Gifts for Grandkids: How to Turn Christmas Gift No-No-Nos into Hearty Ho-Ho-Hos

With two weeks left until Christmas, family members all over the world are making silent, solemn, last-minute promises to be nice and not naughty this season when they gather together to celebrate the holidays.

No time signifies the special bonds of family more than Christmas. But too often, instead of familial peace, such gatherings disintegrate into verbal free-for-alls followed by abrupt, dramatic exits.

There are almost as many culprits for these explosions as there are white whiskers in Santa’s beard. Generational conflicts. Political differences. Seasonal pressures. Too much eggnog. Grandma getting run over by a reindeer.

Why even the wonderful tradition of exchanging gifts can lead to Grinch-like misadventures.

Obviously, not all the reasons for family holiday disputes are easy to address, but in the spirit of the season, here are a few last-minute offerings for grandparents (and actually all relatives) about gifting that, if followed, should greatly reduce any potential problems in that area.

Talk To The Parents First

You may be excited because you assume that you have found just the perfect gift for each of your grandchildren, special ones that will show your great love and they will enjoy forever.

However, we all know what can happen when we assume. Always consult parents before actually delivering your gifts to your grandkids. In this case, fathers (and even more often mothers) actually do know best.

Avoid Giving Gifts That Are Loud

You might be convinced that your grandson is destined to become the next Ringo Starr or John Bonham. But think before purchasing that 7-piece drum kit the music store salesman swears is just perfect for the budding young drummer. In fact, don’t ever even consider any loud gift until following suggestion #1.

Avoid Christmas Gifts That Are Large

Does your granddaughter really need a McMansion-size doll house with sleeping room for 16? Of course, if you followed suggestion #1 and the parents have said OK, then buy away. You can even add the six-car garage extension if you want.

Avoid Overly Luxurious Gifts

What child wouldn’t want to take an all-expense week-long trip with grandmom and grandpop to London, Paris or New York City. The answer is many. And probably even more parents might have some reservations about such as excursion.

But what if you really want to give this? Again, before making any concrete plans, follow suggestion #1. Maybe mom and dad will be so excited that they will want to join in, too.

Avoid Age Inappropriate Christmas Gifts

Of course, your grandchildren are absolutely advanced geniuses. I know mine are. But that doesn’t mean they are ready for the collected works of William Shakespeare or William Faulkner at age five.

The age idea should also be applied in reverse. Season tickets to the Children’s Puppetry Center probably won’t be appreciated by your teenage grandchildren unless they are planning on becoming the next Jim Henson.

Consider Your Other Grandchildren In The House

Your 10-year-old granddaughter Leia or your 9-your-old grandson Luke might really love the latest Rogue One Star Wars Lego set. However, consider how many Lego sets remain unopened in closets for fear that younger brothers or sisters might swallow the pieces.

Consider The Other Grandparents

In an ideal world, grandparenting would not be a competition. However, not all grandparents are financially equal. Others grandparents (or parents) may consider your gift an attempt to show them up or buy love from your grandchildren. That doesn’t mean you can’t buy the gifts you want; it just means to consider the other family implications before you do.

Some Final Words: Consider My Aunt Florence

Some people are naturally good at giving gifts. Some aren’t. But don’t despair if you are in the second category. People can change, especially at Christmas time. Think Ebenezer Scrooge or the Grinch.

I know from real-life experience that this is true. When I was a teenager in the 1960s, invariably my Aunt Florence would give me the worst gifts every Christmas. I can’t recall all the seasonal horrors, but I do remember on my 16th Christmas she gave me a size 3X orange and yellow sweater and a pair of bright baby blue socks. I never wore either gift. Although, now that I think about it, I might have used the sweater for a blanket on a few occasions.

But, by the time our son Michael was a teenager in the 1980s, Aunt Florence had really upped her giving game. Knowing that Michael was a 3-sport athlete for his high school and that his team stopped at McDonald’s after every away game or match, she would give him a few books of McDonald’s coupons, which truly was a great gift that kept on giving.

So, if you find yourself mired in a Christmas gift quandary, just ask yourself this question – what would (the new, improved) Aunt Florence do?

Equipped with that answer (and remembering to follow suggestion #1 above), rest assured that even Santa himself couldn’t select a better gift.

Obviously, the suggestions above don’t cover all the tips grandparents could use about Christmas gifts. What suggestions or advice would you offer to keep family Christmas time merry and bright?

See Hilary Sign. See Hilary Run?

This article 1st appeared in The Prices Do DC

If you live in the DC area you probably don’t know Sue Kezurer Zuckerman, but if you knew Suzie like I know Suzie, you would know 4 things – she’s my wife’s college roommate, she and her husband Marc were visiting us in Crystal City last weekend, like Hilary Clinton she is a Baby Boomer, and she loves Hillary.

That’s why you could find Sue, Marc, my wife Judy, and I walking to the Costco store in Pentagon City Saturday morning to stand in line to see Mrs. Clinton, who was scheduled to begin signing copies of her new book Hard Choices at 11 a.m.

Arriving at the Costco parking lot shortly after 9 a.m., it was apparent that this wouldn’t be your normal book signing. There was the crowd. Lines of more than 700 people, many with a copy (or copies of) Hard Choices in hand, were already established alongside the entire western side of the store.

Then there was the bus in the parking lot. The red, white and blue bus with a big picture of Hillary on the back where you see her texting with the words Please Don’t Text and Drive. On the sidethe messages Ready for Hillary and Join the Movement weredisplayed in giant type. Outside the bus, dozens of people were stacking tables with “I’m Ready For Hillary” buttons and signs. Others were rolling up posters of Hillary to distribute to those who wanted them. Still others were huddled in small groups, getting further instructions for the day.

Now authors don’t travel in tour buses with entourages. Rock stars, sports teams, and political candidates do. And that’s the thing. Very few people in the Costco crowd Saturday were there to see Hillary Clinton the author. They were there to see the Hillary Clinton whom almost everyone expects will gain the Democratic nomination in 2016 and try to become the first woman in American history to hold the office of President of the United States.

We were greeted by Megan Collins from Orange County, California, who is a sophomore in college here in the DC area. She offered us our “I’m Ready for Hillary” stickers (which as an old practicing journalist I declined) and explained the procedures for the day.

I asked Megan why she was working for the as-of-yet-not-declared candidate. “We’re here to show Hillary today that we have a number of people supporting her if she decides to run. And we’ll still be here for her in 2016.”

Megan said that while she endorses Mrs. Clinton for her political views, she also has a more personal reason to join the “I’m Ready for Hillary” campaign. Both of her parents are big Bill and Hillary Clinton supporters. When she was 8 months old, Megan had her picture taken with Mrs. Clinton. Later, her mother said, “maybe you’ll be working with her when you’re older.”

“And here I am,” she said with a wide smile. “I think it’s pretty revolutionary for a former First Lady to go out and make a name for herself. Not only is she a strong representative for the female community, she is a strong representative for America.”

But, of course, not everyone is as admiring of Mrs. Clinton as Megan or my wife’s roommate, Sue.

Take John Lipnicki of neighboring Vienna. The 69-year-old business owner was on the sidewalk next to the Costco, brandishing a large yellow, black, and red sign which attacked the former Secretary of State for Benghazi and claimed she had a legacy “written in blood from Arkansas to the White House.”

“I’m here to let people know that there is another side to Hillary,” Lipnicki said. “If she wants to be president, what she did or did not do will impact America for years to come. She’s no leader. Where was she when we needed her as secretary of state?”

And Lipnicki was not alone in his opposition to Clinton. At the front entrance of the store, the Republican National Committee had unleashed it new anti-Clinton weapon – a volunteer NRC worker in an orange-and-white squirrel costume wearing a dark blue t-shirt with the slogan “Another Clinton in the White House NUTS” written in red and white letters on the front.

Take John Lipnicki of neighboring Vienna. The 69-year-old business owner was on the sidewalk next to the Costco, brandishing a large yellow, black, and red sign which attacked the former Secretary of State for Benghazi and claimed she had a legacy “written in blood from Arkansas to the White House.”

“I’m here to let people know that there is another side to Hillary,” Lipnicki said. “If she wants to be president, what she did or did not do will impact America for years to come. She’s no leader. Where was she when we needed her as secretary of state?”

And Lipnicki was not alone in his opposition to Clinton. At the front entrance of the store, the Republican National Committee had unleashed it new anti-Clinton weapon – a volunteer NRC worker in an orange-and-white squirrel costume wearing a dark blue t-shirt with the slogan “Another Clinton in the White House NUTS” written in red and white letters on the front.

I turned around. Obviously, it wasn’t Bill Clinton, but for once Suzie was almost right. The man did resemble the former president. Especially at a quick glance. The Clinton look-alike turned out to be 59-year-old Rick Meidlinger from northern Virginia. He admitted this wasn’t the first time he had turned heads at a Clinton book signing. A few years ago, when Bill Clinton had appeared at the same Costco to sign one of his own books, Meidlinger had attended.

“I was sitting on that loading dock over there and a woman came over and said, ‘If I can’t get a picture with him, I can get a picture with you.'” Then others did the same thing.

I spent the next hour or so talking to Meidlinger, who, although he wasn’t the former president, did have a really interesting story behind his reason for getting Mrs. Clinton’s signature. Autograph gathering was something he had started with his younger daughter, who had a passion for baseball that she developed while playing sandlot ball with the boys in her neighborhood. She played Little League with the boys; then continued on to pitch with them on the high school baseball team. She had thrown a perfect game and been featured in a section of Sports Illustrated. Later, she made the US Women’s Baseball Team, but once it was decided that baseball wouldn’t be an Olympic sport, she gave up actively participating in the game. But she and her Dad continued collecting autographs.

Suzie and Bill- Clinton look-alike Rick Meidlinger

Finally, after noon, we entered the store. In order to see Mrs. Clinton you had to be a Costco member. Judy and I had bought a membership the day before for $55. But since we had only 2 cards, that meant that only Judy and Sue could continue through the line. When we had purchased our membership, I told Dave, one of the store managers, about my plans to blog about the event. He suggested that we not carry anything in to the signing, since it would have to be stored and checked. So Judy and Sue gave their pocketbooks and small beach chairs to Marc, who would hold them, while I wandered around the store trying to capture more details for this post.

I will let Judy describe what happened next:

Sue and I were given yellow wristbands after we showed our 2 Costco membership cards. We proceeded following the yellow arrows down the cement floor aisles blocked off for the signing. Store employees had constructed a giant wall using slats of water bottles for a base and slats of paper towels for height to secure the signing area.

Since we weren’t carrying anything (not even a cell phone or a pre-purchased book), we were told to take a shortcut across 3 aisles of waiting Clinton fans, where we were scanned by Hillary’s security and lead to the inner signing area.  

Sue meantime had asked me at least a dozen times if I was going to get her a book for Hillary to sign. I repeatedly assured her they would have books inside the maze that we could purchase and finally asked the security people just to assure her. 

Sue asked me what I was going to say Hillary and, after thinking about it, I said I would simply thank her for all she has done for us (women). 

As we rounded the final aisle, there she was, elevated on a platform, surrounded by hundreds of books and many members of her staff and security. 

The people ahead of us had cell phones and were taking pictures while in line. “Oh man,” I said to Sue. “David will be upset that we don’t have our phones to take a picture”  I turned around to Rick, our new friend and Bill Clinton look-alike, and asked him to take a few shots of Hillary signing books and then email them to us. He said he would. 

The line was moving very quickly, but Sue observed that Hillary was shaking hands with every person in line.

“Oh my God Judy, what am I going to say to her.  Doesn’t she look beautiful? I mean really beautiful?” Sue blurted out, obviously awe-struck at finally seeing Hillary up close and personal. 

When it was our turn, three of us were herded up. Hillary shook all three of our hands and we were given a pre-signed book and led out the other side of the signing area. The entire process took less than 20 seconds.

I didn’t get to say “thank you for all you have done,” but we had gotten Sue to meet her political idol.

History Echoes: Forget Halloween Monsters, This Year’s Big Fear Is Something That’s Able to Lurk Inside Us

This article 1st appeared in The Prices Do DC

2014 will certainly be viewed as one of the most frightening Halloween seasons ever. But it is not ghastly ghosts, goblins, ghouls, and gremlins that are causing outbreaks of crazed, panic fears. Instead, it is something much more real and, in reality, potentially much more deadly.

In many parts of America, the Season of the Witch has been transformed into the Scary Season of Ebola.

Those fears do not surprise former Under Secretary of Science and Technology for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Tara O’Toole. “Epidemics always engender visceral fear,” O’Toole says. “This is something that can come into your home and everybody is vulnerable to it. Face it, it’s pretty freaky bleeding from your eyes.”

But while O’Toole understands that fear can drive a lot of the reaction to an epidemic like Ebola, a calm, reasoned, scientifically- and medically-sound approach is what America now needs.

Dr. O’Toole was one member of a group of distinguished medical and security experts which discussed the current Ebola crisis this week at the Heritage Foundation.

The panel agreed that while the outbreaks in Africa are disconcerting, America will be able to handle problems that arise in this country.

“The rest of the medical system learned a lot from Texas (where the only victim of the disease to die in America was treated),” O’Toole said. “We were probably making a lot of mistakes in infectious diseases all along, but if you make a mistake with Ebola (care) you’re going to get in big trouble. We ought to able to protect our health care workers.”

For its own safety, American must help the stricken nations combat Ebola on the African continent, the panel concurred. “If we do not contain this in Africa, it will become a part of life and you will wonder every time you get a fever,” O’Toole said.

But while she is optimistic about the end of this current crisis, she said the United States must do more to protect itself and others from other future outbreaks of deadly, infectious diseases.

“Our national defense is going to depend on biology is a big way,” the doctor maintained. “We’re going to have a lot more epidemics.”

O’Toole said current world conditions make such events inevitable. For example, 70 million people are being added to the world’s population every year, many of them living in mega cities where crowded conditions make it ideal for diseases to rapidly spread. Then there is the ease of modern travel. Unlike days gone by, people can now fly around the world in 24 hours.

“We are going to be more vulnerable to epidemics and we must get better at managing them,” she said.

O’Toole said that while early action is crucial to halting epidemics, that is difficult to do, especially in remote areas of the world. “”It’s very hard to see the beginning. It’s not lights and sirens; it’s not like these things explode,” she said. “By the time you begin treatment, they are already bigger than you would like to see,” she said.

Like the others on the panel, O’Toole believes that a vaccine for Ebola should have been ready by the time of this current outbreak since there were promising results as much as 14 years ago. But she understands the reality of why such a vaccine isn’t ready yet.

“We fund heavily when the problem occurs and then the money goes away,” she said.

Money also plays a huge role in the fact that an Ebola vaccine hasn’t been released by private pharmaceutical companies. “We’re not talking about pills you take every day for the rest of your life. This is something you might take for 2 weeks and it’s over. You just don’t make much money out of it,” she noted.

And even though she agreed with the panel consensus that such options as travel bans and unwarranted quarantining would’t work (and could actually worsen treatment conditions), she understands why such options are attractive to many people and some politicians.

“We’re always looking for someone to blame,” she said. “People want to know who they can lock up to make themselves safe.”

Extra! Extra! Read All About It

There’s More to the Story

  • America’s Ebola epidemic currently consists of 1 person with Ebola. (from Think Progress)
  • 4 totally Ebola-free things Americans are terrified will give them Ebola. (from Think Progress)
  • Why outbreaks breed hysteria. (from The Atlantic)

A 2012 Trip to Cuba

With the coronavirus pandemic bringing vacation world travel to a virtual halt, the only way currently for most Americans to visit foreign lands is to watch travel destination videos, surf the internet, or derive vicarious pleasure from the travel writings of others. Here is a list of blog entries I composed when my wife and I traveled to Cuba in 2012.

I hope you enjoy these stories and photos and we’re looking to going back to Cuba someday to see more of the country.

Here is a collage of some of the photos of Cuba I took and you will see if your read my posts on our 10-day Cuban trip.

To Follow Our Cuban Trip in Chronological Order

Farewell to Cuba

February 20
Dateline: Havana Airport

We returned to the Havana airport to await the arrival of the charter jet that would take us back to the United States. The airport was symbolic of much of what I had found in my 10 days in Cuba. It  was called Jose Marti International. But as I looked out the window in front of me, there was not a plane to be seen. There was only one exit gate, which led out to a pitted tarmac, where we would walk to board the plane that would take off from the airport’s lone runway.

As we had on our arrival, we easily passed through security. After 50 years of reading about Cuba, I had expected visible signs of a police state. The reality was that we would find much more intrusive security screening in one day of D. C. than we had the entire time we had spent in Havana. I could have brought my iPhone; I could have brought my iPad; I could have brought my iAnything. But, to be honest, I was glad I hadn’t. Without my electronics, my travels over the past 10 days somehow seemed more authentic.

The large screen TVs that I had been surprised to find were still at the airport. But the pictures on the screen often faded to fuzzy blurs. That about sums up the state of 21st century technology on the island. It sometimes appeared to be there, but really it wasn’t. The internet at our hotel was painfully slow. Our adopted-for-this-trip daughter Traci had told us she spent two hours one night trying to connect by phone to her boyfriend in California. I wondered how much time we had spent waiting for elevators that never arrived.  Probably much less than all those Cubans in long lines who waited patiently for the buses than ran irregularly when they ran at all.

But what the island lacked in modernity, it more than made up for with simple charm, a commodity long missing from the hustle-bustle pace of much of today’s America. Life in Cuba, even in the large city of Havana, was slower. Much slower. With transportation options limited, people walked more. Without headphones and iPhones, they talked more. It appeared they valued art more, whether that art involved painting or dancing or music. Devoid of the games and gadgets that drive us into solitary isolation, they were more social, more outgoing, indeed more friendly. Provided with a cup of strong Cuban coffee and possibly a cigar, they were ready for hours of chat. As an educator, I kept coming back to one astounding statistic. In a country plagued by shortages and deprivations and hardships, 99 percent of the people were literate. America might have the books, the glossy magazines, the Kindles, and the computers, but Cuba had the readers, even though much of the limited reading material they had access to was dry and dated.

As we continued waiting for the plane, I focused my reflection on two people: one whose presence was everywhere, but whom I had never met and the other, much less famous, but whom I had come to know quite well in 10 days.

The first was Fidel Castro. It’s almost impossible to imagine a Cuba without Castro. But even El Jeffe can’t last forever. He has outlived all the other famous figures of the 1960s, Kennedy, Kruschev, Ho Chi Minh, Mao. The Beatles have broken up and the Berlin Wall has fallen, but Castro’s heart still beats, no matter how faintly. He has given most of his power to his younger brother, 81-year-old Raul. Rumors periodically circulate that he is dead, but then Fidel makes a brief appearance to dispel those reports. He may be failing and no longer able to deliver his fiery five-hour speeches, but he is still a force.

So what will happen when Fidel dies? The answer is cliched, but true. Your guess is as good as mine. Ten days in a country doesn’t make you a political expert, a fact even more true if the country being analyzed is as unique and enigmatic as Cuba. The only certainty is that a post-Fidel Cuba will be different. My guess is it will be more open. With Fidel gone, I would hope the United States would drop its senseless embargo (if it doesn’t do so sooner) and open complete relations with Cuba. But, as we all know, change is not always good. Cuba will gain, but it will also lose.

Remember it was its last encounter with America’s preoccupation with power and greed that led Fidel and his revolutionary brothers to take up arms. And then there was that disturbing question that Tom Miller had posed earlier: Can you imagine Spring Break Havana or Girls Gone Wild, Cuban-edition?

But if Fidel represents the past, the other figure in my reflections, our local guide Luis, stands for Cuba’s  future. Like all younger Cubans, he doesn’t remember anything about the pre-Revolutionary days. He wasn’t alive then.  As a well-educated guide and translator, he knows much more about the world outside of the isolated island than most of his countrymen. He knows there are benefits to his home, but he believes there are great benefits at other places, too.  And he wants a chance to see those other places for himself.  He was offered an opportunity to join the Socialist party, but turned it down. (That was another big surprise to me. I naively assumed that the entire population was Communist, but only about 10 percent of the people at any time actually belong to the Party.).

 “It will never be offered to me again,” he says. “But I believe change is coming. I believe that one day soon I will be able to come to D.C. and you and Judy can show me around. I would like that; I would like that very much.”

Finally, our plane arrived. As we walked toward the jet, I turned for a last look. Whenever Judy and I travel, we put the places we visit in one of two categories. The first we call been-there, done-that. We may  have loved the place or we may have hated it, but if we didn’t feel a need to visit again, it goes there along with Scotland, the South Sea Islands, Monaco, Malyasia, and the rest.

The other category we call we’ll-be-back. Not surprisingly, many of my places to revisit are cities. Barcelona, Bangkok, Bejing. Judy’s usually displays a more natural setting: Africa, Ireland, Italy. So where would we place Cuba? We have other places to visit, but we were certain we would return to Cuba. And it wouldn’t (indeed, it couldn’t, since I doubted I would have enough travel mobility at 109) take me 50 years for a 2nd visit.

Obviously, I found a different Cuba than the one my father and mother frequented 50 years ago. But in some ways – cars and customs, architecture and artifacts – it was almost the same, an island, as Tom Miller termed it, “frozen in  time”.

Relying on his Texas roots, my Dad had a saying whenever he planned to go back to something. “Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise, I’ll be back.” When it comes to Cuba, that sounds about right.

To Follow Our Cuban Trip in Chronological Order