Boys and their Personal Brand

One night, more than 20 years ago, I was sitting at a bar with a friend, who was bemoaning the fact that he didn’t have a girlfriend. One of my favorite guys in the world. Smart. Fun. And truly decent. I remember telling him that he needed to change how he talked about himself.

“Girls don’t want to date a guy who thinks the best thing about himself is how many beers he can drink without throwing up.”

“But…” he smiled in spite of himself.

That night, I described to him how his friends saw him. “That’s what you should be saying too.”

Then last night, my fifteen-year-old had an assignment to fill a box with things that explain who he is, and I was immediately reminded of my friend.

My son filled his box with a Green Bay Packers t-shirt, a candy bar, a shoot ‘em up video game, a ski glove, and a golf ball (although he complains when we ski or golf).

And I thought, this is what you think is interesting about you?

I wish tonight’s follow-up assignment was: ask your mom to refill your box with things she thinks describes who you are. Then, let’s compare.

My box would include a hilarious joke, a souvenir from the Museum of Nature and Science, a photo with his brothers, a Lego Star Wars set, a toy tractor, a challenging math problem, a map, an Italian cookbook, and yes, his Packers t-shirt.

I might slip in a baby photo so everyone could see what a sweet, serious little man he was. Now, a 6-foot version of that, with all the cool things in this box picked up along his way.

Three Guys, Three Styles on Halloween

They are brothers, and so far, great friends. But they are nothing alike in their approach to life. It shows even in their trick-or-treating.

The youngest knew what he wanted to be weeks before Halloween and stuck to his guns (literally, as a soldier). He ran from house to house, hit as many as possible in warp speed, then was ready for home, thrilled to just sit at the kitchen counter and eat Skittles. Done before dark.

Our middle child went off with his friends, but remained goal-oriented. He stopped at home for a bigger bag. He stayed out the latest of the three until, mission completed, he had to shift his candy from shoulder to shoulder, the weight of it all too great for the skinny guy in a skeleton costume.

Our oldest child walked with his friends too, but slowly, conversing like three old men. They debated certain houses. They skipped plenty, as if candy was not the evening’s goal. My son, the headless horseman, waited half-way up the walk at each stop until the door opened, as if the distance was too great without a definite reward. Then the slow walk to the next house, talking, talking, talking. And suddenly, his bag barely half-full, “I’m soooo tired”, he headed home.

And Then There Were Girls

My sixth grader recently stopped insisting that he hates girls. He still rarely mentions them by name. If you ask which girls were on the team or in the class, he says he doesn’t remember. If you say the name of a girl he knows, he either blushes or rolls his eyes.

But on October 30, he went to his first real party. A Halloween party to which his entire grade was invited. Food. Music. Costumes. He said it was fun. He smiled a lot. But he gave no report.

I heard from another mom that as a result of the party, there are now a few who are dating. That night, she went down the list of her son’s friends with him. “Yes. No. No. No.” When she asked him if my son had a girlfriend, he replied, “He’s waiting for high school.”

She said he was wise.

On October 31, the boys went trick-or-treating for hours. Texts flew from cell phone to cell phone, as some of the girls tried to find the boys. And the boys tried to find the girls. When the girls and boys finally met up though, my son headed home.

“Are you okay?” I asked. His trash bag of candy was so heavy he had to keep switching shoulders.

“The girls just walk down the middle of the street talking. They skip houses. If I am not going to get more candy, then what’s the point?”

He doesn’t hate them. He’s just not ready for them – still a little kid who wants as many Kit-Kats and Twix Bars as he can carry. And wise to wait.

The Switch Witch

Apparently, my sisters and I missed out on a very cool visitor when we were kids. Now my kids are missing out too.

According to legend, some very lucky households get visited by the Switch Witch a few days after Halloween.

Why I am only hearing of her now, at 45?!

Some time in the middle of the night, so the legend goes, she shows up, steals all the leftover Halloween candy in the entire house… and switches it for a gift.

The Switch Witch, though a witch and a thief, is not mean. She feels bad about her candy-stealing ways. She just can’t help herself.

So she leaves a present for each child from whom she has stolen – a set of Legos, a doll, a video game, a new basketball, a Broncos jersey – to make up for her wrongdoing. You see, she hates to see a kid cry.

I don’t know much else about her. She could be a twenty-something, granola chick with a dark side who is traveling the world to find herself…and come Halloween, storing up candy for her next year’s trek. She could be hundreds of years old but roam only in Colorado – which might explain my ignorance – because travel by broomstick is tough on her aging butt and back.

I wonder if she’s received travel tips from Santa. Maybe she is his delinquent sister, or the Easter Bunny’s cousin on the lam. Maybe she’s the forgotten daughter of the Wicked Witch of the West with a warped vision of right and wrong. Or Robin Hood’s grand-niece.

I’d like to send her an invitation to our house next Halloween.

Dear Switch Witch,

Please feel free to come by our house the first week of November for years to come. We will leave our candy out and keep the dog in the crate at night. (She’s friendly, but she jumps, and if you are short or elderly, I worry she will knock you over).

We are a family of three boys who love to trick-or-treat, and our neighbors are generous to a fault when it comes to sweets. You will like our house. And the boys won’t cry if you make the Switch Witch switch.

We usually eat all the Reeses on Halloween night anyway.

With respect,
Our Family

The 1970s: When Spelling was Fun

Yesterday, I watched a teacher offer her piano student a piece of candy as a reward for practicing the piano so much the previous week. He had a choice between Starburst and Smarties. The Smarties reminded me of third grade Spelling Bees when I was a kid.

The team who won the Spelling Bee each week would get Smarties for their victory. The team that lost received Dum-Dum lollipops.

[Pause. Wait for reaction from today’s parents.]

We loved it. It heightened the competition, although one, who shall remain nameless, often dreamed of throwing the Bee to get a Dum-Dum, which she preferred.

It didn’t matter. Each week, the teams changed, the spelling list stumped different kids, and we eventually all had our chance to be a Dum-Dum or Smartie.

I told that story to the piano teacher, who laughed, “If you did that today, you’d never hear the end of it!”

Interesting response.

So I told another teacher at another school in a different city.

Same response. “That’s awesome! But I can’t even think about the parent phone calls I’d get! You gave my kid a Dum-Dum?!”

A third said, “I wish I could get away with that today!”

As parents, have we lost our sense of humor? Are our kids that much more sensitive today than we were? Are we too afraid to teach them what competition is all about because they might lose? Or as a third grader in the 70s, did I miss one of my classmates having nightmares and confidence issues because of the Dum-Dums for the losing team?

Today the scenario might go like this: One Friday afternoon after losing the Spelling Bee, my child might get handed a Dum-Dum instead of Smarties. He might come home crying because he interpreted that to mean the teacher thought he was dumb. I might call the principal.

That’s not what happened when I was in third grade. We studied our spelling lists harder so we didn’t let down our team. We had fun. The weaker spellers were always with stronger spellers, and even the weakest speller had a chance to shine, to feel proud because they got a hard one for the team. We adored our teacher. We loved being at school. We rooted for – or against, in that case of the Dum-Dum addict – our team for the week. And we all got candy!

What third grader isn’t happy when they get candy at school?

I know my kids would stop complaining about studying for their Friday spelling tests.

“Do I have to?”

“It’s soooo boring!”

And I guarantee you, my son would want to throw the Bee for a Dum-Dum.

Penny Candy at the General Store

Remember moving slowly down the row of shelves with your small brown paper bag, eyeballing each bin of candy, doing your own math, mouth watering as you thought about each little treasure? Candy necklaces, Ring Pops, Fun Dip, Sweet tarts, long strips of paper with Dots, lemon drops, gummy fish, BB Bats, bags of Pop Rocks, malt balls, gumdrops, jawbreakers and more.

How, when they brought such joy, did Penny Candy Stores lose their place in our communities? Why do we only find them now in quaint beach villages where we vacation?

Most repeat visitors on Cape Cod have been to Candy Manor in Chatham or the Brewster General Store, where the most crowded aisle is filled with children shouting out prices to their parents, who carry a stub of a pencil and a strip of paper to keep track. The older kids do it themselves. The General Store is one of the few places where the honor system prevails out of necessity. It would take far too long to tally the treats at the register, and half of the candy would be gone before the many kids got through the line.

“Fifteen cents! Sixty cents! One dollar and twenty-five cents!”

The name “penny candy” certainly used to be more valid. But the happiness the process brings to kids remains the same.

Before our trip this year, the boys all began their annual litany of things they wanted to do as soon as we got there. Batting cages, Cobies (the roadside ice cream shack that sells ice cream in MLB baseball caps), and of course, the General Store.

As we pulled into the driveway that first afternoon, the first question they asked was “when can we go to the General Store?”

Every day we didn’t go during the two weeks meant a negotiation regarding when we would go again.

One afternoon after spending the entire day on the beach, my eight year old whined that we had not gone on “an adventure” that day.

“The beach was an adventure,” I said. “We floated on tubes, built a sandcastle, played football…”

“That’s not an adventure,” he pouted.

“Well, what adventure do you want to go on then?”

His eyes lit up and he grinned, “Can we go to the General Store?”

It’s just candy. They can get the same candy at home. But my eight year old got it perfectly. Perusing a long aisle of brightly colored treats with other excited kids, picking out individual pieces of your all-time favorites, putting them into a small bag that seems created just for Penny Candy, and doing your own math – that’s an adventure. That’s what makes the penny candy store of old so great.