young city life

I read this article in the Globe the other day, written seemingly on a lark, by a woman who brought her two little boys back the South End (Boston’s Brooklyn, replete with brownstones tugged from the hands of artists who were there first) for a weekend, “to see what it was like living in the city.”

It annoyed me that it was implied that living in the city for a weekend was in any way close to actually living in the city. Like if I went to Spain for a weekend, I could then write about how crazy it is to have kids in Spain.

But to my surprise, even in that short amount of time, she quickly experienced and noted the tough stuff about city life with young children. By the end of it, I didn’t feel that it was a romantic article. In fact, it was the good stuff about city life that didn’t get fair play.

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Tough stuff: 1/ You are conscious of your close neighbors whenever your children behave like children, and are noisy—crying, stomping, jumping, dancing. You worry that they hate the noise and aren’t complaining out of cringing kindness. 2/ You experience meltdowns in public places regularly because you started the two mile walk back home just a little bit too close to nap time.  3/ You spend less time dwelling at home because home is actually pretty small. 4/ If you use your car, you often can’t find parking close to your apartment, and therefore add 10-15 minutes of walking to your trip home.

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Anything written about this, at my stage of life, must be caveated by the fact that having young children in the city is deemed the toughest. Asking your three-year-old to walk six blocks at the end of the day because you couldn’t find parking and didn’t bring your stroller on the car-adventure, yes, that’s tough. Living on the fifth floor and having the elevator break for most of the summer, yes, it slows you down on your way in and out, particularly when the one-year-old likes to climb stairs on her own. Hopping on the T is complicated by the presence of a stroller and a snack-loaded bag, no matter how small the bag and how slim the stroller. Rest assured the T car will be dead silent when one of yours throws a screaming tantrum, as well. The fact that your children can never wander outside on their own, with you simply watching from the window is tough and feels restraining, even unfair (to them) at times.

Having a nine year old, on the other hand, who is allowed to run to the corner market to pick up milk, who can walk side-by-side with you on the way to class before you go to work, who can name five friends who live within walking distance, and knows which train line to take the the museum, that is nice.

So I can see the future and the future is promising.

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But back to the present: here are just a few things I like, limited to four lest I drone on.

1/ Every walk turns into an ad hoc lecture and discussion as we encounter new signs, businesses, cars, people, or destinations. Almost as if the city coaches me into talking to and engaging with my child. It’s probably just Boston traffic talking, but I never have these type of discussions when we’re in the car.

2/ I get excited about visiting new places. New coffee shops, bakeries, markets, parks, these things get me out of the house. They are probably the primary reason I live in the city at all. Your children have a calibrated barometer on your mood and know very well the things that please you. It makes me happy to know that Lux knows I’m excited about what we are doing, and that she gets excited too.

3/ You learn that the “tough stuff” is actually not that bad. It doesn’t matter how many people see your child freak out. It’s not really that big of a deal if you go out to eat and it goes terribly. It’s actually pretty fun to get stuck on a long walk in the rain, even if the baby does cry the whole way. In the end, you always end up home, and you always begin again the next day.

4/ Hyper-awareness of strangers. I like that the girls see so many strangers every day, they get very good and clear about whether they want to interact with them. If they aren’t feeling it, it’s obvious (here I’m remembering Lux dropping everything and sprinting towards me when she didn’t like an older lady that had started talking to her) and I don’t have to worry about them wandering into something. Conversely, I like that no one is really surprising to them. They see people from all over the world smiling at them every day (even if they choose not to smile back!).

What do you like about where you live? What’s tough? I’d love to hear.

 

 

Two girls to a room

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I get a kick out of the girls sharing a room. We moved Joan into Lux’s room when she was 8 months old, I wrote a little bit about that here. Even when they are keeping each other up at night, even when one of them wakes the other up pre-maturely in the morning. Sometimes the night ends with both of them grousing in their beds, egging each other on, louder and louder. I like it. Remember in grade school, what was the great uniting power ? A common enemy. Nothing to build sisterhood among two humans of disparate age and interest like grousing about the same thing.

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There’s power waiting to be taken in having a small space. Anyone can do it. You begin to take joy in every bag of things you decide to give away or throw away. The good stuff shines through. The girls have a small cabinet of additional toys, but their chief choice items, the ones they point at and ask for, are on this shelf. Having this stuff be out of their reach is as un-Montessori as you can get. Maria would shiver at the sight. I wish it wasn’t the case, but I also find that the act of requesting something causes them to value it a little bit more.

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Note above my system for the girls’ clothes, on the top shelves. It’s one tub to every six months, with an extra tub for shoes and winter gear. Be sure to label them, and give yourself a month or two after they grow out of things before you pack them away. The time helps you truly evaluate the stuff and what kind of shape it is in.

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Of the things on the wall, the maps get the most attention. Though when Lux was younger, she adored that Rifle Paper Co. alphabet poster (I just checked to see if it is still available, it’s not, but my goodness does Anna Bond have some good ones these days!). My older brother, who works in South Sudan, visited recently and pointed out that we need a map of Africa. He’s right! Both of our current maps came from Joe hounding etsy for vintage school room maps (they are not cheap. they are so worth it.) The New Yorker cover is a recent resurrection of a Saul Steinberg drawing combining several of Lux’s favorite things: skeletons, ballerinas, and mice. We are happy to change things out as the girls have new interests. Joe often places nice wrapping paper behind a print as an easy and cheap mat job, and we frequently use Ikea frames.

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I’m happy to have these photos to document this tiny phase in my family’s life! I’m sure the place will transform in the next year, perhaps even in the next six months. The room I shared with my sister as a kid is so etched into my visual memory, I treasure those images. I want to remember Lux looking out her window for the moon each night, I want to remember finding Joan with a pile of toys in her crib in the morning, donated by her benevolent sister, I want to remember Lux telling me that bunny lives in Mexico and her hunting for all the “x” letters on the map, I want to remember their matching cribs and orange-striped sheets and how content they were with them.

 

How it’s going with the help

An update on how it’s going, since I began hiring a babysitter for three hours a week. It sounds so minor as I type that. Seriously, three. hours. But as you might have read, it was a process to even get there. I found (using a one month subscription to sitter city), hired, and had a great girl for about six weeks, and then she had to quit for another job with more hours. As one often does. However she found a replacement for herself, one who is just as sweet natured and kind and they transitioned so smoothly that we barely hiccuped. Both of them are former music majors, devoted musicians, and they have the sweetest spirits.

After I remind Lux on Tuesday mornings about what’s coming up, she looks forward to the afternoon with the babysitter and is always pleased when she arrives. Joan is never pleased but supposedly she does not cry for longer than five minutes, though she absolutely screams when I leave. That would have ended the whole deal with the first child, but with the second there is a sense that all with be well. Plus there is that glow of reminisce and affection with which the three of us greet each other when I return.

Very quickly I realized it was just as some of you predicted to me: the babysitter formed her own relationship with the girls. Certainly she is polite to me, but it’s clear she is here to see the girls. I am the facilitator of the relationship, but part of it is about me not being there. And that’s nice.

It did take me a few times to learn that I should not do morning trips with the girls on the day that we have the sitter. A couple of times we arrived home at the same time the sitter arrived. You can imagine—frazzled mom dashes out the door to get her hours, goodbye to abruptly-abandoned children just taking off their shoes. Not good. Far better to have a relaxed morning at home, and then Joan still deep in her nap when Hannah arrives, and Lux coming out of quiet time to have one-on-one attention with this young lady.

The babysitters have proved to me that they can totally handle getting the girls outside for trips to the park (this, even when our elevator was broken for all of August and we live on the 5th floor). And this, even despite the fact that I didn’t thoroughly brief her on the stroller’s peculiar buttons and it collapsed on her when she was simply trying to extend the handlebar. Nice one, Rachael.

And for me! It’s been really, really nice. I have a ban on doing errands during that time. I go straight to a little private library up the street from us (the athenaeum for you locals, the best annual membership you’ll ever do) which has one floor of dead silence and big sunny windows. Actually, I first go directly to a coffee shop and order something, anything really, to boot up my writing spirits, and then I go to the library. I tip-tap furiously in the silent room for two hours (given walking time back and forth, it’s about that) and then head home. I arrive at 5pm, having hopefully prepped dinner in some way earlier in the day, and settle on the floor with the girls, relaxed and reminded how cuddly and curious they are. The day is almost over and we can enjoy the fact that Joe is to arrive in just an hour and half or so.

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I also experimented with early morning care this summer. I signed Lux up for two weeks of “summer camp” which began at 8:30am and let out around noon. It was not that relaxing. Getting her dressed and out the door was such a stress on my morning. Joan still took a morning nap at that point, so I did get two uninterrupted hours, in addition to quiet time later that day. But, as those of you who do this regularly know, they are still on your mind that entire time (I mean, obviously right? Should have seen that coming). Did I put enough sunscreen on? Did she get enough sleep last night? Were those shoes comfortable? Did that girl next to her have a hacking cough? And on and on. One time I called in to say Lux wasn’t up to coming in that day and was asked “Oh does she have hand foot and mouth?” Um no, is that going around? “Yes.” Oh great.

Then I would get her home, and she’s worn out from all the socialization, the going-with-the-flowing that one does when traveling in groups, and she was totally tuckered. Again, another obvious thing, but not something I had factored into the rest of our day. It was like she just got home from work and didn’t know how to decompress. Out of nowhere she would say stuff like “I don’t like her” about Joan, something she had never said in her life. Or like, start kicking her. I felt out of control with the forces that were influencing her. I was also surprised to find that the things she was doing at school were the same as at home: play with toys and books, have a snack, play outside, have lunch, make a craft, get glitter glue everywhere. It’s not rocket science after all. I guess I was caught off guard by that realization but I was also buoyed by it: we do those things too! This is a regular preschool right here, albeit a disorganized and unreliable one that is fresh out of unbroken crayons.

MY GOODNESS I am not typing all this out to make those of you who have something that is working for you begin to doubt it. Please NO. Just a follow up to that drama and a reflection for myself, the grass is greener over at that preschool, they are still the loves of your life and worm their way into every spare tunnel in your head no matter where they are physically, and so on.

To sum: working with a limited budget, I learned that having a sitter who could come to my house and play with both girls and develop a relationship with them together, and come over even when they were sick, is the best fit for my situation. And I learned that three hours a week, though tiny, has a quite an effect.

to commenters: I apologize that comments were broken for a couple weeks! I did SEE your comments, but they did not appear here. All is well again and we are back up and running with Disqus. Thanks for your patience.

Loved: pipsticks

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Pipsticks, a subscription for sticker lovers, was begun by a graphic designer who hunted for great stickers for her children and fell down her very own rabbit hole of an idea. She started a company sourcing cool stickers, packing them up, and sending out them to the delight of children everywhere.

I took an instant liking to this little project, besides the mom-invented part which is super, because the packaging is so cheerful and fun.

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One envelope lasted us several weeks as we parceled out “two sheets” at a time for ferry rides, special treats with babysitters, and quiet time activities. Included in each envelope are a few sheets of paper and a postcard to decorate, an easy addition that is just right for those of us who fling distractions in our bags as we walk out the door and hope for the best.
The price runs between $13-15 a month, with at least 15 sheets of stickers included every time. For you bargain-hunting-whizzes, I know this is not a total steal. But for a mom who wishes she had stickers on hand much more often and who can never remember which store nearby even sells stickers, (me, me) it’s perfect. 
I think it would make a fantastic gift to request from loved ones because 1/ Ultimately it adds nothing to the toy pile. 2/ Lux asked over and over “WHO sent us these wonderful stickers??” Such a fun thing to get in the mail regularly and say they came from Grandma and Grandpa or an old friend.
If you try Pipsticks, and you sign up for a Club or Family membership, enter the code DEAR at checkout and get your first month free. Win.

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Pipsticks sent me two free months of stickers to see if I liked the service, posting about them was my own decision. Hooray.

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My friends, it was a wonderful summer in the city. It’s not just my projection: weatherfolks back me up to say that it was one of the most pleasant summers in a long time. With no pool membership to our name, I didn’t regret one day that hovered around 70 with a breeze. Loved each and every one.

There was still a heatwave the week of the girls’ birthdays, that second week of July. It appears to be an annual furnace week in Boston, no matter what the year. Forged in the fire of hot bricks and slate roofs, these girls.

I won’t tell you the mornings were quiet with the sound of birds chirping and rainbows percolating, no. Summer is high construction season in our neighborhood, these old stately homes being updated to all manner of modernity. I see the friendly contractors, bashful about their dust and clamoring, more than I see my own neighbors. Mornings began abruptly at 8am with the bang of jackhammers and the slam of dump trucks. And planes flying overhead whenever Logan needed to re-route, determined by an algorithm I don’t understand. But one day I will corner the right person on an airplane and she can explain it to me.

(note there I said SHE can explain it to me. As a mom of girls, I’m really working on my projected personal pronouns. All our stuffed animals have turned out to be male and I’m sick of it.)

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Every now and then we’d peek out at a huge moon, or hear fireworks in the distance, or find the pink sunset sky too irresistible, and climb up to the roof to watch. From there we can see one of our friend’s patios. They have a huge framed rooftop patio, chock-a-block with boxes of plants. My friend says it took a long time for them to have a baby, a long time to eventually find a surrogate mother to carry their baby, and while she waited and waited for something to care for, she nourished these plants. Now their little boy has a babysitter while she is at work, and the babysitter is very good at watering the plants. All this to say that everything worked out in the end, and they ended up with a rooftop full of greenery to remember it all.

Once, we went over to this lush rooftop for dinner outside, with three other young children besides our own. All five children fought almost constantly, loud screaming wrestling battles with shoves and pulled hair. But the adults serenely drank glass after glass of wine, didn’t hover or apologize, did shifts to eat all of their dinner, and shrugged over the barbaric toddlers from the Empire of Shelfishdom. It was nice.

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So many days ended with cool nights. All six of our windows on the left side of the apartment wide open, bedroom doors propped open, and wind blowing through. I am a certified insomniac of the mothering variety. Blame it on the wine, blame it on the midnight midsleep screech of Joan, owl-like and over even as I wake. I am startled and alert at odd hours. But I find the temperature has dropped even a few more glorious degrees and the wind is gusting from one side of the apartment out the other. Sometimes our pinned-up art has blown off the walls and onto the floor in the gusts. It’s dark but I can see everything by the lights of the city and I walk through quietly to poke around for a minute.

Plenty of stops for ice cream with sprinkles. Plenty of extra iced coffees when the day turned long. Still, flies-buzzing grouchy mornings followed by splashy baths in the tub to rinse hot-headed babes. Lux likes the water cold cold cold and I admire that.

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I didn’t really expect Joan to start riding the carousel this summer. I don’t think we put Lux on it so young. Maybe we did? Without fail, Joan’s glee would attract the attention of bystanders, who would nonetheless look suspicious when I had to pin her screaming flailing child-tortured body to me after the ride ended. It was always worth it for that three minutes of joy.

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We didn’t visit any museums and didn’t miss them. October can have them. Their long tiled hallways will seem to be fresh all-new territory. However the library received as many visits as ever. Lux is at this glorious, perfect moment where you can show her “the shelf about skeletons” and she’ll pull down every book and look through each one. Just as she hit this moment, Joan turned menace, sweet noisy menace, taking plastic animals from the children’s section and stuffing them into fiction shelves in the adult section, dumping whole carousels of books in the young adult sci-fi, screaming when I pull her away from the stacks of DVDs.

This summer we saw our first magician. He was billed as a pirate show on the flyer, but he showed up at our playground as a magician. Oh was I? He said to me. Well that’s my mistake. This show is more appropriate for this age group anyway. He warmed up slowly, with too many “this is how your parents look” jokes for two-year-olds who have young, hip parents. But anyway Lux was enthralled and after a few faux tricks that ended in kiddo titters, eventually he pulled out plastic flowers and a real live rabbit. They learned abracadabra and bippity boppity boo and chanted it back to him after every trick.

Ballet in the Garden

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I can’t resist posting some of the photos from when the Boston Ballet recreated a photo from the 1970s. Certainly it was a publicity vie for their upcoming Swan Lake, but I will gladly take any and all marketing of this type! They stripped one boat of the benches and had one of the captains (the swan boats are pedaled, by foot, around the pond) slowly loop the pond twice. There were many people intentionally there to see it, but there were just as many who wandered and stopped in their tracks. Thankfully for the short people among us, it was not crowded at all.

In a rare moment of veteran-savvy-mom, I had no expectations, told Lux almost nothing about it ahead of time, and got there a few minutes early.

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The white tutus against the green drapey trees, the quiet motor-less touring of the boat, the lack of signs, chitchat, and branding and the fact that it was free and open for all–MAGICAL.

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Making Friends

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Making friends with other new moms is very important to a life well lived with children. It gets easier to meet fellow soldiers as your kids age, which is unfair because you need new mom friends the most in the first year. The months before the baby can interact and respond to you can be isolating, thus you need backup. 

It’s also REALLY nice to have friends with babies at the exact same age, as everything changes in three week increments with infants. If you are very fortunate, you might meet people before you have the baby, and then you can exchange kind, commiserate emails at the hospital and desperate texts re: diaper cream brand and pesky doctor appointments.
However, I think it is hard to meet people ahead of time because you’re distracted in that certain pregnancy-distracted way. Or at least I was.

Here are my steps to building your new tribe of friends, follow them to the letter:

1/ Identify baby-hangout spots in the area a sidewalk everyone walks with strollers in the morning, parks with baby swings, libraries with song circles, a pool with infant swimming lessons, churches with nurseries during the service, coffee shops….It’s not well publicized but all “baby activity classes” actually just exist for parents to meet each other. But just attending the event isn’t enough, you also have to…..

2/ Be more outgoing than you’ve ever been before Size up anyone with babies around the same age, and sit down next to them. Stop by their blanket in the park and laugh that you both seem to be on the same schedule, geez  I wonder why… Turn around in line and begin to chat up the fatigued caffeine-seeking compadre. Pick from any number of the million current similarities in your life and strike up a conversation. Don’t be afraid to act interested and eager because you are. People like interested and eager friends, so this is a handy attribute you can already claim.

3/ PROCURE CELL PHONE NUMBER FROM THE CONTACT 
The most important step! Never walk away from a pleasant exchange with a new mom without a way to contact her. You could easily not run into them again for several weeks and you’ve already established that they are: 1/ breathing 2/have a baby 3/speak the same language as you. Text them on the spot with your name and your baby’s name.
Do it like so:
 “Hey, let me grab your number so I can text you next time I’m headed this way.”
“Let’s trade numbers just in case we want to walk and get coffee sometime?”
“Hey, what’s your email, I’ll just email you right now so we have it.”

In some ways email is better than a cell phone number because it’s a little easier to stay organized on email, and write each other notes. If you ask for an email, you usually end up getting your new friend’s full name too, which is convenient.
If you want to casually mention I’m @______ on Instagram, well, all the better in my opinion. But I’m a big fan of social media, and I totally get it if you want to keep your child off the internet, as they say.

Last tip, then go get ‘em!
If you meet a mom from your area who is a little bit ahead of you, baby’s age-wise, ask her what her favorite class or activity is in the area, and ask her if there is a local mom’s email or listserv group to join.

drawing of me and the girls by Joe

My daily tote

I bring you: my daily diaper bag! It has been this, with very little variation, for forever. I don’t carry a purse in addition to this…I guess I am a minimalist. I don’t plan for contingencies or emergencies. If they happen, I rely on the goodness of God and strangers or MacGyvering things.

For better or worse, I don’t carry lipgloss or perfume…though I sometimes aspire to be that kind of woman. Before Joan, this would have included reading material; I think it will again once she can walk on her own…pretty please.

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Diapers & wipes: two dipes for Joan, one for Lux.

Changing pad: I zipped this off of the Skip Hop pronto (best gift for new moms, by the way) back when Lux was young. Haven’t looked back.

Chocolate Date Coconut larabar: both Lux and I will accept and be satiated by this delicious creation in any circumstance.

Apple: now accepted by all three of us as a nice snack. Easily shared.

Bubbles, silly putty, crayons, rings: Entertainment for constrictive spaces like restaurant tables, or stalling at the park for awhile.

Lunchskin: dishwasher safe and reusable! Usually packed with nuts, dried fruit, and crackers.

Hats: late winter-spring weather fluctuates so much! Hats can fix almost any Mom-miscalculation. These will soon be replaced by sunscreen and sun hats.

Baby Baggu: such a great brand. Love them.

Two So Far

Simply on a street-and-bystander level, I like the respect that comes from having two kids. The unsolicited advice seems to have vaporized. No more “oh just wait until you have two/she’s older/she’s starts walking” etc etc. The sight of me coming down the street with the girls seems to garner some awe. Perhaps a fleeting moment of pity. A few “My, you really have your hands full.” Not exactly compliments, but there is a little music to them.

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Almost every month we drop a bag of stuff at Goodwill, but for the first time recently, a couple of the things that went were things I really liked. That’s a good sign. It’s bad if you’re purging junk–how did it get into your home the first place? But if you getting rid of things you like because they’ve come to the end of a good life, been rendered irrelevant or replaced with a better fit (like our kitchen table), then things are really getting shipshape.

But I did cringe to see go the table we found as newlyweds at the Cambridge Antique Market. We bought it from a dealer who meticulously wrote full paragraphs on the tags he attached to each item. Before we purchased the table we spent twenty minutes just reading the mini histories he had recorded. Each side of the table folded down completely. That was great for our old apartment where dinner parties began with drinks on “the sideboard” and then we sat down to dinner at the now-table.

But the flip side is that we have a new table that fits our small kitchen and the four of us just right.

This brings me to another perk of two: cleaning my house. I’ve realized I cannot not clean my apartment just because I have a child under foot. Because they’re never not under foot. I’m allowed to say, “I can’t read Curious George right now, I’m cleaning.” I’m allowed to expect Lux to entertain herself that long. I’m allowed to shrug my shoulders at her bored-face and let her find her own fun.

After a few real miscalculations, I’ve banned errands that implicitly value my time below minimum wage. A 40-minute trip to a consignment shop for a chance at $8 in store credit? No thank you. When I get a gift for the girls in the mail, I send a text message or email to say thank you right away, and leave it at that. The gracious days of a written note have slipped away, at least for a while.

I’ve started answering the phone again. If I don’t pick up now, my wary thinking goes, I might have to listen to a voicemail later. So I pick up.

I see that I’m becoming manically efficient. With Lux, I was always doing these small trips to the grocery store, lugging one overpacked bag back with me on the stroller. I go to the store once a week. I spend enough to initiate free delivery. I’ve finally started planning more than one dinner in advance. Finally started my dinner journal that I’ve been meaning to do for a year or two. Finally typed up a list of my typical grocery list, with space for additions and printed it off.

I don’t say this to boast. Just puttering over the things here and there that seem to have gotten easier, and almost in awe of the things that are falling into place.

 

Petting Zoo

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Pending a post about how guilty I feel whenever Lux looks at my phone for more than 5 minutes (wow, that sounds like a fun post!), I still have to highlight this delightful app I just bought. I sat next to her yesterday while she poked at it for eight minutes (Or was it nine Less than 10, I swear) and it was really fun. I would laugh, she would laugh.

Petting Zoo is simple animal illustrations with cheerful music (mostly trombone honking). Each drawing responds in a completely unexpected way and flows into the next one so imaginatively.

It was created by Christoph Niemann who illustrates the financial column for the New Yorker and did the cute nuts.com packaging you might have already noticed on grocery shelves.

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I think I would play with this if I had a short commute on the T, just to keep my mind relaxed. Petting Zoo is $2 on itunes. We used it on an iPhone, it’s probably double the fun on an iPad.