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A member of my book club is organizing a children's essay and art contest entitled "Why I Love the Library." Well loved author Amy Tan, former Santa Rosa local, won a similar essay contest as a child 50 years ago. While we wait to see submissions for the April 2010 event, I've been inspired to write my own piece on how libraries won my heart - a love I am working to kindle in my son as well.

A stroll to the Santa Rosa Central Library was one of the first ventures my son and I made away from home in the first months of his life. I almost skipped the whole way there, remembering my early excitement as a child selecting new stories to bring home and pour over. My mother encouraged us to choose any books that caught our eyes during our weekly visits. Some of the books even included a taped recording or puppet to take home. I marveled at the concept of such a place where children were allowed to slip into the world of pictures, prose, and imagination at no cost and such high pleasure!

While I knew four months was far too young for a first library card, I couldn't help but think ahead to the day when my son would be old enough to create his own personal membership. When we my siblings and I were old enough to read on our own, my mom helped us apply for our own library cards. Holding my card and stack of books for the librarian, I felt a million miles tall. The reading world was my oyster and I was allowed to hold it on my own!

My little one had already listened to the tale of E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web" while I passed days rocking and nursing him, but there were many other picture books and stories from my childhood that I was eager to introduce to him. When we entered the children's reading room, I felt like twirling him around and saying, "You can read all of these one day too!" I quickly looked up the shelf locations for a short list of my favorites, while holding him in a Snugly wrap. He cooed and looked wonderingly at me as I gushed over finding "The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses" and "Blueberries for Sal".

Our excitement must have caught the librarians attention, as she came over to chat with us. She complimented our family for addressing the important issue of early reading to promote language development. While I appreciated her commentary, I had other reasons for wanting to read to my child. Listening to a story under a mother's arm is a special quiet time to snuggle and get lost in the rhythm of words - much more than a language exercise to me. I would describe it more as a feeling of bliss and a way to share a love. As an older child, I learned to value reading for its ability to help me pass through difficult times by losing myself in other people's stories and adventures. Often the stories had messages for me, which helped guide my growing understanding of the world. I loved offering "bliss" to my son through reading, but also rekindled my love for stories during the difficult struggles of my first few months of motherhood. Hours chained to a rocking chair flew by with a story in hand!

The librarian also informed us of library programs created to support mothers and children. I was surprised to learn about the range of free activities offered across our county, and especially pleased to hear of Central Santa Rosa's offerings. We live within walking distance of the library, and after reading the list of opportunities, I resolved to return for weekly visits. We've enjoyed the baby and toddler story times on Tuesdays at 10:15 and 11:00 for the past two years. Today, the library has even more offerings!

Central Santa Rosa Library (545-0831 x 538)

* Wiggle Time (Ages 1-3) Wednesdays at 3:00 (April 2009 and May 6, 13, 20)
* Preschool Story time (Ages 3-6) Fridays at 11:00
* Spanish Story time Series (Ages 3-6) Fridays at 10:15 (Mar 6, April 10, May 1)

* Fairy Tea Party Saturday, May 9, at 11:00 (Age 4 and up) Free Ticket Required

* Horton Hears a Who! Thursday, May 14 at 3:30 (Families) Free! Popcorn! Games, puzzles, and a hat craft after the movie

* Family Pajama Story Time Wednesday, May 27 at 6:30 (Families)

Now that Bryles is old enough to walk and talk, he shows his own delight when we make our trip to the library. He jumps out of the stroller to peruse the shelves, haphazardly choosing books that have interesting spines and throwing them into my arms to take home. While this may seem like a strange way to select books, his method works wonders! He has discovered some of our new favorites: "Star Baby" and "Mother Goose Remembers". The Mother Goose book is illustrated with photos of pictures sewn from felt - a great book to help Mommy-O make patterns for our family's felt board.

As he grows and develops, I continue to work my relationship with the librarian. She helped us find books about our trip to San Francisco, and most recently helped us discover a whole section of books about music. My son turns everything into a musical instrument - the vacuum attachments are his bagpipes and my hanger is his trombone! I thought I could support his growing love for music through some good picture books. We recently checked out "Those Amazing Musical Instruments!" by Helsby which includes a CD of recorded songs played by each instrument featured in the book. We are now learning to differentiate between violin's and guitars. While the Santa Rosa library does not offer puppet and book sets like my old childhood library, this kind of find just makes the library even more magical for Bryles.
Our weekly walks to the library have a whole new dimension as we both share an equal wonder of what each visit will have in store for us. The library is an amazing free resource we can all share. Catch up with us tomorrow at the Spanish story time! Or find me in the cooking section collecting books for my article on canning and preserving! See you there!

Happy Oester and Easter to all! We had great fun creating our spring table this year. Last year's pom-pom chicks and knitted bunny held court with our wool gnomes and wooden farm animals.

We found some lovely, wooden egg ornaments at our favorite craft-based thrift store (Legacy in Sebastopol), and turned a few fallen branches into a seasonal tree as well. While I first learned about seasonal trees (a true space saver in a small home where a nature table can be hard to squeeze in!) from my crafty neighbor, Miss Teapot, I also read about this idea in Amanda Soule's Creative Family. Our little one loved decorating the tree, and I think we'll find other seasonal lovelies to hang from its branches as time moves forward.

While, "Six Ways to Use A Sweater" will be a future blog, I can not resist sharing that Angora sweaters make wonderful bunnies for the children's Easter baskets! Try using this bunny pattern to create your own bunny from a thrift shop sweater. I got into the spirit of the season while working with real bunny fur, and my son loved holding the bunny to his cheek.

The garden truly sprung into the season with a rush of blooms, leaving plenty to gather for a nice arrangement for our table. Our cal's only bloom once a year, timing this year's performance perfectly for the holiday. Over the years of hanging out at Dragonfly Floral, my friends taught me a few good tips for floral arranging. For example, always clean leaves away from stems that will be submerged under water - not only does it look cleaner, the leaf debris quickly creates mold and dead flowers. Also, use garden items such as mint for a filler. Gather twice as much filler and flowers as you think you will need - a good arrangement is full rather than sparse! Filler should be placed in the vase first, with other flowers arranged last in strategically, showy places.

My little one wanted to be a part creating Easter's magic, so we worked together to create a few special eggs. He likes mess and hands-on opportunities, so we opted to blow out our eggs. A couple of small pin pricks in the top and bottom of each egg, and one messy bowl of yolks later and we had four eggs ready for decorating. Next, we pulled out our Stockmar Beeswax Block Crayons and colored polk-a-dots and zigzags all over the eggs. We decided to use our favorite fruit - blueberries - to dye our eggs. After some good smushing of berries mixed with water and a tablespoon of vinegar in an enamel pot, we had the makings of splendid, natural dye. 20 minutes of simmering and we had some truly special eggs!

We topped off our day's creations with rhubarb - strawberry galettes. After reading Barbara Kingsolover's Animal, Mineral, Miracle, I am more convinced than ever that we need to eat seasonal fruits from local farms. She raved about rhubarb, and what do you know - we loved it! I come from a long line of pie making women, and I share no greater joy with my son than passing on a love for cooking. He has learned to love dough - pizza, pie, bread - and to get flour covered while helping me concoct our dish de jour. Making pie is always a special, nostalgic process for me, and I loved watching his little hands at work. The rewards of our labors were sweet in many ways!

Oh, a two-year old's delight can reinvent the holidays for all of us!

Hmmmm.... Could I be the only one out there striving to create a family vacation that seems to have an impossible list of criteria? Our young family of three desired something: 1.) cheap, but luxurious 2.) limited travel time, but far enough away to feel exotic 3.) relaxing, but not boring 4.) entertaining, but not draining 5.) appealing to a range of ages from 2 - 36 and 6.) quality time together, but individually fulfilling as well.

After much research and a little luck, I am happy to report that we just returned from a wonderful four day get-away in San Francisco that left us utterly sated for under $1000. Locals know that the first weeks of spring and the last weeks of fall are often the best time to travel to Northern California coastal towns, and we found San Francisco abounding with sun and cherry blossoms this March. Here are the other secrets to our perfect vacation:

1.) Hotwire and Four Star Intercontinental Mark Hopkins

Finding something that is cheap but luxurious is actually possible thanks to last minute hotel deals offered through travel websites such as Hotwire and Expedia. I wasted - ummerr- used several nap sessions searching the web for the best price for a four star hotel in downtown San Francisco offering breakfast and a hors de oeuvres hour. However, I could have saved myself the trouble and a few extra dollars if I would have immediately begun with Hotwire. We took the blind deal of selecting dates, location, and a star rating and were rewarded with a three night stay at the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins Hotel on Knob Hill.

Before we ever packed our bags, this hotel started earning brownie points with our family through its wonderful concierge tour videos. Highlights of of the hotel and San Francisco are featured on the company website. While we normally spare our two year old son from screen time, I thought showing him the short video would help prepare him for our time away from home by building some excitement about our trip.

We were enthused after the video, and found the hotel to live up to its every proclaimed charm. Room 226 was spacious, clean, and offered a great view of the city. I especially savored the mounds of feather pillows and bedding! Most importantly, the hotel club floor package (just $60 a day for our entire 2.5 family) offered breakfast, afternoon tea, appetizers and cocktails, AND a dessert hour. Food selections included fresh strawberry smoothies, salmon, espressos (we are now Americano addicts), and other high quality selections that matched or topped what we normally serve at home. The club room with its comfy couches, board games, and dining area became our second home for snack time, resting, and playing quiet games. We hardly had to break our home rhythm with all these amenities. Daddy-o snuck away in the evening and made the most of the cocktails and desserts, while the little man and I opted for a soak in the sumptuous tub.

Knob Hill proved an optimal location situated in between two cable car lines on the edge of Union Square and Chinatown. We walked or found easy mass transit whenever we broke free of the hotel's spellbinding offerings to hit the streets. Try this hotel!

2.) San Francisco - Cosmopolitan City in Our Backyard

Sonoma County parents can count themselves lucky for having a first rate cosmopolitan city just a short 54 miles from our county center. Tahoe crossed our minds, but the heavy snow of this time of year could equate hours of waiting in the car or cozying up around a fire - dreamy for two adults, but a two-year-old's idea of hell. San Francisco is just a short trip away and offers a variety of attractions for kids, shopping opportunities, dining, and sightseeing for all.

I wanted to learn more about what attractions might be toddler appropriate, and I wanted to brace my toddler for the hustle and bustle of fast city life. A trip to the children's branch of the Central Santa Rosa library proved many resources exist for parents planning a trip to this international travel destination. Picture books and stories about the city such as Wow! City! by Neubecker and Pop's Bridge by Payne gave us images of subways, taxis, buildings, bridges, parks, and diverse people. Around San Francisco with Kids by Fodor also gave us names of restaurants (e.g. Pearl City Chinese Food - great!) and parks to visit. When we saw Golden Gate Bridge, our little guy yelled out "Look - Pop's bridge!"

3.) Golden Gate & Other Local Parks - Beyond the Tourist Hot Spots

We considered getting CityPasses but later opted to skip the $54 for each adult and just buy a 3 day muni pass for $18 each. Children under five get into most attractions for free and don't pay to ride the public transit. We wanted to stay flexible about our plans, and decided not to go for the one price for all attractions deal. The Japanese Tea gardens ($5 cash only for adults - free for all before 10 am) was also not a part of the package.

When we saw the huge line at the California Academy of Sciences, we were glad we decided not to buy the CityPass or advance tickets to the museum. Running free at the Japanese Tea gardens was much more our family's style. Unlike the museum, this lovely, old manicured garden was almost free of tourists midweek. We were tuckered out after an hour of spying fish, observing birds, and sipping tea. $5 of fun for an hour felt about right and we were glad we didn't pay $26 per adult for a quick romp around dino bones.

Golden Gate Park's free park attractions such as the botanical gardens also made for great sightseeing. We discovered all kinds of green glory on our walk between the paid park attractions.

The next day we took another subway ride from Union Square back to the park to discover Stow's Lake. This decades old lagoon features an island in the middle, hundreds of turtles, a waterfall, a Chinese Pavilion, and much more. Locals seemed to know about this secret side of Golden Gate park, as mothers jogged behind strollers and elderly folk put in exercise walking and talking. However, the boat house and bike rental shop were eagerly awaiting their first tourists when we arrived. For just $18-24 an hour, a family of four can rent a boat or a family style bike. (Boathouse: 415-752-7869; accepts visa/mastercard.) (Bike Rentals: The boathouse also features a snack bar with old fashioned popcorn and hot dogs. After burning off calories pedaling a boat around the lake for an hour, we found ourselves famished and feasted on snack bar treats on a picnic bench near the lake. See map of the park.

Knob Hill also houses two community parks: Huntington Park across from the Grace Cathedral and St. Mary's Park on Powell and California Street. Finding swing sets, fountains, and cherry trees steps outside our hotel made our little one's day! These parks offered our family an easy reprieve from all the hard work of vacationing.

4.) Cable Cars & Subways - A Novel Family Delight

While driving to San Francisco is easy for Sonoma County families, driving and parking in San Francisco is not! Leave the car with the hotel and discover the joy of using mass transit. My train fanatic husband and toddler were thrilled to hop on a cable car or to ride a subway. In this city, transit is so widely used that a new Cable Car or bus comes by each stop every few minutes rather than every hour. The Cable Cars are very popular, but if you can manage to jump on at a stop outside of Union Square, your family is sure to be delighted! Our little one is still talking about those buses and trolleys!

5.) Out of the Closet, Guy Fieri, and a "Pack-Pack"

Our final tip for making a stellar vacation plan is to work in a little fun for each member. While I had my eye on a fast mommy only get away to hit the thrift stores like Out of the Closet on Polk and California, my husband had his heart set on trying some of Guy Fieri's Diners, Drive-in's and Dives. I was happy to suck down a milkshake and gorge on a huge burger at Joe's Cable Car in exchange for some shopping time in the city! The little one didn't really care about clothes or fries, but he his needs warranted consideration as well. We made sure to make him a small back-pack (he calls it a "pack-pack") filled with art supplies, an interactive book, and a small doll. (Thanks, Soule Mamma for the inspiration! See her blog for pictures of these items. He was able to pull out his toys and disappear into play whenever the activities got too adult for him. These elements of our trip are the highlights we still talk about today.

Happy planning your own vacation!

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