Monday, August 30, 2010

Figures in Motion: An interactive history lesson

Although I received my copy of Famous Figures of Ancient Times: Movable Paper Figures to Cut, Color, and Assemble
in plenty of time to participate in the From Left to Write book club, it took us a few weeks to locate the supplies necessary to create the moveable historical paper dolls from the book.

Creating the figures required scissors (which we had), a single hole punch (which we lacked) and a box of brads. (Brads!?! They're like the opposite of chads. And it took me the better part of a week to figure out what those little gold fasteners were called and another week to find a store that sold them!)

Once we were outfitted with the requisite supplies, Z went to town on the figures. She can cut out and assemble the pieces independently and she enjoys learning the names and biographical information behind figures like King David and Alexander the Great. It's amazing how cutting, coloring and assembling a figure can help information "sink in." Even I--notoriously bad at recalling dates and details from history class--immediately recognized and remembered the basics after handing one of the men from Figures in Motion.

If anything, we hungered for more information than the brief character sketches provided in the book. Z wanted to know if they were good or bad, what their houses were like, what they ate, and how they died.
Disclosures: I received my copy of Figures In Motion for free as a member of the From Left to Write book club. My link to the book as an affiliate link, meaning if you click through it to purchasefrom Amazon, I receive a small referral fee.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

I threw a Sauza House Party™

House Party, Inc. started a word-of-mouth marketing revolution when they blended elements of the at-home selling party (social, relaxed, fringe benefits to the host) with the standard big-brand event sampling event.

They've obviously hit on a winning formula: companies are lining up to hire House Party and volunteers (mostly women) compete for the opportunity to host.

Thanks to this blog, the folks from House Party have encouraged me to throw one of their events in my home for quite some time; but I hesitated, unwilling to serve my guests Kraft Mac and Cheese or peddle toddler toys during a play date. It just struck me as too commercial and awkward. And that's coming from me, a professional marketer.

However, the email about the Sauza Ladies' Night In party piqued my interest. I've hosted plenty of girls' nights at my place and I love a good margarita. I could host a relaxed get together for my friends (including fellow OPRF bloggers Carrie, Emily and Molly) at the end of back-to-school week and see what the House Party experience was all about.

What I liked
House Party provides a lot of inspiring content for party hosts, including recipes, decorating advice and party activities. There are also a lot of parties to choose from--there's really something for every taste. Right now party options include a Michigan State tailgate, a Tombstone Halloween Pizza Party and--most perplexingly--a Kleenex Clean & Fresh Hand Towels party. The process to apply is somewhat lengthly, but it is straightforward and you know where you stand. Once you're approved, the box of party goodies arrives promptly.

I used the provided $5 off coupons to purchase Sauza tequila for the party, and I loved the eco-friendly bamboo cutting board included in my party package.

I also loved having an excuse to invite people over and enjoy a relaxed evening with good food and some very awesome margaritas.

What needed work
The featured recipe for the evening, the Sauzarita, looked horrifying to me. It called for a can of HFCS-rich limeade concentrate and a bottle of beer. Instead, I squeezed a bajillion tiny limes and made a pitcher of fresh margaritas (1 cup fresh lime juice, 1 bottle Sauza Silver, 1 1/2 cups orange liqueur and lots and lots of ice).

The pitcher and margarita glasses included in the box were cheap plastic--lightweight and kind of tacky looking. Plus, the plasticware didn't have a recycling number stamp on them so I'm not sure I can safely recycle them (I'm Freecycling them instead).

My guests also complained about the RSVP process. Some of them were able to register and navigate the House Party website, but quite a few had trouble. Compared to Evite, the House Party invitation functionality is really clunky and difficult to use. On top of that, all of my registered guests were automatically signed up for the House Party mailing list, receiving pitches to host parties like the Durex Girl Talk event. Just because someone attends an event doesn't mean they want to host one or have their email box clogged with offers.

In summary
From a marketing perspective, I think the House Party concept is brilliant and its execution is solid. Although I buy spirits once in a while, I had no brand loyalty to any tequila before. As a shopper, I'll reach for Sauza now, and I think it's fair to say my guests were left with a very positive association with the brand as well.

Providing Sauza drinkware and the logoed bamboo cutting board meant there was some subtle branding at the party, but I'm guessing most hosts would welcome (and put up) decorations featuring the Sauza logo.

I'd have gone through more tequila if House Party had included a few different margarita recipes to taste and enjoy. And although I was willing to foot the cost, I'd have welcomed coupons to help defray the cost of buying margarita ingredients and food. Perhaps there's a missed opportunity here: imagine if Sauza and House Party offered Frito-Lay or Frontera the opportunity to include gratuity coupons for tortilla chips and salsa to serve at the events.

Be sure to check out Molly's post about the event, which includes a link to the recipe for the amazing watermelon soup/cocktail she brought along.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Friday shopping report

Dansko shoes
How's this for a surprise: my sister, who lives in Australia, discovered a cute little shoe store in Oak Park and told me that all their Camper and Dansko shoes were 40% off. I raced over to Shoe Soko the next day and found this adorable pair of olive green Mary Janes for just under $80 with tax.

I'm a latecomer to the Dansko party as their clogs don't fit my feet at all, but earlier this year I bought a pair of Dansko gold sandals and I've worn them virtually every day this summer. They're that comfortable.

A Book
I had a $10 Borders gift card and a 20% off coupon burning a hole in my pocket, so I bought a copy of Kate Atkinson's When Will There Be Good News? I hadn't headed in knowing what book I was going to buy, so my decision was based on the cover and insight page, which were chock-full of critical acclaim.

Another Groupon
I couldn't resist the $40 Groupon worth $85 at MyWinesDirect, so I bought it.

A little family resemblance

My 89-year-old great aunt was in town for my bat mitzvah this past weekend and her first reaction upon seeing A was "She looks just like me as a child." Do you see a resemblance?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Vienna Beef Factory Tour: How hot dogs are made

If you think that an intimate look inside a Chicago hot dog factory would make me think twice about eating one, you'd be wrong. Surprised?

Today Josh and I took the Vienna Beef factory tour. After removing our watches and jewelry and donning hair nets and white butcher coats, we stepped onto the factory floor for a no-holds-barred view of how hot dogs are made. This was no Jungle. We saw men speedily debone beef briskets; we peered into giant mixers as they blended ground brisket fat with bright red bull meat; and we viewed bucket after giant bucket of the pale paste formed when the two beef products are pureed with corn syrup, salt and seasonings. I watched as vats full of hot dog paste were fed into casings and wheeled into a vast smoke room to be cooked.

We learned about the differences between natural and uncased sausages and found out the demand for the former comes from hot dog stands and the latter from grocery stores and small children. Did you know natural casings are sheep guts? They import them from New Zealand. Another fun fact: when the plant moved to its current location in the 1970s, the taste of the meat changed slightly. The remedy? Bringing in the old smoky bricks from the old South Side factory.

I also discovered Vienna Beef has a special recipe just for Portillo's that contains more nitrates and water for a longer dog with a juicier, snappier bite. (I still refuse to eat there.)

Our guide, the former production manager, answered all of our questions without hesitation. When asked how the recession had affected sales, he said demand stayed flat. Vienna Beef hot dogs are mostly sold in the Chicago area and their products are more expensive than the competition (but worth it, according to him as they use higher quality ingredients). He freely admitted hot dogs were unhealthy ("Me, if I want fast food, I usually go to Chipotle"), and concurred that the standard dogs were a lot tastier than the natural, nitrate-free versions.

The factory was immaculately clean and smelled pretty good--especially the area near the smoke room and in the soup room, where 3 giant kettles were cooking chili. You won't find Vienna Beef's soups on your grocery store shelves--they're sold in giant containers to restaurants and food service outlets. Their chili, for example, is served at Culver's.

After circling the entire factory floor, our guide led us upstairs to the quality control room. There we joined a group of employees sampling all of the items that had been made that day, from pastrami and corned beef to cased and uncased hot dogs, Polish sausages and soup. Our appetite whetted, we headed to the factory cafeteria (which is open to the public) for a free lunch of hot dog, fries and a soft drink.

Vienna Beef only started offering factory tours in May, and according to the marketing representative we talked to, demand has been overwhelming. There are a lot of hot dog lovers out there, and while no one is going to convince anyone hot dogs are health food, it's a brilliant PR move to show that Vienna Beef hot dogs have nothing to hide. There's no "mystery meat," no unsanitary conditions, no ill-treated workers.

And the tour? It's free.

Wordless Wednesday


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Her first day of kindergarten

Z was all smiles at this morning's drop-off. Although she'll eventually catch the bus down the street, we walked her there and escorted her to the "kindergarten porch" where the youngest students line up with their classrooms.

Josh and I then headed upstairs to the media center (a.k.a. the library) for an orientation prepared specifically for new kindergarten parents. I left around 8:40 so that I wouldn't be too late for work. It had, after all, been a few days since I'd been in the office.

Her first day was only 3 hours long, but the lunchtime report I received from Z was a positive one. She made two new friends, completed a craft and found a Judy B. Jones book to read in a nook in the classroom. She can't wait to go back and dive into new experiences like gym, music and art classes, Spanish lessons and trips to the school library.

Tomorrow she'll also be buying hot lunch. A big deal for a picky eater and a mom who doesn't much relish packing lunch boxes.

Block party: Before the meltdown

There is no day more highly anticipated by my children than the annual block party. They count down the days until that one Saturday in August when the street is closed to cars. Every detail is important to them and remembered fondly from year to year. The breakfast table laden with doughnuts and danishes from Oak Park Bakery. The bouncy castles, one big one and a small one just for the tiny tots. The crafts and games. The crappy prizes. The "manicure station" manned by fourth graders and the chance to get wet in one of five baby pools right smack in the middle of the road. And best of all, there's an inflatable water slide and a white elephant silent auction where even the tiniest allowance can go a long, long way.
Z, competing in a sponge relay race
Having their cousins and grandparents in town made the block party even more exciting for Z and A this year, but all that excitement meant naps were missed and nerves seriously frayed by 5 o'clock. We had to miss dinner and the bonfire because the kids were in full-on meltdown mode, but given this year's mosquito season, that's probably a good thing.
My niece Eliza gets ready to splash down

Monday, August 23, 2010

We survived our first bout with lice

On Friday morning the scratching started. After seeing my 5 year old dig at her scalp for the fifth time in an hour, Josh and I took her to our sunlit front porch for an inspection. We didn't see anything that looked like lice, but there was a scattering of black "dirt."

"Well, that's not normal," I said. "Either that's lice poop or lice eggs or fleas, but it isn't okay." Josh gave her head another look and called me over. "Something's definitely moving in there," he said. Needless to say, Z started freaking out, somewhere between getting a shot and the first time she jumped into the deep end of the pool. "No!!!" she yelled. "I don't want to go to the Hair Fairies!!!"

"Call Sharon and see what we're supposed to do," I said. Sharon is our old neighbor, and a lice pro who not only dealt with her own kids recently, but had a friend whose entire family got infested (yes, mom and dad, too). I wanted to help, but I had to run over to Temple for a final run-though of my bat mitzvah service, which was that night. In fact, a lot of my extended family was already here, so I gave A, whose head was clear, to my mother and asked her to take her out of the house for a couple of hours while Josh scrambled and dealt with the lice.

Z spent most of the morning naked in the tub while Josh gave her a (likely toxic) Rid treatment and a preliminary culling of the critters. When I returned two hours later, I compared the bugs Josh had found to a Google image search (which, trust me, is not for the weak of stomach) and found that we indeed had a case of lice on our hands. But a fairly mild one, it appeared.

I sat Z in the sun on the back steps and pulled out lice eggs with my fingernails. It took a couple of hot, sweaty hours, but I wanted to be thorough. We bagged her stuffed animals and washed all her sheets, pillows, clothes and hats on our washing machine's hottest setting. We sprayed the couches and her bike helmet with the spritz from the Rid package and tied her hair back for good measure.

We did some more internet sleuthing and I armed myself for a second, even-more-thorough delousing Saturday morning, purchasing hair clips, Pantene conditioner and quality metal lice combs. The moment Z woke up, I sat her down in front of the TV, sectioned and clipped her hair and soaked each section with plenty of conditioner. I then ran the combs from root to end, wiping off the excess conditioner as I went. It took a little over an hour and I only found a few lice eggs--at least that I could see. I then washed out the conditioner.

To ensure the infestation was officially over, the rest of us got preventative tea tree oil shampoos and we've been washing and changing all of Z's bed linens each morning. No lice or eggs have been spotted since Saturday morning, and -- even more important -- no lice have been spotted on the remaining three of us - but I'll continue to check her head every morning and evening with a bright light (her IKEA bedside clip-on lamp) for at least the rest of this week.

Interestingly enough, just about every time we've mentioned our lice scare to friends we've been rewarded with their own recent lice stories, many of which put ours to shame. Repeat infestations this summer, sibling-to-sibling infestation, severe creepy-crawly scalp infestation caught too late, and a $600 house call from the aforementioned Hair Fairies.

The Hair Fairies, it should be noted, specialize in a thorough delousing using specialty natural products, and of course you pay for the effort. In fact, we've read that lice is increasingly resistant to the usual chemical pesticides, and natural may be the way to go, anyway. We even had a friend (and, to my surprise, Josh's pediatrician mom) suggest mayonnaise or Vaseline as non-toxic alternatives, but I doubt we'd ever go such a messy route. Regardless, Josh was at the drug store Sunday morning, stocking up on some natural Aussie Quit Nits. Just in case.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

This is what I had to say


The first line of my Torah portion reads, “When a man has taken a bride, he shall not go out with the army or be assigned to it for any purpose; he shall be exempt one year for the sake of his household, to give happiness to the woman he has married.” Without realizing we were following Jewish law, Josh and I took this guideline seriously, avoiding the trials of war and enjoying each other’s company for 5 happy years. And by war, of course, I mean the hardships, battles and marital strife that result from the blessings of small children.

Our daughters, despite their periodic temper tantrums and sullen silences, are dear to my heart. And they are also the main reason I’m standing up here today. As many of you know, my father was a diplomat and we were stationed in Pakistan when I was 12 and 13—the time a girl typically becomes at Bat Mitzvah. If you’re looking for a place to explore and celebrate your Jewish roots, let me tell you it’s not Pakistan.

When I returned to the U.S. at 14, I attended Confirmation class and stayed involved with my synagogue through high school. And while my rootless upbringing wasn’t remarkably Jewish—we neither socialized with many Jews nor kept Kosher­–I felt increasingly drawn to Judaism. It became clear to me that my Jewish heritage was key to my identity and a foundation upon which I could build a sense of home. Still, I couldn’t bear the thought of joining a bunch of 12 year olds for Bar and Bat Mitzvah study. Instead, I promised myself I would eventually make it to the bima. And I would do it before—or possibly alongside–my own children.

So here I am. Over the course of 2 years and with the help of a number of Temple members—I’ve learned Hebrew. I’ve mastered Cantillation. And I’m reading Torah. And I have to tell you, the first time I came up, placed a silver yad in my right hand, and chanted from a 100-year-old scroll, I felt so moved…so connected to the Jewish generations that have proceeded me…and to the Jewish girls I’m raising today. Today may not mark the beginning of my life as a Jewish adult, but it is a homecoming of sorts, an affirmation of my roots.

We live in a world where it is easy to wander to away from Judaism. And yet, despite the ease and appeal of assimilated life with its bagels, lox and Christmas trees, I’ve chosen to step toward my religious identity. To come home as a Jew.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Friday shopping report

I scored a few bargains this week, but the one I am most proud of is a $39 Calvin Klein contour bra I bought for just $6.57 at Loehmann's. It was on clearance for $14.98, but all clearance items were 50% off. This postcard took an additional 20% off the final sale price.

It was a hot summer, so my swimsuits got a lot of use. And by wearing them and observing the other moms at the park district pools, I realized tankinis are not in fact our friends. Naturally, I own 3. So, inspired by this post from Ain't No Mom Jeans, I bought a new bikini from Athleta.
Five Palms banded halter top, on sale for $29.50

And shortly after my friend Frugalista posted a 20% off coupon code for The Children's Place, I scooped up a halter top, 3 pairs of microfiber tights and a new lunch box for Z for $18.01 (including shipping and tax).

In preparation for the annual fall consignment sales and any outlet shopping my mother-in-law offers to do, I also inventoried Z's fall and winter wardrobe. Thanks to her small stature and my buying some things "to grow into" at Old Navy's end-of-season clearance in February/March, we're in good shape with regard to long sleeve shirts, pants and casual dresses, but she needs sweaters, sweatshirts, socks, a skirt and perhaps a fancier dress.

I didn't buy
Any group coupons or one-day deals. While there are more and more social coupon sites competing with the original (and best) Groupon, I haven't found a deal local enough or tempting enough to purchase since the Marion Street Cheese Market offer at the end of July.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

My bat mitzvah is 1 day away!

This is my Torah portion. If you were to come to Oak Park Temple on Friday, August 20th at 8pm (and you locals really should--there will be lots of delicious desserts at the oneg afterwards), you would get to hear me chant it and deliver my d'var Torah, a little speech/Torah commentary that I will also post here sometime next week. Oh, and along with the rabbi, the cantor, a 13-year-old bar mitzvah boy and my fellow adult bat mitzvah candidate, Nancy, I will be leading a few prayers.

I'm thrilled to finally reach this important milestone, and I have a few people I need to thank for supporting me on my journey. Thank you Josh, for encouraging me to go for it and letting me disappear for an hour a week to study. Thank you Nancy, for doing it with me. Thank you Berit (a.k.a. Tavi's mom), for teaching and encouraging me. Thank you Kim, for being an inspiration and pursuing an adult bat mitzvah earlier this year. The thank you Sara, for cheering me on and auctioning off your Embassy Suites American Girl Slumber Party package in my honor and for the charity of my choice.

Thank you Mom, for throwing me a celebratory brunch at Maya del Sol. And thank you to Tiny Prints, who generously comped my invitations. Not only was choosing a tasteful design and modifying it for my purposes super easy, they got in touch with me after I'd submitted my order and advised me to add contact information after the RSVP request.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Retail design FAIL

A small portion of my professional life is dedicated to shopper-based design, and it has made me a particularly astute observer of store design, layout and lighting; shelf sets and in-store signage.

But you don't have to be a marketer to be appalled by the interior of Oak Park's Petersen's Pharmacy. This is a store owned by a dedicated pharmacist (the kind who will mix up compounds to order) who obviously doesn't give a damn about the presentation of the typically very profitable drugstore "front-of-store," the area dedicated to non-prescription items like healthy and beauty products, candy and incidentals.

This permanent Medela display is nearly toppling over. $300 breast pumps are stacked on top of VitaminWater and breastfeeding supplies are all jumbled together. Since there is a thriving midwife practice in the building, these high-profit items should be more artfully displayed.

Does choosing your pain reliever from a chaotic shelf inspire confidence? None of the medicine had expired, but most have undergone packaging updates since these boxes were printed.
And the piece de resistance, a 20 year old bottle of Perma Soft conditioner.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Our last night in Scoville Park

A, looking like a miniature French film starlet
We're pretty much regulars at the Park District's summer concert series. The timing (5:30-7pm), the location (less than 1 mile from our house) and the size (intimate enough that I can let my kids run free) are perfect for our family and the kids love to dance and play with their friends.

Z and one of her best friends. Apparently she was trying to kiss him last night.

Last night was the last show of the season. We were well prepared with bug spray, water bottles filled with watermelon agua fresca and a bag of Chipotle, but not with extra underpants for A, who had a teeny accident and spent the last 30 minutes of the show catching a cool breeze under her dress.

The nude ride home. She doesn't like the way dresses bunch up under her harness.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Cermak Family Aquatic Center: An undiscovered gem

Just 15 minutes southwest of Oak Park, nestled in a quiet park along the Des Plaines river is a lovely little public water park for young children. Until a few weeks ago, I'd never heard of the place and, if my friends and the lack of crowds are any indication, few others have either.

The Cermak Family Aquatic Center in Lyons, IL features a lazy river, a large pool with a tunnel slide, sprays and dunking buckets and a splash pad with a toddler slide and assorted water works. The water ranges from zero depth to 2 1/2 feet, making it perfect for toddlers, preschoolers and young children. In fact, kids over 12 aren't allowed. There are lifeguards stationed throughout the park, locker rooms with private showers and a snack bar that offers pretty typical pool food fare, albeit at very low prices (e.g. $2 hot dogs)

I took the girls there yesterday and met up with a friend of mine, her 5 year old and her mother and aunt. All of us were impressed by how immaculately clean the facility was and how nice it was to relax in the lazy river and the pool without a gaggle of preteens cannonballing in off the side.

Address: 7600 W Ogden Avenue, on the south side of Ogden, just west of the Des Plaines river
Hours: 11-7
Admission: $5 adults, $3 for children 4 and over, free for kids 0-3
Free parking

Friday, August 13, 2010

Friday shopping report

Hopefully this will become a new feature here on Marketing Mommy, a weekly report on stuff I bought, received or ultimately decided not to buy.
Item 1: Sundress from Soho boutique, $29
It is hot as Hades here in Chicago, so I'm wearing this breezy cotton spaghetti strap dress I purchased at a going-out-of-business sale during BlogHer weekend in NYC. I don't much like wearing strapless bras, but I haven't entirely embraced the visible bra strap trend, so I'm wearing one today. I now have a lot of floral sleeveless dresses in my closet and I probably shouldn't buy any more. At least until I miraculously lose 10 lbs and have to buy a new wardrobe.

Item 2: Silver "happy" bracelet, price unknown
This sterling silver Lisa Leonard bracelet was included in one of the swag bags I received at BlogHer and I love it. I'm tempted to order one of her custom mom necklaces--the kind with charms stamped with your kids' names.

Item 3: Simple Sojourner shoes, $14.95
I'll admit my attention was wandering during one of the less compelling BlogHer sessions and I started paying more attention to my Twitter stream than the speaker. A tweet from came through announing Simple shoes for $14.95. Five minutes later, I'd ordered this pair of incredibly soft, comfy, slightly Boho shoes. They're now back up to $50--50% off their $100 retail price.

Items 4-34: Elmer's glue sticks
Yes, that is a lot of glue. I balked a bit when I saw Z's kindergarten supply list called for a whopping 30 glue sticks, but I was delighted to relieve the Walgreens near my office of their entire supply when they went on sale for $0.19 a 2-pack.

I didn't buy
Despite receiving a tempting email from Overstock announcing a big sale and $1 shipping on Queen size bedding, I ultimately didn't buy any new bedsheets. We've been using the same 2 pairs since we bought our mattress in 2004, but they are soft and comfortable and--really--with one set on the bed and one in the wash or the closet, we're fine.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

She's growing up

Who is this child of mine, with her tiny pierced ears and her rapidly lengthening yellow-blonde curls? Who is this girl who has finally outgrown her size 3 swim rash and her lactose intolerance and has taken to galavanting around town in my old glasses (with the lenses popped out)? This lover of animals and under-the-covers reader of Judy B. Jones paperbacks is as addicted to her hand-me-down iPod full of pop tunes and Lemony Snicket audiobooks as I am to my Blackberry. This, faithful readers, is my 5 1/2-year-old Z, possessor of a newly-rented 1/16 size violin, 23 Silly Banz and the proud recipient of an earned allowance* of $4 a week.

*In order to qualify for her allowance, Z must make her bed, put her toys away, practice violin and do any assigned homework.

Local readers, can you figure out where this picture was taken?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

BlogHer part 3

BlogHer part 1

It's a rule: you can't fly to New York City and spend your entire stay at a conference. So Friday afternoon I slipped away and took the subway to the Soho/Nolita area. I walked around, had an overpriced cup of Pinkberry (Chicago, I'm staying true to Starfruit) and found a fashion boutique holding a going out of business sale. I bought a cute blue floral dress with a lot of detailing for $29 and headed over to Uniqlo, my favorite NYC shopping destination, where I picked up a lavender cotton dress shirt, a merino wool cardigan, socks, a black long-sleeved V-neck and a green and white striped tank top for under $100.

I got back to the Hilton in time to hear the BlogHer voices of the year (typically my favorite part of the conference) and changed into yet another floral dress for the evening's festivities, a cocktail reception at the Hilton, wine and a surprise author signing with other members of the From Left to Write book club and the Mouthy Housewives party (where I got to talk to the incredibly funny friend of a friend Wendi Aarons.

As I was stumbling back to the Hilton (I'd had a few glasses of delicious Prosecco), I texted Shannan from Mommy Bits, one of my oldest, bestest blog friends so that we could finally meet face-to-face.

Heading back to the Gala now. Be there in a few.

We just left. Going to get dinner.

I looked up from my Blackberry just as two women--one who looked a lot like Shannan--walked by. Then I got another text.

Are you wearing a floral dress?

Yes, coming back now.

We both turned around and I joined Shannan and her roommate Susan (another virtual blog friend I've been following on Working Moms Against Guilt for years) for Italian food. It was so great to connect with them IRL.

Then there was Saturday. I already wrote about the session that spoke to me, so let's skip right ahead to dinner, which another of my bloggy besties, Whitney of Rookie Moms, organized. Thanks a general aversion to Thai food (yes, I was one of the whiners), we gathered at the Aspen Social Club, a mostly deserted bar with tasty food and completely outrageous cocktail prices ($60 for a pitcher of margaritas!) Fellow Rookie Mom Heather was there, as well as their Bay Area buddy Wendy, Meagan Francis, Asha Dornfest of Parenthacks (I turned into such a fangirl meeting her) and 2 or 3 other lovely bloggin' mamas whose cards I either didn't collect or simply lost.

After plunking down $40 for a margarita, a mac and cheese appetizer and my portion of the passed dips, we headed back to the Hilton for the final party of the conference, CheeseburgHer. I wore a McDonald's bag on my head, but I passed on the new cheeseburger "wraps." Blech. Instead, I guzzled a giant glass of red wine (the Hilton offered very generous pours to drink ticket holders) and hung out on a giant cheeseburger bed. 'Nough said.

Photo courtesy of Yvonne Marie

Monday, August 09, 2010

BlogHer part 2

BlogHer part 1

Friday, the first official day of the conference, began with breakfast. Perhaps I wasn't the only attendee to complain about the quality of the food in '09, because the BlogHer organizers and the New York Hilton delivered deliciousness at every meal. I piled my plate high with oatmeal, fresh fruit and a muffin and went back to the coffee urns again and again. Because breakfast was sponsored by Tropicana, I also tried their Trop 50 Pomegranate Blueberry juice. Thumbs up on taste and no artificial sweeteners.

Then I hit the Writing Inspiration: Stoke Your Creativity panel expecting to hear about ways to get around blogger's block and fire up my posts from the lazy "here's what we did" to something more interesting and insightful. Instead, the discussion seemed more geared toward fiction and poetry writers and included the well-trod territory of "going for a walk" and "setting aside time to write." I did take a few notes on blog editing, something I do far too little of. If I was to follow those directions after writing this post, I would read this out loud, cut the first and last paragraph and delete all uses of the passive voice.

I ate lunch and exchanged cards with some new-to-me bloggers and headed into the two expo halls to check out the sponsor exhibits and see if it was as icky and over-the-top as last year's swag-fest.

Now it was big. Some of the pavilions, like those for Jimmy Dean/Hillshire Farms and P&G were even more elaborate than last year's. P&G, for example, had a Home Away From Home with separate rooms for health and beauty, laundry, their charitable missions and more. I got my makeup "done" in the beauty studio and they snapped a headshot for me which I liked enough to use here on my blog.
Exterior of the P&G exhibit

Although I threw my business card in a few bowls (hey, who wouldn't want to win a Tempur-Pedic bed?), I skipped most of the exhibitors. I don't use diapers or baby bottles anymore, I'm not in the market for a new car and we never eat frozen dinners. Oh, and the frozen breakfast items from Jimmy Dean? They looked like delicious corn dogs, but they were really gag-worthy sausages wrapped in pancakes. On a stick. Not that I tried them. But I know someone who spat them right back out in front of the sampling staff.
People were eating this. In the middle of the day!

I did pick up some cool stuff, though: a to-go container for cereal and milk from the "Got Milk" people, an Assets (Spanx for less) body shaper, Biotrue contact solution (in a TSA-approved size), a giant White House | Black Market tote and an original Todd Parr drawing of my children courtesy of Stouffer's. I also got pictures of myself with Dora the Explorer and Marmaduke the dog. I snapped the former on my cell phone and sent it off to Josh in the hopes of blowing the girls' minds.

I think the BlogHer organizers were right to place the Expo halls far from the conference sessions. Unlike last year, when a Strawberry Shortcake doll was placed on every chair in one session, swag and sponsor signage were largely absent from the panels. And while some will bemoan the crass commercialism of all of the sponsor involvement, I appreciate them. They keep the conference fees incredibly low--far lower than most business conferences. It also makes sense from a marketing perspective. I mean, how often can a giant corporation step off the supermarket shelves and "come alive" to make a one-to-one connection with a consumer?And not any consumer, a highly connected, highly influential, permanently Googleable consumer.

We also can't forget that, despite all the squealing women, parties and generally summer camp-like atmosphere, BlogHer is a business. They make money by selling ads through their ad network and sponsorships to their conferences.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

BlogHer: Learning to love my small blog

While parts 2 and 3 of my BlogHer 2010 recap are still to come, right now I want to share what was for me the most memorable, meaningful session of the conference: Little Fish in a Big Pond: Understanding, Accepting and Loving Your Small Blog. You can read the live-blogged recap here.

If you recall last year's invention of the BlogHer D-List, you know I'm okay being a small blogger. Virtual invisibility has its advantages. For starters, less work. I don't stress over my design, participate in Twitter parties or hustle to sell ads, which means I have more time to focus on my real job and my real life. If I don't post for a few days, I don't piss off the masses, I worry my mother.

Unlike the super blog-celebs Dooce, The Pioneer Woman and The Bloggess, I am under no pressure to write amazing posts. Appear on TV. Or score a book deal. In fact, no matter how I neglect my blog, botch the design or write trivial drivel, I just don't have very far to fall. In fact, if I shut down my blog tomorrow, I'm not sure more than a dozen people would call me up to complain. [Side note: I met Jenny the Bloggess at the CheeseburgHer party Saturday night and found her sweet and engaging and not at all possessing of the high horse she's entitled to.]

Now it's not to say that I don't envy the brightest stars in blogging their readership and the opportunities that come along with a large audience. I do. A little.

But what I really want is not a big blog. It's a better blog. A more engaging blog. What I really, truly, deep-down-in-my-heart desire is a blog with a shitload of comments. And that's where you come it. I'm going to improve my game. And you... won't you please, please comment more often? And if you've been reading for some time and you've never commented before, it's time to delurk. Leave me a comment--even an anonymous one.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

BlogHer part 1

You know the feeling you got at sleepaway camp when so much was packed into every day that 24 hours felt like a week? That's BlogHer for me. I'll have to break down my days into a few different posts, so let's start with day 1.

Thanks to the wonder of Twitter, I found a cab share from the airport and a roommate for the conference. I exchanged hellos with Kristen Chase and crossed the lobby to my IRL friend and neighbor Carrie and one of her roommates (whom she'd only just met too). We walked a few blocks to Le Pain Quotidien, and had lunch.

Around 3 o'clock our room was ready, so Anna and I unpacked and got to know each other a little bit. Then it was off to my first party suite. I thought I'd go straight from the suite to "A Little Night Music," but I got such generous swag that I had to head back to the hotel to drop it off. I met Meagan, Sandie, Michelle, Stacey and a couple of others whose business cards I either didn't grab or lost. Bernadette Peters led a top-notch cast and our second-row seats weren't too shabby either. After the show, Sandie, Michelle, Carrie and I headed to Shake Shack and walked through Times Square, which was still hopping with throngs of people and costumed characters at 11 at night.

Carrie, Sandie and me (I'm wearing airbrush makeup--can you tell?)

New York's finest were looking fine

Back at the Hilton, Carrie and I met up with TheChicagoMom's founder MJ Tam and fellow writers Beth Rosen and Duong Sheahan for a glass of wine. Then it was bedtime for bunny.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

My bag is packed and I'm headed to BlogHer

One small roll-aboard carry-on, packed. Sessions, meals, cocktails and parties have been programmed into my Blackberry. My boarding pass is printed. And a cab has been called.

Okay, can we go back to the suitcase now? I fit 1 handbag, 3 dresses, 1 skirt, 1 shirt and a workout outfit with athletic shoes in there. Plus my MacBook Pro. Plus a duffle bag for swag/NYC clothing purchases. And my toiletries.

I think I deserve to spend the $25 baggage fee I'm saving on cocktails. Come join me for a drink. I'll be the gal wearing the same pair of Dansko gold sandals all weekend.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Adventures in re-fi

It's hard to believe that when Josh and I bought a condo back in 2000, we had a mortgage rate of 8.75%. We refinanced it for a 3 year ARM and then sold the place a year later to buy our current house. We thought we were getting a real steal when we financed this place at 5.25% (on a conventional 30 year fixed) back in 2003.

You might have noticed rates keep getting lower. Low enough that I decided it was time to refinance and start paying down our loan in earnest with a 15-year fixed. Using the calculator at, I figured that we'd only be paying an extra $200 a month if I could get a 3.75% rate--and we'd build our equity a lot faster. We can spare the cash because the childcare + Montessori school line item on our budget is now the much more affordable Montessori school + free public school.

My first stop was the Chase branch downstairs from my office. Chase inherited our loan from WaMu and is home to our (once First Chicago then Bank One) checking accounts. They quoted us at 4.65% and talked up the fact that they'll refund 1% of your principal and interest into your checking account at the end of the year. And they spelled principal "principle" in their email. Next!

I use USAA for homeowner's insurance, life insurance, auto insurance, my credit card and the kids' savings accounts, so their website was my next stop. They offered a 3.75% rate--the lowest I'd seen advertised, but I didn't have a feel for how competitive their fees were. So I logged into LendingTree, the website where I initially got our home loan.

A friendly LendingTree rep named Josh called me within minutes of my completed application and complimented me on my excellent credit (a score of 800+, woot!). I asked if he could beat USAA's quote. He tried, calling me back after getting his supervisor to knock a few hundred off their closing costs, but cheerfully admitted their package couldn't compete.

So, while half-watching an episode of Veronica Mars, I filled out an in-depth application on the USAA website and submitted my good-faith $350 deposit. I should hear tomorrow if I'm approved.