Time to Take the “Extra” Out of Extracurriculars

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My 10-year-old daughter came home from school weeping a few weeks ago. Of course, as any parent would, my head went to the worst possibilities: are you hurt? who was mean to you? how can I fix this?

It turned out to be pretty minor. She wanted to join Strings Club at her school, but it costs $200 a year. To a kid who counts a lemonade stand as top earning potential, it was an amount that seemed insurmountable. As she’s explaining why she was so sad, she wailed, “Why does everything have to cost money?”

She’s a bit young for economic theory, but I was relieved that this was an easy fix – in fact, I was super excited. My kid is interested in playing music, and it is only $200 a year!

As the weeks passed, however, that moment has haunted me. For some families, getting their kids to something like a Strings Club would be insurmountable. The cost of the instrument, the freedom to leave work and pick up your kid after, and the time to remind her to practice all amount to more than $200, especially when you already spent the evening making sure everyone was fed and homework was done.

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One more thing, one more dollar – insurmountable is relative.

How to Fix a Broken System

Here’s the thing – the U.S. is working with a broken education system, but we still expect to be a world power. We can’t pay our teachers (who are often paying for supplies out of their own salaries), the testing we were sure would save us has caused more anxiety than solution, and kids often just don’t want to go. In the meantime, we’re stripping schools of music and art programs – or making kids pay for them – in a misguided effort to save money and make education better.

It’s a crazy hamster wheel we’re on – the very thing we are pulling from our kids is what science tells us makes them better thinkers and scholars: music, sports, and a willingness to learn. Unfortunately, it’s easy to squash a kid’s desire to learn – take away the things that make them happy (Art class, P.E., Music), and learning becomes a dreaded necessity rather than a joy.

My family is lucky; we live in an area that still supports the arts in school and has strong national rankings. We have teachers, dedicated to their classrooms, who ensure each child gets the attention he or she needs. This town is also proof that the answer isn’t just in finances – Marquette isn’t a wealthy district with an excess of funds, but it’s a town that cares about the arts.

Science-Backed Evidence – When Need to Change Our Thinking

My daughter cried because she believed art was out of her reach. I was happy to explain it to her, and now she’s excited about playing the violin. If my fairly-middle-class life makes my child afraid of missing music because of money, what does that mean for kids in poorer districts? What does it mean for families who can’t make the logistics of “extra” fit into their lives? Here’s a heartbreaking thought – they don’t go home and cry about it; they know it’s something that could never be on the table for them – it’s truly insurmountable.

There’s an easy answer – and it looks like it can be had for around $200 a year. When we’re looking over millages on election day, consider what a small amount of money can do for not just a school but for our society. It wouldn’t take much to get our kids the “extra” things they need – once we start believing that they aren’t just “extra.” It will mean we need to change how we think about education, and that might be the biggest leap. When we change how we think about these “extracurriculars” and treat them as essentials, our kids will do better and be happier.

 

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Mean Girls, Stranger Things, and Friendships

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“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?”  Gordie, Stand by Me (1986)

I moved a lot as a kid – from Alabama to Texas in 1st grade, from Texas back to Alabama in 2nd, and from Alabama to Georgia in 3rd – and that’s just the beginning. One of my most significant moves was when I transferred in the middle of my 7th grade year from a tiny town in Georgia to the big city of Atlanta.

Here’s a day I will never forget. I walked into the class to face a room full of 12 – 13-year olds – by anyone’s account, the scariest creatures to roam the earth. I scanned those faces and found one looking straight at me. She was beautiful — her hair just the right amount of 80s volume, her blouse a shade of pale pink, and her features perfectly proportioned. She turned and whispered to her squad with a sliver of a smile on her face.

I was terrified.

That fear was heightened when she walked up to me at recess, her posse trailing behind her like a promise. If you’ve watched any movies in the last twenty years, you can imagine what happens next: she looks me up and down, says “What are you wearing?” while the cruel snicker of the other girls trails off behind her.

But that movie cliche, which I fully expected and had stelled myself for, didn’t play out that day. Instead, she turned to me and said, “Hey, I’m Joanna.” Nice as she could be. She then introduced me to every girl behind her. “We were wondering if you wanted to sit with us at lunch?”

And that’s the difference between film and the real world. Joanna and I became fast friends and are friends to this day. Here’s a shot of us then:

Alisa and Joanna

Yes, she was popular because she was (and is) beautiful, but she was also warm, kind, and a great friend.

The Real Truth About Girl Friendships

Sure, I’ve run into a few Regina Georges, but they are a tiny speck in a sea Romy and Micheles. Why then do movies and tv shows always pit girls against girls? Why are girls always fighting over boys? (Even in my most knock-down, drag-out friend fights, none of them were over boys). It’s unfair to girls who grow up expecting fraught female relationships. Sometimes I think they cultivate those relationships because that’s what they see on tv: “I should be angry at Beth because the boy I like is talking to her.” My best guess is that this happens because most of the people scripting the stories are men. Not that they manufacture these tensions with some devious intent; it’s just a narrative they’ve seen before, so they retread it and offer it up for the requisite tension most American narratives rely on.

A Small Spoiler (so Go Finish Stranger Things and Come Right Back)

Consider the second season of Stranger Things, for example, and the meeting between Max and Eleven. Every one of us love both of these girls. They are both tough, headstrong, independent, and smart. So, when the normally reticent Max offers her hand (just like sweet Joanna might’ve) to Eleven, it is devastating when Eleven turns away, cruelly ignoring Max’s brave gesture. We are supposed to believe this rejection is the result of jealousy — Eleven sees Max and her beau Mike having a moment, a beautiful, but very innocent interaction. It’s nothing that would drive a girl away from her first potential female friend.

I can’t express my disappointment in seeing Eleven turn away from Max, but more than that, I can’t express how unrealistic it is.

Duffer Brothers – you can do better.

As I told my 14-year-old daughter, the moment when Eleven rejects Max isn’t real, but this one is:

It’s familiar to my kid; she and her best friends have spent hours doing the same, trying to perfect the same song (Thanks, Pitch Perfect).

Retire a Tired Plot Device

When I was growing up, there were a lot of movies about friendships among boys. The Goonies, Stand by Me, The Lost Boys, The NeverEnding Story, and even Ghostbusters are all films about boys and their pals. Stranger Things is created in that vein, but it’s a 2017-take, and the boys have added a girl or two. That’s cool, but let’s stop the plot device of catty and jealous girls – it’s not my life, and it’s not the life of the girls I know.

When you write a girl into the squad, get it right.

 

 

5 Great Reads for Middle School Girls – and Their Brothers

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After slogging through The Lord of the Flies and A Separate Peace, middle school girls deserve books that put them center stage. While schools are getting better at varying some of the subject matter, girls as narrators or protagonists are still fairly rare. And when we do find them, they aren’t nearly as fun as the adventure stories that keep showing up on the bookshelves for boys.

Keep girl readers reading with these unique finds that your 9 – 13-year-old will love. Take a peek at our list of books with strong female characters.

  1. Trixie Belden and The Secret of the Mansion by Julie Campbell. Try not to judge Trixie by her name, which is much cuter than the self-possessed 13-year old who roams the pages of this mystery. She’s also much stronger, smarter and more interesting than her Nancy Drew counterpart. Written in 1948, this novel began a long series with several writers, and the early ones are surprisingly progressive for the time they were written. In fact, there is fan fiction still being written for the Trixie Belden series.
  1. The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich. A National Book Award finalist, this novel is set in 1847 and is told from the point of view of Omakayas, a young Ojibwa girl who has been adopted by a family of fur traders. Despite the often difficult conditions of her life, she remains calm and pensive but is still a girl with fire inside. Erdrich writes serious fiction for adults as well, so don’t expect the grittiness of frontier life to be watered-down for the kid-set. This is a historical tale as well as one girl’s incredible story. Set near Lake Superior, this is a must-read for any kid who lives in the upper mid-west.
  1. Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage. A winner of the Newberry Honor Award, An Edgar Award Finalist and an E.B. White Read-Aloud Honor Book, this book has gotten a lot of praise from critics and readers. One of the most compelling aspects of this book is the unique relationship the main character, Mo LoBeau, and her sidekick, Dale, share. While on the surface this is a compelling mystery, it’s also a study in family and friendship, and the deeper mysteries that surround those ties.
  1. Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter by Astrid Lindgren. I’m confounded as to how Pippy Longstocking invaded our culture, but not the more strident rebel, Ronia. Ronia is the only child of Matt the robber, who, together with Matt’s band of robbers, live in a castle in the woods. This is a captivating story about the complex relationship between fathers and their strong-willed daughters. Amazon Prime just released an adaptation created by Studio Ghibli, which was famously founded by Hayao Miyazaki. I haven’t watched it yet, but I’m excited about it.
  1. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. This novel’s protagonist, Miranda, is a latch-key kid who is helping her hardworking mother get onto the gameshow, The 10,000 Pyramid. Set in the 1970s with beautiful nods to Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time, this book surpasses its inspiration. Buy it for your middle-schooler, and read it while she’s away during the day, because this Newberry Winner is equally satisfying to adults who appreciate a bit of magic and redemption in their life.

What did we leave out? There are plenty out there. Let us know which books we should include on our next list, or find us on Facebook to stick up for Pippi Longstocking or L’Engle’s master opus.

 

 

 

 

How to Sit Better – And Why It’s Okay to Dump the Standing Desk

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How long did your standing desk last? Mine was about a week. And here’s the thing, research is suggesting that whether you sit or stand, what matters most is that you are doing it with the right posture.

Office work has always required a lot of sitting, but in today’s digital landscape, it’s harder to escape the screen than the piles of paperwork from decades ago. If you’re like me, instead of moving away from your desk when you need a break, you take a look at what your friends are up to on Facebook or whatever’s happening on Twitter. And, I’m not trashing that. There’s a social component to our nature that helps us be happier and more productive, but we also need to remember to move.

Your body needs your blood to circulate and your eyes to rest. Whether you’re working against a deadline or checking how many likes your last post garnered, position your body in a way that will keep it healthier, longer. To keep your body in top form, ensure you maintain proper posture throughout your time in front of the screen.

Consider these tips to keep your body aligned no matter how long your project is – you may even have some energy left to check your feeds before heading out the door.

Protect Your Neck and Spine

Proper alignment means stacking your joints. When you sit, that means making sure your spine is supporting your neck and head. When you stand, your spine should be doing the same thing, but your stomach and butt muscles should be helping it. To ensure you are doing this, place your monitor in such a way that you aren’t straining your neck forward or backward – it should be about an arm’s length away with the top of your screen just below eye level. Adjustable font is the bees’ knees; make sure you keep it large enough to prevent eye strain.

Keep Your Feet Flat

There are a bazillion ways to sit wrong – from dangling toes to too much bend at the knees. When you are doing it right, your feet are flat on the floor (or a footrest) and your knees are at a right angle. Your spine should be straight and should be equally as supportive as the back of your chair. There are many ergonomic items the market will try to sell you on, but a good chair isn’t a gimmick. Find one that naturally supports the curve of your spine and will adjust for various shoe heights.

If you stand at your desk, avoid relying on one side when you get fatigued.

Watch Elbow Alignment

Your elbows should stay tucked into your sides while you type or use your mouse. Like your knees, elbows should be at ninety degrees. Some people use wrist pads for support, but remember that those are for brief pauses; you shouldn’t be typing with pads under your wrist. Don’t bend your wrists too far up or down. Bad posture makes your shoulders roll forward. When this happens, it shortens your neck and shoulder muscles, compressing the nerves in your neck and creating issues with your wrists, hands, and fingers – leading to issues with carpel tunnel syndrome.

Stand With Care

Claims that “sitting is the new smoking” have created a sense of panic in many people whose livelihood depends on sitting at a desk. The consequences of inactivity have caused many to jump on the standing desk phenomenon. It sounds like a great idea, but it’s no magic solution – at least it wasn’t for me. The calories you save standing as opposed to sitting are fairly minuscule, and some Danish studies found people who stand for prolonged periods at work suffered more from enlarged veins. If you do stand, rely on your muscles rather than your bones. One way to do that is to keep your core engaged.

And when you aren’t working, make sure you get some exercise.

Pay Attention to the Eyes

Part of a healthy posture is knowing where your head – and therefore your eyes – should be when looking at a screen. Your monitor should be between 16 and 30 inches away from your face for optimal eye care. While we are talking about the eyes, be sure to keep the 20-20-20 rule in mind: for every 20 minutes of screen time, look away for 20 seconds at something 20 feet away.

If you start to get headaches or your eyes feel strained, it might be time to check your glasses. Remember that your eye muscles need breaks, too.

Being Aware of Your Habits Is Half the Battle

Proper physical alignment can transform the discomfort many feel after being behind a desk for hours at a time. Ensure you have the best chair height for your body, plenty of space, and stacked joints for a happy body at the end of a long work week.

Middle Schoolers and Mobile Phones – Tips for Traversing Technology With Your Teen

 

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Last month, a Special Agent from the U.S. Homeland Security Investigations Unit presented at our son’s middle school about the “use, misuse, and consequences” of online sources available to our kids.  Since I also have two college students, our family has already traveled this bumpy technology road, but with its rapidly changing landscape, I am always willing to learn the latest. While it’s true that keeping our children from internet dangers for as long as possible is ideal, it’s also true that this is their world — it’s not going away — and we must learn to help them navigate it.  

Attending the presentation, I was hoping to gather a notebook full of ways to monitor my child’s online behavior but, instead, I got a large dose of what others are doing online in hopes of snaring our kids. Sickening. Here’s my takeaway.

Apps, Apps, and more Apps – The first slide was a list of 11 apps middle schoolers should NOT have on their phones. It included Instagram and Snapchat — probably the two most prevalent apps for middle school social media, so I’m immediately thinking — get real! This was followed by another slide of 11 more apps, followed by another slide of 11 more apps. My mind then wandered to the hundreds of apps being created while I was sitting through the two-hour presentation. Overwhelming.

Here’s a few, though, that do stand out as particularly sketchy and sparked a conversation between me and my middle schooler:

Kik Messenger (or Kik for short) – A free app allowing users to text each other and group chat.  Kik, however, has an unusual level of anonymity attached to it, making it easy for strangers to contact kids.  Since there are other free apps that do the same thing, it seems an unnecessary risk.

ChatRoulette – Just the word ‘Roulette’ raises my eyebrows. And yes, get on the app, and you are randomly connected to strangers around the world.

YikYak – While the creators of this app have removed its anonymity feature, it still connects users based on location, which may be enticing to online predators.

Calculator Apps – Smart phones come with a standard calculator on them, so if you see a second one on your teen’s phone, it’s a red flag. Calculator apps can be used to hide pictures users don’t want anyone to see. The “calculator” opens once the user types in the secret numeric passcode or equation.

Sexting – Sexting, or sending nude photos/sexually suggestive messages on mobile phones, is surprisingly common among teens. What’s not commonly known, however, is the consequences for sexting can be severe. In Michigan, the laws governing sexting fall under child sexually abusive material law. Teens who innocently receive a sext message and keep it on their phone or naively pass it along can be criminally charged.

Video Gaming – Many teens, especially boys, play Xbox or PlayStation with anonymous people online, including adults. The Homeland Security Agent assured this practice was generally ok, but if the user on the other end wants to take the conversation ‘offline’ or move to another mode of connection, like SnapChat, kids should end the game.
We all know that limiting our teen’s phone time, removing screens from their room at night, as well as consistent monitoring, are good ways to stay on top of online behavior.  Nothing, however, beats open communication with our kids about the pros and cons of the wide world of the internet.

The Tragedy of Technology and How We Can Do Better

This may not be the “I hate technology” piece you were expecting.

I don’t hate technology, but I do hate what it’s doing to entertainment.

Does this sound familiar? You’re watching a crime drama and the main character’s phone rings, signaling a murder to a weary detective. You can likely predict every step that follows. An actor talks dumbly into the phone with a brief explication for their partner. Evidence or a break in the case? Looks like another reason to watch someone else call or text. If I wanted to watch someone on a phone, I could just hang out with teenagers where there’s free Wi-Fi. I expect more from television and movies.

Characters and their smartphones – it’s already a tired trope. Every phone call or text is the same, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a drama, comedy, or mystery. In modern entertainment, the phone is used as a transition device; it moves the story, but it leaves out the audience. I think it’s a lazy way to entertain, and I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Maybe worse than that, though, it’s distracting. I always wind up thinking about the actor having to pretend to hear someone on the other end. And trust me, no one on TV today is Bob Newhart talking on the phone.

Shows That Make Tech Work

There are some shows that leverage technology so that it actually works inside the fiction. We don’t feel left out of the conversation; there’s no crime lab or sobbing sister we must imagine talking to the main character at the other end of the line. Think about PBS’s Sherlock. It’s already got a lot going for it – a dynamic Sherlock, a perfect Watson, and great writing. But consider how it includes the audience in its use of technology – we see excerpts from Watson’s blog, we’re allowed access to clever messages that contribute to the story, and who can forget Irene Adler’s text notification? Phones and devices aren’t transitions for the story, they’re part of the story.

Another show that gets it right is BBC’s Orphan Black. It may be a bit guilty of the charges I laid out earlier, but phones, computers, and other devices are crucial to the plot. Despite this reliance, the story doesn’t need them to tell the tale. Instead, technology is used for character development. Phone cases and ring tones are insight into the characters. I guess when one woman plays at least nine characters, every little bit helps. The original clone phones from season one? Without the show laying it out for us, we can guess those must have been a contribution from Alison – who else has the finances to buy a bunch of smartphones, and who else would buy them in pink?

Here’s the thing – technology isn’t going away. A TV show, YouTube video, or movie where someone doesn’t have a device of some sort would be strange, almost anachronistic. I just hope those writing the shows get better at using technology to further the story – or not; there are plenty of times when it makes sense that no one is checking their phones. In the case of both Sherlock and Orphan Black, the creators have written the story so that technology isn’t the same tired trope. I hope that’s a transition other movies and shows will follow.

Tech as the Story

But there is a further step. Consider Jordan Peele’s game-changer, Get Out. If you haven’t seen it, I’m not going to ruin it here, but I do think you should stop reading this right now and watch it. Unlike other films where the protagonists are young adults, the main characters aren’t obsessed with their phones.  Sure, they have smartphones, but their smartphones don’t take up TIME in the story. They do, however, take up space – important cultural space.

First, someone mysteriously keeps unplugging the main character’s cell phone. If you’ve seen the movie, consider how unplugging his phone is a tidy metaphor for what could’ve happened to Chris.

But Peele doesn’t leave it there. When he uses smartphones in this movie, he is bringing the last few decades of publicized smartphone footage with him. Consider how certain people in this film get woke by that smartphone camera’s flash, and consider how that same device is causing the rest of us to wake up to a truth that’s been invisible to many for many years.

Don’t Hate on Tech

Nearly every parent I know is concerned about their kid’s device, and those without kids seem equally concerned. As a predictor of the future, it makes sense that we are careful with how kids use their smartphones and iPads. Most of what I hear about our interactions with technology, and smartphones in particular, is extremely negative. We have a tendency to “back in my day” kids, but, because this is like nothing that has happened in our culture before, there seems to be an extra ounce of angst.

It’s easy to gloss over the good and focus on the bad, but, from what I’ve seen, there’s lots to like. My teen daughter understands the world better because of her device – she follows politics and finds ways to make homemade lip balm. She still reads and plays sports and gets excited about Target trips.

Like movies and TV, though, we can do better. We don’t have to rely on our phones to tell our story – whether we are 14 or 42. Use it to get woke, and fall asleep reading.

 

The Fairy Tale of March

March Madness

Because regular season NCAA Basketball games account for such a small percentage of the overall sports market, it’s at least curious that the NCAA Basketball Tournament is widely regarded as the most popular sporting event of the year.

As a sports marketing event, the NCAA Division 1 Men’s basketball tournament is in the Major Leagues, alongside the Super Bowl, the World Cup and the Olympics. When the 68 team fields for the NCAA Basketball Championship were announced on March 12th this year, it marked the commencement of two-week long event known as March Madness.

Part of the success of the tournament, which began getting widespread television coverage in 1982, resulted from the unexpected national championship runs of teams like North Carolina State. In 1983, NC State won the National Championship against extraordinary odds. It was around that time that NC State, and teams like them, began to be widely referred to as “Cinderella” teams.

The Appropriation of a Fairy Tale

Why Cinderella? Why have sports commentators insisted for more than thirty years on describing and hyping the NCAA Basketball tournament by appropriating a princess fairy tale?

For starters, both are “rags-to-riches” stories. For many basketball players, the Big Dance is the best – and sometimes last – opportunity to “debut” their skills to the scouts in the stands. There is a similar desperation in the tale of Cinderella, who has one chance to shine and claim her dream. Unlikely as it seems, she does it. She gets a new job and a really big house. Likewise, if they’re skilled and fortunate enough, so do the ballers.

It’s also true both are stories of great passion. If you haven’t watched the NCAA Tourney, you haven’t felt the NCAA Tourney. With the possible exception of the World Cup, there is no sporting event that produces more passion from both its participants and its audience. There’s certainly no event that brings human beings to tears of joy and heartache as frequently and insistently as the Big Dance does.

Basketballs and Dancing Balls

If you aren’t familiar with some of the Cinderella-myth language commonly used around the tournament, here is a rough idea. If yours is one of the fortunate teams to make the tournament, you have been granted an “invitation” to “The Big Dance.”

“March Madness” designates the temporal enthusiasm that weds the tournament to Spring and is mostly a marketing pitch for the sales of beer and food, but the tournament itself is called “The Big Dance” about as frequently as it is called the NCAA Basketball Tournament.

“The Big Dance” is a kind of nickname for the “Royal Ball” that Cinderella teams are invited to each Spring. And because Cinderella is a “debutant” myth, a word frequently used to describe teams as well as individual players, if you do well enough at “The Big Dance” to make it to the quarterfinals, you reach the “Sweet Sixteen.”

The “Sweet Sixteen” party, like the debutant party of social circles that introduces a young woman into datable society, springs from the “coming of age” or “coming out” tales like Cinderella. Maybe it’s because the “Sweet Sixteen” round is the halfway mark of the tournament that it gets so much attention, but this round is referenced more than any other point in the two-week long affair. Such is the power of language and myth. Teams are very often satisfied to have reached the “Sweet Sixteen.”

There are countless other phrases turned in honor of this most famous of fairy tales. Over the years, I have heard “stroke of midnight,” “teams on their dance card, “dropped the slipper,” “fairy godmother” and “fairy godfather,” and “turned into a pumpkin” to describe what’s happening on a basketball court.

More Grace Than Madness

The graceful, synchronized movement of a basketball team in a room with a ball suspended in the air is the stuff of fairy tales. It’s also the stuff of Junior Proms. It’s a story that’s familiar to us, and it’s one we retell because we need it. It takes us back, girls and boys, women and men, to that brief flare of our own lives during which we transcended the world’s expectations of us.

So, when a Cinderella team from the east goes from anonymity to office pool fame in one night, just before midnight, we get it. We get the move from sports to romance, from basketball to myth. It is a leap, to be sure, but a slam dunk of an experience for all of us who invest in it each year, to all of us who fill out our brackets and wait to see if our hearts break or soar.

Mardi Gras, King Cakes and Authenticity

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Let’s say your business isn’t located in New Orleans, LA or Mobile, AL. It may not even be below the Mason-Dixon line. Location shouldn’t stop you – or your business – from enjoying Mardi Gras, translated from the French as Fat Tuesday. It’s celebration dating back to Medieval Europe for the day before Ash Wednesday.

Mardi Gras is a day of revelry that occurs before many people begin 40 days of sacrifice. Tuesday’s celebration can be fun for you, and it could be a boon to your business.

Consider the Marquette, Michigan bakery, The Huron Mountain Bakery. Located about as north as you can get and still be in the U.S., the bakery yearly celebrates Mardi Gras by serving some of the best paczkis in the state and creating scrumptious king cakes. For an area where most of the citizens have never strolled down Bourbon Street, the bakery gives people a reason to celebrate.

Create a Shared Experience

Here’s something to takeaway – when you give consumers a reason to have fun with a purchase, they will. It doesn’t have to be Mardi Gras. Businesses have been working President’s Day and Valentine’s Day in this way for decades, but, at this point, it feels like a gimmick. So, what does Huron Mountain Bakery do on Mardi Gras that’s different than what every other business does on St. Patrick’s Day?

They make it a shared experience, not a reason to buy something. Across this small city, families come together to eat a piece of brightly-colored cake, hoping it’s the one with the Baby Jesus hiding in it. No one feels like green, purple and gold is being pushed down their throats, forcing them to make a purchase. In fact, if someone hadn’t been jonesing for a loaf of fresh baked bread or a doughnut in February, you might not even know those Mardi Gras treats were there.

On Beyond Fat Tuesday

The way this bakery has celebrated Mardi Gras is fun, and they’ve made it a natural part of their business. It’s unique to this place, but what sells your business doesn’t have to be the same thing as a bakery.

Leverage a fun activity to boost your business – just make sure it matters to you. Don’t fight for Valentine’s Day dollars if you own a clothing store – it will feel inauthentic. And authenticity is the trick to creating a loyal customer base.

Set yourself apart. A pizza restaurant may want to celebrate Floral Design Day by making pizza toppings in the shape of favorite flowers. What matters isn’t what a business does, but that they care about it. When they create an experience, people will pay to be a part of it.

Businesses that marry some shared authentic experience with their product or service will organically create a better experience for their customers. And a better experience means more traffic. No one wants to patronize a company, but they do like to patronize people. When you share something that matters to you, it personalizes your businesses and becomes a place where people want to go.

Let the good times roll, and embrace what makes your business unique.

5 Great Reads for Middle School Girls – and Their Brothers

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After slogging through The Lord of the Flies and A Separate Peace, middle school girls deserve books that put them center stage. While schools are getting better at varying some of the subject matter, girls as narrators or protagonists are still fairly rare. And when we do find them, they aren’t nearly as fun as the adventure stories that keep showing up on the bookshelves for boys.

Keep girl readers reading with these unique finds that your 9 – 13-year-old will love. Take a peek at our list of books with strong female characters.

  1. Trixie Belden and The Secret of the Mansion by Julie Campbell. Try not to judge Trixie by her name, which is much cuter than the self-possessed 13-year old who roams the pages of this mystery. She’s also much stronger, smarter and more interesting than her Nancy Drew counterpart. Written in 1948, this novel began a long series with several writers, and the early ones are surprisingly progressive for the time they were written. In fact, there is fan fiction still being written for the Trixie Belden series.
  1. The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich. A National Book Award finalist, this novel is set in 1847 and is told from the point of view of Omakayas, a young Ojibwa girl who has been adopted by a family of fur traders. Despite the often difficult conditions of her life, she remains calm and pensive but is still a girl with fire inside. Erdrich writes serious fiction for adults as well, so don’t expect the grittiness of frontier life to be watered-down for the kid-set. This is a historical tale as well as one girl’s incredible story. Set near Lake Superior, this is a must-read for any kid who lives in the upper mid-west.
  1. Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage. A winner of the Newberry Honor Award, An Edgar Award Finalist and an E.B. White Read-Aloud Honor Book, this book has gotten a lot of praise from critics and readers. One of the most compelling aspects of this book is the unique relationship the main character, Mo LoBeau, and her sidekick, Dale, share. While on the surface this is a compelling mystery, it’s also a study in family and friendship, and the deeper mysteries that surround those ties.
  1. Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter by Astrid Lindgren. I’m confounded as to how Pippy Longstocking invaded our culture, but not the more strident rebel, Ronia. Ronia is the only child of Matt the robber, who, together with Matt’s band of robbers, live in a castle in the woods. This is a captivating story about the complex relationship between fathers and their strong-willed daughters. Amazon Prime just released an adaptation created by Studio Ghibli, which was famously founded by Hayao Miyazaki. I haven’t watched it yet, but I’m excited about it.
  1. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. This novel’s protagonist, Miranda, is a latch-key kid who is helping her hardworking mother get onto the gameshow, The 10,000 Pyramid. Set in the 1970s with beautiful nods to Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time, this book surpasses its inspiration. Buy it for your middle-schooler, and read it while she’s away during the day, because this Newberry Winner is equally satisfying to adults who appreciate a bit of magic and redemption in their life.

What did we leave out? There are plenty out there. Let us know which books we should include on our next list, or find us on Facebook to stick up for Pippi Longstocking or L’Engle’s master opus.