Category Archives: reader questions

Reader Question: Things To Do with an Alexa

Today we have this from Phancymama:

We got an Alexa and a dot for Christmas, and I would love a post on this where I could read lots of comments from other people! I also find myself wishing for Alexa in the car. And I feel like my feelings run from “incredibly useful” to “I forget it’s there” and I have the feeling I’m missing some of the tricks and tips. (For instance I ask about the weather but not the news!)


I have a first-generation Echo, but it looks like those are only being sold refurbished and the second-generation Echo is the current thing. I also have a second-generation Dot. Here is what I use my Alexa Echo/Dot for:

1. Every single morning, I ask it for the news (“Alexa, what’s the news?”). I had to set up what news source I wanted (I do set-up stuff on (I just type in and it adds the other stuff automatically), but there is an Alexa app that lets you do it too and makes more sense if you use the Alexa for lists; I started to install the app long ago, but I seem to remember feeling uncomfortable at the time with the permissions/access it wanted), and I chose NPR. You can also set up more than one source, so that it will go through them one after another, but NPR is about exactly the amount of news I want in the morning, delivered in exactly the right tone of voice.

2. Songs! So many songs! “Alexa, play On Melancholy Hill,” “Alexa, play Magic by The Cars,” “Alexa, play Dancer in a Daydream,” “Alexa, play Fever by Peggy Lee.” Sometimes she needs title and artist, sometimes just title: there’s more than one song called Magic; there’s more than one artist who sings Fever. There is a rotating list of songs she’ll say she can only play a sample of, and that’s annoying, so for Christmas I asked for and received a subscription to Amazon Music Unlimited, the $3.99/month version that gives access on just one device. Paul thought this was silly and wanted to get the $7.99/month plan that would cover both devices, but even the $3.99/month adds up, and I wanted to try it out for awhile in a way that would let me compare and see if it gave me enough more songs to be worth it. So far I really like it: when I came home from The Greatest Showman and wanted the soundtrack, the Echo played it for me right away; when I was folding laundry later and asked the Dot for the same thing, it said I would need Amazon Music Unlimited for that.

2a. Asking what song is playing. I LOVE this. I say, “Alexa, what is this?” and she says “This is Let the Games Begin, by AJR,” or whatever.

2b. Asking for a radio station. I have a radio in the kitchen, but it only gets two stations I like. So I’ll ask Alexa to play a different station. I’ve asked her to play Rob’s college radio station, which was fun. It can be a little tricky to get the one I want, because she can play practically anything, so it’s best if you know the call letters.

2c. Asking her to play songs by a certain artist. I’ll say, “Alexa, play songs by AJR,” and she’ll shuffle songs by AJR.

2d. Asking her to make an assorted playlist based on a certain artist. I’ll say, “Alexa, play Peter Cetera radio,” and she’ll play an assortment of songs: some Peter Cetera, some of a similar style, some from that time period, and some weird choices that don’t make any sense. If she plays a song I don’t like, I say “Alexa, thumbs down” and she puts it on a don’t-play list. If she’s playing a song I don’t want to forbid but neither do I want to hear it right now, I say, “Alexa, skip this one” or “Alexa, next.”

2e. Asking for a song I don’t know the title/artist of. “Alexa, play the song that goes ‘Every time I see you falling’.”

2f. Asking for a type of music. “Alexa, play ’80s hits,” “Alexa, play ’90s alternative rock,” “Alexa, play classical music,” “Alexa, play Christmas music.” I’ve had mixed success with this: sometimes I get exactly what I want, but sometimes she’ll play, like, a bunch of music that may be from the ’80s but nothing I recognize, or she’ll get weirdly overly-specific and say “Playing Christmas Country Down Home Favorites” or “Playing music by Bach.” No, no: I wanted an ASSORTMENT of Christmas/classical.

3. Timer/alarm. Mostly I’d rather just set a regular old timer. But it’s handy to have the Alexa when I’m out of timers (the kids walk off with them, or all the timers are in use) or if I’m doing something that makes it inconvenient, like washing dishes. She can do a timer (“Alexa, set a timer for eight minutes”) or an alarm (“Alexa, set an alarm for 1:30”).

4. General information. Sometimes I hear a news story that I don’t quite understand because I didn’t pay attention in American Government class or whatever, or sometimes a kid will ask me a question I don’t know the answer to, or Paul needs to know YET AGAIN how many tablespoons are in a quarter-cup (IT’S FOUR, PAUL. It’s ALWAYS FOUR), so we ask Alexa. Sometimes she doesn’t know, or doesn’t understand the question.

5. Weather: “Alexa, what’s the weather?,” “Alexa, will it snow tomorrow?,” “Alexa, what’s the temperature outside?,” “Alexa, what will the weather be like on Saturday?”

6. “Alexa, teach me something new.” She’ll tell you something neat about dogs! or stars! or the crippling effects of a break-up!

7. “Alexa, tell me a joke.” (Mostly the kids do this one.)

8. Random number generator. If you tell her to roll a die, she’ll give you a number between one and six. Or you can ask her to roll a hundred dice. Or flip a coin. Or give you a random number between one and a hundred.


Phancymama and I would like to hear how you use your Alexa.

Reader Question: Plus-Size Underwear

Oh good morning! This is a good day for discussing unders!

Can you please, please write an update on plus size womens underwear? I REALLY need to find a new style and brand, but those images of thin mannequins make it impossible to know how different styles will fit a post-baby, aging body. I remember some suggestions of Jockey and some pricier options from a plus-sized store, but I wonder if you tried them and if they were worth the cost?



I just looked up the post where I asked for suggestions, and I see I included a good morning with that one, too. Apparently the underwear topic is in the mental filing cabinet right next to that greeting.

I will start by telling you how I chose the three kinds I tried: by whim. I SHOULD have made a list and tallied votes for each suggestion, and thought about which kinds seemed like the best bets, and maybe gone in person to some stores where I could try pairs on—but instead I did it with thrashing impulsive decisions, followed by getting overwhelmed and stopping the research abruptly; and I couldn’t bring myself to try anything on, or buy anything that wasn’t sold in a three-pack. Here are the three new kinds I tried:

Jockey Elance French Cut
Fruit of the Loom Fit for Me Hi-Cut
another Fruit of the Loom kind but without the sporty waistband

Also, in a triumph of hope over experience, I bought another pack of Hanes XTemp hi-cuts (the ones that started this whole process by changing their fit) at Target—AND THIS TIME THEY DID FIT. So I don’t know if the sizing changed back or what. However, now I can’t find the hi-cuts at Target at all and can only get them on Amazon, and I’m worried that if I order those they’ll be the ones that were like a full size too small; the reviews seem to support this concern. Some of the pairs I have are starting to get pretty tattered, which is sad.

Let’s start with the ones I don’t even have a link for. I got them at Walmarrrt. They don’t have the wider waistband I prefer, just the thin kind, but at least it was covered with comfy fabric. They were fine. Just fine. Surprisingly stretchy and thin (not in a good way for me, but I think they’d feel nice and disappear-y to someone who liked that feeling), comfy enough I guess—but I never reach for them first. Of the four kinds, I reach for them third. They don’t feel particularly cute. I feel as if the fit of them accentuates the postpartum-body issues in a discouraging way.

The only ones they win against are the Jockey ones. The Jockey ones SHOULD be my favorites: they’re 100% cotton and the fabric feels really nice; they were the most expensive and seem well-made. But on me they’re like an exaggeration of hi-cut: very, very high, to the point where I feel as if they are peeking out of the top of my jeans. Maybe I should have ordered one size down? I don’t know. I just know I choose them fourth.

Second place goes to the Hanes XTemp. Comfy, cute, good colors when I could still choose the colors. But too risky to buy anymore, so I am gradually letting them go, emotionally speaking.

First place goes to the ones I thought would be my least favorite, the Fruit of the Loom Fit for Me ones with the sporty waistband. You know me well enough to know that “sporty” is not an adjective on my vision board. And the elastic waist looked pinchy in the pictures, and I’d specifically wanted a fabric-covered waistband. But the waist isn’t pinchy, and they’re comfy, and I think they’re pretty cute, and I really love the colors. So I buy those now, is the upshot.

Reader Question: Gift Ideas for Retirees and Other Adults Who’d Like Something To Do

Hi Swistle :) I am mulling a Christmas gift for my impossible to buy for mother and suddenly realized that you/your readers would have the BEST ideas. I hope you might be willing to share my post and get their ideas. I can’t post on my own blog because my mom reads it.

Here’s the situation. My 70ish year old mom is retiring this December. Everyone is a little worried as she is very prone to boredom and doesn’t have many hobbies. I would love to get her a box of “hobby starters” that she can try out and hopefully find some new hobbies for retirement. But it’s tough!

A bit about my mom:
• She is a preschool teacher with the creativity and (short) attention span that you’d imagine a good preschool teacher would have.
• She lives in Northern California
• She is in good health and goes to the gym pretty regularly and walks with a friend
• She is extroverted but doesn’t like to drive far or travel without my dad (who is introverted)
• Her fourth, and last, grandchild is due in December and will live about an hour away so he and his sister will take up at least one day/week.

Hobbies she does enjoy:
• Garage saleing (her top hobby, she finds amazing bargains, but what does one do with all the purchased stuff? Could she garage sale for a local cause?)
• Scrapbooking (but she’s not into the kits and products that are for sale, she just makes albums for the kids using garage sale-found materials)
• Card making/paper crafts (she’s recently taken this up with a friend who buys the kits)
• Volunteering (she’s on a board at a non profit preschool in town and volunteers at events regularly)
• Reading (novels, newspaper, very limited magazines)

Hobbies that might seem logical but probably won’t work:
• She is not very computer savvy so blogging/eBay/anything web based is pretty much out
• Wine or coffee tasting/appreciation (she doesn’t drink any wine or coffee)
• Gardening, bicycling, hiking, photography: those are my dad’s hobbies and it doesn’t seem like her adopting his hobbies would work very well
• Cooking: She stopped cooking when us kids moved out. My dad has mostly taken it up. But maybe she could get into baking since she likes sweets?
• Sewing: she doesn’t like it. Dad and I sew, not her. I have a feeling this distaste would go to other fiber crafts like knitting, crochet, embroidery and weaving but I might try one of them in a gift box.

Ideas I have so far:
• Birding (buy her a bird identification book). Something she and dad could do sort of together. Him hiking, her walking more leisurely and looking for birds
• Puzzles: Not sure about her attention span/interest in non productive activities
• Postcard Crossing–she regularly sends letters and mail so this is fun but not a very substantial Christmas gift
• A pet (I can’t get her a cat or dog but maybe a fish?)
• Book of the Month club (the online mailorder thing that is all over blogs)

What am I missing? What hobbies do the retirees out there enjoy?

Thanks so much!


Is she musical at all? My mom has taken up the ukulele in her retirement and really enjoys it. That’s a pretty expensive gift, but a recorder (this is the one my kids’ elementary school asks them to acquire for lessons, and it has a remarkably pleasing sound for being so cheap) and instruction book wouldn’t be.

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I wonder if she’d like doing something with clay. A pottery class is probably more than you have in mind, but maybe some air-dry clay (this Crayola bucket has more clay for less money, but looks less…grown-up) and some tools.


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Paul is a revolving-hobbies type of guy, and for awhile he was interested in learning to draw. He liked the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, which is also the book recommended by a drawing class I took long ago. (There is a newer edition, but the reviews convinced me it would be better to link to the older edition; this is the same edition Paul liked and that I had for the art class.) I’d add a basic set of pencils with a kneaded eraser.


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I saw the book Learn to Paint People Quickly at our library and thought it looked interesting. If I were giving it as a gift, I’d look inside and see if there were recommendations for paints and brushes, and get some of those too.


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To continue with the book/art theme perhaps too long, I like the look of this “all set to get started” book, Paint This Book: Watercolor for the Artistically Undiscovered. I had an earlier version of this book a long time ago, and although I didn’t stick with it, it was a good way to do it a little bit without getting too invested.


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When I was going out of my mind with boredom, I found it fun to do a mini Jane Austen study, using annotated books. I started with The Annotated Sense and Sensibility, and since I love the Emma Thompson version of the movie, I’d also recommend including The Sense and Sensibility Screenplay and Diaries. But if your mom isn’t a Jane Austen fan particularly, there are tons of other annotated books: Paul likes The Annotated Alice, and I’ve been meaning to try (or something nags at the back of my mind that perhaps I already did try?) The Annotated Little Women. Annotations are slow, studious reading—but it means doing a little each day and having it last a nice long time, meanwhile feeling as if you’re accomplishing something / doing something good for your brain.


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I wonder if she’d like guided journaling? It might take some research to find a non-annoying book: I picked The Book of Myself from the search results because I liked the look of it, but I would look into it a bit more before buying to make sure the prompts were appealing. A lot of them are geared toward someone writing down a lot of family history or other facts about themselves that their descendants might later value.

Reader Question: Tips for Being a Good Kisser

We have a charming follow-up question on the First Kisses post:

*cough*Could you maybe do a follow-up post on what makes a good kiss/tips for being a good kisser?*cough* (It’s always good to learn knew things, right? *dies of embarrassment*)

Well! I have been thinking about this and I am not sure I can come up with a decisive answer. Or rather, I CAN come to a decisive answer, and it is this: if this question COULD be answered, it would already HAVE BEEN answered and we all would have studied the answer very carefully and now we would all know for sure that our studying had paid off.

Instead, if you were like me, you read the scene in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret where they practice kissing their pillows, and you gamely tried it yourself because apparently that is a thing we do, but then thought, “…But how does this help? Where are the…lips of this pillow?”

It’s like trying to find information on making hard-boiled eggs easier to peel: there are half a dozen methods people SWEAR by, and absolutely no agreement on which one actually works, and in my own experience each method works sometimes and fails to work other times, and apparently it matters hugely what kind of eggs you start with, so anyway you can rest assured that it is a question for the ages and not something there’s a simple answer for. Same with kissing.

And people LIKE different things. This is where we depart from hard-boiled eggs, because with eggs we all agree on the correct result: the shell should be off of the egg, and the shell-less egg should be whole and smooth, and not very much time should have passed. With kissing, some people get dopey-eyed over soft tender kisses and some people prefer to spend the next day with an ice pack pressed to their swollen, abraded lower face, and there are more kinds of kissing than ways to peel an egg, so it’s hard to know what to advise.

I do think we can say one thing based on the comments on the kissing post, and it is this: the problem, when there is a problem, is usually the tongue. Too much, or too soon, or too much accompanying saliva, or some combination of those things. Go easy on the tongue, is my advice; and if in doubt, wait longer to introduce it.

Also, I think it’s safe to say that kissing can take practice, especially with someone new. There are a bunch of things that vary from person to person, and those things take some time to figure out, and it is perfectly normal to bump teeth or to feel uncertain about how long a kiss should last or whatever. With time and familiarity, the protocol is established and things get less uncertain.

Reader Question: Gift Ideas for a Student with Cancer

Hi- I am in need of your gift giving expertise! I have read you for years, and know you are way better at this kind of thing than I am! Here is the situation. I teach 3rd grade and one of my students was diagnosed with cancer in November. I have a third grade son myself. He knows my student and this hits very home to me! My class knows that H has cancer. ( That was not a fun lesson – what is cancer, how does it spread, what treatments are, etc.). So, H is getting chemo at the hospital on and off until February and will hopefully be able to come back to school in March or April, which is an eternity for a third grader! We have taken photos and emailed, and my class and the other third grade classes send cards once a week. For a big Christmas thing, I went to Build A Bear, got 25 of the hearts they stuff in the Bears, had my class sign them and make a wish for H, took photos, brought them back to Build a bear, took pictures of my son stuffing them in the bear, bought a Star Wars outfit ( that the boy likes). I took pictures of the bear around school, went to Target and had a photo book made. It was cute and he loved it. But, he is out for three more months. I want him to realize we are all thinking of him without just sending photos of us having fun ( too bad you aren’t here! We are having a party without you!) and without being too expensive. I am sure he got plenty of Christmas gifts from family and friends, so I’m looking for smaller, meaningful gifts that tell an 8 year old boy to stay strong. Any ideas? Thanks so much!


This is a hard question to even think about, because it is so sad. Henry is 8 and in the third grade, so you and I both have a very vivid mental picture here. Trying to picture what Henry might like in this situation is…a challenge, on several levels.

My opinion is that you have already had the best idea. The Build-a-Bear-with-25-hearts-signed-by-fellow-students gift was inspired, and better than anything I would have thought of. It’s sentimental and thoughtful and a great group-effort project, and resulted in a comfort item for him to hold onto. And you are already doing my next idea, which is to send regular photos and letters. You are so on this, I feel as if any suggestions I make will be things you have already thought of.

I think at this point I would focus on the letters. If you would like to do more, I think a very nice idea would be to find some way to symbolically include H in your events and celebrations, and send photos of THAT, plus a souvenir when applicable.

Here is the sort of thing I have in mind. I can picture having a photo of his face enlarged to life-sized, and putting it on a life-sized paper doll (class project: trace another student who is about his size, everyone help color it in), and then including that life-sized paper doll in various classroom events. And then I’d take photos of it with the other students, and send those photos to him with, say, a cookie from the party, and a holiday card signed by the class.

At Valentine’s Day, he could receive a class-made mailbox filled with valentines, plus a little plate of treats from the party, plus a photo of his paper doll standing by the mailbox receiving the valentines, surrounded by fellow students. After field trips, he could receive a set of photos of his paper doll on the field trip, and brochures from the location. I am not sure, since I can’t count this experience among my own, but I THINK if I were him that would make me feel included and remembered and “We are always thinking of you,” and not “We are having fun without you.”

Another idea is to talk to the child’s parent and ask what might be appreciated. Perhaps his parent will say, “Oh, he LOVES getting mail!,” and you can set up a mailbox for him in the classroom and incorporate it into a lesson plan about letter-writing, and/or have everyone contribute a dollar toward a subscription to a children’s magazine. Or perhaps his parent will say, “He is SO BORED!,” and your class can brainstorm ideas for things to send him: puzzles, books, workbooks. Or maybe he could use another pair of comfy pajamas, and everyone could chip in and help choose them.

I have a feeling that some or all of the parents of the other children in your classroom will be eager to participate. I do have experience with THIS role, unfortunately, and I remember wishing there was a way I could DO something. If a teacher had said, “If you can, please send $1 a month for little treats and gifts,” or “This year we are all doing all of our Secret Santa gifts for H,” or “Please help your child write a letter,” or “We will be sending valentines to H,” I would have been SO GLAD to have something practical to do.




I wrote to you a few months ago about a student in my third grade class who was out getting treatment for cancer.  I really appreciated all of the suggestions, and thought it was time for an update.  The good news is that H is now considered cancer free and has returned to school!
He was gone for four months.  Using Skype to keep in touch was useful, but it was kind of hard to arrange times when he felt well and it was good timing for us.  We did send lots of pictures and cards.  Each week one of the third grade classrooms send cards.  He sent in his Valentines and we sent his home to him.  He also had a birthday and we sent a video of us singing and holding up signs.  He sent us a video of his how to speech that we did in class.  I liked the idea of the ” flat H” and if he had been gone longer I would have done that too.
He had a pretty low immune system when he came back and no hair but I warned the class about germs and stocked up on hand sanitizer. He wanted to just slide right back into the rhythm of the class, but that took a few weeks.  What really helped was having the Child Life specialist from the hospital come in and give a presentation about cancer, chemo, MRI’s and ports.  I think it really made H feel better – that everyone else finally had an idea of what he had gone through.
Now his hair is mostly grown in, he is caught up both academically and socially.  He still attends a lot of special events for cancer survivors, but otherwise is a normal third grader.  Thank you so much for your help!

Reader Question: Couple Monograms for Separate Surnames

Dear Swistle,

I have been trying to figure this out & suddenly thought of you because you know a lot about names and also about etiquette.
For 2 people getting married, but neither changing their last name, what are monogram options (for the couple/for the wedding/later, after the wedding)?
I guess I could just make something up using all 4 letters. But is there any set ways it is done?



I do think couple monograms are fun. I remember learning about them around the time Rob was a baby: I was ordering towels from Lands’ End for someone’s wedding present, and I think it must have come up on the order form or something. I was thrilled with the idea, especially since towels had felt a little dull and this would let me do something fancier.

For a couple monogram, the couple’s surname initial goes in the center, and then one person’s first initial goes to the left of that, and the other person’s to the right. For a couple made up of one man and one woman, the woman’s initial goes to the left—but I think the rule there isn’t “the woman’s initial goes first,” but rather “the one who gave up the surname goes first.” (On the other hand, if it were the guy who took his wife’s surname, I would be split between wanting his initial to then go first and wanting the woman’s initial to still go first.)

Swistle and Paul Thistle's couple monogram

couple monogram for Swistle and Paul Thistle

For two women or two men, I think you could go alphabetically, or whatever looks better, or flip a coin. I’d follow the concept of “the one who gave up the surname goes first,” if it applied. If both were changing to a new joint surname, I’d go with alphabetical or what looks better or a coin flip or which member of the couple I liked better.

Anyway, when I read the question, my first thought was that I wouldn’t do a couple monogram for a couple that didn’t have a shared surname. I think of a couple monogram as a quaint/old-fashioned thing, perfect for someone who is giving up a surname and is happy about it, risky for someone who isn’t/isn’t. For example, I did give up my surname, but I wasn’t happy about it; a couple-monogrammed item would have been a risky gift for me. Not as risky as addressing my letters and packages to Mrs. Paul Thistle, but somewhere on that spectrum.

But let’s say we have a situation where each person in the couple is keeping his/her name, but we have reason to believe a couple monogram would go over very well. My first idea was to do a “carved into a tree”-type couple monogram. Like, let’s say my maiden name was Whistle, and I’d kept it when I married Paul. This would be cute on the towels, if the store could do it:

couple monogram for Swistle Whistle and Paul Thistle

couple monogram for Swistle Whistle and Paul Thistle

My second idea was to make the two surname initials large in the middle, flanked by their respective first-name initials:

couple monogram #2 for Swistle Whistle and Paul Thistle

couple monogram #2 for Swistle Whistle and Paul Thistle

I think that would look significantly prettier if it weren’t in Sharpie marker on a memo sheet.

That’s pretty much when I ran out of ideas, so I searched online. Mark and Graham has a whole section on monogramming. They suggest a two-initial monogram of both surname initials, like this:

couple monogram #3 for Swistle Whistle and Paul Thistle

couple monogram #3 for Swistle Whistle and Paul Thistle

I like that, especially if the couple’s style is more formal: SW+PT is a more casual look. They also suggest a monogram of “wife’s first, husband’s last, wife’s maiden,” but I assume that’s the woman’s new personal monogram, not a couple monogram.

Wait wait wait. No. I am wrong. A second site (The Etiquette School of Ohio) says that the TRADITIONAL couple monogram is wife’s first, husband’s last, wife’s maiden, and that the MODERN couple monogram (wife’s first, husband’s last, husband’s first) is what I’ve been thinking of as a couple monogram. Well. That may be true, but that seems wrong to me. This does not at all seem to me like a couple monogram for Swistle and Paul Thistle:



Where is Paul in that? That seems like the monogram for me, if I moved my maiden name to the middle and became Swistle Whistle Thistle. Well, I’m ignoring that whole idea and going with the modern version.

Southern Weddings has a good idea about an interlocking monogram. They use first-name initials, but you could also use surname initials. I won’t try to draw it here, because it looks best with big fancy letters. The downside, I thought, was that it was hard to see the initials, or even that they WERE initials.


All the sites agree that couple monograms are not used until after the official marriage has taken place. That is, you can use them at the reception, but not on save-the-dates, invitations, anything you wear as you walk down the aisle, etc. However, they don’t count the SW + PT as a couple monogram, so that would be fine to use before, during, and after the wedding. It would also be fine to use the idea I saw on Neat Cards, which was to use each person’s own monogram with a little decorative thingie between them, like this:

couple monogram #5 for Swistle Whistle and Paul Thistle

couple monogram #4 for Swistle Whistle and Paul Thistle

Also, wait, I forgot to look it up in Miss Manners. BRB.

Okay, Miss Manners is not in favor of couple monograms. Here is what she says:

Household linens may be monogrammed with the maiden initials of the lady of the house, a custom dating from premarital monogramming that serves equally well for serial marriages. Couples who are tempted to entwine their initials should try to get it out of their system by carving their names on a tree.


I’m wondering if anyone else has done anything with a non-shared-surname couple monogram before, or has any other ideas or suggestions.

Talking to Kids about Sex without Religion

Hello there,

So, I don’t know if this is an odd thing to do or not, but I was wondering if I could suggest a topic I would be so curious to hear your thoughts on.

I was wondering how you talked to your kids about sex/ how you framed your families expectations of sexual propriety. Much like you, I grew up in a very religious household and had the strong “no sex before marriage because Jesus says so” training. But now I’m not religious and so my values have changed on that topic but I find I sort of miss (weirdly) the clear line of “no sex before marriage” to tell my kids…even though I am okay with sex before marriage but I don’t think they’ll buy my real feeling of “no sex until I think you are ready”.

I’m not sure if this makes sense…but, basically, how did you approach this topic with your bigger kids?

Best wishes,


One thing I’ve done when talking especially to my older two (they’re now 15 and 13) is to mention ahead of time that my own upbringing was religious and that all my own decisions/experiences at that stage of life were influenced by my own religious beliefs at the time, and to be frank that that means I’m not always sure what to tell them or what the rules should be. There are things that still freak me out just because they freaked me out at the time and in that context, and it’s hard to know which things are still good things to freak out about (“FEAR/PREVENT THE STD”) and which things could use a little adjustment (“PREMARITAL SEX CAUSES ALL FUTURE MARITAL SEX TO FOREVER FALL SHORT OF THE GLORY OF GOD”).

It helps, I think, to know that people who were taught about sexuality from a non-religious standpoint ALSO have to figure some things out before teaching their own kids: what’s considered normal and proper changes with time, and with inventions/discoveries, and with changes in the way the culture thinks of things.

And people continuing on with a religious structure have to do a fair amount of interpretation: the Bible, for example, goes into a lot of detail about clean/unclean foods, but is a little skimpy on the sort of thing a parent might need for the Where Did I Come From? talk. I remember being very surprised to learn in college (from the boyfriend of my roommate: it’s uncanny how studious a young man can be when properly motivated) how unclear the Bible is on the topic, and seriously out of date at this point: women in our culture, for example, are no longer stoned for failing to bleed on their wedding night, nor do most religious people follow the extremely strict rules about dealing with menstruation and childbirth (UNCLEAN! UNCLEAN! UNCLEEEEEEEEEEEEANNNNNNNN!!!). Most of the sexuality teachings associated with Christianity (and I assume with other religions as well, but I only have experience with Christianity) are church teachings rather than biblical teachings: i.e., ways the people who follow that version of Christianity tend to believe people should behave based on their own understanding of God and the Bible, rather than anything specifically discussed by God himself. Which is fine, but means that even religious families have to do this kind of figuring things out before they start passing that information on to the next generation.

In general, my method with kid questions on difficult/unclear topics (afterlife, politics, ethics, religion, etc.) is to start with something like, “Well, different people think different things,” and then go on from there. This is good for stalling, and also for filling up a long car ride with a chatty child. So, like, when Rob was little and liked to talk about things Very Thoroughly, and he asked what happened after people died, I said something like, “Well, nobody really knows for sure. Some people think….” and we went through reincarnation, heaven/hell, heaven without the hell, limbo/purgatory, ghosts/spirits, anything else I could think of, and the “nothing at all” theory. I also mentioned that there were a lot of other theories I didn’t know about from other cultures/religions.

With sex questions/lectures, I do pretty much the same thing: I say that different people think different things. Some people believe in abstinence before marriage, some people believe in abstinence in theory but not in their own specific situation; some people think sex is dirty/bad, some people think sex is natural/good, some people think it depends on the situation; some people think sex is for fun, some people think it’s only for when you’re in love, some people think it’s only for creating babies, some people think it can be for different things in different situations; and so on. Which leads naturally to listing a lot of different reasons, too: because of believing that God (or someone else in the Bible) said so or thinks so, because of health reasons, because of safety reasons, because of emotional reasons, because of pregnancy hopes/fears, because of ancient and recent beliefs about sex and morality and romance, and so on. I don’t always know what I’m talking about, and I try to make that clear as the discussion goes along—like, “I don’t know all the details, but as I understand it…”

Sometimes I talk to them about it from a parental point of view: “Some of my friends think kids shouldn’t even be taught about sex and birth control, while some of my other friends take their daughters to get on the pill,” etc. (I don’t say which of my friends are which, for general privacy and because sometimes my kids are friends with my friends’ kids.) They seem to like that kind of talk, and will often be very strongly opinionated about other parents’ decisions. I think it’s easier for them to argue with Theoretical Unnamed Parent than it is to argue with an actual parent—and it’s easier for me to present the point of view fairly when it belongs to someone I know and like.

Or I’ll tell them about parents/kids I knew when I was a kid. My parents took the religious/abstinence view of sex but my mom was extremely big on giving us information, so I ended up having to pass on that information to a fair number of friends whose parents thought they didn’t need to know. “Oh my gosh,” Never-Had-a-Boyfriend Swistle would say, “No, it is not going to work to rinse out afterward with diet Coke, you are going to need something that works better than that. Let me tell you the stats on condoms vs. the pill” or “YES you absolutely CAN get pregnant that way and he is either a JERK or STUPID for saying you can’t.” And they explained to ME what French-kissing was and what “69” and “third base” and “feeling someone up” meant, and gave me a dog-eared copy of Forever, so really it was a well-rounded education for all of us and gives me some comfort whenever I hear talk of taking sex education out of schools.

Here are the things I like about this “let’s talk about all the different opinions and ideas, with lots of anecdotes” method:

1. It makes it clear that I don’t necessarily know the right answer
2. It makes it clear that there isn’t only one way to think about it
3. I find that kind of conversation fun

Plus, it forces the children to take some responsibility for their own decisions, which takes some of that responsibility OFF of ME. And it IS off of me: I DON’T have to make the decisions for them, and in fact I CAN’T: THEY are going to make all the decisions. I can set some boundaries and/or make things difficult for them (“No, you can’t lose your virginity here at home, so it will have to be in a car I guess” or “No, you can’t date, so I guess you’ll have to lie and tell me you’re going to a friend’s house”), but that’s it: the actual decisions are in their hands whether I like it or not. So rather than telling them what The Right Way is, or even what our family expects, I tend to tell them what I hope: that they will wait until they’re ready, that they won’t be pressured into it, that they will be safe, that they will be kind and respectful and careful with other people’s feelings, that they will remember that sex is about sex but it is also about the people involved, that they will not accidentally ruin their lives, that I will never have to catch them at it, and so on.

Another method I use is the Making Books Available method. As a child/teenager, I really really really really did NOT want to ask my mom questions—not because she was unavailable or wouldn’t answer, but for the OPPOSITE reason: she would get twinkly-eyed and LOVED to use Embarrassing Words and discuss Embarrassing Concepts. I was very glad to have the books Where Did I Come From? and What’s Happening to Me? for reference (though less thrilled to receive the latter for a pre-teen birthday (11? 12?) and have my mom start leafing through it laughing and pointing out the “perky boobs”).

Even more helpful was a book I found at the library; I don’t remember the title of it, but I remember it was written by someone who sounded young and cool but was also an Experienced Adult Woman. I think it was in a Q&A format—maybe an essay on a topic, followed by questions submitted by young girls? something like that. It had lots of stuff about sex and periods and kissing and boys and pregnancy and STDs and birth control, and lots of embarrassing stories from the author’s own experience (I remember one story about the time she and her boyfriend tried to have sex for their first time and COULDN’T FIGURE IT OUT). Here’s a list of the books I’ve bought so far for the kids:

Where Did I Come From?: The Facts of Life Without Any Nonsense
What’s Happening to Me?: An Illustrated Guide to Puberty
What’s Going on Down There?: Answers to Questions Boys Find Hard to Ask
The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls (this has since been republished in two volumes, one for younger girls and one for older girls)
It’s So Amazing!: A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families
It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health


I read Where Did I Come From? and It’s So Amazing! to them as littler children—different ages for each depending on when they started asking questions and showing more than a passing interest, but basically very early school age (kindergarten/1st). The other books, I’ve handed over with a brief official statement about having access to information they might not want to ask me about, but of course they SHOULD ask me if they want to, and they can also ask me if they don’t understand something in the book. The rest of the talking is done forcefully, usually in the car with one or two children at a time, at my initiation (Swistle: “Today we are going to talk about various methods of birth control!” Children: *groaning*). I like to talk in the car because there’s so much less eye-contact involved, and because they’re trapped. I’m glad to know too that their schools are covering some of the material, to reinforce points or in case I forget something.

But I think it’s important to add that at this point I don’t have any children who are clearly sexually active. (That is, my impression is that none of them are involved with it at all, but I’m aware that I could be completely unaware of it. I remember as a teenager noticing the wiiiiiide gap between what parents knew and what was true.) At that point I may become significantly less chill about the whole thing: right now it’s theoretical and interesting to discuss, but how will I be when it’s “Can he or can’t he have a girlfriend/boyfriend in his bedroom?” and “Will I or won’t I ask her doctor to put her / let her be on birth control?” WE SHALL HAVE TO WAIT AND SEE.

Goodwill Shopping

Yesterday at Goodwill I found a purple velour skirt-and-shirt set for Elizabeth. I’m never sure what she’ll end up liking/disliking, but she went NUTS for it. It was extremely satisfying: I laundered it yesterday evening and she put it on first thing this morning and was dancing around with happiness. It cost $3.59, unless that was one of the ones that rang up as half-price, in which case it was more like $1.79.

I also bought a pair of flannel-lined Gap cargo pants for William. They cost $1.79, which was weird because right next to them was a boring logo Gap t-shirt in so-so condition marked up to $3.99 (everything in the kids’ section is $1.99 unless otherwise marked) (and then I get another 20 cents off because I have the $10/year Goodwill card that gets you 10% off). The pricing is a little inconsistent.

AND I found Edward a great Gap sweater, dark green with pine trees so it’s nice for Christmas but also nice for the rest of winter, $1.79. AND some other things, but I forget what. Which brings me to this:


Monique writes:

I was at Goodwill the other day and felt very lost. I thought of you and wanted a Swistle tutorial of how to shop at goodwill, including the the things you look at when you pick out clothes, how you know the clothes are good finds and how to pick the clothes you know your children will like. I know you have done posts in the past but I felt so very lost.

So it was just a thought if you felt like it.


Ah! I am new to this as well: our Goodwill opened only this past February. (Though we used to have one near us back when we were first married.) And it can definitely be overwhelming. It can also be UNDERwhelming: some days I go and I find NOTHING. Or I find lots of good stuff, but it’s stuff we don’t need. Or I find lots of good stuff, but it’s all been inexplicably marked way above usual prices. Or I find the entire atmosphere of the store depressing and I leave feeling sad.

Are you a list person? I find it very helpful to have a little list of things I’m looking for. For example, the first time I went to the new Goodwill, William needed sweaters: he was wearing the same three sweaters over and over and ignoring all his other shirts. Goodwill had ONE MILLION men’s sweaters, $4.99 each but many marked half price: each day a certain color of tag is half off. Many of them were the same Gap and Old Navy sweaters I’d been upset to see for $20-30 online, so I walked out that day with many, many sweaters.

Or, like, right now, Elizabeth wants knit jeggings. They have to be stretchy, they can’t be baggy. She’s quite particular. They have some jeggings like that at Target for $12.99, but while I wait for those to go on clearance I’m keeping an eye out at Goodwill to see if I can find some for $1.79 instead.

It happens pretty often that I go to Goodwill and I don’t find anything I’m looking for but I do find something else I want. This is the category a lot of people try to avoid (it’s a good way to end up with Too Much Stuff), but it’s how I ended up with a happy purple-velour daughter this morning. Or, like, Edward and Henry don’t really need any more shirts per se, but when I found a Mini Boden shirt in Edward’s size for $1.79 and a Lands’ End rainbow tie-dye hoodie in Henry’s size for $.89 ($1.99 but it was the tag color of the day plus I got the additional 10% off), I went right ahead and bought them and felt happy about it.

Goodwill was especially great when I was trying to get Elizabeth set up for sleep-away camp. I didn’t want to send clothes I minded if she lost/ruined. So I looked through the racks and specifically kept an eye out for the half-price tag color, and I got her a bunch of shorts and pants and shirts and a couple of sweatshirts, all in the $.89-$1.79 range.

I tend to look for BRANDS. If I like something I’ll buy it even if I don’t recognize the brand—but I already know I like Old Navy and The Children’s Place and Gap and Lands’ End and L.L. Bean, and I’m basically familiar with their prices, so I’m more likely to buy those. Periodically I find brands like Hanna Andersson or Mini Boden, and that’s always a thrill.

I check for rips and stains. I TRY to remember to test zippers and snaps and make sure all the buttons are there, but this is my biggest area of forgetfulness. Still, I’ve only lost one or two things that way.

Here is my usual path through the store, with what I’m looking for right now or have looked for recently:

1. Men’s section ($4.99 unless otherwise marked or tag-color-of-the-day). Sweaters for William (EXCELLENT success: I think a lot of guys get sweaters as gifts and never wear them, so I get new-looking Gap sweaters for $2.49 minus another 10%). Shorts and pants for Rob (medium success; a good way to see what 31×32 is like in a variety of brands). Barn jacket for Paul (no success yet). Sleeping pants for Rob (good success: $4.99 is too expensive considering after-Christmas clearances, but I’ve found several nice-condition, nice-brand pairs for $2.49). Hooded sweatshirts for Rob (no success yet). This is also where I found Rob a pair of great dress pants for $4.99 when he needed them for graduation, and I found Henry a tie for $.99 when he wanted one for a school event. T-shirts are $2.99, which is about what I pay for them on clearance at Target, but sometimes they have fun ones, or better brands than Target’s.

2. Kids’ section ($1.99 unless otherwise marked or tag-color-of-the-day). I basically go through the entire section from size 6 (Henry’s size) up. Right now I’m particularly looking for pants for Elizabeth, but the three little kids can usually stand to have some new clothes: the boys particularly are the third and fourth to wear the handmedowns, and sometimes styles have changed, and sometimes I’m just sick of some of the items. And Elizabeth would be happiest if she had every single clothing item in every single color and pattern, so this is a good way to increase her wardrobe. I’m especially happy when I find an item I’d like to own but am unsure if we’ll really USE—a raincoat for sleep-away camp, for example, or a nightgown when Elizabeth has been wanting a nightgown but I don’t think she’s going to like it, or see previous paragraph about the tie Henry wanted.

3. Dishes. This is where I found the Swistle-blue mugs (“Does this MUG coordinate with my WEB SITE?”). I don’t usually buy things in this section, but I always like to look.

4. Stationery/knickknacks/misc. I don’t usually find anything, but I like to look. The kids sometimes find something to spend their allowance on: a little animal figurine, a shaped candle.


Sections I don’t usually look in:

1. Books. Most of them are in the $2.99 range, tons of close-outs/remainders. More importantly, the books are in a huge unorganized jumble. I understand why it isn’t efficient to spend the time organizing them, but it does mean I don’t feel like looking at them.

2. Shoes. They don’t appeal to me, and I usually find them at 50-70% off at Target.

3. Toys. Huge messy aisle, and always crowded, and everything looks broken and lost-piecey. But the kids look here while I’m looking at clothes, and sometimes they find something and I buy it. We also had great luck with Beanie Babies: $.99 each, with tags.

4. Linens. They don’t appeal to me, and it’s too hard to figure out sizes.


I often glance in the women’s clothes, but the plus-size section is small and depressing (elastic waists! decorative sweatshirts!) so sometimes I just skip it.


I think Goodwill works especially well if you:

1. Enjoy that kind of shopping: it can take a lot of browsing to find good stuff, and if the browsing is unpleasant I doubt it works out as a money-saving strategy. Also, if the LOOKING isn’t also fun, then it seems like it would be way too discouraging to keep going back after those days where you find one single thing, or nothing at all.

2. Are relatively unpicky—or are picky in a way that meshes well with Goodwill. The Lands’ End hoodie had a little rip near the hood, and sometimes something has a small stain. I don’t really care about that: most of the kids’ clothes are handmedowns and ALREADY have little rips and stains. I also try to keep in mind how much worse clothes look when they’re in a big used jumble instead of prettily arranged on store racks, and how much better they look once I get them home.

3. Have relatively unpicky kids, and/or are good at keep straight what they will/won’t wear. Edward will wear anything. Rob won’t wear button-downs. William loves sweaters. Etc.

4. Don’t mind things occasionally NOT working out. If I get something home and think, “Oh, crap, I forgot to check the zipper—and it’s broken,” I’m disappointed, but I’m fine with tossing it out and losing the $1.79: I think of it as a donation to Goodwill, or as a Careless Tax on myself. Or sometimes, just as with things I buy at Target or Old Navy, the child doesn’t like the item and I end up donating it back to Goodwill.

5. Are willing (and have the space) to store things that are too big. It’s pretty common for me to find a great sweater in the size above William’s size, or a dress two sizes too big for Elizabeth. Sometimes I’ll pass it by, but sometimes it’s good enough to be worth the trouble of putting it aside for later.

6. Are in a lower income bracket than the average household in your Goodwill’s area. If you mostly buy Target clearance but your neighbors are donating Hanna Andersson and L.L. Bean and not shopping at Goodwill, you’re going to be very pleased with the goods/prices. If instead your whole community is shopping clearance sections and Goodwill, you might find nothing but pilly scraps.


I do like my Goodwill card, but it’s not a good deal for everyone: you have to buy $100 worth of stuff at Goodwill in a year just to BREAK EVEN on the $10 annual cost of the card.

Goodwill can be overwhelming at first even if you’re going to love it in the long run: it takes awhile to figure out the pricing system, and where things are. If you ARE going to love it, soon you’ll start feeling happy to go dig in your usual treasure-map places, and you’ll start bringing things home and feeling happy about your finds every time you see  them come through the laundry.

Reader Question: A Moral/Ethical Dilemma

Amy writes:

I’ve been reading your blogs for about a year now, and I really value your opinion as a person and as a mother. I don’t know if you would be willing to address this issue (as it is pretty heavy, and not really like anything I’ve read from you before), but I recently was in a situation that made me uncomfortable, and I was wondering if I could get your thoughts about it. If not, that’s ok, I just thought I would ask what you would do (or would like someone else to do if they were your kids) in this situation.

So I work as a supervisor at a bakery in a particularly snooty upper class town that is frequented by (often unsupervised) middle school and high school kids. Last week two young girls (around 12 or 13) came in, ordered some food, and sat down while I was mopping and cleaning the dining room. I wasn’t purposely eavesdropping, but I overheard them discussing how one of them was planning to force herself to purge the food she was eating, and seemed to be pressuring the other girl to do the same. I really wanted to do something about this, but didn’t know what to do. I told my manager, but she said that since we didn’t know the girls or their families, that there wasn’t anything we could do. I though that maybe if they went into the bathroom, I would follow them and clean the bathroom while they were in there so they wouldn’t do anything on the premises, but they left without going in. I’ve been feeling incredibly guilty for not speaking up, yet don’t know what I should/could have said or done.

Since they were unsupervised, I’m sure that even if I had said something they wouldn’t have any reason to listen to me, and it’s not like I could ask them for their parents’ contact info.


Yes, I think the real question here isn’t so much “Should you have done something?” but rather “What exactly is it you could have done?” If you had gone into the bathroom to prevent them from throwing up in there, do any of us think they would have said, “Darn it, we couldn’t throw up at the bakery—we’re going to have to give up this whole eating disorder idea”? If you’d gone over to them and said “I couldn’t help but overhear, and you shouldn’t do that because it’s bad for you,” do any of us think they would have said, “This advice from a stranger has changed our lives! We had no idea it would be bad for us! Whew, that was a close call! No more eating disorders for us!”

If these were girls you knew, like girls in your church or children of your friends, we would have an intense and sticky dilemma on our hands: whether and who and how to approach. But as your manager pointed out, you didn’t know them or their families at all. There isn’t a dilemma here, because this was not a situation where you had the choice to intervene. You may have that choice in another situation in the future, and someone else may have that choice with these two girls, but this particular encounter didn’t contain that choice. It was like….a bus that went past you without stopping: you would have been willing to either get on the bus or not, depending on what was the right thing to do—but the bus didn’t stop.

It was an upsetting encounter, and it would have left me feeling uncomfortable and unhappy too. My guess is that the feeling you’re perceiving as guilt (which would be the appropriate emotion if you’d led them into the eating disorder or had refused to help them when you had the opportunity) is more like spinning: your brain is trying to fix something unfixable. And if you’re like me, you’re also feeling a sort of universal despair about eating disorders and teenagers and our society, not to mention the difficulty of trying to fix ANYTHING in ANYONE else’s life. I could perhaps soothe you by saying it’s a good sign that they were talking about it within earshot of adults and that they didn’t go into the bathroom afterward—but that wouldn’t take away the reality that even if these two particular girls were just showing off, there are many others who are doing it and hiding it.

At What Age Can Children Start Staying Home Alone?

Melissa H. left a comment on this post:

At what age can/do children start staying home alone?

In our situation we’re talking about one kid home alone for up to, say, 30 minutes while a parent runs to the store. She is pretty mature for her age and she is pleased with this arrangement (she doesn’t have to run the errand). When I mentioned this to a friend I could tell they were slightly horrified we left her home and they have not left their years older son home at all. Our kid is 7.5–is this too young?


At our house I’m finding a big difference in what age each child Seems Ready. My eldest (age 14) seemed ready when he was quite young, because he’s always been the responsible and cautious type; I’m STILL not entirely confident about my secondborn (age 12) (I do leave him, but I worry more).

I probably base it mostly on my confidence in the child’s ability to use the phone. Do I think they could use it to call 911, or to call my cell phone, or to call their grandparents up the street? Do I think we’ve had enough conversations on the topic that they’d know for what situations to call each number? Do I feel pretty sure they’d know NOT to use the phone if there was a fire, but instead to run next door?

I also base it on how much interest the child has shown in hypotheticals. Three of my kids think it’s fun to talk about things like would they be allowed to use the microwave, and what would they do if someone came to the door, and what would they do if the phone rang, and what would they do if they got a small cut but I was due back in 5 minutes. Two of my kids find such discussions boring, and they tune out if I try to discuss it with them. The two who tune out don’t get left on their own as much—and I prefer to leave them with one of the other three, just in case.

I also base it on how quickly and easily I could get home again. If I’m walking next door to talk to a neighbor, I’m much more likely to leave a responsible child on his or her own than I would be if I were going ten miles away, or if I were going somewhere I might not have phone service, or if I were going somewhere I wouldn’t be able to leave. I can easily abandon a grocery cart, but would reallllllly not feel comfortable leaving in the middle of a hair cut or a doctor or dentist appointment.

And finally, there’s the miscellaneous issues for an individual trip: how many other kids are home and which ones are they (is there likely to be fighting?); whether the kids are playing nicely at the moment or whether they’ve been bugging each other; how much faster/easier it would be for me not to bring them; whether I’m pretty sure my parents are home in case there’s a problem; etc.


How do you make the decision about when a child is old enough to be home on his or her own?

Edited to add: I think when we’re discussing this it would be useful to keep in mind that there’s a big difference between leaving a child at home for half an hour to run an errand, and leaving a child alone for a workday or overnight. I suspect the laws and recommendations are set up mostly to address the latter situation, not the former.