Archive for December, 2011


Thursday, December 29th, 2011

Go ahead and enjoy a lucky pretzel, but a positive attitude is what really helps.

As far as luck goes, many will tell you that it’s more about personal attitude than a random stroke of chance or the long arm of fate. Experts say that pessimists who win millions in the lottery will, months afterward, become very unhappy and pessimistic yet again. Conversely, optimistic people who develop cancer can remain optimistic and often do better even while undergoing tough treatment. With the New Year approaching, you’ll hear lots of talk about rituals and traditions that purportedly ensure good luck for the coming months. Then of course, there are always those grandiose resolutions to be made (and usually broken within a few weeks). For me, I plan to play both sides of the issue by making a resolution to keep a positive attitude and indulge in some New Year good luck traditions–if only for fun. Growing up in Pittsburgh, you always had a lucky pretzel on New Year’s Day. Germans believed that they bring wealth and success in the New Year. My daughter and husband just think they’re yummy. If anything, I need to realize that I’ve already had more luck than many other people in this world and while things may not be ideal in every facet of life, they could be a lot worse. Happy New Year.

Plan to make your own luck with a positive attitude, but just for a little extra insurance, here are some fun family New Year’s lucky traditions:

*Don’t eat lobster after midnight—because lobster and chickens can scoot backward—you don’t want to consume them on New Year’s Day–it symbolizes reverting back to old ways instead of progressing forward.

*In Poland, it’s common to bang pots and pans at midnight to ward off evil spirits. The breaking of clean dishes has the same (theoretical) effect.

*It’s common in Hispanic culture to eat exactly 12 grapes just before the clock strikes midnight.

*The Greeks fight for the hidden coin baked into sweet bread called vassiloptia akin the King’s cake for Mardi Gras.

*Pomegranates mean abundance and fertility to Mediterranean cultures—not to mention a great source of antioxidants.

*Southern tradition calls for collard greens and black-eyed peas for luck and fortune.

*Pigs are a symbol of luck in many cultures, but because they always move forward while searching for food, they represent progress. Pork and cabbage (which symbolizes money) is a big New Year’s Day tradition in Eastern Europe.


Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

Years ago, at my daughter’s preschool holiday party, the director pulled me aside to get my insights on the various activities for the day. The kids were making graham cracker houses for Christmas, orange and clove balls for Kwanza and she wondered if I could teach the kids how to play dreidel. Apparently, our daughter, upon hearing about eight days of presents for Hanukkah, told everyone we were Jewish (in fact, we are not). Friends of ours who do celebrate Hanukkah thought it was great and sent us a menorah as well as a great recipe for potato latkes. Another group of friends offered Kwanza tips and gave us beautiful bead figures from Africa. If you walk into our house around this time of year, it might seem confusing, what with the Christmas tree, the menorah and the bead dolls. We aren’t trying to be politically correct, nor are we forgetting what these holidays mean to so many people. It’s simply our way of acknowledging the world around us and our place in it. Like many families, we have had our share of hard times, and know too well how easy it is to get stuck in a loop of regret and defeat. I remember asking my daughter all of those years ago, if she just wanted eight days of presents. She looked at me with the sincerity and wisdom of a four year old and said, “Shouldn’t we celebrate everything we can?”  As the years go by, I find it more difficult to argue against her logic.

And a Partridge in a Clamshell

Monday, December 19th, 2011


‘Twas a time when making sure you were stocked with toy-appropriate batteries before the frenzied gift unwrapping began was one of the biggest challenges parents faced on Christmas morning. Sure, putting the tricycle together at 2 a.m. the night before while decoding poorly translated instructions ranks highly. So does remembering the right cables and battery chargers, which these days matter as much as the AAA and D cells.

But in recent years, all of that has paled in comparison to the annual Season’s Scrooging that manufacturers and retailers have introduced into our holiday gift-giving traditions.

Consider this Hallmark moment: Good girls and boys excitedly ripping away wrapping paper when . . . Kerplunk!  The sudden silenced holiday spirit when toys won’t budge from daunting hard-plastic packaging! Things turn worse when dad comes to the rescue with a knife or pointed scissors, and the only thing opened is his finger.

Grappling with today’s packaging reminds me of my childhood ambition to free the tiny snowman from inside his snow globe. Adding to this twisted plot are other Grinchy devices, such as those diabolical plastic-coated metal wires strapping toys to the stiff cardboard backing, and those “zip ties” that are tinier versions of the ratchet-tightening plastic strips police use as handcuffs. Nice image.

One frustrated consumer whose log-on is “Stan-the-Man” posted recently on Amazon’s Customer Discussions pages that he purchased a remote control device that came in now standard, hard-plastic, clamshell packaging. “It took me 15 minutes to open [it],” he wrote. “What frustration and cut hands does one have to endure to open a simple item?”  One “Help Forum Pro” online says she deducts stars when writing product reviews if clamshell packaging is used, adding that “Clamshell packaging is cruelty to humans.” The ensuing frustration has even earned a name: “wrap rage.”

A recent stroll through toy stores aisles revealed that one of this year’s hits, “123 Sesame Street Let’s Rock Elmo,” practically incarcerates the little Sesame Street character, tied firmly inside a “Try Me” clamshell. Edu Science’s “Armatron Robotic Arm” is tied down with zip ties, while Summit’s “Backyard Safari Bug Vacuum” is totally twist-wired. From Disney Pixar, there’s a “hermetically sealed” Ridemaster Z in a clamshell and a Toy Story U-Command Buzz Lightyear restricted with clear plastic cuffs, wired down feet and clamshell.

Parents of girls will attest that Barbies are among the worst offenders (“Barbie Fashionistas Ultimate Gift Set” gets plastic cuffs and wire tie downs beneath a clamshell). Parents of boys know too well what awaits inside packaging of RV vehicles that are known to have more than a dozen wires securing its axles and steering wheel.

Manufacturers and retailers will tell you this overkill is all necessary, primarily to thwart thieves from toynapping the product from inside its package, but also to protect toys from rough-and-tumble overseas shipping.

Still, consumers are fit to be tied! Some toy makers and retailers seem to be getting the message. Take a look at Hasbro’s “Bop It!,” secured only with seemingly frail string tied in what appears to be an easy-release knot, just as is Fisher-Price’s “Hero World Green Lantern” action figure. Maybe their relatively low price (under $15) makes them string eligible while Disney Pixar’s “Playskool Toy Story 3 Animated Talking Mr. Potato Head,” at $39.98, requires clamp down and clamshell.

Since November 2008, Amazon has offered Frustration-Free Packaging that features streamlined, recyclable, easy-to-open boxes free of excess materials, hard plastic clamshell cases, wire ties and plastic bindings. Trying to assist wrap-rage consumers while being eco-friendly, the program has faced its own critics and frustrations. But, to Amazon’s credit, it’s trying.

Wrap rage has actually given birth to a new cottage industry that’s creating products dedicated to relieving the packaging problem. So-called “Holiday Survival Kits,” from artsy-crafty do-it-yourself projects to gather-up gift suggestions can be found online, typically suggesting Rambo-grade scissors at the top of the list. Someone invented the “The Zibra Open It,” ($14.99) that claims to cut, snip, slice and unscrew practically any kind of package. There’s even a battery-operated tool called the CSB Commodities ZIPIT103 Battery-Operated Blister Pack/Clamshell Opener (on sale for $14). So if you’re thinking of stocking stuffers for mom or dad, these might be perfect (assuming none of these come in clamshell packaging).

Meanwhile, despite the challenge of overly secured packaging, it’s important to keep in mind the holiday spirit. And, remember the adage “It’s better to give than receive.” Now more than ever.

Give a Little Bit

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

Left over fabric turns into secury blankets for sick kids through Project Linus.

You don’t have to feel like Scrooge if your wallet doesn’t allow you to give as much as you would like this holiday season. After all, it’s a time of year when people are really strapped for cash yet are expected to give the most. As we try to teach our kids fiscal responsibility as well as compassion for others, we need to think of innovative ways to accomplish both. Many of us can’t afford to simply write out a check (even if it is tax deductible) but it’s important to remember that money isn’t always the answer.

Even if you aren’t financially flush, you can still be generous of heart and help others less fortunate than you.  If you have a favorite cause that you simply can’t donate money to this year, ask if you can donate your time instead. Perhaps you can pass out fliers or volunteer at their office. Many places need help collecting items. You can set up bins around your neighborhood and collect school supplies, toys or books for organizations. Here are some more giving ideas to help when cash flow is tight. Just remember to call first to make sure the places suggested can make good use of your donations:

Look for local charities like The Glass Slipper Project, which takes gently used formal wear and help make prom dreams come true for underprivileged high school  kids.

All of your travel soaps, shampoos and free samples would be welcome at local homeless shelters.

Towels, sheets, blankets, toys and stuffed animals are put to good use at animal shelters

Children’s books in good condition are welcome at most elementary schools, while DVDs and videos could be used in the children’s ward at the local hospital or in an Oncology office where distractions are welcome during long chemo treatments.

Local Lions Clubs collects old prescription glasses and gives them new life for folks who can’t afford them.

Teardrops to Rainbows helps to redecorate cancer patient’s rooms and give parents and kids going through treatment a better atmosphere in which to heal. They need everything from computers to home goods like curtains, wallpaper and supplies.

All of those sewing projects you’ve never gotten to or old quilting squares would be great for Project Linus , which provides free  blankets for sick children. They also need people to sew the blankets.

Many stores such as Petsmart, Best Buy and even some local zoos collect and recycle old cell phones. Just remember to delete all of your information before dropping yours in one of their bins.

Holiday Roundup

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

We’ve been bringing you holiday ideas for gifts, family time, and money-saving all month via our Holiday Guide. We’ve posted so much, that we think it’s about time to do a roundup of all of the great posts we’ve had so far.

Revamp Storytime for Less Than $1 – If you think that 99 cents doesn’t buy much these days, take a look at what our friends at Tales2Go have put together. Tales2Go is an app that allows parents to subscribe to a huge collection of audiobooks that can be streamed from any iOS device. In the spirit of the holidays, they’ve put together a terrific collection of 20 seasonal stories performed by some of our favorite storytellers.

No Batteries Required – If you’ve ever found yourself scrambling for batteries on Christmas morning, then you might want to have a backup plan. Here are a few blissfully battery (and electricity) free toys that will never need replacement AAs!

Absolutely Mindy’s Absolute Favorite Music of 2011 – We asked our friend Mindy of SiriusXM’s Kids’ Place Live to share her eleven favorite albums of 2011. In no particular order, we present Mindy’s favorite children’ music from the last year.

Books? As a Holiday Present? Absolutely!Here are 10 terrific titles for all ages to jumpstart your list.

Family Time: Festive Outings from Coast to Coast – Packing up the family to go see a performance of “The Nutcracker” or Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” can be a delightful holiday tradition. But if full-length performances of those staples of the season aren’t quite the ticket, there are other options for arts-related family holiday fun to explore.

10 Gifts for a Debt Free Holiday – With the frenzied holiday shopping season upon us, Susan Beacham, financial education wizard, devised a list of 10 almost-no-money gift ideas for the whole family.

Stocking Stuffers: There’s an App for That – We asked our friend, the esteemed Warren Buckleitner, Ph.D. Editor of Children’s Technology Review what apps he would preload on an iOS (iPad, iPod, iPhone) device as gifts to kids. See his answers for different age groups.

Museum Memberships: Gifts That Bring a Year of Fun and Discovery – Those seeking a special holiday gift should consider a museum membership, which offers a wide variety of year-round benefits in one-of-a-kind cultural venues.

Chatting with Mister G – We spoke with Mister G, musician, and have a free song from him for download.

Time Shift Your TV: Holiday Performances – If you’re looking for holiday music, here are four TV specials you might enjoy. Two air on December 21st!

And remember: Holidays are about getting kids not just things they want, but things that encourage kids to become what they want to be. A scientist, a fireman, an astronaut, an artist, or a scholar, toys and media can pave the way to a lifelong love of learning. And that’s a gift every child should receive.

To demonstrate this, we’ve brought in Chippy, our Ambassador to the Land of Learning New Things. We hope that you and your children will be inspired to dream big by our chipmunk friend’s new spacebound journey!

Special thanks to Dre Towey for allowing us to use her song “Space Cowboy” from her album Sugar On Top! And if you’re raising your own Space Architect, be sure to check out our favorite toys for building and learning about space.