Review: PBS Kids’ Halloween Specials

I heart PBS Kids. At a time when they face proposed massive budget cuts, I want to say how grateful I am for all the mornings they have given me to get myself dressed and pack school lunches while my children enjoy commercial-free, educational programming. Among my family’s favorite shows are Super Why!, Wild Kratts, Sesame Street, and Clifford.

As if PBS Kids weren’t already doing me and so many parents out there a great service, they recently sent me eight Halloween specials for review. My kids and I loved every episode that we saw, which by the way, will air next week October 17 to October 21. Please check your local listings for showtimes:

Wild Kratts “Predator Week”
Ari, who wants to travel the world and study animals as an adult, ate these three episodes up. They were “Little Howler” about wolves, the largest predator in North America. (I didn’t know that!) The second episode, “Stuck on Sharks,” profiled the awesomeness of the Great White Shark and cleverly introduced the cruel practice of cutting off sharks’ fins for soup. In this case, the shark was saved by the Kratt brothers, but I always appreciate PBS Kids’ willingness to delve into difficult social issues like food insecurity, and of course, the cruelty of cutting off sharks’ fins.

The last episode, “Masked Bandits”, was about racoons and other nocturnal animals.

Dinosaur Train
My kids and I watched two episodes: “Haunted Roundhouse” and “Big Pond Pumpkin Patch.” We all enjoyed it, but Dinosaur Train really is for kids Eli’s age (4). Ari went through a dinosaur kick between the ages of 4 and 5, and recently told me that Dinosaur Train was for “niños chiquitos”.

Eli watched even though she is not into dinosaurs, which left me wondering: is it largely boys who are into dinosaurs? I am finding that my kids’ interests lie along gender lines. Eli loves clothes, princesses and dolls. Ari is into science, and his previous interests were Star Wars and dinosaurs. I tried to pass on Ari’s things to Eli, but she is not taking the bait. What say you about this?

The Cat in the Hat knows A Lot About That!
Again, Ari was never into the Dr. Seuss books like Eli is. The episodes, “Aye Aye!” and “Trick or Treat” were her first choice when the PBS Kids DVDs arrived, while Ari wanted to see Wild Kratts. Ari watched The Cat in the Hat, but Eli was shushing us as she was really taking in all the Halloween rhymes. Later that night she told me she wanted to “escribir libros” — “write books” — when she grew up. I, too, love Dr. Seuss’s books, and am thrilled that PBS Kids has adapted them into cartoons.

The last episode, Sid the Science Kid’s “Halloween Spooky Science Special,” got a lot of laughs from us. That’s the other thing — these “spooky Halloween” specials are not scary, at all. :)

What are some of your favorite PBS Kids’ shows? How about Halloween specials?


TV Dinner Edition

Is it just me, or have TV dinners gotten tastier and healthier?

Growing up, dinner was always a pot of rice and beans made from scratch. Us kids associated TV dinners as frozen mac and cheese or chicken pot pie we ate at friends’ houses whose parents were away at work or unable to prepare anything. For my parents, these dinners were really “snacks,” not real food.

I still have hang-ups about TV dinners, insisting on cooking every other day and packing the previous night’s dinner in my children’s lunch boxes. I tend to give them Amy’s organic frozen foods, like the mac and cheese, pizza and enchiladas, as snacks. I wonder if this is a Latino thing, as my husband also grew up on home-cooked meals, and I notice that he snacks on Amy’s late at night — after he’s eaten “real” dinner.

Most recently, I was asked to review the new Wild Salmon with Pesto dish in the Organic Bistro frozen food line, which I had never heard of until now. While I still prefer fresh produce over the frozen zucchini and green beans in the dish, I have to admit that this dish was tasty — and at only 350 calories, guilt-free. The salmon was tender and the rice with garbanzo and pesto were mighty good. If I may say so myself, the rice and garbanzo tasted like something I’d make! :)

I found myself craving it the next day, and was disappointed to see it sold out at Berkeley Bowl. That’s the other thing: my awesome supermarket, which is a three-block walk from me, sells it for $5.39, a whole buck less than suggested retail. I can see this being pricy for a large family, but in a dual-income household where taking food to work, and eating out or eating TV dinners is a necessity, this may not be a bad option.

The Organic Bistro line, which can be found in practically every major supermarket and retail store, includes other dishes like beef and chicken. I tried the Thai Style Yellow Curry with Chicken ($4.79) but did not like it as much as the salmon. While the salmon was tender, the chicken was a tad too rubbery for me.

Do you eat TV dinners at home? What are your favorites? Also, have you noticed changes in frozen food over the years?


Review: Tracy Anderson’s Mat Workout DVD

While parenthood may involve a lot of monotonous grunt work like driving the kids around and packing school lunches, I have to say that I love re-living my childhood and setting new goals in my life as they enter a new stage.

You could say I am at a new phase right now.

With Eli out of diapers and about to enter preschool — and I have no plans for anymore children — I took up another contract at MomsRising and even joined a biweekly writers group to work on some fiction. As for my personal health and fitness, I have been active in my church and graduated from Tracy Anderson’s post pregnancy workout DVD — which I passed onto Erika — and just started a non-pregnancy-related one called The Tracy Anderson Method: Mat Workout DVD.

Anderson, who is Gwyneth Paltrow’s personal trainer, can be annoying and polarizing in that she is this skinny fitness instructor who promises that every woman can be just like her — her battle cry is “tiny arms!” —  if you just do her DVD at least six days a week. Here is a Daily Mail profile on her.

In her defense, I would say if you are someone who is looking for muscle tone without bulkiness then this workout is for you. I am already fit in that I run up to 9 miles every other morning. I follow up with Anderson’s DVD to keep my abs and arms tight and high. A good point that Anderson makes in her workout video is if you bulk up with huge muscles, you will have to work to maintain them. The purpose of her workout is for a thinner and softer toned look to the body — not big muscles. Her workout relies a lot on your own resistance, 3-pound weights and a lot of repetition.

There is a cardio section of the video accompanied by cringe-worthy music that sounds like a combination of porn and techno-dance club music. But because I already run, I fast-forward it to the abs, arms section and cool-down. While there is definitely a learning curve to the cardio section, the rest of the DVD is easy to follow — especially if you are already used to some of the moves from the post-pregnancy DVD. The difference is the moves in this mat routine are faster and require more repetition. By the end of the arm routine, I thought my teeny Tracy dancer arms were going to fall off!

I was definitely ready to graduate to this more challenging routine, although I got a personal thrill knowing I was in good enough shape to complete it. Do any of you include a DVD in your exercise routine? Which one? Feel free to use this thread to update your fitness goals!


Review: Copan Ruins in Honduras

During our 10-day visit to, largely, El Salvador, we managed to sneak in a two-day trip to the Mayan ruins in Copan, Honduras.

While the ruins can be easily reached in three hours by car through Guatemala — and we took that route on the way back to San Salvador — we decided to drive through the countryside of Honduras to get there. The six-hour trek with two small kids was worth it.

We were so high up the mountains, we were literally on top of the clouds. The scenery of mountains, volcanoes, bright tropical trees and flowers was breathtaking. Ari was awake the whole time taking it all in.

And unlike Joya de Cerén, another major Mayan civilization uncovered in La Libertad Department, El Salvador, the Copan ruins were vaster and better preserved. (Shh…don’t tell my family that!) Some of the temples, which were pretty damn impressive, were even painted to resemble their original state.

Throughout our tour, my mother-in-law and I kept speculating on how the Mayans could possibly climb so high to build those pyramids and temples. We guessed rope made out of twine or ladder-like structures made out of tree bark. The building structures themselves were tall and their design very detailed, outlining the line of Mayan kings. There was one particular king mentioned throughout this particular civilization, “Dieciocho Conejo,” or “18 Rabbit.” I giggled when I heard a man from a group in front of us grumble, “All you hear about is Dieciocho Conejo!” Dieciocho Conejo, unfortunately, met a cruel fate when he lost a bet. He was beheaded.

Ari especially was way into the ruins. He asked to return the next morning to climb all the pyramids. Before we headed home, we stopped at the gift shop where he picked out a statue replica of a Mayan king — probably Dieciocho Conejo — and a book about Copan. To the delight of his teacher and classmates, he took them to school yesterday.

If there are a couple red flags to this otherwise family-friendly outing, one is to bring plenty of water. It is hot out there and not all the structures are under the shade. The other is whether you want to get into the human sacrifice aspect of Mayan culture. While there is no evidence that women were sacrificed, there were structures pointed out to us that were used to behead men and it was not unheard of for entire sports teams to be sacrificed after winning or losing a match. According to our tour guide, Antonio, the Mayans considered being sacrificed to the gods an honor.

We did not go into this part of history with Ari as he is only 6. But there was plenty of other history and art to keep him occupied.

What are some of the memorable family trips you have taken?


Review of Capitalism: A Love Story

(Not pictured: George Soros…J/K! He wasn’t there.)

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — Last night, I went with DH and friend and filmmaker Annabel Park to see an advanced screening of Michael Moore’s latest documentary Capitalism: A Love Story. Initial reaction? We were ready to pick up our torches and pitchforks as we were reminded of how greed — I would not necessarily call this capitalism — caused for so many hardworking Americans to experience stagnant wages, predatory lending practices and lose their homes.

I don’t know where to start as Moore covered so much ground in two hours. Of course, he did it in his usual grating or down-to-earth, folksy style — depending on whether you are the Man or the People — which made it similar to his previous films. Still, Capitalism was as eye-opening and entertaining as his previous films.

Unlike, let’s say, Roger and Me,  he did not get any interviews with the CEOs of Wall Street blue chip companies he seemed to blame for the country’s current economic meltdown. Nonetheless, there was plenty of blame to go around and, once again, even though I consider myself an informed person there was so much I learned.

For example, I did not know that private companies could take out life insurance policies on their employees. There were a couple of cases in the movie — one case was of a Republican family as they had a commemorative plate with George W. Bush’s face on it — in which companies actually benefited from the death of their employees. One of the companies that benefited, by the way, was Wal-Mart. (As if they needed anymore money!) In legal documents, the deceased employees were referred to as “Dead Peasants.” I actually looked it up on Wikipedia for more information. Yuck.

And before you write off this film as a liberal screed on unethical business practices and their (largely) Republican enablers, he did not let the Democratic Party or even certain people in President Obama’s Administration off the hook. He did a scathing profile of Larry Summers and U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner who formed the core of Obama’s economic team and were instrumental in passing the $700 billion bank bailout. He let the public know that Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut received sweetheart deals from the mortgage company Countywide even as he was supposed to regulate the housing market. It was so bad I asked my husband what Dodd’s chances were for re-election. (Answer: Who knows? But this film won’t help him.)

But Moore did stop short of tying Summers, Geithner and even the bank bailout to Obama, which I thought was a major oversight. Moore was asked about this in a Q&A session that followed the movie. He thoughtfully replied that he was giving Obama, who inherited a “catastrophic mess,” the benefit of the doubt. He then added, (paraphrased) “If five months from now, Obama is still ordering troops into Afghanistan, then this is Obama’s war.” He received generous applause from his (liberal) audience.

The film had something for everyone — which is why I recommend that everyone see this film, even traditionally non-Michael Moore fans. I especially would love to receive the reaction of people who work in the finance and banking industries.

My other (slight) beef with the movie was its title. I don’t think it was an indictment of “capitalism” — after all, Moore himself is a practicing capitalist — but of the way capitalism has been turned on its head since Republican President Ronald Reagan took office in 1980. Basically, gone was the era when attaining a middle class job like a union job at the mill, owning a home and going on the occasional vacation was considered achieving the American Dream. That American Dream, which my Cuban grandfather and Michael Moore’s father achieved, was replaced by something very sinister and grotesque: By giving as much as possible to the richest corporations and richest (non-working) individuals, this would somehow trickle down to everyone else.

The outcome of this political and economic philosophy has led to the greatest inequality in wealth since the Great Depression. The richest 1 percent of Americans now earn more than the bottom 95 percent of the U.S. population. Working class people no longer earn enough to pay their bills and have to rely on credit to make ends meet. Even people who have worked their entire lives have been forced into poverty and homelessness. The screeds by various priests and even Archbishop of the Catholic Church — yeah! — in Detroit were pretty funny. They took shots at religious leaders who are trying to enshrine “capitalism” as opposed to calling it the capital sin that it is.

But again, the populist rants, the soundtrack with the funny lyrics and the theatrics of it all — made it light, easy to swallow, yet empowering. All the way through dinner and the public transit ride home, Annabel and I could not stop talking about this film. We are hoping that Moore is right that Obama is “going left, but faking right” on healthcare reform and other policies that would help working people. Moore made this comment, by the way, during the Q&A. What do you think?

Capitalism: A Love Story hits theaters nationwide on October 2.


Review: SEE Science Center in Manchester, NH

The kids love visiting their grandparents in New Hampshire. My parents live in a heavily wooded area in Derry with lush green trees and all kinds of critters visiting their doorstep.

Ari has been leaving out food for the chipmunks and still gets so excited when he catches them nibbling on it. “Mami, the chipmunks are back!” he says all excited.

We have also gone on plenty of outings both outdoors and indoors. Most recently, we visited the SEE Science Center in Manchester, NH, a hands-on museum with a little something for everyone. The adults could check out the more complicated exhibits like the one on light while the children could play with everything from pulleys and bubbles to — my kids’ personal favorite — legos! The entrance, by the way, was $6 per person.

Check out the pictures:

The kids spent a long time gazing at the lego representation of the Amoskeag Millyard in Manchester, NH, which was the largest textile mill in the world in 1915. The building structures were made up of 3 million lego bricks that took 10,000 hours to construct. Even the trains that circulated the table were made up of legos. The kids were in heaven.

They got to do some constructing of their own:


Late-Night Liberty: Review of G-Force

Yes, MotherTalkers, I actually watched this God-awful movie. It wasn’t intentional. Really.

Originally, 5-year-old Ari and I set out to watch Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I have read the book and am aware it is dark and violent. But I noticed that the movie had only a PG rating; not even PG 13. I thought it would be okay for Ari, who has watched the entire Star Wars trilogy, except for the one in which Anakin Skywalker actually becomes Darth Vader.

At the opening scene of Harry Potter, in which death eaters started killing people, Ari said, “Mami, I am scared. Can we watch G-Force instead?” My heart dropped. I really wanted to see Harry Potter — I know, I am worse than the kids — and really did not want to spend 90 minutes of my life watching a movie about dancing guinea pigs.

But what won’t we do for our children? We snuck into the other theater that was showing G-Force. Ari was entertained by the movie, which was about three undercover guinea pigs. It had killer robots, which made Ari’s 5-year-old eyes very wide.

I debated whether to take a nap or go out for more food. Instead, I spent the time trying to determine the voices of the guinea pigs. For example, I thought the guinea pig Agent Juarez was played by Salma Hayek. She sounded just like her! But the credits — I actually stayed to confirm — said Juarez’s voice was that of Penélope Cruz. The other two guinea pigs were Tracy Morgan and Sam Rockwell.

So that was kind of interesting.

When I got home, I told DH what happened and he offered to find a babysitter so we could watch Harry Potter together. I was just going to drop it in my Netflix queue. But if he insists…

Have you seen any good movies lately? What are the worst kid movies that you have endured?


Weekly Parenting News Roundup

Cross-posted at Daily Kos.

Good morning fellow moms, dads and caregivers!

I am back with your weekly parenting news update. Here are some topics we recently discussed here at MotherTalkers:

This was a sad and bizarre week for me. I have two loved ones who ended up in the hospital, but are now recovering. The 28-year-old son of an acquaintance was gunned down at his house in Oakland last Friday. I want to particularly highlight this last incident not only because of how senseless it was. Police have not been able to identify a motive nor arrest any suspect. But there was a moment, in which the 911 call by the victim’s girlfriend did not go through because she called on a cell phone. Yes, 911 calls are supposed to work on cell phones, but they don’t always. If anything, for peace of mind, you should program the number of your local police department in your cell phone. My husband and I did.

Another post that provoked a lot of discussion was my description of how hubby and I split household chores at home. I chuckled — and nodded in agreement — at a recent Carolyn Hax column (Washington Post) on why assigning spouses specific nights to cook dinner doesn’t work.

A pick-me-up in all the dreary news: I did attend a nice event put on by PBS Kids, which unveiled a week-long day summer camp for kids who are not read to at home. The camp’s curriculum is based on its popular educational show Super Why. I had never seen it, but as I said in my review, my 5-year-old son was hooked. What I loved about it is rather than watch him in a trance in front of the TV, he was actually interacting with the characters, pointing out letters and words and shouting out answers. What are some of your children’s favorite programs?

One of our front-page writers, Shenanigans — aka “elfling” at Daily Kos — wrote about a recent study that showed women perform better in science classes with female instructors. While some of the study’s cynics attributed the findings to female teachers as easy graders, our Shenanigans, who was one of a handful of female students at an elite science university, said it was due to the fact these women finally had female mentors. She discussed her own experiences going through a largely male institution with all male teachers and the loneliness of being in the minority and not having anyone take an active interest in you.

Our Lonestar Canuck, a mother of three, had a fun column on 15 “mommy confessions.” Feel free to add to her list “I can’t be the only mother who ever…” Hilarious!

Our Gloria, a single mother to two children, reviewed a book by Mary F. Pols, Accidentally on Purpose: The True Tale of a Happy Single Mother.

It’s the end of the school year. Congrats to you and your families for surviving yet another year of last-minute school projects, soccer games, trumpet lessons and late-night dinners. Extra congratulations to those of you with graduating seniors.

What else is in the news? What’s up with you?


Review: Super Why Reading Camp

MENLO PARK, Calif. — Two nights ago I attended a mommy-blogger-packed event by PBS Kids. The network television station unveiled a series of week-long day summer camps based on its educational cartoon series Super Why.

If you haven’t seen the show — this was my first time, too — it is about four super hero characters that represent a facet of literacy: words, spelling, letters and reading. A typical episode goes like this: The super heros who are Alpha Pig, Princess Presto, Wonder Red and Super Why, navigate a preschool social dilemma like how to deal with a kid who knocks down your play structure. The super heros re-visit a similar story in a book like the big bad wolf who blew down the house of the three little pigs. The super heros re-write that story to make the wolf good and also collect letter clues to help preschoolers solve their own problems.  

It sounds more educational than fun — at least to me, when I first heard about it — but it is done in such an age-appropriate and interactive fashion that kids do respond to the characters on the screen. I was amazed as I watched Ari, who is 5 and tends to passively watch television, pointing out letters on the screen and repeating the spelling of words. He has also asked to view the DVD, which was given to us in a PBS swag bag, multiple times.

According to Super Why’s creator Angela Santomero (pictured in photo), she has a team of educators who guide every step of creating every episode of the show. Even her own preschool-aged children help with the storyline, making it interesting for the 3-to-6-year-old demographic.

“We take the best curriculum and put it on television,” she said.

The group is going to put those words to the test as it launches 100 week-long day camps in 20 cities. The Super Why Reading Camp, catered to children who are not read to at home, ties in a few hours of Super Why viewing with puzzles, books and other activities. The PBS Kids team says it has federally-funded research showing that its program is effective in teaching children basic literacy. To at least this momma’s delight, its programming dominates the preschool television viewing market.

The challenge, said PBS senior vice president Lesli Rosenberg — who was also at the event — is keeping the kids engaged once they turn 6. And that’s why her team turned to us mommy blogging folk. Yes, they would appreciate coverage on our blogs, but they also wanted to know how they could keep our kids once they turn 6.

I echoed one mom who recommended PBS Kids applications for the iPhone. Seriously, Eli has been operating our phones since she was 18 months old. She simply helps herself to the Elmo YouTube clips on Papi’s phone and any basic games I have. Ari, too, loves the iPhone.

Other recommendations included working with Nintendo to create content for video game consules, sticking with the super hero theme for older boys and merchandising. I know in my household, a lot of the shows my children watch — like Ruby and Max and Dora the Explorer — stem from books or toys. How do you and your children decide what to watch on TV?

My overall take on Super Why: As an adult, I was bored and thought the plot cheesy. It was so not like, say a Pixar film, which could be enjoyed by both adults and children. But Ari was into it. I was excited to see him interact with the characters and even learn some spelling rather than simply watch in a trance. It made me sad to think he may soon abandon such educational programming for pop fluff — like his parents.


Review: The No-Cry Nap Solution Part II

This is the second part of a two-part series on napping, with sleep (or lack thereof) being a top issue here at MotherTalkers. -Elisa

As I mentioned before, I just got through the newly released The No-Cry Nap Solution by Elizabeth Pantley, who authored the No-Cry Sleep Solution series. In this thread, I will hash out the solutions Pantley proposes to get babies and toddlers to nap.

Pantley suggested establishing a routine, in which the baby naps at the same time every day. Record all sleep times if you have to, she said. She also suggested swaddling the baby, using white noise and a vibrating or rocking device like a swing and even a pacifier since babies find sucking soothing.

Here is how one father moved his baby from the swing to the crib:

“Our baby napped exclusively in her swing for months. I work at home, and I kept the swing next to my desk. It was the only way I could get Anna to sleep for more than twenty minutes. Eventually she grew too big for the swing and started sleeping in her crib in my office. If she woke mid-nap, I would jostle the crib, and she would return to sleep. Now the crib is in her room (with a radio set to a talk station), and she takes a two-hour nap. Honestly though, the swing was worth its weight in gold for me when she was an infant.”
-Hector, father of eleven-month-old Anna

Besides the swing, I got a lot of use — but also a lot of grief — for using the pacifier. Well-meaning onlookers let me know that my son’s teeth would come in crooked if we continued to let him use the pacifier. One book I read — the title escapes me — said pacies were bad because they were replacing breastmilk. Considering my son was in the top 90th percentile in weight, I doubted lack of nutrition was an issue. So the pacifier it was.

And there are actual health benefits to the pacifier, according to Pantley. Studies now show the pacifier may reduce the risk of SIDS, although it is unclear why the connection exists. Pantley did say breastfeeding groups wanted more research as to whether the pacy interferes with the quality or quantity of breastfeeding. But medical groups no longer discourage it.

If your baby or toddler still refuses to nap, Pantley doled out these tips:

• Maintain a consistent daily schedule that works with your child’s natural body clock. Create a predictable pattern to the day.
• Modify your schedule according to your child’s sleepy signs.
• Having a relaxing prenap routine to cue your child that naptime is here and to help him wind down and relax.
• Set up a sleeping place that is cozy and that sets the stage for sleep.
• Dress your child comfortably for sleep.
• Keep mornings bright and active and the half hour or so before each nap quiet and calm.

For a more cozy environment, Pantley suggested a swing, a vibrating cradle, moses basket, a previously warmed surface area or any spot the baby can touch and feel warm.

While many parents may insist their children have sleep problems, including colic, Pantley puts that number at only 10 percent of all babies. If you do suspect your child has sleep problems, here are the signs to look out for:

• Your baby’s crying is accompanied by vomiting, pain, or fever.
• Your baby is not gaining weight.
• Your baby is over four months old, yet the colicky behavior persists.
• Your baby doesn’t want to be held or handled.
• The crying spree isn’t limited to one bout in the evening, but on and off all day.
• Your baby does not have regular bowel movements and wet diapers.
• Your baby’s crying is making you angry or depressed, which could mean that you have postpartum depression.

What have your experiences been to get your children to fall asleep? What worked or didn’t work for you?

Again, I don’t know what the heck parents did before the invention of the swing and pacifier. My husband and I would have gone insane without them.