Friday, November 25, 2011

Black Friday and so much more

6 weeks of Beginning ice skating served Zoe well; the kid is fast!
Today we ate, shopped and played, pouring money into the U.S. economy every step of the way (however modestly). Although I've never had the stamina for late-night/early morning Black Friday shenanigans, thanks to my friend (and Frugalistic Mom) Carrie's urging, I did stop at CVS with my hair still wet from the shower to pick up a cart full of Free after ExtraCare Bucks items: Chex, Cheerios, toothpaste, toothbrushes, floss, Kleenex and the high-class L.A. Looks hair gel ("X-Treme Value!") that I've been going through since becoming a Curly Girl Method devotee. Provided I remember to use all those ExtraCare Bucks, I probably came out 50¢ ahead, even after "buying" all that stuff.

By 8am Ada and I were done at CVS, so we swung by the house to pick up the later risers and head to the Brown Cow Ice Cream Parlor for their annual Day-After-Thankgiving Waffle Breakfast Bar. Josh and I got the plain waffles knowing our kids couldn't possibly eat all the ice cream on their giant DIY sundae waffles.

We got home just in time for Patty, one of our favorite neighborhood sitters, to come by and watch the girls.

Then Josh and I drove to Kohl's, where I was able to pick up all the items on the ARK wishlist. I'd adopted three needy adults for Hanukkah: an older man wanted Dockers, a woman nonstick pots and pans and a teen girl a hair dryer. Kohl's had all of the above on sale, which meant the $35 maximum I was allowed to spend on each recipient went much farther than I anticipated. We also picked up Hanukkah gifts for the family: underwear for Zoe, pajamas and a musical jewelry box for Ada, and a Fiestaware platter for ourselves. Josh, who doesn't usually care for shopping, volunteered to hit more stores, but I'd had it after CVS and Kohl's.

We paid the sitter, wolfed down some delicious Thanksgiving leftovers (starring a turkey our friend Steve smoked for 6 hours on his back porch) and headed to downtown Oak Park to ice skate at Ridgeland Commons then go to the Lake Theatre to see The Muppets. Amazingly, that was also the plan of our friends Steve (yep, same one) and Jani and their kids--the very same family who had hosted us (plus two turkey-and-pie curious Austrians and a German) for Thanksgiving the evening prior. And while Zoe and Jani's 2nd grade daughter bickered all through said dinner and declared they never wanted to see each other again (potentially putting Jani and I in an awful position), they were two peas in a pod at the rink and throughout the movie.

And what a movie! There couldn't be a more perfect film for nostalgic Gen Xers to take their children to. It really is a delight and so unlike most kids' movies today--slower paced, few special effects and nothing sexual or scatological (save--perhaps--a Whoopie-cushion shoes joke), plus all the anarchy, chaos and random, ridiculous slapstick violence us Muppets fans know and love.

*Look in the very background of the photo and you can see me holding Ada's hand as we skated--although only Ada's arm and head are visible

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

On loaning my house to a stranger

On Thursday afternoon I gave a key to my house to someone I didn't know so that her extended family could enjoy a comfortable stay in Oak Park.

I felt good about it, knowing I was finally repaying the karmic universe for giving my extended family a house to stay 2 summers ago when I had them here for my bat mitzvah. For those who don't remember, an older couple who spend a month in Colorado every summer lent my family their house for 4 days in exchange for 2 weeks worth of garden-tending. I found them and last weekend's family found me through MomMail, a unique community email aggregator that Oak Park area families use to find babysitters, recommend doctors and contractors and buy and sell second hand furniture and baby gear. It lacks the anonymity and skeeze factor of Craigslist.

Our invisible house guests stripped the beds as requested and we came home to our house more or less as we'd left it. And while Oscar apparently didn't sleep inside the two nights we were gone, he was adequately fed and cared for (if missing his collar--again!).

Is a house swap next?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Kohler: Vacation in the land of fancy faucets

A few months ago I won a weekend getaway to Kohler, Wisconsin from fellow Chicago mom blogger Kim Moldofsky, whose latest blog, The Reluctant Renovator, chronicles the updates she and her husband are making to their new (old) house.

If Kohler sounds familiar to you, it's probably because your sink, tub or toilet bears the name. But the 140 year old Kohler company has more than an over-the-top design showroom to lure tourists to their small company town outside Sheboygan--they've transformed what used to be housing for the single immigrant men who worked in their factories into a deluxe 5 star hotel, The American Club. To further entice tourism, they've built fancy golf courses, opened a luxury spa and installed upscale shopping and restaurants on the Kohler campus. The buildings are spread out, but a free shuttle will pick you up and drop you off anywhere within minutes.

All hail the wall of toilets
Since the package I'd won was geared toward families, we were put up at the slightly less luxurious but more child-friendly Inn at Woodlake, which serves free breakfast every day and will loan you board games (or even an Xbox). The Inn at Woodlake is also home to the weekend Kamp Kohler kids programming, which we took full advantage of on Saturday.

Since it was an off-season weekend the girls were the only children enrolled, but they had an awesome time with Ginger, racing through the woods on a nature scavenger hunt, swimming at the pool at the nearby Sports Core and putting together some Thanksgiving-themed crafts. They had so much fun they begged to be sent back for the evening "Dinner and a Movie" program, which meant Josh and I had lunch and dinner on our own (Neopolitan pizza at Il Ritrovo and fish and chips at the Duke of Devon Pub) and plenty of time to explore the amazing John Michael Kohler Art Center in Sheboygan, which had a very moving exhibit on memory and memory loss. There was a great multi-room installation that reminded me a bit of the Alzheimer's novel Turn of Mind and a bunch of photographs from The Oxford Project, which I loved so much I bought the book.

Ada checks out the "quiet seat" in a lit-from-below bathroom
But back to our stay in Kohler. The staff everywhere on the resort was cheerful, friendly and eager to please. The beds at the Inn on Woodlake were comfortable and the flat screen was large, but the most memorable part of room was the bathroom, especially the shower, which was from another world--5 adjustable sprayers for a shower I didn't ever want to get out of!

We toured the Kohler Design Center with the girls, which is amazing on multiple levels. I loved seeing the history of their advertisements, we all giggled imagining ourselves rich enough to live in a house with one of their many over-the-top bathroom set-ups and the kids and Josh marveled at all the crazy technology (multi-sprayer showers and Japanese-style programmable toilets with remote controls). Had we been there on a weekday morning, we could have also toured the factory.

No trip to Kohler would be complete without a stop at the fancy Kohler Water Spa, so I sent Josh and the girls off to the Above and Beyond Children's Museum in Sheboygan Sunday morning and indulged myself in a Thai-style "stretch and flex" massage and an hour soaking in a hot tub, baking in a sauna and generally feeling pampered and relaxed.

Would we go back? Definitely. At least in this family, happy family getaways are much happier when there is a kids' club to give mom and dad some alone time. And while the Kohler Resort's stellar reputation proceeded it, we were pleasantly surprised by all that nearby (and fun-to-pronounce) Sheboygan has to offer. I've never been the type to stay exclusively on a resort property, but I didn't know that there would be genuine foodie restaurants and a couple of great museums in a small Wisconsin city just 5 minutes away.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The cute school pictures I refuse to buy

I'm a sucker for school pictures. The blue background. The gap-toothed smiles. The cowlicks and stray hairs Mom's not there to smooth out. I'm not the type to spring for the super package with the 8X10 print and keychain, but I'm good for a sheet of wallets (not that anyone keeps photographs in their wallets anymore; that's what smart phones are for).

So imagine my surprise when we received Ada's proofs from Shutterbug Studios, the company serving her Montessori school. All the poses were in front of a snowy forest scene. With evergreens. At first glance, my reaction was "Wow, these are really Christmassy." Not that the gentiles have a monopoly on snowy forests, but she is leaning up against a pile of wrapped gifts in the shot on the upper right.

And my second thought: "Gee, she looks awfully underdressed for a stroll in the wintery woods." I mean the girl's wearing a dress and leggings (which I fully did not anticipate making it into the portrait session). Where are her coat, hat and boots? Wouldn't her hands be cold as she lies facedown on the "snow?"

As darling as Ada looks, these pictures are dumb. I won't be ordering any.

On the other hand, I'm tempted to get a print of this roller derby action shot by Oak Park sports photographer DT Kindler.

Monday, November 07, 2011

I'm a convert to the Curly Girl Method

IMG_3549Although I've learned bits and pieces about caring for my curls over the years, until this week I've never actually researched hair care. But I needed a trim and decided to look for curly hair cuts on Pinterest for inspiration. I stumbled upon a couple of Curly Girl before and after photos and immediately put the book on hold at the library.

I'd already cut way down on my shampoo use and switched to a sulfate-free formula for those times I felt like I really needed to clean my hair. But I had been using products with silicone (a no-no) and was relying on mousse for most of my styling needs.

The big changes were as follows: "Shampoo" hair with a lightweight conditioner and then condition with a richer formula. Finger comb out any tangles and hardly rinse out any conditioner before stepping out of the shower and squeeze/scrunch your sopping wet hair with a cotton t-shirt instead of a terry cloth towel. I also switched a Curly Girl-approved gel, a giant bottle of L.A. Looks that cost less than $3 and looks like it's straight out of 1988.
Half an hour before they completely dried

Scrunch/cup the gel into your curls and let air dry. Shake the curls free from their "gel cast" when hair is completely dry.

I'm still figuring out the amount of product I need to use, but I'm happy so far. My curls are 100% frizz-free even at the day's end and I've gotten a lot of compliments.

Tuesday morning update: One of the techniques in the book lets you sleep on your hair and revive it in the morning without showering and restyling. I was dubious, as I've never been able to skip a shower and wear my hair in anything but a bun, but here's what it looked like this morning after twisting into a top knot, sleeping on it, and then spritzing with lavender water that I mixed up myself.

One year later: See how I've adapted the method to get even better results.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

A sewing birthday party

IMG_3540Zoe got the crafting bug at Oak Park's Arts District Summer Camp this year, and one of her favorite projects was sewing. So when I found out about Angie Cataldo's sewing birthday parties, I suggested sewing as an option for her 7th birthday celebration.

IMAG0973Since seemingly every girl in Oak Park has an American Girl doll, we opted to invite 7 girls to bring their dolls and sew a doll-sized sleeping bag. Angie brought a variety of fabrics and each guest got to choose the outer fabric and cozy fleece interior. All the pieces were precut, so all the girls needed to do was hand sew a running stitch around the outside, connecting the two pieces. The sewing took about an hour and fifteen minutes and they each got a turn at the sewing machine at the very end. While the girls were intently focused on their projects and chattering happily, it was clear the slightly older girls were more manually dexterous. Zoe and the girl closest to her in age (they are the youngest and second youngest in the group) started to lose interest and veer away from the stitch line before they were completely done.

The sewing wrapped up just as the pizza arrived, and we followed up 3 large Papa John's pizzas with the cake I'd baked to Zoe's specifications: chocolate cake with chocolate pudding in the middle and blue buttercream frosting. The party was almost over by the time Zoe opened her presents and the girls joined their slumbering dolls to watch the American Girl Molly movie.
If you're interested in having a sewing party for your daughter's birthday, brownie troop or some kind of mother-daughter event, I'd highly recommend Angie. She was professional, energetic, and even brought along an assistant--which was key to keeping 8 2nd graders' needles threaded and knotted. Her sewing parties cost $100 plus a materials fee. The doll sleeping bags were $6 each.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

From Ada to Zoe, on her birthday

Who am I kidding with the Z's an A's? From here on out, I'll be using the kids' names. Reserving, of course, the right to change my mind.

In honor of her big sister's birthday, 4 year old Ada wrote her a book--complete with the first sentences I've seen her write. She also started reading simple words last week. Yay for literacy!

Mom said that [I need a] nap

Ada wanted to boss Zoe
Happy Birthday I luv you Zoe I luv you
Stay tune for a post on the sewing party we hosted for seven 7 year old girls. It was a blast.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Happy 7th Birthday, Z

You're only just turning 7, but I can tell I'm going to love this age. Seven is independent, happy to disappear into her room for a couple of hours or play with her friends without adult intervention. You can do your homework independently, coordinate your own outfits, wash and comb your hair and butter your own bread.

You've got a few bad habits, namely being an incredibly picky eater and stubbornly refusing to even try suspicious foods, and being a messy eater of those foods you do enjoy. You're also a bit flighty, frequently dropping your dirty clothes where they came off of you and failing to put on your coat/shoes/socks until repeatedly reminded. Usually your absentmindedness can be blamed on your bookwormishness. When I wake up in the morning, you're in bed with a book. When you're supposed to be getting dressed, you're reading a book. You read books while you eat, in the car, on the school bus and during any and all down time.

Don't get me wrong, your reading and writing skills make your father and I so proud. Your stories and poems are hilariously inventive and the angry letters you write me when I've sent you to your room should really be tucked away in your baby book, they're so passionate (and accurately illustrated).

You've got other skills too. You're thisclose to mastering the splits at gymnastics, and you'll be competing with your team for the first time in January. You've picked up Hebrew about 1000% faster than your mother, scoring 100% on every test so far this year. You're also making ice skating look easy, but I'm thinking that might be because momma bought you roller skates this summer, giving you an unfair head start.

Regardless of the passion you choose to pursue, I can't wait to see what this year holds in store.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Learning the value of a dollar

This post was underwritten by BMO Harris Bank, which offers a matching $25 on a new savings account opened for your child through their Helpful Steps for Parents program. Learn more at

Two weeks ago, my almost 7 year old daughter gave away all of her money to charity. She'd spent a Saturday afternoon collecting donations for the Girl Scouts food drive, and was so moved by a desire to help the less fortunate, she brought $6--two week's worth of allowance--to Sunday morning Hebrew school for the tzedakah box. When we walked to Walgreens later that week, the sting of her empty wallet hit her. She badgered me to buy her gum, first appealing to my generosity and then promising me I could deduct the cost from her next allowance. No dice.

While Josh and I offer money management advice to our second grader (and we did try to dissuade her from donating all her cash to charity), I believe that the best financial education comes from experience. Having given all her money away two weeks ago, I feel fairly confident she'll balance her desire to give back with her own personal needs (okay, wants) in the future.

I also feel that spending her own money gives my daughter a real investment in her purchases and their value. Z feels like she gets a good bang for her buck when it comes to buying sugarless gum, Scholastic books and nail polish, but her tendency to lose earrings has cooled her desire to save up for another trip to Claire's.

There's also a selfish motive for giving Z an allowance. Because she has her own spending money, I have an automatic out whenever she asks me to buy her crap. All I have to say is "you can spend your allowance on that if you want," or "what a perfect toy to save your money up for." And I have rewarded her for big savings projects. When she wanted a new American Girl doll, I told her that if she could save $50, I'd pay the other half. And she did, putting away her $3 per week allowance and tooth fairy money for months.

Z's allowance, which she started receiving when she was 5--right around the time she learned to count money--comes with strings attached, and I've learned that this is somewhat controversial among parents today. But since my pay comes with the expectation of performance, I am comfortable withholding Z's allowance when she doesn't keep her room in order. She used to get $4 a week, with one dollar tied to violin practice. When she dropped violin, we dropped a dollar. She's since requested a $1 "raise," but hasn't managed to chose a chore she's willing to take on to earn that 25% salary hike.

I was selected for this sponsorship by the Clever Girls Collective. To learn more about BMO Harris Bank, visit their website

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Halloween, redux

We carved 3 out of 4 pumpkins. Handed out 8+ pounds of candy as well as a motley assortment of lollipops, silly bands, pencils, stickers and pens I've repurposed from goodie bags. I heated up spiced apple cider and ladled that out to grateful grownups, most of whom opted for a splash of brandy as well.
Z surprised us all by maintaining her commitment to be Vampirella (decided 10 months ago when she checked out a Halloween book from her school library), and A was low-key, opting to wear two costumes we already had in the dress up bin, but giving them her own creative twist (Belle + wings=Fairy Queen and Jill + wings = Jill who doesn't tumble down after Jack). I was a cowgirl.

Josh joined a group of neighbors and took the kids trick or treating from 4 until around 5:30. I got home from work around 4:45 and was immediately beset by the hordes. So I was grateful to Z and A's enthusiasm for handing out treats when they returned. And since they are reasonable children, I let them shoot quizzical looks at the uncostumed adult women holding out treat bags for themselves or "the baby in the stroller" and leave their bags dangling.

Speaking of trick or treating, their hauls were interesting. A and Z each scored one full-sized candy bar, and the usual assortment of Hershey's, M&Ms, Snickers and Kit Kat minis, but they also ended up with a couple of strange items: a black and orange "Happy Halloween" toothbrush (I appreciate the gesture, but black bristles?); a handful of loose chocolates; and a single Hall's cough drop. Who gives menthol cough drops to children? On Halloween?

Anyway, in keeping with tradition I let the kids eat as much candy as they wanted Halloween night (they each had 3 bite sized candies), pack their favorites into a smallish Tupperware bowl, and put out the rest for the "Halloween Fairy."

They shrieked with delight at the toys the fairy swapped out for candy--both of which were ASTRA award winners I took home from the local toy store event at Building Blocks.