Friday, December 21, 2018

The Darkness Around Us Is Deep: Solstice and Game Night

On this longest night of the year, I'm packing up games and working on a strategic grocery store run for community game night.

As twilight falls in early afternoon, my mind swims through events from earlier this year (originally written on Twitter).

Let me tell you a love story from last night:

We were running a large board game event raising money for @RileyChildrens. The lights blinked on and off- and some of them failed when a LIVE power line near us went down. We had just started a massive team Wits and Wagers trivia game when the hall plunged into darkness.

A cell phone flashlight flipped on. And then a few more. They swiveled like footlights toward the game boards. As we kept playing, a congregant who had just provided us all dinner filled trays with voitives and stick candles. And soon people were distributing these tiny lights to all the tables. People made jokes about romance.

We kept playing.
Thanks @OgeeEverett, for sharing the picture:
After a long while, the power resumed. I was really relieved that the hall hadn't just emptied out. Everyone was still there buying stuff and donating to @RileyKids. Helping- bringing small lights, sharing illumination.

It was a lot like...

when our daughter was having serious health issues. I felt pretty lost in the dark then. And someone else gave a little light to show the way. Then a few. Then many- each person bringing what they had to contribute or...

amplifying the light of others even when they couldn't produce any themselves. I never had to find a light myself, but could focus on the tasks at hand and continuing life already in progress.
It took me back to the gratitude and community support that is , . In the dark and candlelight, I fell in love with my community all over again. Thanks, friends for being the light and sharing the light of others.
On this long night of winter solstice it is very fitting to be back in the warm illumination of friends and community.

Thank you for being a light in the darkness.
 Take a moment on this long, dark night and think of those who bring light into this world.
Thank them if you can.

Love to you all.

***Baby Toolkit is the slapdash writing of a midwestern literature geek who was making a William Stafford reference in the title. Read the whole wonderful poem here: I'm an Amazon affiliate- so I profit from purchases made through Amazon links. Yes, this does make me uneasy. This writing is mine (c) 2018. Thanks for reading the fine print.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Take up space

Even today, I am disappointed that I never grew to be six feet taller or taller. In my generation, I've always been taller than average. Yet, much of my life I felt small, insufficient. I guess I wanted to be too tall to overlook.

As a child and youth, adults frequently described me as shy and quiet-- which frustrated me as I have equally often been told to quiet down and "Please, just stop talking." In retrospect, I'm pretty sure I was ascribed reticence by people who just didn't want to get to know me.

Hubble telescope image: "Hubble Sees a Young Star Takes Center Stage"
Yet the stuff in my head has always been so vivid and loud. And I've never been shy about talking. One of my oldest and dearest friends once called me her “favorite monologist” (in love, mind you, in love).

It's not that it takes a while for me to warm up to people either. At a bustling writers' convention's keynote dinner, Jim and I landed a huge and empty table because it was awkwardly located in the hall. As the hall filled, people who had been buffeted from other tables with “Sorry, those seats are saved,” found their way to our table.

The stragglers who ended up at our table were strangers before salad. Yet, by the time the rolls were out of the basket (not a euphemism), the conversation was rolling. Jokes were made and called back throughout the night. People were self-deprecating and insightful and candid. The conversation kicked into high gear with people eager to throw in ideas and land the next joke or tell the next story.

I should add that none of us were attending as writers, some were fans, others volunteers.

As our table really hit its stride and we were gasping to recover from a particularly hilarious incident, a best-selling author sitting among other luminaries of popular fiction at the adjacent head table said “I really wish I'd sat at that table.” And we, at the table of misfit toys, burst into another wave of laughter.

When my kids were very small and just learning how to navigate in crowds, I spent a lot of time trying to keep them from being trampled. I wanted them to gain physical awareness of other people, crowds, and traffic patterns.

One day when Scout was a preschooler and Rogue was a baby, I suddenly recognized that I was asking them not just to make way, but to recede. To become smaller. To take less room. As it sometimes happens in parenting, I had that laser-focused moment of recognition about *my own* issue- my sense of space. I've spent a lifetime apologizing for how much space I inhabit. It was a reflex.  Immediately, I scaled down what I was teaching my kids. Yes, get out of the way, but remember you too are entitled to space.

I want my kids, particularly my daughters, to know that they deserve a place in the world. If it's crowded, that place can be smaller for everyone; if it's open, that space can be larger. But they deserve a person's worth of space in the world-- though not preferably not on the stairs or in front of me when I'm carrying something heavy. Awareness and accommodation of others is still important, but it doesn't mandate sacrifice and apology in every instance.

I spent almost forty years of my life giving up every shared armrest on a plane, or in a theatre. I've sat through productions with shoulders pulled in so the stranger next next to me can sit comfortably using the space in seat. I felt sorry for taking up space- even the minimum space I was allotted.

So, I gave myself permission to exist in the physical world.

And I guess I'm writing this now to make space for myself in the digital world again. When I started blogging about baby gear back in 2006, no one I knew read my writing beyond Jim. Though I was thrilled to have readers and moved away from blogging only about gear, I didn't really expect it. I made the blog because I was tired of writing out a whole bunch stuff for strangers who asked me about stuff I was using with my kids. The blog meant I could just refer them to the web site for more information.

When there were a few readers, I got a chance to make jokes that my infant child couldn't appreciate. There was shop talk about the day to day of parenting. It was pretty joyful.

Then people I knew subscribed. And it was weird, but not a big deal. Suddenly though, I had to think through my writing differently. People might take something for what it wasn't. There were new stacks of emotional baggage lying around just waiting to be toppled.

When life turned upside down for us with medical stuff, I throttled my posts even more. Some days I wanted to pour out my heart and hear the insight my online community had to offer, but I knew the discussion would cause problems in my daily life.

That put a chill on things.

With great admiration, I've watched Anne Nahm write candidly about hard real life experiences. I think about the stuff she writes on families and life ALL THE TIME. It's honest and explores, like the parent-blogging community of yore, what is really happening in our lives- the kind of stuff you discuss with a friend over a meal about your parents aging and dealing with siblings. But Anne took the risk of knocking over those heaps of emotional baggage and told her sister about the blog. I so deeply admire that she's been able to cross the streams (a la Ghostbusters) and keep writing about those deeply important conversations we rarely manage to have but all so desperately need.

I want to write like that. I want to talk about things that are important and happening in daily life, and to hear what others are thinking about similar experiences in our lives. It meant so much as a young parent to have an idea lab for those really hard things about being a parent. I miss that.

But I've gotten completely tangled up in “no one wants to read this,” “is this worth writing?,” and “how will people in my real life interpret this?” to the point that I pared down to almost no writing at all despite the fact I loved the experience.

It feels like I'm now asking if my ideas are good enough to take up space. On the internet. For free. And I've seen what's on the internet. I guess I'm asking the universe for permission to take up space again.

Permission granted.

I'm here to take up space. Come join me. Let's take up some space together.

Monday, November 26, 2018

I Can See Clearly Now: Defogging Your Windshield

Foggy Windshield, AhmadElq

With the Northern Hemisphere heading into winter, we’re all soon be plagued by the interior fogging of car windows.

Decades ago, I heard Tom and Ray Magliozzi divulge the secret on Car Talk.

It’s unbelievably easy.
  1. Turn on air conditioning. (Yes, even in the winter.)
  2. Set blower to windshield.
  3. Set air intake to fresh air input instead of recirculating.
  4. Set temperature between cold and hot (neutral? tepid?).
Your foggy windshield will begin clearing up immediately if the settings are right. Once it clears, you can set your car’s temperature and blowers however you like.

If it resumes fogging up, you still have too much humidity in your car. Return it to the settings above as needed. Sometimes things like a hot box of pizza or a lot of people in the car can generate bonus fog.

Your kids will be sure to tell you that you’re doing it all wrong when you reach for the AC. Take the teachable moment and save your future self some time driver’s education time.  Plus, knowing will make them safer even if they're not the driver.
Stay safe! Don't forget to return your ice scraper and other winter gear to your car.

***Baby Toolkit is a compendium of randomness broadcasts from a chaotic suburban home located somewhere between the Bible belt and the Rust Belt in the great Fly-over. We are Amazon affiliates, so a small portion of purchases made through our Amazon links contribute to our general upkeep. Thanks for reading even the small print!

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Hello World 2.0

When I read Asha’s call for a return to commonplace blogging, it was like the voice in my head had found an external locus.  The desire for that written conversation among friends never really left me.

When Google Reader shuttered in 2013, I cast about for a replacement. Most of my friends turned to Facebook as a feed aggregator and blog substitute, but that wasn’t for me.  I’d purposefully left FB in 2010 after recognizing that it was a platform that just was not healthy for me.

Apple II c monitor showing Hello World program in BASIC.
Image by Bill Bradford (mrbill), Creative Commons, (c) 2006
 some rights reserved.

Back in 2013, Rogue was a toddler with extra medical stuff going on.  I was generally overwhelmed just keeping up with household stuff, so writing became a few letters to friends and snark on Twitter.  Writing on paper was a welcome relief because I could write without self-editing as much knowing the single reader for whom it was intended.  And I could discuss things that would never have made it to the blog.

So it’s 2018, and I’m digging out of a long funk.  My iron levels have been declining for years, and motivation was hard to find.  Even assembling words to express myself had become difficult.

This August, I had a endometrial ablation (Minerva) because I could no longer fight the everyday exhaustion and meet life commitments.  Things seem to be back on course as my skin tone regains its color and I no longer wake every day cursing the morning and the day’s demands.

I am still working up the courage (and the hemoglobin) to resume blood donation.  This will be the real moment where I know if the procedure helped.  If I go in too soon, and get turned away yet again for low iron, I may need someone to drive me home because I’m sure I will break down.

I still don’t have a good feed aggregator, but I’m sure there has to be something wonderful that’s popped up in the past five years, right?  Google Plus, you say?  No, seriously, help a girl out with some recommendations.

My wonderful friend (and mentor) Ray Otus recently did a Plundergrounds podcast episode on Imposter Syndrome and how it can derail creative pursuits.  Listening to the episode motivated me to commit more to the creative inquiries that feed my life. (Plundergrounds is mostly a Role Playing Game podcast and zine, but this episode is for everyone.)

So, hello world. I’ve missed you.  Let’s see where this goes.

***Baby Toolkit is the ongoing pursuit of a Midwestern geek exploring the universe one quagmire at a time.  I'm an Amazon affiliate, so if you click on an Amazon link chances are high that I'm getting a tiny percentage of any resulting sales.  Thanks for reading, friends!

Friday, June 29, 2018

Audiobooks: I implore you

Audiobooks with my kids have gotten me into trouble.

We were three books into an adventure series so gripping that my kids BEGGED for the next car ride.

Suddenly, with my preschooler, first grader, and fourth grader listening, the book took a very dark turn. The warrior rats who had always disliked the mice herded them into volcanic chambers to die of poisonous gases. Mouse families with babies and grandparents suffocated and died as the heroes looked on, powerless.

That moment hangs in my mind. A frozen pause. Wondering why I had so recklessly chosen a series without reading reviews of all the sequels. Wondering what this would do to my youngest listener- a person still struggling to write her own name.

It felt like a massive screw-up- and one that was wholly my own. All of us were shocked. The kids dove into the second stage of grief- denial. Maybe what the heroes saw wasn't real. Maybe they will be able to save them through some story mechanic. Maybe they only look dead.

If you had been listening with us, you too would have known the story had no surprise resurrection- no time travel, no magic potion, no red herring, no nightmare to be shaken from. I shut off the book, established the deaths as final, listened to the kids, and answered their questions.

We were sad together. I was sorry to have accidentally peeled back a view into the ugliness of hatred and violence we usually shield children from. It felt pretty crappy.
Image result for the underland chronicles
Then they asked me to turn the book back on. And, to my own surprise, I did. We finished the five book series together.

Years later, whenever they want to try reading or watching something scary, they always say, "But Mom, you already let us listen to Gregor the Overlander."

Suzanne Collins' The Underland Chronicles remains one of their favorite series of all time... OUR favorite series.

So why should every parent listen to audiobooks with their kids?

Because you have opportunities to talk about the book together. Stories are like laboratories to explore actions, consequences, values, and ethics from the safe perspective of observers- but observers who care about the characters. Reading literary fiction (books with emotional complexity) has been shown to improve empathy in adults and increases emotional intelligence in children.

Listening to stories together gives us an increased common language and experiences. My kids will sometimes describe a person by referencing a trait from a character we all know. They also ask about unfamiliar words, concepts, and ideas we encounter.

Audiobooks are a great venue for storytelling because the pace of delivery is slower than a film or show and easier to momentarily interrupt and clarify. Audiobook readers are usually skilled actors or the authors, so their recordings have a quality and foresight into the material that is hard to muster when reading a book for the first time while you try to share it with others. I do believe in reading aloud to my kids, even from new books, but it's a bit more like feeling my way in the dark when choosing the emphasis for sentence I've never seen before.

Here are some titles that should appeal to both adults and kids to get you started

The Hoboken Chicken Emergency by Daniel Pinkwater

Just another New Jersey boy meets giant chicken story. Nothing to see here.
I LOVE this book, and it's a good start for new audiophiles. It's not very long. The sequel, Looking for Bobowicz, is even better. Sadly, the third book in the series can only be found in print. Daniel Pinkwater is an extremely generous author who puts out a free podcast of his written works. Check it out.

Secrets At Sea by Richard Peck
Great for younger listeners. An Edwardian mouse family tries to help their somewhat hapless humans as they cruise to England to improve their social status. First of two books.
A Western story about kids grappling with strange happenings in their weird new hometown and searching for lost treasure. This series has my 2nd grader, 4th grader, and 7th grader begging for each next installment in this trilogy.
 Fake Mustache by Tom Angelberger

A sketchy fake mustache that grants charisma turns a kid into an evil mastermind bent on becoming president. Can his best friend and a former yodeling television cowgirl stop his march to power?

The Willy Wonka of videogames designs a cutting-edge library for his hometown. Before the library opens to the public, a group of essay contest winning kids compete to escape this new library by solving a series of puzzles. Includes great references to history and books. Series.

Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity by Mac Barnett

The Brixton brothers redeem cereal box tops to get a detective license and stumble through investigations in this series.

Leaving the Bellweathers by Kristin Clark Venuti

The butler for any eccentric family seeks his own replacement when he tires of their shenanigans. First of two.

After a large inheritance from a newly discovered relative, a young girl finds her parents transformed, her governess a witch, and her only friend a talking mouse. Nail-biting scenes and great humor. This full cast recording offers a great experience. Series.

Written after WWII by a British widow with young children, this book explores changes of fortune in a world where packs of prowling wolves threaten Victorian-esque citizens in a world of great inequality. Gripping. Series.

Mr. Chickee's Funny Money by Christopher Paul Curtis
After helping a neighbor, a boy find himself in possession of a remarkable piece of currency. But there are others who want this treasure. Can he figure out its mysteries before they find him? Lots of puns and word play. First of two.

A great true story for any kid who loves animals and frequents libraries. I will warn you that the cat dies during the story, but I still think it's worth reading.

Joshua Dread by Lee Bacon

What if your parents were supervillains- and the most popular superhero in the country moved into your neighborhood? What if his daughter was in your homeroom? Series.

The Magic Half by Annie Barrows

A singleton with older twin brothers and younger twin sisters moves into a new town. After a few inexplicable incidents, she finds the house has at least one other resident and a doorway between times. First of a series.

After his father disappears, Gabriel Finley discovers his father's childhood journal and an outlandish family history that is for the birds. With a touch of Norse legends, abundant riddles, loyal friends, birds, birdbrains, and sketchy companions, can Gabriel find his father? First of two.
  ***Baby Toolkit is an ongoing conversation of at least one Midwestern geek parent with the rest of the world. Jim and I also discuss board game communities at We are Amazon affiliates, so should you purchase anything using our links, we earn a very small portion of those puchases. We promise to use it for good, not evil. Thanks for reading. It means a lot to us.