Monday, September 27, 2010

How to Not Get Hired as My Nanny

Our delightful, creative, beautiful soul of a nanny recently got an opportunity for a part-time job in the art world, which is supreme for her career as an artist, bad news for us. The good news is she will still be working with us three days a week, but now I have to find a Tuesday/Thursday nanny. Oof.

Notice we are not looking to hire a "sitter." To me, there is a big difference between a nanny and a babysitter. A babysitter is a responsible, kind, mature person who will keep your children alive and relatively unharmed for 3-4 hours once in a while while you go have dinner with your husband. Or run errands. Or clean out your garage. Or whatever, but a sitter is not the same thing as a nanny to me.

A nanny (or a "manny," hey, I'm open-minded) is someone who is a true collaborator in helping you raise your children. A nanny is a professional who brings ideas to the table. A nanny knows, supports and works to help implement your family's philosophy about such things as diet, media consumption, discipline, and sleep. A nanny is engaged in your children's lives and contributes positively to their development as little emerging people. And she/he has fun while doing so. Basically, Mary Poppins without the priss-pot attitude. We've been lucky. The three women who have been our children's nannies over the last 5 years have been all of these things and more.

I'm now in the throes of trying to hire someone for this Tue/Thur position, and I've been amazed at the cluelessness of some applicants. If you happen to be reading this post and you are looking for a nanny job, try to not do any of the following:

1. Cancel your interview 30 minutes beforehand because you are "too tired from working six days this week." You think you're tired? Try on my life for a few days. If you are too tired even to sit down over coffee and talk to us, there is no way you are going be able to handle our active 3 year old rascal and her 5 year old drama queen sister. Fail.

2. After cancelling your interview, attempt to reschedule it during the workday. Um, hey there, the reason I need a nanny is because I WORK DURING THE DAY. No, I will not be scheduling an interview with you "mid morning" after you have presumably had your beauty rest because that is more convenient for you. Double Fail.

3. Repeatedly misspell basic words in your resume. Anyone who has graduated from middle school should know how to use word processing tools. I know I'm not hiring a schoolteacher or a copy editor, but come on, use the grammar and spell checks! They're free! It takes 2 minutes! I can forgive a "it's" for an "its" every once in a while, but five misspelled words, three misused words (e.g., "where" for "were" - really?) and countless punctuation errors in a short two-pager of a resume = not detail-oriented enough to keep up with two preschoolers.

4. Have a blog that reminds me of that chick who was my buddy's psycho ex-girlfriend. I can probably find your blog/twitter account in less than 5 minutes on Google. If it's public, it's fair game. I know blogs often serve as expressions of a person's deepest feelings and perhaps we shouldn't judge people based on their scary blogged thoughts, given that darkness is in all of us. However, when the actual facts of your life that you choose to highlight and make public to the world on your blog make you look like a tragedy magnet, you are likely not getting hired to take care of our precious children.

5. Engage in Facebook Foolishness. Even with limited privacy settings, I can still usually find your profile picture. I can usually also see your "likes" and other things that give me clues as to who you are. I would not refuse to hire someone because they are drinking beer or acting goofy in a FB picture (because that would be a total double standard given my own behavior). But if you appear unhinged, I'm not taking any chances.

6. Make ugly remarks about your current/past charges or their families. Gossipy, rude comments do not endear you to me, especially if you are trying to buddy up by contrasting us or our choices in comparison. If I specifically ask you "what is something that has bothered you in past jobs?" or something like that, by all means answer honestly, but you can do that diplomatically without slamming a mom or calling a kid a brat. Actually, never refer to a child as a "brat." It's a sign that you come to snap conclusions about a child's character based on exhibited behavior. To be clear, this is a bad thing. Caregivers should judge a behavior and have or develop an intention about how to address it, not judge the child. All kids can act up from time to time, and all "brats" have a nugget of goodness in there somewhere. It's your job to help bring out that goodness and work cooperatively with the parents to change the undesirable behavior, not place a label on a child.

7. Have a photo on your resume that screams "I've got a 'tude". You need to appear cheerful, loving, honest - the epitome of a shiny happy person. If you are throwing a Snooki pout in a photo on a nanny resume (I swear, I actually got one of these), I am not going to even call you.

8. Lie. I will probably catch you, and even if I don't, some instinctual warning bell will go off in my head about you and I'll know something is wrong.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

ACL on the horizon. And the kids are going to be alright.

Ah, the Austin City Limits festival!

I am particularly excited about this year's ACL because (1) I am not pregnant, (2) it's in mid-October so maybe it won't be over 100 degrees, (3) I have new sassy rain boots and a bright orange poncho to wear in case it rains, (4) I have access to one of the backstage VIP areas (free drinks and snacks! clean porta-potties!), and (5) both of my kids are finally old enough to go for at least a few hours.

ACL being much on my mind at the moment, here are some bossy and somewhat judgmental observations about attending ACL with young kids (under 6, in my case):

1. Know and respect your family's limits. Do you really think your 3-year-old can handle the full 11 a.m. -10 p.m. day at ACL? In the heat/rain/noise? Getting stepped on by staggering college kids in the dark? I think you know the answer. Consider this schedule: get there right when the gates open, early in the day for some non-crowded fun. Start out in the covered CLEAR4G tent (i.e., what used to be called the gospel tent - I don't know if people still refer to it that way) for some rousing gospel tunes and then go a couple of hours at the Austin Kiddie Limits area. Kiddie Limits is awesome. Last year I actually had more fun there than anywhere and not just because E got to go on stage with Lulu from Thievery Corporation (see photo below). It's nice and shady, the bands are fun, there are all kinds of art and other activities for the kids, and it's next to the volleyball sand pits. Which they turn into a "beach" and which are also shaded. Walk around a bit to hear parts of some non-kid bands, have some late lunch, maybe head back to the "beach."

Then right as they are about to get to their grumpy place, which is sometime in the mid-afternoon for us, take them the heck home (or better yet, have them retrieved at Shady Grove or somewhere), leave them with a family member or sitter, and go back out to have grown up throw down time. OR, if the back and forth travel isn't an option (i.e., you bought two one-day passes instead of a wristband, SUCKAH!), consider having one day be "for the kids' sake" only, design that day totally from their perspective, and then go on the other day with just adults.

While I am generally of the "just try it!" mentality when it comes to adventures with kids like dining out in nice restaurants, camping, airline travel, or sitting through a full-length church service, I also believe you have to know when it's time to throw in the burp rag. If your monkey has completely lost it and is showing signs of dehydration, I don't care how much you paid for that ticket or how bad you want to see The Black Keys, pack it up and get her home asap. Sheesh. You're just making her, yourself, and everyone around you miserable.

2. Hydration, shade and sunscreen. Duh. Obvious, but had to mention it. I've seen some bad deals in past years. As in I-should-probably-have-called-CPS level bad.

3. Respect other festival goers. I know this sounds preachy, but . . .please don't make all the other parents look bad by, for example, wheeling your massive double-BOB up and parking it where you know darn well the dance pit is going to be. Please do not change poopy diapers right there in front of everyone! I know you are tired and you worked hard to position your blanket just so, but go over near the porta potties or behind a tree to do that. Don't let your kids run madly around and bother people who are there without kids - either because they don't have them or because they are paying someone $150 to keep them all day so they can by gosh enjoy the festival. Common sense, parents, common sense.

4. Food. Food at ACL is generally pretty fantastic for festival food, but it's expensive and they don't always like it, which can make the $7.50 per sandwich investment painful. Feed them a HUGE breakfast and last minute snack and then it won't be such an issue. Oh, and the sauce on those yummy Hudson's chicken cones is spicy - watch out for that.

5. Don't be confined to the kids area. Maybe a bit contrary to #1 above, let them try enjoying some "grown up" bands if things are going well. Just don't be a jerk (see #3 above) and don't try to force them to tolerate wall-to-wall sweaty stranger bodies or standing in front of a blaring speaker because you want to be close to the action. We tend to hover around the edges of the crowd. Dance, world music, gospel (the clapping! the swaying!), and hip-hop were all generally popular choices for my preschooler even if she wasn't familiar with the act. Oh, and if there is a Jack Johnson sound-alike playing this year, I guarantee they will love that dude. My girls think Jack Johnson is a kids' musician. And. . .they kind of have a point there, don't they?

6. Be prepared, but don't load yourself down with too much crap. I have seen some families make a Beverly Hillbillies thing of it and have one parent camp out at the "kids beach" with loads of supplies and sand toys and chairs and whatnot, and they use that area as a home base for their festival exploration operations. I think this might work okay if you have a group of several parents and slightly older kids than mine (mine are 3 and 5), but I like being mobile.

My ACL bag will have water, one snack per kid (shhhhh!), sunscreen, lip balm, sani-wipes, hand sanitizer, a fully charged cell phone, maybe a small camera, cash/cards/id, bandaids, a copy of the schedule and one insect wipe towelette (OFF makes them - yes, I know they are not natural, plant-based repellents in the OFF. Sometimes you have to go with the chemicals to get the convenience). Maybe some rain gear if that looks to be necessary. No blanket, no chairs. I even go stroller-free, but I am that way.

7. Safety first. See March 16 post below on crowd/festival safety. The "Tag a Kid" thing is key.
8. Relax some limits and get a little goofy. Let them get really dirty, let them have the extra sugar and the lemonade, let them get inappropriate temporary tattoos. Let them see you cut loose and dance wildly in the rain. It's just one weekend.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Come and Take It. . . 2010 version

Reeling from the mainstream media bandwagon surrounding various greening efforts, and feeling near constant societal pressure to "reduce, reuse, recycle!," including listening to First E sing the Jack Johnson song of that name over and over, the grump in me has had enough. I am just going to go ahead and say it - sometimes I NEED plastic bags.

These thin, rustling symbols of environmental irresponsibility have an important place in family life, especially when you have very young children. I am tired of not having one around when I need it, and of getting the stinkeye from a checker for purposefully not using my own bag because I need to replenish my diminishing home stash. We do lots of nice green things, what with the green products, the shopping locally, fixing leaky faucets, turning off of lights, waste-free lunches for the girls, unplugging of things and such, and yes, we do have our own reusable bags. Which we use most of the time, I swear, with all the smug self-satisfaction I can muster at the checkout stand.

But dang, y'all, do I have to give up plastic bags entirely. . . really?If plastic bags are eliminated, what will I use to . . . clean out the cat box? Cart home baby and toddler clothes soaked with fluids (and sometimes solids, let's be honest) I don't want seeping around in my bag? How to . . . wrap up a diaper on the go, especially if it happens to be a cloth one? Pick up after the dog on a walk? Pick up dead birds, snakes or cucarachas, or the cat's vomit after she eats a bird/snake/cucaracha?

I supposed I am expected to come up with some washable, reusable option for each of these messy little chores, or purchase a compostable item made from corn or something to fill the gap left when plastic bags finally disappear. In addition to the fact that I have neither the time nor the organizational skills to sketch out a specialized enviroplan for grody everyday situations, buying things leads to another source of guilt - excessive consumerism.

A few weeks ago I bought some adorable "non paper towels" and wipes as well as some reusable snack bags from the darling ladies at Curly Cupcakes, so I'm really trying here. But I spent over $30 on this stuff, and that was with the discount I got from a listserv. What of people who cannot afford to purchase a cute little resuable dirty diaper tote (aka a "wet bag") or biodegradable doggy do bag made from corn (assuming this product even exists)? Is the elimination of plastic shopping bags further proof of the clueless snootytude of the green movement? Are poor people just supposed to use their hands to scoop the poop? Not have a dog? There is a lot to think on here.

God Bless Target. It's a safe bet that Texas will go blue before Target stops offering those lovely, commodious, red and white plastic bags. Thank you, Target, for everything you have given to me and my family. Not the least of which is an unending source of cat box sanitation tools.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

"Dude, I thought YOU were watching her!?. . . "

It's March in Austin, when there are daily opportunities for free fun involving crowds, much of it kid-friendly. The Zilker Kite Festival, SXSW, the Rodeo, St. Patrick's Day festival . . .with a crowd comes the opportunity to lose your kids. Or to think you lost them. Or to blame your spouse for losing them.

I speak from experience. Last year at SXSW's family showcase at Auditorium Shores, we were enjoying a blissful sunny day of watching E dance in the kiddie mosh pit and chasing 1-yr-0ld S around. I went off to play with S in a non-crowded area, leaving JP in charge of E. When I came back, he was engaged in talking with a friend at the edge of the pit. I waited a respectful 20 seconds and then said, "where's E?" Actually, I think I might have said "WHERE THE F@#$ IS E, G-D IT?!!!" To which he responds "right over there" and points casually at the seething nest of wildly dancing children. I squint and scan. NO E. Freakout ensues, police are consulted, friends go flying in all directions on the grounds. . . E is located about 7 minutes later, crying in the lap of a wise mom who told her to stay put and that her parents would find her eventually. Turns out she'd gone off looking for me in the opposite direction and walked all the way over to the fence line. Jeez. Pretty much the worst parenting moment to date.

Since that horrible day, we've implemented a few checks and balances that not only have prevented either of our little adventurers from disappearing again, but have made us calm and happy in crowds and while traveling. Here's my list, particularly targeted for the preschool set:

1. Adult Accountability. At all times, whichever adult is "in charge" of whichever kid needs to be clear that he/she is in fact in charge and that this assignment doesn't change unless you say some magic words, even if three other people, one of which is the other parent, are standing there with you. Crowds, especially parties, tend to create a false sense of security in that everyone thinks "someone must be watching them." This is especially important when managing more than one critter. And this seems obvious, but. . .at least one of you has to stay completely bone dry sober. Relaxed inhibitions + slower reaction time = well, you know.

2. Mobile Phone Photo. Before you head out, take a full-length photo of your child using your phone in whatever he/she is wearing that day. If it's cold, take one with coat/hat and one without. Have them stand next to something for scale. This way if they get lost, you can instantly email that photo to everyone and anyone who might be able to help you search, and you have an up-to-date picture with exactly how your child looks on that day. Hey, it worked on that commercial with the college kids and the little lost dog, right?

3. Take advantage of "Tag a Kid" or similar festival resources. At the Austin City Limits music festival, the grounds incorporate a booth where you can sign up your child for a security band. Before we had children, we used to joke and say this would be better as "Tag A Drunk" in order to keep track of loser roommates and boyfriends with a predisposition for passing out, but now I totally get it.

4. Make your own ID. In the wake of the SXSW 2009 debacle, I spent about $50 on some custom-printed wristbands with child's first name and both of our cell phone numbers. You could also just write a cell phone number on a plain band, or with a Sharpie on their arm, and if you are worried about chestermolester types establishing rapport by reading your kid's name off of her wrist you could leave off the name. I have never tried those electronic kid-locator devices, because they seem lame and are expensive, and most of the places where we are in crowds are too noisy for them to work anyway. You can also write names and your contact info on their shoes, in their pockets, backpacks, etc., but I like the wristband because not only is it easy to see, it kind of reminds the kiddo about why it's there.

5. Teach kids the rules. Even a 3-year-old can understand: (1) stay close to mama and daddy, (2) don't run off, and (3) if you do get lost, find a mama with kids or a police officer and tell them "I am lost. Please call my mama." We play games with this now, and I take every opportunity to reinforce the three main rules. For example, when we are out and see an officer or security guard, I point him/her out and tell them that is what you look for if you get lost. We ask questions like "How can you tell if someone is a police officer?" "What does a police officer wear?"

6. Get involved. Meet your "neighbors." If you are at an event with lots of kids and parents, chat up the people around you and by gosh do not feel bad about saying, "hey, uh, your little dude is way over there by that tree." Also, attending events with friends who have kids of the same age is great for keeping them in check. I have found that E is much less wander-prone if she is with a little buddy.

7. Give clear boundaries within which they have freedom to roam. This worked great with E and her little friend W last weekend at Jo's. Jo's is a crowded outdoor coffee shop/venue with a big parking lot, cars coming and going, right off a busy street. Right when we got there, we showed them where they could and couldn't get to and can you believe it, they listened. We were there for at least an hour and they only needed a couple of reminders.

8. Bright clothing. Seems obvious, never thought of it until I almost went crazy searching that outdoor crowd for my little E dressed in her hipster muted browns and greens.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


Yes, this is a gross post. Sorry. Just remember it's here so when you get that dreaded email from the school nurse about lice in your kids' class, you can come back to this.

We learned all about lice a couple of summers ago when E came home from a day camp with some critters. To be fair to the camp, it was a very lovely dance and theater camp, but they tried on/exchanged costumes and hats all day. Recipe for licedisaster right there. I spent a lot of time researching and trying out different things, even paying $10 for some Australian lady's online handbook about "Living Lice Free." I'm grossed out just typing that.

Anyway, here's my magic list on prevention and treatment. Since that awful experience a couple of years ago, we've dodged the cootie bullet everytime it's come up at school. And lest you think it's only my kids' hippie school that has a lice issue, last year Eanes (the fancy Austin district) had a rampant lice EPIDEMIC.


There are a lot of natural prevention products out there (Fairy Tales is my favorite), but in addition to the obvious (don't share hats, jackets or combs), there are some simple and inexpensive options for prevention. I do some or all of these things when we get "The Email" as well as after a break (holidays, summer) at school when kids have been traveling, hosting relatives, etc.

* Use tea tree oil shampoo and conditioner. You can just add a few drops of tea tree essential oil to your regular shampoo/conditioner. Lice also hate lavender and coconut.

* Use a leave in conditioner or hair gel. Coating the hair makes it hard for the critters to stick to the hair shaft. You can also put some tea tree oil in this.

* Don't wash hair every day. It is easier for lice to attach to squeaky clean hair. This is counterintuitive, I know. But true fact -super clean kids get lice easier than dirtier kids.

* Put long hair in a ponytail and braid it. Finish with a good spritz of hairspray.

* My coworker swears by this one: dab a bit of tea tree oil/lavender around the base of neck. Use caution as some kids are sensitive to direct essential oil application.

* Check hair every day after kids come home from school - if you can catch them before they have a chance to lay too many eggs, eradicating them will be a lot easier.

* DON'T use Nix or other poisonous treatments "just in case!" They kill only live bugs, and there is no point in using these highly toxic treatments if there is no evidence of lice. That would be like taking a massive course of antibiotics because you heard a kid at school maybe had strep. If you are just freaking out and need to do something, anything, cover hair in coconut oil, put a plastic cap on and leave it there for 3 hours. That will smother whatever live bugs might be in there and also act as a repellent. And make hair really soft and nice smelling!


* First, stop freaking out. Your kid is not dirty, you are not a bad parent. It's not the school's fault either. Now that you've got that out of the way, let's move on.

* Like the overuse of antibiotics, the overuse of lice poison (Nix, Rid, and prescription stuff) has resulted in ever more resistant critter strains. Not only are they harsh on hair, the environment, and little neurosystems, the chemical treatments just aren't working anymore. Same thing with the home sprays. Lice aren't like fleas or ticks. They can't live more than 24 hours without a host, so you can just wash bedding, car seat covers, and clothes in hot water, soak combs/brushes in alcohol, bag up stuffed animals and pillows for a few days, and vacuum the daylights out of your house. If you can't help yourself, just use the hair poison ONCE, and then rely on daily manual nit removal, or a follow up nontoxic treatment.

* Even CVS and other mainstream drugstores nowcarry nontoxic treatments that work better than the poison. Cool Cuts for Kids (on Bee Cave) carries the "Fairy Tales" line, which has a treatment mousse that is supposed to kill live bugs but also dissolve nits, making it easier to remove them. I have not had to use this yet, but I have heard it works great. We have a box in the cabinet just in case.

* Once lice hatch, the new bugs (called a "nymph") are not able to reproduce for 7 days, which means if you (a) initially kill the live ones using whatever method you prefer (and please consider NOT using the toxins), (b) remove nits and any nymphs that might hatch out every day for a week, (c) wash clothes and bedding every day in hot water, then (d) use a follow up nontoxic "smothering" (covering the hair in coconut or olive oil for 3 hours) or other method about 5 days after your first treatment, then you're probably good.

* What is a nit? It's a very tiny little egg that is stuck to the hair shaft with a powerful "glue." If it brushes out easily, it's just dirt or dandruff. If you have to use your fingernails, it's a nit. Google images to help you see what they look like before you get started.

* Have two different people help with nit removal and to do the hair in sections. It's really hard to see those tiny little things.

Good luck.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Scottish Rite Children's Theatre - GO!

The SRT Children's Theatre is something else. Affordable, non-scary, modern interpretations of classic children's stories. The 45-minute shows are paced just right for young attention spans and the actors are adept at involving the young audience without allowing a melee. SRT says their shows are best for ages 3-10 (I'd say more like 3-8. 10-year-olds these days are mighty sophisticated.).

The productions take place in the dark wood-paneled, windowless, kinda dusty, historic building used by the Scottish Rite Masons since the late 1800's. Using backdrop screens that are over 100 years old. How cool is that? The first time we came here when she was 3, E was all, "Uh-uh. I am NOT going in there. No way," but after a few minutes of sitting in the lobby allowing her eyes to adjust to 120 years of darkness and staring at paintings of long dead old white men, she was all over it. My little goth in training.

They take out the center section of seats and put down mats for the children to use, which leaves plenty of room for you to find a seat nearby and still be able to see your child ("You go sit over with the other kids, love. I'll be here texting Daddy a to-do list and Facebooking."). Rules are simple and appropriate for the age group: keep your seat, don't talk over the actors, and if you get shushed, shush. Totally doable, shared in a humorous way ("take out a big stick of Bottom Glue and rub it alllll over your bottom. . .") and they even do a rules session for parents (the usual, involving cell phones and flash photography), which the kids think is hilarious. One thing to note - they do charge for every body that comes in the door, even if it's a tiny body. So when you are deciding which family members to bring along, be aware that you have to pay $4 for your infant (under 1 year). Kids over 1 are $8, and adults are $10.

Yesterday E and I (S was home napping) saw the SRT's production of Alice in Wonderland, which was exciting and snappy, even enjoyable for parents. Tweedledum and Tweedledee were played as a Bill and Ted-ish duo of teen goofiness, which may have gone over the heads of some of the kids, but still they laughed. The costumes were vivid, with just the right amount of glitz (Mad Hatter looked a bit pimpy, but I liked it), and they kept intact the perplexing madness so central to the original story while managing to make the show accessible to younger children. The trial scene in particular was fabulous, although the Red Queen's accent was confusing at times (I think she was going for Shrill, Slightly Insane Bavarian, but slipped in and out a bit). Show runs through March 28. Get tickets in advance because they tend to sell out.

Where else but in a town that celebrates pure wackiness could you experience outstanding kids' programming in such an intensely creepy location and love it? Perhaps I've been reading a few too many books with Knights Templar plots or subplots, but say "Masonic Lodge" to me and I'm checking over my shoulder for guys with swords and chalices. If you haven't been to a performance at the SRT (kid or adult), you have to go. Last year JP and I saw the White Ghost Shivers, who are strange enough in a regular venue, here, and he, having never been inside the lodge, looked at me sideways with (I'd like to think) new respect for my ability to find odd things to do . . . or it might have been fear, cause that particular WGS show, which included dancers, was W-E-I-R-D. It felt like we were in an episode of that old HBO show "Carnivale" - I kept expecting someone pale and smudged wearing tattered clothing to jump out and start bleeding from their eye sockets. Eeeesh. Awesome.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Family Restaurant Practice

Some of you may be lucky enough to have children who were perfect restaurant diners from birth, but my two are . . .let's just say if you took a dozen Rhesus monkeys, hopped them up on a case of Red Bull and put them in a burlap sack, the result would still would not be as squirmy as my children. They don't act up, exactly - there's no throwing food, crawling under tables, screaming, or anything, it's just stressful trying to keep them still and seated.

Most other parents I've talked to who have my type of active kiddo either (1) have resolved to just eat at home until they turn 6, or (2) force the issue and create misery all around. I don't like either of those options, because while I do want them to become accustomed to eating in nice sit-down restaurants (visions of elegant dinners with my two young daughters, dressed to the nines, clinking glasses of juice, other diners smiling in admiration at their poise and maturity . . .) I am not willing to ruin other diners' experiences or spend a bunch of $ on a meal I end up hating because I'm spending the whole time keeping them in their seats. And it's completely unfair to the kids, too.

Hence. . .Official Family Restaurant Practice. Aha! We've started doing this at, of all places, the IHOP. In particular, the one at Bee Cave and Mopac. Hear me out. Do I like menus with pictures of the food? No. I am not a big fan of the food at IHOP in general - it's just unimaginative and standard and corporate and all those things people who live in South Austin are supposed to disdain. However: they are lightening fast, cheap, and if you go at 5:00 on a weekday to the one I'm talking about, empty. I think it's empty because it doesn't get truckers and travelers - it's not adjacent to a La Quinta. Bee Cave and Mopac is an odd location for an IHOP. Come to think of it, I'm not sure I've ever seen one off of the highway before.

It's enough of a sit-down place that you can practice manners, but not much of an investment in time or money, and there will be no one there but a couple of tables of senior citizens to bother. We try to request tables a respectful distance away from those folks if they are available. We are very intentional about Restaurant Practice. We made a game out of it, and talked about . . . how to order, saying thank you to waitstaff, tipping, where the napkin goes, etc. I can't believe it took me this long to come up with this. The difference between being intentional about it and just practicing by going out to dinner with friends or on the fly is that when you give a name to something, ours take it seriously and enjoy it. And the food is all simple enough that they'll eat most anything on the menu.

School is closed tomorrow, so I think we'll try it out then. So stay out of the IHOP if you want peace and quiet tomorrow afternoon!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Downtown Girls

I wish we were cool and rich enough to live in a downtown Austin high-rise with children, but we're neither. Living in the '04 is the next best thing, though, and our proximity to downtown makes zipping over there and pretending to be hipsters a fulfillable fantasy. There are dozens of downtown activities to experience with children (AMOA, the library, the bats under Congress bridge, the Capitol, picnic at Town Lake, performances and classic movies at the Paramount, etc.), but down below are my five favorites.

The Downtown Austin Alliance's "This Week in Downtown" email list and website is handy for keeping up - with the email sign up you'll get email updates on street closures (which is not only convenient for driving plans, it also tells you what parades and fests are going on) and downtown activities.

The only downtown museum I'd say stay out of when accompanied by kids is Arthouse at the Jones Center, which showcases contemporary art, unless you've previewed the current exhibit first. It's tempting to run across the street after a visit to AMOA, but E and I once waltzed in there and the young punky girl at the front desk gave me her Teacher Face and was all "you do know there are some explicit exhibits here, don't you?" Er, did I just get mama-judged by a tatted-up 22-year-old art chick? My parenting standards must be really low. We went for pizza instead. Although, I have to say it's refreshing to see a museum that is bucking the trend and not falling all over itself to attract families. It's a comforting feeling to be a targeted demographic, but I appreciate places other than bars that remain havens for grownups only.

These are my favorite activities particularly appropriate for younger kids (under 7) in downtown Austin, with apologies/a shout out to local doyenne of awesomeness Anne Elizabeth Wynn, who wrote a delightful feature on this topic for the Austin-American Statesman some time back with more of a older kids focus and which I would link to if I could find it.

Mine here are in no particular order and if you live in Austin, you've probably done at least two of these things already, but who doesn't love a list?

1. Austin Children's Museum + Jo's Coffee + strolling around 2nd Street (2-5 hours). Yes, I hated a bit on the ACM back in my rainy day post, but here's the secret. Go on a pretty day, not when a new exhibit is first opening, when all the other parents are out doing outdoorsy things with their kids. Try for a 1:1 adult:kid ratio if you have both a baby/toddler and an older one(s). That way someone can stay with Lil' Bit in the toddler corral and the other person can do the fun big kid stuff in the other rooms. Go early in the day (they open at 10), have lunch or a snack at Jo's and then walk around and window shop in the 2nd street district. Speaking of Jo's. . . on films shooting in Austin, does every actor's contract require a visit to one or both Jo's? Every day? 90% of my celeb sightings in Austin have been at Jo's. C'mon Hollywood, we have other coffee shops here. Granted, none of the others offer a tasty pulled pork sandwich, but y'all don't eat anyway, so branch out.

2. The Farmers Market at Republic Square (1-4 hours). I know it's tired to go on and on about how we should all shop at farmers markets all the time, but the downtown market is not only a great place to get your food, it's a hoot for young kids. Sure, you can meet farmers and buy great local veggies and safe, humanely-ranched meats (the Berkshire pork and Loncito's lamb in particular are tasty), but you can also dance to a band, watch a cooking demo, have a snack and tea, pet friendly dogs, and run around on the hill. And if it's warm, you can play in the fountain. You can fill almost an entire Saturday morning with this outing, and it's easy to combine with other downtown activities, because you will have already found a great parking space, and why waste that? When we go I always feel like we are rushing just to buy food and hit the road, and I am resolved to stop doing that and experience the market more slowly and from my children's perspective. As soon as it warms up.

3. Parades and Walks/Runs. (2-5 hours) Even if the parade has a lame premise, kids will go bonkers over marching bands, boy scouts on floats, the Luling Watermelon Queen waving at them, whatever. And participating in a walk or watching a marathon or a triathlon can be really entertaining - always something to see in a crowd. Our girls love the AIDS Walk. I already have red tutus for them to wear next year!

There's the Chuy's Thanksgiving "Children Giving to Children" parade, or Veteran's Day, or Juneteenth, or go down there when the Republic of Texas biker rally roars into town, or the Pride Parade. Sometimes those last two happen on the same weekend in June, a coincidence I've always found charming.

Except for walks, we opt for a backpack carrier instead of a stroller for most crowded events. Easier to keep track of your kid, you have hands free, they can see great from up there so there will be less complaining, and noone (including you) will spill a drink on their heads. Come to think of it, we frequently opt for the backpack over the stroller. Ironic result for a family that owns 4 strollers, two of which each cost more than I used to pay in rent.

You can find out from the City of Austin special events website which parades and street fairs are coming up, although with a few exceptions (like First Night Austin) we usually avoid large street fairs with young children - a lot going on and not enough of it little-kid-friendly, it's too easy to lose them, food is expensive and lines are long. But there are more parades and smaller street fairs going on in Austin than you think. Coming up March 6 - Texas Independence Day parade. Yee-ha! My hands down favorite, though, is the Dia de Los Muertos procession and festival hosted by Mexic-Arte in October.

This photo taken at Dia de los Muertos is old because we weren't able to go in 2009, but I can't wait until next year. I am already sketching out how to paint a calavera on E's face. I have a feeling S won't let me get near her with a brush and paints, but we'll see. Maybe I'll just swipe a Frida unibrow on her and call it a day.

4. Tea (or hot chocolate and pastries) at the Driskill Hotel (2-3 hours). During the holidays, the Driskill's 1886 Cafe does a formal afternoon tea, perfect for little girls who consider Fancy Nancy a celebrity. But even during the rest of the year you can put together your own special tea time or hot chocolate break, and then stroll upstairs to walk around the gorgeous lobbies and maybe hear some piano in the bar.

5. Check out whatever they are presenting at Ballet Austin's rehearsal space, then go have a treat at one of the 2nd street restaurants (2-4 hours). BA has performances at the rehearsal studio that are perfect for children, and sometimes even kid-specific performances. We attended an outstanding mini-Peter and the Wolf (45 minutes - perfect) performance last year. Lots of thoughtful aspects - for example, they had the dancer playing the wolf come in before the show holding his wolf head and demonstrate putting it on in front of the children, so noone freaked when he later crept out on stage in character. Simple, brilliant. A couple of weeks ago, E and I went to a Ballet Austin Family Dance workshop. I tell you what, that was the best $10 I have spent in ages. The junior company did some demos, then worked with the kids to assemble their own dances. E was in heaven. That night when I tucked her in she said "I am closing my eyes so I can see the dance I'm going to create in the morning." I about passed out.

See you downtown!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Planes, Trains and VRBO - low stress travel with kids

We love to travel as a family. Our children each had their passports by the time they were six months old, and we also take a lot of car trips, domestic vacations, and quick little overnights to places that wouldn't seem thrilling to a globetrotting grownup, but which our kids love. They don't know that going to Ft. Worth isn't the same thing as going to Reykjavik.

Books and websites on family travel abound, but here are my top ten personal tips for stress-free travel with very young children (under 5). Note: these are all focused around reducing stress. If you are looking for tips on how to have adventures, go read Willa's World (sidebar). M&J really know how to adventurize! Me, I love to experience their adventures as a spectator and a dreamer, but I'm not up for having any like that just yet. Maybe in a couple of years. . .

Also, I've yet to do a Europe or Asia trip with kids, so I can't offer any tips on lengthy flights. We'll find out in May how we do with that when I take E to Madrid. Can't wait!

1. Do it. Start early. Take some practice runs to grandma's.
Like anything in life, if you start traveling early with your bab(ies), both you and they will get good at it, and fast. I remember the first flight we took with E, to San Francisco. She was 2 months old, and pretty easy, but I had a major case of nerves and poor JP had more gear to carry than he could handle, half of which was unnecessary. We all got through it okay, but we learned a lot about her and ourselves that made the next trip smooth as chocolate pie. Taking your first few trips to a place where you have a lot of family/friend support will ease the arrival stress and give you extra help when you need it. Also, taking short overnights is less intimidating. If you can be back home in 45 minutes, who cares if things aren't perfect and you decide you've had enough - less investment equals less guilt at pulling the plug. We did this once when we took E camping at 6 months and it was hot and buggy. Packed it up, headed home.

2. Cities over resorts/remote locations in the early years. I think I'll have to do a whole 'nuther post on why urban vacations are fabulous for kids, but bottom line is: people actually raise children in cities. They don't raise them at resorts. That means that everything you need to entertain/feed/gear up your child is going to be available right when you need it and at normal prices. Park with swings and a sandbox? Right around the corner from your flat (see #4 below). Diapers in the middle of the night or forgot the paci? Downstairs at the mercado. Top-notch pediatrician on the metro route? Oui! You go to a resort, you either pack it all in yourself (stressful!) or you pay top dollar for it (more stressful!). If you are the kind of vacationer who stays at the Four Seasons in Bali and has a nanny who travels with you, then never mind, but for the rest of us, a city rocks.

3. Pack as light as possible and rent or borrow equipment at your destination. This is especially important for airline travel. You're going to have enough to deal with keeping up with your children. You don't need 23 different other things to keep track of. You can buy diapers when you get to Chicago, no need to pack a week's worth. In extreme cases, you can pack a box with clothes and supplies and mail it ahead. We even rent car seats (some people disagree with this tip, but we've always had good luck). Even if you are traveling to a resort, you can call ahead to reserve a crib and who knows what else. I also like using a backpack carrier instead of a stroller. Our travel backpack is a Kelty kind of like this one but with a removable pack. Using a backpack gives you hands free to carry other stuff/keep ahold of another kid and reduces the number of items you have to manage.

4. Rent a house or condo with a washer and dryer/kitchen. This cuts way down on what you have to pack, and makes mealtimes more calm because you can prepare at home at your pace. Eating three a day out with kids? Not with mine, thank you. A lot of these rentals will also have high chairs, cribs, and other gear (our place in Seattle even came with a stroller!), obviating the need to lug that darned heavy pack-n-play cross country. We use HomeAway/VRBO for U.S. travel and I am pretty sure we got a Costa Rica house and our Montreal flat there as well. Out of 10 or so rentals, we only had one negative experience and even that wasn't too awful (it involved New Orleans, a 100+ year old house, and roaches. Forgiveable, given it was pretty soon after Katrina). The folks you rent from are also founts of knowledge about the area, whether they are a property management company or the actual owners. You can correspond with them ahead of time and find out all kinds of goodies. You'll usually also be staying in an actual neighborhood, which makes you feel mighty local mighty fast, and puts you in the center of kid-related resources you might need. At this stage, we only stay in hotels if there is no other option, or it's a stopover on a longer road trip.

5. Take a diaper bag with a bit more stuff than you need for the expected duration of the flight, "just in case." This is completely contrary to #3, but having a full day or so of basics on your person helps ease the transition when you land, as well as prevents you from becoming one of those stuck on tarmac with no diapers horror stories.

Here's what I packed in my diaper bag for a (summer) flight to Costa Rica when the girls were 1 and 3. I had already sent some basics ahead with JP and it was a short morning flight, so this is more streamlined than usual:

10 diapers S
Extra change of clothes for E in baggie
Extra change of clothes for S in baggie
Hand towel
Extra ziplocs
Lunch x2
Snacks x4
2 books (1 board)
2 Toys
etch-a-sketch thingie
coloring book and crayons
Baggie with: Sunscreen stick, Insect spray, After Bite, Benadryl, Tylenol, diaper cream, Neosporin, bandaids
Antibac handspray and hand wipes
Travel bibs/spoon/bowl
Sun hats x2
Wallet, passport, cell phone, cash
Travel affidavits and passports for girls
S water bottle
E water bottle (buy water after checkpoint)
DVD player, 2 movies
toothbrushes and toothpaste

6. Substantial advance planning. Make lists, check twice. Visualize each step of getting to your destination. Talk to your pediatrican ahead of time about any unique health concerns about destination. Confirm and reconfirm shuttle/transit plan/rent car, car seat (this is huge), etc. Leave for airport early. Anything you can plan for, do. Think of all the "what ifs?" and discuss a game plan. You'll not only feel more relaxed, you'll reduce the chances of getting derailed by something unexpected. I know this also reduces the discovery/excitement/spontaneous thrills of the travel experience, but I'm all about low stress at this stage. Plenty of time for going with the flow when they are older.

7. Pack adequate activities and (non-sugary, high-protein) snacks, including (gasp!) a DVD player. Look, I'm all for minimizing screen time, but rules go out the window when I'm trying to keep 2 toddlers sane on a plane. By myself. Did I mention I flew to Costa Rica by myself with them? I am still proud of surviving that one. Save the DVD player for after they get bored with the other activities, and be prepared to stay engaged and change things up every 15-20 minutes. You may not have to, but be prepared. Alternate activity, snack, activity, snack, repeat as needed. Don't even think about trying to read a book unless you have a baby who falls asleep after nursing on takeoff. Actually, babies are easy - they will play with anything, including, for some reason, the flight safety info cards. That once kept E busy for 20 minutes.

8. Don't fly at weird hours. This is contrary to some conventional wisdom that says you should fly with kids during their customary sleep times so they will sleep on the plane, but I think this is b.s., at least based on personal experience. Unless they are tiny babies, 90% chance they won't fall asleep and then you're dealing with demons. And while we are on the subject, can we put a stop to the trend of people showing up at the airport in pajamas? Eesh. Science has given us jersey clothing for a reason. For pete's sake, put some leggings and a cotton dress or shirt on you/your kids. It's just as comfy as pj's and you are teaching them respect for fellow travelers.

9. Take your car trip breaks as picnics at rest stops and playgrounds (small towns always have a cute little city park right off the highway, just get off at the main exit and drive around or ask directions from the fellers at the feed store), not restaurants and especially not sit down restaurants. Kids need to run off some energy and the fresh air will do all parties good. Not to mention that you will pack much healthier and cheaper food that whatever you can buy at a roadside restaurant. I used to think our parents were just cheap for packing picnics instead of letting us eat at McDonald's, but I now I see how smart they were. Also, consider scheduling some drive time after toddler/preschooler bedtime. They'll pass out in their car seats after dinner, and you can knock out 3-4 hours of driving while they are asleep. This also makes transfer to the night's sleeping destination a breeze. On our cross-country road trip last summer from Austin to Seattle, we did this 3 out of 4 nights, and it really helped.

10. Keep your sense of humor. When you are covered in spit-up and food and who-knows-what-else, and your child just offended someone in the next row and you are mentally taking inventory of the possessions spread around your seats, it helps to laugh and imagine how much fun tomorrow will be. The children feel that too - as your stress evaporates, so will theirs.

As a bonus tip, here are three safety thoughts for once they are mobile:

1. Before you go out for the day, take a photo on your phone of each of your kids in what they are wearing at the time, standing next to something for scale.
2. Put an id bracelet on them with your cell phone number(s). We use those disposable ones you get for concerts/events, but in extreme cases I guess you could always just write your number on their arm in sharpie.
3. Go over the rules for toddlers, the number one being "stay close to mama/daddy." Make a song or game out of it or something.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Babies, it's COLD and rainy outside

A quick Google will turn up endless lists of things to do with your kids in the house on rainy/snowy days, but let's be honest, after day 3 of cooking (see photo), art projects, fort-building and compromising of media-consumption limits ("yes, you get to watch the WHOLE movie! Here's some popcorn."), no amount of creativity or patience is going to adequately address the fact that everyone has house fever and things are about to get ugly.

So, where do you go when it's too cold or rainy to play outside? At least when it's 100+ degrees for the 15th day in a row you can go to the pool (again), but cold and rainy weather challenges Southern parents. We're weather wimps. I've been trying to readjust my attitude about weather. If it's warm and it's not raining buckets, go out to the park anyway and get super muddy and gross. Remember how much fun everyone had at ACL fest last year in the mud before they found out the grounds were created with treated sewage? You'll have more laundry to do, but they'll talk about this for days afterwards. Is 35 degrees really too cold to play outside? Bundle up and head out! But if fighting your personal weather demons is not in the works, or it is both cold AND rainy like it has been for the last three days, here are some ideas for Austin.

1. Museums. I bet you thought I was going to say the Austin Children's Museum, right? H-to-the-NO. I would only go to the ACM on a rainy day if it was with a toddler/preschooler on a weekday during the school year, during school hours. On the weekends and during holiday season, it's a zoo, especially if the weather is inclement. Fine if your kids are older and can be set loose to roam, but keeping up with a 3-yr-old at ACM on a busy day drives me to drink. These other museums are much less crowded and pretty entertaining:

George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center. (free admission, charge for special events/performances) African-American history center and adjacent to the Carver library branch. Don’t wait for a special event to visit – it’s outstanding year-round.; 1165 Angelina Street; (512) 974-4926.

Possibly the most visually over-the-top display of collective Texan Pride ever, the Texas History Museum (lots of video, audio, and diorama-type stuff, can also see an IMAX and a Texas history movie there, and have a snack in restaurant), then clear the palate with a dash across street to the sleek, chic, technically too cool for me Blanton Art Museum - both located on corners of MLK and N. Congress. Can I get a YEEE-Hah?;

Texas Memorial Museum & Natural Science Center (free), on The University of Texas at Austin campus. Fossils, dinos, minerals, gems, Texas wildlife (not live!), fish, insects, etc.

AMOA’s downtown campus. AMOA's official "family days" are too crowded for me, but the family lab at the downtown space is always available, and typically has kid-accessible art projects that dovetail with current exhibit. Better for older than 3, but our little ones have enjoyed the lab in their own ways.

2. The library. I'd like to say my children and I can spend a l ong, lovely, quiet afternoon just perusing the books and reading together (awwww!), but I would be exaggerating to a degree that would make LBJ proud. However, as they get older, this is becoming more possible, and we just keep practicing our library skills. The big one (4 1/2) and I can kill an hour or so here, which sometimes is all you need, especially if you are coming from somewhere else and facing down a long afternoon of house arrest. In a couple/few years, budget deities willing, the Austin Central Library is doubling in size and moving to Seaholm. The new kids' section will be walled off from the daytime homeless shelter, I mean, the adult area, and you won't have to shush the kids all the time for fear of disturbing others, especially others who probably are suffering from PTSD. Nice!

3. Best for getting the wiggles out: Indoor bounce house playspaces are popping up around Austin and the surrounding area like mushrooms. It must involve a really low initial investment because it seems like I hear about a new one every week. I like these places for energy expenditure and they make for some really fun birthday parties. Something about them kind of bugs me and I can't put my finger on it. Perhaps it's the idea of paying a total of $14 for admission for two kids - what if I had 4? Sheesh! But still we go. My current favorite in South Austin is Loco Motion at Westgate and William Cannon.

LM is great for younger ones, and they have several well-stocked pretend play areas (a grocery store, diner, veterinarian office, garage, and dress-up/princess). There's a small gated area with Little Tikes stuff for the under-2's and they have free coffee (!) for grownups in the eating area (which is extremely clean and plenty big, even when birthday parties are in the house). LM is a little smaller than the other South Austin place I know about - Goin' Bananas - below is a video of our girls' favorite slide in the GB repetoire.
If you've got multiple kids to manage, especially younger ones, LM is perfect because you can pretty much stand around sipping your free coffee in the center of the place and effectively supervise say, a 4 year old and her friend playing dress up, a 2 year old in the corral, and still be able to see the bounce house area for when they make a mad dash over there and back again. I also just found out that they will let you pay once, leave, and come back on the same day - handy for naps! What's even more fun and Austin-y is the fact that LM is located at the back of an indoor flea market called Marketplace Austin, which has a dynamic that is so, so odd I can't even describe it. You can kill a good 30-45 minutes just walking around and looking at gorgeous quinceanera dresses and broken electronics.

Where do you like to go on rainy days?

[September 2010 update on bounce houses: There is a lot of information out there about the presence of lead in inflatable play structures. I did some research on this and it appears that the structures that were manufactured prior to 2008 are the problem. Most permanently installed bounce house locations use newer equipment. Regardless, before you take your kid to a bounce house place, call and find out if they have tested their equipment or obtained lead-free certification from the manufacturer. All the ones I've called so far are fine. Seems to be the little mom and pop rental places that are still using the older structures. If you do run across one of these at a birthday party or festival, don't run away screaming like a scalded monkey. Just have the kids wash their hands and faces thoroughly after bouncing. No big deal. No need to be Suzy-No-Fun about it.]

Thursday, February 4, 2010

What is this thing about?

Twice this week I have had friends tell me that I need to find a way to share all of my "things to do with kids in Austin" and baby gear lists and summaries and collections of weblinks and other documented results of assorted parenting-related obessions.
This is the best way I can come up with to share such things that doesn't involve late nights (too many of those already for real job - just this Monday I pulled an allnighter then got on a plane to Dallas for a TRO hearing. But I think that belongs on another blog - we'll call it "Musings of the Curmudgeonly Lawyer," perhaps).

Where did the name come from?

"Fuss Bunny" is what my husband and I called First Daughter when she fussed without provocation during infancy. Second Daughter then came along, and she can be quite the Fuss Bunny when the mood strikes. Getting out on the town is one of our favorite ways to remove the "fuss" from the bunnies.
To start, here's a picture of the Bunnies, not fussing, out hiking on the greenbelt behind our house a couple of weeks ago. This is hands down my top favorite (free!) activity for kids in Austin, and one that's become a weekend tradition for us, involving a hike to get tacos and a splash in the creek. Lots of things to explore and learn about, including what a coral snake looks like ("red and yellow, don't touch that fellow!" is my edited version of the classic admonition) and why "leaves of three are not for me."