Friday, October 31, 2008

Meanwhile, over at Yahoo...

A few of my weekly posts at Yahoo's Shine have been picked up to run on the main Yahoo homepage in recent weeks. Since the homepage actually has many iterations, I've never actually seen them up there, but the wonderful Work + Money editor gets notified and gives me a heads up when it happens. Given the economy, it's no surprise that the articles that have gotten wide play have been on saving money, but one on ID theft was even more popular, racking up close to 674,000 pageviews in just a couple of hours!

Here are the links:

10 tips for preventing identity theft

5 ways to do more with your money (without investing it)

Working moms: How to save $100 next month

Looking for ways to save money? 5 tips for trimming your grocery bill

Got some great money-saving ideas to share? I'm all ears -- I mean, eyes. Drop me a line!

I am the Queen of Procrastination. Really

Two days before Halloween, I was sitting in our family room with an amped toddler and a skeptical preschooler, eying a pile of white fleece hand-me-down bunny costume and trying to figure out how I was going to turn it into a unicorn.

Lucky for me, in the end I didn't have to (my daughter loves bunnies more than unicorns, apparently), but next time things could be different. And I'll be up a creek. Here's why:

But in addition to being the Queen of Procrastination, I am also the Duchess of
Lazy Perfectionism. Because not only do I want to do things perfectly, I want to
do them as quickly as possible and I don’t want to have to waste any time having
to do things over. ... [More]

Do you share either of my titles? How did you handle the Halloween costume issue?

Do more with less! Just the basics: Food and heat

This week, I offer a few tips for trimming your heating bill this winter (hey, it's already cold here in New England), and last week I served up five ideas for using up that quart of leftover cooked rice you stashed in your fridge. You can find the details at The 36-Hour Day, where "Do more with less" is living until it's own space is designed, but here, in a nutshell, are the tips:

Got extra rice? You can make fried rice, use it up in a rice crust for quiche, thicken a soup or stew, make jambalaya, or give your kids a breakfast treat by offering them a decadent (but easy to make) rice pudding.

Want extra heat? Seal up those windows, consider which rooms you need to warm up, bulk up the beds, don't use the fireplace, and do use the fans.

Visit me over at Work It, Mom! for more ways to do more with less.

Living to work? Or working to live?

A quick weekend roadtrip made me think about distance, whether it's relative, and whether my relatives think I'm distant.

My parents came to the US from other countries, so my living a mere 300 or so miles away doesn't seem like much, most of the time -- except for when I've just spent a little time with them, and I'm getting ready to drive back to my place.

I’ve just come back from a too-quick trip to my parents’ house, where we celebrated a slew of birthdays — my youngest niece turned 1, my daughter turned 4, and my son is about to turn 2. There was plenty of cake, though all of the kids mostly feasted on icing and then worked the resulting sugar high off by going ballistic in the bounce house, and the grownups cast their diets to the wind and indulged.

We were also indulging in something else, something that only people with far-flung families can truly understand: A chance to reconnect with the people closest to us.

Distance, I think, may be relative. The 300 or so miles between my home and my parents’ isn’t much to me, though I know plenty of people who can’t imagine living less than a 15-minute drive from their mom and dad’s places. My own parents left their homes as very young adults — my dad came to the US from Haiti at the tender age of 17 to go to college, and my mom came here from India as a 22-year-old gunning for a second master’s degree (The child prodigy gene skipped me and went to my brothers and my children, I’m quite certain) so my living a few states away isn’t that big a deal.

Did I say the distance between my place and my parents’ isn’t much to me? What I meant to say is that it doesn’t seem like a great distance — I don’t have to change flights in Europe and again in Mumbai in order for my kids to spend a little time with Grammie and Papa, like my mom did when I was a child. A five-hour drive doesn’t seem far at all until, you know, I start trying to finagle time off from work and arrange a place for the dog and hold the mail and settle things with my kids’ teachers and call their karate coach and pack all the bags and then load everyone in the car.

I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t make that relatively short trip as often as I probably should.

But this weekend, while visiting with my uncle (who is more like an older brother to me), getting reacquainted with my nieces, watching bad TV late at night with my mom, and talking politics with my Dad, I felt like I was missing out by having been away for so long. Or, more to the point, that my reluctance to juggle work and life even more in order to bridge that distance more often meant that, maybe, my kids were missing out on a closer relationship with their grandparents, their uncle and aunt, their cousins.

While I was loading up the car so we could head back home, my toddler stuffed his impossibly tiny hands into the sides of his overalls, trying to imitate my dad (who had his hands in his pockets), and gravely walked the perimeter of the property with his grandfather. From where I stood on the driveway, it looked like someone had cloned my dad. Another “life is short” moment.

The weekend was full of moments like that: My youngest brother — who, ironically, lives relatively near me but whom I end up seeing more often several states away when we’re both at my parents’ house — delighting the kids by leaving each of them notes from “a secret admirer” on the front door, ringing the bell and then hiding; my 4-year-old daughter, who looks exactly as I did at that age, jumping on my mom’s bed exactly the way I used to (and getting caught, exactly the way I used to); my brother feeding my daughter candy corn at breakfast while my father blocked my view of the kitchen table.

Forget all of the other truisms you’ve heard; this is what family is for: Reminding you of who you were before you became who you currently are. Reminding you about what’s important in life. Reminding you that you need to work to live, not live to work.

And even though 300 miles can seem like several plane trips away when you’re juggling work and life, suddenly, it’s definitely worth the trip.

It made me think a bit about which way my scales are tipped right now, when it comes to work-life balance. How about you? Are you living to work, or working to live? Share your thoughts at The 36-Hour Day.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Would you friend your boss on Facebook?

I've been thinking about the differences between networking online (professionally, as on LinkedIn) and socializing online (as I do all the time on Facebook) lately, after looking at my Facebook profile and realizing that I'm Facebook Friends with several people from my office, but not with those with whom I work directly...

I was on Facebook the other night, scanning through my friends' status updates. I've declared my love of Facebook here before -- sometimes, it's the easiest way for me to reconnect with friends and extended family, and reading the Twitter-like mini-posts and shared news (or non-news) articles makes me feel a little more in-touch with the far-flung people in my life.

I generally try to keep Facebook for my friends and family and use LinkedIn for professional networking but, just as in real life, those two worlds collide from time to time.

Is stress good for you?

Over at Shine Work + Money, I'm writing about stress and whether or not stress might actually be a good thing:
I'm not superwoman -- I have more than my fair share of unmotivated moments. And I am a champion procrastinator. (I'm a journalist! We work best on deadline!)
But when my stress levels are highest, my productivity skyrockets.... [More]

Do you work better under pressure?

Step moms and bio moms: Do they love kids differently?

Writing about being a step parent always requires that I tread lightly; my big kids, who are my step kids, are old enough to Google, and what you put out on the internet is public record. But when I read a post by Kristin over at Single Mom at Work, about five tidbits of advice she's gotten about being a single parent, and I had to examine my own feelings and weigh in:

I was watching my kids interact today, and it occurred to me that they’re like a bunch of magnets, shaken up in one of those cups you use in Vegas to roll the dice and spilled out onto the table. Sometimes, they’re all glommed together, five wildly different kids at five wildly different ages, somehow forming a cohesive unit. Other times, it’s as if they’re all negatively charged, scattering throughout the house, caroming against and away from one another.

Call me idealistic, but I’m pretty sure the latter happens because of their ages and developmental stages — we’ve got a teenager, a pre-teen, a tween, a preschooler, and a toddler right now — and not because only two of them were born to me.

As a step parent, the step kids vs. bio kids idea is something that’s always simmering away on the back burner. It comes up in day-to-day life, to some degree, all the time.

A few weeks ago, Kristin’s great post about five best tidbits of single-parenting advice got me thinking about the subject some more. I was nodding along, agreeing with everything she wrote, until I read this:

4. Realize that no partner you’ll ever meet will ever love your child like the father of your child.

My first thought: Well, their bio mom and I are two pretty different people, of course we love them in different ways. My second thought: Hmmm… I’m both a bio mom and a step mom; are those two different types of love? My third thought: Has my relationship with my step kids changed now that my youngest two are here?

As I’ve said before, I was a step mom for years before I gave birth to my youngest children. I’m of mixed ethnicity, and so are my step kids, so we look related, all caramel-colored skin and dark, curly hair. None of us particularly like the label or the baggage that comes with being a “step,” but it requires the least amount of explanation (and, oddly, the people who question us are always adults. Children don’t seem to have a problem dealing with how I’m related to all of my kids). When someone — an adult, of course — asks how our big kids like having half-siblings, the kids say “they’re too little to understand fractions, we’re just brothers and sisters.”

I remember picking up our now 10-year-old boy at camp one summer day. He was about 5 at the time. The councilor watched as he raced up to me and threw his arms around me in a huge bear hug. “Tell Mommy what you did today!” she enthused. Our boy looked around, puzzled. Mommy is here, too?

I pointed out that I was actually his step mom, and there was this very long, very awkward pause as my excited little guy wrapped himself around my leg. I put my arm around his skinny shoulders, automatically (and, in hindsight, maybe unconsciously trying to shield him from the inevitable change in attitude). “Well,” she finally said, flatly, “he certainly seems to like you.”

So, on the one hand, I see where the person who gave Kristin that tidbit of advice is coming from; society, for the most part, tends to assume that no one who comes along later could possibly love a child the way the biological parent must, that a genetic link is required in order to be a “real” parent. On the other hand, I think it might be a case of semantics… just because the love isn’t the same doesn’t mean the feelings and the level of commitment isn’t as deep.

And I do think that my relationship with my step kids has changed. It’s grown deeper and more complex, richer and more intense, and not because I’ve experienced childbirth or had “children of my own.” It’s changed because we’ve all grown — together. I’m more mature and experienced, and they’re older and more independent now than we were when I first started parenting them nine years ago.
But do I love them differently than I do my youngest two? I don’t think so. Do I love them differently than their biological mom does? Probably. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

What did I conclude? I think it comes down to semantics: Loving a child "differently" than his or her bio parent doesn't mean your feelings are less intense or your committment not as deep.

Too old for a bottle? EarPlanes to the rescue!

On a recent flight to Florida, I faced a problem I hadn't thought to prepare for: My preschooler was way too old for a bottle, but I didn't want to keep giving her lollipops to suck on to help equalize the pressure in her ears. For one thing, it didn't really seem to help -- she was wincing and tearing up as we began our descent, in spite of the sticky lolly she was working on -- and, for another, all that sugar resulted in a spectacular meltdown while we were waiting for our (lost, it turned out) luggage to arrive.

Next time, I'm bringing these:

October 19, 2008
Gearing Up

For Airborne Babies
By Lylah M. Alphonse

My preschooler is too old for it, so the "give your baby a bottle during takeoffs and landings" plan no longer works. And sucking a lollipop does little to minimize her discomfort as the cabin pressure changes. A better bet: EarPlanes. These disposable, earplugs help to stabilize pressure in the ears. They're made of silicone and come in two sizes, cost about $2 a pair, and are safe for use in children as young as one year. Most drugstores sell them and they are also available in the Magellan's catalog (800-962-4943) and at [More]

Thursday, October 16, 2008

What are you willing to give up to save money?

With the economy faltering and the Dow looking like its gaining and losing the same 700 points over and over, people are pinching their pennies as hard as they can. They're giving up restaurant meals and concerts, bit-ticket items and small luxuries. But some people are also giving up things like daycare tuition and gymnastics class and allowances for their kids, which made me wonder... if you're not in dire straits, where do you draw the line?

If I were single and childless, I would happily eliminate all sorts of things that have become semi-necessities for us. Cable. Land-line phones. New clothes. Going out. But while I’m content to restrict my own spending, I’m reluctant to stop spending money on things for my kids.... [More]
What are you willing to give up to save money? What is absolutely off limits? Share your thoughts at The 36-Hour Day.

A new type of working mom guilt

Last weekend was wonderful -- apple picking, leaf gathering, project making galore -- and then our not-quite-4-year-old ended up with an inexplicably swollen hand and arm, which lead to an overnight stay at the hospital and three doeses of heavy-duty IV antibiotics.

She's much better now -- even though doctors still aren't quite sure what caused the swelling -- and while my husband was sleeping on a pull-out bed in her hospital room and I was home with our sleeping toddler, I discovered a new type of working mom guilt: Feeling guilty that I was able to get my work done, when I would have gladly chucked my workload in the trash and spent the night at the hospital instead.

You can read all about it over at The 36-Hour Day. And then go and hug your children tight.

Frugal tips, time-saving tips, and ways to do more with less

I've launched a new feature over at -- "Do more with less." For now, the weekly post of tips and tricks for getting more from your money will appear every Wednesday at The 36-Hour Day.

I kicked it off unofficially last week, with a post about five things you can make out of leftover roasted chicken -- choose your comfort level and energy level, from "Lots of Effort" homemade chicken soup from scratch to "No Effort" quick-and-easy chicken salad (or gussied up chicken sal-ahd). Check it out, and share your tips in the comments!

The official kickoff came this week, with a post about five hearty breakfasts that you can make in five minutes or less. (Really, it is possible!). Options include egg-in-a-hole, awesome oatmeal, real French toast, fruit salad, and smoothies. Get the details at The 36-Hour Day, and drop by every Wednesday for more frugal tips!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Forgive me, Martha Stewart: I hate to decorate

It's autumn in New England, and people in my little town started breaking out the fall decorations the moment the first maple leaf turned red. Nylon banners hang near doors, mailboxes are festooned with fall colors, and pretty little pumpkins sit charmingly on old stone walls.

But not at my house:

I feel like I should make the effort to festoon the house with ghouls and goblins -- or at least pumpkins and bales of hay.

Oh sure, as we get closer to Halloween, I'll scoop the brains out of a pumpkin or two, carve eye holes and a crooked mouth, and set a tealight inside and call it good, and there will be plenty of candy for little trick-or-treaters, but don't count on any splendid decorations, because, truth be told, I don't have the time. But, also, I don't have the inclination. Forgive me, Martha Stewart, for I have sinned: I don't decorate.

That's not quite true: I happily hang ornaments on a spruce tree for Christmas, and I set single (electric) candles at each of the windows post Thanksgiving and hang stockings for each child by the fireplace on Christmas Eve, but that's more for the sake of tradition than anything else. In general, I don't decorate. I don't have an eye for it, or the patience, or, frankly, the budget to hire someone else to do it for me.

This goes beyond changing the look of the house with the seasons. Picking paint colors paralyzes me; I would be quite happy to paint every room in the house some shade of white and then hang art everywhere, except that I don't end up hanging art anywhere. I'm serious; we moved into our current home in 2001 and I only got around to repainting the kids' bedrooms last year and haven't hung a thing on the master bedroom walls. Luckily for us (and for our neighbors), my can-do-anything husband picked up some mad styling skilz somewhere along the road; it is thanks to him that there are big puffs of mums on the front porch and pictures hanging in the living room and a centerpiece on the table at Thanksgiving.

I see shows on TV and read articles in family- or women-oriented magazines about decorating on a dime and cool color schemes and fantastic holiday knick-knacks, and I understand that I'm supposed to love to decorate. I'm supposed to get tired of the same-old look and long for something new, something trendy; I'm supposed to wonder how to make my family room pretty yet practical. I know people who routinely repaint walls or move furniture or even, shockingly, redesign entire rooms on a whim -- you walk into their homes and it never looks the same way twice.

I don't really understand this.

So, when the topic turns to redoing one's living room because August has morphed into September, or searching for special china for a single meal, or decorating one's mailbox for each holiday? I REALLY don't understand this.

Someone explain it to me... do you redecorate with the seasons? Why or why not?

Pretty and practical jewelry for new moms

I wish I'd had something like this cool Teething Bling pendant whem my babies were teething, but even now, they come in handy (my 4-year-old will happily do pretty much anything in exchange for being allowed to wear the necklace to school).

October 5, 2008

Gearing up
Chew on this, baby

By Lylah M. Alphonse, Globe Staff

Anyone who has ever traveled with a teething tot knows that, short of handing noise-canceling headphones out to everyone around you, there isn't much you can do to keep things quiet in flight. Consider these stylish necklaces another weapon in your baby-gear arsenal. Teething Bling pendants, keychains, and bangles by Smart Mom look like expensive jade, onyx, or coral, but are made from a food-safe silicone that's free of phthalates, lead, and other toxins (they're dishwasher-safe, too) and they can be chewed on. The pendants are about $19 at Hip Baby Gear (80 Washington St., Marblehead, 781-631-5556) and online through the many sites listed at [More]

Intelligent Design: An MIT professor gives a nod to Fibonacci

I thought of my Dad when this assignment for The Boston Globe Magazine landed on my plate; he's a physicist and an electrical engineer, and an office that's been designed around the Fibonacci numbers is right up his alley.

MIT professor Bruce Tidor's newly updated space is sleek and subtle, with the famed mathematical sequence worked into the way the shelves are placed in the floor-to-ceiling unit along one long wall.
So, what are the Fibonacci numbers? They're a mathematical sequence in which the first number is 0, the second number is 1, and each number that follows is the sum of the two numbers before it; you've seen the sequence in the spacing of the chambers of a nautilus shell, for example. The algorithm is key to computer modeling. Which leads to another question:

Why Use an Algorithm as a Design Element? Tidor uses computer modeling to understand, analyze, predict, and design things in biology (like the structure of molecules in proteins). "I had a lot of ideas about how I wanted the space to be interactive and contemplative," he says, and hoped to bring a theme of mathematics and computer modeling into the office somehow. Somerville architect Paul Lukez stealthily worked the Fibonacci numbers into the design. "There was this huge wall," Lukez says. "How do you give it some sense of scale? How do you make it lyrical in some way? We wanted to create a pattern that could evolve and be integrated into the composition of the wall." ... [More]
You can read the rest at, or click on the images below to see how it looked in print.

Who controls the money in your household?

News stories last week jumped on the Pew Research Center poll released Sept. 25, showing that women are making more and more major decisions at home. Most of the stories I saw focused on the all-important question of who has control over the television remote, so I decided to dig in to the poll itself. And I found an interesting tidbit hidden among the stats:

According to a new poll by the Pew Research Center, 43 percent of respondents said that the woman makes the decisions in more of four key areas — household finances,
weekend activities, big purchases for the home, and who controls the TV remote —
than men. The guys have the upper hand in about 26 percent of all couples, and 31 percent said that they split decision-making responsibilities — even though that answer wasn’t one of the options given in the poll. ... But here’s the real news, buried in the poll results: In dual-income couples, it is the woman who has more say, regardless of whether she earns more or less than her partner.

So, while money doesn’t necessarily equal power in most American households, working does. ... [More]

So, who controls the money in your household?

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Shoring up my PMA (positive mental attitude)

Over at Shine, I'm writing about ways to stay positive while things are looking bleak... come on over and share your tips! We're also talking about ways to do more with your money (that is, without investing it)... how are you making the most of what you've got during this financial crisis?

On vacation. But still at work

During a recent trip to visit family, I was plugging away on freelance work long after we'd tucked the kids into bed. That made me pay attention to my thoughts during the day, when I was supposed to be "relaxing" and, you know what? I've forgotten how to relax.

At the beach, I watch my husband and preschooler bury our toddler in sand up to his chest (it was the only way to keep him in one place for more than 15 seconds, and he was delighted) and a corner of my mind wonders if I should jot down a few notes for a short article on traveling with children. Bobbing in the waves with our teenage daughter, enjoying each other’s company in smiling
silence, I bite my lip to avoid crowding the moment with unnecessary words.
After an afternoon at a park with the youngest kids, I put our toddler down for
a nap and feel guilty about contemplating taking a short one myself, not because
my other kids will be back with my husband at any minute, but because I feel like I’ll be “lazy” if I catch up on sleep instead of work. While watching the debates on Friday, surrounded by our older kids, I fought the urge to flip open my laptop — of course I brought it — and check my email, or Facebook, or maybe get caught up on a blog post or two. ... [More]
Now, there's a difference between a "working vacation" and "working while on vacation," I think, and this trip crossed the line. How about you? Are you able to shut off the work side of your brain when you go away?

Back in the saddle and ready to ride

My tween might slay me for this, but I wrote about her love of horses and our little horseback riding excusion for a family column in The Boston Globe last weekend...

Bring the Family
Back in the saddle

Who: Globe Magazine staff member Lylah M. Alphonse and her five kids, ages 1 to 14

What: Horseback riding

Where: Bobby's Ranch, behind Nagog Park, Route
119/2A, Acton. 978-263-7165.

Our 12-year-old daughter Athena (above) loves horses so much that she claims she would rather muck out a stable than tidy her bedroom -- and I believe her. She still has to clean her room, though. To stave off a case of severe equine withdrawal, we decided to spend a little time on horseback recently, and the folks at Bobby's Ranch in Acton provided both horses and picture-perfect scenery.

We were greeted by Bobby himself, who built the enormous barn and founded the ranch in 1972; the family-owned business is open year-round every day except Tuesdays, with guided trail rides leaving every hour from 9 a.m. until dusk. The trail rides cost $30 per person during the week, $35 on weekends and holidays; Bobby suggests you call first so he can make sure he has enough horses at the ready.

The rides are geared toward those who have little experience and/or just want to meander over some truly beautiful trails -- galloping and racing are not allowed, and customers must be at least 4 feet tall to ride. The height restriction left our two youngest children out, or so we thought until we arrived at the ranch and discovered more horses (the ranch is home to about 60, Bobby says), ponies, chickens, friendly dogs, Gwendolyn the buffalo, and preening peacocks that provided plenty of entertainment while we waited for the big kids to complete their hourlong ride. And by "plenty of entertainment" I mean "our toddler actually refused to leave." [More]>

Yes, that's her in the picture, happy and sweaty, post-trail ride. We'll be going back soon, I'm sure!

Why I'm invested in the Wall Street bailout

Of course, the bailout plan has come and gone and is being retooled even as I type, but last week, when things were still looking hopeful, I wasn't too pleased with the proposed bailout plan.
I don’t have the spare income to invest right now, aside from the automatic payments made via payroll withdrawal into my 401(k) — a thing I am, frankly, not willing to look at too closely these days (I’ve heard that the market is basically where it was in 1998, meaning that anything you’ve put in since then is there, but anything you’ve gained is gone). But I do pay plenty in taxes. So, in spite of my lack of investments, I feel very invested in the government’s proposed bailout of Wall Street. ... Find out why over at The 36-Hour Day.

Last-minute gift ideas abound if you think outside the big box stores

I keep a well-stocked gift closet at home, but inevitably I find myself in need of a gift when there's no time to get one, or when I haven't had a chance to restock that closet. So, I have to get really creative...

No time to head to the toy store, or Target, or a chic boutique. But there’s a cool Asian grocery store near my office. Aside from great produce and dirt-cheap-but-delicious tea, they have a kitchenware section (with a lot of melamine bowls and bamboo steamers, yes, but also a few pretty pieces of pottery and china). I zipped on over.

Ten minutes and $10 later, I walked out with a tea set fit for an empress-in-training. A gorgeous deep-blue teapot. Six matching cups. Six white-and-blue flowered plates. Plus a serving platter for her cucumber sandwiches. It was prettier than the sets I’ve seen at the big box toy stores, sturdy enough to last for a while, and, since it was an actual working tea set, large enough to actually be used.

Sometimes, the perfect present is available at an unexpected place. ... [More]

Read the rest to find out what my other tips are, and share your own at The 36-Hour Day!

Your own mini media center

I had the chance to check out Sansa's cool new Fuze for a recent Gearing Up column at The Boston Globe, and I'm happy to report that I'm absolutely in love with the thing. I'm a gadget-lover who balks a bit at new electronics -- it's all so tiny! And there are so many choices -- but this little baby is great.

September 21, 2008

Gearing up
Music to the ears
By Lylah M. Alphonse

SanDisk offers a cool little MP3 player, the Sansa Fuze, that one-ups the iPod Nano in a few big ways: It has a built-in digital FM radio; it plays all sorts of audio formats, not just those from iTunes; and it costs less than the Apple device. It has a 1.9-inch color screen that's remarkably clear, has a built-in voice recorder, comes with earbuds, and is perfect for distracting your
kid while you wait at the gate. The 8-gigabyte model, which costs about $120 at RadioShack and Best Buy stores, holds up to 2,000 songs and has a battery that will let you play music for a day or video for five hours. Colorful 2GB ($80) and 4GB ($100) models are also available. For more information, visit [More]
Looking for past product reviews? You can find an archive of recent Gearing Up columns over at