Friday, December 21, 2012

Diet sodas are safe for kids: Challenging conventional wisdom at the Coca-Cola Balanced Living Workshop

Listening and learning
It doesn't take a marketing background to understand that an event called the "Coca-Cola Balanced Living Workshop" might be designed to publicize the company's healthy living efforts and counteract the backlash against super-sized sugary sodas.

But while I do try to limit my and my family's consumption of full-calorie sodas, I'm no purist. I like Coke Zero, Cherry Coke (Zero and the regular stuff) and Honest Tea, and I've been known to let my kids enjoy the occasional Sprite or Sprite Zero when we're out to eat.

I attended the workshop with an open mind, ready to listen to the red, white and black-clad Coke employees share their point of view on high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners and carbonation (apparently in some cultures it is blamed for cellulite) before we got to the good stuff-- one-on-one consultations with a dietitian and personal trainer and a workout session with Megan Fox's trainer, Harley Pasternak. Look for the smartwater product placement in his upcoming workouts on Xbox Kinect and Wii.

On the mats with Harley
Here's what surprised me: There's an abundance of research into the safety of all of the no-calorie sweeteners used by The Coca-Cola Company, but particularly aspartame, which the dietitians who spoke to us claimed was the most researched food ingredient on earth. According to the science, all are completely safe, even for children. The only concern parents should have with regard to artificially sweetened beverages is that they may end up taking the place of milk, which is important for kids' health.

I was also pleased to learn that The Coca-Cola Company has changed the offerings in their vending machines at schools. My elementary school had a Coke machine in the cafeteria (I still remember seeing the teachers grabbing a Tab before heading off to the teachers' lounge for a cigarette), but in 2006, Coke removed all full-calorie beverages from elementary schools. Today grammar school machines sell water, 8 oz juices (with no added sweeteners) and milk. Middle schools offer the same items at slightly larger sizes, and high schools add in no-calorie and low-calorie drinks. At least half of the available beverages in high schools are to be water, no-calorie, and low-calorie selections.
There was also some conversation about high fructose corn syrup and how it is nutritionally equivalent to cane sugar. But my issue with HFCS has less to do with its health implications and more to do with the evils associated with big corn and the risks of monoculture to our environment.

But enough about Coca-Cola. I also learned a few healthy living tips that had nothing to do with carbonated beverages and bottled teas. My dietitian advised me to drink a glass of chocolate milk immediately after my late evening workouts. She said it has the right refueling mix of protein and carbs  so I don't break down my muscles for energy. I had my first glass after roller derby last Thursday night, and it tasted good too.

She had another great suggestion for fitting in a little calorie-burning activity for those days when I am stuck at my desk from 9 to 5: drink a lot of water and walk 2-3 floors up to use the bathroom. It's genius, really!
Dinner at Boka was a treat
So, in addition to derby and climbing and tracking my weekday diet on a calorie-counting app, I'm drinking more water, wearing a pedometer (a freebie in my Coke goodie bag), taking the stairs more often and filling half my plate with veggies and fruits, as recommended by the USDA's sequel to the Food Pyramid, Choose My Plate. I'm hoping that by starting what could be New Year's resolutions early, I'll make them permanent habits.

I was compensated for my participation in Coca-Cola's Balanced Living Workshop, but my thoughts and views are my own.

All Photos are courtesy of The Coca-Cola Company and Bruce Powell Photography.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Friday, December 14th

Last Friday felt like the end of the world. I heard a bit of the news before heading to the gym for a lunchtime workout, but there, on the treadmill, I looked up and the CBS was reporting live from Connecticut. Even with the sound off, the horror and worry in the faces of parents as they raced to Sandy Hook Elementary School spoke volumes. Tears sprang to my eyes and I had to look away.

Like everyone else I know, I spent the afternoon clicking back and forth from my work to news websites, hungry for details and at the same time sickened by everything I'd read.

I could write more, about how all weekend I kept the news off, and struggled to find the right words to explain to my 3rd grader what had happened. I could talk about the petition I signed asking the White House to make gun control a priority. I could tell you why I refuse to be afraid to send my kids to elementary school. About how intellectually I know they're statistically more likely to die in a car accident, with Mom at the wheel, than as the victim of a shooting rampage; but the fact that there's a any chance of being gunned down in homeroom makes my blood boil.

But I'm not going to write about those things. Instead, I'm going to tell you that my neighbor had a baby girl on Friday, December 14th. Baby Claire came home on Sunday, and this evening Ada and I stopped by with a baby gift and a batch of chocolate chip cookies. We chatted for a few minutes, but the baby was nursing, their toddler son was finishing dinner and I didn't want to intrude. So I came home, bathed Ada and we snuggled on her bed with a new Ramona book.

"Look Mom, my toes," Ada said, spreading her toes apart like a monkey, "I can make my feet like Claire's. Only her feet are so small. So soft. So perfect."

Monday, December 10, 2012

From last to first: a lesson in determination

Zoe tied for first in the all-around in her age group at a gymnastics meet yesterday.

This is a big deal. It was just about a year ago that she participated in her very first meet. I still remember how pumped she was to participate. How much fun she had with her teammates. How big she smiled when her name was called during the award ceremony. And how crushed she was when she realized she had "won" last place in her age bracket.

Ten months later and Zoe has advanced from Level 3 to Level 4. She's on a huge team of 40 girls, aged 7 to 12, who practice 6 hours a week. She's been working so hard, determined to be her best. She isn't the most talented kid at the gym--not by a long shot--but she is dedicated and well-liked for her positive attitude.

That was good enough for us. All we wanted was for her to not be so distracted by our presence at the meet that she'd fall of the beam or backflip onto her head.

We were pleasantly surprised to see her scores--all 8s and 9s--and dumbfounded when she climbed onto the top of the awards podium.*

Of all of the parenting books and blogs I've read, one of the messages that's really stuck with me is that from The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. It's a book about raising self-reliant kids, and it stresses the importance of letting your kids struggle and even fail so that they can ultimately be successful. Zoe's experience with gymnastics is a reflection of this value and it's making me feel like a pretty good parent today.

*I was dumbfounded remotely as I had to leave to go co-host a clothing swap immediately after Zoe's last event. Josh did a great job of keeping me updated via text message.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

I can't eat like I used to, so I'm going to the Coca-Cola Balanced Living Workshop

My first climb, 2 months ago
You know how they say your metabolism slows down as you age?

It's true. As I've grown older, my palate has expanded dramatically (I love you sushi, olives, Korean food and hand-crafted cocktails!) while my metabolism has hit the brakes. I live in one of the country's best restaurant cities and with two school-aged kids, hiring a babysitter is no biggie. And yet, I can no longer indulge with abandon.

Yes, I've figured out how to dress to minimize my mummy tummy (wrap dresses and tunic tops are my friends) and I've learned why designer jeans are worth every pretty penny. But the ugly truth is if I'm going to stay the same size, I have to work out more and eat less than I did 10 years ago.

I came to this realization a couple of months ago. My recreational roller derby club reduced weekly practices from 2 nights a week to 1, and I immediately felt the difference 800 unburned calories makes. I started using a calorie counting app on my cell phone to track my food intake and exercise output, and boy is that ever depressing. On the days I couldn't hit the gym, I was lucky if I had 300 calories left before dinnertime! Of course, the upside of knowing exactly how much I'm eating and how little I'm moving is that I have been going to the gym at work a lot more often. I also joined a rock climbing class, which, like roller derby, I genuinely enjoy. I can't say the same for running stairs, Pilates, or doing planks.

I'm also being more thoughtful about the food choices I make, at least during the work week. I've swapped sandwich bread for bagel thins, I'm eating more protein at breakfast, and I'm only enjoying an evening adult drink if I have calories left for it.

And then I undo all my progress on the weekends and holidays. Ugh.

However, it appears help is on the horizon. I was selected to participate in a two-day Coca-Cola Balanced Living Workshop next week. There, I'll get to meet with a dietitian who can help me figure out a less haphazard system for losing a few pounds (and keeping them off) and attend cooking and fitness sessions, where I hope to find some new packable lunch ideas and discover some physical activities that I like as much as climbing and skating.

There's also a focus on family wellness, where no doubt I can feel proud of my gymnast kids' great physical shape and terrible about their horribly picky eating habits. Stay tuned for a full report.

I was compensated for my participation in Coca-Cola's Balanced Living Workshop, but my thoughts and views are my own.

Friday, November 23, 2012

A Thankful Thankgiving

Ada and her friend with post-parade hot chocolates
This Thanksgiving, I'm thankful for...

Living a short train ride away from a world-class city...but one so accessible I can take two 5 year olds and an 8 year old to the Thanksgiving Day parade and immediately score them a "front row" curb seat to the marching bands, giant balloons, pageant queens, miniature horses, acrobats and Irish dancers. Also, my fellow city-dwellers are just so darn nice. When one of the girls whined that she was thirsty, a neighboring spectator--the same one who'd gamely tolerated them leaning against his folding chair every time they got up to fidget--handed over a sealed bottle of water.

Amazing friends who can cook. We joined our friends Jani and Steve and some old friends of theirs for smoked turkey and all the fixings. Josh made handcrafted gin-cranberry-rosemary cocktails and three pies: chocolate chess, sour cream apple crumble and pumpkin. I assembled a charcuterie/cheese board with three kinds of cheese from Whole Foods, olives, cornichons, fig jam, crackers and cured meat. Jani's old friend from Philly made 10 pounds of mashed potatoes, 10 pounds of sweet potato casserole and an almost equally insane quantity of stuffing. Zoe had turkey and 3 helpings of corn. Ada had a bite of turkey and an apple. I ate and drank myself silly.

A community where both of my kids can spend the afternoon at playdates and where we'll run into people we know at the ice rink and the shopping center. (Both happened today.) 

Speaking of our great community, I got to pay it forward a bit today. The phone rang at 9am, and it was a former neighbor who moved to Colorado at year ago. She was in a panic because a realtor was trying to show her house and her tenant was nowhere to be found. She asked me to run over to her house, find the hidden key and let the realtor and a potential buyer into the place. If you're in the market for a beautiful E.E. Roberts home across from Fox Park, it can be yours for $575k! 

And of course I'm thankful for my husband (and his great sense of humor), my job, my health (and health insurance, just in case), my smart girls and the awesome cat who is curled up on my lap and making it quite challenging to type this. I'm thankful for caring and generous parents and in-laws, lifelong friends (like Franny, whom I'm visiting next weekend), and most of all the local friends I love like family. As a foreign service brat who moved a lot as a kid, It was my dream that we would be able to raise our children in a welcoming, stable place where they could form close, long-lasting friendships. I didn't realize how much I would treasure that gift too.

Friday, November 16, 2012

I collect hobbies like hobbyists collect stamps

One of the ways I stay happy is by constantly learning new things and adopting new interests. My newest "thing" is indoor rock climbing, but it's only the latest in a long history of dabbling...

When I was a newlywed, it was knitting. I took a class at a yarn shop across from the old Children's Memorial Hospital in Lincoln Park and then got to know the motley crew of knitters during weekly open knit nights. I also revisited two of my high school activities in those years, playing second base for my agency softball team and taking a pottery class at a local studio. Oh, and there was the fall I played co-ed flag football, which didn't kindle in me much of a passion for the game, but it did clue me in to the strategy behind the tackles.

We moved to Oak Park in 2003 and I found another local yarn shop (it's since closed). I oversaw the initial updating and decorating of our house and knitted the biggest, most complicated project I've ever completed, a 6 foot by 5 foot cabled blanket, but then Zoe arrived and parenting a newborn became my all-consuming passion.

By the time she was 1 1/2, I'd stumbled into the world of mom blogging. It's hard to believe now, but in those pre-Twitter and Facebook days, I was updating my blog two or three times a day, sharing videos, my own commentary on news stories and the requisite kiddo updates.

I was still in the thick of blogging when Ada arrived. She was just a few weeks old when I nursed her through sessions at BlogHer 07. But I longed for new challenges. First I changed jobs. Then I joined our Montessori school board and promptly got myself elected co-president. I decided to learn Hebrew and spent one year mastering the basics and a second year learning cantillation in preparation for my adult bat mitzvah. After two years on the preschool board, stepped down and then allowed myself to be recruited for our synagogue's young leadership training group.

Meanwhile, I joined Derby Lite and started skating 1-2 times a week. I joined a book club that meets once a month. And just last month, I dropped into a few open climbing sessions at FFC. I've since started their beginner climbing class!

Friday, November 09, 2012

MyStyle-I: Personal styling on a budget

Having access to a personal stylist is a dream come true for me. I don't have to go shopping or process returns. I don't have to figure out what looks good on me and think through  perfectly-layered outfits. But it's usually out of my price range. Either you pay a stylist a consultation fee or you go the route of Cakestyle, which was an awesome experience, but really designed for someone with much more expensive taste and a much larger pocketbook than me.

So when Marie Claire sales associate Cheryl Kogut reached out to me with a brand new business idea, I quickly agreed to be her first non-family, non-friend styling guinea pig. I sent her my measurements and a few of my favorite brands (as well as a link to my Pinterest board dedicated to fashion inspiration). Then we met face-to-face to review her process and discuss my goals (layered outfits, items that work with boots and tights, cool sweaters).

Then Cheryl went shopping. Her passion is online flash sales, where great designer items are sold for a steal. Plenty of fashionistas swear by them, but I don't have the time or inclination to check them daily or figure out how to incorporate a single, deeply-discounted item into my wardrobe.

About a month later Cheryl came to my house with bags and bags of goodies. She'd purchased me a $2488 fall/winter wardrobe for $1667.96, including tax and shipping. Of course, not every item fit, I wasn't crazy about the cardigans she'd brought and a few outfits fell by the wayside because one piece wasn't quite right. But I ended up loving an awful lot of it, buying 3 dresses, 3 pairs of Spanx tights, 2 scarves, a Rachel Zoe silk blouse and a pair of designer jeans for about $550 altogether. The Paige jeans ($158) and Rachel Zoe top ($129, reg. $295) accounted for about half of the total cost, but I felt like a million bucks in them. Seriously, now I know why people spend so much money on denim. This is the first pair of jeans I've ever worn that make me look like I have a nice ass!

Other items were real steals. A tie waist sweater dress from Spense & Cupio was only $32, marked down from $89. Cheryl paired it beautifully with a bordeaux scarf from Topshop ($36) and suggested chocolate brown tights and loafers. (I didn't buy the ones she'd brought, but found pair in my closet that worked.) The striped A-line minidress I'm wearing today (and tonight to see Louis C.K.) was $49.50 (originally $79), and she picked it specifically to wear with black Spanx and the tall black boots I had on when we initially met.

Cheryl makes money by charging a commission of 20% of each items' cost, but her extreme bargain-hunting ability pretty much guarantees you'll still be getting a good deal.

I've been wearing my new clothes all week, feeling pretty and getting so many compliments. If personal styling is something you've always considered buy haven't tried, this is your chance! Cheryl's website,, won't officially launch until January, but she is ready to start taking more clients and anyone who finds out about her through this blog will have her initial $25 consultation fee waived. Read on to learn more about Cheryl and her stylist services for the bargain-loving babe.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Get these things before you go to Disney World and save

Wearing their Target tees and clutching discount autograph books
Life got busy, but I promised money-saving tips for Walt Disney World (also applicable to Disneyland, I'm sure). Here they are, a full month late!

Buy the "must-have" Disney souvenirs before you go. If you have little girls, buy them official Disney Princess costumes at a discount store or even at the Disney Store (if high quality is a must) before you leave. You'll spend $20 versus $65-80 per dress and really, do you want your kid wearing a fancy gown in 90 degree weather, while eating a ketchup-covered hot dog? And if it's your thing, rest assured you can bring your own costume to the Bibbidi Bobbiti Boutique and just shell out for hairstyling, makeup and massive amounts of glitter.

You can also buy autograph books ahead of time. I got Disney-branded spiral books that came with a matching pen and a plastic carry case for about $5 on Amazon and my kids didn't notice that their books were any different from the $12 hardbacks sold on site.

T-shirts and other wearables should definitely be purchased ahead of time. You'll see everyone wearing Disney apparel, and even I felt a tug to join the masses (I resisted). But since t-shirts at WDW around $30 a piece, I'm so glad I got the girls their Mickey/Minnie tees at Target for $6.95. Actually, another mom stopped me outside a ride to ask me where I got their shirts, they were that cute. The Disney Store online offers lots of items on sale, including official park merchandise that you won't find at your local Disney Store.

Disney will offer you discounts to prepay for the Disney Photo Pass package, but since the official Disney photographers will graciously take your picture with your camera, you don't need to pay a premium to get everyone in the frame. But go ahead and use the pass while you're there. It's free to have the photos taken and to view and share them online for a limited time.

If your trip is still a few months away, look into applying for the Chase Disney Visa card. I received an application for the card that offered me a $200 Disney gift card, no fee for a year and Disney Dream Dollars (Disney gift card money) on all my purchases, from 1% to 2%. I put our vacation package on the Disney Rewards Visa and used the card for a few months. I ended up with well over $300 (including the original $200 gift card) that I could use for souvenirs (I wasn't a total Scrooge) and tips and wine/beer at our DDP meals.

We saved a little money by bringing the refillable mugs that came with our resort package to the parks to fill with water. But we wasted money on Disney ponchos (definitely something we should have purchase cheaply ahead of time).

I hope someone else finds these tips helpful. As the cast members say, "Have a magical day!"

Monday, November 05, 2012

Interview with Zoe on her 8th birthday

Sam covers Zoe with kisses
Zoe, getting kissed by her 3 year old cousin, Sam
Although she wasn't really into it (she's apparently 8 going on 13), I re-interviewed Zoe with exactly the same questions I'd asked her when she was turning 6. We had a low-key celebration this year with extended family (my sister, niece, nephew, mom and stepdad were all in town), our closest family friends and Zoe's BFF. We ate pizza and pasta from Freddy's Pizza and a cookie dough ice cream cake from Brown Cow. Although she missed out on the gift haul of a traditional birthday party, she loved the presents she received: a Harry Potter Lego set, a Harry Potter journal, books, a couple of craft kits and a iPod dock/CD player.

What is the best thing about being 8? Don't know.

What do you think will be the best thing about being 8? Don't know.

What do you wnat to be when you grow up? Author

Do you want to be 1 thing or many things? Two things, a mother and an author.

What is your favorite toy? Harry Potter Legos

What is your favorite book? Harry Potter books

What is your favorite TV show? Phineas & Ferb

What is your favorite song? I have a favorite singer, Taylor Swift

What is your favorite movie? Harry Potter movies. I've watched 5 of them.

What is your favorite restaurant? Freddy's Pizza

What is your favorite cereal? Cracklin' Oat Bran 

What do you love about Mommy? She is awesome.

What does Mommy like to do? Work

What do you love about Daddy? He gives me lots of things.

What does Daddy like to do? Work on the computer

What do you love about your sister? Nothing 

If you could change your name, what would you choose? Jane

Where would you like to go on vacation this year? Hawaii

What will your house be like when you grow up? It will be a house sort of like ours. It will be colored tannish-brown. It will have 3 bedrooms, a dining room, a living room, a kitchen, a basement, lots of bookshelves and sort of fancy furniture like ours right now.

How many children will you have? What will you name them?  I will have two children names Rose and Ivy, if they're both girls.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Early Halloween fun

Trick or treating on Madison
Mysterious orange plushie outside of a haircut place
Halloween falls on a Wednesday this year, and trick or treating in Oak Park starts at 3pm. Rather than worry about leaving work early enough to accompany Zoe and Ada--and deal with the accompanying stress of not being home to hand out candy while they shake down the neighbors--I decided to take them trick or treating in Forest Park's business district, something we've never done before.

We took along Ada's friend from Montessori and it was so much fun. I got to browse a little in some new shops (Knit Nirvana, I'm looking at you!), check out some new restaurants (there's a tapas place open and what appears to be a pork/BBQ joint coming) and bask in the compliments all three girls were getting on their costumes (Hermoine, Merida and witch) and manners.

Interestingly enough, there was a slightly older girl in a princess costume who scandalized mine by snatching huge handfuls of candy from every bowl proffered as her cigarette-smoking mom looked on approvingly from the sidewalk. Ada and Zoe have been talking about her ever since, saying "Tell me the story of the greedy princess!"

Chocolate faces
Chocolate custard "lipstick"
After filling their buckets with candy, we headed to Culver's for lunch and back home for a little playtime before Ada's buddy was picked up.

Then Zoe headed off to a playdate at a neighbor's house and Ada and I ran some errands. She'd decided, while playing dress-up with her friend in the basement, that she wanted to change costumes before the Montessori school Harvest Party. She put on Zoe's old "Vampirella" dress and I picked up some face paint in Downtown Oak Park to complete the look.

Ada and another of her BFFs
Around 4pm, we headed to the party in the school gym. Zoe was still Hermoine, but Ada was a spooky "vampire-witch." I wore my elaborate baroness dress from a couple of years ago. Where was Josh during all this fun? He was going door to door in Wisconsin, reminding the election-weary public to vote (for Obama).

And what would a Halloween weekend be without pumpkins? I made pumpkin soup and roasted seeds from a sugar pie pumpkin (purchased at the last farmers' market of the year) and we carved our jack 'o lanterns (a witch and a pumpkin eating a pumpkin) Sunday afternoon.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Curly Girl update

dinner on the 40th floor
My hair, last night, after 10 hours of rain and humidity
It has been one year since I read The Curly Girl Handbook and overhauled my hair care routine.  I've tried a few more products and made a few refinements, and I think it's time I shared.

One of the things I was most excited about back then was the dirt-cheap cost one of the recommended hair gels. You can't get less expensive than L.A. Looks gel, but the yellow gel left my hair too crunchy and I wan't thrilled with the scent. I switched to the L.A. Looks Nutra Curl gel, which you can buy 60 oz. of for about $7 on Amazon, and I got pretty good results. I lost the dreaded crunch, but the hold couldn't always stand up to heat and humidity.

Then, Sonya gave me much lighter highlights this summer, and I could feel my hair suffering from severe dryness and frizz. So, using the same logic that lets me spend upwards of $150 on my hair cut and highlights ("I wear my hair everyday."), I splurged on the Deva Curl Light Defining Gel (Deva Curl is created by the author of The Curly Girl Handbook) and some Deva Curl One Condition conditioner as well.

I've been very pleased with the results. Even though my hair is in dire need of a hair cut, the frizz is usually well under control and my curls are very defined and bouncy.

My revised routine consists of co-washing with Trader Joe's Citrus Conditioner or shampooing with Trader Joe's Tea Tree Oil shampoo (I shampoo every week or two). Then I condition with a big handful of Deva Curl conditioner, finger-combing it through before rinsing 2/3 of it out with cool water. I let my wet hair drip into the tub as I scrunch 2 pumps worth of Deva Curl gel through my hair. Then I squeeze upwards, cupping the curls, with an old cotton t-shirt.

I let my curls dry naturally as I prepare breakfast and get dressed, but then I blast the underside and roots with a diffuser for 2-3 minutes. That gives my roots more volume and keeps me from walking out with damp hair.

Of course, just as I found a routine that was working for me, I got some free samples of Paul Mitchell's new line for curls. I tried the Spring Loaded Detangling Shampoo, which has a luxurious lather even though it is sulfate-free and the Full Circle Leave-in Treatment, which I would not use instead of a regular conditioner, but in addition to--especially on days when I'm headed to the beach or the pool. Unfortunately, the Ultimate Wave Beachy Texture Cream-Gel, which has a great feel and scent, was obviously designed for girls with a lot less curl to manage. It did nothing for my hair and I was in a ponytail by 8:45. If I lose interest in Deva Curl, I'll probably try their Twirl Around Crunch-Free Curl Definer, which seems like a better match for my needs.

My next haircut is Friday, and I'm considering making it a drastic one. What do you think of this look?

Friday, October 19, 2012

Notes from the parent-teacher conferences

3rd grade class picture
Although it came smack dab in the middle of a frenzied pitch at work, nothing would keep me from attending Zoe and Ada's parent-teacher conferences yesterday.

Zoe's teacher, whom we really like, had lovely things to say about her, calling her a "remarkable girl" whose "transition to third grade couldn't have gone more smoothly." She complimented Zoe's ability to manage her complex schedule of comings and goings. (She travels to the gifted teacher for reading and a 4th grade classroom for math in school and has Hebrew school and gymnastics outside of school.)

We were fairly confident Zoe would be doing well academically (she is), but we weren't sure how her young age was playing out with a new group of kids, many of whom are already turning 9. Her teacher assured us she works well in groups and has lots of friends in addition to a classroom best friend who follows a similar schedule. She insightfully added that, if she had to offer any suggestions for improvement, it would be that Zoe work on getting to know other kids by asking them questions about themselves. She says Zoe and most of her peers are still "mostly exchanging information about themselves."

Ada's conference was similarly positive. She's one of 4 kindergarteners in her multi-age Montessori classroom (all 4 of them are female), and her teacher (the same one she's had since age 3) said they were forming a tight little group, collaborating and pushing each other academically.

She said Ada relishes being a leader and has taken a few of the youngest girls under her wing. She said that after starting the year with a focus on math (addition, subtraction and fractions), she was now mostly interested in language and maps. She's advanced for her age, reading with some fluency and writing stories. Her directress is going to introduce parts of speech while her interest in writing and reading is strong and then encourage a move back to math for multiplication and division as winter sets in.

Her teacher also commented that Ada is happiest when her work matters. She likes to clean up after their lunchtime meal, wiping tables and sweeping the floor. But she's outgrown practical life works like floor polishing in which you polish simply for the experience of polishing. It made sense to us, as Ada can be relied on to clear her dishes after a meal and likes to clean her room and make her bed (provided she can "surprise" us with the results).

Although the conferences couldn't have come at a more inconvenient time (and I did end up going back to work and staying until 9pm), it was a real joy to hear people I respect and admire singing the praises of my children.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Top 5 joys of Disney World

As promised, here are my top 5 happy memories from the Happiest Place on Earth.

1. I loved riding Peter Pan's Flight at Magic Kingdom and Soarin' at Epcot. Both are "flying" rides suitable for all ages, and they enraptured everyone from Ada to Grandpa. They're also very popular, so go first or grab a FastPass. Soarin' is a relatively new ride, imported from California Adventure in Disneyland. In it, you feel as though you're hang-gliding over all of the natural and manmade wonders of California. Wind blows against your face and you can smell what you're seeing (pine in the forests, orange above orange groves). The transitions from one scene to the next are a little abrupt, but it was a truly magical ride.

Untitled2. My favorite meals were the buffets, with the African buffet Boma at Animal Kingdom Lodge way out in front. I also really enjoyed the seafood chowder and crab legs at dinner at Cape May Cafe at the Beach Club and breakfast at Crystal Palace in Magic Kingdom was worth the cost of entry just to see the excitement on our kids faces as Piglet approached our table.

3. The activities at our resort's main pool were an unexpected delight. My typically shy Zoe surprised us all by hopping out of the pool to perfectly execute a number of popular line dances (all while still wearing her googles!). Apparently they teach all these dances in P.E. class. The games at the pool were organized by 2-3 camp counselor types, and while we never showed up for the evening marshmallow roast or Disney movies, it was clear there was no shortage of entertainment and activities for the kids.

Untitled3. Much has been made of Disney Imagineering, but it was really amazing to behold the attention to detail that is still so very much alive in the newer attractions. The African and Tibetan villages in Animal Kingdom are so realistic I could have spent hours admiring the little touches. From the worn coolers and sleeping bundles rolled on top of the safari buses to the prayer flags, "drink wallah" shop and colorful truck in Asia--just like the ones I used to see lumbering down the Grand Trunk Road in Pakistan.

4. I loved the parades. I'm a sucker for any parade, but Disney really knows how to put one on. We saw the Celebration parade at Magic Kingdom and the tail end of the daily parade at Animal Kingdom. Plenty of people take advantage of parade hours to see the more popular attractions, but for me they are a quintessential part of the Disney experience.

5. I also loved the shows. Hall of Presidents and American Experience (Magic Kingdom and Epcot, respectively) are pretty entertaining for animatronic history lessons (and they did hold the kids' interest), but my favorite moments were watching Festival of the Lion King and Finding Nemo, two live theatre shows at Animal Kingdom. The short films at Epcot aren't too bad either, especially if you're looking to escape heat and humidity or a rain shower. We particularly enjoyed the movie about France.

What didn't I love about Disney World? Two words: motorized scooters. I'm all for making places accessible to everyone, but it seems like there must be a dozen motorized scooter rental outfits in central Florida in addition to the scooters available for rent at each of the parks. I've never seen so many people seemingly able-bodied (if a little larger than average) people zipping around them (frequently in pairs!). But mostly I disliked the abundance of scooters because our shuttle busses were forever being delayed by the on and off loading of these personal chariots.

Also? The humidity. If I had to do it over again, I would have packed extra clothes as I sweated like I've never sweated before.

Earlier: The joys of Disney World in the off-season
Next up: My money, time and sanity-saving tips for Disney

Sunday, October 07, 2012

The joys of Disney World in the off-season

Early afternoon, the busiest time of day and look how empty Main Street USA is!
We just returned from Disney World and I wanted to share my top 5 reasons why the off-season is the perfect time to go to the "Happiest Place on Earth." (And yes, I realize going while school's in session isn't an option for teachers and older kids. But my children are only 5 and 7, so we decided it was worth pulling them out of class.)

1. Price! Our 5 night/6 day vacation at Caribbean Beach Resort, one of Disney's moderate properties, was just over $2000 for a family of four. That included lodging, all transportation (to and from the airport and within the World), 3 days of base park tickets (no hopping), unlimited soft drinks at the resort and a "free" Disney Dining Plan. The DDP (5 quick service meals, 5 table service meals and 5 "snacks" per person) might not be a great value to those who have to pay for it, but getting it included in our vacation price meant we ate like kings and never felt like we were being gouged. Dining costs within Disney World are high, especially at table service restaurants and character meals, so to be able to order virtually whatever we wanted (and dessert at lunch and dinner!) without looking at the prices or whipping out a credit card was really nice. A couple of words of warning: Gratuity is not included in the DDP, so you will be responsible for paying the tip and as well as for any alcoholic beverages. We paid for all our tips using a Disney gift card I'd earned by switching to the Disney Rewards Visa. Also, due to the popularity of the DDP, Advance Dining Reservations (ADP) are absolutely necessary. With the help of our travel agent, we booked our tables months in advance and it was clear most of our fellow diners had as well. Walk up patrons walked away disappointed. 

Character breakfast at Crystal Gardens
2. Food! We were there during the 2-months long Epcot Food & Wine Festival. I followed advice I'd read online and hoarded our snack credits. Instead of blowing them all on breakfast pastries or bottled water, we grazed our way through the World Showcase, sampling cheeses and dishes from Poland, Singapore, France and Korea. However, there is a limit to how many "snacks" even we can eat and we sended up splurging on ice cream sundaes at Ghirdelli's in Downtown Disney to use up credits on our last day. 

3. No lines! The security lines at the airport were the longest lines we stood in all week. Through a combination of savvy planning (thanks to the WDW Lines app from, judicious use of FastPasses and generally low attendance, we never had to wait more than 10 minutes for any ride, show or character meet and greet. Time after time, we'd find ourselves whipping through long, winding line areas only to reach the front and step right onto the ride car. In fact, as we were getting ready to ride Haunted Mansion (posted wait time: 0 minutes) and Expedition Everest (posted wait time: 5 minutes), Josh lamented not being able to explore all the interesting distractions displayed along the line route.

4. No crowds! Given that the busses connecting our resort with Downtown Disney and the various parks filled up each time we rode them, I can't imagine how awful it would be to try and squeeze on in the high season. I am not a fan of crowds, but I never felt particularly crowded. Not waiting to enter the Magic Kingdom, standing in line or at the pool. The only time I remarked that "wow, it seems pretty busy here" was the morning we decided to have breakfast at our resort. The quick service dining hall was bustling and most of the tables were occupied.

5. Weather! Okay, the weather wasn't that ideal. It wasn't summer in Orlando hot, but highs were in the mid-to-upper 80s every day we were there and it was very, very humid. It was warm enough to really enjoy the pools at our resort as well as the water rides (you will get very wet on Animal Kingdom's Kali River Rapids), but I could have done without sweat-inducing humidity and the daily showers that made buying rain ponchos a must.

I realize this is more of a practical post than a warm, fuzzy family memories post, so stay tuned for my top 5 joys of Disney World (and a few things I could have done without).

Monday, September 24, 2012

Where does your library card take you?

When we first moved to Oak Park, I get myself a library card. I recall being told, while signing up, that I could take out "no more than 100 books at a time." One hundred books? Pre-kids, I couldn't fathom checking out more than a handful.

Oh, little did I know. Now the only reason we don't hit the maximum is that even our extra-large Lands End tote can't hold that many. And stuffed as it gets, I can barely lift it.

Yes, Oak Park has an award-winning library. The service is fantastic, the online reservation process is simple and we usually have about 50 books and CDs checked out at any one time.

Since I had a book on hold, I took the girls this past Saturday morning. And we saw something new happening in the lobby: a green screen photo studio where you could pose with an oversized library card and tell the librarian "where the library can take you."

Zoe had lots of ideas, but apparently "next to Hermoine on the giant chess board at Hogwarts" was harder to for the library staff to mock up than "under sea, with a giant squid."

Ada had just checked out the Hairspray soundtrack, so she said "on stage in Hairspray." The image emailed back to me takes some creative license with that, but it's perfectly apt because my dramatic little kindergartener will be in a production of Hairspray in January. Rehearsals start next month!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Our first camping trip: beginner's luck

UntitledAt the urging of friends, we finally took the family camping last weekend. And I'm happy to report it wasn't the disaster Josh worried it would be. Why? Good people. Good weather. Good scenery. And reasonably good kids.

We drove up to Kohler-Andrae State Park on Saturday morning, stopping for a surprisingly good Belgium brunch at Benelux in Milwaukee on the way. The organizing family, having come up the night before, was already there. We pitched our borrowed tent, checked out the nature center (where they were having a presentation on rescue dogs) and headed down to the beach to wait for the rest of the families to arrive.

Untitled Kohler is just about the perfect place for novice campers. The campsites are lovely and wooded enough to offer a sense of privacy. Composting toilets and a water spigot were a one minute walk away and the flush toilets and showers were only a few minutes further down a path.

And the beach. It's absolutely beautiful. Soft talcum powder sands, reeded dunes and not a piece of trash in sight. Yes, it's still Lake Michigan, but seemed so much cleaner than North Avenue beach and more remote than Northern Indiana, with its views of factories and power plants.

Untitled We were one of four families sharing two campsites, and as the kids ran off in a pack and the grown-ups gathered around the fire with drinks and snacks, I was struck by a sort of present-day nostalgia. I had inadvertently recreated my youth for my children. My family frequently went camping with other families when I was grade-school age, and I recall running off with the other young ones for hours, getting dirty from falling in the woods, smelling of bug spray and campfire, my shoes perpetually soggy.

My memories were further triggered from the fact that I was using many of my mom's original camping supplies. The hammock, the campfire coffee drip-o-lator (which I used to make 5 batches of coffee Sunday morning), my old red plastic Looney Toons lunchbox filled with mismatched utensils, her Euro-fabulous white plastic picnicware and a purple washing-up basin--all items I pilfered from her basement last summer and put to use for the first time in what might be decades.

The kids stayed up way too late and woke up way too early, and I spent a good deal of the dark time in between in a not-quite-sleep as I listened to my children breathing, the wind blowing and animals making sounds. Yes, it took two nights of going to bed early to catch up on shut-eye, but it was worth it.

I'm gonna buy a tent.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

How I told the kids we're going to Disney World

2012-09-01 14.13.30
Happy kids at Crown Fountain
YouTube is full of videos in which parents surprise their kids with a trip to the Mouse House. Sometimes the kids are opening presents on Christmas morning only to find out their gift is a trip to WDW. Sometimes the parents load their kids into the car for a "drive to Grandma's house" that's anything but. (And I saw one in which the kid cries upon hearing he's not going to see Granny after all.)

Although Josh was all for not telling Zoe and Ada about our upcoming trip until the morning of, I felt we needed to spill the beans earlier (but not too early) so that we could maximize the fun of anticipation and demonstrate that we weren't missing birthday parties and a family friend's bat mitzvah for no good reason.

So we waited until we were one month from departure and I delivered the trivia quiz that would reveal our plans. (See the quiz below, which inspired a similar reveal by Rookie Mom Heather.) The girls were a little weirded out by the challenge and totally stumped by "Orlando,______" having never heard of the city. But eventually they answered the questions, spelling all the answers correctly. Then Zoe quickly unscrambled the boxed letters to spell "Disney World," but she was so confused by the way I'd written the dates that it took her a few minutes to understand we were going this year--this month in fact!

I then handed the girls a gift bag with Disney autograph books, t-shirts (purchased for $5 a piece at Target), luggage tags and a "vacation planning" DVD Disney sent me way back when.

The videos on Disney World's website do a much better job of showcasing the rides, attractions and hotels than the DVD, but suffice it to say the girls are now really, really excited.

I live “under the sea.”
_ _ _ _ [ _ ]

I’m a nanny who’s “practically perfect in every way.”
_ _ _ _   _ [_ ] _ _ _ _ _

I tasted a poison apple.
_ _ _ [ _ ]   _ _ _ _ _

I have two mean step-sisters.
_ _ [ _ ]_ _ _ _ _ _ _

I’m a skilled archer and the impetuous daughter of Queen Elinor.
_ _ _ _ [ _ ] _

I’m Mickey’s girlfriend.
_ [_ ] _ _ _ _

I am the princess of Agrabah.
_ _ [ _ ] _ _ _ _

I sing “There must be more than this provincial life!”
_ _ _ _ [ _ ]

I star Woody and Jessie and Buzz!
_ _ [ _ ]   _ _ _ _ _

What’s the name of the newest Rapunzel movie?
_ _ _ _ _ _ [ _ ]

Orlando, _ _ _ [ _ ] _ _ _

Write down all of the letters in the boxes. Unscramble those letters to find the answer to where we’ll be 9/29-10/4.