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.

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Pessimist reads Raising Happiness

Even as a small child, I usually worried that things would go wrong. Almost every positive future scenario was met with scrutiny: "What if it rains that day?" "What if the car won't start?"

Even this blog springs from my basic assumption that life demand scrutiny and preparation.

In retrospect, I think I wanted insurance against life's disappointments. Decades later, a tornado taught me that being able to protect a placid life is unrealistic and even actual insurance can leave one disappointed and adrift.

Our son's earliest months paralleled some of my most insecure and anxious times, so his tendency toward panic comes as little surprise. I feel tremendous sadness when I see his disproportionate reactions to disappointment or injury.

Because I believe some of his poor reactions are learned from my example, it isn't hard to believe that (with mindful parenting) better reactions can be taught. But how can I, a pessimist, teach my children skills I never really acquired?

Through a friend's reference to a popular happiness book for adults, I stumbled upon a listing for Christine Carter's Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents.

At the time, the book was in pre-release, so I wrote the publishers (Ballantine Books) to request a review copy. Still feeling a reader's high from NutureShock, I allowed myself to hope that a parenting book could be more than a pile of recycled "conventional wisdom" and unfounded opinion. I especially liked the author's training, scientific interest and work in the field of emotional health (unlike similar parenting self-help authored by pediatricians, religious leaders and other peripheral "experts" on children and families).

I had expectations that the book would read like two other sociologist's texts that the touched on happiness and attitude (Stumbling on Happiness and Outliers). These books focused on the outcomes of attitude more than their development. They are reader-friendly assemblies of contemporary research. I looked for this book to be NurtureShock focusing solely on happiness issues. Which it wasn't.

It was much, much more.

Reading the introduction I took some notes that I keep by my bed and now glance at most mornings. Carter's concept of happiness is much more than the temporal mood I previously associated with the word. Additional facets like positive emotions about the past (gratitude, forgiveness, and appreciation), future emotions (optimism, faith, and confidence), and daily actions (love, kindness, and empathy) expanded my definition. My concept of happiness was binary (present or not present), it had no origins or supporting characteristics. I viewed joy as environmental and capricious (somewhat like the weather) rather than something cultivated by daily actions and patterns of small decisions.

Quoting Indian social worker and activist Baba Amte, Dr. Carter reminds "Happiness is a continuous creative activity." This idea would be my 6-word summary of the book's thesis, yet that is like calling Moby Dick "a book about a whale."

When I started the first chapter, the author's conversational style engaged me. The text exudes confidence and authority. However it didn't include the research citations that I am accustomed to in my favorite social science books. My stomach twisted, and I thought this promising book had degraded into a from-the-hip opinion on parenting. With nary a reference or footnote in sight, I told Jim that the book might be unfounded opinion.

I flipped toward the back expecting only an index, but found over twenty pages of detailed annotations (179 in total) and fifteen pages of bibliography all in a truly tiny print (I suspect they would occupy double the pages if printed in the same font as the text). Throughout the book, Carter is continuously engaging cognitive and behavioral science research, but the editorial approach is to keep that academic engagement from cluttering the basic recommendations.

Raising Happiness, though a book about children, took me on a journey of self-assessment. Like the first chapter "Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First" suggests, I realized I am no help to my children in developing skills that I do not understand. Much of the book made me consider my own approach to the world rather than the attitudes of my children. I guess most good parenting books could be defined as offering transformation to the reader first, then secondary effects for their children.

Each chapter covers one of Carter's recommendations:
  1. Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First
  2. Build A Village
  3. Expect Effort and Enjoyment, Not Perfection
  4. Choose Gratitude, Forgiveness, and Optimism
  5. Raise Their Emotional Intelligence
  6. Form Happiness Habits
  7. Teach Self-Discipline
  8. Enjoy the Present Moment
  9. Rig Their Environment for Happiness
  10. Eat Dinner Together
While some of the recommendations might sound familiar (to the point of being trite), the book is a surprisingly good instructor on practical incremental steps to enacting difficult change. Chapter Four's subsection Practicing the Skills We Need for Forgiveness, Carter draws on the work of Stanford Forgiveness Project researcher Fred Luskin. She clearly translates Luskin's program into 6 steps to use with kids. As a person who sometimes nurtures grudges, I need the careful guidance of someone who understands how to forgive in a way that is beneficial to all parties.

For example:
Step 4 -Teach kids that they suffer when they demand things that life is not going to give them. They can hope for things, of course, and they can work hard to get what they want. But they cannot force things to happen that are outside of their control. When we expect something outside of our control and it doesn't happen, we feel hurt and wronged. Help kids practice letting go of the desire for things that they have no influence over, and redirect their energies toward things they do have control over.
Working as a college advisor, I regularly saw students dealing with uncontrollable forces. The students most likely to prevail were the ones who focused on the next step rather than ruminating over disappointments.

Jim is currently reading Raising Happiness, and it's really interesting to see him adopting some of the techniques with our kids.  I did the same thing when I was reading the book, but it's really illuminating to see the process as an outsider.  Tantrums have been a major issue with our preschooler.  With so many strong-willed people living in the same family, it's not surprising that our ideas come into conflict.  Jim and I have been frustrated by our inability to quell tantrums through constructive means.   We don't ever submit to the demands and often issued punishments, but the outbursts just didn't stop.  Jim has recently begun acknowledging our child's emotions at the beginning of conflict.  He empathizes with the child's feelings without condoning the emerging behavior.  This usually yields immediate positive results.  In our case, I think our child needs to know that we understand his position even if we don't agree with it.  When we simply addressed the inappropriate behavior without any acknowledgment, he would ratchet up his intensity so that we might hear his side.  He didn't understand that his message simply became noise (irritating noise) when he screamed unintelligibly (and why should he understand that with only a few years of linguistic experience)?  The act of empathizing makes me try to re-evaluate the situation, and it often softens my initial appraisal.  This single simple change in our behavior hasn't completely ended all outbursts, but it has shortened their duration greatly and has improved our overall communications as a family.

So many of the small steps in this book resonated and brought to mind people who I admire for their personal and professional successes. Each individual recommendation matched my experience and observations, but I was previously unable to assemble all those random parts into an organized and interpretable whole.

The book is so rich with ideas and suggestions that it lends itself to rereading at different ages and stages.  What leaps out to me today overshadows future areas of interest.  Once I have engaged the content that resonates with me now, I plan to return to the book to consider additional aspects and approaches.

Raising Happiness is a must read (and currently $16.32 at  And once you've read it, it will probably turn into a permanent addition to your home reference library.

Carter's excellent blog, Half Full, welcomes readers into an ongoing conversation.

***Baby Toolkit loves to read and rarely finds a parenting book we like so much as Raising Happiness.  We have no financial relationship with Christine Carter nor her publisher Ballantine Books.  We requested and received an advance copy of Raising Happiness ($24). A portion of the purchases made through our Amazon links helps fund Baby Toolkit's ongoing operating costs (thank you!).

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Don't Miss The Horse Boy Tonight on PBS' Independent Lens

Tonight on PBS, Independent Lens will feature The Horse Boy.

This documentary chronicles a family's journey to Mongolia for shamanic treatment for their son Rowan's autism.

The family's unorthodox approach to addressing their son's needs seems like a recipe for greater turmoil, but during their journey across Mongolia on horse back things begin to change.

The documentary portrays a personal solution for a family in crisis.  It isn't a one-size-fits-all recommendation that Shamanic horse tours of Mongolia will cure autism.  Instead, the film shows layers of parental expectation, self-recrimination, and concerns about social perception falling away.  During this process, these parents can more clearly see their child and their own needs and desires.

The Horse Boy tells a complex story of quiet change and the remarkable gifts of intentional living.

The movie leaves me hungry for quiet engagement with my own family.  I hope you will watch it tonight on PBS.  It's also currently available on Netflix's live streaming and Amazon.  Jim and I both have much more to say about it after it has aired, and we'd love to hear your thoughts on it.

 ***Baby Toolkit isn't buying tickets to Mongolia any time soon, but these geek parents could certainly use a large dose of quiet perspective.  Disclaimers: PBS sent us a free burned DVD of The Horse Boy for this review.  We are not affiliated with PBS or the makers of this film.  We are Amazon affiliates, so a portion of any purchases made through our links helps us get one step closer to our own corporate jet kick scooter.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Tempus Fugit: Hug Your Kids Tonight

The best news I've had today is that our family member cried when she heard her toddler on the phone.

This mom isn't conscious.  She hasn't been since Saturday when she had a stroke, but her eyes filled with tears when her daughter spoke to her today.

We don't really know what the future holds- for her or for any of us.

She's younger than me.  None of us expected a health crisis like this.

Too often I delay interactions with my kids. This horror serves a stark reminder that relationships (especially with children) cannot wait.

Play a board game.  Listen to a story.  Take a walk around the block.  Dance in the living room.  Hug.  Joke.

And please stop smoking.

Smoking greatly increases the risk of stroke (and embolism) in young women.  Combined with birth control or other hormones it can be deadly.  A little over a decade ago, we lost a beautiful friend in her mid-twenties to a pulmonary embolism resulting from an otherwise minor injury.

With the wrong genetics, smoking can magnify an inherited clotting risk enormously.

If you love a parent who smokes, please support them in quitting for their kids.  The catastrophic effects of a stroke can be far more sudden and traumatic than we think- especially in young women.

If you pray, please keep this young mom and her family in your prayers.  She's scheduled for surgery in the morning, and we would all be so overjoyed if she would just wake up.

***Baby Toolkit doesn't want other families to go through this sadness and anxiety.  We usually discuss geek parenting.