Why isn’t everyone watching SyFy’s Face Off?

I talk a lot about getting the kids to read more books, and spend less time with screens. But the truth is that for my family, some TV time is quality screen time. When you’ve got a show that you all enjoy, it’s like you’ve got a weekly date to all get on the couch, Simpsons-style, and experience something together. For us, that show is SyFy’s super fun competition show, Face Off.

If you haven’t tuned in, think Project Runway, but substitute special effects make-up for fashion. Each season, the show culls a group of special effects artists who are trying to break into the industry, and puts them through a series of deadline-driven challenges. As on Runway, the artists are mentored by a knowledgeable industry insider, and judged by professionals who could make or break their careers. Each week, someone gets crowned a winner (and in some cases, is offered immunity for the following week) and someone else is sent home. Like Runway, Face-off offers viewers a glimpse at how things are made, and  in particular, how creative people merge artistic vision with technical skill to make beautiful things.

But thats where the similarities end. Because while the format resembles that of runway, the content is on another level entirely.

My daughter and I (and occasionally our menfolk) used to watch Runway pretty religiously. We are not particularly interested in fashion, but we really loved seeing the process behind making clothing. But as the seasons wore on we grew tired of it. Each season (and especially after the show moved to Lifetime and grew to 90 minutes) there seemed to be less time spent showing people actually making stuff, and more time devoted to interpersonal drama. And ugh, the drama. Each group of designers was more predictable than the last, with contestants clearly casting themselves (or being cast by the show’s editors) into specific roles: they bitchy one, the underdog, etc. While some competitors did prove to be nice ladies and guys, the competition was fierce, in both the literal and Christian Siriano sense of the word: backstabbing, smack-talking, shameless self-promotion, and passive-aggressive criticism of one another seem to rule the day on Runway. Making matters worse, the judging was just infuriating. When Anya’s was crowned winner in Season 9 over Victor (a win that seemed largely pre-ordained by the producers), we thew up our collective hands and tapped out. Clearly, we do not understand fashion. (As the judges might say, I’m just not their girl).

But movies? Movies we get, and Face Off offers a real glimpse into the part of movie making that most of us rarely think about. Unlike the drama-driven bitchfest that Project Runway has become, Face Off presents friendly competition in a largely collaborative atmosphere. The artists showcased on Face Off are not just talented. They also demonstrate the kind of behaviors that anyone who ever wants to work in a creative industry should emulate.  Contestants help one another out all the time, not just on team challenges, but also on individual challenges when their own hides are on the line. On the rare occasion when someone shows up with a chip on their shoulder, they usually don’t last long. The artists turn to one another for advice all the time, and when mentor Michael Westmore shows up in the workshop, they listen to his notes with respect that borders on reverence. The mood continues on the reveal stage, where the judges offer constructive criticisms and encouragement rather than snappy, Michael Kors–style one liners. Contrary to what the producers at most reality competition shows think, really fun to watch a show with your kid where you don’t hate any contestant. In fact, by the time you get down to the top five or six, you kind of want them all to win.

In a sense, they all do. The judges on this show—all major players in the special effects industry–seem to use the show as a proving ground for scouting new talent. So even if only one winner gets to claim the prize, a strong showing by a losing contestant is more likely to get a foot in the door than any backstabbing or scheming would. In any event, I get the sense that there is just no room for divas in this industry. Judges Glenn Hetrick, Ve Neill,  and Neville Page (and in earlier seasons, Patrick Tatopoulos) are among the biggest names in the field, but they are still far from household names. So winners are not competing for fame so much as for chance to get noticed by people who can put them in a position to work for a living.

It makes for great tv that is fun to watch together. For kids (or anyone who has ever watched a movie), it shows just how much work goes into old fashioned special effects, and highlights the importance of time management, teamwork, and thinking creatively. For the family, it not only provides appointment television to share at a time when our kids are less interested in spending time with their parents, but it has given us more of an appreciation for the work that goes into the movies and tv we otherwise enjoy (and we’ve all started doing Glenn Hetrick impressions, noting “this-is-a-very-effective-make-up” whenever a monster or even just an injured patient shows up in the course of a TV show).

Season 8 premiers tonight, with past winners serving as mentors to  new contestants (and all seasons are streaming now at Syfy.com). Let the friendly competition, thoughtful critiques, and teamwork begin!

The Momentum Optimization Project: Sometimes, an object needs to rest.

I started this post four months ago.

I can explain.

It was a busy summer and early fall, consumed by a large project that was running late. I was, for the most part, waking up every single morning to tend to manuscript bits and bobs, and trying to finish up early enough to do some actual summertime parenting in the late afternoons (first world problem alert: I do realize that spending time at the beach is a weird factor in the “busy” equation–but it is something that competes with time spent cleaning house or working on paid projects). Anyway, by the end of September, when I started this post, I was in the endzone on that project, and the next year’s projects were just starting to peek through the snow, so to speak. Essentially, I was heading into a work lull.

I should have been proactive. I know. Really. I tried to be. I made plans to get ahead—to jump in with both feet on next year’s work, and oh yeah, while it wasn’t too busy, to go ahead and write a ton of content for this blog that I could have just sitting on my computer, ready to post for all my loyal readers (hello, friends and family!) at a leisurely pace. I would get all that holiday shopping done early, work the sales. I would learn to sew and reupholster my couch.

None of this happened. I did, however, trudge down to my basement lair daily and prepare to work. I sat at the desk. I opened the books. I looked at the manuscript, but didn’t really edit much. I watched course videos and read news articles related to a new discipline I’m working in. I started mulling, and researching, different directions in which I might take my career. I began researching ideas for a new project to develop on my own. Realizing that I probably needed to update my resume, I looked at some colleagues’ for ideas on how I might do it. Essentially, I fussed about on the edges of work–but didn’t get any substantial work done.

I was distracted even from my distractions. I spent countless hours window shopping but didn’t purchase any Christmas gifts until about a week before Christmas (thank you, Amazon.com). I started several blog posts, but they were shite and just festered in my WordPress drafts folder, underdeveloped and unfinished. I served jury duty. I cleaned the house. I weeded the closets and the pantry and more. I spent hours clicking through Pinterest and Apartment Therapy looking for solutions for troublesome areas of my house, but made little progress because I wasn’t really “working” and thus could not really justify spending money on said projects. I bought a sewing machine that I have no idea how to use. I researched ways to help my kids with schoolwork, looking for a better understanding of the challenges (and opportunities) of the common core, and investigating ways to help them build better study skills. I found a ton of books for my kids to read and ordered them from the library. Ironically, I spent a lot reading blogs and articles about procrastination and productivity.

This happens every year. The Spousal Unit refers to it as my Seasonal Affective Funk. It’s partly that–I am pretty much solar powered, and so the dark days do take a toll. But a peek at my billing history, which provides a fair accounting of how productive I really am every week of the year, reveals that I usually slow down in late fall and then pick up just after the new year, when the days are at their darkest. It happens, quite simply, when I put one project to bed after working on it for the better part of a year. There’s a cycle in textbook publishing, and that’s the lull. It’s when, per Newton’s Law of Personal Momentum, I am abruptly transformed from an Object in Motion to an Object at Rest. Because if I don’t have a LOT of stuff to do? I’m not going to do a lot of stuff.

The irony here, of course, is that I’ve spent a great deal of time here talking about how I magically transformed my kids’ habits by just making a list and sticking to it. But no amount of list making seems to snap me out of this annual funk (although I suspect there might be some drugs that could help). Yes, I sat at my desk and pretended to work. I might as well have been playing video games.

But not really.

A long time ago, during another autumnal work funk, I stumbled upon this fabulous post extolling the virtues of structured procrastination. We procrasinators aren’t doing nothing; we’re just putting off important things to tend to “marginally useful things.” Why beat ourselves up over it? Even the less pressing things on the to-do list need to get done. For example, I’d been ignoring the clutter in my house for months while I was very busy–I needed to catch up on that, and now my closets are quite a bit less cluttered. I absolutely needed to spend some time looking at resumes, as my industry is changing profoundly in the digital age, and my lone promotional document was clearly written in 2001. And while I haven’t quite gotten around to reupholstering the couch, I did tag some solid directions for creating summer slipcovers out of bleached dropcloths, and set a goal to learn to use the machine well enough to pull it off by next summer. Pressing issues? Maybe not, but I am I’m fairly certain they’ll cumulatively improve my house, my work, the kids’ schoolwork, and my mindset moving forward. But you know, at the end of the day personal growth won’t pay the bills.

No matter. There comes a point when the procrastinator can procrastinate no more. Come the first week of January, when the kids go back to school and I crack open my new desk diary, I always hit the ground running. And here I am, at the end of my first full week of 2015, and I have billed a solid week’s worth of work, tended to some PTA stuff, and I’m fairly confident that I’ll be finishing this blog post today.

Anyway, welcome to 2015. Nap time is over.

Lessons from Hurricane Sandy #5: Accentuate The Positive

So, yesterday was the two year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. The storm made landfall around sundown, so most of my memories of the storm itself are muddy–watching the street slowly fill with water was just eerie and ominous with the lights out. While my son was hyperventilating with fear that we were all going to die, and my daughter was comforting him, my husband and I were just watching the clock (and trying to remember how much credit we had available), knowing that the tide would turn shortly after nine. Once I saw the water start to recede from the top basement step, I figured the worst was over and fell asleep. Had a tree blown down and landed on the house, I’m pretty sure I would have slept through it. (If you want to know what it was like, you can’t do better than to read NY1 political reporter and local dude Bob Hardt, who live blogged the storm from his Rockaway Beach home. Start from the end, and scroll back to experience the view from the Beach 90s in real time.)

For me, though, today is the real anniversary–because it was not until the following morning that I fully comprehended what Sandy had wrought.  When I opened the door and saw my street, and my neighbors walking around, dazed, in tears, or even laughing with disbelief–because it was all just so surreal–that’s when it hit me. And while the sporadic texts and facebook posts I’d seen the night before suggested that it was worse than I knew–the boardwalk pulled from its staunchons, fires throughout Breezy Point and Belle Harbor–it wasn’t until a friend who still had a charge on his phone showed me a photo of the boardwalk, or what was left of, that I cried.

I just ran back through my email, and found the note I sent to friends a few days later, on November 3, when I arrived at my sister’s house for a night with my displaced children, a much needed hot shower, and a few moments of sweet, sweet Internet. Here’s my description from that email (I’ve pasted it in as written–typos and all. Cut me some slack–I was exhausted and traumatized!).

The peninsula is devastated. I don’t know what they’ve shown on TV, but it’s really bad. The boardwalk is just gone. It’s a terrible  hit, particularly for my neighborhood, which was just sort of coming into an upswing after decades of decline. While the Mayor handled the runup to the hurricane well (we can’t say we weren’t warned) and the city agencies are really kicking ass, it was terrible for morale that he declined to have Obama visit and then was planning to go ahead with the marathon. Bear in mind that we have no tv coverage down there, only the spottiest cell service, and the main news radio stations didn’t seem to be reporting on rockaway. We were seriously feeling forgotton.

The first night was madness–Looting, gunshots. But it took days for the national guard to roll in. We were seriously praying they’d just declare martial law. IT’s terrifyingly dark out there at night.

My nephew was able to register us with FEMA and they are coming tomorrow. We have not seen any presence from the Red Cross at all at my end of town, though we were hit less hard than uptown and breezy point, so I’m guessing they are up there. The hipsters we mocked all summer, however, are everywhere, walking down streets with bags of food and water, even dog food, making lists for families. They’ve got the best organized boots-on-the-ground effort we’ve seen in my specific neighborhood (check out http://interoccupy.net/occupysandy/rockaways/). It’s overwhelming. After seeing the remains of the boardwalk that first morning, my neighbor and were walking along, lamenting that “These hipsters will never come back now.” And with that, a little group of five very Williamsburgy types walked up and asked us if were were ok. And we said, we’re all safe, are you guys ok? And they said, yes we came in from brooklyn its all fine there–we came here to help. And with that they headed back to my neighbor’s yard to haul 20 yards of construction sand into the pit left by her destroyed koi pond (and was endangering her foundation).  I cried. I’ll never mock a hipster again.

So that’s my update. Again, we are fine, and you know, we have a steady income and we’ll get through this ok. There are a lot of people in wealthier part of town who were hit with way more damage, but also are more equipped to handle it in the long run. But there are a lot of really poor people in my neighborhood who lost everything and really just don’t know what to do. They are just helpless, and everyone who lives here is too wound up with their own messes to even reach out. It’s difficult not being able to help your neighbors because you’ve got a basement full of wet crap (and the occasional dead koi).

On the up side, at least there are no zombies.

Two years later, I find it helpful to reread this, and remind myself that while the city is dragging its feet on repairs to our boardwalk and infrastructure, while many of my neighbors are still displaced, while all of us are still struggling with bills and the unfreakingbelievable amount of paperwork involved in making insurance claims or trying to get money out of Build it Back, and while the Red Cross is rightfully being scrutinized for being more concerned with marketing than with actually getting help to people, we’ve really come a long way.  Sand, eventually, got pumped onto our beaches, offering protection we’ve known we need for ages. The new boardwalk, while slow in coming, looks like it will be great.  Those hipsters kept coming back–they helped rebuild our neighborhood and are continuing to help build our economy. And my little neighborhood is finally getting a needed shot of investment not from the government but from artists and entrepreneurs and tourists  and even brand new residents who are catching on to what born-and-bred locals have known all along: This place is special. (Local blogger Rockawayist provides a great rundown on all the great things that have happened since Sandy). None of it is perfect, but things are happening in a place where nothing good seemed to be happening for many, many years.

I guess I’m a glass-half-full kind of girl. Sure, there’s a lot to complain about, and there’s a lot that still needs to be done. But Rome wasn’t built in day, and Rockaway won’t be rebuilt in a year or two, especially since many of our local problems–poverty, isolation, and crappy transportation–predate Sandy by a few decades. I prefer to count my blessings, because I am a goddamned Pollyanna with no time for haters and whiners. As the surfers say, you can’t fight the ocean but you can learn to surf. In my case, you can just look around and be grateful for the fact you are alive, you still have a job, and while your home may not be worth what you put into it, at least the basement is dry. And let’s not forget: there are still no zombies.

New Mural from Beautify Earth, Beach 91st Street.  http://instagram.com/oceanus_11693

New Mural from Beautify Earth, Beach 91st Street.

An aside: If you ever want to help in disaster response, I can think of no better charity to receive your donations than Team Rubicon. These amazing veterans were among the most effective and helpful storm responders–those first dark, terrifying nights, it was Team Rubicon who rolled down our streets with a PA system announcing who they were, and what help they were offering (blankets, food, batteries, etc). As time rolled on, they deployed teams to muck out basements and get aid where it was most needed. These are men and women who served our country, and then chose to serve again. We owe them far more than we could ever hope to pay.

Reversing the Polarity of Convenience Food: Be a junk food locavore

I will make no apologies: I enjoy junk food. Cookies, packaged and laden with sugar and/or salt?  Bring it on.

Just don’t leave it where I can see it. Seriously. An open sleeve of cookies left out on the counter is not just a temptation for me: It’s an invitation–no, it’s an order–to mindlessly stick one in my pie hole every time I walk into the kitchen. One cookie? Pretty harmless. But I work at home. I walk through the kitchen a lot.

I know there’s some gray area in terms of what’s junk and what’s not. But for my purposes, I’m thinking of anything highly processed, laden with chemicals, and labeled with an ingredients list that is as long as the Magna Carta. I had little of it in my house before I had kids; and even when my kids were small, I didn’t keep it in the house. But when we moved to our block, which is full of kids running in and out, some of them complaining that I had nothing for them to eat, I got in the habit of keeping snacks in the house: cookies, bags of sugar water passing as fruit “drink,” boxes of Kraft Mac & Cheese that I could toss on the stove and feed a brood on the fly. Boxes, and boxes of junk came into my house every time I headed to the warehouse store: It was easy. It was cheap. It was convenient.

I’ll not bore you with the details other than to say they involved a healthy-seeming husband teetering toward Type 2 diabetes, a mid-lifing self putting on 20 pounds in two years, and a pair of scrawny children who loved ate plenty of junk food and not enough real, actual food. Junk, from purchase to consumption, had just become a habit an our house. I don’t know that banning junk is the answer–sometimes we need something easy, cheap, and convenient (and in any event, I don’t believe in really “banning” anything), but clearly, it was too easy, too cheap,  too convenient.  And since I’m the one tasked with the food shopping, I was the enabler-in-chief.

So I made an executive decision: I stopped buying it. Can they eat it? Sure. But it’s not part of my food budget nor does it have space in my cabinets. If they want something junky, they can walk to the deli and buy it for themselves, or just bake some brownies. The point was not to make junk and sweets completely off limits, it was just to make them a little more difficult, more expensive, less convenient. Here’s how it works out:

  • Want a cookie? Walk to the store and buy some. With your own money.
  • Want a snack? See what’s in the fridge. There’s leftovers. There’s cheese. There’s cold cuts, There’s bread in the drawer, peanut butter in the cupboard.
  • Want dessert tonight? There is brownie mix in the cabinet. Hop to it.
  • Want mac & cheese? We replaced the box o’ crap with a simple variation we invented based on one of their favorite dinners that they’ve learned to make for themselves. It’s just as easy as boxed mac and cheese, and consists of just a real food ingredients that we always have in the house.
  • Soda was never allowed in our house, but they’re allowed to have it when we’re out, and on pizza night.
  • I keep ice cream in the freezer, by the quart. It’s fattening and has sugar, yes, but it’s also relatively wholesome (we avoid anything with weird ingredients) and fixing yourself a bowl requires a bit of effort.

I recognize that this approach makes little economic sense. We are spending more money on each individual snack, after all. But at the same time, what money we spend is being spent at small neighborhood store, rather than at a big warehouse chain several miles away, so at least it’s good for the local economy. We’re junk food locavores!

And of course, it makes great sense on a health metric. I can’t say much about the kids–they’ve never had weight issues and are rarely sick, so I guess they could have gone on eating crap until midlife comes and bites them in the ass. But the two household members for whom that bite has already taken place have certainly seen some benefit. For us, a key has been to make healthy food just as easy to eat as junk. The husband has a yogurt and fruit habit every morning; I’ve learned that I’ll pick just as mindlessly at a bowl of blueberries or carrots or pickled cauliflower that’s been left on the counter as I will at a sleeve of Oreos, and I’ll feel fuller afterward, without the inevitable post-Oreo craving for more Oreos. And don’t even get me started on the joys of the pre-washed, bagged salad, which makes eating a bowl of vegetables (granted, occasionally with some processed dressing, but still) easier than driving through McDonalds.



The Homework Map: Charting their courses

Homework was never easy or enjoyable at our house. Honestly, I kind of resent having to have anything to do with it (I did my homework back in the 1980s, I should be done by now). But alas, I’ve come to peace with the fact that my kids are not necessarily self-starters, and require some degree of parenting to keep them on track. This is especially the case when it comes to getting homework done.

When the kids were little, at least the entire concept of homework was pretty straightforward: Here is a list of things to do. Now do them. All that changes in middle school, when suddenly the kids are faced with five or six different teachers, each with their own quirks and demands. It can be overwhelming for students, and exhausting for parents–especially if you’ve got more than one child.

We are lucky that the school my kids attend, which runs from 6th through 12th grade, requires teachers to provide homework sheets for each class, each week. It’s a huge help for students to have the teachers articulate the learning objectives and assignments very clearly, and leaves no room for excuses such as not writing it down, or in my son’s case, not being able to read what you wrote down.

Still, with five or six different teachers handing out just as many homework sheets, there’s just a lot to sort through. My kids are getting better at doing their work, but they’re still struggling with the executive function portion of the equation–that is, figuring out what they need to do, when, and how to prioritize lots of competing tasks and activities.

So, I’ve found that the best thing to do is for me to sit down at the beginning of each week and sort through all the assignment sheets and the family calendar and synthesize a weekly list for/with each of them. Making that weekly list into a visual chart is even better, allowing kids (and parents!) to clearly see what assignments are coming up, and spot potential roadblocks in advance, so the kids can address them with teachers, coaches, and guidance counselors long before deadlines start rearing their ugly heads.

Enter the Homework Map. It’s a simple chart, similar to a weekly planner but customized for school work.


Homework Map

You can buy a planner that does the job for them, but I’ve never found one that works perfectly. I find it easier (and cheaper) to just work with this simple MS-word document, which I print out and fill in in pencil. You can click on the links below for a pdf file that you can print out, or to download a Microsoft Word file that you can customize however you like.

The Homework Map [printable pdf]

The Homework Map [downloadable word file]


Here’s how to use it:

Use it with your homework sheets–not in place of them. Make a quick note of what needs to be done  in the cell for each subject. You don’t need to go into detail–just note the general gist of each assignment (for example, “Read and answer 5 questions”) and refer to homework sheets (or your teacher’s website or whatever) for specifics. If the kids don’t get assignments in advance, just have them fill it in as best you can as they move through the week. Oh, and start nagging your school to start posting the assignments to the web or via email. It’s 2014, for God’s sake.

Use the “what’s happening” section to track after school activities. Jobs, service commitments, family obligations (including babysitting younger siblings), sports or clubs may be competing for students’ time after school. Be sure to schedule in all of these commitments so kids can factor them in when planning their time. Seeing it all in one place will help them to visualize how how much time they really have to tend to homework, so they can adjust their schedule as needed.

Plan seven days–or even two weeks–ahead! If Monday to Friday are looking kind of busy, kids will see it–and may want to get ahead on next week’s assignments over the weekend. One of the reasons I hate most weekly planners is that they include only a tiny section for weekends. Students who do a lot of activities may want to use some weekend time to catch up or get ahead–so factor that into the map.

Set benchmarks for big projects.  If a student has a big project due on Friday, he or she can break it up into smaller tasks over the course of the week, and do a little each day. Setting firm benchmarks is a fantastic way to approach large projects. For example, rather than just writing “essay due friday,” take a few minutes to figure out individual steps and plot them on your map. For an essay with a deadline that’s a week away, your map might include daily benchmarks for researching, outlining, identifying evidence, writing the body, the intro, and the conclusion, and revising/finalizing the essay).

Busy day? Tweak the schedule. If a child sees that they’ve got a ton of homework on Wednesday, plus two hours of team practice after school, they might want to move some tasks from Wednesday to Tuesday, or talk to their coach about cutting out early if they have too much work to do.

Prioritize work vs. leisure. If a child sees that they’ve got a ton of homework, they should know that it’s not in their best interest to turn on the TV when you they home. Remember Newton’s Laws, and stick to the Momentum Optimization plan!

Schedule your fun time, too. On the other hand, if you KNOW your kid is going to want to watch the big game  (or in our case, this week’s  Face Off ) on a particular night, go ahead and put it on the map. That way, they’ll know they need to get their work done earlier in order to have it out of the way when prime time rolls around.

Make it a team effort. My goal isn’t to organize my kids’ lives for them–it’s to teach them to organize their own. I’ve learned with my son that sitting down with them and making the map, and then checking and adapting it each day as we move through the week makes the worse less daunting for him and less stressful for all of us. With my daughter starting middle school this year, I’m glad to have the system in place already and hope we can get her started on developing good habits right away.


Lesson from Hurricane Sandy, #4: Picky eaters are less picky when they’re really, truly hungry

I made a joke on Facebook the night before the storm hit, joking that (to paraphrase the Talking Heads), I had some groceries, some peanut butter, to last a couple of days. My family has been in this neighborhood a long time, and we knew that this block had never flooded (not even during Hurricane Donna), but we thought it was likely that we would get some water in the basement. So our plan was to ride out Sandy as we had ridden out every other hurricane–to stay close to home so we could man the sump pumps and the generator. Like most of our neighbors, we battened down the hatches and hunkered down, with candles and flashlights at the ready. I had groceries up on the high shelves in the basement, and the second fridge was well stocked with a few gallons of milk, some beer, and frozen food.

Of course, that was all in the basement. So, that didn’t quite work out like I’d hoped.

Food-wise, the first day or two after the storm were kind of hilarious, as we all emptied our pantries and thawing freezers (the ones we had up in our kitchens, that is) and fed anyone who was there to eat it. I introduced some of my neighbors to Irish sausage; my next-door neighbor ate a granola bar for the first time in his life. Perhaps the most surreal moment came when another neighbor came around with a tray of just-thawed shrimp cocktail, and we all stood in the cold, covered in basement sludge, feasting as though we were at a country club.

But as time went on, the whole sustenance thing became decidedly less entertaining. For the first few weeks after the storm, there was just a ton of work to do, and we were all burning every minute of daylight mucking out and cleaning up. There was still no power, no heat, no refrigerator, or hot water to wash dishes. I had two kids who were not particularly good at eating things that they weren’t used to eating. So, sorry kids–I’m not making you Kraft mac and cheese or rolling up plain turkey cold cuts today.

But guess what? Apparently, picky eaters become less picky and more adventurous when they’re really hungry and choices are limited. For weeks after the hurricane, we were living on canned goods and the kindness of strangers. When you’re hungry, things that might have smelled weird to you a week before suddenly smell delicious. My son still talks about the amazing Jamaican jerk chicken he ate, delivered from a church van that was just trolling through the streets, offering food and comfort. My daughter ate chili from a Red Cross truck (yes, they did eventually make an appearance) and everybody dug into a huge pot of jambalaya delivered by one of the local surfers. My kids have never been big in the appetite department and would have lived on nothing but milk if they could have. But now they were, probably for the first time ever, hungry enough to get past the novelty of new textures and flavors and realize that not only did they feel better after eating it, but they kind of liked it.

I guess the point is that when it comes to getting our kids to try new things, it doesn’t hurt to tell them there’s just nothing else to eat. The thing is, I didn’t really have to wait for a natural disaster for it to happen; I’ve found a similar phenomenon occurs in less dire circumstances. If I don’t pack junk and snacks when we go to the beach, they’ll get hungry enough to just try what’s offered. That’s how I got them to consider foods that they’d previously wrinkled their noses at: hummus, fish tacos, sweet potato fries, a frozen banana. So the moral of the story is, if you don’t let them have the junk, they’ll eat things that are not junk–eventually, and after a lot of whining.

The other lesson for me was that as a parent, we fall into habits as much as our kids do. My son was 12 when the Sandy hit, but I was still playing by the food rules that we’d surrendered to established when he was a toddler and refused to eat most fruits because they were “Slippery.” In the two years since, he’s become a much more adventurous eater. I can’t say this is entirely (or even partly) due to the hurricane experience–most likely it has more to do with the fact that he’s hitting his growth spurt and is just way hungrier than he ever was before (but still not hungry enough to eat slippery fruit). And, it’s not like he or my daughter have gone and become vegetarians over night: when the junk was available again, they went right back to it (and as I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t really believe in banning anything outright). But: They have at least started to open themselves up to new food experiences, which is the first step toward a greater appreciation for different kinds of ingredients, flavors, cuisines, and textures. That’s as much a part of growing up as reading more complicated books, or learning to work independently. Having them expand their palettes has made dinners easier and our family life richer: we’re no longer cooking two different meals for the kids and the grown ups, and we can finally go out together to a restaurant (my favorite thing to do) that doesn’t have chicken nuggets on the menu.

So go ahead, starve your kids a little. It will be good for everyone.






The August Adjustment: Getting ready for back-to-school

I know many kids around the country are already back at school, but here in NYC, we do not surrender summertime until after Labor Day. And for the first time in a few years, my kids are more ready to go back than I am.  My summer was incredibly busy with work, and the corresponding non-attentiveness to childrens’ needs with which most work-at-home parents are probably familiar. I’m just coming up for air now, taking a few days to attend to school shopping (I totally missed all the sales) and helping them to finish off their summer work. Seems like a good time for an update on the Momentum Optimization Project.

The general takeaway for Summer 2014: Inconsistent enforcement, but nonetheless promising results. Here’s how it went.

Herself–age 11, entering middle school in the fall–is the night owl of the family. And yes, she stayed up too late every night and slept too late every day. I am not proud, but that’s our reality. I would lose billable work hours fighting to get her doing things in the morning, so we just adjust to her natural clock in the summertime. I work from 5:00 am until around 1 o’clock, at which time she’s just getting ready to join the living. Beginning in August, we set slightly firmer bedtime parameters (close-up screens off by 10, but she can stay up and watch tv after that), just to get her a tiny bit in tune with the non-vampire world.

Her operating on such opposite internal clock from the rest of the family is a real challenge. By the time she is ready to work, I’m fried from having spent 6 or 7 hours in front of my own computer thinking and sorting and editing. And so,  I didn’t stick to my guns on  The List as much as I would have liked. I certainly cannot claim that I adhered to it every day. BUT: Just doing it on some days made a huge difference. There was no fighting or whining over homework, other than occasional prods from me to “Just sit down and read (or write) for twenty minutes” or “Do your list” before I let her go play on the computer (or watch tv). A bunch of little spurts of energy devoted to it here and there, and at the end of the project she had put more time into each assignment than she would have had I insisted she get it all done the first week of July, or whenever. Oh, and she did clean the bathroom, walk the dog, and do her other chores almost every day.

If it weren’t for the fact that by the time she was awake enough to work, I was too mentally spent to work on school stuff (we’d usually just make lunch and then head to the beach), we probably would have been done with her summer work much sooner. But the weather was exceptional this summer, and the beach was beautiful, and what’s the point of living here if I can’t get my kids in the water most days.

3pm, Rockaway Beach, NY

So, yeah, we still have a lot to do this last week. But we don’t have to do everything. Even though I was not particularly good about leaning on her to spend the planned 15 minutes per day on homework, she did read quite a bit all summer long, and she completed two out of three written assignments over the past four days. (She’s read the third book and just needs to work on her essay this week). Her math assignment is something I put off–it involves making a Power Point presentation, something I haven’t had time to figure out. So, she’s doing the research this this, and her brother or dad will help her with the technical aspect of presentation before school starts.

So, end result: Not perfect, but promising. She had a fun summer, which should really be the first priority for an 11 year old. She spent her waking hours at the beach and nights playing Minecraft. And she did her work, and seems to have done it pretty well. I think that she’s finally starting to understand that projects are far less onerous when broken up into manageable chunks. That, hopefully, will lead to better habits all around.

That’s certainly been the case for my son. He’s 14 now, about to enter high school, (although his school goes from grade 6 through 12, so it won’t be the same kind of transition it is for many kids). He is an early riser like me, so when he wandered into our Room of Requirement (the basement is an open space that hosts both my home office and the family rec/computer area) each morning, I’d just remind him to do the list before he got started on the machines. He was pretty good about it, too. He’d do his chores, then read.

For the month of July, he was excused from school work at home because he was attending a full-day HS prep program at his school, during which he was working pretty intensely on math and reading his books during his free time. So, we devoted August to his English assignments. He had a choice of several non-fiction titles, one of which was The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teenagers. Given my interest in habit building (I’m midway through The Power of Habit myself as I write this), that’s the one I picked for him. (The rule in my house is: If you don’t want to go shopping–and my kids HATE shopping–you take what mom gives you). I ordered the audio version for myself so I could discuss it with him, and whenever he finished a “habit,” we would have a little informal discussion about it while we did other things (making dinner, walking to the beach, etc).

Long story short: He really liked the book, despite his initial misgivings. He started his essay on it last week, and for the first time, stretched out the process of writing the essay over several days. My son is a great reader, but not a great writer, and he finds writing such a chore that he tends to rush through written assignments, and avoid revising at all costs (which can make his editor mom’s blood boil). So this time, we spent some time at the whiteboard and just worked on an outline for two days (by which I mean: two 15-minute sessions). He wrote his draft over the next two days, and then we worked together to finalize the draft on the fifth day. All told, he spent several hours on the essay, including discussing, outlining, writing, and revising, in addition to reading the book. In the end, he was really, really happy with his essay, and admitted that it hadn’t felt like all that much work because he’d broken it up into smaller bits. So, a win for me, and for the Momentum Optimization Project.

That’s not to say any of it is a “habit” yet. When he started on his second essay yesterday (this one in response to a fiction book), he tried to outline and write the essay on the same day. The result: Total meltdown. I had to practically smack him out of it, reminding him that the goal for the day was just to figure out the main point and maybe locate some evidence for his outline. (There was also a five minute argument over the fact that the Kindle edition of the book I bought him did not include page numbers, which he swore were the only appropriate way of referencing the text. My son and I are on opposite sides of the paper v. ebook divide). Clearly, the key will be consistency (never a strong point for me) and providing constant reminders that slow and steady is the best way to finish–if not necessarily win–the race.