Returning to the Nest (6/19/13)

Extra vacation time ahead for local students

As a parent of two students, my calendar operates on the school year schedule with June as my year-end instead of December. This time of year, exhausted parents of school-age kids can attest that June trumps December’s parties, presents and pageantry.

The close of the school year sparks a surge of year-end activities and puts parents in a panic to attend a plethora of classroom parties, sports banquets, award ceremonies and graduation celebrations.

Weary parents finally crawling across the finish line into summer might be surprised to find an extra two weeks of vacation on this year’s school calendar.

Students in the Capistrano Unified School District see their vacation jump from the traditional 10 weeks to 12 as a result of furlough days—students ended the school year earlier (June 11) and start the next school year later (September 9).

CUSD students embarked on their summer vacations last week, but tomorrow marks the official onset of summer. The summer solstice on June 21 occurs when the sun reaches its furthest point from the equator providing the most hours of daylight, or our longest day of the year.

The extra sunshine signals the start of the summer season and signs pop-up in our neighborhood as my street converts to an obstacle course of basketball hoops, skateboard ramps and lemonade stands.

While my younger son begins his vacation, my older son completed his freshman year of college last month and arrived home a few weeks ago to spend the summer.

Navigating the road of young adulthood comes potholed with challenges, but so far his first summer home we’ve managed to compromise on most matters – except sleep.

I anticipate my older son finding it difficult to adjust to the additional hours of daylight ahead. In the year since he graduated high school, he transformed into a creature of the night.

The kid who enrolled in zero period at San Clemente High School for four solid years, and sat in a classroom with pen and paper ready to go when the bell rang at 6:40 a.m., now can’t seem to pry his head off the pillow before noon.

His day begins when dusk falls. He spends his nights seeking out pool parties, sporting events, midnight movies, and avoiding garlic cloves and holy water.

In his defense, he worked hard during his freshman year and after surviving fraternity rush and finals week, I’m happy to see him getting some much needed sleep.

We’re both much more relaxed this month as compared to last June’s pomp and circumstance. A year ago when he graduated, I dissolved into a bundle of nerves.

As his college departure date loomed closer, I became a basket case and convinced myself he’d never be home again. I marked every family occasion, including our “last” lunch at his favorite restaurant and our “last” night together at home—in hindsight, I may have overreacted just a bit.

A year later, I’m happy to report the bird does fly home to the nest for summer. Especially if the nest is outfitted with their comfortable queen size bed, a bathroom shared with only one sibling and hot food that doesn’t resemble anything found in a cafeteria meal plan.

The prison-like conditions of a tiny dorm room also did wonders for his outlook. My son’s actually looking forward to our annual summer vacation—the same one he routinely moaned and groaned about being forced to endure against his will.

Soon, I’ll be spending the extra two weeks of vacation with my boys while savoring sandy beaches, saltwater shores—and every moment.

In the blink of an eye, summer will slip away and another school year will start bringing with it backbreaking schedules and heart-breaking goodbyes.

Take Time to Remember Your Girlfriends (7/17/13)

Holiday honors those who stay with us throughout life

August 1st is National Girlfriends Day. While the origins of the annual celebration are unknown, I’m guessing the folks at Hallmark probably had a hand in adding the date to the calendar—but, I’m not letting that dilute the day.

Girlfriends deserve a day dedicated to celebrating their cherished contributions. Have you ever wondered what your life would be like without them, without the female cheerleaders and confidants in your corner?

I write a lot about my kids and family, and just as I can’t imagine my life without them, I can’t imagine where I would be without my girlfriends, my chosen family.

Maybe you met her playing hopscotch on your elementary school playground or watching soccer practice on your son’s elementary school field, but you felt the intangible thread that would eventually weave your lives together.

Girlfriends are so much more than their dictionary definition: a female friend. I think Merriam-Webster’s simple description of a girlfriend better defines an acquaintance. Acquaintances and girlfriends do not share the same camaraderie—it’s the difference between Real Housewives friendships and Sex and the City friendships.

Acquaintances compliment you on your mom jeans. Girlfriends truthfully tell you how you look.

Acquaintances ask how you are doing. Girlfriends wait for your reply.

Acquaintances offer to help. Girlfriends take action.

Acquaintances touch your hand. Girlfriends touch your heart.

Girlfriends always have your back. Acquaintances may talk behind it.

I’m fortunate to treasure a diverse and fun-loving group of girlfriends with wide-ranging interests. We go to movies, spas, shops, gyms, restaurants, casinos, book groups, school events, board meetings and even embark on weekend excursions.

If we’re lucky, we have girlfriends who play different roles in our lives and each enriches our spirit.

A few months ago, when my son signed the lease for his first apartment, I asked some of my girlfriends to keep their eyes open for deals on used furniture.

One girlfriend, taking her early morning weekend walk, sent a picture of a couch at a garage sale in her neighborhood and had the seller hold it. Another girlfriend, ditching her current dining room table for a contemporary set, offered to donate it to the apartment, noting when the leaf is added it’s the perfect size for beer pong, and yet another girlfriend, who was cleaning out her garage, provided a pristine pair of dressers.

When my son moves into his apartment in two weeks it’s almost fully furnished due to the generosity of my girlfriends.

I have girlfriends I’ve known for years and girlfriends I’ve recently met, and they are equally essential.

I have known my oldest girlfriend since age two. She knows where the skeletons are buried, but won’t unearth them. We have private jokes that date back to black-and-white television and vinyl records. We’ve been through graduations, promotions, marriages, divorces, births, deaths, firings, hirings, moves and more.

Technically, I took my first road trip with her at age seven. We ran away together, after our moms helped us pack, to meet The Monkees. We almost made it to the bus stop. Years later we’d perfect the road trip and make more trips to Las Vegas than I care to recall.

Moving to San Clemente almost 15 years ago I didn’t know a soul. Through my sons’ schools, sports and some of my own pursuits, I feel fortunate to have forged friendships with a variety of inspiring and fabulous women.

I can’t imagine getting through the day without a text, email or call to a girlfriend for a laugh, advice or conversation.

We need our girlfriends every day not just on August 1st. Whether you’ve recently met or share a storied history, celebrate the girlfriends in your life on National Girlfriends Day, because where would you be without them?

Junior Year: New Worries (9/20/13)

Junior year brings a lot of concerns

Last week my younger son started his junior year of high school.

Everyone will tell you—even if you don’t ask—that for the college-bound high school student, the junior year is the most intensive and important. One reason for its significance is it’s the last full year of grades an admissions panel reviews when determining a student’s fate.

From September to June, the junior year is filled with standardized tests: PSAT/NMSQT, AP placement tests, SAT subject exams, SAT, ACT, and this doesn’t count the classroom quizzes or college prep courses.

In addition to test-taking, college-bound 11th-graders are expected to create a resume highlighting their high school achievements, including academic and athletic accomplishments, volunteering and community service, awards and honors, work experience, leadership roles, clubs and hobbies.

By the end of the junior year the three Rs no longer represent reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic; instead, they’re replaced by readiness, responsibilities and recommendations.

It’s a lot to worry about, and I worry a lot.

If worrying were an Olympic sport, I’d be the most decorated athlete in history—just ask my husband.

Worrying involves painstaking training and I’ve been practicing daily for almost 20 years; specifically, my training began on June 11, 1994 and intensified on September 29, 1996.

In addition to worrying about my boys, I habitually read health studies—as if I don’t have enough to worry about with a junior in high school shackled by stressful school work and a sophomore in college ensconced in secret fraternity rituals.

Recently I came across this alarming headline: “Sitting is the New Smoking.” We have Dr. Anup Kanodia of Ohio State University to thank for the new health scare. His study coined the catchy phrase and concluded that extended sitting increases the risk of disease and death.

Researchers found Americans sit an average of nine hours a day, and doctors agree this sedentary lifestyle is a modern-day health epidemic. Doctors’ link prolonged sitting to an increase in heart disease, diabetes and cancers of the breast, colon and prostate.

Even gym rats and those engaged in hours of weekly exercise remain at risk. The benefits of exercise are many, but the study found if the majority of waking hours are spent sitting (more than six hours a day), the health benefits of exercise depreciate. The bottom-line is the longer you sit on your bottom the shorter your projected lifespan.

Dr. Kanodia’s assumption that my desk chair is killing me, takes all the fun out of sitting at my computer indulging in online shopping. He’s even made me think twice about sitting for hours gabbing with girlfriends over lunch or long evening escapes to the movie theater to catch the latest blockbuster.

To combat our sedentary ways and fight disease, one scientist suggests trading the cherished office chair for a stability ball.

I find it difficult to chew gum and walk at the same time, so the chances are slim that I could balance on a ball while concentrating at my computer. If I were a circus performer, I’d be on the road with Barnum and Bailey.

For those of us unwilling, or unable, to control the stability ball, experts suggest lacing-up your sneakers and jumping on the growing treadmill desk trend. Comedian Jimmy Kimmel writes while walking on his treadmill, and NBC’s “Today” show personality Al Roker predicts the weather from his walking desk.

Fortunately, I found an article with an obvious and quick cure for the sitting epidemic: get up and move—every 30 minutes. It’s far from revolutionary, but reveals breaks as short as one minute to walk or stretch can interrupt the pattern of sitting and help improve longevity and health.

If only I could find the study proving worrying is a healthy alternative to exercise and standardized 11th grade tests are overrated.

Parents’ Weekend a True Test (10/16/13)

Walking the fine line between enabling and disabling

A couple weeks ago I attended San Clemente High School’s Back to School Night. It’s not often I’m encouraged to ask questions about my younger son’s school day and in return receive more than one word answers.

I take advantage of all invitations welcoming me into my sons’ homes away from home.

Of course I jumped at the chance to attend the college equivalent of Back to School Night: Parents’ Weekend. Like its counterpart, Parents’ Weekend is the only opportunity to visit my older son’s campus and ask questions without causing him public humiliation or college exile.

Our son is a sophomore, so my perspective of Parents’ Weekend has changed. Last fall, after receiving a cheery brochure promising a memorable reunion with my son, I enrolled our family in every weekend event.

We went on more campus tours, ate at the family breakfast under a tent with school administrators, attended a pre-game party with other officials, socialized at the football game and more.

As promised, I have memories of the weekend and most include my son complaining about attending another lame event.

Vowing not to repeat my rookie mistake, I tossed this year’s glossy offering and instead accepted an email invitation to our son’s fraternity barbecue.

The email asked us to dress in school colors and arrive at the “house” at noon for a bountiful barbecue, then participate in a pre-game tailgate and afterwards cheer the home team onto victory at the stadium. The fraternity festivities guaranteed fun, provided we could keep pace with 20-year-olds.

I couldn’t wait to get inside the house I’d been banned from gawking at but at the same time, I was nervous and told my husband my plan to avoid all food and bathrooms. I likened it to a train wreck—I wanted to look but was afraid of what I might see.

As a sophomore, our son lives in an apartment, not a dorm—but like the dorm, I don’t get to visit it much either.

Hoping to spend some quality time with my son, I suggested meeting in the morning at his apartment and walking to the fraternity house together. He replied, “Don’t even think about coming over before 11.” My protests for more time together were countered with his plea for privacy.

The next day, I arrived promptly at 11 a.m. to find my son still in bed. My younger son and my son’s roommates all grabbed video controllers and started shouting, while a football game blared in the background.

With nowhere to go, no one to talk to, and an hour to kill until my husband arrived, I decided to clean the kitchen. I hear your groans, but my choices were to watch football, play football video games or stare at walls covered by football pennants.

I know all about the fine line between enabling and disabling. I’ve read studies suggesting over-parenting produces college students more likely to be depressed and less satisfied with their lives.

I cleaned anyway. And for the record, my son and his roommates seemed pretty happy and not the slightest bit depressed with their clean kitchen.

If you think my behavior is bad consider the notorious tale of one mom and her lint roller. Legend has it while at her son’s apartment during Parents’ Weekend she looked for a vacuum to tidy their carpet. Unable to find one, she whipped out a lint roller from her handbag, dropped to her hands and knees, and rolled the entire carpet clean.

At noon we walked to my son’s fraternity house. Similar to secrecy surrounding their ceremonies, passwords and handshakes, I’m forbidden to write about our barbecue at Kappa Tappa Kegga.

I can say I got a lingering look into his home away from home. I noticed there isn’t any carpet in the house–either linoleum is easier to hose down or they heard I was coming.

A Cherished and Tacky Tradition (12/18/13)

The Ugly Christmas Sweater

I embrace traditions at the holidays. They bring us closer as families, and provide some of our best seasonal memories. From the time our boys were toddlers we introduced several traditions, one of the oldest is the Advent calendar.

Truthfully, today it’s more of a family joke than treasured tradition. Numbers are my kryptonite. For years I instructed my boys to start the calendar the wrong way by beginning on number 24 instead of 1. It should’ve become obvious as they annually opened the Lego Santa on day one, instead of Christmas Eve. I still buy the Lego Advent calendar and we do it backwards every year.

A less confusing but still puzzling tradition is the ugly Christmas sweater.

Friday, December 20, marks National Ugly Christmas Sweater Day. It’s celebrated the third Friday of December and recognized in the United States, Canada and United Kingdom.

Several years ago my older son was invited to his first ugly Christmas sweater party. At the time we didn’t own one, so he visited San Clemente’s Salvation Army Thrift Store and discovered a treasure trove of sweaters.

Yesterday, he called to say he’d bought an ugly Christmas sweater at his college bookstore. I’m told it features a red embroidered football helmet interwoven with candy canes.

Ugly Christmas sweaters have become big business.

The origin of the ugly Christmas sweater is a bit more ambiguous than that of the Advent calendar. I’d like to think it was started by a clever woman who, sick of spending a month’s salary and weeks dieting to squeeze into an outfit for the office holiday party, created the alternative cozy and comfortable fashion statement.

Some say Cliff Huxtable, comedian Bill Cosby’s sitcom character, pioneered the popularity of ugly sweaters in the 1980s. Others credit comedian Chevy Chase for sporting ugly Christmas sweaters in the 1989 comedy, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

Despite the popularity of the comedians’ sweaters, the fad faded in the ‘90s, but the past decade has seen a rebirth of the ugly Christmas sweater.

By the mid-2000s a surge of ugly Christmas sweater parties popped-up creating a shortage of sweaters. A trio of enterprising college kids from Indiana State University noticed this and took to the internet. They paid $75 for 50 sweaters purchased at the Goodwill, posted them on their website and the next day the sweaters sold out. Today they continue to run a booming ugly sweater business and have even written a book on the subject.

The holiday craze is a pop cultural phenomenon crossing generations carrying a singular message: the tackier the merrier.

Trendy ugly Christmas sweaters are oversized and embellished with multicolored animations, bows, lights, sequins and designed in a festive collage-type arrangement.

Any other time of year a profound fondness for poinsettia cross-stitched pullover knitwear is considered a fashion faux pas, but in December it passes as stylish.

Tomorrow it’s probably safe to high-five the guy in line at Starbucks with jingle bells and blinking lights sewn onto his sweater. But I suggest using caution when complementing this tacky tradition during the holiday season. Someone’s felt appliqued dancing reindeer could be a cherished vintage cable-knit sweater sewn by a beloved grandmother.

Ugly sweater compliments can be risky endeavors. I equate it to complimenting a woman with a rounded belly on her pregnancy—only congratulate her at her baby shower. And only commend someone on their ugly sweater at an ugly Christmas sweater party.

The holiday sweater remains a cherished, yet perplexing tradition—just like the Advent calendar.

Ignorance Really Can Be Bliss (1/15/14)

With grown children home, sometimes knowing less can be best

Instead of resolving to make unrealistic resolutions for the New Year, which would take me longer to list than actually uphold, I passed on the annual ritual and instead took time to reflect on the past and present.

I realized as the New Year dawned, my younger son starts his senior year of high school and the slippery slope toward college submissions in 2014. The thought of two in college—and an empty nest—sent me sprinting for the champagne.

Last month, my older son came home for the holidays, as did many San Clemente High School graduates. Like last year, most his friends arrived in town by mid-December, but unlike last year they arrived as confident young adults, not floundering college freshman.

A year ago when they returned home, they’d been tucked into dorm rooms for a few months with university housing rules regulating their freedom—they even had meal plans restricting what and when they could eat.

This year, as sophomores, most his friends are entering their 20s and living in apartments or fraternity and sorority houses with infinite independence and blurred boundaries.

Last December, they arrived home just starting to spread their wings. This year, they landed shouldering wingspans of bald eagles.

They morphed from the somewhat sheltered high school graduates sent-off to test dorm life and taste independence into young adults on paths to professional careers and engaged in lasting loves, accustomed to celebrating well-earned achievements and surviving heart-wrenching disappointments.

On one of my son’s first nights home we enjoyed a traditional family dinner. Around 9 p.m. I curled-up on the couch with a book in hand completely content and counting my blessings with both my birds back in their nest, safely nestled upstairs.

Moments later my bubble burst when my older son came bounding down the stairs with keys in hand announcing he was off to visit friends.

I wasn’t surprised and asked him to be home by midnight—he looked at me as if I’d told him our cable provider cancelled ESPN.

He kissed me on the forehead and said, “Don’t wait up, mom.” As he left, I shouted to be safe and he yelled back over his shoulder these comforting words: “Don’t worry, I do this all the time now.”

I realize in his second year of college my son probably spends significantly more time socializing and sleeping and far less time reading and writing than he said he did as a freshman.

The college experience includes lessons learned both inside and outside lecture halls. This sophomore year my son immersed himself in numerous campus activities, embraced his school spirit and forged friendships with his fraternity brothers.

As a college kid he goes to parties. And since I vaguely remember that phase of my five-year college career, while my son continues his initiation into various collegiate rites of passage, I’ll maintain my not so grown-up belief that ignorance truly is bliss.

I remember crying to a girlfriend when my son left for college as I wrestled with letting go. She promised it would get easier, and there would even be a time not too far in the future, when my son would come home on college breaks and I’d be happy to see him return to school. I’m not there yet, but I now understand her words of wisdom—sometimes knowing less is best.

As the New Year starts I’m still without resolutions, unless resolving to continue my ignorance is bliss attitude counts.

Raising Boys: There’s More than Meets the Eye (2/20/14)

Boys vs. Girls Debate

Over the years I’ve become accustomed to hearing, “You are so lucky, it’s so much easier raising boys than girls.”

Most recently, I heard this again as some friends with daughters lamented the lengthy to-do lists in preparation for the high school’s annual winter formal. A sampling of some tasks included: ordering an assortment of different dresses to choose from, searching for special shoes the correct color and heel height (which, after being worn for pictures, are discarded for the rest of the night), finding sparkling jewelry and petite purses and making salon appointments for finishing touches to make-up, hair and nails.

When it comes to outfitting boys for dances, I agree, we moms have it pretty easy. My son’s closet consists of a good suit, a couple collared dress shirts, the same worn-in pair of dress shoes he’s had for years and a hand-me-down belt. Once his girlfriend decides on a dress, I select a coordinating neck tie. After showering, and drowning in Axe, my son’s ready to walk out the door in about 15 minutes.

I wish someone would’ve warned me about the infatuation teenage boys have with blanketing themselves in that pungent body spray. I’m convinced there’s a direct correlation between the amount of Axe sprayed by teenage boys and the depletion of the Earth’s ozone layer.

Sometimes I overhear girlfriends swapping mother-daughter shopping stories. Sure, it would be fun to shop with someone who doesn’t complain. But I figured out a few years ago, if the trip to the mall includes a hearty lunch and a visit to Game Stop, my boys can shop a full 30 minutes before their eyes roll back in their heads and they claim they’ve contracted a lethal shopping-related illness.

There exists one major benefit to shopping with boys: I’m never asked if they can borrow anything I buy. My favorite jeans and shoes can always be found safe and sound in my closet.

When it comes to conversation, I think it’s unfair to compare boys’ communication skills to their female counterparts.

It’s my experience that boys converse concisely and unpredictably. When the recent winter formal neared its end, my son’s bus driver called and asked me to text my son and his girlfriend his cell number so he could find them in the moonlit sea of suits and sequins. My son’s girlfriend immediately sent me a lengthy reply and added that she and my son had been crowned junior prince and princess. My son replied with, “K.”

Last year, the author who penned “Queen Bees & Wannabes (the basis for the 2004 movie Mean Girls and a parenting bible for some parents raising adolescent girls), released her boy version of that book, “Masterminds & Wingmen.”

She interviewed over 160 boys and admits many of her long-held assumptions about boy behavior proved wrong. She said we sometimes assume boys are easier because they keep quiet, “… what looks like their ‘easiness’ is actually our own ignorance.”

In part, boys are viewed as easier because they don’t demand attention the same way as girls. Most boys can answer almost any question with, “It’s fine.” The author said boys are way more complex than we think, and as a result it’s challenging to crack the adolescent boy communication code.

When girlfriends say I have it easy raising boys, they’re usually quick to remind me there’s a consequence looming on the horizon. Sooner or later someone says, “A son is a son until he takes a wife, but a daughter is a daughter for all of her life.” I admit the old adage isn’t my favorite so I choose to counter with, “A mom doesn’t lose a son, but gains a daughter.”

It’s true, I’ll never be the mother of the bride, but I’ll also never be featured on an episode of the reality show “Bridezilla.”

After almost 20 years on the job, the truth is parenting both boys and girls is extraordinarily difficult and none of us have it easy. But, I do agree that I am lucky. Everyday my boys make me feel incredibly lucky.

Standardized Tests: The Times, They are a Changing (3/19/14)

Will revising the SAT simplify costly test prep and complex college admissions process?

On March 5, as anxious high school juniors across the country crammed for the March 8 SAT and countless high school seniors sat in limbo waiting for letters of college acceptance hinging on those SAT scores, president of the College Board, David Coleman, announced the almighty SAT will undergo its most comphrensive change since 2005.

Students won’t take the revamped SAT until spring 2016 but the College Board promises to provide a sneak peek at the overhauled exam next month.

Coleman said changes to the test include: reverting to its original scoring scale of 1600 from its current 2400, incorporating reading comprehension passages from “founding documents of America”—such as the Declaration of Independence—restricting calculator use on some math sections and making the essay optional.

The SAT is also bidding adieu to obscure vocabulary words. The College Board plans to replace current vocabulary test words like “prevaricator” and “sagacious” with words more likely to be found in college courses or the workplace, such as “synthesis” and “empirical.”

In addition, students will no longer be penalized a quarter point for wrong answers to multiple choice questions.

First administered in 1926 as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (now the Scholastic Assessment Test) and based loosely on a test developed to rank World War I soldiers, the SAT changes come as it continues to lose ground to its rival—the increasingly popular ACT (American College Test).

According to test prep authorities at the Princeton Review, 1.8 million students took the ACT last year compared to 1.7 million who took the SAT. The ACT concentrates on science and math, and many students agree it’s easier to comprehend as compared to the SAT’s focus on fancy vocabulary words and negative scoring for wrong answers.

I vaguely remember wandering into my high school’s cafeteria on a Saturday morning and taking what I think was the SAT. I know I never took a test prep course. My, how times have changed.

A few years ago as my older son prepared to take his college entrance exams, I bought enough test prep books to open my own bookstore. All the books claimed to significantly boost his test scores and looked really impressive lining the shelves of his bookcase—where they stayed.

During his test prep process I learned the SAT is offered only seven dates a year, a fact that surprised both of us. As a result, my son took his first SAT on his birthday—the morning after prom. I didn’t need a scientific calculator to predict the outcome.

Over the years, I’ve collected more books and boxes of flash cards containing words my younger son will probably never repeat but will need to memorize for his SAT before 2016.

As my second son starts his collegiate test preparations, I’m older but not any wiser. I confess, I’m still buying into the test prep trap. A few months ago, I sent my son to a costly weekend boot camp to learn the “tricks” to answering the SAT’s multiple choice questions. For two days, he learned how to guess the correct answer to certain questions and when to skip questions leaving those bubbles blank.

The tricks he learned won’t translate into practical life skills—unless, in the real world, he runs into tricksters who can be tamed with a No. 2 pencil.

The test prep industry is big business as estimates put its earnings above the $1 billion mark in the United States. Coleman hopes to change this and said the College Board seeks to eliminate expensive and elite test prep by partnering with Khan Academy, an educational website, to offer free online SAT test prep services to students across the socioeconomic spectrum.

My educated guess is the multimillion-dollar test prep industry will continue to thrive as long as parents like me will pay for perceived advantages in the college admissions crapshoot.

No one knows if the proposed changes to the SAT will be as beneficial as promised or if it will better measure academic intelligence and predict collegiate success.

All I know is the revised SAT arrives too late to benefit my son, so I’d better find those flashcards defining “prevaricator” and “sagacious.”

Memories of Spring Break – Past and Present (4/11/14)

Redefining one family’s spring vacation

Spring break isn’t what it used to be. When my boys attended elementary and middle schools we’d regularly visit our favorite sunny spots, for week-long family vacations full of fun and memories.

Today with my oldest son in college and youngest in high school, each observing separate spring break schedules, I’ve grudgingly said farewell to our annual family vacation.

Two weeks ago my college sophomore saw his fraternity brothers travel to Mexico as he headed home to gulp multiple antibiotics, catch-up on lost sleep and complete pending assignments. While he complained about missing the trip, I secretly celebrated a week free from worry about tequila, tattoos and typhoid.

Last week my high school junior embarked on his equally exciting spring break and spent it studying for Advance Placement tests.

So when I received a text asking if my niece, Eden, could mail us a houseguest, I offered to greet our visitor with open arms—even Flat Stanley vacations over spring break.

My niece is in first grade and Flat Stanley’s a popular project that teaches writing and geography. In 1995, Canadian teacher Dale Hubert created the Flat Stanley Project based on Jeff Brown’s 1964 children’s book, Flat Stanley.

Brown’s story tells the tale of young Stanley Lambchop who goes to bed one night and while asleep the bulletin board above his bed falls from the wall and flattens him. Stanley awakes to find fun being flat since it allows him to slide under doors and slip into mailboxes to visit friends.

My last encounter with Flat Stanley occurred about 10 years ago when a nephew mailed us his paper person. We took Flat Stanley to lunch at Fisherman’s, snapped a picture on the pier and promptly mailed him home.

Expecting to entertain our flat guest with another quick lunch, my surprise turned to shock when I opened the envelope from my niece. Inside I found Flat Eden (nowadays it’s common to make a flat version one’s self), a 24-page journal and instructions lengthier than the directions I used to assemble my new lounge chairs.

The letter instructed me to take her on “daily adventures” and report them in the journal. I don’t have daily adventures—unless you count Starbucks and the gym.

The guidelines encouraged me to be imaginative and creative with my writing, take numerous photos, gather many mementos and send back small treats for the entire class.

I panicked.

San Clemente’s a great place to live and vacation, but Flat Stanley has visited presidents, rocketed into space and was even rumored to be aboard the flight captain Sullenberger landed safely in the Hudson River.

Since the project complements first grade curriculum, I reached out to a family friend and my oldest son’s first grade teacher, Kelly Barreira, to ask for help. Kelly graciously invited me and Flat Eden into her classroom, saying my assignment coincidently coordinated with their current classroom community project.

The next morning Flat Eden and I visited Mrs. Barreira’s classroom. Almost 15 years had passed since my last classroom visit, and I still marveled at Kelly’s calm control, contagious energy and enthusiasm as she instructed her students.

The students sat quietly, listening as I told the story about Flat Eden and then agreed to let her help with their project. I left Flat Eden with the children and said I’d return next week.

The week passed and my son, still home recuperating, agreed to accompany me to his old elementary school.

Walking with my son onto his onetime playground, nostalgia took hold of me. I flashed back to my son’s first day at the school, recalling my overwhelming anxiety and his uninhibited excitement.

As we approached Mrs. Barreira’s classroom, my son raced past me to greet his first grade teacher, just as he had 14 years ago.

Gone were my first day jitters, but seeing my adult son and his first grade teacher embrace, I found myself once again fighting back tears as I stood nearby wondering where the years went.

I’m no longer whining about missing a pricey spring break vacation, instead I’m thankful for a priceless trip down memory lane.

The Promposal, It’s All in the Asking (5/14/14)

Four Simple Letters Spark Fear This Time of Year: P-R-O-M

Dating back to the early 1900s, prom figures prominently in popular culture and today still retains its status as a premier high school rite of passage.

Prom is one of the few milestones remaining in my younger son’s high school career. Like his brother before him, my high school junior can’t wait for time to tick by as I continue to cling to the clock, petulantly marking each memorable event.

High school students attending those first proms early in the twentieth century wouldn’t recognize the transformation of their fancy formal dances into today’s lavish evening extravaganzas. Today’s prom preparation begins long before the event with what’s commonly called the “promposal.”

The time-worn traditional question, “Will you go to prom with me?” has evolved into today’s promposal: an imaginative and over-the-top invite to prom.

In three weeks my son attends his high school prom, but months ago he started contemplating clever and creative ways to ask his girlfriend to join him. Some teens spend almost as much effort and expense in the asking as the event itself.

Nowadays, elaborate promposals rely on famous athletes or popular celebrities to do the asking, others orchestrate scavenger hunts, some beg on billboards and a few stage flash mobs.

This time of year I can’t turn on the “Today” show without seeing a teenager holding a sign with a name in bold followed by “PROM?”

Of course, the goal of the promposal is posting it on social media sites, elevating the once private moment to a public contest. Like everything in high school today, the promposal is competitive and the pressure is on to deliver an epic invite.

Last month, networks and websites focused attention on the high school senior who took his great-grandmother to his prom. Sure, the sweet story tugs at heartstrings, but I think the boy saw an out and took it—avoiding the painstaking promposal.

Credit for creating the promposal phenomenon is undocumented, but its origin appears to be in our own backyard on the decade-old MTV teen reality show, “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County.”

After episodes showcasing male cast members staging spectacular promposals involving gorilla suits and goldfish, local school officials said they began noticing an upswing in the trend.

During peak popularity of the show, my older son asked his girlfriend to prom by planning a complicated and covert operation. After a late night dinner at Fisherman’s he and his date walked along the pier, while beneath it two of his buddies wearing wetsuits floated in the frigid water alongside a surfboard supporting a poster-board covered in glow sticks spelling out “PROM?” As planned, his friends swam out from beneath the pier towing the sign, but choppy waters caused many of the glow sticks to plunge into the sea. (She said yes.)

Last week, my younger son finalized his promposal plan and asked for my help.

My first task took me to U-Haul to find a large box. As I searched for their biggest box, a clerk approached and asked what I planned to put in the box. I replied, “My son.” Instead of speed dialing Child Protective Services, she laughed and said the word I’ve grown weary of hearing, “Prom?”

After buying a box big enough to stuff my 6-foot 3-inch son into, I stocked up on other supplies and waited for direction.

Later that evening my son and I snuck into his girlfriend’s unoccupied home. We constructed the box and I wedged him in it, wrapped it up, taped it shut and left her house with him stuffed inside the box in her bedroom. Eventually his girlfriend and her mom arrived home to discover the life-size surprise. She said yes.

Prom represents more than ateenage social event celebrating the end of an academic year; it’s recognized as a pinnacle moment commemorating the transition from adolescence to adulthood.

As a junior, my son has one last promposal to pull-off and I have another milestone to mark before his high school graduation next June. I have a feeling he’ll handle his senior year rite of passage much better than I will.