About Christy McDonald

Christy McDonald is the mother of 3, married to Detroit sports guy Jamie Samuelsen and is an Emmy award-winning TV news anchor/reporter on Detroit's PBS. She never turns down a karaoke microphone and dreams of her own show on Food Network. Her blog is the perfect mash-up of pop culture and parenting. Follow Christy on Twitter @ChristyTV.

Dear Diary: Keep Out

It didn’t surprise me when my 8-year-old daughter asked for a spiral notebook.

“I want to write stuff down,” she said matter-of-factly.

Dear Diary...

“What stuff?” I asked.

She just looked at me.  And then gestured wildly, “Just STUFF.”

Sigh.  So on the next Target run I brought home a notebook.  Which she promptly turned into:

A DIARY.

Suddenly I felt like I had been sucked back in time and was living in a Judy Blume novel.  Only now I was the mom in the book.

I had a diary in third grade.  It was a hardbound tiny book with Hello Kitty on the front.  I took a label maker and punched a “Keep Out” sticker that I pasted on the cover.  I wrote about all sorts of things like soccer practice, Valentine’s day, my dream crush on Rick Springfield (I sent him my school picture after getting his address from Dynamite Magazine) and my real crush on a boy in my class named S********.  (You think I’m actually going to reveal his name? Please, people.  I still live in the town I grew up in.)  I kept my diary under my bed.  A very safe hiding place, right?  All secrets would be secure.  No one would ever find it there.

Until my older sister did.  The “Keep Out” sticker was apparently not powerful enough.  She read it and then told S****** that I liked him.

HORROR.

How could my sister do that?!  She taunted me for weeks with diary details. It was excruciating.  To this day, all of my sisters make fun of my inventive spelling in the diary.  Like when I spelled “Barbie Clothes” “Baribie Clotneths”.  Ha ha.  Hilarious.  Not upsetting for a child at all.

I now look at my daughter’s pink polka-dotted notebook she drags around the house.  She writes in the family room.  In the basement.  Her bedroom.  I innocently ask what she’s writing and she just smiles.  I get that most girls have a diary.  That’s not the problem.

The problem is, I want to read it.  Badly.  Yes, she needs privacy, blah blah blah.  But I want to read it RIGHTNOW.  I want to get into my daughter’s budding mind.  Her secret thoughts.  I’ve known everything about her since she was born, and all of a sudden a little polka-dotted notebook has trumped me.   It knows the inside scoop.

And it enjoys taunting me.  It sits on her bed, in its hot pink glory.  Not even bothering to hide under the bed.  I could flip open the cover.  What if it dropped off the bed and happened to open up?  What if I was putting it away on her book shelf and a large breeze suddenly blew the pages open?

I’m not sure what I’m hoping to find in that little journal.  What if I didn’t approve of it?  What if (gasp) she wrote about me? Would I say something?  And admit that I violated diary privacy?  Don’t they have an American Girl Doll book that addresses this??

I saw her writing in it tonight.

“So, what do you have in there?”  I ask.  Hoping she’ll share.

“Hmmm, some thoughts just for me,” she says.

I swear that darn polka-dotted book laughed at me.

Thomas the Train Toots No More

On a trip to the basement yesterday, I caught the eye of Thomas the Train.  He still had that goofy, wide-eyed look on his face, but I could tell he was putting up a brave front.  He was laying on his side in a plastic bin, pinned by a wooden track and surrounded by his friends. You know, Percy, Henry, Gordon, Bertie the Bus and many others whose names I just cannot remember.  They were crowded together with 80 feet of track, a roundhouse, railroad signals and a few fake trees.  Usually Thomas and friends are spread out in the play area, ready for another adventure my 5-year-old son Josh has created for them.

Thomas the Train in the bin

But last week, I asked Josh to pack up Thomas and move him for his sister’s birthday party.  That was a week ago.  As I looked at Thomas the Train’s cheeky little face, frozen in the bin, I realized that he may not be coming back out.  I think he knew it too.

Thomas was an obsession for Josh starting at age three.   He built new tracks every day.  And when I say tracks, I mean intricate, multilevel rail systems with switches and bridges that ran the length of our basement.  For hours, he would lay the side of his head on the carpet, in a bizarre little crouch, so he could be eye level with Thomas as he chugged along.  Each addition to the crew was major excitement.  Aquarium cars, happy birthday party cars.  We even got Troublesome Trucks that laughed.  Evil, creepy laughing, but Josh loved them.

He sported a red Thomas the Train sweatshirt and begged Santa for a “squishy Thomas”.  We didn’t know what that was, until we saw a stuffed, plush Thomas the Train at Target.  Santa put one under the tree that year.  We even took Josh to ride the life-sized Thomas the Train when it rolled into Greenfield Village.  It was a forty degree day in May with a cold drizzle.  Miserable.  And it was NOT cheap.  (Memo to the Thomas the train people: have mercy on parents that have already gone broke buying all your stuff.)  Josh loved it.

I grumbled about Thomas.  I couldn’t stand the show, the bizarre movies and books.  They were kind of weird and sometimes made no sense.  My sister claimed she could write a paper comparing Thomas and his friends at the railway to a dysfunctional, modern workplace environment.  (This is also the sister who wrote an entire paper on how “Beverly Hills 90210” reenforced bad gender stereotypes)

But things changed in the last few months. Talk on the kindergarten playground turned to “Star Wars” and Legos.  And “Star Wars Legos”.  Josh would still play with Thomas a little, but his new Lego police station got most of the attention.

The other day Josh had a friend over to play and I told him to pick up his room before his friend came.  I walked in for inspection and noticed something missing.  Squishy Thomas wasn’t sitting on the bed, like he usually does.

“Where’s Squishy?”  I asked.

“Oh,” said Josh.  “He’s here.”  And he opened his closet to show Squishy Thomas on a

Squishy Thomas

shelf.  Hidden away.

It makes me so sad.  I know he’s getting older and I know he has to move on.  But Thomas marked a big part of our lives. So many times over the past few years, I have wished for my kids to grow up (to at least go to the bathroom by themselves).  I would say  “I can’t wait until they’re old enough..”

Now I find myself saying, “Just a little bit longer”.

There’s a reason why the Toy Story movies made adults cry – the nostalgia for loving a toy so much, the idea that perhaps a toy could love in return, and inevitability that we’ll outgrow them.  I feel bad for ‘ol Thomas in the basement.  He gave Josh years of entertainment and an outlet for his creativity.  Now, he may be done.

As I walked up from the basement and to the bedrooms, I stopped at Josh’s door to look in.  It was a Lego explosion, with small police cars and pieces scattered about.  Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader figurines duked it out in a corner near a fleet of racing cars.

And sitting on the bed, was Squishy Thomas.  Back in his familiar spot.

For now.

3 Days + 3 Fish = 0 Pets

What started out as a great idea for a gift for my daughter’s 8th birthday has turned into a disastrous lesson in death, fish care and lying.  And has made my father laugh really hard.

My last blog detailed the big decision to get a fish.  The first pet for our family.  And the FEAR I had that the fish would die.  Eventually.   But little did I know that the fish we got for Caroline, would die 10 HOURS AFTER WE GOT IT.  Oh, and the two replacement fish?  Take a wild guess.

On Sunday, Caroline’s birthday, we presented her with a two and a half-gallon fish tank with pretty blue rocks and a plant.  The water was treated and all ready with whatever you needed for a fish tank.

“Oh!” she yelled.  “A fish!  I’m getting a fish!  A pet of my own!  I knew this was going to be the BEST BIRTHDAY EVER!”

Caroline and Shimmer #1

Yes, we told her we were going to the pet store that afternoon so she could pick out the fish herself.   It was a huge outing for the whole family.  After watching the crowded goldfish tank, Caroline spotted the one.  The fish of her dreams.  She was so excited, she threw her arms around me, saying “thank you, mommy!”  She was growing up, getting her very own pet and ready for responsibility.  My eyes got watery.  Probably from the toxic smell of the ferrets nearby.

We took our new fish home, and she/he was promptly named “Shimmer”.  Shimmer seemed to like being perched on top of Caroline’s book shelf.  She had adoring fans that peered into her tank and tapped on the glass.  My husband and I looked at each other as if to say, see?  We got a fish. Life is good.

No, it isn’t.

Monday morning when I went into Caroline’s room, she was standing at the tank.

“Shimmer isn’t really moving, Mom.”

Shimmer was hanging out under the filter, nose down.  Clearly DOA.  My worst goldfish fears confirmed. The thing can’t even live ONE DAY? With barely a thought – the lying began.

“I think Shimmer is still adjusting to the tank and her new environment,” I say smoothly.  “She’ll be okay by the time you come home from school.”  Lie, lie, lie.

“I’m kind of worried,” Caroline says.

“She’ll be fine,” I reassure.

Caroline goes to school.  And Operation Shimmer #2 begins.  The idea?  Make sure the tank is working, the water isn’t contaminated and get a fish that looks EXACTLY like Shimmer for the swap.  Jamie takes the lifeless fish and a sample of the water back to the pet store.  Water?  Fine, says the store guy.  Must have been a bad fish.  So we get the Deuce.  Caroline comes home from school and sees the Deuce (Shimmer) and is happy. She feeds it, does homework and goes to dance class.  My parents stop over and check in on the fish.

“Hate to tell you this,” my dad says with a chuckle.  “But your fish isn’t doing so well.”

WHAT?

I run upstairs, and it is true.  The Deuce looks like a drunk, listlessly floating toward the filter. It’s still alive, but barely.  And later that night, after Caroline falls asleep, it dies.  Now I’m good and mad.  I didn’t know that it would be so darn difficult to keep a goldfish alive for at least a day.   Then I wonder, is there some kind of secret killer chemical in the air?  In my water?  Are we all going to grow a third eyeball and this is the first sign?

So Tuesday morning, yet another lie.  There is something wrong with the tank, I say, and daddy had to take it (along with Shimmer) to the pet store to fix it.  Caroline heads off to school.

The mastermind at the pet store tells us that the fish we had are too big for the tank.  Our lovely, two and a half-gallon tank is not big enough for one stinking goldfish.  Really? Again, we had multiple fish in a bowl when I was little – no filter, no water treatment and they survived (Alas, goldfish rearing, much like parenting, has become a lot more complicated in the last 20 years). Now we have to get a smaller goldfish and cross our fingers.  We came up with the genius story of “Shimmer was too big for the tank, so we took her back to the store and got a new, smaller one.”

Believe me, I’m not a fan of parental lying (as I’ve blogged about before), and yes, I guess I should have told the truth. I panicked.  Of course Caroline will have to deal with the death of a goldfish some day.  But COME ON, not 10 hours after she gets it.

We presented Caroline with “Shimmer” the third (or Trey).

“No,” she said wisely.  “This isn’t Shimmer.  Shimmer was a special name for my first special fish.  And since Shimmer is back at the pet store, I’ll call this one Goldy.”  Perhaps the curse of Shimmer is over.  We watched Goldy all day for signs of impending death and felt confident the third fish was the charm.

Wrong.

Wednesday morning, Caroline was standing at the tank yet again.  Goldy?  DEAD.  And stuck to the side of the filter.  No getting around this one.

“Caroline, I’m so sorry, but Goldy is dead.”

She starts to cry.  “Is it my fault?  Did I feed it too much?”

I reassure her that it is NOT her fault, that sometimes fish have a tough time getting used to a new tank.  Where did we go wrong?? Three fish in three days.  It makes you want to swear off pets forever.  We’re not even sure if we should GET another fish.  My father tells me we’re going to laugh at this some day.  Sigh.

A pet rock is looking pretty good right now.

How Long Do Goldfish Live?

Our family is growing. It’s been just enough time since the last baby for me to think about taking care of something else.

A fish.

Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated

And of course, it’s not my fish or the family fish, it will be my 8-year-old daughter’s fish.  A big birthday present.  But let’s be honest.  I’ll end up taking care of it.  I’ve dragged my feet on getting a family pet for precisely that point.  I didn’t want to clean up any more poop than I already had to.  But since the little one is pretty much potty trained, and the children are begging for a pet (or just something else to bug, because they’re bored with annoying each other), we’re going to give it a try.

It’s not that I didn’t have pets growing up.  Our family had a cat that climbed the screen doors in the summer, and dropped dead birds on the step.  We had dogs, one that walked the kitchen counters and ate entire loves of bread and one that curled up on laps and lived a long life.  My sisters had rabbits that lived outside in a cage and liked to take walks on cat leashes.  One sister had three mice.  Not at the same time, mind you, because they kept escaping from their cage and got lost in the basement.  (we did see one lurking about in its newly created life as a free mouse)  I even had a parakeet.  And when that one died, my parents let me get another one.  That second bird, HATED me, would never let me hold it without pecking my hand to pieces.

In between all of those pets, we had fish.  Fish we won at the fair, fish we bought on a whim from the pet section at Meijer.  I look at my mother now and say “What were you thinking?”  She sighs and says, “I don’t know.  I was crazy.”

Oh I’m crazy.  But not that crazy.  Yet.

So fish, it is.

My husband and I took a trip to the local pet store to pick out everything that the fish will need.  We thought it would be fun to let the birthday girl actually pick out the fish herself.  Apparently, things have changed since the last time I got a fish.  I’m thinking, bowl, food and we’re good to go.  Oh no.  The fish lady told us that goldfish need like a gallon of water for each inch of fish.  So my little bowl could only fit one fish and not any more because goldfish grow like 3 feet.  And I had to treat the water (aka buy more stuff) to make it safe.  Oh, and make sure I cleaned out the gravel a lot because goldfish are the dirtiest fish.  And I should probably get an aquarium.

Suckers that we are, we walked out of the pet store with a small aquarium, blue rocks, a fake plant, a tiny fish net and water treatment stuff.  A far cry from the simple round bowl and tap water that I used when I was a kid.  But, I guess we’re giving our new family member the best start we can.

Because really, my biggest fear?  The fish is going to die.  And I’m dreading the “your fish is dead” conversation.  Yes, I know, glass half full.  I’m already planning the funeral of a pet I haven’t even purchased yet (let’s all agree that the life of a goldfish is, well, short).  Some friends recently told me they secretly replace dead fish so the kids don’t realize how quickly they “turn over”, so to speak.  But these same friends have also had front yard fish memorial services to respectfully honor their finned friends who went to great aquarium in the sky.

I know I can’t shield the kids from everything (over protective mother alert).  Perhaps I’m over thinking just a little bit.

One thing I do know.  No one is getting a parakeet.

Five-Year-Old Fails Polygraph Test

It started as a simple conversation at dinner. We usually go around the table, and each person talks about their day.  The 2-year-old always wants to go first, refuses to take questions, but just enjoys everyone looking at her.  (“I’m not DONE YET!” is a familiar screech.)

The 7-year-old talked fondly of the science experiment in her desk, a mealworm named Squirmy who was getting ready to turn into a beetle.  Then it got to 5-year-old Josh, who regaled us with stories of Star Wars reenactments on the playground and a secret reader in class.

After a few questions, I wrapped up with:

“Did you buy your milk ok today?”

Did you buy chocolate milk?

Every once in a while, Josh likes to buy milk at the school cafeteria to go with his lunch from home.  Fine, I say.  A break from the juice box.  But the rule is, you buy white milk.  Not chocolate.  Because that’s dessert in a carton.  And I already packed dessert.  And we don’t usually drink chocolate milk.

“Yep, I bought milk,” he said with a weird look on his face.

I know that look.  I’m not a poker player and I know that look.

“You did?” I probed.

“Yep.”  He said.  Super weird look now.

The mother’s intuition alarm bell started clanging.

“White milk?”

Silence.

“Um, yes white milk.”

“You had chocolate milk,” I say.

Silence.

“No I DIDN’T!” He insisted.

Which meant he did.  All I did was look at him and he caved.

“Well, I maybe had chocolate milk,” he confessed.

Then it hit me.  He lied.  WHY? I had that sick feeling of if-he’s-lying-about-milk-then-what-ELSE-is-he-lying-about?  Why lie about milk?!  What does it mean??  WHAT HAVE I DONE!  So I did what any rational (neurotic) parent would do.  First, I lectured the liar about telling the truth, trust issues and chocolate milk nutrition facts.  Then ran straight to the computer to Google “kids and lying”.

First, I found many message boards with parents wondering why their 17-year-old lied about skipping school, stealing $300 and drinking beer.  Shaky with thoughts of my 5-year old landing behind bars from a life of lying and stealing, I stumbled upon this article from the Wall Street Journal.  I was surprised to find out that lying at age 5 doesn’t really mean much – but it’s actually a good sign. Researchers say  “The fact that their children tell lies is a sign that they have reached a new developmental milestone.”

Milestone!  Sounds impressive.  In fact, the study says kids with better cognitive abilities actually lie more.  Because when you lie, you’ve gotta keep your story straight while knowing the truth.  And that makes your brain fire up in high functioning ways.   Hmm.  I don’t think I’ll be touting my son’s newly found fibbing skills any time soon.  And certainly I’ll have to repeatedly stress that lying is not tolerated in our house.

Oh, and he still can’t buy chocolate milk.

Shoes, Star Wars and the Third Child

My 7-year-old daughter stared at me in disbelief.

“You got Kitty light up shoes?” Caroline was incredulous as she watched her two-year old sister jump up and down, setting off lights on the sides of her Disney Princess shoes.

Shoes for the 3rd child

“You said we could NEVER have light up shoes!” Now the tone was a bit angrier.  “Why did SHE get light up shoes?!”

You know the shoes I’m talking about.  Sneakers that light up every time you walk on them.  You can see them in a dark movie theater, they always come with some annoying cartoon character plastered on them and usually cost double.

When Caroline was old enough to see how cool light up shoes were, I put my non-lit up foot down. Nope.  No one needs his or her feet to light up with every step.  When Josh came along, it was his dream to have Thomas the train shoes or Toy Story or whatever light up shoes.  There was begging.  I held firm, because of course, I had set a stupid parent rule in my head.  No swearing, hitting or light up shoes.

But here comes the third child.  She picked out Princess shoes at the store.  Ok, I say.  Princess sneakers are fine.  She put them on.

“Oh!” Kitty squealed. “My shoeses lighted up!!”

Sigh.  I was in trouble.  Trouble if I took them off her feet.  And trouble if I came home with them.

After years of law and order, I caved under the pressure of the third child.  By number three I’ve realized:

1. Parental patience is thin

2. Parental perfection is unrealistic

3. The third will cry if not included

When my first was born, she played with educational toys, only watched Sesame Street and didn’t eat candy.  I was determined to do this parent thing right.  Then came number two.  Things were a little more lax, but they didn’t know who Sponge Bob was, rarely ate at McDonald’s and had no idea how to play video games.

The third one came, and it all went to hell.  Frazzled from meeting the needs of three children at different ages, my standards have dropped. Significantly.  In turn, I have a two-year old who can play “Pac Man”, sings songs from “High School Musical” and wants an American Girl Doll.  She manipulates tiny Legos and has taken an unnatural interest in “Star Wars.” She recently dazzled a crowd at the hair salon singing Darth Vader’s theme song with a lollipop hanging out of her mouth.   She snuck up on her sister the other day and said, breathing heavily in sister’s ear, “Luke, I am your daddy.”

I find myself just watching her and shaking my head.  Like, whose child is this? And when is her mother going to do something?  One person who takes great glee in this, is my mother.

“That’s what happens,” she said recently.  “The third becomes a lot smarter a lot quicker.”

She ought to know.  I was the third child.  Boy, am I in trouble.

A Year of Living Dangerously

Two years ago, my older sister gave us all the same gift at Christmas.  It was a white binder filled with a collection of interesting recipes she had discovered over the past year.  It was titled “The Year of Cooking Dangerously” – culled from what she called a year of  “free time, fresh produce, Top Chef marathons and most important, a reconnection to my family, friends and the art of simple living.” The pages detailed roasted winter vegetables, soups, cookies, and even a brine for turkey.  But along with the recipes were the stories of the meals.  A weekend with friends, a potluck Thanksgiving, a woman who made the best sugar cookies.

My sister’s life that year was one big transition.  She was downsized out of her job as a magazine editor, so she sold her swanky city townhouse and moved up to a mountain town in Colorado with her husband and baby.    She had to navigate a new life of “what now?” and “there’s a moose in my backyard” and “why doesn’t this town have a Target?” (can you imagine? Life without Target?!)

No, I didn't climb Mt. Everest.

So, the “Year of Cooking Dangerously” binder really translated to a “Year of Living Dangerously”.  Being pushed out of your comfort zone and making it up as you go along.  Since then, I’ve equated new situations to “living dangerously”.  And 2011 was really my year of living dangerously.  I didn’t sky dive, climb Everest, find a new religion or shave my head.  (Those things actually may have been easier.  Except the hair thing.  I would look terrible bald)  I left my old job, wanting still to be a TV journalist, but on a schedule that made me and my family happy.

Those first months of not knowing what came next were strange.    Slightly scary, even.  I felt like I was hopping around on one foot. But the freedom fired off parts of my brain that had cobwebs and made me think in different ways.

I met interesting people, connected with old friends and worked on new TV projects I never would have if I didn’t take the leap.  I started writing this blog.  I took up piano again – what used to be a chore as a child, the practice, the “do I have to play the piano?” is now such a treat.  Music really does something for the soul.  I started horseback riding again.  Fell off horse.  Broke pinky.  Stopped horseback riding.  (there’s a reason why it’s called living dangerously)  Celebrated my 10th anniversary, saw my daughter ride a two-wheeler for the first time, taught my son to read, potty trained the toddler and danced at my sister’s wedding. Wow.  What a great year!  Especially the potty training part.

But “Living Dangerously” is not easy.  It’s not always fun.  It can be confusing, frustrating and make you question yourself.  But I’m closer to my gut – I listen to it and trust it.  And I know happiness is just as important as a job title.

My sister is now the editor of another magazine and works on projects from her home where she’s free to corral two children, find new recipes and chase the occasional bear out of her garage.  (like a bad episode of Northern Exposure).  I’m still trying to enjoy the now, instead of the “where am I going to be in 10 years?”  So as I look back at 2011, thank you for walking along with me in my Year of Living Dangerously.  Maybe you’ve had a few moments of living dangerously yourself – congratulations!

And may 2012 be the best yet!