Monday, 18 May 2015

Flying with an infant


Babe #2 is still incubating in my (surprisingly gigantic) belly, but when a good friend asked for advice on travelling with an infant, I realized I didn’t have any posts about this. So, while it’s been more than 3 years since I flew around Australia and across the Pacific with Ryder as a tiny babe, I’ll do my best here to provide some useful (read: quite possibly bad) advice.

Packing your suitcase
As you know from being at home, babies are insanely messy. They are constantly peeing and pooping and puking on themselves and you. While it’s tempting to just bring enough clothes so that you won’t have to do laundry while away, this may result in a ridiculously large and/or extremely smelly suitcase partway into your trip. It’s a good idea, therefore, to pack a bit of laundry detergent that you know the child is not allergic to so you can hand-wash some of the really bad stuff in the evenings or, if needed, visit a Laundromat.

In addition to clothes, don’t forget some of the essentials you find yourself using around the house: barf rags, extra pacifiers, a few (like 2) special toys/books if they are of-that-age. Other stuff that may come in handy and is a pain to acquire on the road: thermometer, baby medicines of various sorts, bathing liquids/lotion/etc., baby bug repellant and/or sunscreen (or, if they are too little for these things, then something to keep biting bugs and excess sun off them if you are planning to be outdoors). A few small blankets of various weights are also handy.
 
It's pretty convenient when they can't go anywhere themselves


Packing for the plane
On the plane, you will need all the usual diaper-bag stuff: diapers (bring more than you think you’ll need), wipes, butt cream, pacifier, extra clothes for the baby (and a waterproof bag for the dirty ones), barf rag, and hand sanitizer for changes in places without hand-washing facilities. It’s definitely possible to travel with cloth diapers – you just need to be sure you have enough dirty-diaper storage capacity to get between convenient washing locations (for instance, the plane is not a convenient place to wash and dry nappies). However, I admit that most of our travel – aside from long trips to our relative’s houses or short weekend trips – was completed using disposables.

Note: airline employees and fellow passengers do not enjoy it when you change your baby at your seat, even if it’s just a pee diaper. There are pull-down tables in at least one bathroom on every plane (that I’ve been on) for this purpose.

In addition to these typical baby-clean-up items, you should also pack a change of clothes for yourself. It is super unpleasant to fly halfway across the ocean after being voluminously puked on and having nothing to change into.

Also, bring some sort of blanket/swaddler, and a carrier – a sling, wrap, ergo, whatever you like. Note that it’s inconsistent how airport security and airlines behave when it comes to carriers: in some cases you can wear the baby through security but get some extra patting-down and explosive-hand-swabbing-tests done, and in other cases they make you take the kid out and awkwardly put the carrier through the x-ray machine and then somehow get the kid back into the carrier on the other side without putting him on the floor in the interim (I guess it helps if you are travelling with a partner). Similarly, some airlines will let you wear the baby on the plane in your seat, and others will make you take them out and hold them (I’ve been told this is because they want to be able to easily get the baby off the plane if there is a crash and you are incapacitated. My thought is that the baby would probably be in better shape for survival during a crash in a carrier, but some airlines think otherwise…also note it’s not a good idea to argue about this with the airline people, as they do have the authority to judge you hostile and kick you off the plane). 
Don't forget to take differences in weather into account. Sydney to San Francisco in December? Thank goodness for clever grandparents showering warm clothing upon the babe.

Other accouterment
Things you should not attempt to bring on a trip:
            -Baby bathtub
            -Breastfeeding pillow
            -Baby towels
            -A bunch of toys
            -A behemoth stroller, if you can help it
            -Baby bed, unless it’s collapsible
            -A travel crib
            -Baby swing
            -Other large and bulky items

That said, when we went to the US for over a month when Ryder was 6 weeks old, we brought: a collapsible bassinet, a bouncy chair (that came apart), carseat, and relatively small collapsible stroller with carseat attachment capability. In hindsight, the bassinet was not necessary. On a subsequent trip, we just put him in a drawer – literally – that we pulled out of a dresser, put some padding into it, and voila. However, he was a bit older then and we were less worried about SIDS. So, if you’ve got a baby bed that you like and doesn’t require a separate suitcase, toss it in the bag. Similarly, the bouncy chair was nice to have on such a long trip – he could sit and be part of the action at dinner, for instance, but we could have survived without it, given all the extra arms available.
 
Don't underestimate the ingenuity of grandparents
I know people who have travelled without carseats – they either rent them on arrival, or in places with less strict laws just say – “hey, the local babies don’t use car seats!” I personally find this second idea insane, as I prefer my children not to be killed in easily preventable ways. But, that’s just me. Also, renting car seats can add up quickly. Given that airlines allow you to check a car seat for free, it doesn’t make sense to leave it behind (unless the carseat you own won’t pass for legal in the country you are visiting – check the local laws).

I also know people who have made a point to travel without a stroller. They just pop the baby in a carrier of some sort, and whisk off. I find this way too exhausting: carrying the baby, the carseat, the diaper bag, and dragging the luggage is too much for me, so I would rather bring a stroller to help get the load off my back.

That said, I check the carseat and stroller with my luggage at the counter, and then wear the baby around the airport. Of course, if your baby hates going in the stroller or the carrier, then leave the hated one behind.

On the plane
I’ve seen stories about people touted as being “so thoughtful” for handing out earplugs and candy, etc. to fellow passengers seated near them when travelling with an infant. Well, screw that! Here’s why:
(1)  Most babies do not actually cry that much on planes, particularly little ones. The white noise is soothing, they get to sit on the parent’s laps, there are interesting things to look at, and they generally just eat and sleep most of the time anyway.
(2)  If you are the kind of person who is bothered by other people’s kids crying, then get your own damned earplugs, or don’t fly.
(3)  People who get to spend a flight drinking whiskey and reading trashy magazines—instead of being puked on and fretting about whether a tiny person is too hot or needs a nap—need to just shut their traps and smile kindly at those of us doing our best to ensure the survival of a fragile human.

While Ryder has never exhibited ear discomfort on planes (not sure how this is possible), I was always somewhat religious about nursing him or giving a pacifier on takeoff and landing. After a brief few days of trying and failing to use a nursing cover, I realized that unless I am nursing in front of people I work with, I don’t really care if people potentially see some portion of my mammary glands. After all, humans are mammals and that is why we have these lumps on our fronts: to nurse babies. So flying between places like the US, Europe, and Australia I had no qualms about nursing Ryder in my seat without a gigantic mumu-style cover-up hanging around my neck. I did use one while transiting through Dubai, and around Singapore, and I would use one in other places where modesty is an important part of the culture. 

On long-haul or otherwise international flights, we always requested a bassinet. The bulkhead seats on a lot of the international planes have space for bassinets to be attached to the wall. It’s pretty fantastic to be able to put your baby into a bassinet to sleep (particularly on overnight flights on airlines that don’t allow carriers – it’s basically impossible to sleep without dropping your kid on the floor otherwise).

 Oh yes – and the best two pieces of advice a lovely older woman gave me: you’ll almost certainly never see any of your fellow passengers again, and the flight will eventually end. So you’ll be just fine. 
Just taking a little break on the ground at the train station with our camping and surf gear, as you do.
 

Friday, 17 April 2015

Starting a new job


I’ve been working at UMass Boston now for more than 6 months, but I still have a lot to learn. I’ve found it somewhat surprising how simple things can trip you up when starting at a new place of work, so I’ve made a randomly ordered list (I know, I’m obsessed with lists) comprised of things that might confuse new people. If every company/University/government office would hand us each a “new employee” manual that contained the answers to these sorts of questions – I think it would make things run much more efficiently.

1.     Where are the pens?
2.     Where are the other office supplies?
3.     How do I get set up with email/wifi/etc.?
4.     Where can I find and get access to the important websites, like:
  •  HR
  • Class schedules and roster
  • Blackboard 
  • Maintenance requests
  • Tracking spending on grants/startup $
  • Websites for specific things such as graduate admissions documents (if you are on that committee)
5.     How do I print?
6.     How do I make photocopies?
7.     Where is the library and how do I find and check out:
  •  Journals 
  •  Books 
  •  Interlibrary loan items
8.     Who are the PR people to contact for press releases?
9.     Who are the grants office people?
10.  What is the standard overhead rate for grants? Do we get any of this back?
11.  What are fringe benefits and how are they charged on grants?
12.  Is there a lactation room, and where is it?
13.  What shared lab facilities exist, and where are they?
14.  Where is the bathroom?
Who do I call for help?
15.  What teaching supplies exist for lab classes?
16.  How do I get new teaching supplies for my classes?
17.  How do I order supplies for my lab?
18.  Is there an on-campus stockroom where I can purchase items?
19.  How do I get my own website?
20.  Where can I store and heat up my lunch?
21.  When and where are any recurring seminars held?
22.  What public transport and parking options exist? Are there discounts?
23.  How do I sign up for instrument/boat/etc. time?
24.  What if my assigned classroom is not set up well for teaching, and/or the ceiling starts falling down when it rains?
25.  How are graduate students supported?
26.  How do I recruit graduate students?
27.  How can I incorporate undergraduate students in my lab (independent study, volunteer, work study, etc.)?
28.  Are there any on-campus health facilities that I can access if needed?
29.  How do I use the exercise facilities?
30.  How do I get basic supplies like paper towels and soap in my lab classroom?
31.  How do I take students on fieldtrips? 
Is there an adorable toddler who gives out protective eyewear and air fresheners somewhere on campus?
32.  Is there any organized safety training that myself, students in my lab, or students in my lab classes need to undertake?
33.  Who do I call if I have a hazardous waste spill in the lab?
34.  How is hazardous waste stored and picked up?
35.  How the actual F- do I keep the lights on or off in my office instead of relying on the automatic motion detector thing that doesn’t work?
36.  How do I get a phone and/or what is my phone number?
37.  How do I dial out? Long distance?
38.  How do I access new software licensed or purchased by the University?
39.  Where is the best/worst coffee on campus?
40.  What childcare facilities are available on campus or nearby?
41.  Where should I live for ease of commuting, quality of life, schools?
42.  What kind of specialized gear do I need to buy to deal with the new climate into which I am moving?
43.  Do I get my money back if there are 4 blizzards within the first month of spring semester?
44.  How do I get an ID card?
45.  How do I get keys/access to my office/lab/building?
46.  How does incoming and outgoing mail and package delivery work?
47. What is the emergency phone number?

I’m sure there are other questions I’ve forgotten – and I haven’t even brushed the surface when it comes to moving countries! But that’s another story.

What other items would you include in the ideal “how stuff works here” manual?

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Book an airplane ticket without screwing something up



I am the self-appointed queen of messing up airline ticket bookings. So, when my partner recently asked me to “triple check” some flights I had found and he had checked and booked, I decided a pre-flight checklist was in order.

I’ll probably devise some new way to screw things up soon, but for now here is my list of ways to avoid known pitfalls when booking flights:


**3/9 Updated with handy tips from my fellow world-travelling enthusiasts**



Additional tip: If you do find something wrong within 24 hours, you can cancel your plane tickets for no charge (I’m pretty sure this works for all airlines; I’ve done it with at least 4).

p.s. here is that link in the above image



Monday, 16 February 2015

How to commute, by foot and train, with a 3 yr old in a historically snowy Boston winter

Just over 3 weeks ago, we moved to a little apartment in Cambridgeport, near Boston, from San Diego. This of course was a shock for many reasons, and the little guy spent the first few days with a stupefied look on his face every time we braved the outdoors. We are an adult-paced 10 minute walk from the Redline train. If the train runs normally, it should take about 18 minutes to get to the UMass Boston stop, followed by another 10 minute walk to the preschool (and then another 10 minutes from there to my office).

So, there’s the setup – this seems reasonable, right?! I had visions of Ryder and I reading books, drawing, and discussing life on the train, and chatting as we walked on either side of the ride. I thought the walking would be good for my lazy bones, which have little interest in surfing in a frozen ocean. I hoped to take advantage of additional bonding time during our commute instead of dropping him off somewhere near home and then commuting alone and being apart even longer each day.

Of course this is not how it works.

Well, first we keep having snow days – six for us in the past three weeks – so on those days there is no commuting at all. The non-snow days, the snow is still there, but theoretically some people have made an effort to dig out sidewalks and the roads are more or less plowed.


Perhaps I should clarify that Challenge A' is getting out of the house

Challenge A: How to get to the actual train

1.    First, the child must be dressed for the weather. This means normal indoor clothing, as I would dress him in San Diego, followed by snow pants, snow jacket, snow boots, hat and mittens. I am much too impatient to let him just get dressed by himself (I estimate this would take between 1-24 hours), so this means struggling down on the floor with a resistant, floppy, 35-lb octopus for approximately 10 minutes (every time we want to go outside…WTF?!). I admit, there are typically some mild threats or bribery involved to get him to either not run into the kitchen after each article of clothing is administered, or not collapse onto the floor while I am trying to get on the snow pants.

2.   Next, you must get yourself, your child, your work accouterment, and the preschool things onto said train. You have several choices:
       a.     Walking: Theoretically, 3-yr olds can walk pretty well. However they have essentially no motivation to walk in a determined manner from one location to the other (unless that location is, for instance, the ice cream shop). Why move forward when one can just stand around and look at things, pick up trash, eat snow, and then sit down and get completely filthy and wet in the slush?
       b.     Carrying: Maybe if you are more fit than I am, you’d be eager to engage in the full-body workout presented by carrying 15 lbs of work/preschool crap and a limp/wiggling 35-lb child encased in slippery outerwear. I, shockingly, am not interested in this option.
       c.     Pulling: After a snowstorm, pulling the child and gear on a sled could be a decent option. It actually takes very little energy to pull 50 lbs of stuff on a plastic sled over the snow. But then there are the overzealous people who shovel and salt their sections of sidewalk immediately – and pulling 50 lbs of crap in a sled over concrete freaking sucks. As does asking the child to stand up and walk for 10 feet on each block, which they will of course refuse to do.
Sledding down the middle of the street is great before it gets plowed
      d.     Pushing: The last option is to use a stroller to push the child & junk to the station. This is also not without its challenges.
                                               i.     Have you ever pushed a stroller through dry sand while wearing ice skates? Neither have I, but I imagine this exercise may require a similar amount of effort to pushing a stroller through several inches of snow, slush, or ice. These surfaces present resistance to the forward motion of the stroller, while providing essentially no grip for your shoes to create said motion.
                                             ii.     Normal strollers with small wheels, as I originally had, are completely useless in the snow, so you must use a jogging stroller. Also, the sidewalks in Boston are old and shitty and cracked, so even without snow to plow through the large wheels will be helpful.
                                            iii.     Jogging strollers have a really wide wheel base, which sucks when people get frustrated by all the snow and give up on shoveling the sidewalks properly, forcing us to walk in the road.
Impassable with a stroller
Challenge B: How to survive the train ride

1.   Get on the train. This doesn’t work well when the weather throws everyone into a tizzy and the MBTA reduces its schedule: fewer trains + more riders who don’t want to walk or drive = you will only get on the train if it happens to stop with the doors directly in front of you, and only if you then you just shove yourself and your giant jogging stroller on while making everyone else mad.

2.   Try not to immediately die of heat stroke on the train. After bundling for freezing temperatures, cramming yourselves like sardines onto a heated train is somewhat unpleasant. It’s helpful if you can maneuver enough to remove at least a hat or mittens from yourself and the child, and/or unzip your jacket.

3.  The child will rather quickly tire of being strapped into the stroller surrounded by legs, and will request with increasing volume to get out (though there is nowhere to go). Bribe the child to stay quiet until the train starts to thin out with food, toys, your phone, or whatever else will entertain him briefly in this hellish situation.

4.   When the train thins out and you get to move from blocking half the doorway to blocking half the aisle with the giant stroller, do so and sit down. Allow the child to escape the stroller for the final few stops, but note that he will expend much energy trying to get off the seat he requested and sit or lie on the filthy floor, slick with melted snow. Throw all hopes of bonding over books, etc. out the window immediately.

You’ve made it to the other end of your train commute! Now it’s just time to repeat Challenge A for the morning, go have a full day at work, and do it all over again in the evening! I highly recommend bringing some sort of sweet treat (cookies, etc.) to get both yourself and your child through at least the first stage of the trek home with mild sugar-induced happiness.

(Note, I will not even mention Challenge C: scraping up the energy to enthusiastically play with the child, make dinner, etc. instead of just collapsing onto the couch for the evening).

What are you waiting for? Come join me in the Northeast, preferably right before several extreme record-breaking snowfall events!
Ryder is becoming quite the iPhone photographer, chronicling our walk in the street to the train station