Friday, December 31, 2010

Our (un)Resolved Life: 2011 Wishes

As 2010 draws to a close at the toy-strewn Jones Ranch, we're commemorating the year's closure by enacting a rather typical 2010 evening- carry-out food and Mythbusters on Netflix streaming.

Beyond "more sleep" and "fewer episodes of Barney" (the price of literate preschoolers operating Netflix streaming), Jim and I are waaay too tired to conjure new resolutions.

We're thankful to be spending this mundane evening with our little family at home.  A quiet night together is welcome respite.

May your 2011 be full of quotidian joys and comforts.  Peace and goodwill to you, friends, as we travel through this turbulent life.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Her First Mistake: Our Story of Premature Birth

Once upon a time ago
Way up in the land of sleet and snow
How this fairy tale would go
I could not have known*

A few weeks ago I loaded the kids into the car, handed the keys to my dad, and told Ranger that I'd pick him up from preschool dismissal in a few hours.  Although my energy levels were low and I was having a few strange symptoms, this pregnancy consistently depleted me in ways prior pregnancies had not.

The morning's routine OB visit would most likely confirm some sort of Braxton-Hicks false alarm and leave me with instructions to "take it easy" for the next 6 weeks.  At worst, I thought I might be sent home for more formal bed rest.

One routine ultrasound, non-stress test, and doctor's appointment later, I was walking into the hospital admissions to be monitored and given further tests.  The routine blood screening results pointed to a completely unsuspected problem, I met the high-risk pregnancy specialist, and short term monitoring ensued.  My dad transferred the kids to Jim as the morning's tests stretched into the afternoon.  My comfortable clothing was vanquished for a hospital gown while night fell outside the windowless triage unit.  Around the time the hospital kitchen closed for the night, I was informed that the doctor had ordered a 24 hour test and I wouldn't be going home until the test's completion.  Everything was weird, but I still expected to return home pregnant.

Around midnight I moved to an actual hospital room.  With a hospital gown, fetal monitoring cables, rampantly unshaven legs (think wookie), and a pregnant woman's bladder, the en suite bathroom was a welcome change from regularly walking down a public hallway with cables resting over my neck (hiking up the gown in awful ways).  When the nurses confiscated my cup of water in the middle of the night, I wrote the whole situation off as a need for fasting bloodwork.  I slept fitfully for a few hours still thinking I would return home within 24 hours.

Shortly before dawn, a technician filled vial after vial with blood.  My water cup made no return appearance and a nurse put me on an IV.  Something was afoot.  I texted Jim and my dad about this, but didn't make the cognitive leap.  I called my mom (she doesn't text) and said that I might be being prepped for something, but the 24 hour test wouldn't be over for at least 12 more hours.

A couple minutes later, my OB walked in the room and told me that she couldn't sleep at night because my first round of blood work results were mysterious and alarming.  That morning's results were even worse, and I would be having the baby in about an hour.

It was then I knew I had made my first mistake

I had less than an hour to get Jim there, arrange impromptu care for the kids, and inform my parents (who live at least 30 minutes away from the hospital).  During a few frantic calls arranging the transfer of car seats and kids**, hospital staff started surgical prep.  I gathered up my few personal items and just tried to manage the logistics from a hospital bed that suddenly seemed to be on the other side of the moon.

One (accidental) look in the mirror told me that I shouldn't see the kids before surgery.  My typically scruffy appearance had turned from indifferent to unwell.  I wasn't quite ready to be cast in a zombie movie, but it no longer required blood work to see that things were abnormal.  I didn't want to scare the kids (and Ranger already dislikes hospitals), so I made more calls to make sure they didn't come to see me.  Jim made it just in time to prep and attend the birth.

I said come on baby
Come on baby
Come on baby

Except for the expedited nature of the birth, everything else was familiar.  Same surgical staff and anesthesiologist as both of the other kids.  The recognizable experience lulled me into thinking that everything else would be familiar, even when they introduced me to a nurse from the NICU who take care of the baby after the birth.

In the swirl of the operating room, the great question of baby gender was finally answered: a baby girl, a new daughter, a new sister...

It was then I met this girl so fine
She made me think so fast I left my thoughts behind

I got to hold her, this miniature doppelganger of earlier Jones babies, for a head-swimming moment

I could see her light began to shine
She turned...her eyes met mine
And suddenly the whole world became
A better place
Even if it was only for an instant
Then the NICU nurse rushed her off fearing respiratory distress.

It was then I knew I had made my
Second mistake
The recovery room seemed quiet to the point of vacancy.  Despite all signs to the contrary, I kept hoping that the curtain would draw back and the baby would be rolled in.  Instead each tug of the curtain only revealed someone else with questions or tests for me.

Soon the my bed was on the move.  I was wheeled to our daughter's baby-warming bassinet in the NICU and able to hold her briefly.

It was then I knew I had made my third mistake

In the NICU's bright lights and beeping alarms, I realized that our baby wasn't the exceptional case- the miracle baby who would elude the NICU and an extended hospital stay despite a premature birth.  She would not stay overnight in my hospital room.  She would have to gain weight and learn to digest food before she could leave specialists' care.

Then, like some twisted Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, I found my bed on the move again as I left our tiny baby in the care of others, well-trained strangers, but strangers none the less.

Yes three strikes right across the plate
And as I hollered honey please wait
She was gone

Hours turned to days as the baby and I struggled to normal functioning.  I came home without her, and Jim and I worked to be at the hospital for most of her medical tests and waking time (8 feedings, 1 every 3 hours).  She grew stronger, achieved milestones, and eventually was released into our care.  Soon she was in our chaotic home meeting her siblings for the first time.

And that's when she knew
She had made her
First mistake.
Honey I don't know just what you heard
But come on baby
Are my favorite words
And where we're going
Is a long way from here

So like I said before
I could not have known
How this fairy tale would finally go
Still the only certain thing for sure
Is what I do not know
So like the years and all the seasons pass
And like the sand runs through the hour glass
I just keep on running faster
Chasing the happily
I am ever after

I just keep on running faster
Chasing the happily
I am ever after
*If you don't listen to Lyle Lovett, you should start immediately. And yes, Logan, I was thinking of Deer Creek when I wrote this.

**Thank you, Francie.  Your willingness to jump in and help with only moment's notice is extraordinary in both kindness and logistics.  You amaze me, friend.

***Baby Toolkit is the ongoing thoughts of two geek parents.  We are all doing well (except for a lack of sleep) as we adjust to this new routine.  Happy New Year, small print readers (you know we love you the most)!

Monday, December 06, 2010

Half the Weight, Twice the Adventure: Pregnacy Goes Preemie

For months, I've been anticipating the announcement of Baby Toolkit's newest geek.  It's been hard for me to keep quiet for months about our baby in development, especially as this pregnancy has been my most challenging.  This may make my posts about specific foods a bit more understandable.

BabyGeek1.3 (yet to be nicknamed) conspired with my AMA (Advanced Maternal Aged) body for a Beta release.  More clearly put, she was born prematurely at a 34 week gestational age.  Her weight, slightly less than a little sack of sugar, is about half that of our older kids.  The strong family resemblance makes her seem a miniature of Ranger and Scout as babies.  Even at a tender young gestational age, our littlest girl exudes personality and family traits.  When she puts on her Elvis lip and it transitions into a sly half-smile, the twisted Jones sense of humor seems strong in this one.  She's also been driving a few of the NICU nurses crazy with her physical strength and persistent desire to kick off swaddling devices.

The health problems that precipitated her birth are resolving themselves quickly.  Our little baby is growing leaps and bounds in NICU.  Ranger and Scout look forward to meeting her in person.

In the crazy hours surrounding her birth I realized (with regret) that I have read almost nothing about pre-term babies.  We have much to learn right now.

We proudly welcome this tenacious new member to our family.

~the Joneses

Friday, October 01, 2010

When Life Gives You Apples, Make Apple Cake (And Invite Me Over)

About a month ago, Ranger talked us into buying an enormous bag of beautiful Granny Smith apples at a warehouse store.  My kids love tart Granny Smiths more than any other apple, and I am to blame (either by nature or nurture) for this.  There is nothing like the sharp snap of a tart slice of apple.

When I sliced the first apple from the bag and gave it to the kids, Ranger declared the apple sub-par.  In his defense it lacked the crispness that characterizes Granny Smiths.  I figured we could still make it through the bag; a green tart apple is a green tart apple, right?  It turns out that Ranger has the dedicated tastebuds of a wine master.

Later I fed him a sliced Granny Smith from a local orchard.  He loved it and asked for more, so I sliced an apple from the bag that I'd moved to the fridge the previous evening.  He took two bites and pushed it away.

I gave the leftovers to Scout who played with them for about 15 minutes before asking for "an apple."

I sliced another chilled bag apple and put it on a new plate.  She ate half a piece, shook her head, and asked for cheese.

Jim soon arrived home and helped me eat the two rejected apples.  That only left a few more pounds in the pantry.

In subsequent weeks, I kept trying to pass off the apples as grocery store apples.  To no avail.

Then I started looking for Granny Smith recipes.

Relish! had one for apple cake that looked straightforward and didn't require a special trip the grocery store.  The heavenly autumn olfactory trifecta of cinnamon, cake, and baked apples now waft through the house.

Relish! Apple Cake
Prep: 30 minutes Bake: 50 minutes
Serves 12

3 cups all purpose flour
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 large eggs , lightly beaten
1 1/4 cups canola oil, (or cooking oil)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 Granny Smith apples , peeled and chopped
1 cup chopped walnuts, toasted

per serving: 317 calories; 3 grams protein; 18 grams total fat; 1 gram fiber; 2 gram saturated fat; 35 grams carbohydrates; 21 mgs cholesterol; 188 mgs sodium
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

[1] Grease a 13x9x2-inch baking pan; set aside. In a very large bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking soda, salt and cinnamon; make a well in center of dry mixture and set aside.

[2] In a medium bowl, combine eggs, oil and vanilla; stir in apples and nuts. Add egg mixture to flour mixture, stirring just until moistened (batter will be thick). Spread batter in prepared pan.

[3] Bake for 50-55 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pan on a wire rack for at least 1 hour. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature.

The sweet cake bakes to form a crunchy top that yields to a soft crumbly interior.  The texture and homey flavors of cinnamon-sweetened apples well suit this season of crisp leaves, pleasantly sharp breezes, and harvest flavors.

The commonplace ingredients, simple recipe, and exquisite results are typical of our cooking experiences with Relish!

This recipe was good enough to make me (momentarily) consider another mammoth bag of mediocre Grannies, but then I realized how wonderful it might be with fresh orchard apples.  If you try it, let me know, or, even better, invite me over.

***Baby Toolkit is written by at least one geek parent with a serious sweet tooth and a love for fall foods.  We are (paying) Relish! subscribers since October 2008 and credit the online menu planning service for most of the home cooking we accomplish.  We have no ongoing financial relationship with Relish!  We are however Amazon affiliates, so purchases made through our Amazon links support the ongoing blogging efforts of Baby Toolkit (many thanks!).  

Saturday, September 25, 2010

GenCon 2010: A family adventure

Long before we started loading the car, I knew Ranger was eager for GenCon Indy.  Last Halloween, when he first donned his Mario costume he said, "Let's go to the Costume Place [his name for GenCon]!"  For the next 10 months, every time he saw his Mario costume I had to explain that GenCon only happened once a year and yes, we would pack his costume.

We worried about how Scout would tolerate the crowds this year.  Last year, she rode in our awesome Kelty Town backpack where she napped a lot.  She was not yet a walker, so her independent nature wasn't insulted by the continuous carrying.  This year, she's a toddler who prefers running to walking and she only endures a stroller for short periods of time.  The backpack offers her a better perspective, but we couldn't imagine her quietly napping between intervals of waving and people-watching like last year.

And her brother wanted her to dress as Luigi.  I envisioned her felt mustache, hat, and overalls staying on for maybe 30 minutes before she demanded something more comfortable.  After filling my bag with snacks, small games, and a girly sundress, I crossed my fingers that her upcoming meltdown wouldn't deafen too many innocent bystanders.

After the long drive to Indy, Ranger was so excited to change into his Mario costume.  Scout was far less enthusiastic to change clothes.  We had to park in a nearby mall parking garage and take skyways to the convention center.  When we entered the elevator to enter the mall Luigi was whining in her stroller and Mario was bouncing off the walls.  Then the elevator doors opened to a chorus of "awwwww" spouting bystanders and Jim and I magically transformed into celebrity handlers.  We weren't 10 feet out of the elevator when the first person asked to take the kids' photo.  The photographer was a mall shopper, not even a con-goer.

Scout has strong social instincts and relished the attention.  Ranger can be shy, but as Mario he's unflappable.  As we neared the convention center and met more costumed people, the kids filled with excitement.  Their euphoria reminded me of childhood Halloweens and returning to summer camp.

Within our first hour at GenCon, Luigi was kidnapped by the World's Tallest Leprechaun.  Her casual attitude about towering over all the people surprised us.

The kids got to meet icons of our childhood like Zelda's Link, Alice's Mad Hatter, and the Duck Hunt Dog (with Ratchet) .

They also picked up world-domination tips from the villainous, venomous Cobra Commander:

The next few days were a bit of blur.  Jim and I stayed up way too late trying to solve Puzzle Hunt 9 the night after the family scoured the convention hall for all the clues.  The kids insisted on wearing their Brothers Plumber costumes every day and relished all the smiles, waves, and high fives that resulted.  Ranger climbed and bounced around LEGO Games' giant inflatable Ramses' Pyramid at every opportunity.  We played demo games, tracked down some titles we've been looking for, and people watched.

We also ran from the Beholder, swam in the hotel pool a lot, spent time with old friends, and enjoyed being back in the Circle City for a couple days.  The days were splendid and jam-packed.  We all wanted it to last longer and are looking forward to next year.

Keep an eye out for upcoming reviews of the games Ranger and Jim played.

***Baby Toolkit is the ongoing saga of geeks with kids.  We're Amazon affiliates, so a small portion of purchases made through Amazon links on the site does come back to us and we use it to pay for connectivity (thanks!).

Photos (all but Link): (c), 2010 all rights reserved.  The Link photo is John Stanifer's (Link).

Friday, September 24, 2010

Joy on Ice: DIY Iced Chai Latte

Tazo Chai Spice Tea (SBK149904) Category: TeaThere's a reason Starbucks has a siren on their logo.  Lately the call of iced chai lattes has been drawing me to the Seattle-borne shop.  The night I found myself explaining to Jim that I either wanted the middle size if the menu board showed 3 sizes or the smallest size if the updated menu board had been put in place, I realized that I had spent too much time drinking the corporate Kool-Aid.

So here is the Jones' answer to the witches' brew.

Jones' Iced Chai Latte

4 c boiling water
4 spiced chai teabags (we used Trader Joe's because it was in the pantry, Starbucks uses Tazo)
1/4 c & 3 TBS sugar
4 c milk
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp cinnamon

Boil water and brew teabags until you're pretty sure the resulting sludge is both bitter and repulsive.  At any point you can add all the sugar to brewing tea (sorry it didn't come out to a normal cup measurement).  Stir until the sugar dissolves.  You can use a sugar substitute, but we're into extreme sucrose around here.

***IF YOU USE A GLASS PITCHER, please make sure that the tea has cooled before the next step.  In childhood, Jim exploded a glass teapot making sweet iced tea.  His mother still mourns the teapot.

Pour milk into a pitcher with the brewed, sweetened tea.

Stir in vanilla and cinnamon.   Serve over ice.  Makes 2 quarts (64 ounces).  We have no idea how long it keeps because it only lasts about 24 hours here.  Do not serve to toddlers unless you're willing to share most of your cup.  In our small sample preschoolers seem entirely immune to its charm.

***Baby Toolkit is a random smattering of events told by geeks, full of words and lame jokes, signifying parenthood.  We're Amazon affiliates, so please be duly warned (and thanked) that any purchases made through our links promote even more of this nonsense..

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Super Mario on Icing: Our 3D, 2D, 32 bit Cake

A week before Ranger's party, Jim revealed his plans to customize this year's bakery-made birthday cake. Similar to our 2008 cake, he wanted to use marshmallow fondant. Being Jim, he wanted to up the stakes and model 3-D figures of the Brothers Plumber franchise. Though I don't doubt his ability to create a magically delicious Mario et al, I did doubt our timeline. By my estimations we should have started this grand endeavor in March.

"You realize we now have two children, right?" While the last fondant exercise wasn't incredibly time consuming, we're now dealing with sibling and toddler chronologies. In our house it seems that the new timelines are something like this:
[normal task time requirement x children] + [3 hrs x toddlers] + [1.5 hrs x preschoolers] + [1 month x newborns] = time required for task (aka reason not to start in the first place)

Sensing my subtle skepticism, Jim downgraded his vision from a cartoon sugar biosphere to something he knew I couldn't resist. Paper. Actually few things appeal to a literature major like a pulp-dressed cake. We didn't want the paper to touch the cake, so Jim envisioned posting the flat laser-printer images on clear drinking straws where they could levitate above the surface. When none of our local groceries carried clear straws, we switched to bamboo skewers since we already had a giant package languishing in the cabinet (in case of future kebab crisis).

In printing Mario screenshots, Jim realized that the standard resolution required a lot of conversions to get a decent image. As we were working near a deadline, he started looking for screenshots taken from high resolution displays. We sat down the night before the party with a stack of cardstock images, scissors, skewers, and packaging tape to create the soon to be 3D scene.

Pipes in front are attached to cakeboard.
It was faster to cut the images we wanted from larger scenes by hand than on-screen. Jim laid all the cut outs on a coffee table marked to the width of the cake and cut the skewers to appropriate heights. We used clear packaging tape to secure the images to the skewers, and it worked fine in terms of adhesion. Jim used blue painter's tape the following day for the pipes in front of the cake and found it much easier to manipulate.

The next morning I picked up the giant cake. I must admit, there's a sick thrill to ordering a white cake with white frosting and white accents. People were quizzical at best. It was even better walking through the store having people come over to ogle the cake.

"Wow, what a lovel.... cake?" recuperative silence. "What's the occasion?"

I wanted to make up some answer involving minimalism, but I realize now that the funniest answer would have been the partial truth. In retrospect, "My son's fifth birthday!" is actually pretty hysterical. But I folded like a greeting card and explained that my husband had made cake toppers. Depending upon the age of the inquisitor, that response could also be met with looks of cold skepticism. Next year, I'm going for sheer enthusiasm "Isn't it marvelous?!"

A peek behind the cake.
Jim arranged the figures atop the cake. I snapped some quick blog photos before we wrote a birthday greeting to Ranger on the clouds, and I took a couple pictures of him with his cake. News of the cake drew a lot of guests to the kitchen for an early peek.

Skewers are arranged in layers from front to back to give a 3-dimensional effect.
When we brought out the cake after lunch (sans candles as Jim and I have never really mastered fire), the kids' faces lit up in recognition and the table was swarmed with small admirers. We gave a hip-hip-hooray style chant in place of the birthday song that Ranger despises (Jim believes this is due to restrictive copyright).

The cake was surprisingly easy to serve. While Jim pulled the skewers, I was able to start cutting. With no embellishments on the actual cake there were no request for specific pieces. The cake was served in record time, and Ranger got to bring Mario home (we're going to put some of the figures on magnet backing for him).

In Ranger's opinion (as well Jim's and mine), this is his best cake ever.

***Baby Toolkit is the confession of a couple of parent hackers who try to create magic with common household items. Our end results are bolstered by our children's imaginations (for which we are quite thankful). We're Amazon affiliates, so a portion of any purchases you make through our link (need skewers?) helps support our online endeavors (thank you!). Photos (c), 2010- all rights reserved.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Level Up and Get Down: Ranger's Mario Birthday

For the past two years, we have violated most of the rules of kid party planning and hosted a big dance party/play time with lots of friends and their families for Ranger's birthday.

For the invitations we wanted to use a photo of Ranger as Mario.  He's still so proud of his Halloween costume (especially after GenCon), and there is one photo he especially loves of his plumber alter-ego.  Jim loves the photo because Mario happens to be punching the dragon from the first D&D set he ever owned.  Once the photo was in place, the invitation pretty much wrote itself.

As in past years, we requested guests not bring presents.  We view the party as a present in itself, and we like to enjoy friends' company without obligating them to buy something.  The only hiccup we encountered was that Ranger can now read the invitations.  He had two separate tantrums before I reminded him that a few special people (relatives and close adult friends) always give him gifts on the day of his party.  He also gets gifts from grandparents, godparents, and parents for his birthday (which usually is not the actual day of his party).  The reassurance that he would have at least one special surprise was enough to meet his desires.

foam medal name tag & posterboard crown
Jim and I busied ourselves making posterboard crowns, foam medallion name tags (like Mario Olympics), and looking for activities that work with an audience ranging from age 1 to 9.

We stuck with some old standby activities like building with milk-carton building blocks then knocking the structures down with homemade beanbags (tutorial coming soon*) to coloring paper crowns to dancing to a mix of Ranger's favorite tunes from the past year (another future post).

Inspired by a great event at Ranger's old preschool, Jim wanted to add balloon volleyball.  We didn't locate a suitable badminton/volleyball net, and it looked like we were out of luck.  My mom suggested we use a section of baby gate on the floor in place of an elevated net and that worked well with our mostly preschool crowd.

We had also planned a game where every kid got a balloon and tried to see how long they could keep it off the floor without catching it.  I don't recall if Jim actually started this game, but it turned into a really beautiful half an hour of really serene, but active playtime.  Every kid focused on their balloon and keeping it up in the air as long as possible.  Even with frenetic dance music in the background, the slow transit of the balloons offered a dreamlike quality.  For me, this semi-hypnotic revelry was the best part of the whole party.  I reluctantly called the kids out of the gym to make their own pizzas.

This was our second year of DIY pizza making.  Instead of spending hours on homemade crusts this year, we bought soft pita bread from our favorite falafel place.  We gave the kids paper boats of cheese and other toppings and had an adult sauce the crusts according to each child's preference.  Each pizza was on its own sheet of parchment so we wrote the creator's name on a corner and sent them in batches through the church's convection oven.  When all the pizzas were done, we served them all at once so no kid worried that his pizza was lost or forgotten.

For the adults we had easy prep buffet foods like lasagna and Caesar salad.  Friends also pitched in some wonderful additions like a fruit tray and pasta salad.

Then came the cake...
(Stay tuned.  Jim really outdid himself.)

*I mistakenly thought I'd posted this tutorial YEARS ago.  Once I find the photos, this one will be posted.

***Baby Toolkit is the pell-mell, helter-skelter, and harum-scarum philosophizing of Midwestern geek parents with a bent for verbosity.  We are indeed Amazon affiliates, so a portion of any purchases made through our Amazon links supports our site (thank you!).  Photos (c), 2010, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

All Is Quiet On The Blogging Front

Mario meets the Mad Hatter
Just in case you were worrying: We didn't slip down any rabbit holes during GenCon Indy nor were we abducted by legions of stormtroopers.

Why the recent radio silence, you ask?

As bloggers, Jim and I have tried to keep a separation between parts of our lives (especially in respecting the privacy of those close to us) and what we post.  This summer, that undisclosed part of our lives has been a series of challenges and revelations.  My mind became a contemplative space.  As a result, I kept writing posts about our normal content that felt formulaic, cheesy, or out of touch.  In my opinion, those writings simply were not worth posting.  Even our 4th blogaversary passed unmentioned.

Recently Baby Toolkit's siren's song has returned to my ears.  This summer Jim and I have found a host of things we want to write about.  I really want to tell you about Ranger's birthday cake and let you peek into our geeks' eye view of GenCon.  This has been a banner year for new books and games as publishers put out some surprisingly wonderful new products for preschoolers.  I'm reading a book on baby cognitive development that is fresh and inspiring even for a seasoned parent.  A new compilation album is rocking our world.  We also have some new projects and household solutions.

Thank you for subscribing and sticking with us through the quiet times.  Your good faith is strong motivation to return to the keyboard.

***Baby Toolkit is two geeks' tale of parenting young children in a complicated and ever-fascinating world. We send our best wishes to others currently battling the dragons of offline life.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Getting Our Geeks Packed: GenCon Indy '10

Today many bloggers with ovaries are packing their bags for a huge national conference. So am I (or at least I will be as soon as I finish this post).

While they're probably looking for their cutest shoes and hip new laptop bags, I'm packing up little capes, felt mustaches, and two pint-sized Brothers Plumber ensembles.

Tomorrow, in Indianapolis, geek vacation officially begins with the opening of GenCon Indy '10. GenCon is a ridiculously fun annual celebration of (mostly) off-line gaming (board games, strategy games, card games, miniature games, role playing games, and live action role playing games).

Popular (non-geek) mythology would claim that this is the time when lonely pallid beings crawl out of their parents' basements to commune with other nihilistic slackers over tables full of multi-sided dice, pizza, Doritos, and Red Bull (Jolt or Yoo-Hoo for the old-school storytellers). This hokey tale is far less intriguing than the truth.

GenCon Indy is a gathering of very smart people with humor and imagination. If your brilliant tech geek is on vacation until next week, chances are good that she is wrapping her mind around some fun challenges while cracking jokes with other quick thinkers. It's not fair though to portray GenCon as a science, engineering, and tech party (though I'm sure one can get good advice on optimizing a laptop or building a laser-based game in any food line), geeks come in all flavors- history, literature, and art geeks abound. I suspect that my summer reading about Georgian England and the creation of the first wide-scale municipal sewer system may come in handy.

GenCon gamers tend to be pretty community oriented in their day-to-day lives. These are the people who have regular parties, volunteer in their communities, and hold the elevator for strangers. The GenCon staff and community are extremely kind to children and their parents, probably because GenCon folks retain more joy and imagination than typical adults.

The come-as-you-are spirit of the convention is really refreshing. I'm pretty sure that I won't overhear any GenCon attendee asking "Does this make me look fat?" because there's just not enough time for that sort of insecure myopia.

Most of the Jones family is pretty excited to return to GenCon (at 21 months, Scout has no recollection of last year). Yesterday Ranger refused to get out of the car when we returned home:
"Buddy, it's too hot to stay in the garage."

"Just get my Mario costume, and we can go to GenCon now."
I had to laugh. And no, he's not still strapped into his car seat.

I am Jim is chomping at the bit to stalk talk with our game designer heroes, and we're both anxious to get some play time on new games and old favorites.

If I don't start packing soon, we will never get to Indy.

***Baby Toolkit is the ongoing saga of a geek family exploring the world. Though posts may appear in the meantime, we will be on vacation until next week. We are Amazon affiliates, so if you shop through an Amazon link through our site, a small portion of the purchase price goes towards paying a portion of our connectivity costs. Thanks.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Fearsome Fireworks: Drowning Out the Noise

Peltor H10A Optime 105 Over-the-Head EarmuffAs we get near the Fourth, Jim and I are planning for another bang-up holiday with two kids who dislike fireworks sounds.

We are packing up the hearing protection earmuffs for the Fourth of July party surrounded by highly munitioned kamikaze teens (and adults).  We'll cut out before the real boomers are unleashed.

Then the Jones domicile will rock with crazy loud music until some little people have danced themselves into a stupor.

***Baby Toolkit is the irregularly updated chronicle of citizen geeks who are trying to raise the next generation of Americans with apple pie, multi-tools, and not too much screaming.

The Red Book: Instant Adventure, Just Add Words

Over a year ago, when we asked Ranger about his morning at preschool, we had a hard time getting a clear response.  His responses to any open-ended questions (like "What did you see at the zoo?") came out of left field, and didn't really answer the questions.  Often, he'd prefer to discuss something currently happening or something he wanted to do in the future.

Storytelling was clearly not one of his interest areas.  The resulting vagueness caused a lot of misunderstandings, and I was frustrated that he seemed disinterested in telling me about his experiences.

In the Spring last year, illustrator Barbara Lehman's wordless story The Red Book was featured in Ranger's Scholastic flier.  Intrigued by the cute book's mysterious story, I added a copy to our order.

The first naptime we settled in to read it, I asked Ranger questions about what he saw on each page and what he thought was happening.  Each vibrant page offers a lot of things to observe and describe, and the cumulative story is both magical and clearly understood by an older toddler.

The Red Book is a sweet adventure story about a new friendship where the narrative is told through sequential images that the reader can explore and interpret.  Lehman's nonverbal storytelling encompasses enough mystery and magic that the events mandate explanation with each new discovery.

Ranger really liked telling me the story of a child who finds a red book in a snow drift and the ensuing events.  He empathized when one of the main characters became afraid and celebrated when everything worked out in the end.

At naptime and bedtime, Ranger only wanted to read us The Red Book.  His storytelling got better and better, and we all found new information in the images to make the story richer and more interesting.

A month or two later, I bought all of Barbara Lehman's other wordless books:  Rainstorm, Trainstop, and The Museum Trip.
Each of her stories centers around brave discovery by a curious, courageous, and independent child.  This is a great message for children finding their wings as new readers and storytellers.

These are great books to get your kids talking and reading.  The Red Book and Trainstop each tell the story of a girl while Rainstorm and The Museum Trip have boy primary characters.  While the gender of the protagonist seems to have no influence on Ranger's enjoyment of a book, I like that Lehman varies boy and girl heroes in her adventures.

Ranger's storytelling reluctance receded as he practiced daily with Lehman's books.

These wonderful stories opened some important new avenues of communication for our family.

A visiting friend's observation on Ranger's relationship with these books matched our own perceptions.

Right now Amazon has The Red Book marked down to $9.32 (hardcover or Kindle edition) and a bargain paperback edition of The Museum Book for only $5.78.

If you have a pre-reader chomping at the bit or a reluctant storyteller, definitely check out Barbara Lehman's picture books at your local library.

Which kids' books helped your family?

***Baby Toolkit is a collection of dispatches from some bibliophilic geeks with young children.  While we love to curl up with a good book, we recognize that a lot of kids' books are dreadful.  We also confess that there are a handful of books shoved under our heavy sofa so we never have to read them aloud again.  We have no fiscal relationship with Barbara Lehman or her publishers.  DISCLOSURE: Amazon associations we are, so a small portion of sales through our Amazon links comes back to Baby Toolkit and pays for our internet connectivity (thanks!).

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

House of Shade and Water: Screen House as a Pool Shelter

Summer is here, and it is a scorcher.  Ranger and Scout (the toddler formerly known as the Raptor) want to be romping outside, while I am driven to stay in the shade.

Our backyard gets full sun most of the afternoon, so I've been reluctant to put out the wading pool and endure the relentless sunshine while the kids slowly boil in the pool.

In a recent bout of cleaning, I rediscovered a SwissGear Screen House we bought two years ago for $20 (as opposed to its MSRP of $130) and promptly gave a few cubic feet of our garage.

My clever friend mentioned putting a canopy tent over her kids' pool, so I decided our screen house might provide an oasis of shade.

The tent itself was a snap to set up with two adults (though it had been a laughable fail with our earlier toddler, preschooler, and one adult construction team).

The screen house not only offers shade and limits bug exposure, it also keeps the beach balls from getting away.

Though I think we may now need a bigger pool.

What summer solutions are lurking in your garage?

***Baby Toolkit is the unsolicited opinion of a couple pasty (rumored to be cave-dwelling) geek parents with boisterous, outdoorsy kids.  We have no fiscal relationship with SwissGear, but we are Amazon affiliates, so if you make purchases through our Amazon links a small portion of the proceeds power our family's secret Large Hadron Collider.  Okay, they just help pay our monthly Internet bill, but maybe someday...

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A Motherblogger's Make-over: Improving Moms Without Plastic Surgery

Yesterday I got PR spam selling the virtues of "Mommy Makeover" plastic surgery.

Some PR agency thought that I as a woman with children and a blogger (let's be candid, I'm more of a motherblogger than a sweetie mommy blogger), that I would freely endorse helping mothers
"become a more improved version of themselves"
through the miracles of a tummy tuck, breast augmentation, breast lift, and liposuction.

I don't even wear makeup.  Ever.  The last time I used my blowdryer was to speed-dry a painted name banner two years ago, and the time before that was to de-ice my car's lock in 2003.

Through advertising and marketing, girls are taught from a tender young age that they are not good enough without flawless physical beauty.  It's disturbing.

As women we are continuously taught to hate almost every aspect of the bodies that carry us through life despite those machines' amazing reliability and beauty of design.  When we dislike our physical beings because we don't match impossible standards of appearance, we waste our lives.

During a recent workout, I was so impressed at the weight more experienced members of the class could manage.  As I watched us all in the mirror, they reminded me that each effort, every lift, made me stronger.  When class ended, the same women passed behind my locker discussing how they hated the classroom's mirrored wall and how they spent most of their time focusing on their bodies' faults.  When such strong and beautiful young women obsess over imagined (or minuscule) defects in themselves, it brings everyone down.

For ourselves and for our daughters, I do want moms to become more improved versions of themselves: Please take a week and contemplate what your body does well.

I am glad I can lift my children and other heavy objects.  I rejoice in my ability to see and read.  My hands move across the keyboard with a speed and accuracy that surprises me.  I can laugh until my ribs hurt.  I can climb up a hill or a playground slide.  Though I can't go as far on one breath, I can still glide under the water for a surprisingly long time.  When I smile, people tend to smile back.

This body is more than a casual transport for my brain, and it can do things now that it may not be able to do in 10 years.  Today offers me the gift of an able body, and I can revel in that miracle.

What do you like about yourself?

For an engaging documentary on American culture and female body image check out America the Beautiful (also on Netflix live streaming).

***Baby Toolkit is the mostly unsolicited opinion of a geek family.  These are not the Joneses that everyone is trying to keep up with.  We are Amazon affiliates so a portion of purchases made through our Amazon links defray the costs of the growing empire that is Baby Toolkit.  We have no fiscal relationship with the movie America the Beautiful or its partners.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

My Bad Romance: Facebook


When we met I thought we might be friends, but time has taught me that you cannot be trusted to respect my confidences.  And more than that, I'm tired of our ever changing relationship.  This perpetual Easter egg hunt for snippets of actual content gets caught up in the general gossip of other people's lives (what groups they're joining and who is invited to what party).  Time spent with you just feels too much like high school.

Sure, I'm thankful that you've reunited me with a few dear friends, but I just cannot take your incessant chatter.  I especially hate that you may be selling me out while you're wasting my time.

So, Facebook, this means delete not deactivate.  If you find anything that belongs to me, just throw it out.  I hope you will forget we ever met.


Friday, June 04, 2010

Captivity: A Haunting Hoax

...the strange, true tale of the Fox Sisters, the enigmatic family of young women who, in upstate New York in 1848, proclaimed that they could converse with the dead.

These words in the publisher's book jacket description of Deborah Noyes' Captivity set my geek heart all aflutter.  Those interested in American literature, social history, religious history, magic (top hats and card tricks variety), hoaxes, and/or marketing usually have a passing acquaintance with those wily Fox Sisters who opened the floodgates of the American imagination to "the other side."

The chance to "meet" them through a well-researched novelization was a bit of time travel I could not resist.  I also wondered if the author, like so many of their contemporaries, would be able to resist their siren song?  The centrality of the Fox Sisters suggested to me that the tale would either thrive on intrigue or belly-flop into a quagmire of hokum.

I contacted publisher Unbridled Books for a review copy, and I am pleased to tell you that Captivity offers hours of immersive reading.  This is a great summer read and a vacation unto itself (no beach required).

Noyes' story of a famous hoax ends up investigating the real things that haunt us.  This ghost story for skeptics includes mysterious happenings (not of the supernatural variety) that keep pages flying (as if under their own power!) until the very last page.

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed AmericaCaptivity transforms history into warm-blooded fiction and marries it to historical fiction of the same era.  Readers who liked The Devil in the White City or The Thirteenth Tale will find themselves quickly caught up in the world of the Fox Sisters and (fictional) zoological artist Clara Gill.

Captivity's great pace, interesting characters, and a potent combination of history and fiction make this book a Baby Toolkit top summer reading recommendation.

You can see other books we've been reading, loving, criticizing, contemplating reading, and condemning to the dustbin (library donation box) at Goodreads.

Captivity is available in hardback ($25.95, currently ~$19 at Amazon).

What are you reading?

***Baby Toolkit is the independent opinion of two geek parents.  We're preparing for a great summer vacation by getting a jump start on some gripping fiction.  DISCLOSURE: We received a review copy of Captivity from Unbridled Press.  We have no fiscal relationship with Deborah Noyes or Unbridled Press.  We are Amazon associates, so a portion of the proceeds from sales through our Amazon links pay for our internet connection (thanks, Amazon shoppers!).

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Honoring Veterans on Memorial Day: John Reyes' Amazing Bike Ride

Things at Baby Toolkit headquarters have been pretty tough for the last few weeks.  Our close relative (a mother of young children) had a massive stroke the day before Mother's Day and has not yet regained consciousness.

This is why Jim and I did not stalk our new hero, John Reyes, when he rode through our region last weekend on his multi-month bicycle journey to raise funds, awareness, and friends for Fisher House.

 photo by John Reyes, all rights reserved
Fisher House is a great organization to remember this Memorial Day weekend.  Fisher Houses are much like Ronald McDonald Houses, but they serve the families of wounded soldiers receiving treatment at military hospitals.  Families of wounded soldiers can stay free while they visit and support their injured loved ones.

This is an important cause we can all assist this holiday weekend.

I'd never heard of Fisher House before last month.  Soldiers' Angels (earlier: Project Awesome 2010: Like Charlie's Angels With Yarn) sent an email about John Reyes and his incredible journey.

The Friday before Mother's Day, John Reyes departed from his hometown of San Antonio, Texas on a bicycle trip that will eventually take him through Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana.  That's 20 states and a district.

This self-described "comic book nerd" will be riding through the hot months of May, June, and July in some of the nation's muggiest weather.  Just reading his written itinerary is exhausting.

And he's doing this for other people, people who willingly serve us all- sometimes at great personal costs.

His fundraising target is $5000 for the trip, and he's currently at $1,220.

Please donate generously this Memorial Day weekend to John's Team Fisher campaign.

Bloggers, please offer John some publicity this patriotic weekend, July 4th, or when he rides through your area.  Tell your friends about him on Facebook and Twitter.

Please check his itinerary to see if he'll be in your area.  If he will be, can you send a message to local media outlets?  Publicity for John's trip is also excellent publicity for Fisher House Foundation.

We're inspired by John's generous efforts and are quite sorry we couldn't meet him when he came through our area.  Maybe you can say "hello" for us if he ends up in your neck of the woods (and offer him a cool drink or an evening meal).

Even if you are nowhere near his route, you can follow his Bostonandbackride blog, watch his YouTube vlogs, and follow his progrees on Twitter (@bostonandback).  You can also see some of his photos along the way on Flickr.

Enjoy a few moments of his ride...

 Safe journeys, John!

Thank you to all those who give and have given to our nation through national service!

***Baby Toolkit is a couple of geek parents who think John Reyes is supercool for his compassion, generosity, hard work, and bicycle skills.  We don't know him personally.  We wish him safe travels and wildly successful fundraising.