Come Fly with Me . . . and my rug rats.

Author’s Note: I am posting this blog on the eve of driving with our three children 1100 miles to Texas. Today we did a trial run of a three-hour round trip, and that was just to board the dog. A lesson quickly learned — buy Dramamine for everyone! Unlike last year, this time my husband is home to help me pack and make the trek to the Lone Star State. That being said, it is a little shy of midnight, and we have just finished packing! My conclusion is, whether you fly or drive with kids, packing is a b*tch, probably harder than the actual travel part. At least in a car one is not limited by airline restrictions, but the packing part is still brutal. This blog is specific to airline travel; perhaps I will have some car travel tips later on if we survive this road trip!

As the holiday freight train roars ahead to Christmas Day, many of us prepare to travel through the air to celebrate with our loved ones. Last year I faced the daunting task of flying from Florida to Texas, with three small children, alone. Alone, as in, I am outnumbered three-to-one. From my experience I have some ideas to increase your chances of arriving at your destination with your sanity intact and all members of your family present and accounted for.

Travel tip #1: Do not wait until the last minute to pack. And by last minute, I mean the day before your trip. If you have multiple small children, there are all sorts of considerations, such as clothing needs, personal hygiene items, baby utensils, diapers and wipes, to name a few. Not to mention a travel crib, bedding, a Boppy pillow and anything else you use on a daily basis. I heeded this advice, and my bedroom became a staging area for our trip for a few weeks’ time. I’m not kidding when I say that packing for my holiday trip was the most stressful part. Despite my best efforts to organize ahead of time, the clock struck midnight on the eve of our journey, and I realized I hadn’t even packed a suitcase for myself yet.

Travel tip #2: Pack your diaper bag strategically. You might even need two diaper bags if traveling with a baby or several small children, and most airlines will not count the diaper bag toward your carry-on quota. Of course, you have only two arms, so packing lightly for the plane is preferred. I like to clean out my diaper bag before traveling, getting rid of the used tissues, half-eaten granola bars and random toys that snuck their way in. By now we know to pack a spare outfit (or two) for a baby or young child in case of a diaper blowout or potty mishap, but a prepared mom should also pack an extra outfit for herself.

I learned this lesson the hard way after my then baby girl decided to regurgitate the gallons of milk she had been drinking on me several times as I sat next to a prim businessman. I truly felt like Greg Focker when I rolled into SeaTac. My freshly blow-dried hair, made-up face and crisp black shirt gave way to wild frizz with beads of sweat pooling on my face with the distinct stench of baby throw-up. On the next flight I would know that a fresh shirt, baby wipe to the face and a little water to tame the fly-aways can have me looking fresh as I deplane.

Tip #3: Use flight times and layovers to your advantage. In my experience, the best time to fly with children is in the morning. They are alert and happy. Airport delays increase as the day goes on. The best flight for me leaves mid-morning, allowing me time to get to the airport and feed the kids breakfast before we board. I try to time a layover around lunchtime to refuel the kids with food and do a diaper change. I like about a one and a half hour layover with small children if during a mealtime, as it gives you enough time to eat, use the restroom and let the kids run around a bit before boarding the next plane. Beware of the thirty-minute layover in a huge airport like Atlanta or DFW. You will have trouble making your next flight, especially if you have to get on an airport tram or train.

Coming back from Christmas last year, I thought 35 minutes in Houston’s smaller airport would be doable since I was familiar with its layout, and most of the gates are close together. I did not take into account a delay out of Austin, which almost had us missing our flight in Houston. Which takes me to the next tip…

Tip #4: Rely on the kindness of strangers. As we approached Houston after our delayed departure from Austin, and I contemplated missing my connecting flight, gathering up all the luggage, and sleeping in an airport hotel and doing it all over the next day, I started loudly voicing my concerns. A Good Samaritan couple and their son grabbed our bags and children and escorted us to our next gate. The gentleman explained that his wife used to travel solo with their children overseas to visit him, and they knew how hard it could be. Luckily for me our next flight was delayed, so with a little help and a little luck, we made our flight.

Many travelers remember the days they had small children, or they are simply kind and want to help out. In my experience, most people are helpful and gracious as opposed to rude when you are traveling with little ones. I even had several random adults pick up my kids and let them sit with them for a bit while I caught my breath. Normally we wouldn’t hand our child over to a stranger, but on an airplane, you take the lifeline that is thrown your way.

Tip #5: Bring activities and provisions (and sometimes kids’ leashes)

These days many parents are concerned with their children’s screen time on devices like smart phones and tablets. When stuck on a plane with children, sometimes those rules fly out the window. Last year I brought every device I could think of – a DVD player, an iPhone, a kids’ tablet, plus those old-fashioned real paper books! Dolls and a special stuffed animal to travel with are good options too – just don’t bring any toys with small pieces or anything too large. As a bribe you could promise your kid a new stuffed toy at a layover’s airport shop. This will kill time and provide an incentive for good behavior.

Also pack plenty of snacks and drinks. You never know when you will end up stuck on a tarmac for two hours. This did not happen to me, but I wanted to be prepared just in case. My kids are always hungry, so I just kept throwing goldfish, graham crackers and baby puffs at them. If you keep feeding them, they can’t complain that they are hungry. I also recommend bringing your own sippy cups, so you can fill them up for free at the airport’s water fountain, instead of spending a fortune on bottled waters, which also take up more space.

The godsend for me was two kids’ backpacks with leashes attached. I swore I would never be the parent walking a kid on a leash, but that was before I had to keep track of three wild children during a day of three airports. I made the backpacks seem like a special treat, and my oldest son loved his “big boy” backpack, whereas my one-year-old son enjoyed his soft doggy one. My five-year-old daughter relished “walking” her younger brother as well. The whole scene was quite comical.

The leash also came in handy on the airplane, as my one-year-old could walk up and down the aisles while I sat in my aisle seat and held onto the other end. He also made friends this way and hung out with a few other passengers to give me a break at times. Walking the aisle worked great for my toddler, except for on the flight with the stern flight attendant who reminded me each time the seatbelt light came on. At that point I had to become a human straitjacket around my son as he screamed at the top of his lungs and tried to break free. Which brings me to the last tip…

Tip #6: Know that the flight will eventually end. No matter what happens on that plane, no matter how loudly your kids cry or scream, no matter how dirty and disheveled you are by the end, know that the flight has to eventually end, and at some point your kids will go to bed and you will get a hot shower. And the flight will one day be a distant memory that you can laugh at for years to come. Just don’t think about the return flight home.

How the Newtown Tragedy Affected a Random Person

Author’s Note:

I wrote this article one year ago when I was feeling emotional toward what transpired at Sandy Hook in December of 2012. I submitted the essay to a random website, and when I didn’t hear anything back, I decided to file it away to the dark recesses of my computer.

Earlier this year, a friend of mine in Connecticut, who has many Facebook friends and fans due to her profession, posted a newsworthy story about Newtown and its victims. Everyone expressed sadness and sympathy for the families, except for one commenter who callously wrote something to the effect that it had been over a year since Newtown, and shouldn’t we “be over it by now?” I was appalled by her insensitive response but didn’t want to hijack my friend’s News Feed, so I kept my mouth shut.

I wouldn’t want to be a part of a society that can “get over” a senseless tragedy of this proportion, involving 26 innocent lives lost. The families of the victims of Sandy Hook will never “get over” this tragedy, as they will likely think of it daily for the rest of their lives.

This event wasn’t my tragedy – I didn’t suffer any losses – and I’m not trying to imagine what the victims’ families are experiencing in its aftermath. The original point of this essay was to deal with the emotions I was feeling to try to grasp what had transpired that day.

(Written in December 2013)

On the eve of the one-year anniversary of the horrific massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, I still feel raw emotion when reading or thinking about that day. I did not personally know anyone directly affected by the tragedy, nor am I a resident of Newtown. Despite my lack of connection to the shooting, I will never forget the events of Sandy Hook or its innocent victims. And I will never forget that Sandy Hook seized my notions of where we are safe from harm and ripped that security blanket to shreds.

I vividly remember the day of December 14, 2012. My parents and sister were driving in from Austin to visit us at our home in Houston to celebrate my Dad’s birthday and an early Christmas. I dropped two of my children off at preschool at 8:30 a.m. CST, which I later thought about when I read that the gunman entered Sandy Hook around the same time. I remember seeing the breaking news scroll across my computer screen and feeling immense shock as the details unfolded. I recall picking my children up from preschool at 2:00 p.m. as the director cheerily greeted me, and I wondered if she knew any of the details of the shooting, and if so, how could she smile?

As I got dressed for dinner that night, CNN streamed in the background, and I couldn’t look away. To celebrate my father’s December 14th birthday, we headed out to a fancy restaurant and enjoyed ourselves, while parents in Newtown screamed and cursed and wailed and tried to fathom what had happened and where their children were and why. It felt unfair to enjoy ourselves at dinner while others were facing the ultimate horror of losing a child under the worst imaginable circumstances.

As the days moved forward, I continued to watch and read the news coverage of the events and learn what I could about the victims. As a mother of three young children, you hear about the personality traits of other children and naturally extrapolate those features to your child. She loved to draw and make pictures for her friends. He was a huge fan of this sports team. She had beautiful reddish hair. I was drawn to these families and their stories and thought of them often.

I wondered how the parents got out of bed every morning, and I knew that if they had other children, they tried to stay strong for them and keep a routine. I thought about their Christmas Day and what they would do with the presents intended for their absent children. I thought about how it would take every ounce of strength to make the holidays bear some semblance of past ones for the benefit of their surviving children.

About two weeks after the shooting, we began our drive from Texas to Connecticut, where we would live about an hour away from Newtown for my husband’s job training. I remember driving on the interstate and seeing an exit sign for Sandy Hook/Newtown and snapping a picture on my phone to somehow document its realness. As we drove through the interstate portion of Newtown, I caught a glimpse of stark white crosses, presumably symbolizing each life lost. The most touching element was the sky. After driving through days of mist and grayness, the sky suddenly gave way to the most glorious spectrum of colors and beaming sun. I am not a very religious person, but I needed to believe that this display was the children’s way of saying, “Don’t worry; we are in Heaven, and we are at peace.” After Newtown, the sky retreated to ash.

The days passed, and the brutal winter finally thawed into a late spring, which reluctantly warmed into summer. When Connecticut was at its most habitable with cerulean skies and balmy weather, we made the drive south for my husband’s next assignment. My daughter was preparing to start kindergarten, and I couldn’t help but think about Newton and how that day changed my perception of things.

I never take it for granted that my daughter will make it home at the end of the school day. I give her a big hug and kiss at the bus stop and tell her I love her. I want her to know my heart is with hers if something happens. At the school, I assess the placement of her classroom and wonder if someone could sneak through a gate to access the back portion of the school. While waiting in the front office with my daughter in the morning, I notice all the late students lined up to get a tardy slip before heading to class. I see how we are all sitting ducks if someone were to walk into the office around that time of day. I mentally assess where we will run and how I will shield my daughter if he storms into the office.

I see the off-duty policeman at school pick-up and wonder if a car without a student hangtag would trigger some kind of an alert. I see the principal outside everyday directing parents at pick-up, and I have already determined that she would take a bullet in order to save a student, based simply on my analysis of her school-wide voicemails. I noticed that my daughter’s after school art teacher keeps her portable building locked, which appeases me.

Newtown has also changed the way some of us have to talk to our children. I wonder when I will need to have “the talk” with my daughter, that is, what to do if suddenly threatened by an enraged gunman. I plan to tell her to lie still and play dead, as the sole survivor of a classroom allegedly did at Sandy Hook. I have held off on telling her about gunmen because I want her to hold onto her innocence a little bit longer. She does not yet know what a gun is or does, and I suspect some of the youngest victims at Sandy Hook did not know either.

The school shooting has also made me question our country and how divided we are on the gun control issue. I cannot understand what is so controversial about universal background checks. Never mind that nobody really needs an assault rifle – Americans are not willing to give up their assault rifles, so that proposal was a nonstarter. Why are we protecting felons and the mentally ill – those who would be precluded from obtaining firearms – and not insisting upon stricter background checks? Why do we place gun rights above the rights of children to attend school peaceably and free from gun violence? Sadly, if 20 slain first graders cannot prompt the passage of universal background checks or a change in the gun laws, nothing will.

The biggest shock about Newtown was the location of the shooting. A gunman in an elementary school was never on my radar of “horrible things that could happen.” I always felt nervous in movie theaters in this era of random violence, which proved a legitimate concern as the Aurora, Colorado shooting demonstrated. One year after 9/11, I experienced anxiety on the London tube when I studied abroad there; a few years later the London bombings occurred on trains originating from the two tube stations near my old flat. Never in my wildest moments of paranoia did I think to worry about a mass shooting at an elementary school.

Many Americans seem resigned to accepting our gun culture and random acts of gun violence every few months. One response to the recent shooting of a TSA agent at LAX was to arm all of the TSA agents. Upon hearing this idea, I had a flashback to seeing police officers in Mexico carrying around semi-automatic rifles at the airport and how dystopian I found that image. Sadly we seem to be heading in the direction of more weapons and not less.

As time passes forward, I hope that we as a society do not forget the victims of Sandy Hook. Their deaths cannot be in vain. I admire their loved ones’ efforts to lobby for more stringent gun control and mental health reform, and I hope one day our federal government decides that human lives are worth more than nearly absolute freedom to purchase any and all firearms. I hope one day it is more difficult to obtain an assault rifle than a driver’s license. I will never forget the faces of Sandy Hook, and for that, I am grateful.

Off-the-Beaten-Path Boys’ Names (Part I)

There is nothing more interesting to a baby-name enthusiast than digging through the massive pile of names given to baby boys in the U.S. that did not reach the popularity of the top 1000 names. I always thought the girls had bragging rights when it came to having the best choices in names; boy, was I wrong. There are so many great boy names below the Social Security Administration’s latest popular baby names list that I cannot compile them into one blog post. Instead, I am going to create different posts grouped thematically to present numerous options for parents looking for a “unique” name for their little boy.

So this post is quite specific: I will present ten options for off-the-grid choices for baby boys that are 1) surname names (i.e., a traditional last name used as a first name), 2) monosyllabic and 3) ending in an –s. So for the five moms looking for this type of name for your blue bundle of joy, this blog post is for you!

1) Lars – I cannot hear this name without thinking of Ryan Gosling as the eccentric yet handsome lead character in the indie film, Lars and the Real Girl. Lars also has a cool Scandinavian vibe. Your Lars will likely be the only one with that name at his preschool, as a mere 94 boys were given this moniker in 2013. Another plus to Lars is that the name is easy to spell and pronounce.

2) Ames – Okay, I might be a tad partial to this name because it was a lovely college nickname of mine. I also rooted for the competitor by the same name on The Bachelorette franchise, as he was attractive and Ivy League educated. Ames just sounds like he should be making the Benjamins on Wall Street. Another plus is the accessibility of the name – Ames projects kindness because of the shared sound with words like “amiable.” All in all, this nice and ambitious name could suit your investment banker son.

3) Townes – I adore the name Townes. Folks from Texas and those into talented singer-songwriters know a great one by the name of Townes Van Zandt. I seriously considered this name for either of my sons but ultimately shied away from it due to Townes’s tragic path in life. If I had birthed a third son, would Townes have still made the top of the list? Pancho and Lefty say yes.

4) Rhodes – Rhodes is one of my favorite one-syllable, surname names ending in –s. Whew! Rhodes calls to mind a Renaissance man, a refined gentleman with impeccable manners and a solid upbringing. Rhodes probably had a liberal arts education at a very expensive private school. Idyllic Rhodes College brings to mind this image. Rhodes would make for a philosophical attorney who thinks outside of the box or a track star who majors in drama. The possibilities are endless with this name!

5) Jones – Unlike Rhodes, Jones is almost too cool for school. He is hip, he is understated and he has turned a boring surname into a chic and original first name. You may hear thousands of last names to the ring of Jones, but only 87 boys were given this first name in 2013. An added bonus – it’s super easy to say and spell. Just don’t do a Jones Jones and the name should work fine.

6) Briggs – Of these ten suggested names, Briggs is the only one that cracked the top 1000 last year, coming in at number 910 and just breaking the top 1000 the previous year. Briggs sounds interesting and a little complex, kind of like the Meyers-Briggs personality test. He’s the witty guy surrounded by well-groomed ladies sporting their LBDs at a hipsters’ cocktail party. Briggs could be the second Most Interesting Man in the World.

7) Niles – Some mothers of my vintage remember Niles from Kelsey Grammer’s sitcom, Frasier. In full disclosure, I probably saw a handful of episodes, but my research reveals Niles to be a well-educated elitist who is poor at sports with a litany of random phobias. I also knew a Nile (sans –s) who was tall, dark and handsome with an Irish accent. So while the T.V. character hasn’t completely ruined this name for me, opinions will probably vary.

8) Wells – Wells Fargo . . . oil wells . . . what do these things have in common? Oh yeah, money. For whatever reason, many of the names on this list sound like moneyed names. For the trivia buffs, Wells is also the third-oldest town in Maine, according to Wikipedia. A lot of millionaires live in Maine. Therefore, it logically follows that any boy named Wells is destined for good fortune. Only 60 American boys were given the name Wells last year, so anyone bearing this name will be in a select group.

9) Banks – Banks is Wells’s obnoxious nouveau riche cousin. It’s not enough that his parents have some money in savings; they had to name their pride and joy after a financial institution. There are some classic Banks’s families in the movies – “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” the classic “Father of the Bride,” and “Mary Poppins,” all different examples of wealthy families. Banks as a first name depends on the context. Banks from the trailer park will not play as well as Banks from the Upper East Side. Banks could grow up to be a Harvard M.B.A., or a prolific bank robber. Time will tell.

10) Parks – Parks is on par with Banks but with less concrete and more green space. He is the son of the wealthy vegans driving the Subaru next door. They dress like hobos, and they don’t have real jobs so you know they probably inherited all of their money. Parks is a modern and peppier version of Parker. Only 36 boys received this name in 2013, but this green name could have a moment in the future.

Okay, so this blog post devolved into a post about names and their association with money or lack thereof, but many names bring with them socioeconomic connotations. Townes, Ames and Rhodes are my favorite picks overall, but obviously baby names are in the ear of the listener.

What are your favorite single syllable, surname boys’ names that end in an –s? Did I leave any good ones off the list? What do you think names indicate, if anything, about social status and upbringing? Should people be judged by their names?