Monday, July 27, 2015

Book Review: My First Plane Trip

My kids both flew before they were old enough to really understand that this was anything more momentous that the other random outings we took them on, and we've flown enough with them over the years to have (luckily) avoided any travel worries from them.

So, we're not really the target audience for My First Plane Trip, a short picture book by Kim Jenkins. Still, I like to try to help authors out when I can, so I agreed to take a review copy. And then proceeded to get really busy, so it has been over a month and I'm only now posting the review.

I read the book and Pumpkin (who is eight) read the book. I think Petunia (who will be six in a few months) might be more in the target age range for the book, but she was basically a walking meltdown tonight due to an unfortunate incident at camp with some sunscreen and her eye, so I didn't think it was worth asking her opinion. All of her opinions tonight degenerated rather quickly into tears.

The book is a straight-forward explanation of the things a child is likely to see and experience when taking a trip on an airplane. There is also a list of "People You Might Meet" and a glossary, which I think may have been Pumpkin's favorite parts.

Both Pumpkin and I rated this book as "fine." We both thought it did a solid job of explaining the air travel process to a child who wasn't familiar with it. The book is illustrated with photos, which might be a nice feature in terms of helping kids recognize what they're seeing on the day of the trip. Some of the pictures are clearly stock photos, but there was only one case where that bothered me: the photo illustrating baggage loading shows bundled freight being loaded. 

There is some humor provided by funny cat photos and the incongruous appearance of a porcupine. This humor worked better for me than it did for Pumpkin- she took it  too literally and said "no one would travel with a porcupine!" (I decided not to explain to her that was sort of the point of the use of the porcupine.) I think this is a case where a younger child who is in a less literal humor stage would enjoy the humor more than Pumpkin did. Pumpkin is solidly in the scatological humor phase, so probably would only have laughed if the porcupine had farted.

I had one other content concern: there was a page about the airport stores, which might be a bad thing if you were hoping to avoid shopping in the stores during your time in the airport. We usually buy an overpriced snack in one of the airport stores to take the edge of waiting, but I know some parents try to avoid them.

I had a PDF version, so I can't comment on the ebook layout, but the text was well-edited, age appropriate, and easy to read. 

All in all, I think the ebook version of this book would be a good investment if you have a child under the age of six or so who is about to take their first airplane ride. I'm not sure I think the cost of the print version would be justified for most kids, but if I had a child who was fearful of the new experience, I'd give it a try.


I occasionally accept a review copy of a book to review. My review policy is explained on my page about book reviews. A PDF version of the book in this post was sent to me by the author.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Weekend Reading: The Aw Heck I Don't Have a Theme Edition

Thank you all for your kind comments on my last post. Pumpkin still hasn't settled on a mantra, but she's also stopped asking me to stay in her room while she falls asleep, so perhaps this particular bout of bedtime worrying is passing.

As for me... I'm feeling better, too. I made an effort to go to bed on time for a the last couple of nights, and I also finished a couple of big projects (the slides for the Run Better Meetings seminar and the final revisions and formatting for Unspotted), so I have a nice feeling of accomplishment.

I've been doing some thinking, and I suspect my difficulty right now is coming from the fact that I am uncertain whether my main "anchor" client will renew my contract next year. My other sources of income are growing, but slowly, and if my anchor contract goes away, I will need to either replace it or find a full time job within a few months. I really don't want to have to find a fulltime job, so I'm probably feeling some extra pressure to make the things I'm doing when I'm not working on my anchor contract pay off.

This is rational... but also irrational. A guarantee of 6 months of the current work situation is frankly more than I usually had when I had a fulltime job. Remember, I worked in biotech, and have had the experience of being surprised by layoffs more than once.

So I'm reminding myself of that, which is helping. I'm also going to budget some time in next month to try to brainstorm some ways to increase my revenue. As with any start-up, more revenue means more runway before I run out of money.

Enough about me. This is a links post! Here's what I have this week:

The Atlantic is running a "book club" about Ta-Nehisi Coates' new book. Tressie McMillan Cottom starts it off really, really well. This may be the best thing I've read yet about the book. (Which I still haven't read... like I said last week, I'm slow to get to things.)

Roxane Gay wrote a heartbreaking piece about Sandra Bland and her reaction to what happened to her.

Jamelle Bouie and Black Girl Dangerous have really important pieces about Sandra Bland's death, too.

Thomas Sugrue wrote a reminder that the South is not the only place with a problem with racism in this country.

Ann Friedman looks at the MTV show White People and the Twitter spat between Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj, and has some suggestions for how Taylor could go one better than the solid apology she issued (which is, frankly, already one better than most white people in her situation would have done).

This week saw the story of another Black single mother arrested after a presumably well-meaning person called the police upon seeing her children unattended. Here is a really thoughtful post from Beyond Baby Mamas about what people should do if they see Black children unattended.

And here is a really thoughtful post from Shannon Des Roches Rosa about how to talk to and about people with autism.

Here is a story about a cool app that a man with autism created to help his friends (or bystanders) help him when he is suffering from overload.

On how saying "it is my opinion" doesn't necessarily mean you are not wrong.

Amanda Marcotte on the mess at Reddit.

I have decided what I think about the bracelets described in this article, but I'm 99% sure Pumpkin would love them. I worry that they could be another very visible way in which kids can be mean to each other, but perhaps I shouldn't worry about that. After all, if one set of kids want to be mean to another set of kids, they will be- with or without the help of technology.

Parisienne Mais Presque doesn't post very often anymore, but her posts are usually really good. Here is one about language.

Maybe I should move to Switzerland. Except I know people who have lived in Switzerland, and I suspect I would find certain aspects of Swiss culture hard to accept with the grace I would require myself to show as a foreigner. So maybe I should try to make the US more like Switzerland. (The ability to set your desired work percentage is a feature I've always intended to offer any employees I hire if when my company is able to hire employees. I had something similar for part of the first year after Pumpkin was born and it was AWESOME.)

This column on wanting to help too much is really quite insightful.

Ann Friedman's disapproval matrix has been making the rounds again for some reason. My favorite part is the inclusion of toddlers in the "frenemies" section.

Speaking of kids... this list of 14 things you'll say to them over and over is pretty amusing.

So is this, which a friend sent to me on Twitter:

Happy weekend, everyone!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Living the Anxious Life

Pumpkin has been having a hard time falling asleep recently. She says that she gets bad thoughts in her head and can't get them out. This has happened before. I am sympathetic- I know exactly what she means, since I once laid awake working through the scenario of what I would do if someone crashed their car through my bedroom wall (it faces the street, but it is an extremely quiet and really rather straight street and there are several feet of bushes between the window and the street). Granted, I was pregnant at the time, but I can work myself into a worry about random things even when I'm not pregnant. It is a skill I have.

In one sense, I'm the perfect person to help Pumpkin figure out how to handle her anxiety problem. I've tried to teach her my tricks of short circuiting the weird, anxious loop in my brain. The best one, by far, is to have a mantra to recite silently. It helps nudge my stream of consciousness into a more relaxed place, where I can go to sleep.

Me being me, my mantra is from John Donne:

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
(Meditation XVII)

Yeah, it isn't a super happy mantra, but I've used it since high school and it works for me.

So, Pumpkin is working on picking herself a mantra. In the meantime, I spend a fair amount of time on her floor, reading tweets in the dark while she falls asleep up in her loft bed. She finds this helpful. It is a good thing she doesn't know what's in my Twitter feed, or it would probably cease to be helpful.

In another sense, I'm a terrible person to teach Pumpkin how to tame her anxiety because at 43 years old, I haven't really learned how to tame my own.

I have always been the type to conform to expectations, and to pay attention to what the people around me need and want. I don't really feel bad about that. I don't think there is anything wrong with trying to be nice to other people, or sensitive to their feelings. But it does sometimes make it hard for me to really know what I want. And the instinct to always do the right thing, or the nice thing, can make it hard for me to relax and enjoy myself, especially now, when there is pretty much always something more virtuous I could be doing (for the kids, for my career, for my health, to take care of the house, to plan for our future, etc, etc, etc).

Even beyond that, there is just a feeling that I should be doing something more virtuous. Or, if I can push that feeling aside, the thought of something unpleasant or downright bad that could happen... Let's just say, I find it difficult to unwind.

This is probably one of the reasons I love to travel so much, because when I'm traveling, I for some reason get a free pass. Yes, I can have the ice cream! Yes, I can have another drink! Yes, I can just sit there and read! OK, only the first one is really true when I'm traveling with my kids, but I really like ice cream, so that's OK. Regardless, I do just relax more when I'm traveling. I have no idea why, because frankly, travel can be kind of stressful. But it is a different sort of stress that somehow causes me less anxiety.

I know, that makes no sense. I wish I understood it, too.

I also wish I could tap into that "free pass" feeling more when I'm at home. I live in an awesome place, I have an awesome life. I want to learn how to relax and enjoy it. Maybe I should try eating more ice cream. But maybe that would just make me gain weight, and then I'd be anxious about that.

Sometimes I think the solution is to exercise more (exercise makes me happy, and also it enables me to eat more ice cream)... but that requires me to do some other worthy thing less, and that triggers anxiety, too.

It is a bit of a conundrum.

If I can't tame my own anxiety, I'd at least like to teach my kids how to relax and enjoy life. Petunia seems to have it down, to be honest. She probably got that from her father. Pumpkin got my anxious genes, I guess, and I feel bad about that.

Yeah, I know. That's sort of ironic.

Share your anxiety taming tips- for you or your kids- in the comments!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Trip Story: Saint-Jean de Luz

When we were planning our vacation in France, we debated whether to stay in Biarritz or St.-Jean de Luz for our time in the Pays Basque. We ended up choosing St.-Jean de Luz based primarily on the fact that I found a great looking hotel, where we could afford a room with an ocean view- even a private ocean view balcony! I am sure Biarritz is also lovely, but I'm glad we chose St.-Jean de Luz. It turned out to be just what I needed.

St. Jean de Luz is a small town, so it was easy to get around on foot. There were interesting things to see, but not so many that we felt rushed our pressured to make sure we saw all of the "highlights." And it just had a nice, laid back feel to it. It is also a very picturesque town.

Nice town!
We arrived in the late afternoon, so we didn't do much our first evening. We strolled around a bit to get a feel for the town, and we had dinner at a Basque restaurant called Chez Maya. The food was good (although I was surprised to discover I had ordered something similar to chicken nuggets- the chicken was more like sausage, but it was breaded.) We also tried a Basque white wine that was moderately sparkling and was poured with great gusto from a foot or two above the glass. The restaurant also had an old-fashioned ceiling fan system: several "sails" of canvas hung from the ceiling on wooden frames, attached to each other by a long cord that eventually went through a hole in the wall to the kitchen. Every so often, someone in the kitchen would pull on the cord a few times, giving us all a breeze.

The next day, we did some touristing- including a visit to the main church, which even I had to admit was an interesting church. It has the tiers of wooden galleries that I gather are characteristic of churches in this part of the world. There is also a model of a ship hanging from the ceiling- also characteristic of Basque churches.

Nice church!
We also did some shopping, and then the rain came in... so we got back in our car and went to see a nearby castle.

The Chateau d'Urtubie was originally built in the 14th century. It is still owned by the original family, although they don't stay in the castle itself these days, preferring the renovated old stables building. I can't blame them- there was a definite musty smell in the castle. But there were also some beautiful tapestries, and a real sense of history.

Nice castle!

On our way back to St.-Jean de Luz, we stopped briefly in Hendaye. We could tell it would be a nice beach vacation town in better weather, but everything was closed up when we were there, so we admired the view from the sidewalk by the beach, and then got back into our car and headed on to St.-Jean de Luz. We stopped at a marked viewpoint on the way. It was pretty, but we didn't really understand why there was a viewpoint there until we got back to our hotel and did some research to discover that la Corniche Basque ("the Basque Coast") is a big deal, sort of like the Pacific Coast Highway south of Monterey in California. It was indeed some beautiful scenery.

Nice coast!
That evening, we opted for a less authentic dinner- I wanted pizza, which is a heck of a lot lighter than the meals I had been eating. (Pizza in France is a thin crust deal much like what we had when we visited Rome- similar to a a "California style" pizza in the US.) We also had a drink or two at a surf bar called "Duke's," which wasn't bad, but is probably a lot more fun when there are more people around.

The next day, we walked across the bridge to the even smaller town of Ciboure, and walked on to Socoa, a for originally built by Henri IV.

Nice fort!

It offered a nice view of the harbor and town of St.-Jean de Luz, and the walk to reach it was a pleasant way to spend the morning.

By the time we had finished looking around the fort, it was lunch time. We had a ham and cheese baguette from a bakery not far from the fort, and then walked back to our hotel. On our way, we finally understood the distinctive tower we'd seen near the harbor in St.-Jean de Luz. There is a matching one in Ciboure (painted with a green stripe instead of the red used on the St.-Jean de Luz side), and sailors use these towers to locate the mouth of the inner harbor.

Nice towers!
It had been overcast and occasionally sprinkled on our morning expedition, but that afternoon, the sun finally came out. We decided to walk in the other direction from our hotel and enjoy the view from the headlands south of town.

Nice view! This is facing south, towards Socoa.
Later still, we sampled a local culinary treat: pintxos, which are basically tapas. I was not at all clear on whether they are in fact the exact same thing, and pintxos is just the Basque word for it, or if there is some subtle difference. Either way, they were yummy, and went well with wine.

Nice snack. The pintxos are in the little jars. I think this shows some sausage slices and curry shrimp.

If you are heading to the region and want to order them, I'll save you some embarrassment and tell you they are pronounced "peen-chos." If you pronounce the X (as Mr. Snarky did when asking about them), you will get very puzzled looks.

After filling up on pintxos, we didn't want a very big dinner. We ended up at a restaurant on the other side of town from our pintxos spot. I ordered tomato soup and had a religious experience. Seriously, I had no idea tomato soup could taste that good. We also finally had some wine from St.-Emilion, and it was wonderful, too.

That evening was the perfect end our visit to St.-Jean de Luz. We got up the next morning, loaded up our car and headed east and north, spending a leisurely day driving to Dax, our next stop.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Weekend Reading: The Facing Reality and Finding Hope Edition

Last night, I went and saw Twelfth Night at the Old Globe with my sister. She has a season subscription, and we usually pick one play to go see together. I had fun- it was a beautifully staged production, and it is a fun play. But I got home after 11 p.m.

This might not have been a problem had I gotten decent sleep the night before, but I hadn't. Petunia came home from camp on Wednesday exhausted and not feeling well. We never figured out if she was sick or had gotten too much sun or something else, but she went to bed early, and woke up at 11 p.m. and came into our bed. Instead of snuggling nicely like she usually does, though, she took over half of the bed, and I ended up sleeping on the sofa. We have a comfortable sofa, but it still wasn't great sleep.

So anyway, I'm tired and now I'm also grumpy because instead of taking a nap like I wanted to this afternoon, I waited for a 3 p.m. phone call with a LegalZoom lawyer and that went incredibly poorly. I wanted a review of a draft contract. I knew it needed work, but instead of providing constructive advice, the lawyer basically snarked on what I had written, oscillating between petty observations ("consultant needs to be capitalized") and insulting incredulity ("you're missing entire sections"). She didn't listen to me when I tried to explain why I had written it how I had, and what my concerns were with her advice (which was essentially to take the 20+ page consulting contract in the LegalZoom documents packet and tweak that).

I cut the meeting short and won't try using LegalZoom's lawyer network again for anything except the most basic questions. I am sure this lawyer is a fine lawyer, but I doubt the LegalZoom system compensates her sufficiently to have her spend the time it would take to give me personalized advice. I wanted someone who would listen to what I'm trying to do and how I want to run my business, and give me advice about how to create the sort of contract I needed to do that. What I got was condescending cookie-cutter advice. Blech. I liked LegalZoom for helping with the basic paperwork of incorporating, but I think I've hit the limit of their usefulness.

But neither tiredness nor grumpiness shall keep me from my appointed duty of sharing links with you!

My theme this week is "finding hope" and I think you'll see why. In keeping with the theme, I'll provide the hopeful end to my lawyer story: I had tried to take a shortcut, essentially using a retail service for something that needed custom tailoring. That went just about as well as that sort of thing ever  does. I vented about it on Twitter, as is my wont. And one of the people who follows me reached out and might have a lead for a lawyer who can help me. So there's hope from a situation in which I was feeling a little hopeless.

Now, the links.

Did you read the amazing New Yorker piece from Kathryn Schultz about the possibility of a really big earthquake in the Pacific Northwest? If you didn't, you should. It really is a very good piece of science writing. And then, you should read this follow up interview with one of the scientists who was interviewed for the piece, to get a sense of hope back. Just don't let the feeling of hope lull you into complacency if you live in an earthquake zone! As is so often the case, the hope comes from facing the reality of the situation and taking appropriate steps.

Speaking of facing reality: I'm still planning to read Ta-Nehisi Coates' new book, although I don't know when. I tend to get to things a year late, but I do get to them. If you've somehow missed the buzz about this book, here is an excerpt. There has been a lot of online silliness about this book, which I've only somewhat followed, because it seems to be mostly white people missing the point. This is not a book written for us, or about us. I gather from Twitter that David Brooks has taken issue with Coates' lack of hope with regards to racism in this country. I know that Johnathan Chait had a similar complaint with Coates after an earlier article (the back and forth over that is summarized here).

I've thought a lot about this argument, because I am an essentially hopeful person. I do believe that America can get better, and that we can improve what I'll call "race relations" only because I can't come up with a better term. Coates' bleakness on this front brought me up short when I first encountered it, too. But he is a very good writer, and I think he does a good job of explaining the reasons for his opinion. Having forced myself to face those reasons, I have to say, I agree with him- there is no reason he should be hopeful about racism in this country. He would have to ignore too much painful- and recent!- history, and read too much into the progress we have managed to make.

But I should be hopeful. I am not sure I can explain this well, but I think we white Americans need to be hopeful about our ability to change this horrible situation that we and our ancestors have created. Without hope, we will not change, and change we must. We have to believe that we can do it, so that we can continue to make progress, and maybe, eventually, we will earn back the hope of Black Americans like Coates. We have to have our hope even in the face of Coates' rejection of it, though. We cannot demand that he feel that hope. We have to accept that his experience of American history is fundamentally different than our experience of American history. In fact, we need to really take that on board and have that show us why we continue to struggle with racism.

So, I guess I think that Coates' lack of hope and the hopefulness that people like Brooks and Chait feel when surveying the same history are both right. We need them both.

But I don't need to read David Brooks' opinions of Coates' book, so I didn't. I did read a some really thoughtful reviews that actually engaged with Coates' ideas and explored what the book does well and what it does not do. Those were by Shani O. Hilton, Brit Bennett, and Josie Duffy. Maybe skip Brooks' piece and go read those instead.

And maybe also ponder what it means that when we imagine a post-apocalyptic future, we leave out people of color.

Some other topics:

How can we best help people caught in conflict zones? It is not simple.

More good but heart-breaking science writing: a personal essay from Brian Vastag, a science writer living with myalgic encephelomyalitis.

Some good news out of IBM: it will now help traveling employees ship breastmilk home. Having struggled to get milk expressed on a business trip home, I think this is a wonderful move, both for the symbolism of the gesture and from a practical standpoint of making life just a little bit easier for nursing mothers who need to travel for work.

A little bit of crass commercialism:

A tiny plug for my upcoming short seminar about running better meetings. You have one week left to register if you want to attend the live session.

You can pre-order the book my little publishing company is publishing about the endangered Cape Mountain Leopard.

Also, I'm looking for more manuscripts to consider- read the information for authors page and/or the back story about my publishing ambitions if you want to know more.

The fun at the end:

Check out the names of these paint colors.

A new tumblr that I love.

Here's a cat in a flip-flop:

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