Sunday, December 26, 2010

How to Make Christmas More Memorable than Ever

How to Make Christmas More Memorable than Ever
without Spending any more than you had planned

This year my 8 year old daughter asked for many things but several of them were “spy” related (walkie talkies, secret book safe, etc.). Other items on the list could also be grouped into the “spy” category even though they were not really espionage items per se (lap top computer, camera, etc.)

So this year I decided to incorporate two important psychological principles into our Christmas ritual. The first was the fact that children have a better time remembering and recalling events that are unique rather than comprehensive. That is, a child will remember the year they had the firetruck birthday cake and visited the fire house on their birthday MORE than they will remember any of the string of five birthdays where they had a moon bounce and a pinata. The idea is to create a “theme” so that the child has an emotional hook upon which to hang their memories.

The second principle we tapped into this Christmas was the idea that a big build up deserves a big finish. Weeks of hype leading up to Christmas can only lead to let down when all the gifts are opened in less than 30 minutes.

But how do you prolong the opening of the gifts?

The idea came to me when I realized that my daughter wanted spy related gifts. So I'll share with you what I did. This plays well with a spy theme, but can easily be applied to any childhood holiday theme. Think treasure hunt meets Amazing Race. Here's how our morning unfolded.

At 4:25 my daughter woke us up to open gifts. She asked for some spy gear and a notebook among a few other gifts. Under the tree there was a pink spiral notebook and an invisible ink pen. That's it. Nothing else. Some gifts from grandparents wrapped off to the side, a stocking of fruit and candy, and a notebook and pen. Rather anti-climactic, eh? She's not upset, but she knows something is up. She insists that we open a gift from her and we do. Then she flips through the notebook and discovers a page with symbols on it. She recognizes it as a cipher from a book on codes and ciphers I gave her for her birthday last May.

She has to remember about the book, find it, then decipher the message. When she does it reads: “Look in the big brown treasure chest”. I was actually surprised at how long she searched the house before realizing that our coffee table is in fact, a big, brown chest. She opened it to find a single walkie-talkie and a manual.

"What good is ONE walkie-talkie?" she asks.

"Exactly!" I say. But she doesn't get the clue and decides to abandon the trail and check her stocking for more gifts. She finds a few little things, some fruit, a few mechanical pencils. Not much. A dead end. So she flips through the notebook again, then looks at the walkie talkie and begins thinking.

"There's got to be another walkie talkie…" she says thinking out loud. "Wait! I could talk into this one and hear where the other one is!"

This is not exactly the outcome I had hoped for. I wanted her to read the manual, learn to use the "Call" function and use that to locate the other walkie-talkie. But I like solutions to problems and all of us enjoyed seeing her creatively solve each level of the mystery all by herself. It was very empowering to her. Using her method she was able to track the other walkie talkie to its location in the guest bedroom. It was sitting on a charger on top of a box with a bow on it and her name in big bold letters.

She found the walkie talkie but was so focused on finding it, she didn't even see the package. Instead she looked at us. "Now what?"

I shrugged and asked "Have you noticed any patterns?"

She thought deeply. "Um…each present sort of leads to the next one."
"Yes, so…"

"So these walkie-talkies should lead me to the next present?"

"Maybe they already did."

"Huh?" Then she began looking around and laughed when she saw the gift literally under her arm. "Oh my gosh! I can't believe I didn't even see it! I am going to have to keep my eyes open better!"

She opened the box to discover a lap top computer! (one of the items on her list and since it was refurbished it cost less than $200). She was ecstatic. She doesn't notice or care that it is refurbished. She gets the power cord, plugs it in and opens it up. We sort of expected her to watch streaming Netflix (which she does instead of television) but by this time she knew there was probably another gift waiting if she could find the clue the laptop represented.

She opened the computer, found a folder on the desktop with her name on it, opened it to find a folder labeled "Spy Stuff". She opened that to find a photo clue. It was a spread of groceries on our kitchen counter with the caption "Something is wrong with this picture".

Again, I thought it would take her some time to figure it out, but it was less than two minutes before she said "We don't eat THAT brand of food item! I gotta find it!" and she ran for the kitchen pantry.

In the pantry she found the jar, opened it to discover it was a secret hiding place. Yes, I visited a “head shop” and bought my 8-year-old an item that most people use to hide illicit items. I suppose that when she's in college she'll recognize what she got, but I hope she doesn't figure it out BEFORE then. Right now it is “spy equipment” not “drug paraphernalia”.

She opened the container (that will remain unidentified so that she can effectively use it to hide espionage data from my Facebook friends and blog readers and possibly pot from her RAs once she goes to college) to discover a USB SD card reader and an encrypted message. The message says “Use code #11” and so she pulls out her birthday code book to begin deciphering the message.

She spent about 5 minutes deciphering the message which told her to check in the ottoman for the next gift. She wasn't sure what an "ottoman" was so she got on her computer and did a Google search.

She figures it out and she finds a digital camera (one of the big items on her list) that we have had for years. We recently bought a new one and even more recently upgraded our cell phones to machines that have better cameras than any that we own. So we were happy to give her an old, used, digital camera with all the accessories. And she was ecstatic to have it and use it.

Again, we thought she would begin taking pictures with it and get sidetracked for a while, but by this time she recognized the pattern: "one gift leads to the next". So she almost instantly says "Can you show me how to look at the pictures that are already on here. I'll bet there are some clues." And of course there were. A string of pictures that were a sort of visual map leading to a single CD on a spindle in the office. The CD was homemade and labeled "Lady Gaga Music".

"I'll bet there's not even any music on this thing" she said and I thought, She's going to get through this whole thing in less time than it took me to set it up!

"Dad, can I put this in the CD drive in my computer?"

"Yes." She did and sure enough, there was no music, only a text file that explained about fonts and how to change them. There was then a sample of various fonts including a very long passage written in a font of symbols which made it totally unreadable. So she re-read the instructions on how to change fonts, did so and was able to read the passage.

The passage was a set of instructions about how an SD card can be used to store more than just pictures from a camera. It can also be used to store documents, movies, and other computer files. It went on to tell her that there were hidden files on the SD card in her camera and that she was going to have to use the SD card reader to access them.

So she excitedly got three of her previous gifts (lap top, camera, SD card reader) and used them together to find THIS video:

After laughing hysterically at her crazy dad and the lengths he'll go to, she ran to the library, located the giant book safe and withdrew the next gift along with another message (not enciphered this time!). The gift was a craft project (she LOVES crafts) to build a book safe. The note said to look for a book gift in the library.

"There's a million books in this room! How will I know which one it is?"

"What do gifts normally look like?" I ask

"Wrapped in paper."

"Okay." And in less than 4 minutes she found a book wrapped in Christmas paper. She ripped it open to find a copy of "Harriet the Spy", the story of a young girl who wants to be a spy and writes her thoughts down in a notebook. "This is just like ME!" she says.

Now, for some reason, at this point she sort of dropped the ball. She set the book down and decided to begin playing with some of her stuff. Don't get me wrong, her and her mother had been communicating everything through the walkie talkies all morning even though they never left each other's side. But now this was different. She had reached a point where she just paused for a while. She didn't want or need any other presents just yet. She wanted to go back and absorb what had happened so far. And with good reason. At this point she had been awake solving mysteries, deciphering messages, and finding hidden presents for more than two hours straight.

Annie started to prod her and I gave her a look that said "NO!" We had a pact to let this unfold naturally. And it did. After about a 15 minute "rest" she came to us and wondered out loud if there were any other presents. Then she announced that she was going to start looking for any more. Five minutes of random searching led me to ask her "How did you find the other gifts?"

"Oh, yeah…each one leads to the next. What was my last present?" She rushed back to the book, flipped through it three times before finding the folded note inside. It was coded in an interesting way. Each word in the note was a string of 3 numbers. The first is a page number, the second is a line number, and the third is the number of the word on that line. So I had to go through and find all the words in my next clue INSIDE the book in order to write the note.

There was no word "pink" in the entire book, but fortunately there was a character named "Pinky" which worked close enough.

It took her just seconds to locate the USB flash drive in the shape of a pink pig that had been hanging on our tree unnoticed for days. She almost immediately realized that the nose came out and knew the USB would fit into her computer.

On the drive was another text file in a strange font. By this time she knew exactly what to do and the next clue told her to check the hall closet for a present wrapped in plain white paper.

She ripped it open to discover a secret agent fingerprint kit. She wondered for about five minutes how she was going to use the fingerprint kit to find her next gift and I realized that she was losing the trail so I cheated a bit. "That's weird that all your gifts were wrapped in Christmas paper except for this one. Just plain old white paper. Normal old regular paper. Nothing special there."

"Wait a minute!" and she ran back to her growing pile of spy gear to get the invisible ink pen that was originally waiting for her under the tree. Using the UV light she flashed it on the shredded wrapper and saw that there was writing on it. So she had to carefully reassemble the pieces and then read that she could find her LAST gift in the garage. It was a remote controlled helicopter that she had wanted.

A little over two and a half hours of active searching before she was able to get down to playing with it all! Of course the search was as much fun or more fun than the toys. More importantly, it created a THEME upon which her memories will hang forever.

There are three Christmases we experience every year (and also 3 birthdays, 3 vacations, etc.). The first is the ANTICIPATION of the event. The planning, the dreaming, the hoping, the list making, the talking about it all with friends and family, marking days of the calendar, etc. This buildup is powerful before any major event, but it seems that when it comes to Christmas it has been really blown way out of proportion. That's not good or bad, but it is important to recognize.

The second holiday is the ACTUAL experience itself. Opening gifts, realizing you got just what you wanted, the delicious treats, the funny coincidences when someone get you the same gift you got them, the tree falling over, the regifting, all the sharing and laughing and joy and disappointment and everything else that comes with experiencing the actual holiday (whether it's Christmas, a vacation, a birthday, or whatever).

Lastly, is the MEMORY of the event. When we look back and recall the funny things that happened, and the joy we felt during the holidays.

The fact is that for most of us, the third holiday (the memory) will be the one that lasts the longest and yet it is often the most neglected. Our brain is just not evolved to remember lists of gifts or specific dates. We do better recalling themes and categorical events. So when you give your holiday a specific and unique theme your brain has a much easier time storing the memories of what happened.

I don't think that the spy chase I created for my daughter increased or decreased her anticipation of the event since she had no awareness of it prior to Christmas morning. I think it probably added a little bit of fun to the event itself. I'll be the first to admit that opening gifts is fun no matter what and putting the gifts into a scavenger hunt sort of gauntlet won't dramatically change any of that. It won't make crummy gifts magically more desireable. It won't make 3 gifts seem like a room full of presents. It won't save you any money or remind anyone of "the true meaning of Christmas" whatever that might mean to you.

All it really does is set up a mental and emotional peg upon which my daughter will be able to hang the memory of this year ("The Spy Christmas"). Twenty years from now she will probably not remember the helicopter, the fingerprint kit, or maybe not ANY of the specific gifts. But she will always remember HOW she found them. She will always remember the chase from one clue to the next. The specific gifts become less important as time goes on and the theme becomes more critical in the remembering process.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Life Shouldn't Be This Good

I spent last week camping in San Antonio while I was doing educational motivational school assembly programs in Northside ISD.

And on an unrelated note, why is Northside ISD on the WEST side of San Antonio while North East ISD is on the NORTH side?

Anyway, I got to spend some more time camping in the new RV and loved not having to run the AC. I actually had to run a little space heater for a few minutes each morning to warm the place up a bit!

I am a morning person, and I am a cold weather person. I even take cold showers from May through October. I'm a polar bear at heart. I love the cold weather and I love being able to camp in it while still getting to do a job I love so much.

I leave tomorrow for a few days in Huntsville ISD and I'll be camping at Huntsville State Park. My family and I have several upcoming trips planned including a short stint at Galveston Island State Park, another trip to Huntsville State Park, a trip to Falcon Lake state park (near Roma, Texas on the Rio Grande River).

All this before the end of the year. We have even more trips planned for the spring and summer.

Maybe we should just sell the house and live in the RV?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Camping With Coyotes

I just spent a week camping in Cedar Hill State Park just outside of the Dallas, Texas metroplex. The park sits on Joe Pool Lake.

I was in this part of Texas doing a week of motivational speaker school assembly programs in Mansfield ISD and Family Literacy Night activities in Fort Worth ISD.

I blogged last month about our new RV and how I was using that instead of staying in a sterile (or NOT so sterile!) hotel room whenever I travelled out of town. Well, this past week was hands down, the BEST week of work I've ever had.

Not just because it was a very busy week (and I LOVE my job!). Not just because my business continues to grow during this recession because I have such loyal clients who continue to hire me and continue to tell others about me. Not just because the kids in the audiences were well-behaved and seemed truly excited about learning.

Yes, all those things are true, but this week, as I stayed in our little RV every night, cooking some meals over the camp fire and others on the stove; as I lay in bed every night with the windows open basking in the glow of the full moon this week; as I listened at night to the howling of the coyotes in the distance and the soft, steady hum of ten thousand chirping crickets while the cool wind drafted in and kept me just cool enough to want to snuggle deeper under the thick blankets on the bed; as I drifted in and out of sleep to various sounds of nature including the lone coyote who ran straight through my camp site at 1:06 AM yelping and barking I knew that somehow I was home. Even though I was hundreds of miles from my house, and hours of driving from my family in a campsite I had never been to before, in a park I had never visited before...I was still at home.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

New Business Travel Strategy

Every year I spend about 80 nights in hotels as I travel around doing educational school assembly programs in Texas. This is great because I rack up lots of hotel points that I can use for vacation with my family.

Unfortunately, my family and I prefer to go camping and stay in cabins rather than hotels. So every vacation we've been on for the past three years I've told her "When I travel for work, I'd rather stay in a campground like THIS than to be in a hotel somewhere; even if it meant I had to drive a little farther each day to get to my school".

So after years of talking about it, we finally decided to bite the bullet and buy an RV. Nothing fancy, mind you. I tow it behind my truck, set it up for the week, then drive the truck back and forth to work each day and return "home" to a familiar bed and beautiful surroundings.

We bought the camper this summer and broke it in on a 3 week vacation to west Texas and southern New Mexico. This week I was in San Antonio and I got to stay at Guadalupe River State Park. There was horrible rain, tropic storm force winds, and a few scattered tornadoes. The river was totally flooded.

The good news is that I had the whole park to myself!

I'll be back next week to San Antonio again, but I'll be trying out a different park. I want to sort of get the feel for some of the places available. I'll keep you posted.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Is there anyone out there?!

I was wondering if anyone ever read blogs any more. I used to spend a lot of time checking out blogs and posted on mine much more frequently than I do now. I had a blog early on (for almost 5 years now!)

But it seems that Facebook and Twitter have taken over the role blogs used to play. Shorter, faster, more interactive, less cumbersom, and easily integrated with the current smart phones.

So, if you are reading this...thank you.

But you might want to also catch me on the "trendier" social networking sites:

Hope to see you there!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Wrapping up another Summer

I still have a few more shows to go before the end of the Summer Reading Club programs in Texas. It has been a great year. Normally I complain regularly to my wife about the heat and humidity, but for some reason it didn't bother me so much this summer. Maybe the A/C in my new truck blows colder than the one in my old truck?

Anyway, the show this year turned out really well. I introduced a new puppet (Nigel, an ape with an English accent). His personality has developed quite nicely and I really like the reactions he gets with audiences.

I'm looking forward to some time off in August and really excited about the new school year.

Most of the summer of 2011 is already booked for our show "Work Smarter" which is a perfect tie in with the theme for Texas Libraries in 2011: Dig up a Good Book.

Monday, June 21, 2010

A Really Short Shadow

Okay, I'm a geek and I know it. I'm proud of it. So here's the deal.

Today is the Summer Solstice--the longest day of the year. The sun is as high overhead as it will ever be today at noon (15 minutes ago since we are talking Solar noon, not Daylight Savings Time).

So I went outside and drew an outline around my feet with sidewalk chalk and then had my wife draw an outline around the shadow my body cast and the shadow was SMALLER than my footprints!

That's cool...if you're a geek.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

New Truck

Well, I finally had to do it. I didn't want to, but after 267,000 miles by old truck just couldn't pass the Harris County emissions inspection required to remain legal to drive.

She still runs great but if I can't legally drive the old pig, I was forced to buy another one.

My family is glad. The old dog was more than ten years old and had been rear-ended so badly two years ago that it was totalled. But the truck still ran so good that I kept pushing it in service thinking I would trade it in when I got to 250,000 miles.

But at 250, she just kept cranking up like she was brand new and running great like she always had.

I've rather enjoyed not having a truck payment these last seven years. I've gotten spoiled, in fact.

But my new ride promises to spoil me in new ways. V-8 (compared to my old V-4) makes for really quick starts when I need them (I never do). A diesel engine provides far more towing power than I'll ever need. I have to mention these engine things because I am a man, but I really appreciate the cabin.

Four doors, leather seats, power everything. This is all new to me. I've been driving a stripped down, bashed-in model for more than a decade. My wife assures me that I deserve it, and I allow myself to enjoy driving now even more than I did before. But I still sometimes feel a little bit out of place in a truck that is almost twice the size of my old faithful.

It will take some time for me to learn where everything is by touch, the way I used to access things in my old truck. But it will come with time. My brother tells me that because diesel engines last much longer than gasoline engines and that because I'm notorious for driving a car until the wheels fall off (the truck BEFORE my last one had 252,000 miles and ran great when I sold it), he's quite sure that this will be the last vehicle I ever own.

That would suit me just fine.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

NOT a choice weight loss system...

I am recovering from some sort of really nasty flu virus. I don't think I've ever been that sick before. You don't need (or want) details, just know it was bad.

But after 6 hours of vilently purging my body of everything I had consumed over the previous 24 hours...followed by 36 hours of virtually uniterrupted sleep, I woke up to realize that I lost 2 days of my life along with 5 pounds.

Trust me, there are better ways to lose weight!