Thursday, May 28, 2015

Long weekend and Manitou Springs

You know, it's been a weird spring. We had a relatively mild winter with lots of warm sunny days in February and March (interspersed with some snow, of course, but still, lots of days at the park in the middle of winter), and then sometime in April, things took a shift toward the cold and wet, and have stayed that way for over a month. This is very unusual for Colorado, and we are not pleased. The amount of wetness has been just totally insane. I really wish we could give some of it to California, because it's way more than we need or are used to.



Also, not sure if I ever mentioned it online, but Torsten changed jobs a little over a year ago, and our schedules shifted with the change, and it's taken us awhile to adjust to the new routine. The change in weather has felt more dramatic for that reason, I think... suddenly we are much more dependent on playing outside than we ever used to be. Thankfully our patio is covered, so when the kids get stir-crazy we can at least go outside a little, but it's not the same as running around the yard, horsing around with each other, playing on the swings, and going for walks.

 



This past weekend, the weather was still dubious (and in fact we did have rain and thunderstorms each evening), but we were so stir-crazy, and so happy to have a three-day weekend of family time with no work, that we decided to take a risk on the weather and drive an hour to the Colorado Springs area on Sunday in hopes of getting some good, pretty, active time in. Luckily for us, we were rewarded with weather that was cloudy sometimes, sunny sometimes, but only rainy during the portion of the day that we spent indoors.




We visited Helen Hunt Falls, which is accessible from the road without a hike, and then did the short (1/3 mile) but steep (200 feet in elevation gained) trail up to see Silver Cascade Falls, which was worth it even though Annika cried the whole way up because she wanted me to wear her instead of Torsten. Luckily she got over it at the summit and was perfectly cheerful the entire rest of the day. Callum also had a little moment partway up the trail after Torsten scolded him for walking too close to the edge where he sat down and refused to continue, but got over it after a few minutes and actually sang the entire rest of the hike.



We had lunch at Manitou Brewing Company, which was delicious (pork belly burger! Also Torsten said their beer was amazing). We walked (and Callum scooted) around Manitou Springs, which is adorable, in a touristy but beautiful way. We headed over to Red Rock Canyon to hike but it was closed because it's been so wet that the sandstone is currently very fragile (see? Too wet! California, please take our rain!) so we headed to Garden of the Gods instead, which turned out to be fabulous. We'd been there before, but somehow not realized that it's more than just the Central Garden; there's a ton of open space and lots of different hikes and it's all stunningly beautiful. We did stick to the Central Garden only because it has wide paved paths that were perfect for Callum's scooter, and it's enclosed enough that we could let Annika run around without worrying that she would, I don't know, fall off a rock or into a body of water or anything like that. We even brought Montana with us (poor, neglected puppy used to come with us on every outing until we had kids... now it's sadly much rarer for her to accompany us on long treks), and she had a great time too. We got home just before bedtime, everyone happy and tired, and both kids slept until 8:30 the next morning, so: WORTH IT.




The rest of the weekend was more low-key but also lovely... swim classes... friends over for lunch on Saturday, where we grilled out and were thankful for both our patio roof and our patio heater... a trip to a garden center for flowers for our barrel planter... the cooking and consuming of much delicious breakfast food... and lots of quiet family time.


 



It was the perfect balance of activities and down time, the kids were happy and well-behaved, and I think all four (five) of us came out of the weekend feeling rejuvenated on family time. Exactly what we all wanted. Even the dog.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Preschooler behavior chart

Callum has always been an easy child, relatively speaking. He's a rule follower by nature and he's quite risk-averse. He's never been a climber or a huge tantrumer or a backtalker or any of the other things that would have me running to one-click that book about raising spirited children that I frequently see recommended. Not to say that he doesn't have his moments, and he definitely has a strong personality and independent opinions, but overall, compared to most of his peers, I would definitely say he's been on the compliant side for pretty much his whole life. Our parenting challenges with him have been of a different sort--encouraging him to try new things, reassuring him that it's OK to fail, helping him learn to focus on trying and effort rather than just results. His natural tendency is to do only things that he already knows he's good at - he likes good results and immediate gratification. That's just who he is as a kid.

That said, these last few months have definitely been a little more challenging with him. In some ways it feels like we're being paid back for what was a relatively easy experience with age three, like he's only just now experimenting with some of the limit-testing and self-assertion that one typically expects from a three-year-old, except it's combined with a four-year-old level of intelligence, verbal skills, and independence.

I don't want to give the impression that he's some kind of problem child, or that most of our time spent with him isn't delightful, because truly, he is lovely, and honestly I think he's probably still closer to the well-behaved side of the spectrum... just maybe not AS close as he was and as a result it feels like a shock to us. He is thoughtful, sensitive, clever, sweet, affectionate and loving, an incredibly kind big brother, surprisingly hilarious, and a lot of fun almost all the time. But in the last few months there's been a lot more protesting, arguing, whining, and crying. A lot of negotiating on his part, a lot of extended protesting when he doesn't get what he wants, and a lot of resulting frustration on our parts. This does not lead to me being the best version of myself as a parent, and I know Torsten feels the same way.

But the problem is that because he's always been so easy, I feel like we as parents are behind the curve, so to speak, on how to deal with these very typical, age-appropriate behaviors, because we were insulated from them for so long through sheer coincidence. It's kind of like sleep--both our kids have been excellent sleepers right off the bat, and we never did anything specific to get them to be that way, so not only can we not take credit for it, but on those occasions when they DO have a sleep issue, we're completely clueless about how to handle it.

ANYWAY, all this is a really long-winded way of saying that hey, I have had the unique and revelatory idea of using a behavior chart for my four-year-old! I will pause now to receive the accolades and requests for paid parenting consultations once you've all had a moment to absorb the breadth of my ground-breaking new suggestion.

In seriousness, though, it did feel like we were kind of unprepared for this stage (especially from those people who promised us that age four would be EASIER than age three, which apparently it is? For many kids? But so far, not ours, alas) and as a result, our parenting of these moments has been very reactive. Lots of making a request kindly and lovingly the first couple times... then escalating into frustration and snapping when he doesn't comply. Lots of off-the-cuff threats of loss of privileges without any real kind of thought or philosophy behind it. And that needs to change.

Enter the behavior chart. Again, I know this is something that many parents use, and it seems that's for good reason: they work for most kids. And for Callum, who has a personality that responds very well to praise and rewards, it seems like a no-brainer.

So! I did some reading up on behavior charts (particularly this, this, and this) and while the sources of some of those are either unknown to me or someone I don't always agree with (*coughDrSearscough* and don't even get me started on the Dr. Sears stance on vaccines), I found that reading those helped me sort of crystallize my thoughts on why we want a behavior chart and how we'd like to implement one. Basically, I feel like this will help us be more consistent about setting limits and interacting with Callum when he's being challenging, while also helping us maintain a focus on the positive (which he responds really well to, like most/all kids). A clear chart that we're all familiar with will help ensure that expectations are clear and give us an easy motivator to use, rather than us casting about in the moment for some kind of carrot or stick to get him to do what we need, which frankly, in ad hoc moments of frustration, winds up being a stick more often than it is a carrot, and that is not how we prefer to parent.

As far as implementing the chart, we came up with a list of seven target behaviors to start with. We're starting with a weekly chart where he can earn a smiley face sticker for each behavior each day, and if he achieves a certain number (five is the target at the moment, but can be adjusted if it proves unattainable)) of smileys in a day, he gets a bigger sticker at the bottom for that day. If he gets a certain number (again, five for now, but we'll see how it plays out) of bigger stickers in a week, he can pick a reward such as getting to watch an episode of a TV show on a weekday (usually a no-no at our house), getting to select a casual restaurant for a meal out, or a new Lego set. We will adjust the behaviors over time to keep on track with current problem areas and also keep the chart fresh, but the initial behaviors we're starting with are:
  • Putting on and taking off own shirt (Callum has a weird THING about his shirt where he finds it annoying to deal with and therefore insists that he can't do it and we need to do it for him)
  • No whining/crying
  • Feed the dog without reminder
  • Eat dinner (Ellyn Satter would probably not approve but Callum's disinterest in eating is at such a point that I don't even care - this is a whole separate topic that deserves its own post)
  • Be kind (I'm envisioning that this is sort of a freebie category where if he does something notably great, we can reward him with a sticker--but it may also play out that he just starts demanding stickers in this category nonstop, in which case this one may require some adjusting)
  • Play nicely with Annika (he always does this anyway--he's GREAT with her--but we wanted some easy ones on there and plus of course this is a behavior we want to reinforce)
  • No arguing at bedtime

So! We've been doing it for half a week now, and of course the novelty factor is in our favor, but so far, it's AWESOME. The first day took some adjustment, but he's figured it out pretty quickly, and honestly, this whole weekend he behaved like a dream. The second morning with the chart I gave him his shirt to put on and he started to whine, "But I can't -" and then before I could even say anything, he stopped mid-sentence and corrected himself and said, "I CAN do it." AND THEN HE DID IT. He's been eagerly helpful all weekend, and talking about what a good listener he is and how he can be so kind and helpful. And the thing is, actually, that a lot of the stuff he did this weekend, a huge chunk of his overall behavior, was actually not connected to the chart. I feel like we basically hit reset and snapped all of us out of a bit of a cycle of negativity. I really feel like it's helped Torsten and me focus on the positive instead of getting frustrated, and Callum is responding really well to that.

It isn't perfect yet--for one, he's already outsmarted us--when I encouraged him to eat his dinner the other day and reminded him about the sticker for that, he said, "But I'm not going to get that sticker and I'll just get all the other stickers and then I'll still have enough!" So at some point there's going to have to be some tweaking. And of course the novelty factor will wear off and I'm sure there will be some backsliding into old habits. But for now, we're off to a great start.

I definitely want to hear if any of you have tried this before, what's worked, what hasn't, if you have any tips for making it successful and sustainable, how you picked the behaviors, what reward system you used, etc. I will report back with a status update once we're a bit further into this!

Friday, May 22, 2015

New Favorite Place: Isla Mujeres

So, yes. In April Torsten and I spent a week in Mexico sans kids. It was every bit as amazing as we had hoped. This view from our balcony pretty much sums it all up:



We went to Isla Mujeres, off the coast of Cancun but very different from Cancun--small, relaxed vibe, and no real nightlife/club scene, at least not at the part of the island where our hotel was. We stayed at the Zoetry Villa Rolandi, where we found an awesome introductory rate because the Villa Rolandi was a previously independent hotel that was very recently bought by Zoetry. Until it was taken over, it was strictly adults-only; now it allows children but isn't really kid-friendly and we didn't see any kids staying there during our visit.



 

We picked the hotel based on a few criteria: we wanted a guaranteed oceanfront balcony (it is surprising how many hotels in Mexico won't let you book an oceanfront room, even if you're willing to pay extra for the guarantee), an all-inclusive resort that had actual good food and drinks, a swimmable beach, nice but not necessarily super luxury rooms, access through a direct flight, and still within our fairly modest budget. This hotel was all that and more. We LOVED it and will definitely stay there again if and when we go back to Isla Mujeres without the kids (if we go with the kids we would probably rent a house/condo or go to a different Mexico location with bigger resorts that have kids' activities and whatnot).


The whole trip was perfect. We spent every day except one at the hotel. They picked us up at the marina in Cancun and brought us over on the hotel boat so that we didn't have to mess around with ferries and taxis. The room was gorgeous, honestly way nicer than we were expecting - the hotel is not ultramodern; it's maybe 20 years old and has some character to it, but that isn't a euphemism for being run-down - it just truly is nice in a sort of mellow way? It has a Mediterranean feel to it. There were two restaurants, one open all day overlooking the water, and the other a fixed-menu dinner-only spot. Both were DELICIOUS, which is kind of amazing for an all-inclusive. The drinks were excellent, and Torsten discovered what is now his new favorite drink, a mango martini made with fresh mango puree. The service was top-notch - everyone was incredibly nice. The front desk guys even obtained a couple of rafts for us (which, for the beach, I highly recommend - it's so nice to bob around the gentle waves on a raft; we discovered this trick on our honeymoon in the Dominican Republic and it was delightful).



And the pool! And the beach! And the poolside service! And the breakfast on the balcony! Just. All of it. As soon as we walked into our room and caught sight of the turquoise ocean out the giant glass wall? I swear both of us FELT our blood pressure drop.



When we did go out and about, we rented a golf cart (standard tourist conveyance) through our hotel and made a day of it, starting at Mango Cafe (definitely popular with the tourists but FOR GOOD REASON YUM), then heading down to Punta Sur, the easternmost point in Mexico where the Caribbean meets the bay, which was spectacular. We then did a quick stop by Tortugranja, the national sea turtle sanctuary, where we also saw an injured dolphin being rehabilitated, before heading north on the island to check out Playa Norte (actually we were kind of disappointed by it - definitely lovely but SO crowded and hot). We had lunch at a little mom and pop taqueria that was AMAZING and then wandered through El Centro, where we haggled for some souvenirs for the kids (and OK fine a couple for ourselves too) before nearly combusting from the heat and humidity. We spent the last hour just driving along the coastal roads taking in the view and marveling over the amazingness of it all.

 


The kids did great with my parents while we were gone--perfectly cheerful and happy, no meltdowns or acting out, so that was nice. Annika definitely did some testing and falling apart after we returned, but for my parents she was perfect. She's about the youngest that we are willing to leave her--we left Callum for the first time when he was about the same age and we went to Maine, and that worked out well, so we had some precedent. And oh, it was such a nice marital retreat, you know? We were so relaxed and we had so much time together and we were able to have so many good and important discussions, figure out some stuff about ourselves and our lives and some of the big things that we had kept meaning to discuss but just never thought about or had the energy for during the daily grind. We definitely came home feeling refreshed and decided on a few points, which was perfect.


If we come back with the kids and rent a house we would also rent a golf cart for the week so we could go out and about as much as we pleased, and try more restaurants (there were quite a few excellent-sounding ones on TripAdvisor and Yelp). We would also try snorkeling, possibly on a cool boat trip. This week was all about decompressing and moving as little as possible, so we skipped those things, but if we were to gird our loins for an active family trip, Isla Mujeres would be a great location for that too. I cannot wait to go back.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

House stuff

OK, please forgive me for being boring and domestic, but in keeping with my whole blogging for documentation deal, all the stuff we've been doing with the house recently has taken up a surprising amount of head space, so here we are.

First, we finally replaced the shed in our backyard. We had this TuffShed playhouse thing that was in the yard when we bought the house six years ago, and while it was cute enough, it wasn't practical--too small and low for real storage, plus not weather-proof because it had open windows and doors. Because it was TuffShed brand, we could probably have sold it for a few hundred dollars, except that there was no easy way to get it out of our yard because it wouldn't fit through the gate. Finally I listed it on Craigslist for free with the caveat that whoever took it would be in charge of cutting it apart and removing it from the property on their own. I had SO MUCH INTEREST that I had to take the ad down after just an hour, at which point I had already received texts, emails, and calls from at least 30 people. I gave it to the first person who asked, which turned out to be two ladies who run a farm in rural Colorado, and it took them FOURTEEN HOURS to take it apart in a way that would allow them to reassemble it again later, but they DID get it done, and they took every last nail away with them, and lo, it was glorious.

With that shed gone, we took the opportunity to replace it with a proper shed that we could actually store stuff in. We found one the right size and structure for what we needed on special offer at Costco, and then the heavens opened and our beloved handyman/contractor, who had moved out of state with no plans to return, actually DID move back and assembled the new shed for us. It's bigger, it's taller, it has room for our lawnmower and our snow tires and our excess patio furniture and our bikes and and and. And it also looks good! See?



Then, because we were finally able to get stuff we've been storing on our side patio off the patio, we were able to get our patio arranged in a really functional, lovely way. I already had a nice patio chaise lounge, and we finally got a matching setup (though he got the chair and ottoman instead of the chaise lounge) for Torsten. We moved things around on the patio so there's a dining area, play areas (with sandbox and water table), and a lounge area. As a final touch, we got a patio heater at Costco, so our patio is usable on cool spring evenings. It has been surprisingly major life change... so much more use out of our backyard! It helps that both kids LOVE the yard (Annika yells "ow-side! ow-side!" the second anyone goes anywhere near the back door) - we basically spend our whole weekends outside, straight through til bedtime, and everyone is happy and tired by the end of the day. It's not magazine-ready, but it is SO FUNCTIONAL:


Lastly, thanks to Torsten's parents' incredible generosity, we are replacing the windows in our house. All of them! Our current windows are the originals from when the house was built 50 years ago. They are plain glass, they have no UV filtering (as a result, the back of our couch, which faces a picture window, is completely sun-faded), they are not at ALL energy-efficient, the wind comes right through them, many of them are missing screens, AND the vast majority of them won't open. But in a month! They will be gone! And we'll have new, modern windows! Our furniture won't fade! We won't be freezing at night because our bed is in next to a window! Also, since we live near the highway, we will not hear traffic noise (we don't hear MUCH now, but we hear things like sirens and 3 a.m. drag-racing, and supposedly with the new windows all we'll hear is blessed silence).

This leads to the question of blinds... which turn out to be staggeringly expensive, at least the fancy ones our window company recommended. This is our major topic for next month (because we can't order until the window are installed so that we can get accurate measurements): BLINDS RESEARCH. Brands! Types! What features are worth paying for and what's a waste of money? How can we get good blinds that do not cost nearly as much as the windows themselves? These are the basic questions of homeownership, yes?

Monday, May 18, 2015

Documentation

Earlier today I had a question about something that happened shortly after we moved to Denver, so I went to look it up on my blog - found the archives for March 2009, scrolled a bit, found the answer to my question, done. Except not done, because I ended up reading back through a few weeks' worth of posts about our move to Denver, and wow, it was such a trip to be able to get a glimpse into my own head, six years ago, and to have a record of our lives with that level of detail.

This is, of course, not a new or unique sentiment, but wow, if I had a question about something that happened last year, or pretty much any time since we had kids, it would be pretty unlikely that I'd find it in the blog, and that's kinda sad. I have no interest in returning to the heyday, so to speak, of my blog, with 50+ comments and hundreds of page views daily (as you can see, I was hardly a big-time blogger to begin with...) not to mention that blogging has, I don't know, changed in the last few years? A lot more stuff happens on Twitter (though I'm hardly on Twitter anymore these days, either), but Twitter is not so helpful with the archives, and also, just generally not the same. Much more about the interaction and less about the documentation.

I do keep a five-year journal, started in January of this year, where I jot down a few lines each night, and that feels really nice, and also satiates my need to write about things quietly, invisibly, for myself. But it's not like a blog post, it doesn't come together the same way, it's not as detailed. They can complement each other.

So let's see if I can blog a bit more than I have been. Daily posts, definitely not, but more than a couple times a year, yes, that seems reasonable. It's nice that I have a blogging and Twitter community and it's helpful to be able to link to tidbits, but really, at this point, I just want it documented. Words and photos, for me and for my family. Nothing earth-shattering, just minutia, truly, the little stuff that makes up the bulk of our lives.

Let's start with some good old fallback bullet points, most of which really need to be fleshed out in their own posts.
  • Torsten and I went to Mexico in April, just the two of us, while my parents stayed with our kids. It was amazing in every way.
  • Callum is going to a different school next year, his last year of pre-k (he will be going public instead of private). This was a long, drawn-out decision and we went back and forth and felt very torn about it and ultimately, I feel comfortable that we did make the right decision, but it's going to be tough to transition out of that tiny little community where we have been very comfortable. This also deserves its own blog post, but I need to see if that's something that I feel comfortable writing in a way that respects his privacy and security (not that I have a blog-stalker or anything, but generally I try to stay away from providing identifying details about schools or other places where my kids spend a large chunk of their time).
  • We are going to be facing a different school/daycare decision for Annika in another year, and after the pain we went through on the school decision for Callum, I am dreading it already.
  • We've been doing a bunch of (mostly small) improvements to the house and yard, and it is amazing how good it makes me feel about life to feel like our nest is in order, so to speak.
  • For more than the past year, Torsten and I have had a childcare setup that includes a weekly date night, and oh, it has been so good for us. A weekly night out might not be for everyone, but it turns out that for us, date nights: totally our thing!
  • We are planning a big, two-week trip to Germany this summer, fun but also yikes. Just the car seat aspect alone gives me a headache (although I think I've finally figured out our approach).
  • I had an amazing girls' boozy spa day with Liz this past weekend, and it was so perfectly rejuvenating and lovely. Friends, man. I am so lucky.
  • Kid stuff: Annika is 18 months now and Callum is well past four and it feels like things are clicking, mostly. There's definitely still a lot of stuff about my own parenting and patience that I'd like to improve, but we're in a groove. Everyone is sleeping, everyone is ambulatory, everyone can feed themselves, things are just simpler. And the kids play together, not always, not for hours on end, but happily and lovingly, and it is amazing to watch.
  • Callum: Age three was not as challenging as I was expecting but age four is making up for it a little bit. He is learning to test limits, to argue and negotiate, and oh, he is definitely testing out those skills. But he is also so happy, so loving, so affectionate. He loves numbers and math and he is constantly asking questions about them. He is so, so sweet and gentle with Annika, even when he gets frustrated or angry. He is just a fundamentally kind person, which isn't something I would have necessarily thought a four-year-old could be, or at least that it could be so obvious, but there we have it.
  • Annika: 18 months old and she is so happy, so opinionated, so chatty. She is talking a ton, putting two and three words together with combos like "no wash hands," "me down," and "mommy where are you?" She adores Callum and runs after him wherever she goes. She always wants to be outside. She loves her daycare and also her nanny. She is incredibly cheerful almost all of the time (unless her will is being thwarted). Also it's looking more and more like her hair might turn out curly.
  • Work remains very good. I shifted into a different role when I returned from my maternity leave with Annika a little over a year ago, and it's been really, really great. I feel engaged and fulfilled and just generally pleased.
  • I would share a family photo, but the last one I have is from our professional photos that we did last fall. We need to be better about taking photos of us with the kids, and photos of everyone with the real camera instead of just our phones. Something to work on!

Monday, February 2, 2015

Family trip to New Orleans

Before heading to North Carolina to spend Christmas with my parents, we decided to do a few days in New Orleans with the kids. Torsten and I had both been to New Orleans previously, but never together (he had gone for a work conference and I had been with my parents at age 19). And the kids had never been. I want to recap the trip not just because it was great but also because it was a real learning experience about traveling with two kids and I have some tips that might be useful for others considering similar trips.

New Orleans is my favorite type of vacation with littles - it's a city where all we'd really be doing is walking around anyway, so we can just throw the baby in the stroller and she has plenty to look at and can nap on the go, and there's lots of cool stuff for the preschooler to see as well. Callum hasn't ridden in a stroller in a long time, and as a result we don't own a double stroller. We debated buying one, or bringing a second one, for this trip since we knew we'd be walking many miles each day, but ended up instead going with a scooter that came highly recommended by Katie, my favorite urban dweller mother of littles, who obviously knows what's up as far as facilitating little kid city-walking (she also helpfully tipped me off when they were on sale). The scooter was a GREAT plan; Callum LOVED it and we walked close to 10 miles most days without a peep of complaint from him.

Scooting along the Mississippi

This stroller nap ended up lasting three hours

Of course, the possible drawback with kids in New Orleans is that half the point of going to New Orleans is the amazing restaurants, many of which are not kid-friendly. We worked around this problem by bringing our au pair with us on the trip. This had the side effect of addressing our other concern, which was not wanting our au pair to be alone on Christmas, and it turned out to be awesome. The only real added expense was his plane fare, since he shared a sofa bed with Callum in our hotel suite (plus side of teenage boys: they aren't picky about where they sleep!), and since he helped out with the kids on the plane we didn't buy a ticket for Annika, so it shook out more or less even. Plus he got the bonus of getting to see an American city he'd never been to.

So our basic set-up for the trip was that we spent the days exploring the city, then handed the kids off to our au pair in the afternoons and headed out for a nice adults-only dinner. This was a LOVELY approach. Highly recommend, if you can swing it. It also worked out well on the swamp tour, which was decidedly not baby-friendly but which Callum loved; Annika spent the afternoon at the children's museum with our au pair while Torsten, Callum, and I did the tour, which turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip.

The swamp was just so damn COOL

Callum on the swamp tour boat

We were in New Orleans for 4.5 days (December 19-24). Our general approach to traveling with the kids is to try to keep things relaxed; have a loose itinerary with an idea of one, maaaaybe two things that we'd like to see that day, but to generally be willing to change plans to accommodate naps, sudden intense needs for snacks, and stops to run around. This went very well for us on this trip. Major activities included:
  • We spent one day walking around the French Quarter and the Woldenberg Park river walk, naturally including a stop at Cafe Du Monde as well as brunch at Cafe Amelie, which was AMAZING, so much so that we actually tried to go back another day but between our limited time in town and their holiday hours, we weren't able to swing it. 
Beignets were a hit
  • Another day we did a double-decker bus tour of the city (good way to see a lot in a short amount of time, and buses are always a hit with Callum). 
  • One day we did a self-guided walking tour of the Garden District (we left the scooter behind for that one because the sidewalks are incredibly uneven, and that was the right call but Callum was complaining about being tired after two miles; thank goodness we had the scooter for the rest of the trip). This was lovely, and we wrapped it up with a walk through Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, which was fascinating.
When your kid starts to complain about being tired is when it's helpful to have an au pair along.

We ended up joining a tips-only tour of the cemetery that some random guy was running, which turned out to be great.
Family tombs. The most recent person to die is guaranteed the top slot for a year and a day. After that, their coffin may be removed and their bones put with the others below to make room for the next family member.
  • And one day the major activity was the aforementioned swamp tour, which was completely awesome. It was the wrong season for alligators, and we didn't see any, but we saw multiple herds of wild boars, including babies, and we saw turtles and herons, and all that was cool but honestly the highlight of the tour was just the boat ride through the swamp itself - so cool and mystical with the shadows and the Spanish moss. Torsten and I both loved it and Callum was enraptured as well, though it was definitely good that we didn't bring Annika. Frankly this would be my number one recommendation for anyone going to New Orleans, with or without kids.
Wild boar in the swamp
This boat was wrecked during Katrina and has stayed this way since.
  • Kid activities: when Torsten and I went out on our own, our au pair brought the kids to a couple kid-oriented activities, the children's museum (big hit) and the aquarium (fine but not as good as expected based on the reviews).
We also did a bunch of what I consider secondary activities, which is to say little things that we squeezed in when the kids' moods and schedules allowed for it, including:
  • The Christmas Concert at Saint Louis Cathedral (we left the kids with our au pair for this one, although Callum probably would have been fine) - this was FANTASTIC, so so cool and the music quality was amazing. 

The cathedral before the concert started
  • Multiple streetcar rides (Callum especially was enamored of these) - some for practicality to get to where we needed to go, but the Saint Charles line is also a great way to see part of the Garden District.
OK, he LIKED the streetcars, but he also fell asleep in more than one of them.
  • Celebration in the Oaks - this was the only dud of the trip. It was SO. CROWDED. We went on a Saturday night, which was the only night that worked with our schedule, and it was just impossibly awful. We had pre-purchased admission and train tickets, and the line for the train was TWO HOURS LONG, so we ended up not riding it, which meant the train tickets were money down the drain. I also bought Callum an unlimited ride band, which also didn't pay for itself because the lines for the rides were so long that he didn't get to go on enough to justify the cost versus paying for individual ride tickets. The light show in the garden was nothing special, and so crowded that it wasn't enjoyable anyway. It was so miserable that our au pair actually just went back to the hotel early. We stuck it out for Callum's sake and he had a great time on the rides, but OMG. DO NOT RECOMMEND. On the other hand, if you're in New Orleans at any time of year OTHER than Christmas, I would totally recommend City Park generally and the Carousel Gardens amusement park specifically, particularly for the 4- to 8-year-old crowd. It would have been great if only there had been room to, you know, walk, or waits of less than an hour for the rides.
  • A ride on the Algiers Ferry. We try to plan for breaks for the kiddos amidst all the walking, and Callum loves boats, so when he started to hit his limit on the first day (before he really got into his scooter stride) and we noticed we were near the ferry terminal, we hopped on the Algiers Ferry for a quick ride across the Missisippi. Nothing fancy at all, but a good way to spend about half an hour sitting down and doing something a little different, and way more affordable than those steamboat river tours. Also the perfect length of time for the preschool set. Callum liked seeing the river and exploring the boat and pointing out all the other boats on the river, but when we got back and it was time to get off, he had no complaints about being done.
View of Saint Louis Cathedral from the ferry 

And, of course, we can't forget about the restaurants; I have to mention some of the highlights:
  • Jacques-Imos: We did this one the first night, with kids and au pair, and it was great. GREAT. Very kid-friendly, very New Orleans, super delicious. It's not really walkable from the French Quarter so we took the streetcar to get there, which was very easy. Absolutely recommend.
  • Restaurant R'Evolution: Both of us considered this the runaway favorite of our three adults-only dinners. So so good. Delicious food, amazing drinks, impeccable service, just perfect from start to finish. Highly recommend.
  • Commander's Palace: This is the classic New Orleans restaurant and it was great. A little bit more suited to Torsten's tastes than mine, but I also highly enjoyed it. Recommend.
  • GW Fins: This was the only disappointment of the trip, restaurant-wise. It was good, but nothing special and not worth the cost or the waste of our limited nights out without kids. There are so many other restaurants in New Orleans that are more worth your time and money.
  • Cafe Amelie: I mentioned this above but it bears mentioning again: YUM. Also they were SUPER nice to the kids. In good weather they also have a gorgeous courtyard to eat in. Highly recommend.
  • The Grill: This is just a little burger place, and I didn't actually go there myself, but our au pair took the kids there and said it was really fantastically delicious and the kids loved it too. A good, affordable, quick option if you're looking for something easy with kids (also cash only).
  • Surrey's Cafe and Juice Bar: We picked this one randomly off Yelp for breakfast our last day based mostly on proximity to our hotel, and it was SO GOOD. Small and cash only but DELICIOUS. Also Callum had a banana pancake bigger than his head. He wasn't able to finish it, but the rest of us selflessly helped him out. And really affordable. Highly recommend.
Banana pancake in progress

 
Curly topknot!

Really, it was an amazing trip. All five of us had a great time. We got lucky with good weather, mostly warm but not too hot or humid (though humid enough to make Annika's hair kind of curly!), and I felt like we managed to hit a lot of the major sights without being too scheduled or too exhausted. We did walk an average of about 10 miles per day, according to my pedometer app, but with the stroller and the scooter plus lots of breaks and kid-oriented activities, nobody was too exhausted. (Though we definitely all slept well at night! Well, maybe except our poor au pair - Callum sleeps like a starfish.) It was definitely the perfect trip to travel with childcare. Not sure we'll ever have that opportunity again - but really glad we took advantage in this context. It was the perfect destination and a really nice way to enjoy some family time during the holiday break.

Friday, January 2, 2015

2014: The fastest year I've ever had

(Previous years: 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007)  

1. What did you do in 2014 that you’d never done before?
Traveled with two children. Went to New Orleans as an adult of legal drinking age. Fed solid food to a child who actually likes to eat. Got an au pair. Finally saw Sarah McLachlan in concert. Took on a more senior management role at work. Cleaned up astronomical amounts of baby vomit.

2. Did you keep your new year’s resolutions, and will you make more for next year?
Last year I didn't make resolutions, per se, but I did say that I was hoping to maintain the organizational levels that I was achieving on my maternity leave nesting kick, and actually, we were very successful at that, and I've discovered that it makes me feel way better about our lives in general to have an at least partly organized house. This year I want to do some more organizing (nursery and basement closets: I'm looking at you), blog about something real from time to time, get the kids' college funds in order, and take more photos with our real camera.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?
My sister, Noemi, and a bunch of beloved Twitter friends.

4. Did anyone close to you die?
No.

5. What countries did you visit?

None this year. I did, however, take Annika to Phoenix for PJs at TJ's; meet up with my parents in Maine with Torsten and the kids, including a night at Jonna's house in Boston on the way; go to Atlanta and Chicago for girls' weekends; spend a lovely last-minute fall weekend in Aspen with Torsten and the kids; go to DC for work; spend a few days in New Orleans with Torsten, the kids, and our au pair; and visit my parents in North Carolina twice.

6. What would you like to have in 2015 that you lacked in 2014?
Hm. An international trip? But that's a gimme because it's already in the works.

7. What dates from 2014 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?
I noticed that Meredith changed this from "dates" to "moments" and I'm going to do that too in future years. So let's see. Seeing Callum and Annika become really-truly friends. Meeting my baby nephew for the first time. The moment our au pair called us in hysterics after being in a car accident (the kids weren't involved and everyone was fine). Watching Annika adjust to her new daycare as though a switch had been flipped in her head, and seeing how happy she is there. Seeing Torsten work so hard on building a fire truck costume for Callum for Halloween. Driving up Pikes Peak with both kids in August and encountering snow at the top. Finding out about Hugo's diagnosis, and finding out about his miraculous, incredible response to treatment.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
After some growing pains, I think we've managed to figure out a daily routine that works well for all of us. I'm feeling like I'm thriving at work and doing pretty well at parenting, most of the time, and Torsten and I are starting to hit our rhythm as a couple with two kids. I feel like we've done a lot of work this year and managed to find some really important balance in our lives.

9. What was your biggest failure?
Getting frustrated with the people I love for being human, and reacting with stress. Not working out enough.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?
Nothing major.

11. What was the best thing you bought?
A nice comforter. Good-quality makeup that I can put on in five minutes. A new car that Torsten and I both love. Bikes.

12. Whose behavior merited celebration?
Torsten's, like every year. The transition to two kids was tough on him, even before he changed jobs to a challenging new position, but he did an amazing job dealing with that, finding ways to figure it out, and stay involved and loving and supportive throughout.

13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?
Nobody in my personal circle, thankfully.

14. Where did most of your money go?
Same answer for the fourth straight year: our mortgage and childcare.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?
Watching my kids develop an amazing sibling relationship with each other. Not having any more babies and seeing our life start to stabilize and balance out a bit.

16. What song will always remind you of 2014?

Like everyone else: All About That Bass.

17. Compared to this time last year, are you:

a) happier or sadder?
b) thinner or fatter?
c) richer or poorer?
a) Happier
b) Thinner
c) About the same - maybe a little richer in the boring ways like retirement accounts and home equity

18. What do you wish you’d done more of?
Working out.

19. What do you wish you’d done less of?
Being stressed.

20. How did you spend Christmas?
We spent the five days leading up to Christmas in New Orleans with the kids and our au pair, which was amazing (and it was great having our au pair with us because we were able to go out for cool New Orleans dinners that were not kid-friendly), and then flew to my parents' house on Christmas Eve and spent Christmas with them. My sister and her family came down the day after Christmas so we had a few days of a delightfully full house.

21. Did you fall in love in 2014?

No.

22. What was your favorite TV program?

Downton Abbey. House Hunters.

23. Do you hate anyone now that you didn’t hate this time last year?
No.

24. What was the best book you read?

Let's see. I really liked Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty and One Plus One by Jojo Moyes.

25. What was your greatest musical discovery?
Like last year: I'm not sure I made any.

26. What did you want and get?
A settled, thriving family of four. Bikes. A work situation that I'm really happy with. Regular date nights.

27. What did you want and not get?

A zen attitude. Bigger muscles.

28. What was your favorite film of this year?

We only saw one movie in the theater this year, The Judge, which I liked. Not exactly a favorite film of all time, but it was good.

29. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?

We went out for lunch at my favorite Indian restaurant, then spent the afternoon walking around Arvada in the sunshine. In the evening Torsten and I went out on our own for dinner at my favorite restaurant. Torsten gave me a beautiful Kate Spade watch and awesome purple earrings. I turned 30.

30. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?

I'm going to borrow part of last year's answer: Truly, nothing. I'm ending the year with a happy marriage, two healthy kids, and a job that I like. Like I said, there were some growing pains and some tough work as we figured out our new normal as a family of four after I went back to work and Torsten changed jobs, but it was necessary, and productive, and I feel good about having gone through it.

31. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2014?

I tried to wear tops that were nicer than just t-shirts. Also to put on makeup at least some of the time when leaving the house.

32. What kept you sane?
My little family. My group of best friends.

33. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?
I'm bad at this.

34. What political issue stirred you the most?
Pretty much all of them. Health care is a big one.

35. Who did you miss?
Same answer as the last five years: Most of my friends and family, since pretty much all of them live far away now.

36. Who was the best new person you met?
My nephew.

37. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2014.
How things are right now isn't how they're always going to be, and I have some influence over getting them to where I want them to be.

38. Quote a song lyric that sums up your year.
I don't think there is one. There pretty much never is.

Happy New Year, everybody!