29 October, 2014

This evening's borrowed wisdom

Years ago, I made a few fruitless attempts at blogging before starting my cooking blog last year. How many years ago, you ask? Well, at one point, I had a Xanga blog. 

In any case, most of what has survived is painful to re-read. One of my biggest challenges in making progress as a writer has been that - until this space - I rarely share personal writing and often, after a year or two, will simply erase whole files and entries. And blogs.

But I salvaged this post (under the same title) from February 2008, when I was finishing med school and chatting with a childhood friend online...something about it still resonates.
me: it seems odd in retrospect that I would apply to places I hadn't ever visited but who knows?
friend: undergrad was a very different sort of experience
me: my ex dated a girl who went to one of the schools I'd considered
me: I met her at a party
me: we stood in line for the bathroom and talked about how we could have been friends, had I gone there
me: in another life, perhaps!
me: undergrad is definitely something I could have done several times in several different ways and still learned new things
friend: and THAT, I think, is the point
friend: brings me back around to never, ever trying to pinpoint where I may have gone wrong
friend: b/c I'd inevitably miss all sorts of things that went very, very right
friend: and my less-than-infinite wisdom is not up to that task
"Amy in Postmodern Art"
Denver Art Museum, March 2010

28 October, 2014

Dueling "bests" in preschool lit

Finn and I (okay, just me, but I did get his input) decided to present our favorite books for children aged 1 to 3 or 4 years in the form of dueling "bests."

...with apologies to the illustrators...I know you're just as important as the authors but I ran out of time to look up your names...

Best book that rhymes
Amy says… Little Blue Truck, by Alice Schertle and Jill McElmurry
Finn says… Good-Night, Good-Night, Construction Site, by Sherri Duskey Rinker and Tom Lichtenheld

Let me state a simple truth: It is not all that fun to read wordy story books to a child who is: A) currently standing on his head, asking to play ring-around-the-rosie for the 500th time; B) trying to fold the pages into origami before you've finished the first sentence; C) chanting "no, not right" at escalating volume after every third word; or D) crying "I bwoke book" while pointing to the flap he ripped the last time you tried to read Where's Spot?

Therefore, the vast majority of really lovely, brilliantly creative and artfully written children's books are definitely for school-age children, or in some cases, for parents to read in the privacy and quietude of their own beds, after their little ones have gone to sleep.

A good rhyme solves all of that. Even better, a good rhyming book is easily memorized, so when your child decides to see if it can swim with him, or demands ONE MORE BOOK after you finally managed to turn the lights out, or is utterly hysterical during a car trip, you can just recite them. Seriously. I memorized these two after reading them half a dozen times - they are that rhythmic. (Little Blue Truck was a gift from my dad.)

Best book about going to sleep
Amy says… Llama Llama Red Pajama, by Anna Dewdney
Finn says… The Going to Bed Book, by Sandra Boynton

I love Anna Dewdney's Llama Llama series. They are all great stories that toddlers can relate to and learn from. And, most importantly, they rhyme. I also love Sandra Boynton. One of Finn's earliest favorites was Barnyard Dance - when he was just about a year, he would participate in each part of the dance - stomp your feet, clap your hands, etc.

Both of these end with great lines that I sometimes quote to Finn in lieu of reading them (if we've already read three or four others). "Mama Llama's always near, even if she's not right here. Little llama, don't you know? Mama Llama loves you so." It helps a bit with separation anxiety at bedtime.

The Going to Bed Book ends with "The moon is high. The sea is deep. They rock and rock and rock to sleep."

Best book that teaches letters or numbers
Amy says… Chicka Chicka Boom, by Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambault
Finn says… The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle

These are classics. Enough said? The Very Hungry Caterpillar was the first book I can remember reading, with help. Finn likes to stick his fingers through the holes, but as he's gotten a bit older, he does participate in counting the fruit a bit more. He likes see the "mommy letters" and "baby letters" in Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. 

Best book about food
Amy says… Dim Sum for Everyone, by Grace Lin
Finn says… Noodles for Baby, by Jamie Meckel

Dim Sum for Everyone was written by a graduate of my high school (she was several years ahead) who became an artist and illustrator, and realized there was a huge gap in the children's book market when it came to Asian characters. I also love The Ugly Vegetables, a partly autobiographical tale of the Chinese "ugly" vegetables that her mother grew in the garden, while the white families on their block grew flowers. Finn prefers Noodles for Baby, a rhyming (yay) book about the many kinds of noodles (and babies!) in the Hawaiian Islands (our friends grew up in Hawaii and brought Finn the book). I worry that the baby throwing the noodles in the air and up her nose will give him ideas, but so far…nothing he didn't think of himself first.

Best pop-up book
Amy says… Ben's Box, by Michael Foreman
Finn says… School Bugs, by David A. Carter

Ben's Box is a book from my childhood that I don't remember reading, but now I adore it (with one caveat). It is one of the most gorgeously constructed pop-up books I've ever seen, and it describes the adventures of a little boy whose mother gets a new washing machine. (That's the caveat - offended by the suggestion that a new washing machine is a mother's "toy", I substitute "father.") He just gets the empty box but quickly uses his imagination to make it so much more.

School Bugs, unfortunately, from my point of view, is a bit lacking in text (and rhyme) but it also has cool, interactive pop-ups and flaps. Finn loves it for the playground scene at the very end.

Best Dr. Seuss book
Amy says… The Butter Battle Book
Finn says… One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish

I feel like an idiot: The Butter Battle Book was probably my favorite book in kindergarten, but I didn't get that it was about the Cold War until I read it to Finn for the first time last year. One Fish Two Fish was, apocryphally, the first book I read entirely by myself. I also love The Lorax, by the way. And The Sleep Book nearly made the Sleep category above.

Best book with flaps
Amy says… Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, by Eric Carle
Finn says… Beautiful Oops!, by Barney Saltzberg

I admit, Beautiful Oops! is very creative. But like the next category, it can get a bit tiresome for the adult reader. It shows various "oopses" like torn paper and spills and ways in which a young artist can transform them into a masterpiece (instead of getting angry or frustrated).

Best book that doesn't have any kind of plot, or even characters, really
Amy says… Green, by Laura Vaccaro Seeger
Finn says… Press Here, by Hervé Tullet

Green is a book of beautiful illustrations of different shades of green. Each page has a cut-out appropriate to the scene that reveals some of the color on the next page (e.g. tiny holes reveal a tawny yellow color and look like fireflies but when you turn the page, the color appears more yellow-green and is an autumn tree). I picked up Press Here thinking that its resemblance to an iPad app unplugged would amuse Finn...and it did. It really, really did. He calls it the "beep beep book" because it starts with a yellow dot and an instruction to "press here." Then two dots appear, then three... Later, the reader is asked to rub one until it turns red and the other until it turns blue. I'm sure you can see how this is endlessly amusing for a two-year-old and maybe not quite as amusing for a tired parent.

Best book that Finn doesn't understand yet
Amy says… The Dark, by Lemony Snicket
Finn says… Le Pétit Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (admittedly, the pop-up edition)

Please read The Dark. It is so awesome and hilarious and sweet. I can't do it justice without giving it away. Trust me.

Best book of all time
Amy says… Wherever You Are My Love Will Find You, by Nancy Tillman
Finn says… Please, Baby, Please, by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee

Please, Baby, Please is Finn's favorite book of all time. He could read it dozens of times in a row and will always pick it if it's an option. It's a pretty simple story - on each page, the baby is shown doing something babies love to do and parents beg ("please, baby!") them not to do - but he gets really into it, pointing out that the baby in the book doesn't like to eat her peas, only her pasta, but he (Finn) likes peas and pasta. On another page, he'll remind me that he has felt just like the baby when I made him leave the playground, while on yet another, he'll be outraged that the baby won't share her ball. On the last page, the baby asks the mommy to "Kiss me good-night? Please, mama, please", which is my favorite part.

27 October, 2014

An American girl in Europe, part 2

The second half was less amusing than the first...but I made the effort to scan these in... Just consider yourself forewarned. (To read the far superior Part 1, click here.)

August 17, 1991
That is not how you spell "porcelain", nine-year-old self! 
You are not living up to your alleged precocity!

As seems to be the trend, I was remarkably unfazed by such events as a restaurant possibly going up in flames while we dined.

August 18, 1991
"We were going to sit in the bar, but children weren't allowed."
Silly American parents, what were they thinking?

My dad sketched the British flag for me so I could draw it with my awesome neon crayons.

August 19, 1991
"Then some people decided they didn't want to go to New York..."
This is apparently a lot funnier and less irritating when you're 9. 
Perhaps also less likely to lead to a lengthy interrogation in 1991.

Ahh, the days when a bad flight meant your mother dumped her drink on you. Now you have to worry about someone spilling Ebola on you.

25 October, 2014


It is true that I sometimes want to pound on the walls of the world
and kick and scream and stomp my feet through the crust of the earth
and demand to have my daddy back.

But it doesn't work like that
so instead I write.


Since I wrote about the disappearance of a student at my alma mater, Hannah Graham, earlier this month, I felt an obligation to acknowledge that her body was positively identified this week. I am so sorry for her family. As with children I have personally cared for, I prayed for a miracle against all odds, until I heard the news report tonight. I hope that the investigation will give her family, and Morgan Harrington's, all the answers they need to find some peace.

© Tara LaTour
When I was 21, I lived in Copenhagen, and one night, I went to the theatre by myself to see the Danish Royal Ballet's interpretation of Homer's Odyssey. The ballet was called, simply, Odyssée, and I still remember that Athena danced in skinny jeans and pointe shoes, and Penelope's handmaidens paced the stage in royal blue satin, strapless ball gowns with impossibly long, long trains. The slow drag of the gowns back and forth across the floor was (maybe?) meant to symbolize the weaving and unweaving of the tapestry by Penelope, as she tries to stall her suitors.

As I waited to take the metro home after the performance, a man, probably in his thirties, approached me and struck up a conversation. He wanted to know my name, where I was from. Never one to feel obligated in the arena of social graces, I was unfriendly to the point of rudeness.

But he was insistent. He kept saying, "I think you just don't understand my Jamaican English," with a smile that verged on a leer. He did have a strong Jamaican accent, and afterwards, I wondered if he hadn't even tagged me as a vulnerable foreigner, just a pretty young girl out alone at night.

When our train arrived, I hurried on and clambered over another young woman to grab the window seat next to her. Undeterred, he took the seat in front of us and turned around to continue talking to me and asking where I was going. I elected to look at the window and ignore him. At the next stop, which happen to be the large central station, I quite literally leapt over my seat mate and raced through the car doors, running up stairs and escalators, and finally into a bustling café, where I found a table that was thoroughly surrounded by other customers but still afforded me a view of the café entrance and station beyond.

I ordered coffee and sat there for an hour or so. If I had been more outgoing, or in an English-speaking country, I might have shared my predicament with the waitress: although nearly every Dane I encountered spoke fluent English on par with the average American, I was still embarrassed by my appalling grasp of Danish and hated having to act on the presumption that someone else spoke my language, in their country. (It seems a bit silly, but I've always liked to at least be able to say, I'm sorry, I don't speak ____. Do you speak English? in the languages of the places I travel. And I appreciate the same in return, especially from anyone who has chosen to live in the U.S.)

Eventually, with frequent glances over my shoulder, I worked up the courage to get back on the train and make the 200-yard walk from the station to my flat. Once inside, I logged on to AOL Instant Messenger and relayed the creepy encounter to every friend online.

I'll never know what that man's intention was, but I'm very glad not to have found out more. It doesn't matter much, except to me, as I try to make a story out of my life. I've had a charmed one so far; this was one of the very, very few times in which I have been genuinely scared, and it happened in one of the safest cities in the world. Was I lucky? Smart? Overly suspicious of a socially oblivious guy desperate to meet people in a new place?

If I was lucky, I won't ask why. I already know there aren't any good answers.

© Shaun Leane

24 October, 2014

What is modesty?

Or, a great excuse to write about fashion

First, the question: how do you define modesty?

I have my own thoughts, of course, but first, let's ask Google for a standard definition (or three):

mod·es·ty    ˈmädəstē/      noun
  1. The quality or state of being unassuming or moderate in the estimation of one's abilities, e.g. "with typical modesty he insisted on sharing the credit with others." Synonyms: self-effacement, humility, unpretentiousness
  2. The quality of being relatively moderate, limited, or small in amount, rate, or level, e.g. "the modesty of his political aspirations." Synonyms: limited scope, moderation
  3. behavior, manner, or appearance intended to avoid impropriety or indecency, e.g. "modesty forbade her to undress in front of so many people" or "the modesty of his home." Synonyms: unpretentiousness, simplicity, plainness
Note that only a subset of the third definition even begins to address modesty in a way that implies a sexual element.

Reading the New York Times yesterday, I came across this article in the Style section: Modesty Is Her Best Policy: Fabologie's Adi Heyman Promotes Modest Fashion. It describes the creator of a Jewish lifestyle website and emphasizes the appeal of "modest" fashion to women from a variety of backgrounds.
Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images
for the New York Times

I might have flipped right past - I've read several articles on this subject in the last several years - but it was accompanied by a photo. The creator poses on a city street, wearing an apparently expensive trench coat, a leather belt and bag, trendy sunglasses with a clear acrylic frame, brilliantly yellow stiletto heels, and a blond wig. 

Two thoughts popped into my head immediately:
  • I wonder how vegans define modesty? and
  • When I wear colored shoes - especially stilettos - I'm looking to be noticed!
I also latched on to this final quote:

The trend toward modest fashion may well pass, but Ms. Heyman is conscious of its deeper meaning. “When cloaking elbows and knees, we aim to emphasize the person, not the body,” she wrote on her blog, adding, “By covering up what is superficial, we reveal what is more important: personality and character.”

Hmmm...we'll come back to this. 

Several years ago, I was going on vacation in Morocco. I flew into Marrakech and took a train to Casablanca. I was going to be traveling alone for that part of the trip, so I wanted to blend in as much as possible. I Googled various recommendations for how to dress and ended up reaching the (erroneous) conclusion that I needed to cover up from ankle to collar bone. 

Unfortunately, this was 2007, and"maxi" was not a word in my vocabulary, at least not in its application to skirts and dresses. And, since I can't stand turtlenecks (I feel like I'm choking), I owned exactly one shirt that covered my collar bone - my rowing jersey. So I scoured Oxford, and finally managed to conjure up a long khaki skirt with a lace underskirt and elaborate gold and pearl beading from the Covered Market and a very full and slightly dusty lilac corduroy skirt from a forgotten sales rack in Debenhams, as well as a few crew-neck shirts and a couple of cowl-neck sweaters that weren't terrible.

This was a pointless exercise for a variety of reasons. First, I like skirts and I wear them a lot, but in new places, where I feel slightly uncomfortable and on my guard, I would much, much rather be wearing pants. I know it's highly unlikely that I would need to, but I can run, kick and fight in pants. Secondly, my face has only slightly more color than a glass of milk - unless you're a drone, looking down on my head, I don't "blend in." I glow in the dark. 

Third, Google was just wrong - plenty of Moroccan women do not cover up to that extent and there are tons of tourists running around in shorts and more inappropriate get-ups (not that I'm recommending those). Furthermore, I should have learned years before that people don't expect outsiders to behave exactly like their compatriots. They mostly just ask that you not dance naked in their town square (or blot their nude beach with a burqa). We humans are more tolerant than we give ourselves credit for…sometimes. When I was in college, I hiked across Costa Rica and stayed with two host families in villages on the western slope of the Sierra de la Muerte. One of my fellow hikers asked our guide (the young adult son of one family and one of 18 children) what his conservative parents and siblings thought of the teenage girls running around their country, far from the protective gaze of their fathers. He just shrugged and said, "You are American. It's not the same."
(On the flip side, this Italian-speaking Catholic girl got kicked out of the cathedral in Milan, three months after the Moroccan adventure, for wearing a shirt with cap sleeves that exposed too much shoulder.)

Let's go back a little further. Once upon a time, I was a teenager loyal to Express and Abercrombie & Fitch (it was the '90s). I wore plaid mini skirts and cut-off jean shorts, and every single shirt or blouse was velvet, velour or somehow imbued with glitter. (I would kill for a good picture of one of these outfits.) Many of my shirts had cut-outs in peculiar places. I also wore heels with EVERYTHING. Other than a pair of sneakers, I don't think I owned any flats. One of my college suitemates took one look and said, "You know those are tools of the patriarchy, don't you?"

Example: my first day of "college in high school" (because I took my first college course when I was 14, and you can be geeky and fashion-oriented too). I wore a shimmery blue ribbed sleeveless crop top turtleneck (are you picturing it?) under - God help me - acid-wash denim overalls.

Anthropologie Time Gone By dress
And frankly, none of these outfits would qualify for the American-religious-pop-culture definition of modesty, because even when they covered up the obvious places, I liked to wear them tight. No one with a 36D chest has ever looked modest wearing a stretchy Lycra button-down shirt sized to fit her arms and waist. 

Thankfully, fashion evolved and so did my taste. I have lot more ballet flats, tea-length skirts, and three-quarter-length sleeves in my closet now. I also discovered the open secret of tailoring - because one size doesn't even fit all of one body, most of the time.

More "modest"? If you mean less revealing of breasts and thighs, then...yes, definitely. More flattering too, if I can judge myself. If you mean "modest" in the sense of simplicity, less glitz and flash, then...probably. Very few, if any, of my clothes have any kind of sparkle now. My jewelry is simpler, too, and my hair is back to its natural color from various shades of red. If you mean "modest" in the sense of self-effacement or unpretentiousness, then...maybe. Inadvertently. I'll explain... 

I have always dressed in clothes that made me comfortable and (that I thought) expressed my identity. As a teenager, I didn't feel my clothes were too tight or the fabrics too unforgiving. Over time, I became more comfortable in skirts that were long enough to leave no worries about how I sat and shirts that carried no risks when bending over - for one thing, I entered a profession where I sometimes crouch down or sit on the floor to be at the same level as the children I'm treating. I also became increasingly concerned (admittedly, a little obsessed) about sun exposure, and so I feel much more relaxed if my skin is covered when I'm going to be outside. 

At the same time, do I have any less desire to be perceived as attractive than when I was younger? I don't think so. I think I still want to be noticed, but I have possibly a richer picture of what makes a good first impression and how important those first impressions can be. Rather than thinking of "attractive" as synonymous with "sexy", I think of it as encompassing beautiful, capable, strong, professional, trustworthy, intelligent, creative, unique... And more. It's not that I didn't care about these things at 17, but I think I had more faith that people would get to know me and discover my intelligence, creativity, and so on.

I own fewer clothes and shoes now than when I moved into my first dorm room (and suddenly understood why Bed, Bath & Beyond sold so many different types of organizers). The clothes I do own are higher quality and more carefully selected. They are also - while I'm being honest - a LOT more expensive.

So when I think about these things - the fact that I still do care about the image I project, through my clothes...that I try to shop in moderation but still have a wardrobe worth many times what most of the world makes in a month...that I still, simply, like pretty things... I don't feel "modest."

Even if my collar bone is covered today. 

I realize now that certain parts of my early Christian and Catholic education really deeply define my values in almost subconscious ways. I was taught that God calls us to want less and less for ourselves and give more and more to others, and so I try to live that and I fail. Frequently.

I don't kid myself that God is happy if we spend $400 on high heels as long as we make sure our breasts are covered.

So to go back to the quote in the original article that so bothered me:

“When cloaking elbows and knees, we aim to emphasize the person, not the body,” she wrote on her blog, adding, “By covering up what is superficial, we reveal what is more important: personality and character.”

Okay, yes, clothes sometimes can reveal personality and character...if you are lucky enough to have the time and money - not to mention good eyesight and either a personal inclination for the visual or the money to hire a consultant - to select clothes that really do reveal your personality and character. 

But ultimately, fashion is superficial. The fact that the superficial can sometimes mirror deeper truths, or that we often judge and are judged on superficial qualities, doesn't change that.

(Fashion is also fun. I'm awfully far from a person who believes God doesn't want us to have fun or take joy in our lives wherever we find it. During a particularly rough time in my medical training and personal life, I bought a pair of crazily indulgent "what the heck did I just do?" $500 Coclico leather riding boots. They fit my feet like gloves, and every time, I wear them - now four years later - I feel happy and confident.)

The example of the wig (or Sheitel) particular bothers me. My limited understanding of the history of this practice is that Jewish law requires married women to cover their hair, for reasons of modesty. I have previously read that this was supposed to preserve the beauty of the hair for their husband's enjoyment only. According to Wikipedia, an esteemed rabbi in the 16th century wrote that a wig was a suitably modest covering. This has puzzled me for awhile, because when I've read interviews of women my age, they write about trying to choose the loveliest and most natural looking wigs. The women in the NYT article, Adi Heyman, is pictured wearing a blond wig with what can only be intentional dark roots (not quite an ombré look), styled into "beachy" waves. 

No matter how hard I try, I can't really appreciate the nuance here. If the wig is to preserve modesty, why wear one that draws attention to one's head and hair? Why is it okay for passers-by to admire someone else's hair on the wearer's head?

I admit it: attractive women in loose hijabs draw my eye more than women in ponytails and look so good that I wish head coverings would come into style the way scarves have.

I also recently read this great post from Rachel Held Evans, who writes about how strict standards of "modesty" can objectify women's bodies more than most bikinis. She also brings up a great point about how standards of modesty are deeply rooted in the culture of a specific community and time period. Now that I live (for the first time in six years) in a house that gets cable television, I caught an episode of "19 and Counting" and was slightly stunned that the adolescent daughters wear more makeup than I have ever owned. But hey, I won't judge your eye liner if you don't judge my (one-piece) swimsuit. 

Milan Fashion Week: I want this outfit

18 October, 2014

How do you write best?

A question for my fellow bloggers, writers, and readers who are writers in their heads…

Today I thought I would get a lot of writing done. My cousin's daughters (aged 10 and 13) are spending the night and so I imagined I'd have a ton of free time while they played with my son.

Which they totally did, and so I totally did, and yet I did not write. I did recently buy a baby grand piano, which I adore, so I spent quite a bit of time playing.

It was not a total loss of an artistic/expressive day, but it was not a creative day.

The drafts folder for this blog currently contains notes and first paragraphs on an eclectic array of topics: the problem of minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border alone (a bit of a personal perspective, since my maternal grandfather emigrated alone at age 13); the relationship between passion, creativity, insecurity and guilt; something entitled "A hunger for learning" that doesn't quite have a point yet; a future Christmas post on the best unexpected gifts I've received and worst gifts I've ever given; yet another poem on grief; and the other half of the "American girl in Europe" post I wrote back in the spring (though I'm not sure it really warrants finishing).

My computer desktop contains drafts of scholarly papers in various states of revision: one on social media and physicians, another on the growing practice of parents being able to choose whether or not to stay with their children during invasive procedures, like induction of anesthesia or emergency resuscitation, and a third on chickenpox in pediatric cancer patients in Central America.

(Admittedly, when I hoped for a creative day, I wasn't necessarily thinking of revising data tables.)

And finally, there are the two novels for which I write new scenes in my head as I drive back and forth to work two hours each day.

Particularly with the latter, I struggle with this question:

At what point should I force myself to start typing?

When is giving free range to my imagination and my inner voice helpful, and when do I need to commit words to paper?

Should I wait until the urge - the real need to write - strikes, or should I build discipline and skill by writing every day, with or without the urge?

Is there an ideal "window" in which to write?

If I write too soon, especially with fiction, do I risk closing doors in the world I'm building? 

If I write too late, do I risk losing momentum or simply never overcoming my own inertia?

I also wonder:

When do you decide to write something that feels "risky"? 

How do you decide when to put yourself on the line for the sake of pushing your boundaries as a writer?

What do you do in your own practice?

I know there isn't a "right" answer, but I'm curious to hear some other perspectives!

This was the avatar for my very first (and now defunct) blog, 10 years ago.

15 October, 2014

Best Meals III

Just when you thought it was safe to put your menu down...

I'm offering a new list. These places don't rise to the level of my top ten, but there is something about each - food or atmosphere or location that made it special enough that I and will return whenever I can.

As always in no particular order.

1. Any time at The Virginian
2. Lunch at Chicago Art Institute
3. Old Ebbits Grill
4. Hard Rock Cafe
5. Sunday Brunch at Pebble Beach
6. Sunday Brunch at the Plaza Hotel


13 October, 2014

What's in a world? part 1

I just finished Catch Me When I Fall, by Vicki Leigh, which gets 2.5/5 stars. Maybe I'm terribly picky about my YA lit, but it just didn't do it for me. I think I gave it two stars just for being basically decently written, with fluent grammar and no evidence that a thesaurus was abused in the writing of the novel. I think the author has potential but this felt like a first effort that needed a lot of revising - plot, characters and world-building. It appears that this is a series, but I don't think I will be giving it another shot.

The plot was so-so. The basics, without spoilers, are that creatures called Nightmares feed on human fears while they sleep, and humans who gave their mortal lives to save others are recruited to act as protectors against the Nightmares, called Dreamcatchers and Dreamweavers. One of these Dreamcatchers falls in love with the girl he is supposed to be protecting.

The book bills itself as a mystery surrounding who or what this girl really is, but unfortunately, the backstory is overly simplistic and so too much is given away too soon, for lack of enough world-building and character development to generate subplots that would enrich the story.

The character development was weak. Plots involving ancient, supernaturally powerful male characters falling in love with disturbingly younger, mortal female characters who are often just discovering their own supernatural powers (or sometimes not) are a dime a dozen. I'm a girl - I get why they sell, and I've raved about some of them. But I need more. I don't believe in vampires, and I don't need my self-esteem bolstered by reading about superheroes falling in love with average women. I was never the sort of teenager who did either, and while again I appreciate the niche market here, I'm skeptical that these kinds of fictional relationships provide much cushion for real adolescents struggling with self-confidence, body image issues, bullying, etc.

In short, if you are going to write this type of relationship into your novel, you damn well better provide some really convincing character development to show why these two people, specifically, would be drawn to each other. In Catch Me, the girl is absolutely stunningly gorgeous - that's the guy's excuse. Her rationale for falling for him seems to be mainly that she doesn't have a lot of other options - she's in a mental institution - and that he believes that she's not crazy. Pretty thin ice for eternal commitment, huh? In one the stupidest scenes ever written, she gets jealous thinking about his arranged engagement (not even marriage) to an English noblewoman 200 years before she was born. She has known the guy for maybe four or five days. And she tells him she's jealous! Age-appropriate behavior for a 12-year-old, maybe, but a romance with a 205-year age gap is obviously creepy in a way that a mere 200-year age gap is not.

On the other hand, I've never had anyone save my life - maybe finding your soulmate is easy when you're about to be eaten by an evil, dream-devouring monster.

If the characters fall flat, it's not just their fault. They quite literally don't have a world to stand on.

Here's another thing: if you're going to mix the "real world" with another one of your own invention, you have to give some thought to the why and how of it. Great novels have spun wildly disparate settings out of bits and pieces of the world. In books that blend the two well, it appears that the author put some thought and care into choosing how the real world was portrayed, how the tone would complement (by being both similar and different) the tone of the writing in the fantasy world setting. The best example I can think of is Daughter of Smoke and Bone (Laini Taylor), in which the real world setting of an art school in Prague is rich with whimsy and color, in contrast to the wild, war-torn fantasy world setting of Eretz. The whimsy gives the Prague scenes a sense of magic in the mundane that prepares the reader for the fantastic to occur, to enter the world of Eretz; the darkness of Eretz is seen in stark relief next to Prague. See? Complementarity and contrast.

Which leads me to…what's in a world, exactly? And which comes first, world or characters?

(I'm calling this part 1, because I'm hoping to come back soon with some answers to those questions.)

On my nightstand: Far from the Tree (at nearly 1000 pages, this will be there for a bit); The Walled City; The Mirror Empire

12 October, 2014

The aesthetically inclined aspiring minimalist's guide to baby gear

Dear long-time readers, I hope you're sticking with me and not thinking, this blog has jumped the shark. 

I recently revised this list for a pregnant friend (the lovely and artistic Lauren who sends me poems that then appear on this site) who raved about its usefulness, so I leapt to the conclusion that perhaps I have some readers who have new babies, are thinking about having a baby, or need to buy gifts for someone having a baby...and hopefully, for those of you, this will come in handy.

For most of my adult life, I lived in apartments around 1000 square feet, which were well-suited to a
Pre-baby apartment in Philadelphia
modern, fairly minimalist style. During that pre-child era, I also made one key observation, which was that I often saw parents pushing strollers weighted down with ??@#$% while their children clung fiercely to their chests.

That seemed really inefficient.

So when I was pregnant, I set out to determine, first, what were the most essential pieces of baby gear, and secondly, where to find baby gear that was sleek and modern. I started out following the blog of a Canadian (I think) mom who had relocated to a small British island (I know there aren't a ton of options, but I can't remember which, or find her blog) and had given away something like 80% of their belongings before moving.

She was intriguing but a little extreme.

Here's another great post on this subject: http://becomingpeculiar.com/a-note-to-expectant-mothers-and-a-minimalist-list-of-newborn-essentials/

In the process, I discovered that parents and children are unique: one person's "essential and sanity-saving" is another person's "superfluous crap pushed on us by our hyper-consumerist culture."

So with that grain of salt, here's what worked for me:

Wait, wait…

Two more general pieces of advice: My biggest regrets are that I succumbed to the dual temptations of (1) wanting everything neatly arranged in the nursery before my son was born, and (2) falling in love with specific colors, patterns and shiny new-ness, and not buying used or borrowing as much as I should have, especially for things that have a developmental lifespan of only a few months.

(More pictures and design ideas can be found on my Pinterest board too: 

1. Full-size stroller
Thule Chariot
  • Age group - 0 (with car seat adapter for a jog stroller) or 3-4 months (without adapter for jog stroller) to 5+ years old 
  •  When to buy - if you're planning to do a lot of walking, before birth!
  • Specific brands I liked - I loved and got a ton of use out of the BOB Revolution but I have tried the Thule Chariot and like it a bit better in terms of center of gravity for running. It is more expensive but has the advantage of attaching to a bike, cross-country skis, etc. Other non-jog options that I really like if you don’t expect to run (I have friends regard running as sacred alone time) are the Bugaboo Donkey or Camaleon, Stokke Xplory and UPPAbaby Vista – I especially like the lightweight bassinets and the fact that you can flip the upright seat to face you or face out. The Xplory (I think) and possibly some others allow you to raise the seat up so you can push the stroller right up to a table and use it has a high chair.
  • Other comments - Most sell adapter that allow you to mount infant car seats (you have to know the type of stroller and car seat you plan to buy). You can’t actually run or hike with the car seat attached – it becomes really top heavy) but I still used it every day, sometimes for several hours a day, in our park until my son was three or four months old. 
2. Lightweight stroller
  • Age group - 4-6 months (decent head control and sitting with support) to 3-4 years 
  • When to buy - When you realize you want a break from wearing your sweaty but adorable baby while running errands or traveling; consider buying gently used
  • Specific brands I liked - We have a Chicco Liteway - it’s not the absolute lightest but I can collapse or open it with one hand (important) and it does recline which is a plus for naps in the airport. I would recommend against anything as minimal as an umbrella stroller because the handles tend to be lower than is ergonomically optimal – my mom used one during our trip to Hong Kong and it killed her back. Another option that I did not use but many people swear by is a Snap ‘n Go-type stroller frame to hold an infant car seat (often sold as “travel systems” with the infant seat included). I think they are also fairly inexpensive (and widely available at secondhand children’s stores) so it would be easy to use one for the first few months, then trade it for a lightweight travel stroller. 
  • Other comments - I actually didn’t use one of these until my son was almost 18 months old but if I’m being honest, probably by a year or so, I could have given myself a break on all the baby-wearing. I loved my carriers, but babies get hot and sweaty, and even though they are adorable sleeping on your chest, it also would have been nice to put that sleeping baby down in a stroller whilst traveling. Also, I frankly felt like a bit of a freak baby-wearing in London when everyone else was pushing £1000 prams. (A fluorescent green Ergo somehow looked chic in the Colorado sun.)
3. Infant car seat
My 3 week old in his Keyfit carseat,
attached to the BOB Revolution with an adapter;

we spent about 3 hours a day walking in the park
  • Age group - Birth to 30-35 pounds or when head is 2 inches below top of seat 
  • When to buy - Before birth
  • Specific brands I liked - I wasn’t impressed with the American selection and debated ordering one from Europe but ended up just settling for a Chicco Keyfit 30. Totally functional, very easy to use. However, I’d now probably go for the Nuna Pipa for the rigid LATCH and load leg features. Check out this post on new safety features: http://mbeans.com/spillingthebeans/baby/car-seats/an-intro-to-the-new-breed-of-infant-car-seats/ The Orbit Baby travel system looks pretty sweet too. 
  • Other comments - My son used his infant carrier for a surprisingly long time because he was light for his age and length. I continued to use it to travel until he became too tall (14-15 months old) long after moving to a convertible car seat.
4. Convertible car seat
  • Age group - 6 months – 4+ years (Foonf is rated to 55 pounds) 
  • When to buy - When s/he outgrows the infant car seat or can sit up 
  • Specific brands I liked - Clek Foonf. It was absolutely the best seat on the market when my son was turning one and switching out of his infant seat. It allows for a ton of leg room and rear-facing until 43 inches and 50 pounds (an average age of 4 years). It is also REALLY heavy – you would not want to take this stroller in the airport.
Riding in a Beco carrier in New Orleans, aged 10 weeks
5. Soft carrier
  • Age group - Birth to 2 years (but it does start to become a work-out) 
  • When to buy - Borrow a few different ones to try right after birth (Denver had workshops for this purpose) or early in your pregnancy (borrow a baby!), and then buy your favorite; look for a gently used one on eBay
  • Specific brands I liked - Moby or Baby K’tan for the first 8-12 weeks, Beco Gemini II from about 6-8 weeks on
  • Other comments - This requires its own post. At various times, I used both of those as well as a Beco Butterfly II, an Ergo Sport, and a Maya wrap. 
6. Backpack carrier
  • Age group - 4-6 months to 3-4 years (good head control and almost sitting to 55 pounds) 
  • When to buy - When you find the soft carrier isn’t comfortable for the kind of hiking you want to do with baby! 
  • Specific brands I liked - I have an Osprey Poco Child Carrier with a sun shade– but there are tons of options. I didn't buy the one with the sun shade built in and then had to buy it separately - it probably would have cost the same amount to buy the next model up in the series. REI is a good place to try a few out but the in-store selection is not huge. 

Napping in his Osprey Poco in
Frisco, Colorado, aged 16 months
1. Rocker/glider
My goofy 2 year old in his Nurseryworks rocker
  • Age group - Birth to school-age+ (we still have the rocking chair that my grandfather rocked my dad to sleep in) 
  • When to buy - Before birth
  • Specific brands I liked - I have a Nurseryworks rocker and love it – they make a ton of rocking chairs that look like plush, modern armchairs set on rockers. (I also really like the Monte Design Joya rocker.) Mine had wide, flat arms that could balance a laptop for working while nursing. However, most people I know have gliders with gliding ottomans, rather than rocking chairs. At least this is something that is easy to try out in a store. 
  • Comments - Both Nurseryworks and Monte Design make a whole range of beautiful furniture.
2. Bottles
  • Age group - 4-8 weeks to 1 year 
  • When to buy - When you’re ready to start transitioning before going back to work 
  • Specific brands I liked - The First Years’ Breastflow nipples and bottles are supposed to simulate the experience of breastfeeding with a double-layered nipple (downsides: more to clean and they currently only come with plastic bottles – no glass option). Almost all of my friends used them.
  • Other comments - One caveat – there are only two levels of flow for Breastflow nipples, because breast-fed babies are never supposed to progress to level 3 (the thought is that the speed of milk delivery then is beyond the human breast and they will no longer be satisfied with the time it takes to get milk out of the breast). That said, my son absolutely refused the level 1 nipples because my milk delivery was naturally faster than level 1. When we switched to level 2, he was happier. Truthfully, Finn never liked bottles and, if I had been staying home with him full-time, he never would have taken one at all. 
3. Breast pump
  • Age group - birth to 1 year 
  • When to buy - Now if you want to start pumping and storing milk but you may want to wait and see how your (your partner's) supply is
  • Specific brands I liked - I used a Medela Pump In Style Advanced (the backpack takes up less space that the city bag) but I’ve heard Hygeia is great. At work, I used the Medela Symphony provided by the hospital – I always had plenty of milk so I didn’t notice a huge difference between the hospital-grade and home pumps, but I have several friends who rented a hospital-grade pump for home use in order to increase their milk supply. 
  • Other comments - I also ended up buying a small hand-operated pump, the Medela Harmony, which was good for travel when I wasn’t expecting to do a lot of pumping (the Pump In Style takes up a lot of suitcase space) or to get the initial letdown of milk if you have oversupply issues. 
4. Breast pump accessories
  • Age group - birth to 1 year 
  • When to buy - after birth – most U.S. hospital will give you a bunch of stuff free
  • Pump-specific accessory kit – I think most hospitals provide these, or they come with the pump; some people like to have extras.
  • Breast milk storage bags – for freezing, can be labeled with date. I laid mine flat in plastic food storage containers until they were frozen and then dropped them into ziplock bags to save space.
  • Nipple gel pads – I used these in the first few weeks and liked them.
  • Lanolin nipple cream – I used cream only in the first few weeks only but know many people who used it until weaning. It makes great chapstick too.
  • Bra pads – I wore very padded nursing bras that I washed frequently, because I did not like the extra bulkiness.
  • Microwave sanitizer bags – I bought a few of these because our lactation rooms have microwave and they allow you to quickly rinse and then zap to sterilize your pump parts; however, my friend had a much better idea. She tosses all her recently using pump parts in the refrigerator with her milk to keep them from spoiling and reuses them throughout the day, washing just once at the end of the day (you can put most pump parts through the dishwasher, I believe, too). 
5. Nursing bras
  • Age group - birth to whenever you stop nursing!
  • When to buy - have some soft ones ready before birth (bring them to the hospital/birthing center); buy more as you go 
  • Specific brands I liked - I like Cake for a no-underwire option but mostly wore Le Mystère– I fully admit that I had four or five of Sexy Mama in each color. It's hard to find a great nursing bra!
  • Other comments - These were a pain to buy because very few were available in department stores to try on – I guessed, ordered from Bare Necessities and returned a lot. 
6. Nursing pillows
"Reading" a book in his boppy (with custom Orla Kiely cover), aged 3 months
  • Age group - birth to 3-6 months 
  • When to buy - before birth
  • Specific brands I liked - I started out with a Boppy (like most people) but then a friend recommended My Brest Friend. My Brest Friend is much firmer and has a belt to clip around your waist and a pocket to store things (tissues, cream, etc.). I used the My Brest Friend more in the beginning, especially if I was home alone, because it was hard to sit down, position the boppy, and then pick the baby up, without messing up the position of the boppy. The boppy is softer, which is nice, but I found I still needed another pillow tucked under one arm.
  • Other comments - Sometime between 3 and 6 months, my son and I mutually got strong enough that I stopped using a nursing pillow entirely. Although it’s technically not considered safe, the boppy makes a nice support pillow for baby (supervised, of course). 
7. Nursing covers
  • Age group - Birth to 6-12 months 
  • When to buy - At least one before birth
  • Specific brands I liked - I had a Bébé au Lait organic cover in a beautiful turquoise color and absolutely loved it, but I think a lot of brands are very similar. Most have a rigid boning-like material at the top edge of cover, which creates a space for you to look down and see your baby easily. I recently noticed nursing scarves in several shops and on Etsy, and it seems like a great option for a winter baby – it’s an infinity scarf that unwinds and stretches to make a nursing cover.
  • Other comments - Definitely a must-have in the beginning, but I gradually became more comfortable and very graceful (if I can say that about myself) at nursing publicly without them, although that generally requires wearing clothes that were easily to shift aside discreetly (e.g. in a dress, where I have to yank a large part of the top down, the cover was essential). I did not use them on planes, where I could turn discreetly toward the window. After a certain age, somewhere between 6 and 9 months maybe, it also seems sort of awkward and rude to hide your child under a blanket.
8. Sippy cups
  • Age group - 6 months to 3+ years 
  • When to buy - around 6 months to start cup exposure 
    Wondering where his anise cookie went,
    in his Phil&Ted MeToo, aged 9 months
  • Specific brands I liked - ZoLi BOTs are great around 7-8 months because they have a soft, weighted silicone straw (spill-proof too). 
9. High chair
  • Age group - 4-6 months to 2+ years (depending on the chair) 
  • When to buy - When your baby is starting to sit up with support 
  • Specific brands I liked - I started out with just a Phil&Ted MeToo that clipped to the table. Great space saver and great for restaurants that don’t provide high chairs (also, more comfortable too). The only problem was that it was a little too big for my son at 4 months – he was up to his shoulders in the chair. So I ended up getting a Stokke Tripp Trapp too, which I also love (except for the ridiculous price).
  • Other comments - About the Tripp Trapp: Very adjustable, easy to push up to the table, and can eventually become a regular chair. Unfortunately, you have to buy the baby set (the plastic seat that gives extra support for a baby who is only recently sitting) and the play tray separately. But I do really like high chairs that allow the baby to be a full member of the family dinner table and not just off to the side, eating off a plastic tray. 
10. Baby spoons and forks
The Twist family by Georg Jensen
  • Age group - 4-6 months to 2-4 years
  • When to buy - Around 4 months; when introducing solid foods
  • Specific brands I liked - I love the beautiful Baby Nambé feeding set because it's gorgeous and not plastic. Same for Georg Jensen's ALFREDO The Twist set. 
11. Baby plates/bowls
  • Age group - 4-6 months to around 2 years
  • When to buy - When introducing solids
  • Specific brands I liked - I am trying to decrease the amount of plastic in my family's life, so I love the Boon Wrap Protective Bowl Cover – it’s a colorful rubbery/silicone-type material that wraps around regular bowls, protective all the sides and edges from a drop and also suction-cupping them to the table. 


Culla Belly co-sleeper attached to a bed very similar to mine
1. Co-sleeper
  • Age group - birth to 3-6 months (most of the co-sleeping devices and bassinets are not safe for a child who can sit up) 
  • When to buy - before birth
  • Specific brands I liked - The design of the Culla Belly co-sleeper is my favorite; the Bednest is a close second; the Arm’s Reach is more affordable but wouldn’t work with my bed because it has a wide wooden frame on all sides. I didn’t discover any of these until much later but did try (and didn’t like) the Summer Infant co-sleeper.
  • Comments - If you don’t plan to co-sleep, there are some gorgeous rocking bassinet options and Moses baskets (the Vagga cradle by Jonas Lindvall and the Monte Ninna Nanna). I also tried
    Vagga cradle by Jonas Lindvall
    the Hushamok Dream hammock, which is beautiful, but my son kept sliding down to the bottom in it. 
2. Crib
  • Age group - 3 months to 2-4 years 
  • When to buy - you'll probably want to buy it before birth, but you could easily wait until your child outgrows the bassinet/cosleeper
  • Specific brands I liked - We have a Leander Tulip convertible crib (two levels, plus 3 toddler bed options) and like it a lot. I also love the Spot on Square Roh crib (with the clear/acrylic sides). Stokke (a great brand) makes the Sleepi crib, which starts as a bassinet and expands. 2modern is a fun site for modern baby furniture. 
  • Other comments - If you get a standard size crib, the Pebble organic mattress by Nook Sleep Systems is worth admiring. In addition to Leander, Spot on Square and Stokke, other brands that make good-quality, modern cribs are Monte, Nurseryworks, Babyletto, bloom, Oeuf, and Ubabub.

3. Swaddles
Sliding to the bottom of the
Hushamok Dream
  • Age group - Birth until…? 
  • When to buy - Before birth 
  • Specific brands I liked - They are pricy but I (and everyone else) love the aden+anais swaddle blankets. I used them for everything…swaddling, stroller blankets, extra shade over the top of the stroller, burp cloth (they sell separate items specifically as burp cloths but the regular swaddlesare fine for this purpose too), and towels. They make an Easy Swaddle too now, but I had zero luck with any of the devices that are supposed to make swaddling easier or more secure (I tried the HALO SleepSack Swaddle, Summer Infant SwaddleMe, Miracle Blanket, and Woombie) but I do know people who like them.
  • Other comments - I also liked aden+anais bib/burb cloth combo (because it really wraps the baby’s whole upper body) and the muslin washcloths. Their sleep sacks looked cute but I never tried them. 

Swaddled, for the moment, in an aden+anais caterpillar swaddle from the mod about baby set


1. Swing
  • Age group - Birth to 3-6 months (the swings usually say something about sitting up and/or crawling – safety became an issue when my son started pulling up on the swing from the outside, around 6 months – earlier than I expected) 
  • When to buy - Pre-birth (see comments below), but I would borrow or buy used so you can easily swap it out for a different model if it isn’t working 
  • Specific brands I liked - I honestly tried five different full-sized swings – the sleek, ultra-modern MamaRoo (he hated it, too slow) that moves in many directions, the Graco Soothing Center (also not fast enough, moved in multiple directions), two traditional back-and-forth Graco swings, and a Fisher-Price one that could switch between back-and-forth and side-to-side (that was the one he liked and napped in for the nanny).
  • Other comments - There are also smaller portable models, including one that will attach a car seat, but they tend to operate at much slower speeds. 
2. Vibrating chair
  • Age group - 0-3+ months 
  • When to buy - before birth, so it’s ready whenever you need it – this is not something you want to have to run out for – or assemble - the night the colic kicks in; consider borrowing or buying used if aesthetics don’t matter to you 
  • Specific brands I liked - There are lots of cool options, but I found that many of the more aesthetically appealing ones (like the Doomoo or the Nuna Leaf) don’t offer the full array of soothing options (rock, bounce and vibrate). The bloom Coco Go is a new one that does all three and also fully reclines for sleeping.
    Coco Go
  • Other comments - That said, my son did not actually seem to like his and spent very little time in (as previously acknowledged, he was quite literally held until he learned to crawl). However, every other parent in the world thinks these are a godsend. I only wish. 
3. Play yard
  • Age group - birth (depending on which type you go with) to 12-18 months 
  • When to buy - I would wait and see…when you feel like you need one, get one
  • Specific brands I liked - I like the Nuna Sena Travel Cot. Almost everyone in the world – it seems – has a Graco Pack ‘n Play. Another option to consider is a freestanding gate enclosure (try Summer Infant or Dreambaby). I like this because they are easy to move and give you flexibility – you can corral baby in the kitchen with you while you cook, use it to block the fireplace or stairs, take it outside on a patch of lawn, or make a semicircle with the sofa on one side so you have easy access to baby.
  • Other comments - I had mixed feelings at first and didn’t think we needed one. Eventually, I got a standard Graco Pack ‘n Play and then got rid of it. I think it depends in part on how big your house is and how independent your baby is. A play yard can really crowd a small living/family room – it was better for me, in the end, to childproof well and let Finn have free run of the place. I did sometimes use it when we traveled, but more often, I just used the one provided by the hotel. Maybe twice, I dragged it into the bathroom while I showered – more often, I just took my son with me in the shower or waited until he was sleeping. The Graco Pack ‘n Play models come with two levels (like a crib) and bassinet and changing pad attachments. If you’ll be visiting a grandparent frequently, it might be helpful for them to have one of those. 
Hanging out under his Skip Hop Alphabet Zoo,
aged 2 months

4. Activity gym
  • Age group - 2-6 weeks to 6-9 months 
  • When to buy - first month or so 
  • Specific brands I liked - Skip Hop Alphabet Zoo or one of the others. Easy. 
  • Other comments - This was one of the very, very few toys I used before 3-4 months. 
5. Activity center
  • Age group - 4-5 months to 9-12 months 
  • When to buy - around 4-5 months, if you are feeling like you need something baby can do on her own for a little bit while you cook dinner or sign some notes
  • Specific brands I liked - Every one is just a little bit different – different dangling toys, different music, beeps, bells and whistles (literally), etc. Some spin, some rock, some bounce. My son's was Winnie-the-Pooh themed because it had the least offensive colors. I looked long and hard for a “blank” model – something that spun and bounced but to which I could attach his own (cherished, sometimes handmade) toys. The only thing I found was the KidCo Go Pod which is completely stationary (seems beside the point). My cousin had a Fisher-Price Superstar Step ‘n Play Piano, which my son really liked, and I have to admit, it’s kind of cool – instead of bouncing, the seat slides back and forth along a floor piano with four or five keys.
  • Other comments - Caveat about bouncing saucers and doorway jumpers: I’ve read mixed things about whether bouncing is good, developmentally, for their hips, and also read recommendations to limit time in an activity saucer to 30 minutes a day. Not exactly ideal for something that costs about $100 and takes up a good chunk of living space. I also had to get rid of ours around 8 months when Finn became more interested in pulling up and bouncing in from the outside than the inside (similar to the swing problem). 
6. Other toys
Grimm Brothers make the best blocks
  • Age group - 6 months to…? 
  • When to buy - whenever, but I got them around 9 months
  • Specific brands I liked - Grimm Brothers Big Box of Colorful Blocks (available on Amazon or from the Land of Nod). Ohmigosh, I am obsessed.
  • Other comments - I actually think that we would be happy if we had these blocks and no other toys – they are expensive but it was hands-down the best toy purchase I’ve ever met. They are beautiful, sturdy and really, really fun. When my son was a baby, I would build castles after he went to sleep, for him to knock down in the morning.
7. Electronic devices
  • Age group - 6-12 months (hear me out!!) to…? 
  • When to buy - 6-12 months, if you don’t already have an iPad 
  • Specific brands I liked - I have to admit, I have found an iPad to be a necessity, especially for travel and dining out, and I much prefer having one iPad that I keep updating with age-appropriate material, rather multiple separate devices (like a Leapfrog that Finn would outgrow every 6 months and a portable DVD player). When mine finally broke and repair was more than a new one, we got an iPad Mini, since it was primarily for his use. The Mini fits little hands much better. 
  • Other comments - There are great apps starting around age 1 – before that, I had Bubbles and Peekaboo Barn, but my son wasn’t super-interested. However, there are also terrific storybook apps (like Sandra Boynton’s books, Dr. Seuss, Anna Dewdney's Llama Llama series, and Skippyjon Jones) and I really liked that I could travel with just a couple of physical books for him to hold, hug and chew but still have a dozen options for bedtime reading. I also used the Mr. Moonlight app for over a year to help him learn when to get up in the morning (not before Mr. Sun is up!) and there are other apps to help log breastfeeding and things like that if you need them. I also download episodes of Thomas the Tank Engine directly to the iPad and I let my son watch a YouTube station called Super Simple Songs (nursery rhymes set to music) and watch clips of Curious George in Spanish.

(unfortunately, you can't avoid it)

1. Diapers
  • Age group - birth to 2-3+ years
  • When to buy - whenever – when you figure out how often you go through these, use Amazon’s Subscribe & Save option  
  • Specific brands I liked - I used Honest Company for a long time but recently learned that Bambo Nature is a much more eco-friendly option, so we switched. I also tried gDiapers (cloth diaper with plastic liner and flushable insert) and love the idea but wouldn’t recommend them for newborns (maybe around 3-6 months). 
2. Wipes
  • Age group - birth to 3+ years 
  • When to buy - whenever – when you figure out how often you go through these, use Amazon’s Subscribe & Save option
  • Specific brands I liked - I like BumBoosa bamboo wipes for babies and Kandoo flushable wipes for toddlers.
3. Diaper cream
  • Age group - birth to 2-3+ years 
  • When to buy - before birth
  • Specific brands I liked - I love Burt’s Bees diaper ointment. I tried Boudreaux’s first, since my continuity clinic preceptor swore by it, but it irritated my fingertips and made them chapped. I also hated the Honest Company diaper cream.
  • Other comments - Buy a small tube and see what works best. Also buy some baby oil (good for mild cradle cap) and Aquaphor (for dry skin/early eczema).
4. Changing pad or table
  • Age group - Birth to 1-3 years 
  • When to buy - Consider waiting and deciding if you really want a changing table; start with just a changing pad and/or mat 
  • Specific brands I liked - Jonathan Adler for Skip Hop makes cute fold-up changing mats that also fit a few diapers and a pack of wipes – another plus is that you can skip the diaper bag and just toss it in your purse or under the stroller. For aesthetics, the Pebble ChangePad is just cool. Several cribs and even more dressers have an optional changing tray that can be placed on top too.
  • Other comments - I initially had a big changing pad with a cute cover on top of my dresser plus a fold-up changing mat in the living room for quick changes in the carpet while we were playing. Eventually, I added a changing table in my son's room (unclear why) but got rid of it a few months later – it always made me super-anxious that he would roll off. A lot of second-time parents tell me that they now forgo anything and just change their kids wherever. I think I might try just the fold-up changing mat next time and see what happens.


1. Baby tub
  • Age group - birth to 3-6 months 
  • When to buy - before or soon after birth; consider borrowing 
  • Specific brands I liked - Several companies make tubs that will fit in the sink, lining and cushioning it. I like Blooming Bath best.
  • Other comments - Once my son was really moving and sitting, it was hard to keep him from bumping his head on the faucet with sink baths. I never liked the baby tubs that sit in the bathtub, so for awhile, I just got in the tub with him and held him, and then he was sitting up by himself. I did get a pebbled bath mat and a protective cover for the faucet. 
2. Nail trimming device
  • Age group - birth to several years old
  • When to buy - before birth
  • Specific brands I liked - ZoLi Baby Buzz is an electric file with a rotating disk - it comes with four disks in different levels of firmness (and different pastel colors) for babies up to a year (I think). It is a great idea but requires patience to use. I love The First Years American Red Cross baby nail clippers - I use one for myself too. Remember to get baby mittens too, to keep him or her from scratching his face early on. 


1. Baby monitor
  • Age group - birth to 3+ years 
  • When to buy - before birth
  • Specific brands I liked - If you will have a nanny, I’d suggest the Baby Wifi, which you can easily access from laptops, iPhones, iPads, etc. (both video and sound) – also fun for grandparents to check in. Monitoring is free, although the device is pricy. Downside is that the model I have couldn’t be remotely rotated and required online IT help to set up. Otherwise, there are several good options for video/sound, but for the most part, I didn’t use a monitor (co-sleeping and in < 1000 square feet).
  • Other comments - I also tried an Angelcare Movement & Sound monitor, for pure paranoia (although models without rigid cord covers were implicated in strangulation deaths) – I hear there are now better brands and models for detecting motion from breathing. Speaking from my own experience, it’s something you’ll want only in the very beginning. A good video monitor is really plenty.
2. Childproofing devices: I would highly recommend getting and installing these now, just because it’s hard to do once the baby is around and would rather you be playing than screwing and drilling (or worse, wants to HELP screw and drill).
  • Safety 1st magnetic locking system for child-accessible cabinets (and any higher cabinet containing medication, chemicals, etc.) for when the child invariably learns to climb.
  • Baby gates – in fairness, you can wait for some evidence of impending crawling to install these – we just put a Dreambaby gate with a door at the top of the stairs. Summer Infant and Safety 1st also make good gates. I like the Dreambaby gate because you can click the door into a position where it will stay open; the rest of the time, it swings shut automatically. I also wouldn’t hesitate to get a few different gates, to block different areas as needed. 
  • Temperature sensitive LED faucet lights – shines a red light through the water when it’s hot; useful reminder for yourself now and great for toddlers later.
  • Nonslip bath/shower liner and protective cover for the bath faucet (as mentioned above) – I like Skip Hop’s stuff.
  • Wedge locks or similar devices, depending on your window type, to prevent windows from being opened more than a few inches – we just got Window Warden for the double-hung windows that we like to be able to keep open a crack.
  • Outlet plug covers – they have made increasingly complex models after concerns that children could pop out the little plug covers and choke (I’m sure they could – but I struggle to remove them without breaking fingernails), and your options now include a swivel outlet cover and swing-shut cover. When my parents renovated, they replaced the old outlets with the newer kind that don’t allow things to be stuck inside them – they are only a few dollars each at Lowe’s, so that’s an option too. 
  • Protective covers for outlets and power strips that have things plugged in most of them - Safety 1st makes these; they are really hard to open and fully encase the outlet or power strip so your child can’t unplug things like the television and then suck on the power cord.
  • Anti-tip TV and furniture straps – Safety 1st, Summer Infant, The First Years and KidCo all make devices for this purpose. Most of them recommend locating the wall studs, which is kind of a pain (and definitely something to tackle now), but I just discovered the website Meghan’s Hope and am now very paranoid about this. (Coincidentally, Finn’s dresser broke last week, so now his clothes are all stored in built-in baskets in his closet…no more nasty baby-death-trap furniture to worry about.)
  • Plastic dial covers for the stove – these snap over the controls on your stove (different products for different types) and the top has to be popped open to turn the dial. My mom is currently refusing to use these. 
  • Oven front lock and stove top shield – Try Safety 1st. I have to admit that the stove top shield, which prevents your child from grabbing a pot handle, is a huge pain to use. Fortunately, it slides in and out pretty easily, so you can put it in place while a sauce is simmering and take it out again if you’re actively cooking. 
  • Protective covering for sharp edges, like coffee table corners - These are hideously ugly. Rather than use them, I rearranged my living room so the coffee table (aka, work of art) was tucked between the sofa and the bookshelves, more like a side table – it also freed up open space for playing. I also considered getting a round coffee table. 
  • Door knob covers – These are useful for rooms you definitely don’t want your child going into; they aren’t really safe (in my opinion) for keeping your child “in.” For instance, I used them on the outside bathroom doors in my old apartment; now we have one on my mom’s bedroom door, so that when my son is napping, he can’t access it, but isn’t confined to his room and can get up to go potty, etc. (Before I started trusting him to actually nap, I used a gate on his bedroom door, so he could easily call for me but not get out.) They make different ones for French door handles, etc.
  • Cordless Roman shades - you can get devices to keep cords on window coverings out of children's reach (children of all ages, from very young infants to toddlers have been strangled) but just going cordless is the best bet. 
And finally here are some things I…

...never even tried:
  • Diaper genie: Most people say this is the most unnecessary. Plus, in all honesty, breast-fed babies’ diapers really don’t smell bad until they start solids. And I almost always dumped the poop into the toilet (from the diaper) for environmental reasons. 
  • Wipe warmer: Again, my son never cared. Maybe for a baby who truly seems sensitive to a room-temp wipe. 
...had and didn’t use/got rid of:
  • Bottle warmer: My son never seemed to care if his milk was a little cool and it was a pain to use. I put the milk in the refrigerator the night before to thaw and then our nanny warmed it in warm water on the stove. 
  • Beaba Babycook baby food maker: It was easier just to purée whatever I was eating (in the mini food processor or Vitamix) that to separate steam and blend his food. Also, I know have several friends doing “baby-led weaning” which basically means no purees at all; they eat what they can eat, when they can eat it. Also, they sell a variety of different kinds of tiny plastic Tupperware containers for freezing your homemade baby food – I was trying to minimize plastic in my home and also found that using silicone ice cube trays was easier and cheaper. 
  • Diaper bag: I briefly had a yellow Petunia Picklebottom (the name is cringe-inducing but the bag was cute) diaper bag that clipped perfectly to the stroller. However, the sheer weight of it seemed to increase the risk of the stroller tipping and I didn’t like having to switch my wallet, keys, sunglasses, etc. from my purse to diaper bag and back again, so after a few months, I ditched it. I also found that it encouraged me to lug around more stuff than Finn actually needed and that I then tended to grab my purse and the diaper bag, which
    Orla Kiely diaper bag
    meant I was carrying two bags…you get the picture. Diaper bags seem high on the list of things second-time parents say they don’t use anymore; however, if you must, the Kate Spade secret sales that pop up on Facebook are a good place to get a reasonably priced stylish one. Orla Kiely also makes sadly more expensive ones that I love and that double well as travel bags. 
  • Bumbo: My son basically spent the first seven months of his life being held by someone actively multitasking. Consequently – we theorize – he developed good head control and torso control fairly early. So he spent little if any time in the Bumbo. Plus there was the whole recall thing. 
...personally liked but probably not essential:
  • Belly Bandit: Abdominal stabilizer that claims to help flatten your stomach and get abdominal muscles back. I put it on right after giving birth and wore it pretty frequently for the first four to six weeks. I really liked it. I thought it worked, but moreover, it actually did help my back my improving my posture and I think it gave me a lot more confidence to get out of the house in the very beginning when most people look like they’re six or seven months pregnant instead of recently delivered. 
  • Circo corner bath toy storage: TOO MANY BATH TOYS! At least this controls the chaos. 
  • A rotational toy storage system of some sort: Because if you have family and friends, you will quickly have too much stuff, and it only seems to get worse. Currently, we have a Land of Nod cube bookcase with six Circo cubes of toys in the family room; another handful of cubes are on the top shelf of the closet and get rotated in periodically. This preserves my sanity and also means that toys are genuinely played with, rather than dumped out of their bins and scattered under the sofa. 
  • Breathable Baby crib liner: My son rolled early and quickly got his arms and legs stuck through the bars of his crib (which he was already not sleeping in). These are mesh bumpers that theoretically shouldn’t pose a SIDS risk (although the official recommendation is still against any type of bumper). I found these the same way I found lots of useful baby stuff – I had an idea of what would solve my baby-related problem, I assumed that I was probably not the first person to think of it, and I Googled until I found what I had been imagining.

One final piece of safety advice… 

Be wary of new "must-have" products, especially those intended to soothe babies…during my son's first year of life, the Nap Nanny, Bumbo, PeaPod, and Angelcare monitor were all recalled due to the fatal accidents involving young children. Most, if not all, baby products come with a postcard you can mail in to be notified of recalls - send it in, but stay on top of baby safety news too. Accidents are often reported in the media before the company agrees to or initiates a recall.

Good luck! I'll review our favorite baby/toddler books in another post!