Thursday, June 30, 2011

3 Smithsonian Museums, 1 Day

We didn't see every exhibit, not by a long shot, but we had a blast checking out Human Origins and the Oceans exhibits at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, eating an overpriced meal at the Museum of the American Indian, and watching Hubble 3D at the Air and Space Museum's IMAX theater.

And to top it all off, today was the opening day of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival/50th anniversary of the Peace Corps. (See A dancing on the left.)

We headed over after meeting Josh's aunt and uncle and his cousin (and recent college grad) John for breakfast. We were on the go (and on our feet, mostly) from 8:30am to 6pm. I guess that's what's possible when your kids no longer nap.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Brand experiences as tourism

Over the last couple of days in Central Pennsylvania, we've made four very different brand pilgrimages.

The biggest and best known is Hershey's Chocolate World, which is consists of a free ride through a simulated factory-slash-"It's a Small World After All" animatronic extravaganza. You exit through the gift shop, which is the world's most extensive Hershey's candy department. Best souvenirs: rare candy bars and Hershey's Kiss earrings (about $6). Chocolate World also offers some 3-D movie nonsense and a "create your own candy bar" experience, but because the adults supervising children under 8 needed to pay the full admission price, we gave all the add-on experiences a pass. Instead, we took a Chocolate Lab class (they're offered at the Hershey Museum) for about $8 a person. We donned hairnets and aprons and created our own Aztec-inspired candy bars while learning about the history of chocolate.

The Turkey Hill Experience, which just opened this year, borrows a page from Hershey's. It's about entertainment and branding versus an authentic factory experience. The "museum" is right by 3 Mile Island nuclear plant, about 35 minutes from Harrisburg. For about $11 a person you get to sample very small portions of Turkey Hill ice cream and beverages, learn the history of the company and create your own pretend flavor of ice cream. From mixing in virtual ingredients to designing a carton to shooting your own commercial, it's a high-tech experience (complete with a social media overlay) that made a huge impression on my kids. If they were ever to see Turkey Hill ice cream in our Chicago-area supermarket, they'd definitely ask me to buy it.

On the other, more rustic end of the spectrum, were the Wilbur Chocolate Museum and Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery in Lititz. The former is a large candy store and working chocolate shop with a lot of vintage chocolate artifacts on the walls. Stop in and sample their famous chocolate buds, which looks suspiciously like Hershey's Kisses, but taste more premium and cost quite a bit more. At the Pretzel Bakery you can tour the original pretzel factory and get a lesson in pretzel rolling. You'll get a free bag of Tom Sturgis hard pretzels at the end of the tour, and I can't decide which is better: those hard pretzels or the fresh, doughy pretzels they sell in the front room for $1.

Speaking of deliciousness, we drove through Amish Country from Lititz to West Chester, where my in-laws live. We bought fresh peaches, cherries and blueberries from a farm stand; sweet-looking baked goods (including whoopie pies) from Bird-in-Hand Bakery; and homemade root beer. In order to get the root beer, we followed a hand-lettered sign up a long driveway and flagged down a gaggle of Amish children, who went inside to get 2 pint bottles of ice cold root beer that their family made on site.

Two days on the road and I don't want to kill my kids

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Two days on the road and I don't want to kill my kids

I was half-excited, half-dreading our road trip east, knowing that 2 hours in the car with my children can be a major drag (see Grand Rapids), let alone 12. But believe it or not, the kids were pretty good until the very last 35 minutes in the car.

We left Oak Park at 4:15 on Thursday, right after picking Z up from her last day at Eco-Rangers day camp and depositing her tropical plant and cactus at home. Literally 10 minutes before our planned departure time, UPS dropped off the headphone splitter we'd ordered for the trip and Oscar the cat came inside. Positive signs, both. [For those wondering about Oscar's health and wellbeing during our absence, fret not: a friend of our next door neighbor volunteered to stay at our house and care for him while she waits for her Oak Park-area apartment lease to start.]

We spent the first hour on the road in traffic, but things were pretty smooth sailing after we made it into Indiana. We had a delicious pizza dinner at Rocco's in South Bend. An extra large cheese pizza, a salad, 3 meatballs, 2 lemonades and a glass of wine for under $40, including tip.

We drove on, the kids in the back playing with stickers and coloring books until twilight. Then, after they finished watching the Wiggles on our portable DVD player, the car was completely dark and they finally conked out.

And Josh kept driving. Our goal was to make it halfway to Harrisburg on the first day, and we accomplished that, checking into a Red Roof Inn outside of Cleveland at midnight. Spoiled by the nice places I get to stay when traveling for work, I don't ordinarily stay at truly budget motels, but the TripAdvisor reviews for this particular Red Roof Inn reassured me that it was secure and spotlessly clean (if possessing no other merits). It was a fine place to pass 8 hours, sleeping and showering and moving on.

Friday we hit up a Caribou Coffee for caffeine, muffins and oatmeal, which we enjoyed in the car. The kids kept themselves busy with Road Trip Bingo, stickers, iPod Touch games and yet more DVDs. The kid-sized animal headphones we purchased for them to use with the iPods and DVD player were worth every penny because Josh and I could enjoy our tunes instead of sound bleed from The Princess and the Frog.

We had lunch at a truly mediocre Mexican restaurant in Somerset, PA (yeah, I know) and made it to my high school best friend's parents' house in Harrisburg just after 3pm. Our kids ran wild together until dinnertime, but they were so over-excited and over-tired that clothes were coming off and faces were getting kicked.

We left and drove over to our hotel, a Candlewood Suites unit I'd booked online and pre-paid. They "upgraded" us to a King suite (with a handicapped-accessible shower), which boasts a separate bedroom with a king-sized bed for me to share with my children while Josh sleeps on the pull-out couch in the living room. There is also a full kitchen, free wireless and laundry, a gym and an indoor pool. Altogether pretty nice for $112 a night.

Today we're going to tour the Turkey Hill ice cream factory before meeting up with Josh's aunt and uncle (who live in Harrisburg) and his parents, who are driving up for the afternoon.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Social media makes everything better

Thank you to BING Social Search for sponsoring my post about social media. I was selected for this sponsorship by the Clever Girls Collective, which endorses Blog With Integrity, as I do.

104 people wished me a happy birthday on Facebook this week. I also got one e-greeting card (Thanks, Mom) and just two old fashioned paper cards in the mail. Some scoff that Facebook birthday wishes somehow "don't count" because the social networking site dutifully reminds us and writing a message on someone's wall takes mere seconds. But getting a constant scroll of shout-outs from former colleagues, high school classmates, roller derby gals and people from my synagogue who otherwise would never celebrate with me? Well, that they thought about me at all on my birthday felt pretty awesome, really.

Now that everyone and their mother are on Facebook, some are saying interest has peaked and people are going to start disabling their accounts (or at least going dormant in order to get through finals or a new business pitch). But while I have no doubt Facebook will eventually evolve or get replaced by something altogether different, social media overall is here to stay. Not because we desperately want to see our long-lost friends' newborn baby pictures or get links to funny Daily Show episodes, but because it's useful.

Imagine for a minute you need a plumber. A massage therapist. Or a babysitter. Once upon a time that meant "letting your fingers do the walking" or calling up all your friends and neighbors for a recommendation. Now I don't have to set aside half a day for leaving voice mails or hope that the roofer with the biggest Yellow Pages ad is honest; I can look for detailed reviews and feedback on him--as well as massage therapists, dermatologists and hair removal specials--on Angie's List and Yelp. When I need a babysitter, I check Sittercity. When I'm planning a vacation, I use TripAdvisor. Job seekers have LinkedIn, photography enthusiasts connect on Flickr and parents can look research schools on a variety of websites. Even recipe websites have gone social--on Foodily, you can connect with your friends and see which recipes they've enjoyed.

Facebook and Twitter might be time-sucks and a drain on my personal productivity, but social media has saved me money, research time and frustration by giving me instant access to the recommendations of friends and strangers alike.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Is Homemade Pizza Company as good as homemade?

Plain pizza for the kids
If you're wondering if Chicago's own Homemade Pizza Company's pizzas are as good as homemade, the answer is that it depends on what your standard of homemade is.

If "homemade" means a Trader Joe's pizza crust, jarred sauce, shredded mozzarella and a half-hearted attempt at toppings, than yes. Emphatically yes.

If you're talking homemade by my foodie husband, who cultivates his own dough the day before, uses a pizza stone in an ultra-hot oven and has a collection of cookbooks expressly dedicated to the craft of pizza-making, then no. Not really.

That said, my two girls, 3 and 6, wolfed down the entire plain cheese pizza pictured here by themselves. I've never seen them put away so much food.

But most busy moms don't have a stay at home dad/gourmet chef at their disposal (although believe it or not I am close friends with one other girl in my lucky position), and for them Homemade Pizza Company is a terrific option. Miles better than delivery. Or DiGiorno.

Disclosure: Homemade Pizza Company invited me to review their pizza and provided me with a $40 gift card. 

Saturday, June 18, 2011

My birthday, my way

I kicked off my birthday celebration one day early by attending the Gilty Moms party put on by Gilte Children at the Trump Terrace. Check out the picture of the Wrigley building and the lake beyond. That is small portion of the stunning view 210 degree view from the 16th floor terrace at Trump Tower.

It was a beautiful evening, I got to see many of my favorite mom bloggers and I brought along two of my colleagues as well.

Gilty Moms was followed by my book club meeting, which interesting enough also includes a few good bloggers. We put our discussion of Wuthering Heights to bed early (no one liked it) so we could discuss Weiner's weiner and the perils of helicopter parenting.

On my actual birthday, I arrived at work to a decorated office and took breaks to enjoy the Facebook wall posts. I also used GrouponNow for the first time to treat myself to a $26 mani-pedi.

In the afternoon, my awesome team took me to Starfruit for my favorite treat. Aren't we a good-looking group?
But the day just kept getting better. Our friends Jay and Kate joined us at graham elliott for one of the best dinners I've ever had. Although we chose the 5 course tasting menu with wine pairings, we somehow ended up eating the entire experience menu, all 10 delicious courses. Highlights for me were the the truffle parmesan popcorn that arrives with your menu, the deconstructed caesar salad, the charred octopus, the jidori chicken and the lemon cake. I liked it better than Alinea.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

My favorite Android apps

It's official, I'm in love. I kicked my Blackberry Curve to the curb and bought not-matching Android phones for myself and Josh. He got the T-Mobile MyTouch 4G and I got the Samsung Galaxy S. They're both great devices, but while his boasts the exclusive "Google genius" button, mine's lighter, sleeker and overall a touch more intuitive.

Also? It looks pretty much exactly like an iPhone.

Because I'm never one to dip my toe into anything, I dove right into the Android market and read through various online forums to customize my phone with the most useful free apps. Here's my list of grown-up apps. Although I've downloaded a few games for the kidlets, I'll get to those on a future post:

American Airlines: This app lets me check in, get a virtual boarding pass and access gate information and arrival times. I can also track my miles.
Amazon Appstore for Android: Every day, a new paid app is offered for free.
Calendar: While I lost the ability to view my Lotus Notes work calendar without logging in, my Android phone seamlessly synchs my online Google calendar with the calendar on my phone. You can also set it up to synch with Yahoo! and Facebook events.
Chase and USAA: Both of my banks have well-designed mobile banking apps to make it easy to deposit the odd check and make sure a credit card refund went through.
Facebook, Yahoo Mail and Gmail: Duh, I don't think these apps need any selling. But suffice it to say they are much better experiences than I had on the Blackberry.
Groupon: Redeeming Groupons right from your phone means you don't need to print them out and remember them before heading over to, say, Blue Max for lunch on a Saturday. Groupon's mobile platform is also perfectly suited for their newer offering, GrouponNow.
Key Ring: I stored all of my shopper and membership cards, including my library card on my phone, so they'll always be with me.
Kindle for Android: I don't have a Kindle, but if I did, I could pick up my reading materials right where I'd left off. Instead, I'm using this app to download public domain children's literature like fairy tales and fables so that I can read to my children before bed when we're on the road.
Gas Buddy: Locate the closest, cheapest gas.
Google Maps: I arrived in New York late on Sunday, walked out of my hotel and fired up Google Maps. I turned on the "restaurants" layer and up popped a dozen places within two blocks' walk. I could click to read reviews and ended up enjoying a delicious meal at The Fig & Olive, just a couple of minutes' walk from the Gansevoort.
NPR News: Read or listen to NPR stories, or create a playlist to listen to later.
NY Times: Even with the paywall, you can always check out the top stories.
Skype: I kid you not, 15 minutes after I'd logged into Skype, my mom called me. From Australia. On my mobile phone. For free.
TripAdvisor: Everything you love about TripAdvisor, on the road with you when you travel. You'd better believe I'll be looking up hotel reviews when we're looking for a place to stop between Chicago and Harrisburg.
Words with Friends: It's like Facebook Scrabulous (remember that?), but always with you. My cousin Mike is kicking my ass with words I've never even heard of, but at least it will take him all week to win.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Boom! Rumble, rumble, rumble...

Last night I got home from my board meeting around 10:15. I headed to bed shortly thereafter, but my mind was racing.The iced Thai coffee I'd had just after lunchtime was still coursing through my veins, making me think of concepts I needed to write, conversations I needed to have and apps I wanted to download for my just-ordered Android phone.

Finally, after 45 minutes of tossing and turning and mind OM-ver mattering, I'd finally chilled out. But just as my muscles relaxed, a fierce wind started blowing. It was so forceful the house started to creak. I was sure my 3 year old was awake and pacing on the noisy floorboards, preparing to cry, but when I peeked into her room, she was sound asleep.

Cue the lightning. Then and rain. And thunder. Oh, so much thunder! I slept fitfully for a couple of hours before A really did wake up and cry out in fear.

So 2 poor hours of sleep in my own, comfortable bed were followed by 2 1/2 hours of poor sleep next to A in on her thin twin mattress. And it was still dark, thundering and absolutely pouring all through my morning commute.

There was one sliver lining, though. A told me--for the first time--about a dream she'd had:

"I dreamed last night that I was in a big hallway. There were lots of [silver] buttons in the big hallway. And every time you pressed a button, there'd be a big noise like thunder!"

Also? The temperature dropped 40 degrees from 95 yesterday to a chilly and damp 55 today.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

The Derby Lite CupQuake


I took Z with me to the Derby Lite Oak Park CupQuake last night, where we sampled 20 (!) delicious cupcakes. I felt a little guilty leaving so many bites behind at an event organized to benefit the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry, but there's a limit to how much red velvet, toasted pecan buttercream, Dulce de Leche Tres Leches and Black Forest cupcakes two gals can put away, even with plenty of milk, coffee and water on hand.

How do you like that button?
It was fun to see so many derby girls out of their gear. Turns out most of us look pretty good without our helmets on! And Z got to bond with fellow skate Mariah Scary's 1st grade daughter ahead of our Sunday morning outdoor skate. This morning they were delighted to see each other again and they rode bikes and hung out on the playground at Concordia University while we moms skated around and around the campus' 1 mile perimeter, doing our damndest to burn off all those cupcakes.



The remainders
The winning cupcake was the Red Hot Derby Lite, a brownie cupcake finished with strawberry icing and a giant fresh strawberry created by one of the skaters, Violet Femme.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

The yard sale gods were smiling

Today was our block's sort-of-annual 3 block sale, and since I'd been collecting outgrown clothes, toys and various other items on the front porch for weeks, I was set up and ready to sell when the early birds started arriving--about 15 minutes before the official start time of 8am.

The girls were keyed up with excitement. Not only did I promise them that they could keep the bulk of the proceeds from the toys sold, I let them set up a lemonade and farmers' market doughnuts stand right in front of the house. Doughnut sales were kind of a flop, but with the high heat and humidity, we went through 2 full pitchers of Trader Joe's lemonade (made from frozen concentrate). Add a sidewalk full of friendly neighbors and their unwanted stuff to the reality of making real money, and Z couldn't decide what was more appealing, selling or buying.

Ultimately I made about $140 and the girls grossed $14 a piece. More importantly, almost everything I put out sold--which means I didn't have to haul a trunkful of junk to the Brown Elephant.

Remembering my own childhood thrill of buying something with the money I'd earned, I offered the girls a trip to Geppetto's to spend their cash. A bought a hair bow and a kite and Z bought an Only Hearts doll.

It went to well I'm almost looking forward to next year. When, no doubt, it will rain.