first schoolwide spelling bee tonight. He made it through the first round with confidence, then got nervous in the second round and spelled his word how it sounded instead of how it is spelled – “mortle” instead of “mortal.”  He was a good sport about it and stayed until the end to watch two older girls duke it out through more than a dozen final rounds before they finally got to the winner.

He looked really little up there. Only one other boy was his size, with a couple others who were close. When he went out in round two, I was a little sad – mostly because there were many other words in that round and the following round that I knew he could spell. But he was fine. And he was up there, trying and smiling, and that’s what counts.

The post below is something I wrote after the practice last week. I think it still says what matters.

* * *

Tonight Junius had a practice session for next week’s spelling bee. He was the first alternate for his class and the 2nd place finisher can't make it, so he got called up -- at his school, they let the first and second place spellers from each class participate in the school wide bee. 

I realize it was just a meeting -- a review of the rules and then a run-through using 1st grade words so that all the kids would understand the process and test out spelling into the microphone -- but I was so proud of him. As a young 3rd grader, he was one of only a few boys there and one of the smallest kids, but he marched right up to that microphone in his Panthers jersey, repeated the word, spelled it and said it one more time like he’s been in a spelling bee every day for a year. Whatever, Mom.

I’m used to seeing him be tough at hockey or basketball. He might not be the biggest or the fastest kid on the team (although sometimes he is), but he’s always in it to win it-- or at least to have a great time trying. I don’t often get to see him compete on his own in an academic setting. And when he’s not playing sports, he quickly turns shy in front of an audience. But not tonight.

Ironically, his practice word was “shy.”

I'm sure it makes me more than a little dorky, but the whole thing was awesome. Totally nerdtastic, and I would know.

When I was in 5th grade, I competed in my school’s spelling bee. It was a K-8 school, so I had to spell against older kids who didn’t expect me to do well. That only made it more satisfying when I won the whole thing. (I lost in a very early round at the next level, so my moment of glory was extremely short-lived.)

I don’t expect him to win the school spelling bee. But as a mama who makes her living using the right words and spelling them correctly, it warms my heart more than a little to see my sporty boy enjoying the spelling bee limelight.

Monday, January 13, 2014

In Which My Daughter Tries to Kill Me By Refusing to Sleep Through the Night

In case you thought perhaps Pippi's bedtime was all moonlight and unicorns, with little back-scratching fairies who carried her off to sleep, here's your reality check.

Pippi was generally a better sleeper than her brother was as a baby -- although truthfully that’s a pretty low bar. But where Junius tried to kill us quickly through insanely intense sleep deprivation during his first year, his sister has taken the slow-torture approach and is trying to bring about my demise in a more methodical, diabolical fashion.

She continues -- even at age five-and-three-quarters -- to wake up during the night (sometimes more than once) and require attention. Sometimes she calls from her bed, with a sing-song "Moooooooooooooo-mmyyyyyyyyyyyyyy." Then there’s a 15-second pause, followed by the same pitch of Moooooooooooooo-mmyyyyyyyyyyyyyy," (almost never "Daaaaaaaaa-ddyyyyyyyy") which continues steadily until I go into her room. Other times she appears at the edge of the bed, as if by magic, her round face and hot breath an inch from mine -- which still scares the crap out of me when I realize she’s there. Frequently she wakes up around 5:00, which gives her plenty of time to go back to sleep while robbing me of my last 30 minutes before I have to get up for boot camp.

I am basically rude and not at all sympathetic to her when this happens. But I walk her back to her bed, tuck her in and tell her I love her -- because I just. want. to go. back. to sleep.

It seemed we had finally bribed parented our way out of this deadly pattern a couple of months ago. But she has resumed her nocturnal neediness over the past week. Why? I have no idea.

Well, actually, I have a few…

27 Reasons That May or May Not Explain Why My Daughter Wakes Up During the Night
  1. She is lonely.
  2. She needs to pee.
  3. She needs to pee and wants to use my bathroom instead of hers.
  4. She needed to pee and just wanted to tell me that she already went. All by herself.
  5. She peed and now she wants someone to tuck her in.
  6. She wants someone to lie down with her.
  7. She wants someone to lie down with her who is a human and not one of her “friends” that is a stuffed animal.
  8. Her bed is too crowded.
  9. She just wants some company.
  10. She wants to know if it’s time to get up.
  11. She wants to know how much longer until morning.
  12. Her legs itch.
  13. He back itches.
  14. She can’t find Shirley (the Sheep, pictured above).
  15. She wants to know if she has school tomorrow.
  16. Or the next day?
  17. She just remembered a funny story about what happened at school yesterday and needs to tell me about it right now.
  18. She had a bad dream.
  19. She had a silly dream. And needs to tell me about it right now.
  20. She wonders how many days it is until her birthday and how many friends she can invite to her party and can it please be a sleep-over?
  21. Her room is too dark.
  22. Her nightlight is too bright.
  23. There were these really awesome Hello Kitty socks in the dollar bin at Target and she wants to know if we could go buy them in the morning.
  24. Her closet doors are open.
  25. She thought her brother was up.
  26. She wants to know if she can play Minecraft on Daddy’s iPad.
  27. She needs a tissue. And she may or may not have a nosebleed.
If you've got any favorite reasons from your own house, feel free to add them below in the comments. If you've got those kids who magically slept through the night as a six-week-old baby and never looked back, then you should just keep that to yourself.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Love in the Time of Back Scratching

When she’s older, I hope my daughter remembers the back scratching.

Actually I hope she remembers all of the wonderful, caring, selfless things I do for her – like make dinner every night, paint her nails, “help” clean her room, take her to playdates, buy her clothes, do her laundry, color pictures, play Go Fish, take her to the ballet. But if she only remembers the back scratching and it makes her smile, that would be a good start.

Most nights I’m the one putting her to bed. We read a book, say prayers, then turn out the light – at which point she immediately asks me to scratch her back. Sometimes she also requests a song or a story, but always the back.

“If I’m very still and very quiet, mommy, will you please scratch my back?” she asks, anticipating the requirements before I can say them and turning her face to the wall so her back is pointing at me.

I’m always exhausted at this point in the night. Ready to be done with bedtime so I can have my own time to write, read, watch TV or (gasp) be with my husband. I don’t actually like doing bedtime because the whole routine just makes me tired.

But I cannot say no to the back scratching request.

When I was a kid, I loved having my back scratched. Okay, I still do. My mom, a pianist, never had long nails, but she had the gentlest touch and the patience of a saint. Sometimes, if I managed to randomly sit close enough to her hand, she would absent-mindedly start scratching my back simply because it was there and that was what she did. It’s a most ordinary and yet most intimate gesture.

One day, if Pippi is lucky enough to have her own exhausting little person to put to bed, I hope she’ll catch a memory of snuggling under her blanket with her soft, small back sticking out. I hope she’ll recall my weary fingertips running circles across her pajamas and her skin, through her fresh-from-the-bath hair.

And I hope she’ll know in that moment that – despite all the times I wasn't what she needed me to be – I have always loved her.

Friday, January 3, 2014

On Visiting the Plastic Surgeon

I lost another part of me today.

This time it was part of my back -- a dysplastic nevus that rated “severe” on the spectrum of atypical moles trying to turn into skin cancer. My dermatologist biopsied the spot a couple months ago and gave me the option of going to a plastic surgeon to ensure that it was entirely removed.

Being in a plastic surgeon’s office was a weird experience. The continuous video promoting various creams and injections didn't make me feel any better about my own 41-year-old face, which was free of its usual make-up. I found myself looking at other people in the waiting room and wondering why they were there -- breast implants, liposuction, face lift, dyspastic nevus? And then wondering what they assumed I was there for -- which, let’s face it, would be a boob job if they were paying any attention.

I took myself to the appointment after convincing my husband I could handle it on my own. The nurse had assured me it was a simple, quick procedure and I’d be fine to drive and carry on with my day. Just an inch-long incision in the upper left quadrant of my back, no big deal.

Except that once I was lying on my stomach on the operating table feeling the bizarre tugging sensation of stitches on numb skin, I started having flashbacks. Having had two c-sections, I’m all too familiar with that feeling that my skin has turned to thick, tough leather that’s being stretched, shoved and pulled in new directions. At least this time there wouldn’t be a newborn to take care of afterward.

The whole procedure took less than 30 minutes, including check-in and check-out paperwork. It wasn’t until after the surgery was completed and I was trying to pencil in the post-op appointment on my calendar that I realized my hands were shaking.

Guess this means I don’t have the stamina for that boob job after all.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Bird By Bird

250 words a day.

Over the course of 2014, that would mean writing [...pauses while she accesses the calculator...] 91,250 words.

Sounds like a lot -- and I guess it is -- except that writing the equivalent of a letter to the editor each day really shouldn't take all that much time. And maybe at the end of the year, all those words would add up to having something to say.

It’s like the StoryPeople print that I quoted on my meal-planning board a few years ago: “Everything changed the day she figured out there was exactly enough time for the important things in her life.”

I don’t yet know how to make that quotation real, but maybe this 250-a-day is a good place to start. Maybe carving out  smaller pockets of time will actually stretch the time farther -- spend less time worrying about not having enough time and instead just use all the bits of time that are there.

So often I put off doing things I want to do -- read Anne Lamott's new book, call a best friend, write a blog post, organize a closet -- because I think I don’t have time to do it all at once. What would happen if I savored small doses of all of those things in 10- or 15-minute bites instead of never getting to the big serving of a multi-hour block?

Maybe 2014 is the year to find out.