How to Find Your Best Place – One Mother’s Tips & Secrets

16 Jul

Every year, I’m drawn to the lists of “best places” to live either in the US or globally.  The best of the best of lists, for the US, is compiled by Money Magazine.  Not only do they give a list of the past year’s Top 100 cities, they also create lists of cities in categories like: Best Places to Find ‘Rich’ Singles, Best Places to Retire, Best Places to find Jobs, etc…  Some of the lists, like the top cities with the highest median incomes, have little meaning to me.  The most expensive cities are rarely the “best” places to live, witness how few of these cities ever make the Top 100 list overall.

So how do the folks at Money Magazine (now a division of CNN) make their determination as to which cities are the best in any given year?  Factors taken into consideration include: strong local economies, relatively low population sizes, affordable real estate, good schools and low crime – pretty everything one should want in a place one intends to call home.  Although, my top two cities – San Francisco and Chicago – would never have a chance of making this list.  Nor would any other major city, since low population is a consideration.  Of course, “suburban” enclaves can (and often do) make the cut.  Take for example last year’s number one city – Louisville, CO – a small town just outside of Boulder, which is another of my favorite cities.

The problem with these lists is their categorization of “best” may not  take into account your needs.  I, for one, require diversity in any city I choose to call home – not just racial diversity, but religious diversity, progressive mindsets, and the ability to have a conversation with my neighbors without feeling like they are trying to pass judgment on or control my associations.  Often, these are the things best found in an “urban” environment.  Urban life lends itself to a natural diversity that can not easily be mimicked in smaller population settings.  Urban life allows tends to provide more options  in the “things to do” category.  Of course.  And let’s not forget, there’s the fact that I’m a city girl at heart.  So, in the spirit of progressive honesty, I’ll admit, I may be a bit biased.

Personally, while I love to browse through them, I think the best list, with the focus provided by Money Magazine, overlooks the wonders of many a magical inner urban neighborhood, which can provide good schools and a relatively safe environment despite their surroundings.  Plus, I can attest to the fact that after years of big city living, without a break in or a prowler, it was only after we moved to a “small” town setting that those issues came into play.   Fact: no place is 100% crime free.

The problem with finding idyllic neighborhoods in big cities is you often need insider knowledge.  Locals will know thinks like: oh, the east side of Neighborhood X is a bit dicey but the west side is Nirvana.  Or, 20 years ago Neighborhood Y was the pits but now it’s got a cool vibe with an up and coming neighborhood association.

So, maybe you’ve lived your life in smaller cities and small towns, and you’re getting ready to take the leap into a big city.  Maybe the recession is forcing your family to rethink your location.  Big cities have the distinct advantage of having more employers and therefore, larger job pools. 

Yet, not everyone has insider knowledge and not every one wants to be a urban pioneer.  How does one go about finding the best places when considering a big city?

My family and I have had to move more than a few times for job opportunities in the past few years.  Here’s how I go about finding the “spots” I’d like to target in a new city:

  1. The best schools in the area.

    We have small children, so education is top of our list.  However, even if you don’t have children, looking for a neighborhood with a great public school isn’t a bad idea.  Good schools come from an active community, always a plus.  Good schools mean plenty of local involvement from the school board, PTA and community business.  Again a plus.  Good schools may mean higher property taxes, but usually compared to the given metro area, not by much.  And there are plenty of communities that are assessing high property taxes without the good schools to show for it, so…

    Start with Great Schools dot org.  Great Schools has been around for years, yet I’m always amazed at home many families relocate without using their resources.  It’s free and they provide a ranking of local public schools based on the latest test scores.  Schools are ranked from 1 to 10 (1 being the poorest performing schools, 10 being the highest).  Keep in mind that a school with a 10 may not be YOUR best school, based on other local factors, and a 7 may not be a horrible option if everything else falls in line for your family.  But my personal belief is school performance should have some bearing on the bigger question of where to send your children to school.

    If you have children, start with a city search, select a school that meets your basic needs and then run a Great Schools search by clicking on the “compare to other schools” feature.  You can compare to other local schools, compare to other schools in that city, or compare to other schools in that school district.  Depending on the design of the educational system in that community, these may or may not provide you with differing results.  But that’s your starting point.

  2. Screen For the Scene

    No one wants to live in a crime-ridden neighborhood.  In general, the best tool I’ve found for overall US crime data presented in a map form is Spot Crime. Sometimes, you can find added info in a really good Wikipedia entry for the neighborhood of your choice.  Also, be sure to sign up at the user-driven forum city-data.com.  This is THE place to post any questions you have about your chosen locale and a great way to narrow down your choices. 
  3. Narrowing Your Focus

    Once you’ve identified your school(s) of choice.  Try to find an online school district map.  Usually, the school board will have the district mapping accessible online.  In some less tech-friendly schools, you may have to call the school district and ask that they fax you a copy of the school’s districting map.  The point is – you want to know which homes in the community feed into that school.  NOTE: If you don’t have children just take at look at where the highest concentration of 9 and 10 ranked schools are and narrow your focus to that area of the city.

    Call the school, explain that you are moving into the area and ask the receptionist if their community has a neighborhood name – like Glen Oaks or Rally Park or whatever – remember, you’re not looking for the school’s name!  If there’s no specific name to that area, be sure to get the school’s zip code.

  4. Check the Real Estate

    Once you have a good feel for the boundaries of the school area, go to one of the following real estate websites:
    Realtor.com
    Trulia
    Zillow

    Run a search for homes for sale on one of these sites, using either the specific neighborhood name, or the zip code if you couldn’t narrow it down.  Zillow is my personal favorite starting point for real estate searches.  It’s like the Google of real estate searches.  For one, you can type the neighborhood name right into the search box on their home page.  Also, Zillow really broke ground with its property value estimate feature, which will give you an idea of what a particular home “should” be selling for based on recent sales.  Other sites provide similar data, but Zillow is tops.

  5. Create your Drive By list

    In this case, drive by is a good thing.  In that you are going to take you list of “favorite” homes and drive through the area.  Try to see the neighborhood at varying times (night vs. day, weekdays vs. weekends), and talk a walk!  Nothing like walking to get a “feel” for the neighborhood.  Check the local stores, the neighborhood park (whether you plan to use it or not, a well-maintained local park is a sign of a good neighborhood), stop by the local city hall and pick up their new residents “welcome” packet.  This will give a great heads up on what’s current and what’s happening in that area.  If there’s a flyer/insert on the recent crackdown in crime (well, that’s your red flag).  On the other hand, you might find a copy of featured write-up about the community in the local paper or magazine.

It won’t take long to pinpoint your favorite spot in town, if you follow these steps and do your homework!  After all the best place for you and your loved ones may not be on Money Magazine’s top list (and that’s alright!).

Day in the Life

8 Jul
This evening, random chatter at the dinner table turns into:

Kiddo #2: Stop that! No I’m not.
~pause for mother trying to plug in to what just happened~
Kiddo #3: Yes you are.
Kiddo #4: Yah, yah. You too are.
~she’s two~
Kiddo #2 throws his hands in the air with great dramatic flair.
Kiddo #2: I am NOT.  Mom, they keep saying I’m bossy…
Kiddo #3: Well, you are.
Kiddo #4: Yah, yah.
Me: Wait a minute…
~brief pause for mother still trying to catch up~
~yelling very loud bantering ensues~

Me: Ok, hold on..
~more pause time for mother trying to figure out how to handle bossy child whose feelings are now hurt and still allow for sibling truth moment~
Kiddo #4: You are too, you bossy, you bossy, yes you do….
Kiddo #3 is too busy eating to chime in at the moment.
Kiddo #2 is sulking in his chair, glaring at me (what’d I do?)
Me: Ok, now, you two that’s not nice, you hurt your brother’s feelings.
Kiddo #3: Ok (as in yeah, ok, so what)
Me to Kiddo #2: That hurt your feelings?
Kiddo #2: Yes.
Kiddo #4: Yah yah. (getting any ideas on who the instigator will be…?)
Me to Kiddo #2: Maybe, perhaps, you should try working with your siblings when you play…
Kiddo #2: I DO. I always DO.  I always tell them how to play and what to do.
~I am not making that up~
Me: Well, maybe, next time, we can do it in a nicer way, eh?
Kiddo #4: Yah yah, nice way.
Kiddo #3 is still munching away….
Kiddo #2: Ok (shrugs and walks away).
Kiddo #4: Yah, yah yah. Nice, nice, nice.
Kiddo #3 just looks at me and smiles.

Somehow, I feel like I fell right into that.

The Vanity of Time

6 Jul

But what minutes!  Count them by sensation, and not by calendars, and each moment is a day.  ~Benjamin Disraeli

Time is making fools of us again.  ~J.K. Rowling

Why do we take time for granted?  Saying things like “just killing a little time” or “we’ve got all the time in the world.”  “Maybe next time…”  There is, in each day, an underlying notion that time will allow us to capture all that we have not yet captured.

If necessity is the mother of invention, time (or at least our notion of time) is the mother of all vanities.

Remember when you were 10 and you couldn’t wait to be 13, then you were 13 and couldn’t wait for 16, then 16 begged for 18 which yearned for 21…  Eventually, of course, we realize the folly of our ways and wish to take time backward a bit to enjoy those years we wished away.  I wouldn’t want to be 16 again, but I do wish I’d spent less time thinking of later years and more time just enjoying being.

Just being.

That’s so hard to do, when we are constantly tracking time.  “What time is it?”  “Do you think we have time?”  On and on.

While I have no interest in a “work free” lifestyle, I strongly believe we should all have a passion that drives us to do something productively on a regular basis, I do yearn for a life where I can ignore the clocks, the watches, the T.I.M.E.  Ideally, we would live by a beach in some slow paced city where moments would matter and time would be no more than a passing thought.  We would stop and enjoy the little things, like a rare bird passing in flight, or a the smile of a two year old, or the joy in finding lady bugs on random walks.

Let me enjoy life.  Let me never be to busy to appreciate those moments and bask in their simplicity.  Let me never worry about what should happen at what time and when and why.

There’s time enough for that later…

Virtually Friends…

1 Jul

I can remember when the Internet, in the form of the World Wide Web, was introduced to the public @ large.  Actually, I remember using Gopher and FTP archives prior to an official Web.  I’m dating myself, but I’m not that old, really, I was only 21 (give or take) at the time.  I worked in an IT department and some of my co-workers were former employees of DEC, the company that made VAX and… oh, never mind, now I’m really dating myself.

Anyhow, every time I use Twitter, I’m reminded of how hesitant cautious everyone felt about making connections with people they didn’t  know.  It was uncharted territory.  Then came online dating sites, and that really tested our willingness to make connections “virtually.” Jump forward to today, and here we are tweeting and friending and blogging into the virtual unknown.

This is really what “space, the final frontier” has become.

And to be sure, there is reason to be cautious still.  Just like real life, everyone’s motives are not what they appear to be or even, sometimes, what they are presented to be….

Yet.

And still.

I love making virtual friends.  In fact, sometimes, I find that the friends I make virtually have more in common with my personal likes and dislikes than ones I might meet on the street.  Nothing can replace the face to face connections that human society needs and craves.  But making true connections and friends online means we have to employ parts of ourselves that we might not otherwise use.  Opening up at times in a way that promotes introspection as much as anything else.

This is a good thing!

It’s a brave new world, and times they are a changing… and that’s as it should be.  How else could a stay-at-home mom have friends in India, New Zealand, Canada and coast to coast in the USA?

Have a great story of a virtual friendship?  Be sure to share it with us here!

Frazzled Parenting: Notes from the Trenches

30 Jun

I’m having a discussion with Kiddo#2 about rocks, the amazing feel of their varied textures, the reasons why he loves rocks.   And me, the logophile, stopping to explain the difference between Geology and Geography…

We should be outside.  We were outside enjoying the glorious weather (mid 80s instead of the past week’s 100+ weather).  We were having a blast!  Until Mom had to herd the kiddos back into the house, because Kiddo#3 was having a bad day, and bad days for Kiddo #3 are unlike anything you or my neighbors would expect.

Kiddo #3 has autism.  Or not.

From day one, it’s been a ride.  Born four weeks prematurely, spending 8 days in the NICU, unable to breathe on his own at first, from the very beginning DH & I knew he need an extra bit of attention.  Mind you, all of our kiddos were born prematurely.  None of the others had even the slightest of problems.

And from the start, there were “signs.”  Kiddo #3 did not “take ” to anyone except Mom, clingy doesn’t even begin to describe it.  Kiddo #3 does not like tags.  Yes, tags.  The kind that come on the back of almost every shirt we buy.  He can’t stand them.  All must be promptly cut out of his shirt or he won’t wear them.  As a matter of fact, he gets angry simply at the sight of one.  Kiddo #3 did not enjoy baths as an infant or a toddler.  And I don’t mean he disliked them, I mean the mere sound of running a bath would cause him to scream bloody murder.  It’s an awkward situation to have a child that refuses to go near a bathtub without screaming.  They can’t go for years without a bath, after all.  And, it was such a loud and piercing scream, lasting for so long, DH and I thought for sure someone would call Child Services on us at some point.  Fortunately, no one ever did.  And fortunately, he outgrew the bath aversion.  Only to replace that with other aversions that led to more screaming fits.  The pattern we run into when we move into a new home (we’ve moved three times since Kiddo #3 was born) goes something like this:  We meet the neighbors.  They’re fairly friendly, although sometimes not.  They “adore” our children.  Wave every day.  The usual, neighborly stuff.  And then six months later no one is speaking to us.  Not a soul.  I’m guessing they’re wondering what in the world is ALL that screaming about.

Screaming fits occur at least a dozen times a day.  Sometimes more, occasionally less.  As he gotten older, they have gotten somewhat better.  He doesn’t yell or scream outside (on his good days) and he’s never picked a fight with friends or strangers.  Siblings, of course, are another story.

Kiddo #3 took just a wee bit longer to develop the usual skills.  No talking until the age of 3.  No interest in potty training until the age of 5.  None of the usual abilities to find coping mechanisms for his frustrations.  Hence, the constant screaming.

First it was checking with the doctor.  You don’t want to assume that something is wrong with your child.  And he is such a sweet child when he’s not having a fit.  Doctor said everything was fine, just a slow developer nothing to worry about.  Then it was visits to an ENT and a Hearing & Speech clinic.  Well, ok, maybe there’s a bit of a hearing problem in one ear.  Yes, the speech delay is extreme but give it a few more months.  And, voila, a few months later he was talking, but at three he talked like an 18 month old and at four he was talking like a three year old.  Now he has the appropriate vocabulary for his age, but he still has not developed clarity in the pronunciation of his consonants, so friends of the kids will at times say (in the usual direct & to the point fashion of children) “I can’t understand what you’re trying to say.”  Which, of course, hurts Kiddo #3 to the core, because 1. Mom is much better at discerning the meaning behind the phrase, and 2. He “thinks” he’s saying each word correctly, he doesn’t realize his pronunciation is a bit off.

At four, we took him to a Behavioral Psychologist.  No, she said, nothing wrong with his behavior.  Let’s try a Developmental Specialist.  Off we went, next stop, Developmental Specialist and a grueling half day of testing.  Well, it was grueling for me, I think for Kiddo #3 it was pretty fun, since it was all play-based testing.  The upshot?  He tested .5 into the Autistic Spectrum, less then half a point.  But there it was.  The doctor did say to bring him back in two years for retesting, since young children will fluctuate in the presentation of their abilities.  That re-testing will occur later this year.

The good news is Kiddo #3 does not give any signs of being Autistic.  He makes normal eye contact.  He socializes and plays with other children.  He’s happy to go out and do all the usual stuff.  Last doc visit, they told us to stop referring to him as “Autistic.”  And so we did, and we have.

But…

And there’s always a but…

The fits of anger and screaming and sensory agitation continue.  It’s hard to maintain friendships, let alone one’s sanity, when you never know from day to day if all will dissolve into a screaming web of disaster.  It’s led us to a new lifestyle of rarely opening windows or doors to let fresh air in, because one never knows when a “fit” might arise.  I used to be a throw the windows open kinda of gal, I grew up on the West Coast, after all.

We felt extremely slighted by one speech therapist who said to us, off the cuff, “He really should learn to blow his nose…”  As if we wouldn’t have tried to teach a five year old to blow his nose.  As if we were bad parents… as if he was a bad child.  Which he’s not.  He’s sweet, adorably sweet, and oh so caring.  He just doesn’t take to instruction very well.  Not because he doesn’t want to.  Not because he can’t.  But rather, because he doesn’t deal well with frustration, if he can’t do it perfectly he won’t do it at all.

So, today’s fit arose from a dispute between Kiddo #2 and Kiddo #3 over which side of the house to play on.  No big deal right?  Wrong.  What should have been a normal dispute between siblings, erupted into a blood curdling scream that sent me running from the back porch to his side.  Calmly, I said, you’ll have to go back into the house now.  That led to more blood curdling screams.  Ok, let’s move this in the house now.  No one could really hear me since Kiddo #3 wouldn’t stop screaming and Kiddo #2 is already old enough to mosey on about his business and get out harm’s way.  Long story short, I had to do my usual last resort, which is to count from 5 backwards and point in the direction I want him to go.  For some reason, this usually works, and it did today, but it didn’t stop the screaming.  He headed up to his room, to his bed, and within 5 minutes he was asleep.

My next move is always to sit on the coach, breathe deeply and try to regroup.  The whole process is always very unsettling, even though we’ve been through it time and again, year after year.  And of course, there’s the guilt.   My other kiddos are always waiting on the sidelines for the fun to continue, at some time, at some point.  And their waiting breaks my heart.  There’s no complaining.  Everyone works together.

But it’s hard.

So I’m frazzled.

Hopefully, after the nap, we can go back outside and try again.

Finding Inspiration and Focus

28 Jun

A deadline is negative inspiration. Still, it’s better than no inspiration at all.  ~Rita Mae Brown

Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness. ~Samuel Beckett

One of the most difficult challenges a writer faces is the task of finding inspiration on days when one is uninspired.  On a good day, writers are inspired to write with a flow that could fill dozens of time-worn journals.  On a bad day, writing becomes a four letter word.

If you write, you know what I mean.

As of late (late being the past 5+ years of my life), I’ve struggled to find time to write.  But as a mother of four, those are fleeting moments.  And when I do find time my inspiration is scattered.  Should I “mommy” blog?  Nah, not really for me.  Should I write for someone else (another blog, About.com, eHow)?  I tried that for a hot minute on a certain site that shall remain nameless and was extremely disappointed by the work to return ratio.  For as much work as it takes to write for a topic generation site, one might as well start one’s own business – which is what this writer is working on doing.

In the meantime, I’m still drawn to writing.  When you dream of the written word, you know what your calling is.

On certain days, I’m inspired to blog about technology (you’ve seen my blog 140 ChitChat, a blog that died a sudden death when all posts were lost and now is in the process of being rebuilt).  I’m inspired by current events, but shy away from blogging about such topics because I’m really not interested in sparking political debates online.  Need time to sort out my own politics first, doncha know, although 30 more days of “spilling” oil may cause me to rethink that philosophy.  And, of course, I’m inspired by life, my family, my children.

In a good month, I may have time to do three really good blog posts.  One must go to my business site, one must go to 140 ChitChat and one currently is dedicated to this site, at this time.

I really don’t lack inspiration, and it may seem as though I lack focus, but really I’ve thrown several balls in the air while still in the process of learning how to juggle.  Learn as you go is a tough way to grow.

The best solution I’ve found to date is taking the plunge into hiring a few great people to help me out, writers, a VA, etc.  While it’s always hard to share the reins, especially when it comes to writing, I know the payoff in the end will be 10 fold.

Meanwhile, I’ll plug forward, undaunted.  And I’m ever so grateful for the constant inspiration life brings, the wonderful friends I’ve found in my social networking ventures, and the graciousness of my readers to walk the road with me.

Perspective

9 Jun

I’m reminded today that it is ever so important to keep our perspective as we go about our day-to-day, especially in this increasingly “virtual” world that we live in.

A local sportscaster complained that many of his fans on Twitter were insulted that said sportscaster didn’t post all of his show’s tweets personally.  This was not a personal Twitter account, this was his radio show’s Twitter account.  And the expectation was that this host should be spending his days and nights knee deep in tweeting?  Really?  When does he have time for his “real” job then?  And even if it were a personal Twitter account, what about his “real” life?

Other times I’m struck by how personally people take your presence or your absence on Twitter.  As if your world really does (and should) revolve solely around a virtual community of people, the majority of whom you’ve never met (if you’re really an active social networker).  What do we know about the people we follow and/or connect to online?  What do I know about you?  Or you about me?  All we know is what a person deems appropriate to share in virtuality.  And it’s safe to assume that the level of “sharing” is much less in the virtual world than it is in real life.

And that’s ok, and as it should be …

Why are we so taken aback by glimpses of a person’s real life personality?  What makes us think that a dozen updates or status feeds a day gives us any real clue as to who’s behind that avatar?

So many seem to lose their perspective in social networking.  Social networking is simply a tool for making basic connections virtually.  Those connections may lead to wonderful friendships in real life.  Or they might not.   And that doesn’t make virtual life any less rich or interesting.  There are great virtual socializers doing cool things online everyday, forging new ground, helping to reshape how we communicate as a society.

Most importantly, social networking has made the global community a place that we all can participate in and enjoy.  It’s made the task of connecting to like-minded individuals and exchanging shared ides, that much easier.

I enjoy my social networks, my connections/contacts/virtual friends.  And I try to remember that there’s much more to each one then the bits and bytes that are shared as our Facebook status updates and Twitter feeds reach out into virtuality, cross paths, and sometimes intertwine.

I’m not much of an unfollower and if I put you on a list, there you’ll stay (for the most part – on occasion I’ve removed one or two for extremely offensive language).  But I live my virtual life this way because something drew me to this person initially and if they turn out to be more or less than what I expected, I remind myself that I should not have expected much.

This is just a venue for a virtual part of a more complete (and complex) human being that I really don’t know.

And that helps me keep my perspective.