Saturday, February 26, 2011

Kid art

Collage Z brought home from 1st grade
Owl done by Z while I was at derby practice
Jellyfish by A, inspired by Z's research project

Friday, February 25, 2011

I have moxie

There's really nothing more flattering than hearing you've inspired someone else. A local Chicago gal named Amanda just started a blog called She Has Moxie to bring attention to working women who "combine passions that don't normally go together, create their own path, rise above doubt, employ themselves and lead others, or do non-traditional work for women."

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Grow-your-own babysitter

This is not our babysitter
Between my mom friends in Oak Park, online and at work, I hear a lot about the stress of finding, retaining--and occasionally firing--babysitters.

We've been lucky. We've found teenage babysitters through friends and neighbors, recruited some sitters using SitterCity and ran through 3 out of 4 of our family doctor's kids. Recently I was intrigued by the (sponsored) posts my blog friends Caitlin and Sara were writing about the high-end sitter placement firm K. Grace Childcare, but I was too intimidated to enter to win a free placement.

And honestly, I'm not desperate. Our girls are pretty much angels for babysitters, so we've never had any trouble keeping them coming back. They're also old enough and articulate enough to tell us what goes on while we're out of the house. Which means we don't have to worry about a baby being left alone in front of the boob tube while the sitter spends all evening chatting on the phone (or worse).

But it gets better. We're also growing our own babysitters. We have two mother's parent's helpers who come by weekly to help out for 2 hours. The 11 year old keeps Z and A happily occupied with crafts on Wednesday afternoons, freeing Josh up to write or accomplish a quick errand, and a 13 year old comes on weekends. And since the older girl got a mobile phone and permission to babysit "for real" when she officially became a teenager, so we no longer feel obligated to stick around the house when she comes over.

There are so many great benefits to hiring a mother's helper.
They're young enough to remember how to play (and enjoy it). By the time they're old enough to sit, they'll be familiar with your child and his or her routines. Younger teens don't have the social life of older teens, so they're more likely to be available and happy to sit. In general, I've found they're really respectful of you as a parent and your wishes--even if they sometimes forget little details like cleaning up the toys before moving on.

Financially, an eager, fun young teen is a bargain. Less experience commands less money. We pay our mother's helpers $3 an hour when we're home with them and $5-7 an hour if we're out of the house but nearby. And best of all, unlike high school seniors, newlywed preschool teachers and college students, they'll be around and in my children's lives a good, long time. 

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Saturday at the zoo

It was sunny but chilly when we hit the Brookfield Zoo with my mom and her husband, Rick. We were pushing a new stroller (thanks to a gift certificate given to me by Gilt Groupe!) and we got to see the awesome dolphin show (a first for me!), primates and big cats.


No trip to the zoo is complete without a stop in the Hamill area for self-styled warpaint, guinea pig petting and tropical plant spritzing.
And guess who's getting her 6th visit from the tooth fairy tonight?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Seen in New Orleans

What can you do between 9:30am and 3pm on a Monday in New Orleans? My two co-workers and I started with the touristy-but-worth it Jazz Brunch at the Court of Two Sisters in the French Quarter. Highlights included the buttermilk biscuits, blue cheese potato salad, cajun sausage and pecan pie. Sunshine on my back, coffee in my cup and a live jazz trio pretty much sealed the deal.

From there we walked back to Canal Street and hopped on the St. Charles streetcar. We rode it west a couple of miles before hopping off and walking south to Magazine Street, where we moseyed through fashion boutiques, shoe stores and art galleries (there are also a ton of restaurants). I picked up clever t-shirts for the girls from Storyville.

IMG_2186Unable to find an eastbound Magazine Street bus, we hailed a taxi and drove to Cafe Du Monde, famous for its chicory-based cafe au lait and beignets. The service was more brusque that I remember from my trip there 7 years ago, but the powdered sugar-laden beignets were just as delicious.

How about a Jennifer Aniston portrait in oil?
After dusting off off our clothes, we wandered around the French Quarter, taking in the tattooed, meth-head palm readers, the ubiquitous street bands and shoeshine stands, the painters and caricature artists and scam artists and horse-drawn carriage guides all hollering and bargaining and "where you from?"-ing and generally trying to make a buck.

And the local color wasn't all--the tourists were a sight to behold as well. Check out this lady in red, who we determined was getting paid for her "fantasy day" (her words) with a pudgy white guy.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Now I'm the "experienced mom"

Once upon a time, I was a new mom too
This post was inspired by Teresa Strasser's hilarious and profane tell-it-like-it-is pregnancy and childbirth memoir Exploiting My Baby, which I read as part of the From Left to Write Book Club.

Six years ago, Z was 3 months old and I was heading back to work. I'd spent weeks nursing her through DVD-watching marathons of Gilmore Girls and The O.C., and while I was nervous about leaving her two days a week at our neighbor's home daycare, I was even more freaked out about those other three workdays, when my child was going to be cared for by Josh--proud parent, but utterly inexperienced when it came to caring for babies and children.

Our next-door neighbor Sharon was my (and Josh's) go-to gal when it came to parenting advice. I admired her children's collection of attractive wooden toys and knew I could count on her to always have Infant Tylenol (and Motrin!) in her medicine cabinet. Heck, "going potty at Sharon's house" was a major incentive when it came to toilet training.

Now Sharon's moved up the street to a bigger, better house (and replaced most of those wooden toys with sports gear, a Wii and a Dish subscription) and our elderly neighbor to the south passed on. Two new couples moved in on either side of us in the last year and both are expecting babies in the next month or so. I don't know if they'll look to me as the "experienced mom" next door, but if they do, I'd share what worked for me. It's not the same as advice, because I don't assume what's right for our family is some kind of gold standard.

1. Swaddle for the first month, but don't force it if your baby hates it. Z loved a tight swaddle and A wanted her arms free from the moment she was born.
2. Try to get your baby to accept a pacifier. Or you may become the pacifier.
3. Give breastfeeding a shot. I found it easy and convenient and snuggly as all hell. And I loved having an extra 500 calories in my diet. I breastfed exclusively for about 6 months and then supplemented with formula for another 6-8. There's no shame in using formula. Pumping at work does get old and since no one was giving out gold medals for breastfeeding, I took the path of less resistance.
4. Read Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child and follow Dr. Weissbluth's advice. The ability to sleep is a skill you need to teach your child. Don't believe the crazies who say you'll damage your 6 month old if you let him cry it out.
5. Wear your baby. I loved the wrap-style carriers for infants and the Ergo for slightly older babies.
6. But get a stroller too. If you've got the cash, start with a snap-and-go style stroller for your infant car seat and graduate to a well-made umbrella stroller. Get a used jogger or all-terrain stroller if you encounter a lot of rough roads or paths.
7. Don't go crazy with the baby equipment, but be sure to get a bouncy chair, an infant car seat, a high chair or booster seat and a Britax convertible car seat. Hit up yard sales, consignment sales and parents with kids a year or two older than yours for craptastic plastic toys, pack n plays, exersaucers and the rest.
8. Go out to eat and take your infant with you. You won't be enjoying your meals out in 5 or 6 months, I promise you. And travel while your baby is still young. Moms get nervous about taking their new babies on a plane, but as long as you've got a boob and/or a bottle, she'll be happy (and fly free!). It's one year olds who are holy terrors in flight.
9. Make friends. Having a baby is your free pass to making new friends. Just as my six year old makes friends with kids for any reason ("Hey, you like Harry Potter and I like Harry Potter--let's be friends!"), so do moms ("You've got a 2 month old and I've got a 3 month old--let's hang out with our tits out!").
10. Vaccinate. The data is in. The scaremongers were at best ill-informed and at worst committing fraud.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Dinner at Alinea

On cedar: sweet potato with bourbon, pecans, jalapeno cotton candy
This is a guest post by Josh. He wanted one thing and one thing only for his birthday: the chance to dine at Alinea. This is his report.

Diners at Alinea are rewarded with a copy of that night’s menu, and it is pushing midnight when you finally see in words what you just ate and found indescribable. And indeed, the items on the menu only partially capture the magic of the dining experience. But the meal doesn’t end with the symbolic punctuation-mark memento of the four-hour, 23-course, ungodly expensive meal at what many consider the best restaurant in America and one of the best in the world as well. No, the final part of the Alinea dining experience is the inevitable blog debriefing trying to describe the Alinea dining experience.

Which I won’t do (and probably couldn’t do, either). I will say it was a dreamlike evening, probably the closest an adult can come to the escape, childlike whimsy and wonder of, say, Disney World, albeit several decades removed. And those extra years past youth really do make a difference, since you can actually appreciate the time, skill and expense that went into creating such a fascinating, at times overwhelming meal. In fact, were it not for the price (which, it should be said for point of reverence, is about the cost of our particular family of four descending on the Magic Kingdom for a disposable couple of days, considerably less once you factor in food, souvenirs and flight as well as a place to stay, not to mention the potential degradation of your soul – and Disney doesn’t come with the option of wine pairings, though maybe it should), I’d easily recommend that everyone give it a shot.

Still, I left Alinea with mixed emotions (no doubt heightened by a hungover morning after, when the last thing on my mind was food of any stripe). The meal (a lavish birthday gift, and with good friends, I should add) was truly one of the best of my life, maybe the best once you factor in all the incidentals. I left awed by the restaurant’s attention to detail, its depth of knowledge, its near-inability to be stumped by my increasingly pointed, specific questions about the stemware or the custom-designed sci-fi utensils. Every single person, from the server to the guy who escorted me to the bathroom, appeared prepared for any query and every contingency. Even Chef Grant Achatz quietly explained why dessert does not afford him the culinary freedom the rest of the meal does as he and another team member readied out a totally indulgent dessert by draping the table in a silicone mat and spreading chocolate, blueberries, peanut sauce and other goodies around a steaming block of chocolate mousse that had been frozen in liquid nitrogen.

And yet, I was troubled by the decadence of the evening, the sheer hedonism of sharing in such an almost supernatural meal that felt akin to spending a lot of money on a work of art and then eating it. What a luxury. What opulence. But what bittersweet feelings basking in the glories of the Greatest Chef in the World, knowing not only that I’m not likely to ever do it again, but that most people will never be so lucky as to do it a first time. I feel fortunate, and I’m glad I went, but like the best dreams – both the good ones and the bad ones - I’m left vaguely haunted by its afterglow. 

Colorless halibut with black pepper, vanilla, lemon and coffee
So what did I think? It was certainly one of the most memorable meals--even experiences--of my life, but I'm still trying to get over the sticker shock. If I was to do it over again, I'd skip the wine pairings and focus my taste buds exclusively on the food. This would cut the bill almost in half and have the added benefit of my not being drunk and queasy by the end of the evening. I also wish Alinea still offered a more abbreviated tasting as I as so full and overwhelmed by richness that I couldn't enjoy the last 3 or 4 dishes. That said, I can't wait for Next.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Photoshoot on a college campus

Tulane University made a beautiful backdrop for a photoshoot yesterday. The New Orleans university offers a mix of Gothic and contemporary architecture, enormous trees, stone benches...and even features waterfalls inside the brand-spanking new student union.

We shot images all morning, breaked for a late lunch and then people-watched for a while. We saw a student channeling Alex Keaton in a pink button down shirt tucked into belted khaki shorts who was alternately working at an outdoor table on his laptop and pacing the grass next to the intermural softball players with his cell phone pressed to his ear.

Then there were the two guys giving a third a hard time about a hickey.

"Hey, what happened to your neck? You fall down the stairs or something?"
"Yeah, I ran into a doorknob."
"It felt pretty good when it happened."
"Yeah, I bet it did."

As we walked off campus to our rental car (parked far away thanks to the Rock N Roll marathon that was also yesterday), the strap on one of my Dansko mary janes popped off. This was an especially bad stroke of luck given that the boots I was wearing on the way to New Orleans became non-functional at airport security when the zipper broke. Now completely shoeless, I had my colleagues drop me off in an area I thought might have boutiques.

It didn't, so I hobbled down to the closest shopping center. No Payless or Aerosoles outlet in this mall. No, we're talking Saks 5th Avenue and Gucci. Desperate, I scanned the directory for something in my price range and found Banana Republic. Of the 15 pairs of shoes they had on display, two were on sale and one was in my size.

I am now the proud owner of a pair of adorable black ankle boots with 3 inch heels. Perfect for a day of sightseeing around New Orleans!

Then last night we headed out to dinner with our clients at Luke, a "snout to tail" gastropub much like Publican. Where we learn none of our clients eat oysters, mussels or "heavy food," and one will only eat "vegetarian fare, chicken off the bone, or light, white fish." I thought the waiter was going to kill us.

Today it's just me and two of my co-workers in NOLA. We're going to have brunch at The Court of Two Sisters and do some shopping and sightseeing before our flight home late this afternoon.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Valentine's Day is underway

This year I ordered a booklet of photo stickers from Moo, choosing only pictures of the girls. I then let Z and A go to town, pasting their faces on Valentines for their classmates. Z crafted her own cards with red and white construction paper, markers and stickers (I was so disappointed to find Michaels sold out of doilies), while A "signed" a stack of 30 Princess cards with her smiling mug. Anyway, I'm congratulating myself on figuring out a fun way to personalize cards for kids who can't write (and their friends who can't read).
In other Valentine's Day news, we got to redeem the "Valentine's Day Party with Miss Orfei" prize we'd bid on at the preschool holiday silent auction. A picked 6 friends to join her after school for crafts and chocolate chip cookie baking with her Montessori teacher.

I'm actually going to miss February 14th with the family because I have a weekend photoshoot in New Orleans and I'm staying through Monday to do a little sightseeing. Feeling guilty, I walked over to Old Navy at lunch yesterday and picked out heart-emblazed tee shirts for the kids.

Only to realize I'd left my wallet at the office.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Our Puerto Rico Family Vacation

After spending 3 midwinter family beach vacations in the admittedly ideal Akumal, Mexico, we switched things up a bit this year, heading instead to Puerto Rico with both children and my in-laws, who are in their 60s. On their recommendation, we spent 2 nights at the quirky, charming Gallery Inn in Old San Juan (a 300 year old collection of interconnected buildings and courtyards teeming with the proprietor's clay sculptures, tropical plants and pet parrots) before renting cars and driving 45 minutes east to Luquillo.

The colorful Old San Juan's not the most kid-centric vacation destination, but the girls enjoyed exploring the 17th and 18th century Spanish fortresses, especially the secret passageways and the dungeon.

We managed to arrive at the Museo del Nino (Children's Museum) right when they ceased selling admissions (1 1/2 hours before closing - unfortunately a common theme throughout our trip, with several museums, parks, restaurants and other destinations mysteriously closed, shuttered or in some shocking state of post-apocalyptic neglect), but the girls had a wonderful time playing in the Raices Fountain, gorging themselves on Ben and Jerry's Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream (in a still-warm homemade waffle cone) and talking to the personable and personality-rich parrots at the Gallery Inn. Z was a trouper, climbing up and down San Juan's steep, narrow brick-lined streets, but I gave in and bought A a cheap umbrella stroller on our first day on the island.

Lock me up, I throw tantrums!

By day 3, the girls were ready for some beach time and so was I. But as we pulled up behind our beachfront condo near the town square, we were a little taken aback. Fully half of the residences on the street were abandoned and/or in an increasingly familiar advanced state of disrepair. The streets--and the surfing beach directly in front of the building--were practically empty.
View from our bedroom window
Josh and I were reminded of the coastal towns in Albania, what with the sparkling sea and beautiful weather contrasted against crumbling cement buildings and immobile, rusted-out cars.

Our 4th floor condo unit, however, was just lovely. It had everything a family of 6 could wish for in a vacation rental, save a dishwasher: 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, full kitchen, ocean front balcony, washer/dryer, tons of beach toys, satellite TV (from which we followed news of the blizzard hitting Chicago, thankful for our comfy Caribbean vantage) and free wifi from the bar next door. Or somewhere; we never did figure out the source of the signal.

But while initial impressions of Luquillo weren't that great, we quickly warmed to the sleepy, decidedly not touristy community. For starters, we were only 15 minutes' drive from El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. Park System. It is beautiful and very well managed, and Z cheerfully hiked up and down the mountain to see its many waterfalls, lizards and birds.
Making mad faces, like the moss-colored rock

Also, only about 15 minutes' walk from our unit was a beach popular with both locals and the handful of visitors staying in condos. The surf was a little heavy, but you couldn't really beat a wide, soft sand beach that stretched on and on and never had more than 20 people on it.

A little further west--about 5 minutes' drive--was the well-regarded "blue-flag" Luquillo Beach, aka "the Puerto Rican Riviera," which offered lockers, bathrooms and showers (for $1 a day), concessions and lifeguards. The crystal-clear surf was calm and perfect for swimming, but like everything else in PR, the beach was not quite as pristine (or popular) as promised. I had to keep the kids from adding cigarette butts to their sand and water stew and stepping on broken glass on the way to the bathrooms.
Luquillo beach
The water, however, was beautiful and we could even see small schools of fish swimming near us. Z claims she saw a crab and refused to enter the water after that.

At the far end of Luquillo Beach was another tourist (and local) draw in its own right: the kiosks. Imagine a 5 block long strip of open-air fast food stands, bars and restaurants that face the beach at the back and the highway to the front. Fully half are shuttered at any one time (some permanently, or at least repurposed as trash bins), and they range from the omnipresent Puerto Rican fried street food (mofongo, empanadas, etc.) to upscale (and fairly pricey) dishes from Italy, Peru, Spain and elsewhere. In fact, Josh and I had two of the best burgers of our life at El Jefe Burger Shack. Mine was stuffed with Spanish chorizo and served with a side of hand-cut fries and a ginger-lemon mojito. Best of all, the restaurant offered up buckets of Sharpies and encouraged customers to graffiti the walls. That kept the kids happily occupied while we waited for our food. (Service in Puerto Rico is very laid back.)
Lemonade at El Jefe

Luquillo is also very close to Fajardo, where kayak outfitters gather at dusk to take tourists out on one of PR's three bioluminescent bays. Because our kids were too small to kayak (and the grandparents not too keen either), we took an electric motor boat out through the mangrove swamp into the bay. It doesn't look like much until the sun goes down and the sky fills with a million stars. At that point you can dip a long stick into the water and agitate the tiny single-celled organisms that live there. They glow in response, which sounds weird and looks positively magical. I was transported, in spite of the decidedly unmagical 3 year old child on my lap, who first needed to poop (the boat captain gamely offered me a roll of paper towels and a disposable poncho) and then complained of having an ear ache, being tired and wanting a snack.

In fact, a lot of our family vacation was marred by our children. A in particular was thrown off by the two hour time change. She stayed up past her bedtime most days and stubbornly refused to nap. She also had a cold when we landed that never lightened up, so she blew through tissues all day and coughed most of the night. While A was refusing to sleep or be separated from me for more than 30 seconds, Z was turning her nose up at restaurant food (spending most of each meal in the bathroom) and surviving on a steady diet of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (one of which she eventually threw up all over our apartment's welcome mat). A put a nice capper on our last morning in San Juan, which we spent at the city's conspicuously modern and well-maintained art museum, by slipping off an outdoor sculpture, splitting her lip and slicing her gum above her already damaged, dying front tooth. Bloodied and bruised, she looks like she got in a street fight, though she did behave suspiciously well on the five-hour flight home.

The girls have also reached a developmental milestone of sorts: they've mastered the art of provoking one another and never seem to tire of competing with each other - and pointlessly, too. In fact, if I have to hear the "'I won!' 'It's not a race!'" exchange one more time, I may swear off traveling with small children permanently.

See all our photos here.