June 25, 2010

Summertime fun brings families together

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Relationships at 3:47 pm by dinaheng

School is out, and many of us are planning that annual summertime rite — the family vacation.

A couple of weeks ago, my sister Jane, her husband John, their two kids and his parents came to Los Angeles for a taste of Legoland, Madame Tussaud’s Hollywood Wax Museum and Newport Beach. Toward the end of their visit, I got to join them for a day at Universal  Studios Hollywood.

Most of us forego tourist attractions in the places where we live, until friends or relatives come to town, and we have to play host. Having family in town gave me a great excuse to step away from work and step into the fantasy world of Universal. Being an auntie is great fun because I get to enjoy time with my nieces and nephews, even if the kids aren’t mine.

The complex includes restaurants, shopping, and a movie theater at Universal CityWalk, a movie studio tour, and theme park shows and rides. You know you’ve left the real world behind when you see visitors posing for family snapshots on the Red Carpet outside the theme park, becoming their own celebrities of the moment.

While Disneyland seems to feature fuzzy, kid-friendly attractions, Universal seems to thrive on thrill rides and let’s scare the kids (or parents) attractions. The kids’ first request of the day was to go through the House of Horrors, so John took them while the grandparents, Jane and I sat outside and listened to some blues music being performed on the stage next door.

Max, 7 and Bentley,11, soon came out, mildly impressed with the horror movie walk-through and ready for the next show. So we all headed for the “Shrek 4-D” attraction, which spritzed us with the first of many — shall we say — wet experiences, through the day. On a hot summer day, those experiences might have felt refreshing, but after a while, I just found the feature annoying. Hmm… probably a sign I need to get more in touch with my inner child.

(One more adult complaint — it took 45 minutes to get through the line at Mel’s Diner, so either go early, or skip the fries and eat something healthier at another venue.)

The best part of the day was watching the kids enjoy themselves. Seeing them laugh and smile at the littlest things was a reminder of what family vacations are really about — the opportunity to make memories that will last a lifetime. These are the memories that get us through tough economic times, angry arguments, and sad events.

The chance to sit with grandparents, and listen to them talk about their travel memories, is a reminder to live in the present and appreciate life today, for time passes in a heartbeat, and we will not always be with the ones we love.

After taking the tram tour of the movie studio, we split up to take in as much of the park as we could in the last hour it was open.  John took the kids for some rides, and the rest of us went to the “Water World” show, which was spectacular.

All too soon, our day at Universal was over. I was sad to see the family leave, but glad to hear that they wanted to come back and visit again.

Even aunties love family vacations.

June 18, 2010

Playnormous fights childhood obesity

Posted in Between Us column, Health at 6:00 am by dinaheng

For the makers of Playnormous, getting kids to stay healthy is child’s play.

Seven years ago, a group of game developers in Houston were awarded $8 million from the National Institutes of Health to develop two middle school games to combat childhood obesity.

The games they developed, with researchers at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, resulted in an increase of one fruit or vegetable serving a day in the children who participated in the studies. For any parent who’s tried to get their child to even try broccoli, carrots, green beans, you name it — this is huge.

“To get inside the children’s heads and change their attitudes about things, we chose video games as a medium,” says Richard Buday, president of Archimage/Playnormous in Houston. “Video games that are designed to increase children’s caloric output through aerobic activity, from an obesity prevention point of view, are interesting, but so far ineffective.”

Buday says studies show that there’s roughly a two-week burnout period for many people who use exercise video games like the Wi because they simply lose interest.

While losing weight involves both cutting calories and exercising, Buday says Playnormous aims to prevent obesity in kids by stealthily blending behavioral change techniques with great stories and fun activities in its Web games.

While developing those video-based games, Playnormous set up an experimental Web site to see who would come to play. To their surprise, kids began using the site, driven by teachers who found the games online.

Playnormous plans to develop online health curriculum for schools, and if the response of Houston teachers to the Web site (www.playnormous.com) is any indication, the demand for such a product is definitely there.

Kids seem to love “Nanoswarm: Invasion From Inner Space” and “Escape From Diab,” which have been proven in clinical trials to increase those fruits and vegetables in kids’ diets. Kids using these games were also shown to be more physically active than those visiting traditional health Web sites for kids.

Anything that turns kids (or adults, for that matter) from couch potatoes to physically active playground users is exciting.

As a recently released White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, noted, “Obesity is estimated to cause 112,000 deaths per year in the United States, and one-third of all children born in the year 2000 are expected to develop diabetes during their lifetime. The current generation may even be on track to have a shorter life span than their parents.”

Buday hopes to market his games to hospitals, pediatrician offices, and schools, teaching kids about good eating habits and healthy exercise in a fun way .

If he succeeds, it would definitely be Playnormous.

June 3, 2010

Savor the flavor of new perspectives…

Posted in Between Us column, Diversity at 3:41 am by dinaheng

I’ve been on a baking kick with sweet breads lately, making loaves of lemon blueberry and banana chocolate chip.

Like yoga, the process of baking forces you to be totally in the moment.  If you don’t put in the right measurement of baking powder, the bread won’t rise; too much grated lemon, and mouths will pucker.

I love the chemistry of putting different ingredients together to create something delicious, and experimenting to see if different variations will create something even yummier.

If only people would look at interacting with others the same way.

Most of us prefer spending time with like-minded folks, who many times also look like us. Usually, we have a common cultural background, common interests and a common language, which makes for easier conversations.

If we’re a little adventuresome, we seek out interaction with people who look like us, but may not think in accord with us all the time. We learn a little, argue a little, and maybe grow a little in some areas of our lives.

Those who have a bit of the explorer gene in us will look for new friends outside our cultural comfort zone. We enjoy meeting people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, we like trying new foods, and we’re less likely to judge those who are different because we’re often considered the oddball in our own families.

There are also the explorer types who are as judgmental as those who have never ventured far. They look down on the homebodies who disagree with them as being narrow-minded and provincial, and extol the virtues of other cultures, perhaps because they’d rather not deal with their own families at home.

The truth is, we’re all a little narrow-minded and provincial. We like having our opinions, and don’t like being pushed to examine them because we fear we’ll have to change our behavior if we admit we are wrong about something.

At the same time, the more we open the door to new people in our lives, the more interesting our lives will become. With new people come new shared experiences, new joys, new dislikes, and new arguments. Interesting, of course, does not necessarily mean easy.

What gets easier, over time, is understanding that just because we disagree about something doesn’t mean we don’t care about the other person. If anything, the more we care about someone, the freer we are to disagree, because we know that no matter what we say, the other will still love us for who we are.

I love meeting people who have different perspectives from mine. I don’t like being around those who want to argue for argument’s sake, but an interesting conversation to me is like making a good sweet bread. You throw together different viewpoints to see what wonderful new ideas may emerge.

And when all is said and done, you savor the flavor of friendship.