No more sand (maybe).

Everyone has his or her favorite beach towel. Whether it has your Alma Mater’s crest or your kid’s favorite cartoon character on it, what you do not like about that towel is the mounds of sand that it picks up and brings back home with it. As so many things in life, the military found a solution from years spent wandering the dessert and dealing with tons and tons of the stuff. Of course, who other than Hammacher Schlemmer could discover the secret and make it available to us civilians?

 

I think the sandless beach mat is ingenious. As described on their site, the specially woven polyurethane acts as a one-way filter to prevent sand from reemerging through the bottom of the mat. The rip-stop polyurethane construction resists abrasions from outdoor furniture or pets, the bound edges remain flat, and the mat won’t absorb moisture, preventing mold and mildew. It comes in two sizes 6’x6’ or 8’x8’, with the smaller version available in blue or orange (the larger size only in blue). So your towels can stay nice and clean. Now if the military could only find a way to keep the sand encrusted kids off of the towels…

Reliving the holidays of yore with my inner child…

This holiday season is going to be as fun as it will be stressful. We have decided to stay in New York do avoid the craziness of running around for a few days in Rome trying to visit as many relatives as possible. Actually, it is more about chauffeuring our son around to be coddled and spoiled while we sit in the corner and wait to bring him to the next relative’s home, but that is just a detail. So we are going to set up shop at home and it will be the first time he can appreciate it. In our house that means an advent calendar, a tree (the debate rages about fake or real) and thanks to my son’s current obsession Frosty the Snowman and the Gingerbread Man in some shape or form. This also means that there will be an overly excited little boy running around the house each time one of these objects appears and there will be a great deal or ripping, tipping, spilling and all the other standard fare just multiplied and magnified by the novelty of it all.

Nonetheless, who can help themselves when their kid’s eyes go wide with surprise and twinkle with delight to see new and curious objects? So I was actually excited when I spoke to BJ’s Wholesale Club recently as they put together their holiday gift guide, because one holiday classic was in there and I could already see my son sitting at the table with me and my wife building it together. I actually ran downstairs when their package was dropped of at my building and I peaked inside on the way up in the elevator to make sure that it was indeed what I expected. Imagine the corniest of holiday movies where the sun glints off the top of a desired object and the protagonist gets a goofy smile and the credits roll with chirping in the background. So all of that minus the sun and the credits rolling since I was in an elevator. My Gingerbread House had arrived. You’re right, how egocentric of me: My son’s Gingerbread House had arrived.

I don’t think I have had one since I was a kid. I carefully laid every piece out on the table with my son excitedly pointing at each piece and naming them or inventing names for them depending on whether or not he had seen or eaten it before. I started to explain to my son how the pieces when put together would look like the box they came in. I did not tell him the part where I really was just hoping it would not fall apart or look like, well, a toddler made it. He looked rather skeptical and I can’t blame him, but after a few seconds he just pointed at the gumdrops and asked: “Candy?”

Indeed that is candy I answered and there went those great big wide eyes.

“Candy! Daddy more candy please?!” (it’s always more even when he hasn’t had any yet).

Because I felt this project near and dear to me I tried to reason with my 2.5 year old son, which is really quite silly of me. I told him how daddy had built them when he was a little boy and how it would be all neat looking with icing and candy canes and he could show his friends and…

“No Daddy! I want candy!!! Candy Daddy… pleeeeeassse!”

Right, so as I was saying these pieces have to be stuck together so we can build this house.

“No Daddy! Candy! Mommy, mommy… candy pleassse?!”

As the situation degenerated my son started to horde the gumdrops and candy canes. I was able to save Mrs. Gingerbread from a deadly tug of war unscathed and with her fixed smile still intact.

I finally gave him a gumdrop to appease the beast and he contentedly sucked on it and pointed at his mouth curled up in a victorious grin.

“Candy Daddy! I have candy!”

I knew I did not have much time so I pumped the icing furiously to build the sides and the roof. Icing flew everywhere as I worked like a mad sculptor in the throws of a creative epiphany. I worked the gumdrops into the roof and the little colored sugar beads onto the window frames and the door. I filled out the Gingerbreads and stuck on the candy canes. My son started to get excited too and pointed at the house and all the gleaming candy until he realized that it was no longer within his reach. By then it was too late. The masterpiece was finished and I dropped back into my seat exhausted and spent after having unleashed my inner child and novice architect. I did not hear my son’s pleading for more candy, all I saw was my glorious creation. I was a child again and even my wife who walked in on the scene said so as she shook her finger at me and picked up my son who was in full tantrum mode because of the gumdrop sugar rush and consequent negation of another dose by his father. A true holiday moment thanks to yours truly.

Branding pioneers and the way to a dad’s heart (and wallet).

Much has been said recently about dads and there place in the hearts and minds of brands. There is plenty already out there to read on the subject (and very different opinions) so I am not going to rehash the debate, but I wanted to give you guys a peek into a relationship I have had with a brand that is very supportive of the idea that dads are half of the parenting equation. Those who have followed my posts will know that I have talked fondly about Bugaboo on several occasions. One of my very firsts posts in fact was about my beloved Cameleon (aka The Thing-a-ma-jigger) so it was easy for them to start a conversation with me knowing that I was already a fan. Setting aside the pros and cons of their products (I am sure we all have our preferences) I wanted to tell you about something that they shared with me that does not really fall into the product review basket for which they usually contact me. What they wanted to talk about was advertising. Their new campaign – the “all-in-one-and-only” – was about ready to roll out and they asked me what I thought. Now as you may know from my info or from having met me, I am a Brand Strategist by trade, so this kind of opinion is what I get paid to give each day. I was too tempted and intrigued, though, by the possibility of giving my input on a brand that I admire to say no to a simple barter deal. What really got my attention was that Bugaboo presented me with two campaigns and said they felt that one campaign would resonate with men and dads. The other they felt was too “emotional” and had a greater affinity to women. I looked at the two campaigns and shook my head. They didn’t get it.

I was surprised because they had done so well in reaching out to a small, but vocal and growing group of men who they felt could help get their message out there, but the campaign they felt would attract us most to me just fell flat on its face. It is by a famous photographer and it is aesthetically very pleasing, but it is art and a Bugaboo stroller is first and foremost about family life, kids, going places together and doing things together. It is also a well made, form and function piece of design. At least that is my take on the brand.

I then looked at the “emotional” campaign that they felt was more appropriate for women. The first photo was a family with the father holding the kid standing next to the stroller.

The second photo was a family, again with dad in the picture (albeit they look like they live in Park Slope, Brooklyn).

Not until the third image was there a “mommy only” scene. Why in the world would I not connect with seeing a dad included in a picture with the product? Isn’t that the whole point of getting me to want to buy the product? If all I see is an “artistic” portrayal of the product how does that get me to project myself into that scene and find any sort of emotional connection (and subsequent loyalty if the products also performs to expectation).

You are right. This post is not about my son or parenting. It is about marketing. About how we interact with brands (as a blogger and as consumers).

The fact is that Bugaboo shot a campaign that included “dad” in the pictures and if it is true that a picture is worth a thousand words it is true that Bugaboo spoke more to me as a dad with that inclusion than many other brands that say they want to cater to men and dads; and yet, they continue to show only mom with baby and use mom-centric language in their descriptions. There are the pioneers who are willing to take on challenges and beat new paths and there are those who are content where they are safe and sound. One is not better than the other and in the world of marketing it is nonetheless a never-ending debate, but I’ve always admired the pioneers.

A lifesaver without the hole…

As soon as the words “diaper change” come out of my mouth, a flurry of “No! No! No!” is left hanging in the room as my son scurries off to the farthest corner of the apartment he can find. This is followed by what, to the outsider or uninitiated (a.k.a. non-parent), may seem like an idyllic scene of father chasing around his son who shrieks with delight at the game. Look a little closer and you will notice the grimace on the father’s face and a mixed expression of amusement and apprehension on the son’s. After a couple of fakes around the dining room table I can usually grab my son and immediately cup the back of his head in my hand as he makes his first evasive maneuver by going completely limp. I accompany his head to the floor as he tucks and rolls away all the time yelling “No! No! No!”. He then attempts another mad dash while wiggling his whole body to get me to release my grip. As I scoop him up he attempts his most daring and dangerous move – the backwards somersault. It’s certainly an Olympic moment as he tries to push off, arms forming a perfect “Y”, his back curving backwards and his head snapping back for momentum. This is followed by a quick lurch forward with head hurtling back towards my face. I have learned to move my head to avoid contact after the first few swollen lips, but my reflexes are not what they used to be so I find that I must start the motion while he is still executing his back flip. Given his strength and purpose I really should pile drive him into the changing table and knock the wind out of him to settle him down, but he’s a kid or so the little voice in my head tells me in the heat of the moment, so I attempt to lay him gently onto the table – flailing arms, splayed legs and all.

Now comes the hard part. He does not want to part with his sopping wet stinky diaper. No Sir. And he tells you that in no uncertain terms: “No! No! No!” while pushing your hands away and holding onto his diaper as he does with his beloved blankie. This is where it gets tricky. He barely fits on the changing table and so his sustained struggle to maintain possession of his stinky diaper is causing him to teeter on the edge and to threaten falling off the table. Even a solid forearm and elbow pin cannot stop him these days (left arm and elbow slanted across torso while left hand unfastens and fastens the diaper and also secures the ankles for the lift and tuck). The right hand works feverishly to wipe, remove stinky diaper, apply cream, replace and fasten a new diaper. All of this while avoiding direct contact with the stinky part of the diaper. When the wriggling is too intense contact is, unfortunately, inevitable. And to think of how worried I was when we first brought him home two years ago. My main concern then was how do I change his diaper without breaking him?

We are at a point now where diaper changes – for everyone’s safety – must occur on the floor. This gives him unlimited roll around range so the traditional changing pads are practically useless. This is bad news for our rugs since stinky diaper stuff transfers so easily. I have, though, found a pad that is a lifesaver in more ways than one. I recently met Grace, the inventor of the patemm changing pad. It seems so simple and yet she’s the only one who thought of a round changing pad. For my current diaper change situation it’s perfect and I will say that I wish I had found it sooner because it would have saved me a lot of grief. Just to be clear it is not an ultra-portable pad, but the padding and the configuration are, in my opinion worth it. There are plenty of patterns to choose from as well as laminated (for the spill prone) and non-laminated cotton versions. For the patriots, the pad is Made in USA. For the worrywarts, the pads are free of lead, phthalate, latex, BPA, or formaldehyde. These are durable pads that will grow with your kids until they no longer need diapers so you will only need to make the purchase once unless you are a shopaholic or want to make sure you have different colors to match all of your diaper bags. The patemm pad has certainly cut down the diaper change time for me from 30 minutes to 20 minutes which these days is another small parenting victory.

Looking good kid…

A few weeks ago, I worked my way across SoHo towards the now trendy Lower East Side. Tucked away in one of the many loft buildings is an office where a family run business creates some of the most exciting children’s clothing out there.

I was meeting Harald Husum, founder and chief designer of Appaman. A few minutes into the conversation we were already side tracked and talking about our kids and raising them in New York, the challenges of modern daddyhood and then inevitably about his Liverpool and my Roma football clubs (aka soccer). Eventually we were able to get back to talking about Appaman and how Harald, a Norwegian native, was a trailblazer in the children’s fashion industry as it has evolved over the last decade. In relatively few years and from its more humble beginnings as a hip silkscreened kid’s t-shirt shop, Appaman has set the standard for cool kid’s clothing. I find myself very much in sync with Harald’s vision that children’s clothing need not be cookie cutter blues and pinks. In fact, everything Appaman designs you might want yourself if only it came in adult sizes.

When Appaman first started to expand beyond just t-shirts, there was really no one else designing “streetwear” clothing. Many have followed, but certainly Harald is a pioneer. Year after year Appaman has expanded its line of clothing and while I was there talking with Harald I could see the racks of clothing for the Fall/Winter line in the background. As soon as I can, I will tell you more about this line and what you can expect to see in stores soon.

I know that as parents we always worry about our kids growing up too fast and that means tastes in clothing as well. What I find unique about Appaman is the ability to design practical children’s clothing that is just plain cool. Looking back at some of my pictures as a kid I can only wish that Harald had been around back then to liven things up a bit.

New toys for your inner child…

I was very excited a few weeks ago to get an invitation to Time To Play Magazine’s – Spring Summer 2010 Showcase. After watching Jim Silver and Chris Byrne of Time To Play Magazine talk about some of the new toys coming in the next few months, I was able to get some face-to-face time with the companies.  More than 20 leading toy and family entertainment companies were there and I wanted to give you a brief list of some of the toys that really got my inner child excited. Let’s face it, part of the fun of being parents is regressing to your childhood without looking like complete fools. Just make sure your kids are around for cover!

I went straight to the table with the most bubbles. I love bubbles and so does my son. It was one of the first words he could say and they make him laugh contagiously so they are at the top of my fun list. Little Kids had several new bubble toys that really caught my eye. First and foremost the combo bubble maker flashlight. I could really see my son running around with it giggling contentedly as the bubbles envelop him. You can find a great selection of Little Kids products at BJ’s Wholesale Club at their usual great prices and you can stock up so you have enough bubbles to last you through the year!

Disney had a great selection of new toys, but one product really stood out for me. With so much interactivity “necessary” these days for toys the Pook-A-Looz plush created by Disney’s in-house toy design team was really a refreshing idea in the sea of lights and sounds that we have gotten used to as parents. They have a great selection from a cast of characters from some of the great children’s stories and cartoons.

One of the most exciting for me of all the licensed products was Jazwares (a family run business for a change) that has revisited the A-Team of my youth. As I said before this is just as much about my inner child as it is about my son! I was skeptical about the new cast of characters, but I have to say they seem to have chosen wisely and if I am lucky enough to get a night off I will try to catch the movie and see if today’s A-Team still gives me the same thrill as they did back in the days.

The next product I saw was Street Surfing’s new Whiplash scooter. My son is still fumbling with his three-wheeled scooter, but his daredevil side I am sure would appreciate this interpretation of the Whiplash. I am glad, though, that he is not there yet so that I don’t need to worry about yet another way for him to run away from us in the park!

MEGA Brands was displaying its always impressive selection of toys for all ages. In particular, for toddlers like my son, there was a really great on-the-go Thomas and Friends box which considering how compact it is, makes for an impressive setup when open and assembled.

I then mosied over to Mattel which seemed to have quite a lot going on for older kids until I got closer and found the ultimate toy for my truck and car obsessed (at least in his current phase) son: the Big Rig Buddies. Basically the truck stands on its hind wheels and starts chomping on Matchbox cars that you feed it. The kicker for me is that it poops the car after an audible farting noise. OK. So most of the moms just went “Gross!” just like my wife did when I told her in my “hyper excited kid voice”. Whatever. Girls don’t get it. The dads get it so, yeah. It was cool. It’s a guy thing.

Hasbro had an Iron Man 2 helmet that I am not ashamed to admit that I was totally bummed they did not have it in my size. It was very cool with battle sounds and everything. You can even get the energy core to clip on to your shirt. My wife shook her head when she heard that one. Yeah, lot’s of head shaking. Muttered something about having two kids in the house. Weird because last I checked we only have a son.

Something kept flying by with a couple of kids running after it and when I looked up I saw what looked like a mini-UFO flying around. I looked to see who was controlling it with a remote, but found no one so I just followed what turned out to be the Air Hog Vectron Wave back to the Spin Master table. After explaining to me how it works with multiple sensors placed beneath it to keep it in the air and how after a certain height it knows to come back down I sort of shrugged and thought to myself that however it was doing it I just wanted one because it was totally cool. So I started then and there to outline my excuse for needing to get one that would be semi-plausible for my wife (yeah, I know, Good Luck!).

I kept PLAYMOBIL and Lego for last, because they are such a big part of my childhood. Whenever as a kid I was in Italy on family vacations all of my cousins and friends had PLAYMOBIL and I remember how badly I wanted their pirate ship, but in the New York only FAO Schwarz carried some PLAYMOBIL and in those days FAO Schwarz was a “premium” toy store. Much more accessible in the US of course were my Legos. I used to use them to build forts for my little plastic green soldiers.

Although I have to take all the small pieces away for now since my son is still in the habit of putting things in his mouth, there was a fire truck that PLAYMOBIL was showcasing that was awesome. The way PLAYMOBIL can keep such simple and clean designs on their toys and still have so much detail always impresses me. Lego as always finds ways to add creativity within their existing “building block” structures and they had some great additions to their Harry Potter licensed products.

I left content as can be, having regressed for a few hours and played with all these incredibly fun toys. Of course in the world of “gender specific” toys all of the above lacks a lot of the pink and frills that having a girl would have inevitably forced me to write about (then again I am told I used to love tea time with my sister’s dolls so it’s all relative). Luckily, I have a son and therefore have a rock solid excuse for neglecting those toys. Oh wait, my wife reminds me I have a niece. Uhm, well yes that is true. OK. So next time I promise I’ll talk about the frilly stuff. In the meantime, my inner child (or rather the little boy inside my head) looks forward to many of these toys hitting the stores soon and I will just have to remember that I am really buying them for my son to play with. Cross my heart.

Bucket seats for your Mini Me…

As I have said many times before, I love it when a product is well designed and practical. So often these two things are hard to reconcile, but that only increases their appeal to me when form and function are successfully united.

I was skeptical when I was asked to take a look at booster seats for kids because I am a New Yorker and we really don’t do cars much. During the year, I certainly put in a lot of miles when we jump the pond to visit my wife’s family and mine in Italy, so I agreed because I wanted to see, based on my particular car seat experience, what was so unique about these booster seats.

The sleek design of the Clek oobr booster seat was the first thing I saw when I walked into the coffee shop where I had my hands-on time with this exquisite piece of industrial design. The first thing that came to mind was a racing car’s bucket seats. One of the smart concepts behind the Clek oobr is to make sure that older kids continue to sit in a booster seat and stay safe without feeling foolish that they are in a “kiddie seat”. For me as a parent, on the other hand, after ensuring (above all else) my child’s safety, the most important feature is the ease of installation. I confess that I do not have to go through the daily routine of getting my son into a car and driving him around, nor do I find myself installing and removing car seats and booster seats to make room for passengers or package every day. I only have to worry about that when I rent a car or, as I mentioned, when I am in Italy. Here I was in a New York City coffee shop that I reached via subway so how could I really judge the convenience and safety of a booster seat? Well, it is exactly my occasional use of these devices that gives me a unique perspective that many such users (and I am sure even some daily users) can relate to.

Let me start by saying that I hate car seats. They are an attack on the very essence the male ego as defined by the stereotype of men and worse – Dads – as “Mr. Fix/Install it”. Inevitably, my wife looks at me with that typical female look of scorn as I struggle to get the stupid thing buckled, latched, hooked or whatever into the backseat. I know women think they can do a better job of it, and I am sure they can, so why do they feel it is necessary to send the man out there? Most probably it has to do with savoring the frustration and growing sense of humiliation he feels as he grapples with the straps and levers on this most nefarious contraption. In my case, the humiliation is augmented as the entire car rental agency staff and customers assist the scene. I admit I am not a pro and no matter how many times I do it, I just never get it right. I no longer go with my wife to pick the car up and usually figure I should get there an hour early to make sure no one sees me as I throw out my back working on getting everything into place. It is worse in Italy, especially during the hot summer months when I end up in a pool of sweat and with burns on my knees and thighs from constantly rubbing against the incandescent car doors and metal frame while wrestling the damn thing into place or trying to yank it out when we are at the beach.

This brings me to the feature that made me fall in love with the Clek oobr in terms of practicality. The easy install rigid latch system that allows you to push and secure the seat into place and then easily release it when you need to remove it. The simplicity and wisdom of Mr. Miyagi’s “wax on wax off” teachings applied to a car seat. Indeed, though, that is not all this booster seat offers. I just wanted to let you know my favorite part because as insane as you think I am, now that you have read this far, in my new life as a parent it really is all about the simple things in life. The Clek oobr is not your usual molded plastic and foam booster seat. Crypton super fabric, of the “I am rubber and you are glue” school of thought, allows you wipe the seat clean despite your kid’s best efforts at working the crushed Cheerios into the seat. The back rest (removable so it grows with your kid) protects your kid from side impact vehicle intrusions and made of the same durable and light weight magnesium frame found also in race car bucket seats and luxury car seats confirming my initial observation upon first spotting the seat “from across the room”. And the cherry on top, the recline system so your kid can sleep without looking like Raggedy Ann bobbing around in the back of the car.

So that takes care of the parenting concerns for safety and the male ego’s desire for practicality. The most kid friendly part of the Clek oobr’s structural make up is the comfort of the actually seat which unlike many booster and car seats is made of energy absorbing comfort-cube construction to go easy on your kid’s tushy. So no more, “my butt’s asleep” whining on those long rides. The headrest is height adjustable just like a car seat so that your kid is always well protected and comfortable which is what you would expect from an automotive seat manufacturer like Clek (I’m sorry, did I fail to mention that about them?). They have also added different seat fabrics to add some fun design elements to allow parents and kids to customize the booster seat. Paul Frank Julius and Skurvy prints are available, as well as the more classic solid colors (and an all black version – I assume for us New Yorkers) to get kids to look at this booster seat as a cool car “accessory” and not a kiddie style crimper.

I would certainly get a Clek oobr if I were not living (as I have already said ad nauseum) in a closet. And this is really my only concern about this innovative, sleek (yet ruggedized) take on the booster seat. And it really is something that I would have to seriously consider when deciding whether or not to buy it for my city dwelling needs. I do not like the loaners that rental companies give you for many reasons that I am sure need no explanation. I do in fact, want to purchase a booster seat that I can use whenever renting or traveling and as much as I am in love with the Clek oobr I just cannot justify occupying that amount of space for a smattering of yearly car rentals and it certainly is not coming with me to Italy or any other destination where I may need a car to get around.

Lucky for me (and those who have the same space issues and concerns) I was introduced to the Clek olli and ozzi models – the backless booster seats that are just as easy to install and remove as the Clek oobr with the added bonus of extreme portability. Given all the other pros they have handed down to their younger, yet larger, sibling, I will be certain to get one of these for my rentals and trips to Italy when my son hits the target age, weight and height because they are very light and easy to travel with and to store at home. I will be sure to report back from the war room once my son can tussle with ones of these seats and put it through the extreme in-field testing that only a kids can put any product through – which at the rate he is growing will be very soon!