Academic Leigh Speaking

A professor, four kids, and a crash course in work/life balance

Birmingham With Kids July 31, 2017

We got up at 6:15 (yes, life with children is not for those who like to sleep in) for a dynamite breakfast at the Residence Inn Birmingham Inverness. Seriously: oatmeal with lots of fixin’s, croissants and brie, breakfast burritos, and tons of fruit. We didn’t even touch the waffles yet. It was only mildly discouraging to have them get in the car at 8:15 and say, “I’m hungry” which in our house is often code for “I’m bored.” I said, “get back in that breakfast room then!” and we all laughed.

Our first day in Birmingham was meticulously planned and replanned by me. We were to go to Kelly Ingram Park, view the 16th Street Baptist Church, and walk on part of the Civil Rights Heritage Trail. Then we’d go to the Negro Southern Leagues Museum, view Railroad Park, and stop by the Sloss Ironworks Factory Historical Site. Finally, we’d end the morning with lunch (pizza and Avondale Brews) at Post Office Pies. HAHAHAHAHA! Can you see the flaw(s) in the plan?

Actually it started off really well: Kelly Ingram Park is inspiring, moving, and engaging for children. I mentioned the other day that the kids had listened to the excellent Christopher Paul Curtis’s book The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963, which tells the story of that charged summer of selective buying (because boycotts were illegal), children skipping school to protest so their parents wouldn’t be fired from their jobs, dogs and water cannons fired at children, and ultimately a bombing at the church that killed four young girls. As we toured through the park, Seamus was very knowledgeable about the history, and the statues really came alive for him. He also has a You Choose book about the Civil Rights Movement that has been educational, and Gilbert has a book about Ruby Bridges that has helped him understand the history as well. They asked a lot of questions and really thought about the space and history for an hour. One of their questions was, “What happened if a white family had an African American child?” We talked about it, but it shows how they’d been thinking about segregation.

“I Ain’t Afraid”

These dogs were terrifying.

We decided to continue on, about 9:30 am. Well, as we were driving, we discovered that the Negro Southern Leagues Museum didn’t open until 11:00, which didn’t work for us. The Sloss Museum wasn’t open on Monday! We were busting everywhere! But we kept our cool and decided to go to the McWane Science Center. It was a great mulligan. (Thank goodness, because the trip planner was about to be in the doghouse.)

McWane totally lived up to its reputation as a fantastic place to go with kids. The older boys loved all the pulleys and mechanical advantage demonstrations. Porter and Harlan got a kick out of Itty Bitty Magic City, building with foam blocks, and bubbles. We were all able to enjoy the small aquarium with coral reef fish and Alabama swamp recreations. Enormous catfish! The touch tank with sharks and rays was also a hit. We mostly stayed together, but we split up for about 40 minutes so the younger boys could do the toddler area and the older boys could see the dinosaurs. We are almost ready to go back! But there’s so much more to see and do!

Exploring fulcrums and mechanical advantage. Gilbert was able to “beat” Seamus, Porter, and me!

The perspective room.

Harlan loved this contraption.

So with much of our morning scrapped and revised, we did manage to hang on to our lunch plans. Post Office Pies was in a hipster area, and while it was hilarious to seek out the hipsters, the beer and pizza did not disappoint. It was a perfect, casual, order at the counter, but nice seating and atmosphere for a lunch with kids. Now, I’m enjoying some quiet in the room (and trying to plan our next two day–checking opening hours!) while the younger boys sleep. Patrick, Seamus, and Gilbert are off checking out the motorcycle museum and racetrack. They’re under orders to take pictures!

Tentative plans tomorrow: day trip to Montgomery for the Rosa Parks memorial, MLK’s parsonage, Freedom Riders Museum, and Fort Tolouse Creek Indian Mounds (too ambitious?). And on Thursday, we aim for the things we missed today.


  1. We did do some preparation to contextualize what we’d see on this trip, and it’s paying off with Seamus and Gilbert. They’re able to use the knowledge they have from the past to add ideas and perspective to what they’re seeing. I’d say that’s a must for future trips in order to get real educational value.
  2. Snacks are necessary. I’d sort of gotten lazy, but the kids do need a refill every couple of hours, even if I don’t. Also, when travelling in the South, or anywhere you might be outside and warm, pack water bottles.
  3. Spontaneity and flexibility will take you far, but don’t be afraid to bag a spontaneous plan if it’s not working. The covered bridge was cool and worth a detour; the spray park wasn’t (so we didn’t stay).
  4. The kids might impress you with their stamina or insights. That’s something that surprises me at every turn. I love seeing this world, and occasionally I’m irritated that I can’t read every plaque or walk the whole trail because they’re done, but then they ask a question or make a comment about something I did not notice, and I realize that they are teaching me too.

Braver with Friends: Nashville, Huntsville, and Birmingham July 30, 2017

Filed under: Family Life,Friends and Relatives,Summer Vacation,Travel — leighj @ 9:46 pm

We had some fantastic days in Kentucky as we wrapped up our visit. I think I’m going to do bullets, because I don’t have much time, and there was a lot going on.

  • We swam with my high school friend and her children, who are nearly adults. After we swam, her kids took my kids to the park, and she and I went out for a margarita. That’s what I call a win-win-win-win! So fun, and so glad we are close still.
  • On Friday, I took the boys to the Adventure Science Center in Nashville. Two of my friends came along to help and enjoy the science center. Harlan did not like being confined to the stroller and wanted to jump into the water maze. Porter, surprisingly, loved the dark and eerie “Starwalk” and asked to do it twice. Seamus and Gilbert liked the build your own volcano, Burnulli’s principle, and a few other things. My dad had packed us a picnic, which was a lot of fun to enjoy under the solar panels, until we realized, we’d picked the panels with gaps! It started raining….

    They liked the build it center.

  • Saturday, we picked up Patrick from the airport and started our family vacation in earnest. Our first stop was at our friends’ pool south of Nashville. They have a three year old too, and it was fun to see what he could do and to encourage Porter to be a little more adventurous. By the time we left, 4.5 hours later (oh, how time flew!), Porter was comfortable jumping off the side of the pool, but only if Heather was catching him, chilling in water over his head with his floaties on, and getting a little bit of water splashed on him. In fact, he was having so much fun and being so praised, he didn’t want to leave, and had a big tantrum. Gordon, our friends’ son, got brave enough to jump in without his floatie. We marveled at the positive effects peer pressure can have.

    So much more fun to swim with friends!

  • After our pool fun, we headed to Huntsville, Alabama to spend the night. It was a nice drive and we were tired, but not totally exhausted. I went to an Aldi to get some snacks and breakfast items. I wasn’t as impressed as some people with the store. It was chaotic and confusing, but I did accomplish the desired shopping. There’s supposedly one getting ready to move into our town in Virginia, but I don’t think I’ll become a devotee.
  • The US Space and Rocket Center was so much fun! I remembered it being so from when I was a kid, but it still holds much charm. We played and looked at exhibits and rode some rides. Afterwards, we had a picnic on the lawn and tasted astronaut ice cream. Seamus was really interested in the moon flights exhibit; Gilbert was a little bored in the way Seamus was bored at Boonesborough; Porter liked seeing the rockets and doing the flight simulator; and Harlan was pretty happy in his stroller. The Saturn V rocket hall was really cool. I wish we could have walked through the replica space station, but moods were souring fast!

    Shuttle behind us!

    Will we learn anything?

    Driving the rocket!

  • We took the “scenic” route to Birmingham, and I’m so glad we did, because we sponataneously decided to take a detour and see a covered bridge, and because the younger boys napped really well, and the older boys were able to finish listening to The Watsons Go To Birmingham–1963, which tells a fictional, heart-wrenching story of the bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church, which we’ll see tomorrow. More then!
  • The covered bridge was a gratifying detour.


In and Around Bowling Green, Kentucky July 28, 2017

Filed under: Family Life,Friends and Relatives,Summer Vacation,Travel — leighj @ 6:52 am

My parents and I have been happier since we started hammering out what we all need and expect in a day of intensive kid-time (we started this about a year and a half ago). One thing that everyone needs is some downtime in the afternoon. Tuesday, I took Seamus and Gilbert to the public library while Porter and Harlan napped. That was a stroke of genius! I got an hour of writing in, they were thrilled to find books they wanted to read, and Porter and Harlan got terrifically long, uninterrupted naps.

Stacks of books!

They were particularly excited that the library had books that they’ve been waiting for in Falls Church. I couldn’t believe how quiet the children’s section was…it was a dreamy place to get some work done.

Later, I went to yoga and met up with one of my mentors from my master’s program. Wednesday, we went to the spraypark in Bowling Green with a friend from grad school and her daughter. I always enjoy that place, and it didn’t disappoint. Gilbert stayed with my parents to get his orthodontia accomplished, while Seamus, Porter, and Harlan got wet and had a picnic. I think the key to finding things to do in a place where there’s not a lot of appropriate touristy stuff is to try to think about what I do at home and then to replicate that in the other place. That’s how we took to going to the park here on every visit. We just have to adjust to the idea that we’re going to drive to the park, and it’s going to be empty, and that’s okay.

Or, you could just play with cats.

And sip some water.


First Leg of Long Road Trip: Lexington, KY July 27, 2017

We made it to Lexington. I drove four kids, myself, and a large piece of furniture across West Virginia. That part of the trip was beautiful. There was fog on the mountains coming across from Virginia, and I kept exclaiming to the boys to “Look!”

Our objectives in Lexington were fairly simple: eat, swim, see family, and go to Fort Boonesborough State Park. We accomplished all of that and more. I asked the two older boys what they learned from visiting Boonesborough, and Seamus listed candle making, the doors on the buildings, and that sometimes in the early days of the settlement, they slept on the floor. Gilbert listed how to fire a flintlock rifle, how to throw a tomahawk, and how to make candles. It was interesting and the people wearing period costumes were knowledgable and friendly. Harlan wasn’t that into it until it started raining and he found a puddle to sit down in!

Everyone else had run for cover!

Lexington was a fun place to spend a few nights. The hotel had a salt water pool, and we swam a lot. Porter played with the shark nets and sinking fish. He loves to imitate Bruce in Finding Nemo and he said, “I’m having fish tonight!” every time he caught one in his net. On Monday, my parents were eager to get back to their cats and dog, so they left early with Seamus, Gilbert, and Porter.

I left later with my grandmother and Harlan. I got to see my brother another day, and we went to the Arboretum on UK’s campus. I used to find botanical gardens kind of boring, but they are nice places for families to explore, and we had enjoyed looking at the different plants. Bret got me pretty good, with naming a bunch of plants and then he got stuck, and I said, “You were just making all that up, right?” and he laughed and laughed. It was pretty funny.

After Bret left, Granny and I went over to McConnell Springs (I told her I wasn’t going if it was named after Mitch–it wasn’t) to see where one of the first settlements in Lexington had been. The park was nice with a short paved walking trail. We didn’t take the stroller, and Harlan really got a kick out of walking around there, but then he got tired and uncooperative, so I had to manhandle him out of the place.

A cold spring!

He was grinning in this picture, but his face is so changeable it’s hard to snap him in the right look. Afterwards, we drove Old Frankfort Pike to Frankfort. The road is a must if you’re thinking of going that way. Frankfort has a small, but thriving, downtown. It was a highlight! Of course, Granny knows all the good places, and I learned more about the capital of Kentucky in one hour with her than I had in my whole life. We saw the governor’s mansion, a Frank Lloyd Wright house, the floral clock, and the Capitol from below and above!

I took her back to my aunt and uncle’s house where we stretched our legs a bit, and then I drove the rest of the way to my parents’ house. And the adventures continued!


Porter’s Birthday! July 26, 2017

Filed under: Family Life,Growing up,Third Baby — leighj @ 9:19 am

Porter turned three last weekend! We celebrated, of course. One night we invited our neighbors over for cake, since their son was having a birthday soon too. It turned out to be a lovely evening: very low key, but nice to see them mid-summer, since I think we won’t all be in town again until school starts!

We celebrated with grandparents, and Porter got some practical and silly gifts. He is very into imaginative play and building, so even though he doesn’t need it, he got a new Duplo set to play with and build. Harlan took the train off its track, and Porter lost his mind. I said, without expecting much, “Harlan, can you please give Porter his train back?” And he did! He understands and ca do way more than I imagine.

He also got a backpack so he’ll be ready for school (preschool, and only two days a week) in September. He got some fun games and a puzzle. He was really excited about his big day(s). In fact, right now he’s blowing a paper favor and singing happy birthday, and it’s several days past his birthday. We went to Burke Lake Park to ride the train and celebrate with his friend Max. The train there was so cute and fun. Seamus and Gilbert and Patrick played mini-golf while we rode the train.

Porter is getting slightly less cooperative, but he still has a pretty good attitude. He loves Sesame Street characters, Thomas, Franklin, and Drakestail. He will be any of these characters if you give him the opportunity. He arranges games in his head, and he will play by himself quite well, but of course, if you play with him, he’s over the moon!

Porter is ready for school now!

We have to wait on growth stats until we get back home, but I think he’s growing fine. He loves to read (look at pictures) and do whatever the older boys are doing. He’s starting to hate taking a nap, but he can be coaxed into it with a book and a snuggle. The other day, he said, as if to remind himself, “I’m a big boy.” Smile.

Roar! He’s a very scary bear!

Happy Birthday, Porter! Way to make it to three years!


Traditions: And Traveling with Another Family July 12, 2017

Patrick and I have been talking about the merits of going someplace new vs someplace you’ve been. We have come up with a good sense of reasons to do both. I think I may have blogged about that before. However, now we can add the tradition of going different places with the same people. The family we went to Madison, VA with is a family we’ve rented a place with three summers in a row now. This summer, it really felt like we got into the groove. The last few times we tried to plan the food and activities but we ended up with way too much food and too difficult activities.

This year, we had difficult activities (see the hiking event), but they were perfect. We also simplified our standards for food. It was still good, but it was easier to prepare and get on the table for four adults and seven hungry kids. We put the kids to bed and the adults sat around a campfire talking and laughing. The kids were up for breakfast, but we had made that one smooth too with granola, yogurt, and fruit for a highly customizable breakfast experience. We’d also done bagels, but that didn’t get food on the table as fast.

One night, we did fireworks and sparklers with the kids. I think it’s the first one they remember. Harlan liked the fireworks until it started banging!


Tips for traveling with another family:

  1. If one person is in charge of multiple kids, that person needs to lay down the expectations for behavior.
  2. Food should be simple but not just chips and dip.
  3. Kids have to go to bed so the adults get to feel like they had some down time.
  4. Quiet reading time is great. Better if an adult sits with the quiet readers and reads too. (That was me! I loved it!)
  5. Nappers should not skip naps.
  6. A morning activity is best. Evening activities should be low key.
  7. Good games: Outburst Jr, Apples to Apples Jr, and a deck of cards. Outdoors: Cornhole, a wifflebat, or a playground ball.
  8. Whoever is in the kitchen should be cleaning.
  9. Give the other family some privacy if a child is melting down.
  10. Relax. Everybody wants to have fun.

We are already planning for next year! (Not overplanning, just planning to go again!)


Garden Update July 11, 2017

Filed under: Garden,Just Thinking,Outdoor Pursuits — leighj @ 7:55 am

My garden is yellow. I went over to spy on my neighbor’s garden tonight, and hers is super green. And now I’m green with envy. My plants have a yellow tinge, and I’ve tried putting compost around the base of the plants, but I don’t know if it’s working. Do I need more? Less? Water? I’m uncertain.

When we got back from our week away, I had a lot of green bean growth (enough for an actual mess of green beans!), some overly mature snow peas, a cucumber, a patty pan squash, and some good basil growth in the pots by the door. My tomatoes were sprouting, but I know the squirrels have been at them, and today my Cherokee green had blossom rot on one of the promising tomatoes. It’s like my garden has grown into a disappointing teenager from the adorable toddler it was a month ago. I don’t know what to do for it to make it talk to me.

I still love it, but I have more work to do to figure it out. Meanwhile, I go out to stare at it every night and try to train the branches to do what I want. I brought in a few tomatoes tonight to see if I can get them to ripen on the windowsill….