Thursday, December 30, 2010

What are YOU doing?

It's the last week of 2010 and I'm...

Reading Alice Munro's Too Much Happiness: Stories
Listening to Robyn's Body Talk
Watching Breaking Bad
Eating homemade candied pecans and clementine cuties
And knitting this winter ear warming headband

Which reminds me, I finally joined Ravelry! My user name is almaklein.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Christmas at Timber Ridge Lodge

The minorities were the majority at Timber Ridge Lodge on December 24th and 25th. As Christians gathered around their Rockwellian fireplaces in their red and green striped matching pajamas, the Jews, Asians and South Asians--even a couple of Muslim women in head-to-toe modesty swimgarb--hit the water park hotel in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

The snow was falling steadily outside the windows, but inside the water park it was in the low 80s. Top 40 music played over the sound system as we glided along the lazy river, zoomed down the water slides and splashed in all of the pools save the hot tub. Because I'm scared of what lives in those.

The good stuff: We stopped for pizza at Burt's Place on the drive up. The girls had a blast. I looked better in a bikini than 90 percent of the women there. And we were able to successfully smuggle in a couple of clementines and Goldfish crackers and avoid having to purchase "pizza" or "nachos" from the frigid snack bar.

The bad stuff: A kid who'd indulged in said "pizza" barfed all over the side of the pool--about 5 feet away from us. The food at Smokey's BBQ, the hotel restaurant, was the worst "barbecue" ever to grace a bun. And their fish fry was just as unappealing. The kids were so wiped out by the travel and the water park that they completely melted down after dinner and we had to forgo Story Time with Milk and Cookies in favor of Lying in the Dark with Small Children Who are Afraid of the Sprinkler on the Ceiling.

Sunday morning's meal--the buffet brunch at the Grand Cafe in the nearby Grand Geneva Lodge--redeemed the resort. We gorged on omelets made to order, a waffle bar and assorted pastries and headed back to Timber Ridge for more water park fun.

Although spending the night away from home is still a pain with our kids (and sleeping on a pull-out couch is a pain, period), I'd happily head back to Timber Ridge at some point in the future. The suite was spacious and featured a giant bathroom, ample closet space, a full kitchen and a cozy gas fireplace. The water park was clean and the staff was very friendly and accommodating. Ideally our next trip there would include friends with similarly-aged kids and some in-room meal-making.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Stocking the birthday gift closet

The following is cross-posted at

With both girls enrolled in school (1st grade and Montessori preschool), the birthday party invitations are rolling in like never before. I'm fortunate that Z and A are well-liked children with a lot of friends in their classes, in the neighborhood--and, in Z's case--from her days at Montessori school. It all adds up to a lot of invites, a fair amount of car pool negotiations and a lot of birthday presents.

Although I'm sure purchasing a well-considered, beautifully wrapped gift from Oak Park's own Geppetto's (voted best toy store in Chicago) might help me win mother of the year, I don't have the time, money or inclination to do so every week. And yes, there is a birthday party nearly every weekend. Sometimes two.

So I've been stocking and restocking the gift closet, using the 33, 40 and 50% off coupons Borders sends to its Rewards members to buy Klutz books, Alex craft kits and Pop Bottle Science kits from the well-stocked toy selection in the children's department on State Street, a block from my office.

Other gift closet stocking strategies include checking Kids Woot! for attractive deals and buying 3 or more of a particularly appealing toy. In the past, I've purchased gardening kits, car games and Disney MP3 players from Woot--all of which seemed like much more expensive gifts than they really were.

And on the last day of my free Amazon Prime trial, I choose a couple of art sets that were marked down for Christmas and hit the buy button. One was specifically selected for a little girl who is turning 7 in January, but if one 7 year old girl's likely to like it, why not buy it for a few 7 year old girls?

For the younger set, I keep my eyes out for deals on Play-Doh and Playmobil sets at Target and scoop up a couple whenever the price dips into the $5-8 range.

My goal in keeping a gift closet is to give gifts in the $12-20 range without spending more than $10 a pop. I further save by forgoing cards and wrapping gifts in recycled gift bags or brown craft paper that the kids can decorate and personalize. While I'm sure I could save a lot more by declining more invitations, I see how much my children enjoy their friends' parties and how much it means to those children to have them there. And as long as I can keep the cost of the gifts down, I'm getting a decent deal on 2 hours of entertainment and a snack.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The census gets personal

Have you checked out the interactive U.S. Census feature on the New York Times website? You can enter in your zip code and zoom down to the block level to see how your neighborhood rates when it comes to ethnic diversity, income and educational levels and property values. I took a couple of screen shots of my immediate neighborhood and Oak Park overall to see how my 'hood looked compared with others in the area. I wasn't surprised by the information; I already knew my neighbors were well-educated, somewhat well-off, about three-quarters white and living in houses worth about $350k.
Light blue dots indicate households earning under $30k and red dots are for households over $200k. Our house is smack in the middle of census tract 8129, with 1706 households. 10% are in the lowest income group, 10% in the highest and 28%--the biggest group--in the $100-$149k range.

When it comes to race, my tract is 77% white, 13% Black, 5% Hispanic and 4% Asian.

I knew Oak Park was a lot different from its neighbors to the south (Cicero and Berwyn) and west (Chicago's Austin neighborhood), but these scaled-out maps (about 2-3 miles across) show how dramatic the differences are in income and especially race. The highway through the middle of the maps is I-290. I live about 3 blocks north of it in central Oak Park.

Have you played around with the census data? Uncovered any surprises?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Don't look for first aid at the Field Museum

Field Museum Chicago
I'll show you a splinter
The following is a guest post from Josh, Mr. Marketing Mommy. 

I used to take Z and A to various area museums and attractions on a fairly regular basis, but since they started 1st grade and pre-school, respectively, it’s a practice that has mostly fallen by the wayside. Between school and other commitments, mornings are out, and as for post-school/nap afternoons, traffic (both street and museum) is pretty prohibitive. As for the weekends, well, years of touring deserted museums first thing in the morning have more or less spoiled me away from all the teeming throngs of tourists who show up on Saturdays and Sundays.

So it was with excitement that I packed up the kids to hit the Field Museum this morning, along with friends, for our first visit in quite some time. Needless to say, the girls had a blast working their way through the exhibits, from the stuffed animal dioramas to the mummy’s tomb and finally to the children’s play area (which inexplicably opens an hour after the museum does, at 10am) for crafts, dress up, music and general play.

Somewhere alone the line, though, Z got a splinter. Not a huge one, mind you, but visible, and sticking teasingly, tantalizing out of her hand at a conspicuous 45 degree angle. No prob, I though. I’ll find a first aid kit and yank it out with some tweezers. What transpired was somewhat distressing, to say the least.

First I went to the front desk at the children’s area to ask if they had a first aid kit. The woman looked perplexed, and began digging around in several drawers. She pulled out what looked like a first aid kit, but it was a sewing kit. A couple of minutes later, and the best she could come up with was a second sewing kit. I asked her where I can find a first aid kit, and she starts scrambling to come up with weirdly Byzantine directions – “turn right, then right, then left, then right again” - that sent us deep into the bowels of the Field, down several barely-marked corridors and past several locked doors, in search of an alleged first responder station that we never found.

Frustrated, I took Z to the nearest gift shop to ask for better directions. The woman looked at me like I was crazy. “Ummm, hmmm, first aid? I don’t know. Sorry.” Sorry doesn’t cut it, so I asked her if she could, you know, call someone. She actually paused for a minute, deep in thought, though I have no idea what could possibly have been going through her mind other than “should I call someone?” Which she eventually did, and which eventually led us upstairs in search of security.

I found several closets, more closed doors and janitor supply stations, but no security, so I went to a ticket seller in the front of the museum, told her our rapidly lengthening story, and asked for security. She pointed me to the lone guard standing by the ticket sellers and told me he could unlock the first aid room for me. So I approached him, and asked him about first aid. He, too, paused and thought a bit, then made a phone call. He then told me to go back downstairs and search for someone in a white uniform, who was apparently waiting for us at the bottom of the stairs.

Keep in mind this whole time Z was bravely and patiently walking around with her splinter-hand stiff and stretched out.

We reach the bottom of the stairs just in time to see a man in a white uniform vanishing into some back room, but we catch his eye before he disappears. He looks surprised when I wave, then passes us off to yet another person, who looked to be another security guard. Emergency or no, this person did the farthest thing from hustling as she led us to the elusive first aid room and slowly unlocked the door. There I asked her, finally, for tweezers. She stared at me, then literally started turning the room over in search of tweezers. She looked in the paramedic bag. She opened drawers. She looked in baskets, cabinets. She gave me permission to open doors, bags, drawers and cabinets, too, all while Z sat on a bed, at this point closer to bored than uncomfortable, since her friends and sister were still off having fun.

Eventually, this person, too, made a phone call. After a few questions, she hung up the phone, turned to me and said: “we don’t have any tweezers.”

So after all that confusion, all that back and forth, one of the most visited museums in Chicago couldn’t find one of the most basic of all first aid tools. Not the most reassuring conclusion, even if Z gamely said she could just wait until we got home, not that we had a choice at that point. An hour later, I finally plucked the thing out of her hand myself, much to her relief. I’m tempted to buy a $10 first aid kit and donate it to the children’s play area in her name. If this is the way they handled a calm kid and a simple boo-boo, I’d hate to see how they’d handle at true emergency.

flickr photo by hchao17 used under Creative Commons license

Monday, December 20, 2010

Surprise! Your daughter's on stage

I almost missed the holiday sing at Z's school. But the stars lined up to ensure I wasn't locked in New York City conference room while Z was dancing to a Russian folk song. On stage. (She's in the green shirt.)

I'd heard her practice "All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth" a dozen times, but she neglected to mention she'd be dancing on stage during the 1st grade performance.

Nor did anyone tell me you need to stake out a seat 30 minutes before the 8:15am performance. It's apparently a very hot ticket.

And then Josh sang karaoke

I never thought I'd see my husband down 3 cosmos and sing karaoke at a friend's holiday party. But it makes me very, very happy.

Josh sings "Back in Black" from almaklein on Vimeo.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Patty's and Lula's: a tale of two brunches

Yesterday A attended a birthday party way, way up north in Niles. Josh's first inclination, whenever he's headed to a new neighborhood, is too see what restaurants are recommended by the folks on the foodie board LTH Forum. And lo and behold, a well-regarded diner was about to close after 20 years (Patty the cook has carpel tunnel).

So instead of kill 4 hours at home with Z, we joined Josh and A for the 1 hour drive north, dropped A off at one of those warehouses full of jumpy houses and headed over to Patty's Diner in nearby Skokie for a delicious brunch of eggs, bacon, sausage and biscuits in gravy and blueberry pancakes in the old-school, no frills storefront (complete with half-dead plants in the window and an oversized Kermit in the high chair by the door). Z put away a lot of food, so you know it was a special place. I ate a lot too, but I blame my  2 hour early morning roller derby workout.

Since we were in the area, we also bought a half-dozen fresh bagels from New York Bagel & Bialy, the bagel bakery that supplies our synagogue and the Onion Roll, the only place in Oak Park that sells a decent bagel.

A fell asleep on the way home, so I dropped off Josh and Z at the local movie theatre to see Tangled (which I'd already seen with her--and loved). I drove my sleeping 3-year old into the somewhat heated underground library garage so she could finish her nap, and I was very glad I'd brought along a magazine to help me kill time since there's no cell phone service down there.

But that's not the only special breakfast of this weekend! We left the girls with a sitter this morning and had a brunch date at Lula's Cafe. Josh ordered their justifiably famous breakfast burrito and I had the smoked salmon scramble. And bonus! We used our $10 off a la Card coupon days before it expired. My unsolicited and uncompensated recommendation: If you haven't heard of a la Card, and you need a thoughtful gift for a Chicagoan, consider buying it. For $30, you get a deck of 52 $10 off coupons to local, non-chain restaurants including some of our favorites like Nightwood, Longman & Eagle and Spacca Napoli

Monday, December 13, 2010

Look at all the pretty people

Aside from needing a thick skin and an iron liver, success in the ad world means being comfortable surrounded by beautiful people. There isn't enough Kat Von D concealer and Maybelline Falsies mascara in the world to keep up with the hotties I work with. These photos are from Friday's holiday party.
Julie and Lauren
Mairin and Andrea

Laura, me and Andrea

The Meloy sisters
The dancers were pretty hot too

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Prom picture

My colleague Andrea isn't just an incredibly talented art director and graphic designer. No, the overachiever has to have amazing fashion sense, look stunningly beautiful and throw great holiday parties. This year's party was "prom" themed and included a classic photo set-up for guests. Josh and I didn't last much past 10 o'clock thanks plenty of mulled wine and the exhausting nature of our previous affair, a 3 hour preschool holiday extravaganza.

I'm wearing a JB by Julie Brown wrap dress my friend Jani picked out for me on Bluefly. Word to the wise: if you have a small child, consider double-knotting your wrap dress belt. The first time I wore it A tugged on the belt while half-climbing my leg and the dress kinda sorta fell open. At synagogue.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Chanukah, the recap

IMG_1467For 8 nights we lit the menorah. And by we, I mean Z, who knows the primary blessing by heart. She'd take the lead in lighting the candles, leaving the last candle or two for her little sister, who was happy to finish the job.

But last night she was a little sketched out by our final candle, a lowly birthday candle pushed into service because we took hastily disposed of a broken 44th candle.

On Friday we attended the Family Chanukah celebration at Oak Park Temple, which includes singing, doughnuts and a long table filled with every family's menorah, and on Monday we fulfilled our obligation to eat latkes, gobbling down two boxes worth from Trader Joe's.

Thanks to the generosity of their aunts and grandparents, the girls each received one or two gifts a night, and the best-loved presents were something of a surprise. Three year old A went nuts for new clothes, oohing and ahhing and promptly trying on everything she received, from a 6 pack of Princess underpants to some adorable outfits from Gymboree. Thank you mom and mother-in-law for outfitting my budding fashionista.

It was a good thing Chanukah came early this year, because both girls were also gifted a selection of mittens and gloves (along with those oh-so-elusive mitten clips). And Z received long underwear, which she would wear under her pants every single day if I let her.

If underwear, mittens and clothes weren't exciting enough, A's very favorite present is another practical one: a hooded towel for swim class.

In the book and toy department, both girls thrilled over Disney figurines (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and a comprehensive Princess set that A immediately pressed into "rehearsals"). Z proclaimed her My First Sewing Kit, a box of Magic Tree House books and the American Girl Doll School set her "best presents ever," turning her nose up at the potholder loom I'd purchased for her as a "dumb gift that just makes me work hard to make other people presents." (She changed her tune a day later when we started her first potholder.)

Now that Chanukah is over, I can focus on the rest of the holiday season--which means figuring out what I'm going to wear to holiday parties, addressing cards, organizing a New Year's Day brunch and going to a waterpark! Yes since there's no good Chinese food in our area and A can't be trusted to sit through a movie, we're starting a new Jewish on Christmas tradition. We're going to a resort with a waterpark.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Holiday shoppers: Beware the gift receipt!

I was under the impression that including a gift receipt with a gift would ensure that the recipient--should she decide to return or exchange the item--would be able to do so for the price paid.

This was not the case at Anthropologie yesterday.

I went in to exchange a lovely cardigan that Josh had so thoughtfully bought for me for Chanukah. In mustard yellow. The sweater had just been marked down to half-price that morning, so I was surprised to find the cashier only giving me the marked-down price as credit. I didn't say anything because the gift receipt didn't reveal how much Josh had actually paid (maybe he'd gotten it on deal?), but I did call Josh afterwards to ask him exactly how much he'd spent.

He'd paid retail, which meant I should have gotten an extra 80-odd dollars in credit. I called the store. They apologized and said that if I could track down the original receipt they'd credit the difference. Fortunately Josh had saved it and today they made good on their promise.

From now on I'll use gift receipts sparingly and tape the real receipt under my gifts. If someone doesn't like what I've picked out, I sure as heck want them to be able to spend the whole amount on something they'll love.

I bought this sweater with some of the credit. Gift receipt policies aside, I love me some Anthro.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Sharing the spoils from my 1-800-Baskets event

The secret is glue dots. And beautiful lighting.
A week ago today I was at 1-800-Baskets headquarters in Melrose Park, glue-dotting together a gift basket, sipping wine and tasting gourmet cheeses and chocolates at their Home for the Holidays event for bloggers. I knew that 1-800-Baskets was a part of the 1-800-Flowers empire, but I had no idea the company owned so many "gift-giving" brands: Cheryl's cookies, Fannie May, The Popcorn Factory and They also own, a content site dedicated to party-throwing (appropriate, given their brand mix).

I would have been delighted to indulge in a midday wine and cheese tasting with Vanessa, Farrah and Kim, but the event managed to squeeze a few inspirational gems (mostly from their resident party expert Shawn Rabideau) alongside the more expected brand familiarization bits. I was cheered to see a category I'd long associated with excess packaging encouraging consumers to reuse and repurpose its cookie boxes, gift baskets and ribbons. They even nodded to the frugal bloggers in the audience by suggesting we buy a gift tower and separating the boxes for individual gift giving, but I can think of more creative and budget-friendly ways to save money. My favorite tips were Shawn's suggestions to create a tiered tray using 3 different-sized plates and 2 rocks glasses and decorate with twigs, berries and pinecones. I may try that at my New Year's Brunch.

1-800-Baskets sent us home with two tote bags full of goodies, and I've been doing my best this week to spread the love around. I gave a Popcorn Factory tin to the staff at our Montessori school (in addition to a check for the annual staff gift fund). My neighbors had us over for dinner and I brought the Popcorn Factory's popcorn ball decorating kit for the 5 kids to play with and devour while the adults finished a bottle of wine and put away Josh's indulgent sticky toffee pudding.
Happily gluing on candy with frosting

Today I brought the gift basket I assembled myself (pictured above) to work for my colleagues to enjoy. Had we not made a team outing to Christkindlmarkt for lunch, I think it would have disappeared more rapidly. As it stands, I give it 3 days, max. All that's left of my spoils is a box of Fannie May Mint Meltaways, and as sorely tempted as I am to eat them all by myself, while knitting and watching The Walking Dead (okay, not really, it's on hiatus now), I think I'll save it for a hostess gift.
Who likes hot, spiced wine in a boot? 

Disclosure: I was invited to the 1-800-Baskets event and received free product samples. I was not asked or paid to write about my experience.  My opinions are my own. You can save 15% at all of the companies I linked to with the code SHAWN (except Fannie May--their code is 1225).

Sunday, December 05, 2010

The groothsome toothsome girls


How is it two girls can bicker all day, have a delightful time in the bathtub, and then bicker again until bedtime?

I love these photos because, looking at them, I can almost forget the pushing. The screaming. The name-calling that goes on all day long. Or at least any time they think they've got an audience.

Also, check out those teeth. Z lost one of her two front teeth on Thanksgiving, and the other one is hanging on by a thread. It sticks out perpendicular to the floor, lending her a rather ogre-like appearance. And then there's A's dead front top tooth, which has darkened to a pretty noticeable gray. We're still resisting having it yanked because I figure a gray tooth is somewhat less noticeable and certainly more functional than no tooth.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Dancing to Harold and the Purple Crayon

There are a few things I should have said to my very inquisitive, very talkative, very literal 6 year old daughter before the Hubbard Street Dance Company's performance of Harold and the Purple Crayon this afternoon.

1. Unlike most stage performances you've seen, this story will be told with dancers, not actors.
2. Aside from some narration, there will be no talking.
3. You, as an audience member, should not be talking.
4. You are not so thirsty that you cannot survive a 60 minute performance without a beverage.
5. I do not require--nor desire--that you read me every word of the program out loud.
6. While the dancers are using their bodies to tell the story, their every moment will not be a literal interpretation of the book as you remember it.
7. They may use different dancers--even women--to play the part of Harold. This is in no way shocking, wrong or against the rules.

In spite of Z's endless stream of questions and commentary and the noise and seat-kicking of the poorly behaved kids seated behind us, I really enjoyed the performance. I don't make an effort to see dance as often as I should. I also really appreciate Hubbard Street Dance's partnership with Target since it meant $5 tickets for this performance. Any time we can share the performing arts with our kids for less than the cost of movie ticket is wonderful. But I have a couple of bones to pick with Hubbard Street nonetheless. Two, to be exact.

1. Where was the dragon? Even my 3 year old knows the story well enough to know a major plot point was missing, and how much fun would a dragon be to interpret?

2. Why is your promotional photo (left) so misleading? The little I did do to prepare my kids involved telling them the dancers would be "painting with glow sticks" and nothing of the sort was included in the show. In fact, all of the drawings appeared Reading Rainbow-style on a screen behind the dancers.

Disclosure: I paid for my own tickets to the show. We also shelled out $14 to park. And while my 6 year old was full of questions and commentary, 3 year old A was awestruck for the first 45 minutes (and quiet but tired for the last 15).

Thursday, December 02, 2010

I'm a Derby girl

What happens when you put 25+ women on quad skates for a park district fitness class designed to teach the basics of roller derby? You get a motley crew of skinny, curvy, tattooed urban and mom-hair suburban 20, 30 and 40 somethings adopting derby names (mine is Alma-Geddon) and enthusiastically dressing the part in fishnets, shiny booty shorts and knee socks.

You also get the Holy Grail: a workout that doesn't feel like a workout. Whether its rolling around the track to Lady Gaga, practicing plow, toe or T-stops, competing in relay races or falling on purpose on our well-padded knees, elbows and wrists, Derby Lite is the most fun I've had while working my ass and inner thighs. And I'm really sad to find that only beginner classes are offered on Saturday mornings, the time most convenient for me. If I opt to enroll in the intermediate class, which I'm sorely tempted to, I'll be running up against a variety of other weeknight commitments.

Give Derby Lite a try and watch me nail my cross-overs on Get in Gear Day, your opportunity to get a taste of what Derby Lite is all about. Come to the ARC building (18 Chicago Ave) on Sunday, December 13th from 12-3pm.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

We're off to see the Wizard!

I can't take my 3 year old to the movies, but she's sat stock still and absolutely rapt--forgetting even to blink--at the two theatrical productions she's seen at Chicago's child-friendly Emerald City Theatre. Having found Pinkalicious a sweet treat, we headed down the yellow brick road this past Sunday.

And while Pinkalicious managed to stretch a popular picture book into a 60 minute musical, this production of the classic movie musical The Wizard of Oz is a fast-paced, condensed version of the film that manages to pack all of the famous song-and-dance numbers and major plot points into just over an hour. The munchkins were cleverly done with puppets and an actor played Toto the dog. There were loud noises (hello, the show starts with a twister) and the drag queeny Wicked Witch of the West is no more huggable than her cinematic predecessor, but the scarier elements of the movie (like the flying monkeys) are much less intense in this version.

Although I'm a sucker for any musical theatre, I thoroughly enjoyed this performance and I've already recommended it to some friends. But the actors and director are only indirectly responsible for my very favorite part of the experience: watching my children's faces as they took in the show.

It also bears mentioning that at the very end of the performance, the children in the audience were invited to "send us an email at" Naturally Z couldn't wait to do exactly that and her ransom note-looking fan mail received a prompt, personalized--if somewhat salesy reply. She was thrilled.

Disclosure: The Emerald City Theatre provided me with 4 tickets to the show.