Monday, March 12, 2012

Flying the Friendly Skies with Kids-and no apple sauce.

Many people think flying with kids is difficult.  I have found flying with kids is not all that bad.  In all honesty it is kind of nice.  There are a lot of perks to carting the pre-school set with you around the country.  The first one being that you get to pre-board the airplane.  You also get to bring a luggage cart (aka a stroller) with you all the way to the gate.  Mean grumpy people tend to avoid parents traveling with little kids.  When your seat mate falls asleep on your shoulder, you actually enjoy it.  You have an excuse to get up and move around the plane when most adults are sitting in their cramped seats looking for an excuse to get up.  When trying to fit everything in your luggage just remember, every traveler gets a personal item and a carryon. This means you get to bring more shoes on the trip (kids don’t need much luggage space).   Best of all, you don’t end up with a seat mate who stinks (well except when they need a diaper change).

Recently, I had the opportunity to take plane trip alone with my two perfect children.  By alone I mean without reinforcements in the form of a partner.  This is not the first time I have embarked on a solo mission.  In the past year our family has traveled by plane three or four times.   Most of those trips we have traveled as a complete family (Daddy was with us), but not every time.  Over the years I have developed many tricks for traveling with kids of varying ages.  I have made many solo trips and generally found it to be a good experience.  People are generally friendly and helpful.  My kids travel well and other passengers generally comment on how well my kids faired on the flight.  Sometimes, people even tell me they did not realize there were young such kids sitting behind them. 

This last trip was a bit different.  No, my kids did not scream and run up and down the aisle if the plane.  The flight went well; it was the security check--more specifically dealing with TSA that was a problem.  I found the screeners were put-out when I informed them my stroller would not fit in the x-ray machine.  The grunts, facial expressions and movements of the screener made it obvious.  Then, they refused to help me as I juggled two kids and a stroller.  I was requested assistance while consoling a crying one year old (who had to put her animal through the x-ray machine) and attempting to open the stroller which I had folded and placed on the x-ray belt (and now needed to unfold for the screener).  I was doing all this while watching over my other child and our belongings on the other side of security.  The TSA policy states “Ask a security officer for help gathering bags and child-related equipment, if needed.”  I guess the agents I dealt with were not aware of the policy.  In fact the agents were rather rude and snotty, guess every traveler should be sure to purchase a stroller that goes through the x-ray machine at any airport they may encounter.

Following the stroller debacle I had even more problems with the TSA screeners.  I pointed out the lunch packed for my kids and sent it through the screening process (x-ray machine) separately as they tell travelers to do.  Once we were through the metal detector and our belongings through the x-ray, I was told our two cups of apple sauce would need to be opened and tested. This apple sauce was packaged in single serving factory sealed containers no larger than 4oz.  I would think this food would be considered under the TSA rules as “necessary food” described in the TSA Traveling with Kids section of their website. The website also states “You are allowed to bring gel or liquid-filled teethers, canned, jarred, or processed baby food in your carry-on baggage and aboard your plane.” I would assume a factory sealed container should not need to be opened for screeners (since it was sealed in the factory) and opening it could compromise the safety of the food item (spoilage). Additionally, the apple sauce in question had a foil seal and therefore was not re-sealable. Many baby foods (and adult foods) now come in plastic containers with a foil seal and therefore cannot be resealed. I am sure TSA agents know this.  I know screeners have found peanut buttered pot, but they have also made it clear that is not what they are looking for when doing screenings (safety is the priority).

When I questioned the TSA agent about the need to open a factory sealed container I was told that many people have the equipment to recreate such a seal in their homes. Seriously, show me some data on this. I would like to know where I can purchase a foil sealing machine for small plastic containers of food (that also stamps code and logos). I was also told that if I wanted to keep my food in its sealed container then my children and I would need to undergo additional screening that would include a pat-down. I of course told them that there was no way they would be subjecting my children to a pat-down. At this point a supervisor interjected and told me that it would be just me subject to the pat down and all of our carry-on and personal items subject to a search. Needless to say I decided to let the agents keep my apple sauce (I hope they had a good snack). As a result my unhappy children did not have a major component of their lunch.

The TSA agents told me they do this with all baby food and all juice drinks even those in factory sealed containers. When I asked how they deal with Juice boxes (common toddler food for flights) I was told they require they be opened also. I then asked how long this policy had been effect. The TSA agent told me at least a year. Interesting, since I have made at least four trips with my children in the past twelve months (eight flights) and have never encountered this at screening. On past trips I have carried several jars of baby food, apple sauce, and juice boxes. TSA agents have never asked to open anything in a factory sealed container. They have also never given a second glance to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, pudding, or dried fruit.

I find it difficult to believe that the TSA agents conducting the screenings on all my other trips through SeaTac and other airports (including but not limited to DIA and LAX) were negligent in their duties of properly screening travelers. There needs to be some consistency and commonsense when it comes to screening travelers. It is obvious to me that the agents I dealt with were in need of some training on policy and use of commonsense.

 Don’t get me wrong, not all was bad about this flying experience.  As we were heading down the ramp to board the plane an older gentleman offered to help us out.  I decided to take his offer since I was about to fold and gate check my luggage cart (stroller)  and was unsure how I was going to carry the suitcase, diaper bag, personal item and two kids on the plane.  Turns out this gentleman was also our row-mate.  He was great and happily put up with me and my two kids for two and a half hours.  People like our row-mate make flying the “friendly skies” with kids a pleasure.  Thank you to all the strangers who offer parents help at the airport.  You are appreciated more than you will ever know. 

A little update
I made a formal complaint to TSA and received a response from the TSA Customer Service Manager at the airport in question.  Unfortunately, she only addressed the problem of the lack of customer service (rudeness) of the agents and did not mention the food policy.  I have once again written to the Customer Service Manager asking her to also address the policy on baby/children’s food.  I will keep you posted.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Tomato Test--More Beyond the Bed

This year I plan to try something new with our tomato crop.  I am going to create an upside-down hanging tomato garden.  Mostly I am going to do this because I always forget to stake the tomatoes in time.  We lose a good amount of the harvest to the fact that it is lying on the ground.  Also, I figure this will free up more of our limited sunny garden space for other crops.  Now I just need to convince my husband to attach plant hangars to the south side of the house.

From what I have read there are mixed thoughts on this idea.  Some say you get a better harvest others say your yield is less.  It seems that the smaller tomato varieties do best in this arrangement.  That works for me since smaller tomato varieties do better in the Pacific Northwest anyway.

Below are the steps for what I hope will be a great hanging tomato harvest:
1.      Start with a “hanging planter.”   Almost anything will do, old utility buckets or fancy hanging baskets.  You will need to make a 2-3” diameter hole in the bottom of whatever you choose. I plan to use one of those wire hanging baskets with a fiber liner.
2.      Make your hole in the center of the bottom of the basket (or a as close to center as you can get).
3.      With your bucket/basket right side up place some anchoring material (sphagnum moss, newspaper landscape fabric, etc.) around the hole. 
4.      Then find a friend to hold your bucket/basket (or hang it) and feed your tomato plant, pointing down, through the anchoring material and hole.  Now you should have a basket with a root ball in the bowl and the stem poking through the bottom.
5.      Fill the pot with good potting soil.  Cover with mulch or something to help keep the soil from drying out too quickly.

*Extra credit*
If you want to go a step further you can plant herbs such as marjoram, oregano or parsley on the top portion of your basket.  According to my sources, these herbs should not interfere with or steal nutrients from your tomatoes (it has to do with the configuration of the plantings-I am not going to get into it here) as long as you give everything enough water and start with good soil. 

I will post some pictures once I get my upside-down planter going.  It is too early in the season to start this…though I could get the planter ready.

Trashcan Potatoes--beyond the bed gardening

For the past month or so I have been doing a lot of research on outside the box edible gardening methods.  After speaking to a few local gardening professionals and doing a little reading I have found a few techniques I plan to implement this year, and several to try in the coming years.  One of those techniques is growing potatoes in a garbage can. 

There are several reasons I am convinced this method is worth a try.  Christy Scerra of Serenity Garden Design in Tacoma explained how this was both a great method for the space compromised and families with children.  She suggested when it is time to harvest you just dump the can on a tarp and let the kids dig through the soil to find the potatoes.  Sounds like fun to me.  Then, I was speaking to the guys at GardenSphere in Tacoma and they further sold me on the idea.  Since you can’t plant potatoes in same place each year (disease and other issues) this is a shortcut method of crop rotation.  Another plus is the trashcan is portable (and heavy), as the summer sun moves so can your crop.  After several years of growing potatoes in our sun challenged garden we are running out of potato growing spots.

Below are directions I have compiled for growing potatoes in a trashcan.  I have combined my knowledge and tips with those of others to create what I think are a useful set of instructions for the novice:

1.       Seeds-Start with seed potatoes purchased at your local nursery or garden store (grocery store potatoes can carry disease).  Cut the potatoes into quarters, with two to three eyes each.  Let the quarters dry for at least 24 hours (I would let it dry for a few days in our damp climate).  This will help prevent rot; a rotten seed is not going to result in any fruit.  Honestly, you don’t need more than a few seed potatoes.  I suggest you plant 4-6 seeds (potato chunks), that’s 1-2 potatoes cut up.  More than that and your can will be overcrowded.
2.      The can-while your seeds are drying go find a 32 gallon trashcan. New or used it does not matter.  Dark colors are a great choice since they will provide extra heat for germination.  Drill or punch a few holes in the bottom of the can (you can even put some on the sides near the bottom).  You want to make sure you have good drainage, potatoes don’t swim.
3.      Soil-Fill the can with about ten inches of good soil to start.  On or after St Patrick’s Day plant the seed about four inches deep (Pacific Northwest timing).  If you prefer, you can fill with 6 inches of rock then four inches of soil  (some prefer this method to enhance drainage, but you will be picking rock out of your soil when you harvest).   
4.      Good Growing-When your potato plants are about six inches tall add another layer of soil (compost, potting mix, whatever) around the plant.  About a third of the plant (the leaves) should still be visible.  This is known as the hill method, hilling, or mounding.  You will do this several times over the summer.  You may even fill your can.
5.      Harvest timing-You have two options here
a.       For immediate consumption-Your yummy home grown potatoes are ready to harvest after the plants have flowered.  Go ahead and carefully grab a few of the ones near the top of the can to enjoy now.
b.      For storage and later use-If you want to store your potatoes for later use then you will need to wait for all the foliage to die back.  If life gets busy don’t fret you can leave them in the soil/can for a few weeks as long as the soil is not wet.  Just make sure you harvest before the first frost
6.      The Fun Harvest- When you are ready to harvest your potatoes grab a tarp and spread it out on your lawn, patio, porch etc. Call the kids and get ready for some fun.  Tip or dump your trashcan out on the tarp and let the kids have a treasure hunt looking for all the potatoes.  Remind the kids that you started with just a few pieces and have them estimate your yield. 
7.      Clean-up- Now you will need to clean up that mess you made harvesting the potatoes.  Collect the soil and add it to your garden or compost bin.  Simple enough?  Just don’t put the soil in any beds or containers you plan to use for tomatoes, peppers or eggplants next year because the soil likely harbors some insects or disease from this season's crop.  If you decided to line the bottom of your trashcan with rock (I told you it was not a good idea) you will want to remove as much rock as you can before spreading the soil in your garden.
8.      Final Step- Put your empty garbage can away for next year. Then Eat and enjoy your harvest!

Tips and Hints
·         Be sure to water your potatoes.  They like moist well drained soil.
·         Once harvested store your potatoes in a cool dark place.
·         Don’t put the lid on your trashcan during the growing season.  The plants need light.
·         If you plan to share this experience with children you may want to avoid the blue potatoes.  Kids don’t think they are as neat and appetizing as we do. I learned the hard way.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Tech Generation

“I am not as young as I look, in fact I am a lot closer to 40 then I care to admit,” I recently said, while realizing I was beginning to sound like my mother. This was in the midst of a discussion with my mom’s group about how technological advances are impacting the lives of our children.  Over the course of this discussion I realized there is a wide range of views on this subject.

The average American child receives their first cell phone at 11.6 years old.  Of 12 to 17 year olds, 75% now own a cell phone.  I find this shocking.  I have always said my kids will not have cell phones until they have a driver’s license and are holding down a job.  Owning a cell phone is not just an expensive proposition, but a responsibility. With so many kids now having cell phones, I wonder if I will be holding my kids back by denying them this technology. 

Discussions in regard to technology and our children leave me with a lot of questions and concerns that go beyond cell phone ownership.  My worries range from the practical to the philosophical.  I am not sure I can keep up with all the changes and expense. I am not even sure it is worth it to try.  I am concerned about the loss of life skills due to the influence of technology.  Making friends, writing and grammar, problem solving, and cognitive thought are all life skills I feel are vital for children to learn.

One important life skill that seems to be on the decline is the art of making friends.  I hope my kids understand the difference between a true friend and an acquaintance.  Having 300+ “friends” on Facebook does not mean you have 300 real friends. A true friend is one who gives you a hug when you need it, can pick you up when you are down, lends you a glove at a bus stop when you are both freezing.  They are not just a person you shared a laugh with in passing and may never see again. 

I fear that children are failing to develop good interpersonal communication skills together with proficient writing and grammar.  It seems that texting shorthand may become the norm for the written word.  I may be old fashioned on this one, but I don’t feel texting shorthand should be used in school work or professional communication.   Writing is an art and every child should have the opportunity to practice it.  Maybe this is a generational thing (I fear what I don’t understand).   

Children are increasingly dependent on technology for entertainment and finding their way.  We rely on navigation systems to get to places in our own community.  I feel it is important to teach our children to read a map and learn how to get around their community.  The idea that we need a battery powered object to find our way home frightens me.  I have had conversations with several friends/acquaintances where they have told me they got lost because their GPS gave them incorrect directions, or the battery died.  If only they had a good old map, or even better, knew how to get around their neighborhood. The same goes for the constant need to be “plugged-in” and entertained with gadgets like personal DVD Players, gaming systems, and smart phones.   Kids can spend an hour without digital entertainment.  I heard a rumor that children are not going to be required to learn basic math in school any more since they now have calculators at their fingertips.  A similar discussion was presented about cursive and penmanship no longer necessary because of digital media.  These are skills I am not ready to throw out the window.

I plan to stand my ground and not let technology interfere with my family life.  No cell phone.  I’ll put that money in the college fund and my kids will have few more years of a carefree life where they don’t need to lug a bunch of stuff around everywhere they go.  I hope not being constantly “plugged-in” does not hold my children back.  I may change my tune in a few years, but I promise we will not be the family in the campsite next to yours playing video games and watching movies all night. Your kids will have a phone just in case mine need to call home, right? 

Monday, January 30, 2012

A different kind of Christmas story

OK I wrote  this two months ago, but had to wait on posting it (I had submitted it for a contest).
I know it is not so timely, but I think it is still a great thought provoker. 


A few weeks ago my son said to me “You know what Mommy; I have decided Santa Claus is a real person and elves are real also.”  This brief statement by my five year old made my heart skip a beat.  I was speechless.  Though this proclamation was a shock to me, it did put one of my great parenting fears to rest.  The fear that my son would be the one to out Santa to his peers.  As a result our family would forever be labeled “the ones who ruined Christmas.”

I am a Jewish mother raising a family in a not so Jewish part of the world.  I have explained (to my son) our religious beliefs and those of others to the best of my ability.  I have made a point to expose my son to a variety of beliefs and customs.   I have emphasized the importance of respect for others and their beliefs.  I have also stressed the importance of values such as honesty. I expect my son to be honest with me and in return I plan to be honest with him.  When he asks a question I give him an honest answer (at his comprehension level) regardless of the topic.

A few weeks before my son made his proclamation, we had a conversation about factual and make-believe stories.   This conversation was in support of the real verses imaginary dialogue happening at school.  Santa Claus was one of the examples that came up.  We agreed that this was a topic for his friends to talk about with their own parents. That even though we do not believe in Santa or celebrate Christmas, it is something many of his friends do and he is not to tell them they are wrong.  We decided his friends should be allowed to believe in Santa Claus as long as their parents feel it is appropriate.

I thought I was being proactive, but I now have a parenting dilemma I do not know how to deal with.  No, it is not how to avoid disappointment when no gifts appear on the 25th.  My son tells me he understands we are Jewish and do not celebrate Christmas, but I know he secretly hopes some extra gifts from an anonymous source will appear.  The dilemma is much greater; it is a question of fostering trust.  My son’s new found belief in the jolly fellow is a result of a class project and discussion.  My son trusts his teachers, who inadvertently, while trying to play along with the family rituals and traditions observed by the majority of his class convinced my son that Santa and his elves really do exist.  I have spoken with my son’s teacher about this and I know she was not intentionally trying to convince the Jewish kid there is a Santa Clause, but kids are impressionable.  In the mind of a five year old, if your teachers tell you they believe in something then it must be true.  

I think it is important that he has a trusting rapport with his teachers. As a parent I am now faced with a difficult decision.  Do I try to set my son straight? If I try to convince him there is no such thing as Santa I may degrade his respect and trust for his teachers.  As I stated earlier, I think it is important that my son trust and respect his teachers.  I have decided not to argue the point about the existence of Santa Claus with my son.  He will have to come to this conclusion in his own time. Instead I plan to prepare my son for the big letdown. I will try to be sensitive to the trust issues that may have developed.  Jolly Old St Nick will not visit our house this holiday season.  I hope my son will understand that our family traditions are just as wonderful as those of his friends.  I also hope that he will continue to look-up-to and trust his teachers.  Maybe this will even be an opportunity for him to learn that he can question authority and he does not need to believe everything he hears.