Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Dear Santa, A Book Review

I know my kids are older, but I still can't resist a good picture book. Indeed, I miss them and still tend to linger over them at the library (hopefully not looking like a creepy childless stalker in the children's section). So I was intrigued when I got offered a review copy of Dear Santa, Love, Rachel Rosenstein (affiliate link) by Amanda Peet and Andrea Troyer, illustrated by Christine Davenier.

Admittedly my first reaction was, Amanda Peet is Jewish? And then Amanda Peet is a playwright in addition to being an actress? Already, this book was educational.

Dear Santa is an adorable picture book that many Jewish kids and their parents (me!) can relate to. Young Rachel Rosenstein enjoys her family's Jewish traditions, but she really, really wants to celebrate Christmas.

Oh, how I yearned for a Christmas tree as a child. I lobbied for years, eventually coming full circle by the time I was in college. "No Christmas tree or Chanukah bush in my house. Ever."

Anyway, Rachel manages a visit to a mall Santa, sneaks up a few Christmas decorations at home, and even prepares a snack for Jolly Old Saint Nick, to no avail. In the end she comes to realize that her family isn't the only one that doesn't celebrate Christmas, and in fact there are lots of cool holidays celebrated by people of different religions and cultural backgrounds. Like so many kids before her, Rachel (mostly) makes peace with her lot in life.

If you have a child like Rachel (or me), this is a wonderful book to normalize those Christmas yearnings.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Tap in, Turn up with the Chicago Sinfonietta

Chicago Sinfonietta Tap In. Turn Up.
Photo via Chicago Sinfonietta
This is a guest post by my husband. We were invited to this performance as media guests. The Chicago Sinfonietta took a back seat  on a recent Monday night at Symphony Center for Tap In. Turn Up., an incongruous blend of dance and symphonic music. With the orchestra visible on stage, two Flamenco dancers and a tap dancer distracted us from the swaying of the violin bows and the flapping of the conductor’s baton.

First, Wendy Clinard performed a sinuous flamenco to Roberto Sierra's Fandangos, her pink-sleeved arms elegantly posing like twin flamingos to the lull of the music.

Similarly, tap dancer Cartier Williams crept onto the stage, arms writhing in ballet-like poses to the slow segment of Stravinsky’s Firebird. I was unclear if he was poking fun at ballet or just passing time until the vibrant parts of the piece.

Soon the tempo picked up and Williams was clacking feverishly across the stage, his ankles a blur as he machine-gunned multiple beats beyond the orchestra’s ability to keep up. I don’t know that the tapping enhanced the music, but it was certainly more fun to watch.

Williams was all energy and rhythm until finally, he threw himself off the stage. It almost looked like a mistake, but it was pure performance. He slowly tapped his way across the first row, up the stairs to the stage and back behind the conductor’s podium as he concluded the finale segment to a standing ovation.

Instead of taking a nap, which I would have done after all that dancing, Williams joined Clinard and Flamenco dancer, Marisela Taples, for a tap/Flamenco hybrid dance to Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor. Although Clinard and Taples employed a green shawl as a prop, their movements didn't seem to tell a story and their interactions with the tapper didn't bring out the most interesting elements of each genre. But the tapping was fun.

At intermission we took a communal tap-dancing lesson thanks to the Chicago Human Rhythm Project and then the Sinfonietta finished with Rimsky-Korsakov's dance-free Scheherazade.

Although this was more familiar than the earlier tunes (and as much as I like classical music), I was primed for something more visually appealing to keep me at the edge of my seat. Although I was awake the whole time, my step- and sleep-tracking watch claims I slept through the last 33 minutes of the performance. But I swear I didn’t.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The 2016 Coca-Cola Scholars Award and Other Scholarships

As a high school senior I remember poring over thick reference books at the library in an attempt to find scholarship opportunities. In the end, the winning formula was the advice that's still dished out by my son's school college counselor applied: Think Local. I was awarded money from the PTA and the Rotary Club. And at the end of freshman year of college, I earned a scholarship from my university that brought my tuition costs down to a pittance for sophomore and junior yeas of school.

If your child is on the hunt for money to help cover the costs of college, see what your local civic clubs and parent organizations have to offer and encourage your child apply for those scholarships. Apparently, these smaller scholarships are often left behind as masses of students put their energy into applying for national scholarships. I know, in the scheme of college costs, a $200 scholarship is a drop in the bucket, but it will still take a dent out of book fees, activity fees, dorm fees, technology fees or whatever other fees a university can dream up. So encourage your child to pursue those.

Of course, there's no need to hunker down over big old books anymore. These days, all it takes is a Google search to follow the (potential) money. Along those lines, FastWeb has been recommended as a go-to source for scholarship information.

And don't forget the the schools themselves. There are many opportunities for merit scholarships for high-achieving students. But be mindful that college applications are often due by November 1 in order for students to be considered for merit scholarships. Merit scholarships are often granted for things like achieving a certain ACT/SAT score or a class rank. Easy peasy money if your child fits the bill, but your student's application must be turned in promptly, often months before the official college application deadline.

There's a reason that students are attracted to the big-name scholarships: money. Take, for example, this scholarship from Coca-Cola Foundation. I caught wind of it after a Twitter chat last year and asked them to remind me when it as open for applications. Which is to say, this is not a sponsored post, but info I think is worth sharing. You can bet I shared it with my high school senior!

The Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation grants 150 high school seniors a $20,00 scholarship. Nice, right?

But what is even better about this scholarship is that its value extends beyond the financial reward. Along with that generous amount of money, the honorees are invited to Coca Cola Scholars Retreat, a program that brings the winners together for a few days of fun, networking and leadership training. What an amazing network to be a part of.

This year’s Coca-Cola scholarship application is now available online at Coca-Cola Scholars. They are looking for "150 high school seniors who are socially-conscious and servant-minded leaders. Coca-Cola believes in investing in students who are leaders, both academically and in service to others."

The application process is completed online, but involves a lengthy questionnaire, so don't delay. The application for the 2016 Coke Scholars is October 31, 2015, so don't delay!

Monday, September 21, 2015

College Admissions Slush Pile

Now that we're my son we're (it really is a family affair to some extent for pretty much everyone I know) in the thick of the college admissions process, I decided it was time to clear out a few distractions. Namely, the large and growing pile of printed material that's been keeping the US Postal Service in business for the last 1.5 years. Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow, nor darkness or night can prevent college recruitment materials from filling our mailbox.

Behold, a pile roughly 14 inches high built of postcards, letters, brochures, and hope. Just as starry-eyed writers send off manuscripts that never garner more than a glance from editors at the big publishing houses, so, too, do colleges send my son college recruitment materials. They present their best, sunniest, most culturally diverse and glossiest versions of themselves, only to be piled up and crushed under the weight of one the ones that come after.

At first I passed everything on to my son without comment, but eventually I realized he only bothered to open a small amount. He also began to clarify his vision for the types of schools that interested him, so I began to filter lest he run out of space to store his clothes on his bedroom floor.

Small liberal arts college? Not his thing. Design school? Nope. Large state universities outside of the Midwest? Straight to recycling. (Sorry, UT Austin.)

In recent months, the postcards have been replaced by denser materials, some as thick as small books. If I can still recall the details next May after my son has committed to a school, maybe I'll share a few of the biggest hits and misses. Hint: if I spend more time wondering how much time and money it took to produce and mail your piece than actually reviewing its content, it's a miss. 

Not pictured is the pile of materials from schools of interest. That was about 5 inches high, mostly due to multiple mailings:  Come to open house for prospective students! Check out our summer program for high school students! Visit our fabulous campus! That's been pared down to relevant application information and visit days that are still in the future. 

And thank goodness, because now my sophomore is already starting to receive college recruitment materials!

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

One Difference Between Having Toddlers and Having Teens

One difference between having toddlers and having teens is that when the kids are little, it's easy to gain weight from snacking on their unfinished meals. You remember the crusts they didn't want, the big bowl of Mac and Cheese they never finished?

(Oh, I loved those. I can't imagine buying the blue box stuff without kids in the house, but it is a guilty pleasure/comfort food even if the "cheese" is like 95% artificial gunk.)

With teens it's the opposite. I'm about to bite into my sandwich when a man-child suddenly appears by my side. Can I have a bite? A teen boy does not take a mere nibble; he leaves me with crumbs.

When they were little, we were very firm about not eating again after dessert, or at least a certain time before bed. Now at 10:00 at night, I hear the microwave beeping. Time for second dinner! They either eat the evening's leftover dinners or grab a frozen meal.

Fruit will be consumed if it's rinsed/peeled/chopped and put out in a bowl. But God forbid they have to do that themselves. This, like waking a certain child up most mornings, kills me on a certain level, but I know if I don't bother preparing fruit, they'll consume every processed carb in the house instead. Actually, they'll eat the fruit and then hunt down the processed carbs anyway because their growing, athletic bodies are calorie-burning machines. They have several before their metabolism catches up with them.

At any rate, if I look like I've lost weight, it's because my boys have eaten all the food.

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Best Worst PR Mistake

PR mistakes when dealing with bloggers
My inbox is filled with press releases. It comes with the blogging territory. You get on a PR list targeting parents of kindergarteners because that's the age of your youngest when you start blogging, and ten years later you are still being sent pitches for clothes or games targeting that age group.

Even worse, because you're on some type of "mommy" list, you wind up on other types of "mommy" lists. So I get pitches for diapers, strollers, and other products that I haven't needed or written about in ages.

In fact, I think it's been at least 4 years since I asked Rashida Ferguson to please remove me from her mailing list because I don't care about infant car seats, or any kind of booster seat for that matter (unless they now make one for petite adults) and I will not devote editorial space on any of my blogs to them (except for the petite adult model). Rashida is top of mind only because I noticed something in my inbox the other day from a Rashida New Name, and I was like, "Oh, she got married!"

But this is not about Rashida and the laziness or refusal to remove a recipient. It's about another kind of PR sin related to recipients--the full cc. 

The fullest cc ever. 

I didn't notice at first, because when I get a pitch with a horrible subject line, say, one about a pregnant teacher's great new idea that's now on Kickstarter, it goes Right. In. The. Trash. I didn't give the note a second thought until a "reply all" message with that subject line popped into my inbox.

My curiosity piqued, I opened it. The PR flack who sent the first note apparently cc'd a few people on the message. 

No, not a few. A few hundred

The PR person copied more than 450 people in single email!

After that first person replied all to chide the PR person for the mass cc things got awesome. People started "replying all" with smartass comments, funny GIFs, with a few cat facts thrown in for good measure. Apparently once you apply to this cat facts service, it's hard to get off the list.

Those notes were followed up by emails from people from around the world inviting others on the cc list to get together for coffee. How nice to think that I can head to Spain, India or Dubai and have a new friend who will join me for a cuppa Joe.

We've even got our own Facebook group now. Two, actually, but only because lines crossed. I think we're going back to one. It's actually an interesting international mix of traditional tech journalists and bloggers. People are introducing themselves more formally, invitations to meet up continue to be shared. It's a beautiful thing. We're hoping that two people on the list will meet and get married.

I'm generally up for a bit of serendipity. Plus, I now have the email addresses for some editors at several top tech and lifestyle sites.

But as for that Kickstarter campaign? Nobody is actually talking about that.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Great College Essay Topics

Great College Essay Topics
Looking for just the right college essay topic? Now that the college application season is here, essay topics for the Common App, personal statements for this school or that have become part of our daily household conversation. I have several great college essay topics! But my son has rejected them all. That's fine, he really needs to "own" his essay, right? Maybe they are right for your child.

1.     What I learned after my freshman yearbook photo became a viral meme.
2.     How I plan to use my White Privilege to better the world.
3.     The moment I realized that my father really does know best.
4.     Affluenza, the scourge of my generation.
5.     #MyLifeMatters.
6.     What I learned after I put an end to my mansplainin' habit.
7.     In-home wifi: right or privilege?
8.     How I found out that Snapchat messages don’t really disappear and what I learned from the experience.
9.     The most meaningful participation trophy I ever earned.
10. My parents suggested I put pen to paper to write the first draft of this essay. You won't believe what happened next.
11. Straight Outta Suburbia.
12. #Winning: The week I got myself out of bed without my parents needing to wake me up for school.

Did you catch that episode of Modern Family a few years ago in which Haley was applying to college? As part of her application, she was supposed to write an essay about "the biggest obstacle she's overcome in her life." Haley bemoans the fact that her life has been so charmed that she has never had to overcome anything. (That was in 2011, but certainly jives with current conversations about the oversensitivity and high level of anxiety among today's college students, which is speculated to be an outcome their oversheltered early years.)

Haley's mom, Claire, takes her on a drive promising to share a family secret. When they are out in a rural area, Claire pulls off the road and points to a tree that she says has a secret message from when she and Haley's dad were dating. Claire acts like she's going to take her daughter to see it, but after Haley steps out of the car Claire drives off leaving Haley to find her way home, without money or a cell phone, so that her daughter would have something to write about.

I'm not going to that kind of extreme-nor do I need to. Despite my casting aside my incredibly awesome prompts, my son has some meaningful topics of his own. And I know once he gets serious about writing (and rewriting and then rewriting yet again) his essays, they will be fabulous, original, heartfelt and truly his.

Also, my prompts are dripping with sarcasm and in some cases not true. You think he ever gets himself up for school?! (I'm kidding.)(Sort of.) His yearbook photo did not become a meme as far as I know, he never got in trouble with Snapchat, and even as a child, he felt a disdain for rewards he did not earn. True story: his favorite trophy was actually a very large, shiny one he picked out of a "free" bin at a garage sale.

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