Thursday, September 29, 2011

Traveling with A Preschooler and a Toddler... and Liking It

One of the amusing things about telling people about our recent California Road Trip is their reaction when I tell them that we did the trip with a 4.5 year old and an almost 2 year old. They mostly look at me like I am crazy.

And maybe I am crazy, but I have to say- it was really a great trip. We had a lot of fun.

Which is not to say that there weren't meltdowns and moments when I wondered why on earth I had decided that we should take a road trip this year (answer: I didn't feel like messing with the airport/airplane hassle with my almost two year old).

But for the most part, the trip was really fun for the grown ups as well as the kids. Really, all of our trips with our kids have turned out pretty well, although there were some dicey moments in the Wichita trip, before we realized that we needed to back off on the potty training for the duration of the trip.

Now, a lot of this is just luck. In fact most of it is probably luck- we happen to have two good little travelers on our hands. Honestly, Pumpkin may be a more patient traveler than I am.

Perhaps a little of our traveling success might be due to things we do, though, so I thought I'd share some tips, in no particular order:

1. Plan like crazy.

Seriously. Plan the trip, then plan some more. And then some more. Know where at least one decent playground is in each city you are visiting. Google maps and Google Earth are big helps in this regard- you can even zoom in and check for swings if you happen to have a little swing addict (like we do). Have several family-friendly restaurant options identified ahead of time- you don't have to use them if you have time to stroll around and look for whatever restaurant looks best. But sometimes you just need to get to an acceptable restaurant fast, before your kids go from looking forward to lunch time to melting down due to hunger.

And speaking of restaurants....

2. Brew pubs are excellent places to take kids for meals.

I explained why we love to go to brew pubs in my last post. In short: they are generally noisy enough that my kids are not the loudest people in the restaurant, the beer mellows everyone out- us and the people around us, and they almost always have kids menus. Oh, and we like beer.

I am not a huge foodie, so we eat at chains, too. Sometimes, something familiar is what your kid needs. Chains can also usually be relied upon to have the mechanics of serving kids down- bringing the kids' food as soon as possible, for instance. The really good ones even know to let it cool in the kitchen for a bit before bringing it to the table.

3. Know which parts of your kids' routines can be messed with, and which can't.

For us, breakfast is sacrosanct. It needs to happen as soon after Petunia wakes up as possible. Almost everything else has some wiggle room, but not breakfast.

4. Try to stay in suites, if you can afford it.

The extra space is nice. And a door to close on your sleeping kids, allowing some grown up time on the vacation- even if you just use it to plan the details of the next day without a 4 year old asking "Why, Mommy?" every 20 seconds- is priceless.

5. Pack distractions for the travel time.

The magna-doodle has served us well here, as have the felt boards my Mom made for the kids for a return trip from Arizona. It is also handy to have something completely new for the trip. The night before our trip, I had to run to the drug store for some things, and on a whim, I bought a little princess coloring book on a plastic frame for Pumpkin. She loved that thing, and colored in it during most of our drives on this trip. Some of that was pure luck- but some of that was me knowing that she loves to color, loves princesses, and is always interested in something new, so there was a good chance she'd like that toy.

6. Be realistic in your expectations.

We don't try to take the kids to art museums yet, because Petunia is too little to understand how to behave in one and I am too sensitive to take her anyway, and just ignore the glares from other people. (Typing that sentence made me think that perhaps it is time I found the time for a trip to an art museum with Pumpkin, though- she is old enough to perhaps behave, and I'm curious what she'd think of it.)

We have also skipped many things we'd like to do just because the timing didn't work out. For instance, we drove through downtown San Luis Obispo on this trip and both thought it looked like a great little downtown that we would have liked to explore. Unfortunately, we were there at nap time and Petunia was snoozing happily in the back seat. We could have woken Petunia up, strapped her in her stroller, and hoped for the best- but chances are we would have gotten a meltdown, so we just made a mental note that we'd like to go back someday.

However, we know that meltdowns will sometimes happen, and we try not to let them get to us. It is unrealistic to expect the kids to behave perfectly for ten days straight. They certainly don't do that at home, so why would they do it on vacation? That is actually so important that it deserves its own list entry!

7. Remember that they meltdown at home, too.

Pumpkin threw a couple of impressive fits on this vacation around clothing. She wanted to wear shorts but it was too cold. She wanted to wear a certain shirt, but it was already filthy. Etc. But she throws fits about her outfits at home, too.

Petunia has been known to ruin a dinner time by crying loudly for a show while the rest of us try to finish our food (we have a rule: no TV while eating). So, while I would have preferred not to have to resort to tag team eating so much on the trip (one adult eats while the other walks around outside with Petunia, then we switch), I can't really say that dinner time disruptions are a unique feature of travel. They are a feature of having a two year old.

8. Plan in lots of park visits

As I said above, we always do some research and know where the local playgrounds are. We visit a playground almost every day when we're traveling, often for afternoon snack. I suspect that the play time helps the kids behave better during other times, and we've actually really enjoyed seeing the different parks in various places. I'll be writing more about the Dennis the Menace playground in Monterey. There were also some really good parks in Portland and Kaua'i (I didn't write about the Kamalani playground there, but it was pretty cool). Even better, hanging out at a playground with your kids is a great way to meet some locals, who might give you some good tips- we found both the Jamison Water Park mentioned in my blog post and the Portland brew pub run by the Deschuttes brewery (which was so great we went there twice) thanks to some advice from a friendly dad in a local playground, who struck up a conversation with Hubby while Pumpkin and his son played, and I shopped at Powell's.

Those are my tips and tricks, but I know we don't have it all figured out... so please, chime in via the comments. What are your tips and tricks for traveling with little kids, and enjoying it?

Monday, September 26, 2011

California Car Trip 2011 - The Award Show Version

As I mentioned in my last post, we just got back from vacation. We spent ten days driving around California. It was a taster tour- we only sampled what every stop had to offer. But the girls aren't old enough to make an in depth stay easy. Too many of the things we'd want to do would bore them. So we hit the (kid-friendly) highlights in several places, driving between them at nap time (mostly).

Our itinerary was: Pasadena, Three Rivers (Sequoia National Park), Merced (a necessary stop over that turned out to be nicer than we expected), Sacramento (because Hubby "collects" state capitols), Monterey, down the coast road to Morro Bay (that took longer than nap time), Santa Barbara, and then home.

I plan to write several detailed posts about the trip. You can skip them if they bore you, but one of the functions of this blog is to help me remember things, so I'll write them. However, tonight, I'm just going to give you the award show rundown of the trip:

Best hotel: The Embassy Suites in Sacramento. We paid the extra $20 and had a view of the river- which meant a view of the cool bridge we drove across to get there. Pumpkin thought both of these things were awesome. Petunia enjoyed watching the birds on the river and the fountains in the lobby. Hubby and I enjoyed closing the door on our sleeping kids and relaxing in the living room portion of our suite. (Note to hotels: This is what a suite is. At least two rooms. With a door between them. The door is important. Our otherwise lovely suite in Monterey lacked a door and Hubby and I had to hang out in the bathroom after our kids went to bed. Luckily, it was quite large.)

Best meal: The Brewhouse, in Santa Barbara. We continued our tradition of taking the kids to brew pubs for as many meals as possible, and mostly this worked well. Our logic is that these places are noisy enough to hide some incidental kid noise, busy enough to distract the kids, always have kids menus, and provide good beer to mellow out all the adults- including us. The Brewhouse was perhaps a bit too noisy, but the food and beer were both excellent. And it was a short walk from our hotel.

Best breakfast: Frankie and Lola's in Morro Bay. The pancakes were delicious. So was the homemade sausage. And the skillet potatoes. Just an all around yummy breakfast. Mostly we ate breakfast at the hotel, since our kids need to eat pretty soon after waking up. But the place we stayed in Morro Bay didn't offer breakfast- they gave vouchers for a few local restaurants, and this was one of them. So we fed the girls their breakfast in the hotel and tried taking them out for morning snack. That didn't go so well, but the awesomeness of the pancakes makes up for that.

Best outing: A family bike ride in a surrey in Santa Barbara. A surrey, if you don't know, is what you call those ridiculous looking bench seat bikes you see in tourist spots. (Click here for a picture.) They are actually fairly fun to ride- on flat ground and with a good bike path. The kids had fun, we had fun, and really my only complaint was that the bell was too easy for Petunia to reach. We have actually promised the kids that we'll do this again here in San Diego.

Runner up, for the grown ups: the "hike" we did in Sequoia,  to see the General Sherman tree. This was really a stroll on a paved path (although there were 80 stairs- I know because Pumpkin and I counted on the way back up), but the trees were impressive.

Best wildlife moment: Seeing a bear on the hike in Sequoia. A real live bear! In the wild! From close enough to be cool but far enough away not to be scary.

Runner up: seeing seals up close in the water in Morro Bay. Pumpkin thought this was awesome. Clearly, we need to take her to our local seal sighting spots more often.

Best parenting moment (Mommy): Coming up with the idea to count stairs when Pumpkin started to whine that she was too tired to walk back to our car after seeing the General Sherman tree.

Best parenting moment (Daddy): Coming up with (and implementing) the three stage bedtime routine for Pumpkin for use in suites with a single king bed and a sleeper sofa in the living room. This involved getting her sleepy while I got Petunia down in the bed, moving her to the bed and getting her down, then moving her back to the sofa- without waking her up- when we were ready to go to bed. This gave us precious grown up time in the hotels we stayed in that had suites with doors, but only one bed.

Best museum: Kidspace, in Pasadena. The Monterey Aquarium is cool, but for pure kid happiness, I think the tricycles at Kidspace win.

Best unexpected cool thing: Petunia roaring at the bear statue outside the governor's office in the Capitol. Luckily, California capitol guards are allowed to laugh.

Runner up: Applegate Park, in Merced. Why did nothing I read about this mention the beautiful path by the river???? Also, Petunia enjoyed chasing squirrels.

Best unplanned stop: Lucia, on the coast road south from Monterey. We stopped because Pumpkin needed a potty. We stayed because it was snack time. And we had the best view for snack time ever- we sat on an outdoor deck looking straight out at the ocean.

Best playground: The Dennis the Menace playground in El Estero Park in Monterey. Don't miss this if you visit Monterey with kids. It is just a playground- but it is a great playground.

Best kid moment (Pumpkin): The reaction to seeing Cinderella's carriage at Fairytale Town, in Sacramento.

Best kid moment (Petunia): The reaction to the tricycles at Kidspace, in Pasadena.

Best chill out: Morro Bay.

Place we most want to go back and see properly: Hubby says Sacramento. I say San Luis Obispo (we just detoured through downtown on our way from Morro Bay to Santa Barbara, to prolong nap time).

Runner up: Big Sur. But only if I have time to do some hiking.

Best place to retire to: Carmel-by-the-Sea (after we win the lottery); Santa Barbara (only slightly more realistic).

Biggest bummer: For Hubby, it was missing the good sunset in Monterey- we saw it as we drove into town, but we didn't stop because we were running late and wanted to check into our hotel before dinner. For me, it was the fog that obscured a lot of the coastal drive. I've done the drive before and remember how spectacular it can be. It was still beautiful, but I was bummed that Hubby didn't get the full effect. And I don't really want to drive it again- I have to drive the whole time, and I still need a fizzy drink and a bag of salty snacks to make sure I don't get car sick.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

What I Do All Day

I'm just back from vacation, which is why posting has been light lately. I lined up a few posts to auto-post, and then didn't even check my email for days. It was nice. I have a lot of things I want to write about the vacation, but that will have to wait, because Geekmommyprof is hosting a blog carnival on theoretical/computational sciences, and I want to participate.

As my blog bio blurb says, I work as both a scientist and a techie. I can't go into a lot of detail about what I do, because I've spent my entire career in industry, and I've signed non-disclosure agreements for every job I've held. Also, I've done a lot of different things. Each job is different (I've worked for five companies), and even one job changes a lot with time. Incidentally, this is why I'm always puzzled by the hand-wringing I read on some blogs about the job market for people with PhDs in science. There are so many different things you can do with the PhD, that it is hard to think about it as a single market- or even a couple markets (academic and industrial). I've held jobs that absolutely required a PhD and jobs that didn't. I've held jobs that were heavy on the science and light on the tech, and vice versa. I do a lot of management, too, of both people and projects, and I've discovered that I like that, too.

But, back to the main topic: what do I do? Well, when I'm doing science, it is all on the computer. I haven't done wet lab work since graduate school. I'll have to be a bit vague, due to those non-disclosure agreements and the thin veil of anonymity I keep on this blog. Basically, my science work all boils down to trying to use the available data to help my company make better decisions. I analyze data sets with a variety of algorithms. I occasionally develop my own algorithms, but that is not common and is not my forte- I am better and stitching together other people's algorithms into sensible (and repeatable!) processes. I do write a little bit of code, but I don't consider myself a programmer- more of a scripter. I can get things done, but if I need some code that can be used by other people in a robust process, I hire a real programmer and tell him/her what I need.

My techie home is databases. I never expected to be a techie, but I realized in graduate school that I couldn't do some analyses I wanted to do because the data weren't organized in a reasonable way. This has gotten better over the years, but it is still a problem- if you want to do some computational work in the biosciences, chances are high that you will have to spend a fair amount of time assembling your data sets. In many cases, you have to manually (or, depending on your tolerance for errors, programmatically) pull data from published papers. This bugged me then, and still bugs me now. Also, I have always loved organizing information. So I suppose it is no surprise that I ended up doing a lot of work in this area. When I'm doing this sort of work, I design databases and other data structures (such as XML-based languages) to store scientific information. This requires that I really understand the data and also that I understand the theory behind databases.

I like the variety that comes with my work. I love the intellectual challenge of designing a robust database that will stand up to unexpected future requirements, and I love the thrill of forming a hypothesis based on an analysis I've done. It is particularly fun if my hypothesis is supported by subsequent lab work. When I'm wearing my project manager's hat, I like figuring out how to bring all the pieces together to get a project to complete successfully- it is like a big logic problem.

I dislike the corporate BS that I often have to deal with as a manager- but that comes with the territory. I don't love the volatility in my industry, but I've learned to deal with that, and even see the bright side of having a chance to reinvent myself every so often.

I sort of fell into this line of work based on the needs of my PhD research project, but I've usually been pretty happy with my career. It is ironic that I'm writing this post now, though, because I've been feeling a bit restless in my career lately. I've been doing this sort of work for more than a decade, and I find myself day dreaming a bit about different things I could do. That is a topic for another post, though... and anyway, most days I still really enjoy my work. So my daydreams may come to naught.

I know this post has probably been frustratingly vague. If you have questions, leave them in the comments. I'll answer them if I can!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Weekend Reading: The Science of Parenthood Edition

I've come across a couple of interesting sciencey parenting links lately, which I thought I'd share:

First up, a post from Gwen Dewar (whom I've linked to before) describing a study on aggression in lactating mothers. I suppose that it is not at all surprising that like other mammals, we'll respond strongly to aggression when our kids are young. And I suppose it is also not surprising that nature uses lactation as a key for "young kids"- I'm not sure I can think of another biochemical mechanism that would work. But it is still interesting to see a study on the subject.

Next, I came across a new blog about the science of parenthood, called ScienceofMom. She has a recent post summarizing a study on the outcomes associated with various discipline techniques. I don't think the study is really telling us much new on that front- it seems to me that it mostly confirms what other studies have shown about discipline (i.e., stricter is not necessarily better). But I was amused by the finding that kids whose mothers drink in moderation seem to have fewer discipline problems. I told my husband about this finding, and now he's telling me to have another beer- for the kids, you know. He's joking, of course- the finding is suggestive at best. But given the fact that a sizable chunk of people frown on drinking by mothers, I'll take it!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Beach Day

On Labor Day, we took what may be our last outing to our favorite beach for this season. It is not that September isn't a good beach month- it is in some ways the best beach month in San Diego, with warm weather and fewer crowds. But we're pretty busy this month, so we might not get back to our beach.

We like to go to Bonita Cove, which is on the part of Mission Bay that is closest to the ocean.

View Larger Map

This gives us the calm waters of the bay with a feeling that the water is somehow "fresher" because it is close to the mouth of the bay. I don't want to hear it if you can prove that we're deluded- we're rather attached to this location now.

As usual, Petunia headed straight for the water when we got there- this time, dragging our boogie board behind her like some sort of pet.

Unfortunately, it was not a particularly warm day (it even rained on us as we left the beach!) and neither girl really spent much time in the water. But the sand was still a lot of fun.

Petunia enjoyed burying and then uncovering Hubby's feet. Pumpkin played for quite awhile with the "river" she and Hubby had built.

I mostly just sat in the sand watched them play.

And even though the weather wasn't perfect for the beach, it may have been my favorite beach day of the year.

At least so far.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Things I Love Right Now: Baby Talk

When Petunia says "beach", she makes the sign for "peach". I guess the words sound the same to her, and none of us know the sign for beach.

And I love how both of my kids say "thank you" right now, as demonstrated in the following recent conversation:

Pumpkin, to Petunia, after agreeing to turn off her show so that Petunia could watch the show she wanted: Say stank you, Petunia, say stank you.

Petunia: Gank oo.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Weekend Reading: The Follow Up Edition

I don't have much for you this weekend- work has been busy, and so has home, so I haven't been out and about on the internet as much as usual. I do have an interesting link related to the link I recently posted about how software is taking over the world- here is a post reminding those triumphant software companies that the "old way" companies won't all go down without a fight.

I've written before about the bisphenol A (BPA) issue. Here is an update, found via Marion Nestle- the EPA has done a study and found that humans eliminate BPA very efficiently, which means that the chances of a harmful level building up in our bloodstream are very low- and of course, as I've summarized before, there is still a very active debate about what level (if any) would be harmful. Of course, this is largely a moot point, since the market has spoken and BPA has mostly been removed from use. So- will they do a similar study on the various plastics that have replaced it?

And I've been sitting on this post from Marion Nestle about a new USDA initiative to develop a method to compensate traditional and organic farmers who are harmed by genetic drift from nearby genetically-modified fields. I've been waiting for it to fit the theme of a weekend reading post. I don't know if it ever will, so here it is now.

Also, Nicoleandmaggie have an interesting post up about the majority feeling oppressed by a vocal minority. There is lots to think about in that one. They are writing primarily about mothering issues (epidural vs natural, breastmilk vs formula), but I think the general principle will apply anytime there is a minority that passionately believes in its stance. Take the Tea Party, for instance....


Monday, September 12, 2011

On Emergency Preparedness

Remembrances and tributes for the tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks have been all over the place lately. I've read some, but I haven't really felt like writing my own remembrance of that time. Maybe in another ten years.

But I will say this: I think that the level of emergency preparedness in our country is probably a lot better now than it was on Sept. 10, 2001- and I think that is a good thing, not so much because of the risk of another terrorist attack, but because there are so many other scenarios when a little preparedness is very helpful.

For instance, I worked as a contractor for several years, working on both government and commercial projects. One of my government projects was a biodefense project, and I remember being reassured at the time to realize that the system was being explicitly designed to detect natural disease outbreaks as well as a terrorist attack. (Incidentally, I was also reassured by the obvious intelligence and competence of many of the government employees working on biodefense at the time- there were a few people running around who clearly had no clue about diseases and how they spread, and sadly, some of them were in positions of power. But there were enough other people who so clearly and completely got it that I ended up encouraged by what I had seen.)

And in fact, I believe that at least one of the systems that provided early indications of the arrival in the US of what would become the H1N1 pandemic of 2009 was built with biodefense money. But I can't find any documentation on that, so I could be wrong. (My information comes from one of the people who built the system, but it was just a remark made in passing.)

I suspect that individual households are also better prepared now than they were ten years ago. I know ours is. However, I live in an area prone to earthquakes and wildfires, and have seen two massive firestorms in the intervening years, so it is hard to say how much of our preparedness is due to the advice we heard after the Sept. 11 attacks, and how much is due to the general advice we hear about preparing for an earthquake or firestorm.  And I have to be honest- we got a lot more organized and prepared after Pumpkin was born. I thought about not having a clean diaper to change Pumpkin into, or not having food or drinks for her when we needed them, and that galvanized me. We have small emergency kits in both cars now, and a "go bag" ready to grab if we ever need to evacuate our house in a hurry. We've never used the go bag, but have broken into those car kits for everyday emergencies, like forgotten diaper bags and temper tantrums brought on by parental refusal to buy overpriced water bottles.

We also have the more mundane preparedness items: flashlights (with batteries), candles (with matches), a couple of gallons of water in the garage, canned food in the cupboard (rotated at least once a year when I give the old cans to our neighborhood's holiday food drive).

And last Thursday, we got a chance to test our preparations in a real situation that thankfully did not pose any actual threat to our safety- the big power outage. Thinking back on how things went, I give us a solid B+ for preparedness. We have some things to improve, but mostly things went really smoothly.

The power went out at about 3:40 p.m. It was sudden and complete, but of course, we didn't immediately know the extent. I called my husband, who works on the same street I do- but at the top of the hill, while I am at the bottom. He said his power was out, too, but he was still thinking he'd be able to take Pumpkin to swim lessons that night. Then my coworkers started reporting that spouses and friends in other parts of the county had no power, either, and I started to wonder. We still had network, thanks to our backup power supplies, but couldn't get the SDG&E outage map to load, and I began to suspect a massive outage- I figured their servers were overloaded. None of the news sites had any useful information, so I turned to Twitter, and quickly found out that the lights were out as far away as Yuma. At that point, I knew there would be no swim lessons. I called my husband and said I was leaving to go to day care, and we argued briefly about whether I should pick both kids up. He was still convinced that the lights would come back on in time for swim lessons. I disagreed, but dropped it. I went off to check that I could approve the shutdown of all the IT systems I manage. I could (everything that relied on them was down), so I told my boss I was leaving, swung by the IT room and told them that they could shut down my servers if the needed to, and then left. For those not in IT- the loss of power means the loss of cooling in the server room, which risks overheating the computers. So in any significant outage, the IT folk will start shutting machines down, to try to decrease the heat output in the room, and to protect them from overheating.

In the car, I tuned to an AM station on the radio (the FM stations were all offline), and soon realized that there was no way that power would come back on anytime soon. SDG&E had only issued a statement saying "we're investigating". If they didn't know what was wrong, they couldn't fix it. So I called my husband again, to tell him that I was going to pick up both kids and to try to get him to leave, too. It took three or four times to get through, so I told him I wouldn't be calling again. He was non-committal about leaving, since he could see the traffic down the hill we both work on, and he figured it would take him more than 30 minutes to get down to where I had started my drive. In the end, he didn't come home until almost 8 p.m. That is one of the areas in which I give us poor marks- in a "real" emergency, he needs to get up and leave as soon as possible, or risk being trapped at work. It took me 30 minutes to make the usually five minute drive to day care, leaving less than 20 minutes after the power was out, and I had to park the car and walk the last couple of blocks, because traffic was so bad. If he'd left at that time, it would have taken him close to an hour to get to day care. If he'd tried to leave any later, he may not have made it to day care before they close. They would stay open until someone made it to them. But there is no reason to make them do that, and in some cases, it might be safer to get there sooner.

The drive home was a little harder than usual, but not terrible- the loss of the metering on the on ramps made traffic heavier than usual on the freeway, but it was moving. I got home at about 5:40, and started implementing our emergency plan. I filled several jugs with water, a precaution that turned out to be unnecessary for us, but would have been useful in some nearby parts of town, in which water treatment substations had failures after several hours without power. Those neighborhoods were under a boil water order for a day or two. I got the cooler we usually take to the beach, took a few minutes to think about what I needed to pull out of the fridge and freezer for our use that night, and then filled it. This meant that we only opened our fridge a few times, and our freezer twice (once to fill the cooler, and once to get the ice cream out to eat), which decreased the amount of food we had to throw away- and in a real emergency would have increased the amount of food we had available to eat the next day. I got the kids started eating dinner outside, and then I gathered up some candles and a flashlight. I got the matches out, and replaced the batteries in the flashlight. This is another area in which I think we could improve- I have lots of good candles, but most of them don't fit in the candle sticks I have. And I had to pull out some plates to use to hold the votive candles I found- I couldn't find any candle holders for those. I think they were packed away as too breakable/not practical with little kids in the house.

I also found a battery-operated radio. I couldn't find the awesome radio we took on our big trip, so I was reduced to getting my news from a pink rabbit, but it worked. And I had batteries for it, too.

I took the kids for a walk after dinner, and enjoyed the camaraderie on display in the neighborhood. I talked to neighbors I've never even seen before. It was getting dark when we got back, so I lit the candles, and gave the kids a bath by candlelight- complete with bubbles, per Petunia's request. Pumpkin is still talking about that bath!

My husband got home in time to help with the bedtime routines. Pumpkin accepted a slight change, listening to some different songs on my computer rather than her usual CD- but since my computer would have played her CD if she'd insisted, that change was due primarily to my laziness. I stayed with Pumpkin until she fell asleep, and then Hubby and I cracked open the beers I'd put in our cooler, and sat outside and enjoyed the chance to actually see some stars from our backyard. We went to bed unsure of whether we'd be going to work the next day (day care wouldn't open if the lights were still out), but our power came back on at about 3 a.m., and by the morning, everything was back to normal. Except that we had to mix up some powdered milk for Pumpkin's cereal. I was glad I had that on hand- but that was because I'd needed it for a bread recipe at one point, not for any preparedness reasons. I guess I'll be sure to keep that stocked now, at least until we start using those shelf-stable milk boxes they sell now. And I was really glad that the power had come back on, because Petunia likes oatmeal for breakfast, and that would have been hard to make without power. I've now bought some instant oatmeal to keep on hand- boiling water without power is easier than trying to cook old-fashioned oatmeal.

So we'll tweak or plan and be a bit more prepared for the next event- because as I've learned many times since becoming a parent, emergency preparedness isn't just for emergencies.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Weekend Reading: The Back to School Edition

You probably heard that my county and large portions of the neighboring counties, as well as parts of Baja California were without power yesterday afternoon and evening. We came through just fine- the only casualty was a half tub of chocolate chip ice cream that I had to eat before its time. It was actually an interesting dry run for our emergency preparedness plans, and I'd like to write about that. But not tonight. I'm too tired from being up from 3-5:30 this morning with Petunia, who, it turns out, thought candles were so cool that she wanted to spend some quality time looking at them at about 4 a.m. I am not joking- she wiggled out of bed, ran down the hall to the kitchen, pointed to her chair, then pointed to the candle on the table until I lit it. Then she sat there with a big smile on her face watching the flame. I, meanwhile, went slowly insane.

So I think I'll get some sleep and wait until I think that story is as funny as everyone else does before I write anymore about the blackout experience.

Tonight, I have some links in honor of the fact that kids are back in school. Sorry, I'm too tired to figure out where I found these... sincere apologies for not giving credit where it is due. Most of them came from my Twitter stream, so I suppose you could just follow the people I follow. They all tweet good things!

First, I found an interesting post from Mike the Mad Biologist arguing that American schools are actually doing just fine in the international rankings... as long as they aren't poor. He'd like to see us stop worrying so much about the kids whose schools are actually doing great (i.e., the middle class and wealthy schools) and focus instead on our poverty problem. I haven't taken the time to really dissect his numbers, but I'm sympathetic to the argument.

Then, I came across a post from Seth Godin arguing that we've actually got it all wrong, and shouldn't be worrying about the tests at all. Like many (most?) Seth Godin posts, it is more interesting idea than meaty argument, but again, I'm sympathetic to the argument.

I'd actually recommend reading Bad Mom, Good Mom's posts on education for more data and analysis relevant to both of those arguments.

I also came across an interview on Slashdot with Kevin Kelly, who writes for Wired Magazine, among other things. I liked it mostly for his thoughts on the value of travel, which resonated with me- I've got a long-standing interest in the question of why humans seem to like to travel so much, and what purpose it might serve. Here's the quote:

"I've found there is no better education dollar for dollar than traveling. No matter what kind of learning you want to do, whether schoolbook, or business research, or artistic, or goalless exploration, then travel is your best bet. I think a lot of the woes of America could be cured by establishing a two-year national service requirement for all youth, without exceptions, which could be fulfilled by service abroad -- Peace Corp like -- in hundreds of different programs in alien places.

The benefit of travel like this is confronting "Otherness." The Other forces you to examine your assumptions, to question your beliefs, to stretch your perspective, to widen your horizons, and to entertain alternatives -- all skills worth a million dollars in today's world. You won't get very much of this at college. But go to India, or the Congo, or Albania, and its Otherness will teach you."

I actually disagree that college won't do all those things- my college did. But I also think that traveling is definitely an educational experience, and I agree with the reasons he gives. I guess I think traveling is like parenthood- done right, it teaches a lot and provides a certain maturity. You can learn those things and get that maturity in other ways, too, but traveling (and parenthood) almost force them on you.

And finally, I offer proof that the youth of other countries waste time on the internet, too, in the form of an amusing YouTube video my husband found:

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Working through a Motivational Slump

I've written before about the fact that I "only" work 40-45 hours most weeks, increasing to 50 hours or so only when I have deadlines to meet. I think that I can do this and still continue to advance in my career because I've figured out how to be very productive during those 40 to 45 hours. I have a reputation for getting a lot done, and it is well-deserved, if I do say so myself. (And its my blog, so I can do that.)

Maintaining high productivity is easy when my motivational levels are high. The trick is to maintain acceptable productivity when they dip lower. I've been in a bit of a motivational slump lately. I don't kid myself- I have not been as productive as I could be these last few weeks. I'm bringing my B game to the table, not my A game. But frankly, my B game is good enough, at least for a short period of time. I can't afford to let it slip to my C game, though.

How do I keep my productivity up during these inevitable slumps? Two things: lists and rewards.

I've written before about how I use lists to help keep myself on task and keep my work hours down. As I describe in that post, I usually just keep a master to do list and a list with the most urgent upcoming tasks. When my motivation slumps, though, my lists multiply. I write a daily to do list and use that to keep myself focused during the day. I write "intermediate" to do lists of things that have to be done before some key event (like a presentation, an important meeting, or a vacation), and use those to populate my daily lists. I print out the plans for the projects I am working on and highlight the most urgent tasks. Basically, I surround myself with reminders of what I am supposed to be doing, and I increase my opportunities to get the satisfaction of crossing a task off a list- sometimes finishing one task allows me to cross something off of three or four lists or project plans. That makes me happy. I love crossing things off my lists.

My second key strategy is to give myself little rewards. Finished a particularly annoying task? That earns me a five minute walk outside the building. Had a productive morning? I get to go buy a bag of chips to eat with my lunch. Not all of my rewards are so strictly tied to visible progress, though. When my motivation is low, my work limit falls, and I find that I need to allow myself to refresh at night more than usual. So my beer intake goes up- instead of only having a beer or two with my husband on Fridays (our practically sacrosanct "Friday night beers"), I'll crack open a beer after the kids are asleep several times a week. I'll let myself blog instead of checking work emails, or I'll watch a TV show with my husband instead of trying to knock a home chore off the at home to do list.

I know from experience that these slumps pass, and I'll be back to my usual motivation levels before too long. But I don't have the slack in my work life to let the slumps just run themselves out. So I pull out my lists and rewards, and muscle through.

What about you? What do you do when your motivation slumps? 

Sunday, September 04, 2011

I Have to Remember This for the Wedding Toast

Tonight, while I was giving her and Petunia a bath, Pumpkin informed me that she would be inviting Santa Claus to her wedding when she grows up. Because he would give her lots of gifts.

I have no idea where she learned that weddings and gifts go together- we shipped our gift ahead of time for the one wedding she's been to. But she was confident that inviting Santa Claus was a good idea, because everyone else would only bring one gift, and he would bring lots.

(Also puzzling: in our house, Santa brings each girl exactly one gift. So I'm not sure why she thinks he'll bring lots to her wedding.)

She then thought that maybe she should invite him to her birthday next year, for similarly materialistic reasons. I told her that he doesn't leave the North Pole except at Christmas time.

She nodded and seemed to move on. But a few minutes later, she looked up at me and said, "Mommy, I'll have to get married at Christmas, then."

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Local Tourist: Sea World

As I wrote in my recent post about happiness, we're trying to get out more, to enjoy our city and region. It is, after all, a major tourist destination. I've decided to also try to write posts about at least some of our outings- after all, I write posts about our trips elsewhere. I've started a new San Diego label, and tagged a couple of my older posts that fit the description- a post about our trip to Legoland and a post about an outing to Coronado. I have apparently never written a post about a trip to our "world famous San Diego Zoo"- something I may have to rectify some day.

But today's post is about another famous San Diego destination- Sea World. We live literally 10 minutes from Sea World by car. We drive past Sea World anytime we go to our favorite beach (another thing I should post about for this series, I guess). And yet, we had never taken Pumpkin there. In fact, I hadn't been since before I moved to San Diego the first time- i.e., in graduate school. The last time I was at Sea World, I still lived with my parents! Part of the reason we hadn't gone earlier is the cost. There is no way to stretch the definition of the word "cheap" to include Sea World. We bought our tickets online and got a discount- they were "only" $62 each. Including for Pumpkin. At least Petunia can still get in free (kids get in free until they are three). The other problem is that I remember Sea World how it used to be, when it was more like a zoo and less like an amusement park. I miss the simpler "old" Sea World.

But a lot of Petunia's friends have been, and she knows all about Shamu. She's been asking to go, too, so we promised that we'd make it happen this year. Last weekend, we made good on that promise. In fact, we bought the "two visits for the price of one" tickets (no reason not to- they cost the same as the regular admission tickets)- so we'll probably go back again in a couple of months.

Despite my grumbles about the cost and the proliferation of rides and the fact that we now know in hindsight that Petunia was getting sick, we had a great time.

We arrived before 10 a.m., and took a quick look at the dolphins in their feeding area before heading to grab some seats for the Shamu show.

Petunia didn't appreciate the ~15 minute wait for the show, but Pumpkin was thrilled with our seats at the front of the splash-free section. Pumpkin was suitably impressed by the show, which included the jumps and splashes that you'd expect.

Petunia was less impressed. She fell asleep and slept through the show, which was the start of an extended multi-part nap that covered most of the rest of the visit. She had a fever when we got home, and we wondered if we'd let her get overheated (it was a fairly warm day), but I came down with a fever Wednesday night, so now we know that she was just sick. Hopefully she'll feel better on our next visit- I think there were some things that she would have liked.

She did like the penguins. I'm not sure if that is because they are cool animals (and they are!) or because their building is kept super cool. The dark, cool enclosure also provided an excellent place to let her nurse.

(By the way, if you are visiting San Diego unencumbered, or with older kids, a fun thing to do is rent kayaks and paddle around Mission Bay. You can paddle around the back of Sea World, and see some penguins playing in the water- there is a caged off enclosure there,  which you don't see from Sea World itself. )

After cooling off with the penguins, we had a surprisingly tasty lunch at Pineapple Pete's before heading into the Sesame Street section, called the "Bay of Play". Pumpkin enjoyed the splash area, but Petunia wasn't interested. Again, I suspect she would have had fun if she'd been feeling well- although there were big splashes and big kids, so maybe not. 

Petunia was mildly amused by the Elmo show, but to be honest, I think the sight of Elmo and crew dancing and singing "Hot, Hot, Hot" amused the grown ups more. Maybe next time, when she's feeling better, Petunia will be excited to see Elmo.

Pumpkin enjoyed a ride on some spinning tea cups in the Sesame Street section, but I don't have any pictures of that since Hubby took the camera on the ride. (Spinny rides are strictly Hubby's responsibility- they make me sick.) She also really enjoyed this boat over by the sharks, which didn't go anywhere:

I had to wait outside with Petunia (who was sleeping in her stroller) while the rest of the group went in to see the sharks, so I still don't know if what that exhibit is like. Hubby tells me that the sight of sharks swimming over your head is pretty cool.

After the sharks, we headed to the tide pools that I remember from the "good old days". They are still there, and Pumpkin definitely enjoyed getting a close look at a sea star.  The narration is well done, too.

By this time, everyone was getting pretty tired, so we headed out, stopping by to say goodbye to Shamu before we left:

All in all, it was a good trip. Pumpkin certainly enjoyed it, and Petunia did OK, despite the fact that she was coming down with a fever. I think Legoland might be a slightly better destination for kids the ages of our girls (4.5 and almost 2), so we won't buy a year pass yet. For instance, neither of our girls really had the stamina to wait for another show- we'll have to see the dolphin show next time. But if I were visiting and had the time, I wouldn't hesitate to bring kids their age to Sea World. There will be enough to keep them interested, and the adults will probably have a nice time, too.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Weekend Reading: The Labor Day Edition

I'm starting my Labor Day weekend a little early, since I have been felled by some sort of illness, caught from Petunia. I'm feeling a bit bad about having sent her to day care on Monday, given how I felt yesterday (which I think is roughly the same point in the course of the illness). However, I had to go to work yesterday- it was a big all-company meeting, and I had to present my work- so I guess it all evens out.

I feel better today, but not great, so I decided to take the day off to try to rest and recuperate. Clearly it is working, since I am now sitting up and typing on my computer, instead of lying on the sofa feeling sorry for myself.

Anyway, this week, in honor of Labor Day, I have a bunch of links about work:

First up, I found myself again agreeing with David Frum, in his article about how silly it is that we make partisan politics about President's vacations. I always thought that President Bush was setting a good example by actually taking vacations, and I think the same thing about President Obama. I know that a vacation sends me back to work rejuvenated and ready to tackle the big problems... here's hoping it does the same for Presidents.

Second, the Wall Street Journal reports on a small study that shows that web-surfing breaks boost worker productivity. I don't necessarily think the task used in the study (highlighting the letter e) is very representative of most people's work, but my own qualitative observation is that a brief blog-reading break between big tasks is very helpful for clearing my mind and letting me move on with more energy. So I guess I agree with the conclusion even if I have some quibbles with the methodology.

Next, I came across this Fast Company article about how to keep employees motivated via The Milliner's twitter feed. It rings very true to me- money certainly matters, but once I'm getting paid "enough", what keeps me motivated on my job is the feeling that I'm learning and that the work I'm doing is useful.

Finally, I have two apparently contradictory articles. In the first, Steve Denning explains why Amazon can't make its Kindles in the US- and why that matters. His basic argument is that as manufacturing moves overseas, so does a lot of the valuable engineering knowledge, and that eventually the company/industry that did the outsourcing will suffer. He argues that this is a failure in management, putting short term profits ahead of long term strategy. It is an interesting (but long) series of articles. I don't really know what I think. I have watched the outsourcing craze crest and then recede in IT- there is still a lot of software development that is outsourced, but people have realized that (1) it is not always cheaper and (2) it is a lot harder to manage. I am now watching outsourcing grow in drug discovery- a lot of chemical synthesis, for instance, is outsourced to China. I am sure that this craze will crest and recede, too, but, as with the IT outsourcing craze, it creates a lot of upheaval in people's lives and leaves a lot of bitter people behind. And from where I sit, I do think that a lot of companies have started focusing a little too much on short term profits- this could well be what drove the merger-mania that has been so detrimental to the pharmaceutical companies, for instance.

But speaking of software, Steve Denning's article referenced a more upbeat opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal by Marc Andreessen (one of the creators of the early web browser, Mosaic, and now a serial entrepreneur) about how software is taking over the world. Or maybe it is only upbeat if you know how to code and/or manage software projects? Regardless, it is an interesting piece.

I don't know whether or not software is taking over the world, but I do know that it is surprisingly hard to hire good software developers right now. I know of at least four open positions. A couple require specialized domain knowledge, but a couple are pure coding positions. All have had applicants, but none that were much good (i.e., they couldn't pass the code test). That has surprised me in this economy- I would have thought there would be more good developers out there on the market.  But Andreessen notes the same thing:

"...every company I work with is absolutely starved for talent. Qualified software engineers, managers, marketers and salespeople in Silicon Valley can rack up dozens of high-paying, high-upside job offers any time they want, while national unemployment and underemployment is sky high."

So maybe I should plan on teaching my kids how to code?