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Baby on Board: Slow Travel by Necessity

Before our son was born, my husband and I naively proclaimed that this baby would operate on our schedule. After all, if we just took him everywhere we went, wouldn’t he be used to traveling and eating out late and just adapt to our on-the-go lifestyle? I just heard the collective “HA!” of all you seasoned parents who know what a pipe dream that was. How wrong we were really sank in on the way back from a weekend trip to Tahoe when he was barely two months old, during which he screamed his lungs out, making what should have been a four-hour trip take nearly eight with all the times we stopped to comfort him and try to figure out what he needed. Fortunately, he’s gotten better at being in his car seat, but we have certainly learned that babies come with their own set of needs and preferences which require huge adaptation on our parts, and often deference of our own desires. Duh. Welcome to parenthood, right?

While becoming parents has dramatically impacted our day-to-day routine (wow, we watch a lot of TV since we have to be home for his 6pm bedtime and dang, getting up for the day at dark:thirty hurts), one of the things I miss most about our pre-baby life (besides sleep) was the ease of travel without a little one. We could up and go without packing or planning much. We could drive into the night and sleep until noon to make up for it. We could take international flights to multiple destinations and not think twice. That life is gone. And we can mourn it and be miserable, or we can adapt. I wrote about the Slow Movement as it applies to parenting a couple posts ago, and Slow Travel seems to be the philosophy that will serve us well at this stage of our lives, and maybe convert us in the hereafter.

“The art of living,” says Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food Movement, “is about learning how to give time to each and every thing.” Whether it’s slow food, travel, or parenting, it simply means doing things at the appropriate pace to truly enjoy the experience. It means gathering with friends to prepare a meal together instead of eating fast food. It means stooping to see and feel and smell the grass with your son as he explores it for the first time instead of urging him to hurry up to get wherever you are going. Slow travel is about being present in the moment, not checking off must-see destinations with your nose in a guidebook, not getting from here to there as fast as possible, but enjoying the journey and taking the time to engage in the culture wherever you are.

We have become slower travelers by necessity. In his first nine months, we have only taken our son on short trips around our home state of California. Hardcore slow travelers even eschew driving or flying. In this way, it is a philosophy that goes hand in hand with Ecotourism, attempting to do as little damage as possible, and even aiming to help out the place you’re going. Fortunately, we live in an amazing place and just staying home in San Francisco can be like traveling around the world with the right frame of mind. But we are in desperate need of a true vacation.

So, we are going on our first international trip with Little Man. Pre-baby, we had hoped to hop around Indonesia this year. We went to Gili Meno and Java right before we got pregnant, and made great friends we’d love to see again, plus we wanted to go to Bali and some of the other islands. Post-baby we realize this would be a tad too ambitious, and probably not enjoyable to lug a baby around an extremely hot, occasionally dangerous, and often frustrating country. We’ll save that until he can carry his own bag. For now, we are headed to Taiwan. We are going to stay with my husband’s parents in Taipei for three weeks. We will have a home base. We will live in the city like locals. If we go anywhere, we will take the train to the coast, and play at the beach. We will hunker down and take it slow. It will be better for the environment, for our baby’s schedule, for the thrilled grandparents, and for our peace of mind.

Just like I would never label myself “green” or “progressive” because I could never live up to the die-hard followers of those philosophies, I wouldn’t call myself truly “slow” yet. But just as I believe my attempt to be a little greener whenever possible is good, I think taking it a little slower will make a difference, too.

Stay tuned for adventures in slow travel with Little Man and the in-laws. We leave on April 6th and I will hopefully be posting regularly while we’re there from my new iPad!

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Mission Mural

I spent much of this weekend helping to paint a giant mural on a new building at the corner of Cesar Chavez and Mission Street. I did it as volunteer work for Precita Eyes, a San Francisco community mural arts organization that has been such a strong presence in the Mission District for so long you can hardly turn a corner without seeing their work brightening the streets. When I moved to the city almost nine years ago, one of the reasons I came was for the murals. My favorite project in college was delivering a lecture on Mexican Muralists, and in researching the likes of Orozco, Siqueiros and Rivera, I fell in love with the medium, in particular its ability to tell a story. The messages murals convey can be political, historical or simply beautiful, but whatever the artist’s intent, it becomes art for the people. It is not hidden away in a museum or a private collection, it is meant to be seen by the masses. Murals invite and incite reaction. They are difficult to ignore.

Since coming to the city and giddily roaming the streets trying to discover all the murals in the Mission, I have jumped around living in one neighborhood after another and working on many mural projects with students and on my own, but I’ve finally come full circle and moved back to my old ‘hood. Working on this project with Precita Eyes feels like coming home. Its content is a celebration of all things “Mission” – Carnaval, mariachis, low-riders, the Mexican bus, the actual Mission Dolores, and the now iconic Cesar Chavez (appropriate since the mural is located on Cesar Chavez Street). At such a busy intersection, we had tons of traffic (both foot and car) while we worked and everyone had an opinion. Most were positive; people honked and yelled “Great job!”, “It’s beautiful!” or stood and admired close up. One woman walked by muttering loudly about “tired old subject matter…can’t they paint anything else”, which I have to admit I thought when I first saw the design. The building we are painting contains a bunch of condos and a new Walgreen’s, about one step above a Starbucks on the gentrification scale, and here we are painting a mural about the old, authentic Mission, the things people come here wanting to see. It made me think of this great KQED Forum discussion on Mission murals, where a man named Oscar called in to complain about how murals cheapened buildings and they would never do this in the Marina. All I have to say about that is that’s one of the many reasons why I prefer not to live in the Marina. But Oscar is entitled to his opinion. No matter what you think about murals, you think something when you see one, and that’s what I like about them. Nobody can tell you your opinion is wrong.

The mural we painted today is for you. Go check it out. It’s not done yet, so maybe you’ll see us out there still working on it. Whether you think we’re beautifying or cheapening the place, it felt good to be leaving my mark on the Mission in such a traditional way (I mainly worked on the mustachioed maraca man in the parade and the red-orange background). It has been a practice since primitive people made drawings on the walls of their caves, and there’s nothing like it to satisfy my urge to create.

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Mothering on the Middle Road

Modern mothers are bombarded with vast amounts of conflicting information about their parenting choices and are pressured to choose sides. Even upon becoming pregnant, it felt as if I had to opt between a hypnotic orgasmic water birth at home or a conveniently planned c-section at a baby factory hospital. Like most issues in life, I don’t find myself drawn to either extreme, but fall somewhere in the middle. Maybe it’s because I’m a Libra, or a peacekeeping middle child, but I’m often able to see value on both sides of any argument. The birth of my son ended up falling in the middle,too –  a natural childbirth in a hospital (and I’m not ashamed to admit that if there’s a next time, I’ll probably choose an epidural).

The middle road does not grab headlines. It doesn’t spur comment wars in blog posts. The middle isn’t sexy, but I’d venture to guess most people dwell there and are doing just fine, taking bits and pieces from this or that side of the spectrum and making it work for them when it comes to a whole host of issues, from sleep training to deciding what to feed their babies. Yet at each new stage, I continue to be barraged by the fear-mongering headlines and blog posts and forums of those opinionated enough to say that their way is the right way. Little Man is eight months old now and I’m hearing things like I should be getting him on preschool lists now (or more like, yesterday) and I should be starting to develop his brain with education materials, especially bilingual ones if I want any chance of locking in a foreign language while I can. And so I’ve stumbled upon the next two camps looking for new recruits: “concerted cultivation” vs. “slow parenting”.

I can very easily turn into a Type-A worrywart overachieving listmaker, but over the years I’ve learned that very little comes of this. Worrying doesn’t make things go my way and the stress of spinning my wheels just isn’t worth it.  So I try not to buy into all this fast-track parenting, the concerted cultivation thing saying I should be giving my kid a head start by inundating him with educational materials on him, signing up years in advance for the right school, taking a million classes, etc. Not because I’m too lazy or it’s too overwhelming, but because I don’t really believe in the end result. Jump into the rat race now and it will never stop. I don’t want him to live in a pressure cooker this young, only to end up a stressed-out adult. It’s difficult to avoid, though. Even after reading Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children, which debunks a lot of the myths we think will make our kids smarter (hey, it turns out those lame Baby Einstein videos are actually bad for your kid!), I found myself making a checklist of things that their studies show do work. I had to give myself the ‘ol “whoa nellie”, when I started getting excited about having Little Man write up play plans because it will improve his concentration and help him engage in extended play. Hello! He’s eight months old!

So I was relieved to discover the other side when I heard Carl Honore being interviewed about his book “Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting“. He actually doesn’t use the term “slow parenting“, though there is a whole group of people who do. Instead, he encourages doing things at the “right speed”, or the appropriate pace at which each task can best be enjoyed, emphasizing quality over quantity, and being present in the moment. A quote from a New York Times interview with him says “childrearing should not be a cross between a competitive sport and product development. It is not a project; it’s a journey.” Ah…what a relief. I’m sure I will end up in the middle of the two extremes as usual, but it helps to be aware I have choices and there is no right way. I will make my best concerted effort to cultivate enjoyment of this journey.