February 11, 2009

learning to eat fake sushi

My husband Jeff always swore that our kids would grow up exposed to many different types of cuisine. He was particularly sensitive to this because he has always felt somewhat cheated as a result growing up on bland boring English food. My Mother-in-law dislikes any type of seasoning including garlic. It wasn’t until he was in his twenties that he tried different types of food and hasn’t looked back since (he’s somewhat of a foodie). Since we eat various types of ethnic food regularly there was no question that our daughter Zoe would as well.
As a first birthday gift Zoe received a wooden toy sushi set. It’s an adorable toy. At this time she was just starting to eat finger foods such as peas and o-shaped cereal and wasn’t quite ready for anything quite as large as a piece of sushi. But she quickly became somewhat obsessed with the sushi toy. She’d point to it and say “sushi, sushi” asking us to take it down from the shelf. She loved to try to pick up the sushi pieces with one Velcro chopstick tip attaching itself to the Velcro on the sushi piece. She loved taking apart the sushi pieces and reattaching them to a different piece of rice. She also loved pretending that she was eating it by putting a piece to her mouth and smacking her lips.

A few months later, pregnant with Zoe’s sibling-to-be, I went through a bought of first trimester sickness. The only thing I could eat for a couple of weeks was veggie sushi rolls and I craved them constantly. We made almost daily trips to the café area of Whole Foods for veggie sushi rolls. Many nights the three of us went out to our local Japanese restaurant for “sushi” which again meant avocado rolls for me and Zoe and “real” sushi for Jeff.

Over the course of these two weeks Zoe became obsessed not only with her sushi toy but also with the food itself. Now that I am over that phase we still eat sushi pretty often –partially because Zoe requests it. When I ask her if she wants to eat lunch she asks “sushi?” When she’s playing with her toys and sets the toy people around the little toy table and chairs and I ask “Zoe what are they having for dinner?” the answer is always “sushi.” Since the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests waiting until at least age four to introduce raw fish, for now the only thing in her sushi rolls is avocado or cucumber. However, I hear that in Japan both pregnant women and young children eat raw fish as long as it’s not tuna or other high-mercury types –so maybe we’ll both be eating a spicy scallop roll earlier than I had thought.

a day in dc

We’ve had such a cold and icy winter in Central Pennsylvania; we jumped at the chance to take a weekend trip to Washington DC to relieve our cabin fever. On Sunday, the temperatures shot up to the 50s and we were within walking distance to the zoo. As we walked leisurely up Connecticut Avenue, joggers ran by with short sleeves and some even had shorts on. I almost expected cherry blossoms to burst out from the trees because it was that kind of day…bright, clear, and shining.

Without a stroller or a backpack, I was forced to walk at Jude’s pace. And even though cars whizzed by and almost everyone we passed was on their Bluetooth walking furiously or running past us, it made me appreciate the pace of a 3 year old. We noticed special rocks. We smelled the delicious foods from other cultures…Thai, Italian, Mexican, Mediterranean. We listened to noises that were unfamiliar to our non-urban ears..honking cars, sirens, helicopters, a street performer greeting passengers exiting the metro with the soothing sounds of classical guitar. Every now and then, Jude would stop and do some sort of yoga move spreading his legs as far apart as he could just to be silly, and we would say, “stretch” together. Mostly, we held hands, strolled along and appreciated each other’s company as the world sped past us.

We arrived at what turned out to be our only destination for the day, The National Zoo. The National Zoo features animals from around the world, and it is a great way to expose children to all the different biomes and unique habitats that exist if world travel isn’t in your budget. Jude asked, “What’s that sound mommy?” Throughout, you could hear the harsh sound of animal caretakers scrapping ice off the animals’ outdoor enclosures. Even though the weather was so nice, many animals were still inside, but we found pleasure in searching for the animals in various exhibits designed to mimic natural habitats from around the world whether they were inside or out. I realized that in order to see if Jude could see what I was pointing out to him, I’d have to squat down to his level. I decided that it was fun to look at the exhibits from his level made a mental note to do that more often in our everyday life. I let Jude chose our path and pace through the zoo. Oddly we spent the most time watching the 2-toed Sloth, who was actually quite active, and never made it to see the lions.

At the end of the afternoon, we sat on a cold granite bench in the metro station watching the red numbers go from 5 to 4 to 3 to 2 to 1. We watched other trains come and go and Jude remarked “Those trains have coaches.” When our train came, we climbed aboard and took our seats. I looked around at the passengers. One older lady with a guitar case was reading the Upper Room. A young African American man wearing a uniform of a security guard nodded off. Two well dressed Asian men conversed in a language that no one around them understood. I looked over at Jude. He had a big smile on his face. He was content to be riding on the train.

I remembered what that was like as a kid….to be happy doing just what you are doing. I was glad that I didn’t try to stick to my original plan for the day which included a trip to Chinatown and the National Building Museum. I was thinking of my normal pace when I thought we could do all that. Although, it was a shame that we didn’t get to see the Chinese Dragon in the Chinese New Year parade, I was content knowing we had enjoyed the day at a pace that allowed us to be fully present, aware, and admiring of the diversity of all the life around us.

detox your toys

Is your house being taken over by giant plastic toys that sing and squeak and talk? Are you worried about mysterious chemicals and potentially toxic paints? Are you curious what it may be like to live without them? Yes, it’s possible! We made a decision to buy only wooden toys made with non-toxic paints and lacquers for Moushumi before she was born. This was prompted by the scary news that even long-trusted companies such as Fisher-Price have had recalls due to lead in recent years.

We have let our friends and family know that we prefer these sorts of toys, sometimes by saying just that, and in other cases more subtly by saying “check out these great toy sites: oompa.com and moolka.com!” Those are great sites for non-toxic toys and there are others as well – you just have to research a bit. A particularly nice feature of these sites is that you can see where the product is made as well as the safety criteria it has met. In fact, both sites have ways for you to actually pick the country of origin. There are Haba and Kathe Kruse from Germany, Vilac from France and Green Toys from right here in the U.S. among lots of other unique brands from around the world.

We also feel like we are making some progress towards being more “green” by using toys made from environmentally friendly materials: wood rather than plastics. For example, one of our favorite companies, Plan Toys, uses only non-toxic materials, recycled and recyclable packaging with soybased inks for printing, synthetic free rubberwood, formaldahyde free glue, and so on.

The wooden toys from these companies address our safety concerns, but they also look great, and never seem to take over the way plastic ones seem to. They often come in modern, chic styles and win awards for design. It’s a far cry from the quaint craft-shop look (nice in its own way, of course) that you might ordinarily associate with wooden toys. Many of the toys are so cool that adults want to play with them, too!

While at the beginning we were a bit daunted by the thought of avoiding ubiquitous plastic toys, it has turned out to be quite easy, and rewarding to do so. We look forward to using these durable and healthy toys for our next child, and even perhaps passing them on to our grandchildren.

February 5, 2009

what’s in a name?

Sometimes we play a game with our daughter. “What if we named you…Stella?” we ask. She laughs and wrinkles her nose. “No, I’m Mila!” “Hmm. What if we named you…Ruby?” More giggles. “No, I’m not Ruby! I’m Mila!” And she is. She is Mila. I can’t imagine her as anything else. At least…I can’t now.

I wasn’t sure, at first, when my husband suggested the name Mila for our daughter whether it really met all my baby-naming criteria. Oh, it was old. A famous Croatian, Mila Gojsalic, considered by some to be a sort of Croatian Jeanne d’Arc for her role in saving the region from a Turkish invasion, bore the name in the 16th century. I had wanted an old name, something with a bit of history to it. Check!

I also wanted a name that would reflect our daughter’s ethnic heritage. And I wanted it to mean something good, something positive. Her father is half Croatian. And here was a Croatian name. The word itself actually means “dear.” Check! Check!

But, while I wanted a name that was uncommon, something she wouldn’t have to share with half her kindergarten class, I also wanted it to be recognizable, familiar enough that she wouldn’t have to be always explaining it, that she wouldn’t have to be always correcting mispronunciations. I had my doubts about the name in that regard.

As I say, my daughter is Mila now. I love the name and can’t imagine her with any other. And while we do, as I feared, deal with nurses at her pediatrician’s office calling her Myla (it’s pronounced Meela) or new acquaintances greeting her with the more common Mia, I’ve actually been pleasantly surprised by the conversations that have been sparked by Mila’s name with many people we’ve met beyond the boundaries of our Midwest suburb. While not so familiar in our own neighborhood, Mila is a name that has found use in many other countries and cultures. We’ve met, or met relatives of, Milas who are Filipina, Guatemalan, Bulgarian, Dutch…. Conversations that have started and might have ended with, “Oh, she’s so cute. What is her name?” have turned into explorations of family history, personal and historical events, even language and etymology.

“Mila!? That’s my name!” (Or, “my sister’s name!”) “It is short for Milagros. It means ‘miracle.'”

Or, “What a beautiful name. In Bulgarian, Mila means ‘darling.’ Please, may I give her a cookie?” This woman, gazing fondly and a little sadly at Mila, later shared how much she was reminded by her of her own little daughter, from whom she was separated by the Iron Curtain many years ago.

These points of connection, and others, have been a means to learning about other people, other languages, other life experiences. And these opportunities to learn have more than made up for the Mylas and Mias we’ve had to correct along the way. Aside from the fact that she just couldn’t be anything but Mila, our dear Mila, I’ve lost any doubts I once had about our daughter’s name in my appreciation for its cross-cultural appeal, for its ability to bridge borders by simply being a tiny little bit of common ground.

And anyway, just try to call her anything else – she’ll soon set you straight: “I’m Mila!”

cuban eats

You’d never know it to look at me but I am a Miami girl, born and raised. Often called the gateway to Latin America, Miami has much to offer. But one of my favorites is the food. I have fond memories of standing in a traditional Cuban cafeteria translating for my mother as we ordered South Florida’s version of Sunday dinner. With the fairest of skin, blonde hair and light eyes, I’d struggle through the order with my high school Spanish, only slightly better than my southern mother could have done. But we’d leave there with the delicious smells of pork, frijoles negros, and maduros filling the car. We could hardly wait to make it home to share the feast with the rest of the family.

Since moving away from South Florida, my husband and I don’t run into as many true Cuban restaurants. But we get by. I often cook my own version of arroz con pollo or slow roasted pork with black beans and rice. And every once in a while our Cuban friends here will take pity on me and bring over a flan or have us over for proper ropa vieja. So you can imagine my delight the first time we offered Cuban food to our year old daughter. She dug right in, and my heart swelled with pride at the sight of our little girl experiencing new tastes from a different culture. Since Annie began eating solids, I make a true effort to allow her to experience a wide variety of foods cooked in many different ways.

Although my world travels have taken pause since her birth, one of my greatest joys in leaving home is introducing my taste buds to a new place. My hope is that Annie sees even more of the world than I do, and that her love of black beans is just the beginning.

first birthday rituals

Kai’s first birthday will be approaching in a few months, and I’m already planning the party. I may pass on the Spiderman theme and opt for a birthday party full of cultural rituals.

A must-have ritual is thoi noi * which is from my own Vietnamese culture. While all the guests gather around, baby chooses from a variety of objects on a tray. The object Kai selects may predict his future passions or career.

Some common symbols used:

  • paint brushes for an artist
  • pen and paper for a writer
  • an instrument for a musician
  • something medical (e.g., medicine, bandage, thermometer) for a doctor or nurse
  • a computer mouse for a techie
  • piggy bank for banker
  • rice for a chef

Another ritual I admire is shaving baby’s head. The “first haircut” is a rite of passage for many cultures including India, Tibet, and Korea. Shaving off the old hair cleanses the head of bad energy and allows for new and fuller hair to grow in.

The last ritual which encourages guest participation is the wish tree. This is one of my favorite multicultural traditions because the wishes are timeless. Guests will write/draw a wish for Kai and hang them on a branch. I can already imagine reading Kai wishes at bedtime for several days following his birthday. There isn’t a better birthday gift than that.

If you have other cultural traditions to share with us, please do!

 

*thoi noi-translates to baby’s coming of age, departing from the basinette

February 2, 2009

yes, you can take a toddler on a road trip

Remember that carefree road trip you took with the top down, a map at your side, big white-rimmed sunglasses and that cute scarf tied around your head?

I’m willing to bet there wasn’t a two-year-old strapped to a car seat in the back blowing a toy whistle and laughing maniacally. Am I right?

Clearly our laissez-faire road trip days are a distant memory for at least sixteen or so years. However, I’m happy to report that in January, with a little carefully-timed park breaks, we took our first step to reclaim a small bit of the open road when we took our toddler along on one of our favorite road trips of all times — Los Angeles to San Francisco along the Pacific Coast Highway.

We started the trip in Santa Monica where we based ourselves for a few days of sightseeing and hanging out at our favorite spots in and around Los Angeles — The Getty, Griffith Park and Palisades Park. On our way out of town we dropped by The Reagan Library in Simi Valley to take a look at the original Air Force One, which is now housed in a hanger with a beautiful view at the library. Our toddler loved strolling down the aisle of the airplane and standing under the original Marine One helicopter.

Following our presidential pit stop we continued north for some outdoor playtime and a picnic lunch at Santa Barbara’s Alameda Park. After an hour and a half of hard-core swinging and running around, we settled back in to the car and enjoyed our son’s nap all the way to Cambria where we enjoyed a little late afternoon play time at Shamel Park — adjacent to Moonstone Beach.

Refreshed with a full night’s sleep and a nice steak dinner (included in our room rate at Cambria Pines Lodge), we drove a few miles up the road to start our day with San Simeon’s famous elephant seals. The late Fall / early Winter months are pup season so we were treated to some very cute Moms seals cuddling with their babies. Lucky for us, elephant seals cause drowziness in toddlers, so we made our way along the jaw-droppingly beautiful drive to Big Sur with relatively little comment from the back seat.

After almost 400 miles of parks, beaches and stunning ocean vistas we arrived at our last stop before arriving in San Francisco, the innovative, award-winning Monterey Bay Aquarium. The aquarium was the perfect way to end our two0day trip up the Pacific Coast Highway, trip on the open road. My husband and I marveled at the enormous ocean tanks and the creative kid exhibits while our son seemed equally entranced by the escalator. Kids. Perhaps our next road trip will be to one of our own local shopping malls here in New Jersey!

January 28, 2009

sweet lullabies

The other day I realized Radiohead is great for babies. I think it’s the combination of Thom Yorke’s distorted lyrics, dreamy melodies, and the white noise that accompanies the music often. Kai fell asleep instantly to “Hail to the Thief

J got his hands on these two great finds that will also help your baby fall asleep:

1) Lullabies for a Small World (compilation by Ellipses Arts):

Great for the baby and you. My favorite track is number 3- Flor E Estrela – Teresa Ines. This song is so magical and puts the whole family in a deep slumber.

2) While roaming around at the Ecology Center in Berkeley, he stumbled upon this children’s book: Talking Walls Written by Margy Burns Knight and Illustrated by Anne Sibley O’Brien.

It’s the perfect multi-cultural book that illustrates how walls around the world may unite or divide communities around the world. I guarantee that you’ll learn some history as well.

introducing a world of winter sports

My husband and I love to ski and ever since our 16-month-old daughter Zoe was born we have been anxious to get her on skis. We first brought her to Jackson Hole, WY when she was 3 months old but of course she spent most of her time indoors on that trip. This year, at 15 months we brought her back to Jackson Hole and she actually did get an introduction to snow and winter sports.
The first time that we took her out in the snow we just let her walk around and get a feel for it. She didn’t like the fact that it was slippery and difficult to walk. I guess when you’ve only learned to walk a few months ago it’s probably pretty annoying when something like snow interferes with this new freedom. She also got cold very quickly because she refused to keep her mittens on. A passer-by suggested duct tape and that worked wonders!
After this initial time out in the snow we decided it was time for her to try skiing. We bought little skis that are made specifically for the under-two set and strap on to regular snow boots. When we first put them on her she was not happy at all, but once we got her sliding down the mountain (well it was technically just a pile of snow in the driveway) she was having the time of her life. Afterwards we built a snowman which she was intrigued by and pulled her around on a makeshift sled which she loved.
Zoe’s least favorite snow activity was definitely the horse-drawn sled through the Elk Reserve. We thought she would love this because she loves animals. As it turned out the snow was coming down in her face and she was cold and so she hardly even noticed the horses or the elk even when we pointed them out. I don’t think anyone on the sled was too happy with us! Maybe we’ll try it again someday but not until she’s at least 6 or 7!

friluftsliv – scandinavian spirit for outdoor life

It has been an especially cold winter here in the Midwestern United States. Weeks have passed without the temperature rising above 20 degrees, electricity has failed for hours or days at a time, some schools have surpassed their allotted number of snow days… and we’d best wait three more months before we send our parkas to the drycleaners! Adding to the chill are our worries about the economy and outbreaks of violence around the globe.

It takes great character and fortitude to carry on in the face of challenges and to establish new patterns of behavior or thought. Tackling whatever special challenges you face-solo parenting, job loss, diminishing investments, getting a grip on your personal health-takes a positive attitude and the courage to name and pursue your goals every day.

One of the first places where we in climates of such extreme weather can build these characteristics of strength is right outside our doors, where we can learn to experience and enjoy outdoor life no matter what the weather. Sunshine, fresh air, and exercise are imperative for good health, and the benefits of nature do not wane in winter. Outdoor enthusiasts will tell us that there’s no such thing as bad weather-just bad clothing.

For inspiration, we can look to the Scandinavians-no strangers to the adversity inherent in a part of the world that sees such harsh cold and little light during its long winters. Their term Friluftsliv, defined as “free time outdoor life” and the spirit for partaking of such in all weather, is especially celebrated in Scandinavian countries and is credited with being the source of the well-being enjoyed by much of the region’s citizens, young and old.

In fact, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden ranked among the top five countries of the world’s twenty-one richest countries for children’s well-being, according to UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Center. Aspects considered included material wellbeing, health and safety, education, peer and family relationships, behaviors and risks, and young people’s own subjective sense of well-being (see unicef.org).

Julie Catterson Lindahl, author of the 2005 book On My Swedish Island: Discovering the Secrets of Scandinavian Well-being and the mother of school-age twins, provides great inspiration for living a healthy lifestyle through her book and her continued writing at Nordicwellbeing.com and JulieLindahl.com. She encourages us to seek the outdoors as a new life habit (to promote our own health and that of the environment), as a setting for social activities, as a way to be a good role model for our children, and as a wellspring for creativity and productivity.

Just as travel sends us to distant lands and shakes up the thought patterns we’ve settled into, Friluftsliv also takes us “out of our everyday lives [and] gives us the space and perspective to develop our identities,” according to Swedish historians that Lindahl references. The curiosity and sense of wonder that both travel and the experience of nature stir in us can be found at any time in life, nurtured, and grown.

In this rough economy that we’re experiencing, when plans for travel may be placed on a back burner, nature and its gifts can be both a balm for the soul and new terrain (literally!) for us and our children to explore.

I encourage you to read On My Swedish Island for further inspiration, bundle up, and venture out! Your kids are just waiting to be invited to go sledding, build a snowman, skate on a frozen pond, or simply snap some pictures of the winter scenery. Cups of cocoa all around afterward… Cheers!