Saturday, November 30, 2013

All In: Cribbage Club and Phone Calls

At a movie yesterday, my friend teased her high-school aged niece that "I will cut you" if she checked her phone throughout the movie.

My movie-buff friend is perpetually amazed that the next generation of her family cannot be separated from their phones for even the duration of a movie.

"But what if one of my friends dies?" her niece joked.

I thought of those calls that, with luck, don't come until much later in life. "Then you definitely want to turn off your phone, and just be here. Bad news travels fast enough."

When I got home from the movie, Ranger met me at the top of the stairs with the phone.

"It's Aunt Gayle." His aunts are mostly family we have chosen. As Jim and I each have one brother, our family tree holds only one aunt for them.

The aunt on the phone has been my friend for nearly 30 years. In her voice, I heard a careful control, and before she speaks I know something has happened.

When I was pregnant with Ranger, Gayle's geography career found itself in a cul-de-sac. She returned to college. A Wednesday afternoon gap in her course schedule somehow transformed into Cribbage Club.

Wednesday afternoons, Gayle's apartment filled with the alluring scents of home-cooking as we all gathered round the kitchen table for cards.

Fred and Moe both learned cribbage in the military long before Gayle and I were born. Fred, a loud-talking former postmaster and Gayle's brother-in-law, learned to play in the Army. Gayle's Uncle Moe learned to play in the Air Force and sometimes brought his cribbage board made from part of a cockpit dome.

I was equally thrilled to be able to play cribbage regularly. My dad and Jim's family all love the game, and I quickly fell under its spell. Locally, playing cards usually means Euchre (dubbed Indiana's game), Clabber (a regional 4-handed variation on an old German duo game), or even Bridge. Cribbage opportunities rarely come along.

After lunch, working in noisy teams, we raced our pegs along the paths while telling stories and mercilessly teasing each other. When we took breaks, Moe and Fred would retire to the porch for cigars while Gayle and I served up ice cream in the kitchen.

Moe and Gayle visited us in the hospital when Ranger was born even though they could only wave to him through the NICU window. Cribbage Club continued, baby Ranger would usually nap or sit on someone's lap while we played. Months and seasons passed until Ranger was big enough to start grabbing the cards from the table, Aunt Gayle reached the homestretch of her degree and started an internship that quickly became her next career. Summer had arrived, so the boys (men who retired around the time Gayle and I first graduated from college) were eager to return to their gardens and golf courses.

We periodically played in the evenings or at Gayle's family gatherings. The cigars disappeared from the routine when Fred lost half a lung to cancer. He recovered well and was soon back on the golf course and working in the yard. We didn't see his heart attack coming, and it felled him instantly and completely.

At Fred's funeral, I sat with Uncle Moe and we made jokes about how Fred had gotten both Gayle and I to wear skirts while the red rims of Moe's watery blue eyes hinted at the physical pain of grief. Maybe it was because he was the oldest of our group or maybe it was a reminder of his son lost in infancy, Moe's sadness seemed larger and stronger than the broad Ohio River he crossed every time we gathered together. Baby Rogue sat on his lap as we both wiped tears from our eyes and talked about the best times.

Over the phone I heard Gayle say "Uncle Moe died at home yesterday." Thanksgiving Day. We went through the details, and I promised to call her back.

Though we all had cell phones, I do not ever remember one on the table while we played. Any calls during Cribbage Club were ignored, slightly mocked, or actual emergencies. When we played, told stories, and joked around, for Cribbage Club we were, in the parlance of poker, "all in." And as a result, we all won.

In honor of Uncle Moe this holiday season, please remember to ignore your phones and be wherever you are.

***Baby Toolkit started as a baby gear blog in 2006. Despite a notable lack of babies and a directly correlative waning interest in baby gear, Jim and I keep writing about our lives as geeks, parents, and citizens of the world. For what it's worth, we're Amazon affiliates, though any Amazon links in this post remembering a dear friend would be crass and sort of bonkers. Yet upon writing this, I do think Uncle Moe would find it funny (so here's to you, Moe!). Hold your dear ones close and your technology in cabinets.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Ranger & Extra-Life

I have been planning this post for weeks. I was going to ask you to donate for me to Extra-Life, a great annual event that raises money for Children's Miracle Network Hospitals.

On Monday, we took toddler Rogue to Riley Hospital for Children for a check-up. As we left, Ranger, our oldest asked to be a registered player for Extra-Life.

Last year, during our Extra-Life weekend event, Ranger played and taught games. This year he wants to "help sick kids" like our Children's Miracle Network Hospital helped his little sister.

Please help him defeat some monsters this weekend. You'll be making one eight-year old very happy while healing other kids. Even $5 helps.


***Baby Toolkit is a collection of periodic dispatches from some Midwestern geek parents. We believe that miracles happen every day at Children's Miracle Network Hospitals, but we don't work for them- and EVERY DOLLAR WE RAISE for EXTRA-LIFE goes directly to Riley Children's Hospital. We're Amazon affiliates, so if you purchase through any of our Amazon links on other pages, a portion of the sale goes toward our coffers. Thanks. We also podcast about board games at

Friday, August 30, 2013

Not Paying For Popcorn: Elementary School Economics

2006 Quarter Proof, public domain, United States Mint
Here in sweltering Hoosierland, we've already been back in school a few weeks.

The parent-teacher group at Ranger's elementary school sells 25 cent treats every Wednesday. Last year, I would put quarters in his backpack once a month. Sometimes he ran out before I remembered to replenish them, and those days were disappointments.

This year, the parent-teacher organization offered a new option. Prepay $7 to cover a year's treats and your student will be put on a prepaid list. Every week, your child can get in line and avoid the inconvenience of weekly payment. The only drawback is that no refunds are issued for missed days. At only a quarter an incident, that didn't seem unreasonable.

It sounded easy. I started looking for my checkbook so I could send a check to his teacher who would add him to the list. He would hardly notice the process.

That made me pause.

Do I want the economics of his weekly treat to be invisible?

So I gave Ranger some options.

I could send a check. He would breeze through the prepaid line, and I would forfeit quarters should he miss or not want his weekly treat.


I could give him 28 quarters immediately. They would be his for weekly treats. If they are lost, stolen or misappropriated, they will not be replaced. Should he miss a week or not want a treat, he can keep the quarter.

His eyes lit up, and I didn't have to say any more (though I never let that stop me). He chose the quarters.

We found a jar where he could keep 24 of the quarters at home, and he put 4 in his backpack, just like last year.

"So you're going to remind me when a month's passed?" he asked.


We talked about methods of refilling the quarter pocket. He can put four in when the first ones were gone or he can top off to 4 each week. He can put in all seven dollars' worth and incur greater risk of loss. It is his choice.

The prepaid form is now in our recycling bin. Our approach is more complicated than prepayment, but it gives him the opportunity to fail when the stakes are incredibly low. Lose four quarters and miss a month. Spend them on something else and miss school treat day.

It also gives him the power to decide each week whether he prefers a quarter or a treat. Our kids do not get much money, so this will present a real decision. Being on the prepaid list costs him nothing and teaches him very little.

I'm wishing him the best with this small responsibility.

***Baby Toolkit is the 7 year-old blog of a geek mom, her Guy Friday, and their three young kids. We no longer have any babies, but we do have a board game podcast that keeps us up late some nights ( We're Amazon affiliates, so if you buy through our links, we might be able to cobble together the funds for a really nice dinner for two at mid-range, small town restaurant a couple times a year. More likely than not, we'll squander the money on board games and domain registration fees. We're glad you're here, and we're incredibly proud of you for reading all of the fine print. You deserve a gold star, but please accept instead a virtual high-five from two other members of the full citation club.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Not Hearing Voices? New Great Big Table Episode Available

Jim and I just released a new Great Big Table episode featuring The Party Game Cast (from the Party Gamecast) where we all discuss Therapy: The Game.

***Baby Toolkit is the random squeakings of some barking mad Midwestern parents. Take it all with a shaker of salt. We have no financial interest in Therapy: The Game or its manufacturers, The Party Gamecast or any of the folks in the aforementioned tweet. We are Amazon affiliates, so any purchases made by clicking through our links fund our efforts at Baby Toolkit and Great Big Table, thanks!. 

Friday, June 28, 2013

Cutting Costs (and Hair): Wahl Lithium Ion Clippers

As a household, we've been cost-conscious for a long time. That means many of those "50 Easy Ways to Save Money" articles just don't apply to our lifestyle. Our latte factor really never came into existence, though I have spent my fair share on ice cream products.

Here's one of our best tips for saving money, and it's much easier than it sounds. I'm not suggesting anyone make their own artisanal cheese for savings or raise truffle pigs for extra income. This is more along the lines of trimming a hedge (without the heat and bugs) or hanging a picture.

I give my family haircuts. Just Jim and Ranger, but even two people can add up to substantial savings in a family's annual budget.

Our Hair Cutting Backstory
Jim and I were newly married, still in college and struggling to make ends meet when my parents gave us our first set of hair clippers. Jim was looking rather shaggy at the time because we were choosing food and shelter over haircuts.

My mom has always cut my dad's hair, and my dad cut my brother's and mine while we were growing up. I didn't have a bowl cut exactly. It was a bowl with bangs; it was like I was trying to impersonate a Playmobil child. My brother's haircuts were slightly longer than military-issued, but he wears his hair that way again (and it suits him). For the record, my brother's last "professional" haircut was given to him by the Air Force in the mid-1990s. He cuts his own hair, and it looks great. So great, in fact, that his friends often get him to cut theirs as well because his talent in drawing translates into true style (think modern superhero).

Unlike my brother, my drawing is functional at best. I do okay at Pictionary, but even with hours of drawing time, I can't produce a recognizable person- much less one that wouldn't insult its model.

My only previous experience cutting hair was when my college friend asked me to trim her bangs. My nervousness and repeat attempts to "even things up" left her with a horribly short, off-kilter fringe most suitable for a youth in the 1964 film Children of the Damned. Not yet in my twenties, I swore off the life tonsorial.

Jim's a brave guy with fast growing hair and a notable aversion to styling-chair small talk. Like a surprising number of men, I think he would seriously consider getting a friar's tonsure if the barber had taken a vow of silence. Maybe this haircut has always been more tolerable than obligatory chit-chat.

When Jim tells other men that I cut his hair, almost every one responds with an envious statement wishing their significant others were willing to cut their hair.

I had to entice Ranger away from the kid's barber shop with video games and race car seats, but found that I could easily buy his haircut opportunity with a) video game time or b) considerably less cash than a professional haircut.

The Savings: Time and Money
Even at a bargain $15 cut quarterly for two people, that comes out to $120 a year. When things aren't completely off the hook at our house, I cut their hair bimonthly or monthly which comes out to $180 to $360 annually.

If someone needs a haircut for a special occasion, I only need to clear a half hour of time (which is less time than I spend in the kid salon's sticky waiting area trying to keep my toddler from her ongoing quest to create a superbug).

My "Training"
I watched the instructional VCR tape that came with the clippers and read my dad's copy of Haircutting the Professional [Playmobil] Way by Bruno (whose single name seems only to be a protective measure against the angry children of adherents). Then, with an advance apology, I cut Jim's hair. I was pretty sure he'd be as devastated by my work as my micro-fringed friend and would soon be investing in pony tail holders.

But that first haircut was not awful. Jim didn't look like a member of the cast of Children of the Corn, a military unit or a leather-clad hate group. It wasn't a great hair cut, but he had paid for worse professional cuts.

Over the years, the quality has improved (though some cuts have shown my learning curve more than others). Jim consistently gets compliments on his hair cuts.

While you can always borrow my VCR tape, Wahl now offers a how-to website with expanded information about contemporary hair cuts. I do wish they would feature more styles for women as families who buy their clippers are likely to be interested in longer styles, layering and women's bangs styles.

The convenience of home hair cuts has me eyeing the girl's curly locks and even my own wavy mop for further savings. I've been spending more time on YouTube watching people cut hair than your average bookish geek.

The Tools
Our first set of clippers, a Wahl home haircut set, are still in lovely working order after almost two decades of use. We diligently clean and oil the blades before storing, so they have years more use in them.

Recently, Wahl offered me an opportunity to try their new Lithium Ion Clipper. I jumped at the chance. It only takes one home haircut to realize that the cord is an obstacle while cutting. Yet I didn't want to venture $69.99 to find out if the battery could offer enough power to keep those blades flying along for clean cuts.

The Wahl Lithium Ion Clipper cuts beautifully and holds a charge through multiple haircuts and months of storage. Not having a cord speeds up the hair cut as I can easily walk in a circle around the person without worrying about catching them (or myself) in the cord.

These cordless clippers open up new haircut locations. I just cut Jim's hair on the porch of my parents' vacation rental along the inland shore. I've cut Ranger's hair in a hotel bathroom before a large family gathering. Admittedly, this setting made me feel a little like the parents in Running On Empty, but he looked good in the group photos.

Because of past experience with cordless shavers, I feared that the clipper battery might putter out mid-cut. As no one in my family would find a partial cut too amusing (on themselves, at least), I was thrilled to see that I could run the clippers on power using the charger input (which is designed with a long enough cord to accommodate AC-powered cutting).

The Recommendation
The Wahl Lithium Ion Clipper's cordless use makes it a lot easier to cut my family's hair. If I were buying a new set of clippers, especially as a beginner, it would be my first choice. The Lithium Ion set includes everything I need to cut Jim and Ranger's hair in a broad array of styles.

Some of the most used tools in our hair cut kit are the slim haircutting scissors and stylist's comb. With both Jim and Ranger, I hand crown of their hair and use clippers on the sides and back. The included sheers are sharp and straight, and the fine-toothed comb offers more precision and better perspective than any of our regular combs.

The ear guides (both the traditional left/right set and the newer dual side ear guard) simplify the hardest region of traditional hair cutting.

Great extras like the eyebrow trimming guard offer easy solutions for old problems. Before, an eyebrow trim required a steady hand to hold a comb at just the right distance while operating the clippers with the other hand. It was pretty awkward on someone else- and ridiculously unwieldy on oneself (so I've heard). A momentary loss of balance by either hand can reduce portions of a brow to short stubble (or so I've heard). The new guards make this pretty much goof-proof.

Our Wahl Lithium Ion set even included a small trimmer for brows, beards, and other touch-ups. It's lighter-weight than the full clipper, so it's easier to manipulate for interim touch-ups.

The Wahl set also includes a cutting cape. While this cape is functional, we don't like it as much as the rest of the set. If you're going to cut hair with regularity, it's worth taking the plunge on a nylon hair cutting cape with snap closures. We have one that fits children and adults. The clipped hair slides off the nylon more easily because it lays flatter than the vinyl cape. There aren't as many places where the hair can gather. It is preferable that the clippings end up on the floor. Otherwise, they can end up everywhere in the house. And should the clippings get down someone's collar, they itch enough that even a grown person will have a hard time sitting still. for kids sitting still
Steal a play from the race car seat salon and let the kids watch something on an elevated screen (keeps their chins up) or play a video game (also on an elevated screen if possible, though I have been known to offer a DS in a plastic bag on occasion). As Ranger gets older, I don't always need these enticements, but I do find myself endlessly repeating "head up" and "chin up." Like most people who spent time with kids, I've come to accept an shocking level of repetition in discourse and activities.

Have you ever cut your family's hair? If so, what tips and techniques help you? If not, what are your concerns?

***Baby Toolkit is the tale of a Midwestern family written by some geeky parents. We received a free Wahl Lithium Ion Clipper set from their representatives, but our opinions are entirely our own and freely given. We are Amazon associates, so any purchases made through our links help pay our operating costs (thanks!). We also podcast about family and community board gaming at

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Denying Google Reader Extinction? Feedly! See More.*

The end is near. The signs are all around us.

Rather than shedding a single tear, weeping openly or making arrangements, I initially took the traditional American approach of denial. Maybe someone (other than me) will loudly rattle the right gates or win a governor's stay of execution. Maybe Google will hear all our inner screams and come to their senses. I love Google Reader; surely Google Reader isn't really leaving me. Google Reader just needs a few days alone... Right?

Well, not exactly.

As the calendar hurtles toward July 1, I've read reviews and looked at a number of other feed readers. Today I'm proud to announce that I migrated my sprawling feed (after making local backups) to feedly.

feedly icon
The hero of our story

When Google Reader first announced its planned death, feedly got a lot of buzz, but everything I found showed large icon representation.

I'm a headlines kind of girl. Maybe a small icon, but turning Google Reader into Pinterest was just not for me (as evidenced by my trifling Pinterest activity).

Jim recently showed me his stylish Google Reader-like feed display on feedly. I couldn't believe it. The interface now offers magazine-style photo & headline combos, photo "card" displays (a la Pinterest), headline only, and the info geek pr0n of full article display (when you really are reading it for the articles).

Before you import:
While feedly honors Google Reader labels, your existing unread flags and starred items WILL NOT RETAIN FLAGS in the transfer.  If you label your starred and unread items in Google, feedly will retain that information through the import.

Other than that, you can import your feed using the Google API (logging in with your existing Google account) or you can create a stand-alone account using your Google Reader backup file (in case you don't want your new reader talking to your ex).

And just because Google Reader is abandoning all of us, we still love you- and we want to stay in touch. Please resubscribe to us. We would miss you terribly.

How have you reacted to the giant meteor headed toward Google Reader? Have you found an alternative you love, really like, or your friends may be calling a rebound? Spill.

***Baby Toolkit is the unicorn-laced dream of some really tired geek parents in the middle Midwest. We have no fiscal interest in Google products (beyond an on-and-off relationship with GoogleAdsense) nor feedly nor giant meteors. We are absolutely invested in you continuing a relationship with us- even if it means we have to start posting to Pinterest regularly. Though not Facebook, we would do anything for love, but we won't do that. We are also Amazon affiliates.

Get your recommended allowance of funny Hoosier accents at our board game podcast

*Bonus points for any Little Shop of Horrors fan who spotted FEED ME SEYMOUR in the headline. Actually bonus points for any Little Shop of Horrors fan- anytime, anyhow.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Driving the Duck: Ditching Unhealthy Metaphors

Sometimes, I notice a bit of my own psychology sticking out like a bra strap or trailing my shoe like hitchhiking toilet paper. Earlier this spring I tweeted:
Off the rails. I hadn't realized I was on a train, but it seems like that's been my underlying operating metaphor for a long, long time.

Trains travel stop to stop on a prescribed route. They're expected to operate on a schedule and are usually judged for their accuracy in meeting that schedule. While wanderers can take take trains, trains can't wander (engineers call that derailment).

I'm tired of the train. Every unexpected variation in life (tornado, preemie, health issues, financial changes) meant derailment, reassessment, organizing cranes, laying new tracks and feeling like I was missing obligations.

Imperial War Museum Collection
Taken by Sgt. Midgley
No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit
My train perpetually ran off-track and behind schedule. Even with best efforts, there were mudslides and break-downs. And when I made it to a station, all I could think of was my failure to meet the schedule.

So, I'm test-driving a new metaphor. As a kid, my family took a duck ride in Wisconsin Dells. The slightly-ridiculous car-boat hybrid fascinated me. Developed for amphibious military assault in WWII, the "duck" (actually written as DUKW) could wander through the woods, climb hills, and splash into water.

DUKWs were ruggedly built to meet the assumption of a rapidly changing environment. They're often covering hard territory, so they don't move fast like trains, but the view is terrific, and stopping for an occasional picnic seems entirely sensible.

Since I decided to leave my metaphorical train behind, I find myself rethinking changes and set-backs. The DUKW is allowing me more meandering. We're more frequently found at the library and the park, and now I'm here blogging (the train seemed to have abandoned this station entirely).

So, join me on this first summer of the DUKW.

Moby Duck DUKW, Photo by Walter Taucher
Don't they just look awesome in parades?

For a more serious discussion along similar lines, watch for an upcoming review of Ana Homayoun's The Myth of the Perfect Girl.

***Baby Toolkit is the ongoing saga of a geek family making their way in this large and fascinating world. We have no particular financial stake in ducks, DUKWS, DUKW tours, duck tours (whatever that might mean), or Perigee/Penguin Publishing. We are Amazon Affiliates, so a small portion of purchases made through our links comes back to us where we'll spend it on something silly like domain names, board games, or marshmallows. We also podcast on board games and game groups at Great Big Table. Thanks for reading! 

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

The Good Life for Less: A Happiness Upgrade

Jim and I began our married lives in austerity. We were students with time left on our degrees and meager student jobs to augment parental support.

Our first anniversary is remembered as the Ben & Jerry's milkshake anniversary. Milkshake- not milkshakes.

Those early days of rice and potatoes left us reading a lot of budgeting (and healthy eating) books (trust me, you pay later for a cheap all-starch diet).

I met Amy Allen Clark in 2008 at a mom blogger event. In a connecting flight back to the Midwest, Amy and I talked about our families- especially about adding a second child (as I was pregnant with Scout). Amy's lively spirit and positivity are contagious. I was sorry when I had to run (neither figuratively nor gracefully) for my next flight.

Since that time, I've faithfully read Amy's blogs at Mom Advice. Amy's elegantly simple solutions to household issues, like using a backwards daybed with a newly independent sleeper, have shaped my home. Her Notebook posts offer a maven's eye-view of great recent blog recipes, patterns and projects- and are one of the highlights of my feed reader.

When her publisher (Perigee, an imprint of Penguin) offered me a chance to read her new book The Good Life for Less: Giving Your Family Great Meals, Good Times, and a Happy Home on a Budget, I was excited to see Amy's take on the seemingly-familiar world of budget living.

The matter of finances is timely for our family. As we've worked to make shrinking ends meet (growing medical expenses and a few annual payroll freezes), I've been resisting the need to rethink our financial lives. Revisiting our budget with new constraints seemed more like my personal failure than anything else.

The text radiates Amy's warm energy. As I read the stories of Amy's family's journey to frugality, I kept stumbling into great memories from my own childhood. Rather than looking toward a slightly grave new austerity, I found myself excited to launch into a life that celebrates the riches already abundant in my life.

Without using the term, Amy's book embodies many Simple Living philosophies. The Good Life for Less reminded me of sitting together with my parents and brother eating homemade fudge and popcorn as we watched a favorite movie on broadcast television. Her family's Friday pizza nights made me think fondly of similar evenings in high school were I regularly attended my buddy's weekly family's pizza night and drank copious amounts of sweet tea while we played cards afterwards. Simple, wonderful times.

Amy includes many great budget-friendly recipes that I wish we'd had back in the early days of our marriage. Her homemade chai mix is not only a great gift option, but offers one of my favorite indulgences at a great value.

It was also great to read the book while feeling swamped by the holidays. Like many parents, I struggle about how much to get my kids. Her family's current formula of "Something you want, something you need, something to wear, and something to read" is exactly the gift-giving framework I have been searching for. This formula allows for creativity, utility and wish-granting tailored to each member of the family.

There are so many parts of the book I could excerpt here as simple tips (because it is brimming with brilliance), but Amy's stories set mental gears spinning. With renewed creativity and joy, I'm identifying and capitalizing on those simple systems and moments that bring happiness and satisfaction to my family. A shocking number of those life upgrades come at no expense.

***Baby Toolkit is the ongoing story of two geek parents in the Midwest. I do know Amy Allen Clark, but have no financial relationship with her (other than the fiscal benefits of reading her blog and book) nor her publishers. We are Amazon affiliates, so a small portion of purchases made through our Amazon links helps support our blogging and podcasting ( efforts. Thanks!