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).