Family fun for $1.50

The early morning storm that whipped through central Iowa rained out our plan to head down to Indianola and watch the balloon launch for the third year running, but a few hours later it was shaping up to be a beautiful morning and we were eager to get outside.

Ashby Park in Beaverdale is our go-to splash pad spot, but friends in our babysitting co-op have been recommending McHenry Park (1012 Oak Park Ave. in north-central Des Moines, near Highland Park*), and today felt like a good morning to scope it out.

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McHenry Park is easy to get to from the downtown trail system (we drove this time) and features several shelters shaded by old Oak trees with views of both the 801 building, river and prairie flowers.

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The splash park is great fun for little kids, and an awesome alternative to putting the sprinkler out in your front yard.

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A big frog, gigantic turtle and fake old tree are the splash area’s main features. Just touch the sensor on the green pole to get them started and fountains all around burst to life.

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Emmett ran squealing around, and I liked that there’s less of a need for parents to be in a swimsuit to participate. I got my feet wet perched on the tortoise shell.

wpid-20150725_105310.jpgThe water runs into a natural drainage area that was closed off for our visit, but it looks like it’s a kind of faux creek-walking experience when accessible.

The park has standard equipment, but the thing that sets it apart is a nature-inspired play area that looks more like a beaver’s Adventureland.

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Huge hollowed trees, stumps and a faux rock formation are perfect for bigger kids to pretend they’re wildlife.

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After we dried off, we headed to Union Park for a few spins around the Heritage Carousel. Union Park also has a splash pool, if you aren’t water-ed out. It’s home to a huge rocket slide, too, and Birdland Park just down the hill (2100 Saylor Rd.) features Ding Darling shelter and a playground more appropriate for tots.)

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Today was apparently National Carousel Day (who knew?!). Emmett got three rides for $1.50, and the day proved to be a cheap, toddler-friendly blast.

Heads-up: The Heritage Carousel is hosting Clowns at the Carousel next Sunday, Aug. 2 2015 from 4-7 p.m. It looks like they’re still seeking volunteers, too.

*Bring a few more dollars in cash and you should definitely stop by the Highland Bakery for doughnuts. They’re open until Noon on Saturdays, but closed Sunday/Monday.

Do you have any favorite parks in central Iowa? I wrote a story once for The Register about a couple of families who set a goal to visit 100 Parks in one summer, which seems like a great boredom-buster.

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How we: Babysitting co-op

I sometimes get questions about the babysitting co-op we’re part of, and I thought I’d share some details here!  Back when I was on maternity leave with Emmett, I used to pop in at a local postpartum group where we’d talk about breastfeeding, baby sleep patterns, relationships, or do fun activities like baby massage. It was a helpful weekly outing to gear up for, especially in those early days when simply leaving the house with a newborn felt like a major accomplishment. This session was almost exactly two years ago!

babymassage In the spot where the group met was a flier on the wall for “FREE BABYSITTING,” and, while it caught my eye, I wasn’t quite sure what it meant. My friend Amy (of Yummy Toddler Food fame) clued me in — it was a babysitting cooperative that she was a part of. As it happens, Amy was moving to a small town outside of Des Moines, and so she introduced me to the group and gifted me with her remaining ‘points’. Essentially, a babysitting co-op is a more formalized structure for parents trading babysitting with other parents who have kids around the same age. You can start a co-op among friends, and it’s a great way to widen the circle and get to know people who are around the same life stage. A babysitting co-op probably not an end-all solution to your childcare issues, but it’s a really nice option for people who don’t have a lot of family in town.

sitting So how does it work? You babysit each other’s kids and attend/host meetings and play dates for points instead of cash. In our co-op, an hour of babysitting “costs/pays” 2 points per kid (or 3 points during a premium weekend night), and additional kids are a point. We offer extra points for sitting at the requesting family’s house, too, which can make bedtime sits a lot easier. Families can also earn points for attending or hosting a meeting or play date (we had a brunch pancake-making play date at our house in February, and in June someone hosted a nature walk at Brown’s Woods). We alternate between a meeting or play date every other month.

pancakes At first, I thought the meetings were kind of a pain, because who really needs more meetings in her life? But aside from being a time to plan upcoming play dates and talk about, say, potty training techniques, it’s a nice environment to get to know the other parents and see the homes where you’re sending kids. There are typically drinks and snacks, which elevate any meeting to nearly a party.

Play dates are a bonus activity, and again, a great chance to get to know the parents and kids. I only knew one of the other moms in the co-op when we joined, and in the year-and-a-half since, I’ve come to really appreciate the people in the group as friends. It turns out one of the other moms and I worked at the same Colorado Girl Scout camp, different summers, and live just down the street from each other now. It might have taken years to cross paths with them, or we may never have met at all!

We use a free site, SittingAround.com, for administration of points/sit requests and as a home base for co-op info, and then have a private Facebook group where we post more casual updates, events, photos, etc. We take turns with admin/secretary duties at meetings, and people can participate in the co-op as much or little as they want. But, the more active your group, the better it is for everyone.

Our co-op was started by a woman who attended the Before & After the Birth postpartum group, and involved some of her friends with kids around the same age, and others who had a connection to that group. Martha has since moved to New York, but was super organized and awesome about starting it up, and even attended a meeting when she was back in town this week!

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An afternoon at Big Creek State Park

Joe and I celebrated our fifth (!!!) wedding anniversary this weekend, without any big plans. The weather was wonderful so while we sat sipping coffee on the porch we brainstormed a few ideas to spend the day outdoors.

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Joe had the idea to head to Big Creek State Park, which is in Polk City adjacent to Saylorville Lake – about 30 minutes northwest of Des Moines. I had never been, but he bikes through with his brothers-in-law each April on a guys trip, and it turned out to be the perfect place to celebrate with our little family!

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Swimming: I can’t really call what we did swimming, but I can attest that a toddler will be able to amuse himself for quite some time repeatedly dumping buckets of water and sand at the shoreline. And, at least compared to some other Iowa watering holes I’ve dipped my toes in, Big Creek (which was created by the Saylorville Dam) felt relatively clean. I’m not sure it’s because we went so soon after flooding, but the beach looked like it had been freshly plowed (?) and was somewhat difficult to walk on, but tidy.

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Picnicking: I was impressed by the array of shelters available. There are several huge family reunion style shelters up close to the beach/main parking area (and several other older shelters at different spots along the lake), and a bunch of small group or single-family mini shelters scattered throughout, too. There are a few little bathrooms in that area, too.

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We just grabbed one of the numerous picnic tables in the shade, though. We packed lots of snacks, but wound up ordering hot lunch from the concession area, where the grill was going. They also have ice cream treats and snow cones available.

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Mega park: I seriously wanted to be about 8-years old again when we saw this park. I love huge, castle-like wooden parks and this one had lots of towers and turrets and tires.

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Emmett is currently obsessed with Baby Einstein, and there’s an episode where a knight gets locked in a castle that we had to reenact about 30 times. I can’t wait to go back with all of his cousins, because it’s got tons of cool features without being high-tech at all.

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Biking/boating: I didn’t realize you can rent not only canoes but pontoons (from the announcements they were making, it sounded like they had them as big as 12-passenger!). Boating didn’t happen for us because by the time we’d hit the beach, eaten lunch and played at the park, Emmett was starting to melt down. Joe had packed our bikes, though, so we did a handful of miles along prairie paths while Emmett conked out in his Burley trailer.

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The super cool thing is that it’s possible to take the Neal Smith Trail from downtown all the way up to Big Creek (about 28 miles). Don’t forget to download Iowa By Trail before you go!

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We capped off our anniversary celebration with a kid-free dinner date to Skip’s and to see “Inside Out” because we never get to the movies these days! 

P.S. I still stand by this post I wrote awhile back on “magic words for a happy marriage.”

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Motherhood: Two years in

On the way home from picking Emmett up today, we decided to ruin prelude our dinners by stopping for a little fro-yo at Menchies because it’s Tuesday, it’s hot out, I’m pregnant and he’s charming. (And we got a call from the doctor today saying, without much detail yet, that his allergy levels have gone down considerably. CELEBRATION!)

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The yogurt mustn’t have spoiled things too much, because later during dinner (Joe and I did a weird parental hand-off in the Menchie’s parking lot so I could swing by the dsm unveiling) Emmett said to me: “How was your day, mom?”

If I could describe this 2-year-old phase, it’s a little bit tug-of-war and a lot of heart-melt moments when you realize your child may actually be listening and learning from you after all. We make family meals a time for sharing stories, and I’ve been asking Emmett how his day was, and asking him to ask his daddy how his day was. For him to ask me, unsolicited, was magic, pure and simple.

When we drive past Gray’s Lake and see a sailboat, he quotes to me from “The Max Book” aka “Where the Wild Things Are,” and when we pick raspberries in the backyard he pretends to be Sal and I’m mama bear. We got a goldfish with some of his birthday money (which he named Rock) and he said to me, right in the middle of PetSmart – “Mom, this is Rock. I love him!”

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My baby is a little boy who uses colloquialisms (currently: “you’re kidding me!” “guess what?!”), narrates everything he’s doing, calls his parents names (“worm sandwich” and “dirty sandwich”), offers to help, and asks me not to sing to him (“Don’t make that noise, mom!”). He tells us how much he loves us (soooo much), with big hugs around the neck and wet, open-mouth kisses.

My baby is a little boy who skins his knees, cruises on his bike, pages through his books and watches construction sites with rapt amazement. He’s growing more cautious as he learns the world isn’t all soft surfaces. He’s growing more confident as he assists with every day chores, like making coffee.

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My baby is a little boy whose curiosity and comprehension expand on an hourly basis, and who daily makes me chuckle with disbelief at his intelligence and compassion.

One minute, I’m chasing – reminding him to stop at the end of the sidewalk. Another minute he’s demanding to be held, or screaming himself to sleep in my bed, tiny feet digging into my kidneys. Keeping up with this emerging personality — who exercises his independence and his neediness, delighted and devastated by the realities of life on an ever-changing basis — is like running in the sand. I know we’re getting somewhere, but the footing is constantly shifting. Can’t beat the view, though.

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At this point, my biggest concern is figuring out this next phase of childcare. He’s been with my amazing sister-in-law since my maternity leave ended, but she’s about to have her third child and our hope is for our second child to join her when my maternity leave ends this winter, so it’s time for Emmett to move on.

I’ve taken for granted how amazing it is for him to be able to tag along to the zoo or science center or various playgrounds  and take epic naps and for me to never have to worry about his safety or whether he was in the care of someone who loved him. We’re still third on the waiting list for the full-time program down the street, which was my original plan for him. I think we have a spot for him in a dual language program, which is an interesting environment, especially for such a verbal kid, but the fact that the center hasn’t been returning my e-mails makes me uncomfortable.

Motherhood is all sorts of letting go and listening, so I suppose it’s time to take this next step and then listen and trust him when I ask how his day was.

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P.S. ICYMI, my last post was a shoutout to a few local mamas who I admire! 

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Local mama love

I’ve been mulling a post marking my second year of motherhood for a few weeks, but I just can’t seem to gather my thoughts. So much has changed since the first bewildering weeks, and yet two years in, I’m still asking myself how the heck other parents do it on pretty much a weekly basis.

So, while I continue to gather thoughts, I wanted to give a shoutout to a few local moms I admire. There are a couple dozen I’m missing here, obviously:

If there was some sort of pageant for captain of the crunchy mamas, I think Jenn Riggs would be crowned. I first saw but didn’t meet Jenn at a baby story time during the first few weeks of maternity leave. She was this cool looking lady with crazy curls and tattoo sleeve and this relaxed, happy vibe. Coincidentally, a few weeks later I joined a “natural fit mamas” workout class that Caeli Esser was instructing, and Jenn happened to be the coordinator. Jenn’s the kind of natural connector and resource that new moms need. She’s honest that it’s not always easy, but radiates joy.

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She’s a doula, and started a forest friends play group concept, and any woman who can double fist a glass of wine and a small goat is clearly a goddess.

(Also, if you’re looking to connect with moms in the outdoors, I saw there’s a DSM chapter of ‘Hike it Baby‘ that got started!)

The whole city seems to be awaiting the birth of Ms. Emily Lang’s baby girl, and although that occasion will officially make her a mama, her work with youth as an educator and inspirer has already cast her as a mother figure. Keep your eyes on RUN DSM. I’m so excited that my daughter might just get the chance to go to school with hers. I hope that they pass poems in class. Her spoken word piece on 10 things she wants her daughter to know is full of goosebump moments:

Everyone needs that friend with whom you can be totally truthful, vulnerable and ridiculous. Extra bonus when she has a few extra months of motherhood on you and can be both a guiding star and sounding board for joys and challenges. For me, that’s Arin Hummel. You might know her as the co-owner of Ephemera, the darling stationery shop with the red and white awning in the East Village. Arin and I came of age together and I’m so glad we get to share this next stage of making-it-up-as-we’re-going-along parenthood together. And also moments where we’re more just goofy ladies giggling in the back of a burlesque show, out past bedtime.

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I’m so glad to know such cool women/mamas. I think I might also do a post about how a babysitting co-op works, because lots of people ask and I’ve found ours to be a super supportive network. Shoutout to co-op mama, Alexson, who had her second baby yesterday! We’re growing!

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Prairie Party at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge

Pick a blue sky day when the clouds are extra fluffy, pack a picnic and head to Prairie City, where the buffalo roam and butterflies flutter freely.

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I can’t believe it’s taken me 8 years of living in Central Iowa to experience the beauty of the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. We went to their Concert on the Prairie fundraiser on Friday night, and it was such a treat to explore the visitor center (after hours-ooh) and wander the paths nearby. (Joe, with local wine in hand, of course. Pretty picturesque happy hour.)

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We learned about conservation efforts and there was a casual dinner and a concert by the Big Blue Sky project, and Emmett mostly entertained himself by touching plants and throwing clods of dirt into the air.

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The visitor center has lots of classroom space, interesting exhibits about prairie habitats and restoration, and a sweet little kids puppet theater, among other features.  DSC_0075  .

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Emmett was too scared to go into the cave maze area, but I was all honey badger don’t care.

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We also drove through part of the 700-acre enclosure that is home to bison and elk, which felt like being on a special little safari. I definitely poked my head out of the sun roof to get a few more photos.

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As part of his job at the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, Joe is learning more about ecosystems like the tallgrass prairie and oak savanna that are native to Iowa, but now rare after European settlement. I’m glad he’s teaching us, in turn, and that Emmett is getting opportunities to be in nature.

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I kind of wanted to wear a Laura Ingalls Wilder bonnet and sing the Dixie Chicks “Wide Open Spaces” at the same time. There’s enough land out here I could probably do this without anyone seeing, but a nice lady offered to take a quick family photo, so I kept in the crazy this time.

The Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge features miles of trails, and I can’t wait to go back when we’re able to do some more ambitious hiking. Also, we’ll need to work in a stop at Goldie’s Ice Cream Shoppe, which is owned by a friend-of-friends and is supposed to be pretty amazing.

P.S. In further evidence that I’m turning into my mother, I picked up a flier for the NSNWR’s 1st Annual Pollinator Fest happening Saturday, June 20 2015 from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.. It’s a free, family friendly event that will feature some special kid-oriented activities (bug hunts! storytellers! crafts! pollinator seed packet giveaway!) 

Find the Friends of Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge on Facebook.

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30-before-30: How’d I do?

Oh, hey, I’m 30!

I’ve actually been looking forward to this birthday for awhile. I’m pretty happy with how my 20s turned out, so it’s not that I was wishing them away, but the 30s seem to be the decade of really owning where you’re at and appreciating life’s journey. Most of my good friends are rockin’ their 30s already and seem to agree. It’s a decade of feeling more comfortable in your skin. Right before it really starts to wrinkle, right?

So, how’d I do on my mostly random Before-30 list? Did I accomplish everything? Not even close! Maybe 14-30. But I’m seeing it half-full, because making the list definitely inspired me to try a lot.

When I look back on the time between when I created the list (August 2013) and now, I’m amazed by all of the opportunities and experiences, big and small, life has bestowed on me. What’s more, many of the things I did manage to do were accomplished while growing another human being and raising a baby-turned-toddler.

The list:

1. See manatees in the wild. Status: Achieved, January 2015! Kayaked with them, too. Huge, life goal unlocked. Read more.

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2. Complete a sprint triathlon. Status: HAHAHAHAHA. Swimming is still part of a triathlon, right? Pieathalon, 2020?

3. Finish the quilt I started for my mom’s 60th last fall. Status: Maybe in time for her 64th birthday. But I have made some cool baby quilts, in the meantime, including this self-designed dog quilt for my bestie, Regina.

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4. Learn how to shape and fill in my eyebrows. Status: Kind of. Was introduced to the best product ever for lazy brow-enthusiasts: Modèle Sourcils Brow Groomer. Magic wand!

5. Complete and submit a short piece of fiction for publication. Status: Still just freelance magazine pieces, because let’s face it – it’s nice to get paid.

6. Read the Anne of Green Gables books. Status: I read the first one! IT was just like the PBS movie that I know by heart, which is to say – AMAZING.

7. Visit the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah. Status: We have an early fall babymoon-type weekend in Northeast Iowa planned, and this is so on the agenda.

8. Take Emmett on a Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad ride. Status: Achieved, in pajamas! We did the Santa Ride, which was kind of overrated and crowded, and at night when it was hard to see out the windows, so I’d like to do a summer picnic ride, too.

9. Shoot the hot dog gun at an Iowa Cubs game. Status: Achieved! One of the best experiences of my life in Des Moines to-date. Read more.

10. Take a dance class with Joe. Status: That would involve having regular date nights, right? Maybe there’s something on Netflix?

11. Bake a multi-layer cake from scratch. Status: Achieved! Two layers and dripping frosting (also from scratch) count, right?

12. Do Yoga in the Park at Gray’s Lake. Status: Achieved! Even better? It was on a weekend visit with Regina. Actually, this week I also did yoga at Greenwood Park with Pop Up Yoga. Check out their events this summer!

13. Learn how to get a hula hoop twirling from my arm to my waist. Status: Does taking a hula-hoop class one morning at the Des Moines Social Club count? I’m counting it. Read More.

14. Float down the river in a stock tank. Status: A girl can only dream…

15. Have my own stamp fabricated. Status: I kinda started on this a few times, but no finish.

16. Take a spontaneous road trip to somewhere more than 2 hours away. Status: Achieved-ish! Clearly I was delirious when I wrote this list as a new mother. Iowa City is almost two hours away, and we hopped in the car on Memorial Day to spend a pretty spontaneous afternoon with two families we rarely get to see. And we peeked at Iowa’s Largest Walnut Cane Rocking Chair in the Amana Colonies (the basket and broom shop was closed!) through the window, which totally makes it a road trip.

17. Make cheese in the kitchen and have a few friends over for a wine & cheese tasting. Status: I have a cheese kit and everything, so I have no idea why this hasn’t happened yet.

18. Plant sunflowers. Status: Planted them! They did not thrive, but I did get a few blooms.

19. Have a buy nothing new month. Status: My debit card statements will probably tell me otherwise…

20. Take an online, non-academic class. Status: Achieved! I took a creative nonfiction class taught by my idol, Susan Orlean, on Skillshare. I’ll confess that I didn’t make time to do the assignment, though.

21. Tour the Iowa Capitol. Status: Achieved! We got to do tours as part of Mentoring Day on the Hill when I worked for “I Have a Dream.”

22. Visit a psychic. Status: Achieved! One of the most fun dates Joe and I have had. Read more.

23. Order from the swim-up bar at Adventureland. Status: Probably not going to happen for this preggo this summer.

24. Organize my basement craft corner. Status: Meh. Still looks like a hoarder lives here, but I did tidy up the other day before we got a new washer/dryer delivered. Also, this was a lame goal. Instead, I went to a live Burlesque show at the Vaudeville Mews with a bachelorette party! Woo! 

25. Go on a house tour in Des Moines. Status: Achieved! Not only did I go on my neighborhood tour, I volunteered for it.

26. Take a Chicago Architectural Boat Tour. Status: My brother made us a “coupon” for tickets to tour (and an offer to babysit!) and we SO need to plan a July/August trip to Chicago when there isn’t another big event going on.

27. Hit balls at a driving range. Status: Kind of fore-got about this one! Nope.

28. Learn to drive stick. Status: I can drive on lonely country roads, but not out to get groceries. Still scared of stop-and-go, hills, sharing the road with other vehicles.

29. Learn a recipe for something complicated by heart. Status: Does taking photos of meals Joe makes count? Naw.

30. Ride at least one day of RAGBRAI, the Register’s Great Bike Ride Across Iowa. Status: Was planning on doing a day last year, but Joe’s grandma passed away. We did a 35-mile ride on the Wabash Trace that doesn’t quite count, but made me feel better about achieving this goal! Pie!

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