Hurricane Sandy Relief Effort

It was frigid today and temperatures will be hovering at the zero mark tonight across the tri-state area. My family is one of the lucky ones. We are safe and sound with a roof over our heads. We have experienced first hand the effects of Sandy because our family business has a warehouse in New Jersey that was chest deep in water and without power until a few days ago. Things are things, though, and people are what matter most so we consider ourselves extremely lucky.

We have been told that a nor’easter is headed our way to make matters worse for many of our neighbors who are still without power, heat and especially for those without home.

A post is the very least that I can do to help out and below are a few links for those looking for ways that they too can contribute to the relief effort. Also, please feel free to post as a comment any other links to volunteer organizations that you know of that are bringing blankets, water and other basic necessities to many of those struggling to keep warm and fed in the areas hit by Sandy.

You can also Google “Hurricane Sandy Relief” to find many other online resources and a comprehensive list of relief efforts in all the affected areas:

New York State Hurricane Relief Info Center (

New Jersey State Hurricane Relief Info Center (

Connecticut State Hurricane Relief Info Center (

American Red Cross (

Century of the Child at the MoMa

My friends at Timbuktu wanted to make sure that if you happen to be in New York, there is something you don’t want to miss: Century of the Child, an ambitious exhibition at the MoMA about design for children (its theories and developments) in the XX Century – “the century of the child,” as design reformer Ellen Key called (and envisioned) it in 1900.

Toys, books, posters, objects: the exhibition is an impressive collection of all that design has done for and about children last century.

And for those of you who can’t see the show, there is a great website about the show which is essentially an online version of the exhibition and gives a pretty accurate idea of the extent of the collection.


And if you are planning to go see the show with your kids (you should!), here is a family activity guide to help you make the most of the visit. The exhibition is up through November 5th and you can find more information about the related events here. Let us know how you like it!

Timbuktu is the iPad magazine for you and your children. They work at the intersections of design, education and technology and help parents discover the world with their kids.

The Greatest Show On Earth…

No, I am not referring to the circus. I am talking about the beautiful game: Soccer*, Calcio, Futbol, Football, Fussball however you want to call it.

Soccer is the first true form of global social media. It is hands down the most watched and played sport in the world and certainly amongst the most watched – anything – in the world. It unites and divides people, makes them laugh and cry, rejoice and despair all in a span of 90 minutes.

Just to put it into perspective, the 2006 FIFA World Cup averaged 95 million viewers per match (64 matches total) with the final attracting 260 million viewers (according to an independent study on 90% of worldwide viewership by Initiative Sports Futures). No other sport or sporting event comes close.

No matter where you are in the world (with unfortunately the glaring exception of the U.S.) you can strike up a passionate conversation about soccer, you can kick anything that rolls for a quick pickup game with perfect strangers and you are guaranteed instant camaraderie with bitter enemies.

Piola, Pele, Zico, Cruyff, Best, Beckenbauer, Platini, Gentile, van Basten, Maradona, Klinsman, Zidane, Ronaldo, Baggio, Maldini, Totti, Del Piero, Rooney, Messi, Kaka, Eto’o, C. Ronaldo, Torres and the list continues and expands with legends and current stars from all over the world.

I am passionate about soccer like no other sport (and I do love my sports). But if you told me I could only get one channel on TV, I would not hesitate – give me soccer 24/7. While I lived and worked in Rome in the late 90s and early 00s I was a season ticket holder of the Stadio Olimpico’s Curva Sud (the most passionate section of the stadium) home to my “giallorossi” – AS Roma. I rolled around on the pitch weeping for joy after the final game of the 2000-2001 season when we won the Serie A title after 25 years of abstinence. As for the upcoming 2010 World Cup in South Africa, I will be following my beloved “Azzurri” who are set to defend their title against the best teams in the world. If you ask my wife what it was like at home as I watched the 2006 World Cup semi-final against Germany she will tell you that I was sweating more than the players and let out one of the most liberating screams ever heard when Fabio Grosso curled the ball into the German net with a few minutes left in overtime. I still get goose bumps every time I see the sequence replayed.

So you can imagine my joy in seeing my son kick around a soccer ball and chase after it. I cannot wait for him to start enjoying watching soccer with me and kicking the ball around in the park. It may be cliché, but if the love of soccer is one more way in which my son and I will add to strength to our bond it would please me immensely. This is one of my passions and I am sure that for others it is something else that stirs up such emotions.

I look forward to the World Cup because it will be my son’s first and even if he does not fully appreciate, I will make sure to plant the seed of passion (I can just see my wife rolling her eyes).

*Ironically this name is an abbreviation of Association Football used at elite universities in England in the late 1800’s

Enough with the minced garlic, already…

Continuing on my everything and anything writing kick, today I will share with you the best way to prepare one of my favorite Roman pasta dishes: Pasta alla Carbonara.

I do have to thank Jo-Lynne over at Musings Of A House Wife for her tweet looking for ground beef fueled dinner inspiration and it got me hungry and thinking of pasta plates (because I suggested a ragù alla Bolognese sauce) and how (I’m going to get a lot of hate mail about the following comment) no one in the U.S. has a clue how to make pasta properly, not even Giada De Laurentiis who has lost her inner contemporary Italian chef somewhere in the Pacific Ocean (a few years ago she still had it) and now uses an “entire clove of minced garlic” even in her dessert recipes. As I would tell her in Italian (probably with a thick Roman accent) if we met, “Giada! Ma che cazzo fai?!”. Let me say this once and please do not make me repeat it again: pick up any serious Italian cookbook (written by Italians) like Il Cucchiao D’Argento (The Silver Spoon) or Il Talismano Della Felicita’ (The Talisman of Happiness) and you will see that minced garlic is rarely used in Italian cuisine and is limited, when used, mainly to Southern recipes. Most recipes that call for garlic tell you to add it whole for flavoring and then to remove it! So know, after your romantic meal with the significant other, you don’t have to chug an entire bottle of mouthwash to kiss them. I know, I know: You’re welcome!

OK, back to the recipe. There are many stories about where it originated: Umbrian miners and American WWII G.I.’s and their “American Breakfast” among others (I will leave it to your curiosity and the foodie blogs and wikis to enlighten you), but what is most interesting is the many variations that Romans will argue for entire meals about how to make the perfect plate of Carbonara. Lucky for me, I am writing this by myself so I get to tell you how I think, or rather, how I know for a fact it should be prepared.

Ingredients for 4 people:

4 eggs

½ yellow onion (chopped)

2 oz grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (better than Grana Padano because sharper – pretty please splurge on the good stuff and not the Kraft kind – it’s just a completely different ball game)

2 oz grated Pecorino Romano (see above)

5 oz Guanciale (although you will probably have to settle for Pancetta or Bacon)

1 tblsp Olive Oil



1 lb De Cecco Spaghetti (it is one of the few affordable imported pasta brands – no, Barilla is no longer imported from Italy, they make it near Chicago – oops, sorry, did I just kill that Pastoral scene you had from their commercials?! All right, settle down, Barilla is fine!)

Start by putting a good amount of water to boil (preferably in a tall pot). When it boils salt, stir and add the spaghetti. Make sure that you check back with it often during the 11-12 minutes it takes to cook and stir to keep the spaghetti separated. If you want it Roman style “al dente” then taste it at minute 10 or 11 and see if the center is still a bit hard. If you like it mushy like your Lo Mein then please stop reading this while I shake my head in disgust.

For the sauce, start by cubing your Guanciale (or Pancetta/Bacon) and letting it brown in a skillet with the chopped onion and a tablespoon of olive oil. Then set it aside.

Crack the eggs into a mixing bowl and add some pepper (adjust the quantity depending how much you like pepper – in Rome they go heavier on the pepper). Give them a whisk to break them up and mix in the pepper.

Once you have drained the spaghetti, put them back in the same (still warm) pot. Add the eggs and the Guanciale and start to mix the spaghetti so that the egg starts to cook or “scramble”. Now add the Pecorino and Parmigiano and give the spaghetti a couple of more tosses.

Transfer to your plates. If you like more Parmigiano or Pecorino feel free to sprinkle some more on top and then dig in!

This is the way I make it and I often have very lively debates with my Roman friends and relatives on the final steps needed to pull the ingredients together as well as on what ingredients should be used. Some say only Pecorino, some say only Parmigiano. I like both. Some say onions, some say none (please note, though, that NO ONE says to put in an entire clove of minced garlic!), I think the onion is a tasty touch. And finally, the point of greatest contention: some say to leave the eggs raw so the Carbonara is creamier (so instead of placing it back in the pot to “scramble”, you just place the spaghetti into the bowl with the eggs and mix), I’m not a fan. That is the beauty of how Italians eat. They will sit at the table in front of a delicious meal and argue about it while eating.

I am sure this is not the last of my food posts because my Italian half makes the traditions that revolve around food such an important part of my and my family’s life that it is unavoidable. As you may already know from the many stereotypes, food has been the fulcrum of Italian family gatherings forever (and not in the once a year Thanksgiving-sense, I am talking daily ritual).

Sadly, today, even in Italy, this tradition is under attack by quick fix ready-to-eat meals and the microwave (not nearly to the extent that it is in the U.S. home) and it is such a shame because although the health benefits of eating a “from scratch” home cooked meal is incredibly important, the ritual of sitting down around a table as a family and sharing thoughts, angst, funny anecdotes and whatever you did today is what helps keep you in touch and in sync with what is going on with yourself, your wife and your kids.

There are so many Italian traditions (and I know this is certainly true for many other cultures that have brought traditions with them to the U.S.) that are misrepresented and stereotyped in the U.S. and I laugh just as much as the next guy because they are often such true representations (albeit exaggerated) of the reality “back home”. Food is one of those traditions that I just can’t laugh at when I see it destroyed by a celebrity chef or completely misunderstood by a self-proclaimed food expert. I just cringe. I can grudgingly accept a division of Italian cuisine, here in the U.S., into Italian-American recipes that were created a century ago by immigrants to adapt to local ingredients and to cater to the local tastes (you will never find spaghetti and meatballs, chicken parmesan, garlic bread etc. over in Italy) and Italian recipes that are still followed today in the typical Trattoria as well as in the more contemporary restaurants in Italy. But please do not lump those very different styles of cooking together and please do not say that Chef Boyardee is Italian. Pretty please and hold the minced garlic!

Verba Volant Scripta Manent …

One of the few things left for me to really call my own as a parent and dad is my love of fountain pens. It’s certainly a head scratcher for many people (my wife and many of my friends included), but I just can’t get enough of them. I actually use my fountain pens and not just as a fashion accessory (although the aesthetics are just as important to me as how they write – in my case, though, I don’t care if other people think my pens look good – I know they do!). My premise is necessary because too often I see the typical Wall Streeter (that’s code for filthy stinking rich jerk in my neck of the woods – the jerk part being what pisses me off about the whole thing) flashing pens that cost the equivalent of a small country’s GDP and really only use them as women use engagement rings – to show off whose is bigger (relax ladies it is just an analogy – maybe a bit offensive to you, but the guys are all nodding their heads). And just like women often haven’t a clue about the 4Cs of diamonds other than what Vogue tells them, most Wall Streeters buy these pens just because Cigar Aficionado or Robb Report tells them it makes them look rich and important (code for you’ll get lucky not matter how much of an ugly creepy jerk you are – although sleeping with someone because they write their cell phone on a bar napkin with an S.T. Dupont Limited Edition James Bond fountain pen is a bit of a stretch, but hey, it’s my post so I can say what I want) and not because they actually want to write with them. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t buy things that make me look rich and important without truly knowing and appreciating their value beyond the price tag – like a Lamborghini 350 GT or a 2000 Château Lafite Rothschild for example (not that I am in danger of owning either anytime soon) – but fountain pens I know so it kills me to see them used as bling.

I won’t bore you with the list of pens that I have (i.e too many) or want (i.e. too many), but I want to tell you why I love fountain pens. So bear with me.

Is there really one pen that is better than another? There are certainly “better” pens, but it depends so much on usage and taste that it is hard to draw a line in the sand. I would argue that with so much of today’s correspondence and note taking done on computers why would you not want to maximize your sensory experience when writing things “old school” with actual pen and paper? I would encourage everyone to consider trying it out if you do not already do so (yes I will bore you with my taste in paper in some other post) and you can do it without spending a fortune on a fountain pen. Buy a Pilot Varsity fountain pen at your local stationary store or online and try it out. If you like it you can find a nice fountain pen that fits your writing style and gives you that incredible sense of well being when writing with it (yes people it’s pen porn – some dig it others don’t). If you need advice you can ask me or check out the many forums out there that talk about everything fountain pen related (FPN, FPC etc.).

I know I promised not to list my collection or wish list, but I think it would help (for those interested) to jot down a few fountain pens that are fairly well known, a few that are rare and a few that for different reasons are considered worthy of use: some on a daily basis and others for special occasions.

To start off my (hopefully for you) short monologue on fountain pens I have to talk about the “who’s your daddy” of the bring-it-to-every-corner-of-the-earth practical fountain pen – L.E. Waterman.

Although, the Waterman company has lost some of its luster over the last century and has moved to Paris (currently it is owned by Gillette – yes “the best a man can get” guys) all discussions about fountain pens as we know them today must start here even though strictly speaking he did not “invent” the fountain pen.

You also cannot fail to mention Sheaffer and Parker pens and the noticeable mark they made on the history of fountain pens – the Parker “51” has it’s own book and is considered by fans to be the best pen ever made! Then there are the Japanese who brought us the elegantly minimalist Namiki (part of Pilot pen company, although Namiki is actually the company and founder’s name before it was changed) fountain pens and especially the Namiki Limited Editions which are handcrafted beauties. I will also admit that when I do on occasion use regular pens Pilot is only one of two companies that I will consider. Their Pilot Precise V5/7 Rolling Ball and Pilot G2 Retractable Gel Ink Rolling Ball are the smoothest writers out there along with the Zebra F-301 made by another great Japanese company by the same name.

Moving on to the practical, but rare fountain pens you can find a Montblanc Noblesse (not the Oblige, but the one modeled after the Aurora Hastil in the early 70’s) in simple brushed metal, mine was handed down to me from my dad, from whom I caught the all-things-stationary bug and I do hope that my son follows the trend (he already does in his own way show his love for my pens by attempting to use them as drum sticks on his train table – I say attempt because I usually tackle him before he can execute his best “Animal” from the Muppet Show impression). Back before Dunhill bought Montblanc in the late 70’s (and decided to push them squarely into the luxury bracket where the Richemont Group continues to keep them today), the company used to make a lot of no-frills workhorse pens much like today’s Staedler or LAMY, alas the Montblanc Noblesse is no longer produced (well constructed affordable instruments rarely are) so you will have to hunt for them on eBay or at flea markets.

If you want to go for a more elegant look then certainly a modern Montblanc like the Agatha Christie LE fountain pen works well (although your wallet will take a nice hit) as do vintage Pelikans and Watermans that have that simple yet elegant style that seems to remain elusive to many contemporary pen makers.

Visconti pens, although certainly contemporary, along with the much older Conklin brands and the exquisitely eccentric Conway Stewart pens are amongst the few pen makers that continue to use an incredible array of celluloid and multi-colored plastics for pen barrel production which gives each pen a custom look, as opposed to simple resins and metals (although the Visconti Titanium Skeleton is quite a unique pen even though it is made with monochromatic Titanium). Tibaldi, for example, has some great vintage multicolored celluloid, although today they seem to be experimenting more with precious metals.

Then there are the “artwork” pens that are made by the likes of Krone and Michel Perchin (of Fabergé heritage) that are so heavy or bulky that you cannot write with them, but they are indeed works of art.

There are enough materials, styles and price points to satisfy anyone when it comes to fountain pens and although today, certainly, many of the big names in pens seem to cater a bit too often to the Wall Streeters I mentioned earlier, there are still many who are doing it because of their passion for fine writing instruments. There are also enough vintage pens with very affordable price tags out there to start your own collection. My collection I hope to pass on to my son and I will go out on a limb here and say “It’s a guy thing” (or rather “It’s this guy’s thing”). My obsession with fountain pens is some other guy’s fixation with motorcycles or cars or fishing or hunting or the office Fantasy Football pool or slipping into Peter Rabbit slippers or whatever it is that a guy can’t wait to do in his “my time/my terms” moments. Then again I am sure a lot of you (those brave enough to have read this far) are probably thinking WTF is this guy going on about?! Wait until I start talking watches.

Grandma, Grandpa and Max Headroom…

My son thinks his grandparents live inside a computer screen. I am certainly not the only one this happens to these days, right? In my case “the folks” are all over in Italy (Rome to be exact) and “hopping” on a flight is not really an option anytime we want my son to visit. He is still not in full conversation mode and let’s face it, handing my son a cell phone to babble at his grandparents is not wise, for many reasons. So I turn to one of those awesome “bring-it-to-the-masses” technological tools that may not seem all that much to the tech geeks, but to me is a lifesaver.

I have used Skype since way back when (a whopping 6 years ago) and at first it was definitely just a fun thing to do with friends, but now, especially since my son was born (and Skype added video), it has become a communications workhorse. Even his grandparents who come from the “how-do-you-turn-this-on?” generation are able to easily navigate the two clicks needed to call us via Skype.

The most obvious advantage is the cost saving on long distance calls that can add up (especially when your kid wants to hog the phone and yell gibberish into it for thirty uninterrupted minutes). Then, of course, there is nothing like your son entertaining his Nonna or Nonno (Grandma and Grandpa in Italian) and making them laugh. Whether my parents or my wife’s, the unpredictability of my son’s behavior is sure to elicit lots of cooing no matter how socially inappropriate it may be to the outside world. The possibility for my son to get some “face-to-face” time with his grandparents (and Aunts and Uncles who also live scattered around the world) is priceless and ensures that as “virtual” as it is, we are still staying in touch – frequently.

There are, of course, the downsides to this sudden 24/7 communications channel and they manifest themselves much like they would by leaving the key to your house or apartment under the doormat to allow for uncensored family access to your house. I am not referring to grandma or grandpa walking in on mom and dad having some alone time because that only happens in the movies (and I am told by friends with older children when your kids turn 18 and leave for college). More often than not it comes from the parents not fully understanding that the key under the doormat is there usually for emergencies and in all other instances they should announce their presence the old-fashioned way – by knocking.

Don’t get me wrong, I love talking to the folks and all, but sometimes their limited understanding of new technology creates a series of unfortunate Skype events like the “maybe-they-don’t-hear-the-ringing-despite-the-obvious-presence-of-the-BUSY-icon” twenty attempts in under a minute call, or the “can-you-hold-the-computer-and-follow-the-kid-as-he-runs-around-the-house” requests and so on and so forth.

In the end, it is invaluable for those of us who are far from family to stay in touch. It creates so many candid moments that otherwise would not be possible (like my son trying to feed apple sauce to his grandparents through the computer screen) and gives everyone a more “interactive” experience that a phone call alone would not allow. Luckily we do get to see them all “live” during the year just so my son knows that they are not today’s version of Max Headroom!

Taxi?! No, Police Car. Taxi?! No, Bus… Bus?! No, Taxi.

My son is in baby talk limbo – stuck somewhere between nonsensical babbling and comprehensible speech. He points and grunts at things he wants and if you play dumb long enough you will elicit the correct word for the object he wants so badly. As he navigates the intricacies of a bi-lingual household he mixes and matches these words to his liking and upon realizing that he is comprehended by anyone he giggles with delight and, with eyes twinkling, shouts the word repeatedly for the rest of the day while running up and down the hallway (granted in NYC that is not very far to run!).

Like any true New Yorker, his first word to describe a vehicle (any vehicle) was “taxi”. He sees taxis everywhere, even when they are not there (a rare occurrence in these parts). Mostly it is the color yellow that deceives him (but on occasion even the color is irrelevant: Taxi?! No, garbage truck. Taxi?! No, mail truck), but often I suspect it is his heartfelt desire to turn all “vehicles” into taxis (his tongue peaking out through his teeth to accentuate the “x” which is slightly hissed) just so he can hear himself say the word – often.

In fact, more than with anything else that he plays with on a daily basis, he is obsessed with vehicles. We have tons of them. Gifted, bought, borrowed, shared, exchanged – you name it – we have them. We try and cycle through “batches” of toy cars and trucks so that he feels he is getting an infinite “new” supply of cars and trucks every few days. Our inventory includes Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars (that these days you can buy fairly cheap by the truckload), cars you can buy at the local everything-but-aspirin-pharmacy (i.e. Duane Reade, CVS, Walgreens or regional equivalent), cars that – in NYC – you can buy from a street vendor (certified or not) and then there are a few choice cars and trucks my son plays with that are from companies that deserve a lengthier introduction than just appearing in a list. One of these companies is Automoblox.

Actually, “a few choice cars and trucks” is a gross understatement. And as my wife likes to say (often): “Are you buying that for him or for yourself?!” Is that really relevant? Isn’t a cool toy cool regardless of who buys it?! Do I sound a little immature? Maybe. Am I jealous when my son is playing with them and does not let me participate? Kinda.

Automoblox reminds me of a very similar set of toys I had when growing up. I don’t remember the name (does anyone out there know the toys I am talking about?), but the way you could pull them apart and reassemble them (even interchangeably) is similar and still fascinating.

The concept is certainly not new or unique, but the way these cars are designed and built is remarkable. The first time you pick one up the quality is apparent. Solid, smooth, sleek and cool. And yes, if they came in adult size I would love to test-drive one!

I usually hang around my son when he is playing with his Automobloxs since the wheels are great mini-teething rings for those last couple of teeth he has coming out and my wife and I really to do not relish having to inspect every subsequent diaper change waiting for him to pass one or more of them (of course, the company clearly states on the box – like all toy companies – that you should not allow anyone under the age of 75 to play with them because parts maybe a choking hazard).

What impresses me is that no matter how many times he pulls the car apart and reassembles the pieces (with a toddler’s typical grace and coordination!), they fit back together nice and snug and the car rolls just as smoothly as it did straight out of the box. I am sometimes privileged enough to fall into the good graces of my overprotective son (MINE! MINE!) and he allows me to play with his Automobloxs (under strict child supervision). These fleeting moments, though, do not fully satisfy my inner child so whatever the excuse was that I found (probably a lame one) to convince my wife (and the grown up living somewhere inside of me), I now own my very own Automoblox and it is “registered” to boot! I was actually giddy as I registered my car on their website and received my owner’s certificate via e-mail or as my big sister would say: “What a dork!”

“No, you’re a dork!”

“Oh, shut up!”

“No, YOU shut up!”

“No, YOU shut up times infinity!”

The Joys of Entertaining Your Kid While Traveling Light…

As I said in an earlier post, I can’t say that I enjoy traveling with my son and not because I don’t love him more than anything in the world and want to be with him all the time (with a few exceptions, like the times he throws all his toys off of the play table and starts screaming and flapping his arms on the floor as if he wanted to make a snow angel on the parquet all because his Tonka truck doesn’t fit into the Thomas and Friends tunnel, or when he runs off with the keys right as I am leaving for work and hides them in one of his “special” places, you know, the ones that parents find out about when the apple slice he hid there a few days ago starts to putrefy, or when he braces his legs against the high chair when you want to pull him out and get him into the bath for a hose down after he dumped his yogurt and honey snack over his head (just for kicks) so you actually have to disassemble the whole thing to extricate him while he screams into whichever ear is closest to his mouth… yeah – then, right at that moment, I don’t like him that much – don’t get me wrong , though, I still love him, just, well, you know what I mean, right?). I have already described the stress levels of traveling with a toddler (and my hat is tipped to those with more than one kid!) so I wanted to go into more detail about one aspect of the traveling experience and this applies to a one hour drive as much as to a ten hour flight (although I’ll grant you the latter is certainly tougher). Specifically the number of items you have to shove into your “diaper bag” (people who don’t have kids think that this is just another cute bag to carry around like an accessory with maybe a diaper – hence the name – and a baby bottle somewhere inside… funny). These are all essential survival (and for parent’s mentally sanity) tools for anyone heading with a – potential hissy-fit throwing, snack wanting (NOW!) and wearing (ALL OVER!), pooping, drooling, nose dripping, attention span of a gnat – child. Sure, none of the above might happen, but why make your parenting life harder? So in go the wipes, diapers, creams, snacks, blankies, change of clothing, pacifiers and books/toys/instruments/etc. (lots and lots of them!) and your shoulders curse at you as you hoist the one hundred pound diaper bag onto them (usually the stroller’s handle bars are reserved for my wife’s hand bag which is basically another diaper bag – just one that, as she puts it, reminds her that she is still a woman – and weighs just below the threshold weight that would turn the stroller into a catapult).

Now keep in mind that a good eighty percent of that weight comes from the books/toys/instruments/etc. that are the required distraction for surviving a supermarket run just as much as that ten hour flight. I would love to find a product that lightens that weight and keeps my kid entertained on many different levels. I know my son loves to play with my iPhone or any other expensive electronic gadget that I might have lying around, but I would rather get something that is more at his level for now (I am sure he will be jailbreaking and reprogramming my iPhone by the time he is in Kindergarten) and that will not dent the piggybank if he breaks it (amazing how ingenious toddlers are at reverse engineering objects!).

I think I found something that might just come to my aid. I was invited by VTech to hang out at their loft during ToyFair here in NYC and get some hands on time with their newest line of products for 2010. There were a lot of more or less interesting toys on display, but one in particular piqued my interest – the FLiP.

The FLiP is a tablet shaped interactive reader (with hinged protective cover) that is basically a very simple version of an e-book reader for kids. It is rugged and fairly light weight, has a color touch screen (and physical “flat” qwerty keyboard) and interchangeable cartridges for reading different books. The books are interactive and animated stories that allow your kid (who can enter their name and pick an Avatar) to interact with the story, have it read to them, highlight specific words (there is a dictionary) and then play games that are related to the story. They can earn reading certificates as they progress through the story titles and shortly after the FLiP hits stores and in August (SRP $59.99) users will have access through a VTech VPN to a downloadable online library with more than hundred additional titles (some free) including some well-known licensed characters.

The FLiP will be available in blue and pink (I am surprised that VTech did not say that they will sell customizable skins with Curious George, Spiderman, Thomas&Friends etc. themes since kids, like adults, love to be able to distinguish between what is MINE! MINE! And what is yours, but I WANT IT!).

What I found particularly attractive about the FLiP from a parent’s point of view is the integration of several entertainment elements into a very portable object. I love my kid’s books and toys and love that he plays with them more than he watches TV or DVDs, but as I said before, I wish I did not have to lug them around. I think FliP offers that solution for parents with toddlers and small children. VTech sees this product in the 3-7yrs category, I think my toddler son would enjoy it as well. The FLiP is interactive without “hypnotizing”. There are enough separate things you can do with it to ensure that your kid feels that they are interacting with several “objects” within one platform (see the “attention span of a gnat” comment above) which is a life saver when you are trying to keep them busy and they keep wanting “something else” every two seconds.

The true test will be getting one in my son’s hands and seeing how he interacts with the unit. As far as I am concerned it could be a real winner in the “how-do-I-keep-my-kid-busy-while-on-the-go” category.

Drinking Coffee Where The Wild Things Are…

The first sign of my son’s awakening in the morning is usually a sudden and sustained banshee-like scream that thanks to the monitor my wife places on my nightstand is the only alarm clock I need.

This is my cue to stumble towards the kitchen as my wife attempts to calm our son who is entering his full “I WANT MY MILK!” frenzy. It’s all very Where The Wild Things Are-esque with “gnashing of teeth” and all. There are two things I have to do simultaneously when I reach the kitchen (hopefully without tripping or bumping into anything in the dark):

1. Heat milk (for my son)

2. Make coffee (for my wife)

This must all be completed in less than the 30 seconds it takes my wife to bring our own little Max to inspect my work (and gnash some more). Quiet returns to our humble abode only when I have successfully inserted the sippy cup straw into my son’s mouth. Then comes the extra large 10 serving cup size mug full of steaming coffee for my loving wife who has been mumbling to no one in particular the whole time. This leaves yours truly with just enough coffee to open one eye completely. I lovingly pour the remaining precious drops of the restorative elixir into one of two portable coffee mugs: my stainless steel thermal OXO Liquiseal Travel Mug from their Good Grips line or my brown and red KeepCup.

Sure, there are thousands of mugs out there, but I have tried hundreds and these are the only two that I find practical and yet of rare beauty in this product category. For reasons known only to them, most manufacturers of “travel mugs” compete to create the ugliest objects in the consumer realm (Is it a coincidence that it is a favorite trade show tchotchke along with glow in the dark key-chain bottle openers?).

So I tip my hat to these two companies for making an object that I am actually not embarrassed to bring with me to work or while pushing around the stroller.
More importantly they can take quite a beating and in OXO’s case have never spilled even a drop of coffee on me even after having been used as a sledgehammer by my son. The OXO also does an incredible job of keeping the coffee warm FOREVER!

As for the KeepCup, it is shatter proof and recyclable (polypropylene #5) when its recommended life cycle of 4 years is up. The designers of this very cool cup added a very nifty tab to keep your coffee from spilling from the sip hole that is unobtrusively attached to the KeepCup’s lid.
So after the traumatic awakening I can slink off with my spiffy mug and precious load of coffee to nurse my aching ear!

Mastering the one handed diaper change…

Most dads today find themselves on diaper duty at some point during the day. If they work during the day this often means getting double shifts on weekends. I have not met a dad yet (mom’s are way ahead of us on this!) who doesn’t say they wish there was an easy way to have all the necessary diapers, wipes and creams in one easily accessible place.

Men are just not used to rummaging through thousands of items in a seemingly bottomless bag to find the one that is buried in its most hidden corner. Women, on the other hand, get plenty of practice with their handbags and purses starting when the play dress-up as little girls! Guys, at most, have to deal with gym bags or briefcases that are certainly not filled to the brim with absolutely everything needed in case there is an apocalypse while you are out of the house and you are the lone survivor.

I admit that I have “bag rummaging” envy vis-à-vis my wife and I admire the deftness with which, much like magicians and their top hats, she is able to quickly find and extract an infinite number of objects that quite frankly I had no idea could fit in what seems like a fairly normal sized bag.

To add insult to injury, see if this sounds familiar: My wife is “multitasking” (word that is used to inform men of our apparent short comings) working on the computer, pulling dangerous object from my sons mouth, prepping his food, talking on the phone etc. and so she turns to me and tells me to go get something from her handbag. I start to sweat. I walk up to the purse and kneel in front of it. Roll up my sleeve and gently lower my shaking hand inside looking for said object (imagine a grown-up version of the board game Operation).

A couple of hours later I gingerly pull my arm back out of the handbag in defeat and deliver the news only to have her give me that “look”, walk over to the bag, stick her hand in it and pull out the desired object all in one motion (and without looking)!

Now imagine you are off to your kid’s favorite playground and as you plop him or her into the second swing from the right (because that is the only swing they will not give you a really hard time getting into) that is exactly what you start to smell! You get to the nearest bench, you prop open the diaper bag and start looking for the tools of the trade. This kind of Search and Rescue operation becomes even more complicated for us when one arm is occupied in corralling your kid’s flailing legs and lifting them to get access to the “red zone” during a diaper change.

Of course, if you watch my wife (and all of the other mom’s at the playground), the diaper change consists of a few quick turns and swipes all very fluid and precise. Think of professional ice skaters making all those twirling jumps look easy: find and unfurl the changing pad with one hand as she flips my son on his back while pulling his pants to his ankles with the other hand. Hold him by the ankles with enough pressure to lift legs without hurting him or making him squirm. She reaches back into diaper bag and removes wipes with thumb and ring finger while squeezing just the right amount of diaper cream onto index and middle fingers. Wipe, spread cream and drop legs. Close diapers and pull up pants. Perfect 10s all around!

So back to my playground predicament: Right off the bat, I forget the changing pad in the diaper bag. I get the dirty diaper off and then remember you need wipes to do this right. I look for the wipes as my son starts flailing his legs and arching his back so that everything smears everywhere. Finally find the wipes and manage to pull five wipes all clumped together. Wipe and realize that those were the only five wipes I had left. Look around for help. Finding none I grasp about inside the diaper bag and grab the face ointment instead of the diaper cream because quite frankly all those tubes of paste and cream look and feel the same. Find the diapers. Wrestle my son into a clean one as sweat pours from my forehead. And dress him again while he screams at the top of his lungs because I really needed everyone staring at me, too.

Granted I may have exaggerated my ineptness (sort of), but you get my point. Why not have everything you need for a diaper change assembled in one easily accessible and compact container? This way I can grab it out of the bag, lay it out next to me on the park bench and get going!

Yup, there’s a bag for that! Now before you snicker like a little boy (which is exactly what I did) at the company’s name, know that this product is a dad’s best friend during in-field diaper change ops! Think Rambo meets Look Who’s Talking.

My Royal Heinie makes what I consider to be the best on-the-go diaper/wipe dispenser out there. And to help maintain my machismo the mothers who invented this product were kind enough to call it “the wallet”. Not only; but they also have it in a very “manly” commando color (aka cammo green).

This will avoid any “girlie man” Governator-style comments from friends, family and those seemingly cute old couples who sit on park benches and feel the need to comment, without social filter, on everything within sight.

Before heading out just grab some wipes and slide them into the built in dispenser (which keeps them moist), grab some diaper and the diaper cream tube to stick into the zipped compartment (not the face ointment) and you are ready to go. Then when you need to change your kid just pull out the wallet and all three essentials for the diaper change are right there next to you. No more rummaging blindly through the diaper bag as panic sets in and your kid starts to wriggle loose from your grip!