Monday, December 31, 2007

I'm Raising a Gamer

Well, it's official… Miss M is a future gamer or at a minimum, a future geek. I'm using the word "future" very loosely, mind you. Not that there's anything wrong with being a gamer, DH and I both have the bug and we're pretty normal.

Maybe if we hop in the wayback machine, we can put it all into perspective.

When Miss M was only two, we found my old laptop. For any normal computer user, it was completely useless and beyond upgradable. So DH loaded Reader Rabbit on it, hooked up a trackball and sat down with her to play. She loved it and couldn't get enough of it so we added a few more educational games to the mix. It didn't take any time at all and she was able to turn it on herself, load her game of choice and even shut it down properly. Yes, she used the mouse to do the whole windows/shutdown process all by herself and not just push the power button. I never kept it plugged in, so she was at our mercy whenever she wanted to play it. Oh, how I long for those days of being in control.

Then we moved back to Iowa where all traveling is done via minivan. With two long trips last year, one to Alabama and one to Detroit, we decided to invest in a few of those hand-held joystick games to help pass the drive time. I'm not sure what compelled me to hook them up to the kids' TV, but I did. She would gladly sit in front of it playing those games all day long if we let her. At least I'm able to take it away and it makes an awesome toy time-out when she's not being good.

She always enjoyed cheering Daddy (or yours truly) on when he (we) used to play World of Warcraft. On the few occasions when he is playing a game on the Xbox, she's right there too. Oh, and she never passes up a chance to help me with my online puzzle du jour. She gets the concept of different games and is always happy to give them a shot. While she may not win, she's happy that she gets to try. A few weeks ago, DH was playing Fusion Frenzy with Miss M and Miss K and they all had a ball. So one day when DH knew he would be gone for the day, he promised the girls I would play Fusion Frenzy with them. You have no idea how stupid I felt being told by a 4 year old and a 3 year old which button made you jump or go faster. You know how moms somehow manage to not win all the time when they're playing games with the kids? That wasn't a problem here. I'm embarrassed to say that I sucked at the game and well, they didn't.

At Christmas, they received a Littlest Pet Shop game for their TV and Miss M does great at it once she's shown how to do a particular puzzle. The cousins have a Wii so she's been able to play bowling and boxing with them and it's really adorable.

Last night, Daddy helped the girls start their Viva Piñata garden. This morning, Miss M proclaimed "I want to work on my garden again." (Too bad all the games are on time out.)

I'm happy to see that she's learning something, but we're going to have to start putting a timer on her gaming play. Thank goodness for the mini kitchenette and the littlest pet shop army – at least she's getting some normal playtime. We also play card and board games together. They're involved in dance, swimming and soccer, in addition to preschool, so it isn't like this is all they do.

But if I hear her yell "Leroy Jenkins!" when she's working on her Viva Piñata garden, I'm going to cry.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Happy because or Because Happy?

While leaving the restaurant after lunch today, Miss M proclaimed "Mom, I'm skipping!" After praising her, I asked "Are you happy because you're skipping?" I immediately had a flashback to a conversation I had many years ago with my late Uncle Ken. It was one of those "hmmm" moments and often comes to me at times such as this.

Uncle Ken was diagnosed with ALS (AKA Lou Gehrig's Disease) while I was living in Los Angeles. Although I saw him on a few of the trips back to Iowa, generally my memories of him are of his healthier days. He was very athletic, active in both softball and volleyball, loved to play guitar and was often singing. One day when I heard him singing, I commented "You're singing; you must be happy about something." His response was very simple – "Am I singing because I'm happy? Or am I happy because I'm singing?"

Of all the memories I have of Ken, that's the memory that tends to surface the most. I doubt he ever expected that thought provoking little question to become a legacy of his.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Seeing Ourselves in our Kids

Everyone says that you can tell a lot about yourself by what your kids say and do. I continue to learn how very true that is. I'm proud to see my kids using manners asking please and saying thank you without being prompted. They surprise people when they say "Excuse me" as they pass by or brush against someone at the store, mall or just out and about. We're trying to instill some values in the kids by teaching them compassion and care when someone needs consoling. I can gladly pat myself on the back when people tell me that my kids are very well behaved.

Unfortunately, I also see several mannerisms that aren't so becoming… I have a tendency to say "Oh, no no no" and "you're driving me crazy" along with a few other key personal phrases. You guessed it, they're repeating them. I guess it could be worse; they could catch me swearing and repeat it.

But it all came to a head this evening while they were playing in their new kitchenette. I was folding clothes in the other room but could clearly overhear their conversation. Miss M exclaimed "Oh no, we're burning it" followed by "Let's start over".


Maybe I can claim that they were watching daddy cook...

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Comparing Christmas Parties

My dad has several siblings so I grew up around a lot of my uncles, aunts and cousins. The annual Christmas get together has been a family thing for my entire life, encompassing any relative who dared to be there. It's one of those events that I missed while we were away, but would attend whenever I would spend the holiday back in Iowa. It's typically the Saturday before Christmas which translates to… during winter. We lived in California for a long time. So for us, the drama surrounding the party is all about the weather.

Here are sample clips of conversations DH and I had regarding my family's Christmas party (which happened to be last night):

A few days before:
DH: Have you checked the weather? Supposed to be a storm front coming through Saturday evening. Just in time for the party.
Me: Lovely. Think we'll be able to make it?
DH: Yeah, but we might want to pack a change of clothes in case the roads are really bad and we need to stay at your folks' house.
Me: I guess. The dogs will be inside though so I would rather we get back home.

The morning of the party:
DH: The weather reports say we're going to have freezing rain. The roads will be getting icy around 8:30.
Me: Ok, we'll let everyone know we need to be on the roads to head home by 8:30.

At the party:
Me: They said it's getting slick outside, we need to get moving.
We head outside only to find the van covered in ice. We don't have a remote start, so the girls and I sat in the van while the defroster did it's magic and DH scraped the windows.

On the drive home (at 45 mph maximum):
DH: Can you find a road report on the radio?
Radio: Driving is not recommended. Roads are getting slick. Tow services are restricted on the following major roadways (then he listed about 50).
Me: No tow service on the roads? That doesn't make sense.
DH: Nice salt caked van we have now.
Me: Yeah, I see the salt truck right up there. I need to get it in for a wash.

When we got home:
Me (calling my folks): Just calling to let you know we made it home safely. Figured mom was worried.
Dad: She was. Roads were okay, but are getting bad now. Thanks for calling to let us know.

In contrast – Here was the typical conversation for our Los Angeles Christmas parties.
Me: You ready to go?
DH: Yeah. I already let the dogs out into the yard.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Justifiable Bah Humbugism

Historically, Christmas hasn't exactly been my favorite time of year – after spending several years in California hoping that some relative would decide to spend Christmas with us, I finally came to the realization that it was a hopeless request. Making matters worse was the fact that on more than one occasion, gifts from distant relatives didn't even make it to us in time for Christmas. There were some years that no decorations other than the tree ever went up and a few years that the Christmas tree didn't even go up until late Christmas Eve. Fertility treatments had continuously been unsuccessful so holidays were just about the two of us. Thankfully, each Christmas morning, hubby always found a way to make me happy – coming up with the perfect gift, year after year and creating traditions of our own.

Six years ago today, I actually found a reason to wake up with a great deal of excitement. After many years of trying, we had made some changes to my fertility treatments and I finally had a glimmer of hope – just in time for the holidays. It was a chaotic morning because I needed to be at the lab by a certain time to ensure that the lab results would be back to my doctor before she headed off for the holiday weekend. It was imperative that I hear the news that afternoon… we were scheduled to leave on a cruise the following morning and I wanted to know whether I was going to be gleefully enjoying virgin daiquiris by the pool or drowning my sorrows in whatever alcohol I could get my hands on. So when my father-in-law called for our Friday ritual-sharing of yard sale successes, I only talked to him for a short while before explaining that I needed to go. I didn't want to divulge where I was heading because I wanted it to be a surprise if the results came back positive. Promising to talk to him later, I somewhat abruptly excused myself so I wouldn't miss the morning deadline at the lab.

That afternoon, the phone call I received was not what I expected. My mother-in-law called to inform me that my FIL had suffered a heart attack. In the haze of our grief, I don't recall whether the doctor even called – it just didn't matter at that point. It was destined to be a difficult holiday on all fronts.

With regard to the fertility treatments, we took off a few months in order to deal with our loss. We found out we were pregnant with our first child, Miss M, the day in-between my FIL's birthday and his anniversary, just six months after his passing.

To this day, the holidays have an aura of sorrow about them. At least with children now, I look forward to seeing their faces when they wake up to see what Santa has left behind and my wonderful DH still manages to make Christmas a special day for me, as well. I've been able to justify being a grump around the holidays in the past, but I really can't do that much longer...

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Racing to Save Expiring Airline Miles

When we lived in Los Angeles, we traveled quite a bit… back to Iowa to see my family or to the southern states to see his family. Before the kids came along, I had enough banked time at my (poor devoted public servant) government job that I could travel with DH to trade shows – places like Miami, Washington DC, Minneapolis and Vancouver to name a few. When we had one child, we hit San Francisco, Seattle, Orlando and Acapulco. Finally, before moving back to Iowa, we took both kids to Hawaii. We traveled on whatever airline was the cheapest, but all things being equal, we opted for American Airlines.

Our frequency of air travel has changed dramatically since returning to Iowa – as in zilch. My last flight was the Iowa house-hunting trip. Miss M and Miss K love to travel but we've found it's cheaper to just drive if we want to go anywhere with the kids. DH and I would love to take a getaway trip but have to limit the length – can't impose on the grand-sitters. We've only done that once and it was just a two day trip by car to Chicago; not cost effective to fly anywhere in that amount of time. My folks live here so no air travel required on that front. Our airport is small enough that it requires a connecting flight in at least one city… Translation: Flying anywhere from here is an all day job. Since it takes one day to get to MIL's house by van, we just drive - it's easier, don't have to rent a vehicle once we get there, can stop as often as we like, can haul a cooler without having to carry it, not limited to amount of stuff to pack AND the kids have a DVD and video game system at their disposal

So what we have ended up with is a bunch of airline miles that are dwindling into non-existence. I found out that some were about to expire but we didn't have many on it so I just converted them into gift certificates. I think some other smaller ones expired. Then there's the biggie – American Airlines. I have enough for a free flight about anywhere, DH just shy of that. We would have to buy tickets for the girls – filed that in the "someday" slot. Oh yeah, did I mention that American changed the frequent flyer policy and the miles are about to expire unless I have activity on the account?

About six months ago, my mom let me know she received an email from AA that her miles would expire December 15, 2007 unless there had been activity within the 18 months prior to that. She was curious if that applies to my account also and I confirmed. We quickly remedied her problem by signing her up for and getting the signup bonus mileage. Any activity counts. We had a few problems with my dad's but eventually did the same for his. I got them taken care of, but didn't put much thought into mine. allows you to take surveys for American Airline credit so I figured I would just do one of their surveys. To my dismay, week after week I didn't qualify so that was a bust. By the time I had thrown in the towel on that inroad, I had missed opportunities elsewhere. Other ways to retain your mileage are clicking through while shopping online – no guarantees that it would post on time though. Same with their "AAdvantage Dining Program by Rewards Network". Finally, with the clock ticking away, I talked my MIL into signing up for thru my referral link. Why I didn't think about that when I signed my folks up is beyond me. Tick, tick, tick… that didn't post either. In the midnight hour (December 4th), I managed to land an OpinionPlace survey but doubted it would post by the 15th. I had resigned myself to the fact that I was going to have to donate miles as a last result. I logged on yesterday to check my account – if it wasn't updated, I was going to call customer service to donate the miles. Better safe than sorry. Low and behold, it had updated! came through in lightning fast time!

Whew – safe for another 18 months… I don't plan on waiting that long to use up those miles though!

If you are an AAdvantage member, have you checked your account lately?

Monday, December 10, 2007

Give Yourself a Gift Card!

I was sitting in the locker room this morning filling out the forms to re-enroll my girls in swim class. My friend, Janet, asked what I was signing up for and I explained the Pike class that is limited to three students. They only recently started taking classes so I want to make sure they get a decent amount of one-on-one time with the instructor, without having to pay for private lessons.

So while I'm talking to her, I grumbled about how the price had gone up quite a bit from the last class they took. After looking through the brochure some more, I realized that it had not gone up as much as I thought because these were actually longer classes (8 sessions instead of 6 or 7). Thankfully, Janet knows I'm a penny-pincher and suggested "You should buy one of the gift cards then use it to pay for the lessons?"

And the point of that would be?... "Why?" I asked.

Janet replied "Because you can buy a $50 gift card for $45. If you're spending $50 anyway, you might as well save $5."

We simultaneously commented out loud "How did (I) NOT know that they were running a special?" since I'm always sharing tidbits of information on saving money. Pfft.

So I marched out to the counter, purchased $150 worth of gift cards for $135, signed up my daughters for a few different classes that would have otherwise totalled $134 and now have a small balance left on a gift card to use at a future time. Thanks Janet!

Guess I need to start looking at other places running similar promotions!

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Saving at Christmas – Part V

November 6, 2007 Tip: Cash Back or Rebate Websites
November 8, 2007 Tip: Price Guarantees and Price Protection
November 11, 2007 Tip: Retailer Loyalty Programs

December 8, 2007 Tip: Home Spun Gifts (Intro)

Today's Tip: Home Spun Gifts (continued)

I don't know about everyone else, but it seems that I am never finished with gift giving. At the last minute, I always realize that I forgot someone – a teacher, neighbor, coworker or secret Santa. Black Friday is behind us so it's time to complete the gift to-do list while managing to stay within the Christmas budget. It's completely possible with a little creativity. The following are some examples of ways to stretch your budget while simultaneously giving a unique gift.

Personalized Calendars: When I got married, MIL used to create calendars for every family. She used store-bought calendars, but took the time to add all the family birthdays and anniversaries to each calendar. When I would turn to my birthday month, I would be greeted with "Happy Birthday, Nicole!" instead of an empty white square. She passed down that tradition to me when I said I was ready for it. (Yes, she asked first.) It sounds like a simple idea, but I loved the personal sentiment (and the reminders of other people's birthdays!) When I started doing it, I purchased inexpensive calendars at dollar or discount stores, then put a lot of thought into each one. Think of it as mini-scrapbooking.

Greeting Card Baskets: Another MIL-inspired gift. Fill a box or basket with a variety of greeting cards (can be found very inexpensively at dollar and discount stores). Get a few of each kind of card – birthday, holiday, get well, thinking of you, congratulations, etc. In addition, pick up several different blank cards along with one sympathy card. Top off the packet with a book of stamps (non-holiday). This is a great gift for an elderly relative or someone who doesn't have the time/opportunity to get to a store when they need a last-minute card of some sort.

Stock the Freezer: My brother is single and not one to cook. So each year, my mom gives him a gift of food. Usually a membership in her very own "Burrito of the month club". She hand makes burritos for freezing then each month restocks his supply.
Feed the crew: For my other brother and SIL, she gives a "Dinner Party" for them and a few of their friends. My mom and dad create a full dinner at my parents' home and take care of all the arrangements. My parents eat before the guests arrive, then the dinner is just for the guests with my parents acting as restaurant servers. No cooking or cleaning required for the recipient.
Recipe cards: One year, I requested from family members a recipe of the month. Not the typical Betty Crocker recipe either. I wanted a family recipe hand written on a recipe card… a new one each month. It was a nice way to stock my recipe box with recipes that were family favorites as DH and I grew up.
Baked/Canned Goods: It may be cliché, but it's still a great gift. If you have a garden and can your extras, consider giving that as a gift. My mom cans homemade salsa and freezes zucchini bread. For the holidays, she wraps them nicely for a wonderful, thoughtful and inexpensive gift. A friend of mine does jams/jellies and other preserves from her garden. A friend of my mom's made a loaf of pumpkin bread for her neighbor. The recipe she used was from her neighbor's aunt – so it had special significance.
Homemade Hot Chocolate Mix: This is a popular one and very easy! During the holidays, you can find a variety of powdered coffee creamer flavors that aren't around during the rest of the year.

Gift some of your knowledge: If you're a great cook, crafter, scrapbooker, whatever – give lessons to people who really appreciate your talent. Teach someone by example. Help them prepare an anniversary meal, crochet a baby blanket, assemble a special page in a scrapbook, etc. You could even make up kits containing the basic items for learning a particular craft/trade, including a hand-written message of your intent to teach them.

Gift some of your time: Create "chore" coupons to be redeemed at a future time. Examples might be household chores, mowing the lawn, weeding the garden, babysitting or dog sitting service, household or automobile repairs. Dog sit for a neighbor so they can save kennel expenses during a short getaway. Assist a friend who is planning to remodel/repaint so the job can be completed quicker.

Heirlooms: If there is a particular item that has been in the family for quite a while and a family member always comments on how much they like it – consider gifting it to them. I told my mom that I would be happy to receive hand-me-downs from my grandmother. She recently gave me two doilies that belonged to my great-grandmother. In the past, I have received candy dishes or trinkets. My MIL gave me some items that belonged to my late FIL and they mean the world to me. I value these things far more than anything that could be acquired from a retailer.

In hindsight, my mom was a good influence of this type of gifting as I grew up. When I was in grade school, she used to bake a lot for Christmas. Not just cookies or brownies either. She did peanut brittle, divinity, maples and all sorts of other fancy goodies. She would purchase deep-dish decorative plates and load them up for each of our teachers. I was child number three and I distinctly recall a few teachers commenting on the fact that they looked forward to my mom's usual gift. My mother-in-law has always been very creative in this way also. A special thanks to Nyssa and Lori for their contributions.

I hope that something strikes a chord or inspires your creativity.

If you have other great ideas, please post them in the comments!

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Saving at Christmas – Part IV

November 6, 2007 Tip: Cash Back or Rebate Websites
November 8, 2007 Tip: Price Guarantees and Price Protection
November 11, 2007 Tip: Retailer Loyalty Programs

Today's Tip: Home Spun Gifts

I'm one of those people who tries to put a lot of thought into the gifts I give. Several years ago, Todd Wilbur started showing up on talk shows demonstrating how to make Twinkies. He made it look so easy that I decided to purchase a copy of his Top Secret Recipe Book. Inside that book is a recipe for Kahlua, one of my all-time favorites. It's also a favorite of several members of my family. I purchased a bunch of Grolsch Beer Bottles (look those up on eBay, they're pretty cool) at a yard sale and brewed up some homemade Kahlua. As another example, when my first nephew was just a baby, DH and I created a giant stocking – big enough for him to sleep in for more than a few years. Back in the day when I had time to be creative, I put a lot of effort into Christmas.

Being a stay-at-home-mom doesn't mean automatic membership in the craftastic club. I am about as adept at crafting as… let's just say I don't do glue-gun related crafts when the kids are around because I swear every time I burn my fingers. When I was young, my mom taught me to sew, crochet, cross stitch, and embroider, among other things. Unfortunately, I don't do any of that these days so I lost my confidence about it. It may be like riding a bike where you get the hang once you start. It's just a matter of pulling the bike down from the rafters to even consider trying. A very encouraging friend sent me an early Christmas gift, a cross stitch pack to reintroduce me to it. I hate to admit that I haven't tried to tackle it yet because I'm completely intimidated.

So that brings me to my next post about saving at Christmas. Home spun gifts. I'm not talking about Martha Stewart inspired stuff – simply giving a gift from the heart instead of the pocketbook. It's what could be termed the Little House on the Prairie Christmas. Long gone are the days of referring to it as a Walton Christmas because these days, when people hear "Walton" they think Sam and not John Boy. It is my hope that by providing some samples and ideas of what some people do, you'll be able to be inspired to be creative, in lieu of giving the month's paychecks to retailers.

A few friends have contributed quite a few ideas and if I post it all at once, you might get bored! Stay tuned...!

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Foosball anyone?

As I was looking though the Sunday ads this morning, I noticed some items on sale at the sporting goods store. I yelled to DH in the other room "Hoonnneey! Foosball, ping pong, air hockey and pool tables are on sale this week. We need to get one before the Midwest Enforcement people come to get us." He laughed because he knew exactly what I was referring to…

In Spring 2006, while living in Los Angeles, we started house hunting online for available homes in Iowa. We joked about how often we saw Foosball and pool tables in the listings. Coordinating our search with our local agent, we scheduled a trip back to Iowa, with a goal to see as many houses as possible in one day. I'm pretty organized in my house-hunting efforts and utilize a worksheet and digital camera to make notes of all the features we desire in a house. Sometimes it's just notes about whether it has gas or electric kitchen appliances or double sinks in the master bath, but it allows us to see several houses very quickly. On this particular Iowa trip, we saw around 30 houses in under 7 hours (all in one day) in three different cities.

In the very first house we walked into, DH and I joked about whether the house would have a Foosball or pool table. Sure enough, it did - and when we saw it, we both burst out laughing. Our agent didn't quite get the humor of it until she witnessed, as we suspected, one or the other (or sometimes an air hockey or ping pong table) in every non-vacant house we toured. She admitted that she had not realized it was such a predominant feature in basements in the Midwest! She probably had not noticed it before since this was the first time she had ever been power-hunting. You can't really dispute the results when you see it so many times in one day.

I'm looking forward to our future remodel of the basement but don't have any immediate plans on installing any of those recreational tables. When I receive a citation from the Midwest Enforcement Department, I'll have to reconsider.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Lowest Calorie Cake Ever!

I'm not much of a craft person and my brother got the creativity genes of the family. However, I do pride myself in being able to make one thing that a lot of people don't know how to make… a calorie free cake.

It's not exactly the kind of cake you eat though. In fact, it's quite the opposite because it's comprised of over 100 diapers. Very seldom do I get the opportunity to make one of these, but it's always fun when I do. The look on the mother-to-be's face when she sees it is priceless and the comments from the guests are always complimentary. That totally makes it worth the time and expense to put together. The one pictured here was a gift that I made last year for a relative.

The other day, when a friend said she needed to find a baby shower gift for her son's teacher, I quickly volunteered… "I can help you make a diaper cake, if you like." She thought it sounded cool, so that was my project for today. She came over and helped put it together and I gave her pointers on how to make one herself in the future. I'm anxious for her to give feedback from the shower but it isn't for a few more weeks!

I've been lazy lately about doing my blog, my BzzAgent reports and my Christmas stuff… but I found time to 'bake' a cake!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Stuff the Ballot Box... Pleeaaase!

My brother doesn't ask much of me and I certainly don't do much for him - but this is a good opportunity for me to help him out. He has a replica Austin-Healey that has been selected as a finalist for a local calendar sponsored by a local radio station. The twelve with the most votes will be featured in the Dwyer & Michaels Budweiser Class Car Calendar.

Please go to this page: and cast a vote for him. (The first car in the forth row - find the one that looks like this photo.) Don't worry about wasting time finding 12 - you can just pick his and hit the "vote" button!

Thanks! As soon as I hear whether he's been selected, I'll post it!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Caller ID Scam Blocker

We've all had those phishing emails come in asking us to verify our PayPal, eBay or Bank accounts. "Just click here" on the link in the email. Most spam filters catch those so we don't need to worry about it... on our email.

DH sent me this Digg post about scammers using an automated calling service for phishing. Too bad the local phone company was a step ahead of them and used caller ID to their advantage.

Check out the Digg post for more details and a photo of the caller ID!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Blog Tag

Someone picked me! I feel so loved! In the giant blog world, someone actually picked me! It's fun to read other people's blogs and it's especially cool when they read yours too. In this internet version of the popular hit-and-run childhood game, you tag 5 other people in the hopes that they don't sit against the wall and pout.


Here are THE RULES:
1. Link to your tagger and post these rules on your blog.
2. Share 5 facts about yourself on your blog, some random, some weird.
3. Tag 5 people at the end of your post by leaving their names as well as their links to their blogs.
4. Let them know they've been tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.

My five random facts are:

1. DH and I met at a Cubs vs Cardinals game in St. Louis while attending different colleges, neither of which was in St. Louis.
2. I can't swim.
3. I share a birthday with one of my brothers… but we're not twins. Although I've been told he's my Irish Twin. Either way, it's pretty cool!
4. I love jigsaw puzzles but I go nuts if someone puts the edges together before I'm done with the middle.
5. When I was a kid, a tick crawled into my ear and attempts to get him out just made him crawl further in!

I've linked to:
The Roarrrrrrrrring Forties
Being Born Baltz
Don't Make Me Get the Flying Monkeys
War is Love
Fulcher Family

These are people whose blogs I like to read or who have inspired parts of my blog. I hope everyone enjoys reading!

Tag. You're IT!

Monday, November 19, 2007

One Beanie too few… or too many?

Good grief… I have entered beanie Hell.

Back when Beanie babies were all the craze, I swore I wouldn't buy one. It drove me crazy that people would spend hundreds of dollars for a stuffed toy that a kid couldn't even think about playing with. Mind you, I have my collections of stuff that I don't let the kids play with, but most aren't kid things.

I understood the fascination with wanting to have the rare ones and make sure they stayed in mint condition. That's natural with any kind of collectable. I understood how people spent a lot of money on Cabbage Patch dolls back in the day and Tickle Me Elmo when he came along. Parents were spending big bucks so their kid could have the toy they really wanted; purchased with the knowledge that it was going to get played with. But beanie babies were stuffed toys that adults spent buku bucks on - that kids didn't get to play with. I just didn't get it or the madness surrounding it.

When I had children, I insisted we not purchase beanies for them. I insisted that other people not purchase beanies for them. I was dead set on never having them in our home. I just didn't like what they stood for.

Then my daughter had an appointment at Children's Hospital in Los Angeles. It was their practice to give each child a welcome gift on their first visit. Yeah, bribe them into thinking they'll enjoy the visit. She was given a white beanie kitty cat. I'll admit it, it was nice to see how happy that cat made her. She loved it so much that it was difficult to smuggle it away long enough to wash it.

So one day, on a trip to Frank & Sons, when I saw another white kitten, I… I can't believe I'm admitting this… I told DH we had to get it. Frank & Sons is a warehouse in the City of Industry, CA that was used twice per week as a giant collector show and we went there fairly often while living in the LA area. By the time my daughter received her beanie cat, they were no longer a hot collectable and vendors were dumping them at whatever price they could get. I decided that the price justified purchasing a backup for her so I would not have to stress out to clean the original. DH says everyone has a price for which anything becomes an option – apparently dirt cheap is my breaking point with respect to beanies.

We picked up a few additional white kittens on subsequent trips to Frank & Sons. Later, we purchased an entire basket of beanies during the neighborhood yard sale. When DH found some mini ones for a dime each at a yard sale, I said "Go ahead and get them, it's only a dime." Our girls' eyes gleamed whenever we added to their stockpile. There were plenty to go around, duplicates of some and a ton of variety. Tags are missing from all of them now. They are well loved. They are toys and it's perfect.

Fast forward to naptime today. The girls were fighting over whose dog this one was; both crying when I tried to act as mediator. I finally had to say "Miss M, you had it at bedtime last night so Miss K gets it for nap. You can have it back at bedtime." Both were in agreement. Whew. Crisis averted for now.

Now I'm trying to figure out if we have one too few beanies or one too many. If only I hadn't caved and bought that backup kitten, we wouldn't be in this mess.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Saving at Christmas – Part III

I'm still bouncing around a few ideas about which subject to cover next… ah, so much to say…
November 6, 2007 Tip: Cash Back or Rebate Websites
November 8, 2007 Tip: Price Guarantees and Price Protection

Today's Tip: Retailer Loyalty Programs

I hate it when I'm trying to check out at a store and they ask me if I'm interested in opening a store credit card account. If I wanted to open a credit card account with the store, I would have grabbed one of the flyers sitting by the register. Pfft. But every so often, a retailer catches me off guard with the "Apply today and take an extra 10% off your order." Depending on how much I'm spending, that can be tempting. If you plan to spend a hefty amount at any store, be sure to look into their credit card and loyalty programs ahead of time. While I'm not a fan of opening credit card accounts on a whim, I do find great value in loyalty programs.

You already have a lot of exposure to loyalty programs… Airline frequent flyer miles are an example of a type of reward program. As are supermarket/drugstore cards, casino club cards and hotel priority club cards. This is a tool that many retailers utilize to reward their frequent shoppers.

How it works: Typically, a customer earns points for each dollar spent at the store. Points are accumulated and later cashed in for gift certificates to the store. In some cases (like grocery or drugstore), it requires membership to take advantage of a special price. Member-only coupons are often sent out as well. One of my favorite loyalty programs is the Best Buy Reward Zone. I receive coupons in the mail from Best Buy so if I'm in the market for something, I factor that in when determining the best place to purchase the item. For each purchase made, points are accumulated which ultimately translate into gift certificates. Sometimes there are promotions offering double points on specific products; making the trip to your gift certificate goal much shorter. There are tons of free programs out there covering a wide variety of retail sectors - like Staples, Borders, Dick's Sporting Goods and American Eagle. If you shop somewhere often, even if it's just a local merchant, ask if they have a loyalty program.

Some of the programs are stand alone but others are tied to a credit card. I have no problem applying for a free card as long as is unassociated with applying for credit. Never apply for a credit card just because you think you'll reap the benefits of the reward program – make sure you really want their credit card! If it's somewhere you shop often and would have opened a credit card anyway, then the loyalty program that comes along with it is a bonus.

Everyone hates spam, but if a store regularly emails coupons, it's worth wading through some junk. Check out the email signups with your favorite retailer - sometimes just providing your email will land you some coupons that you wouldn't otherwise have. I have an email account set up specifically for these types of registrations so I have some control over the spam landing in my in box.

While these reward programs won't necessarily help you in your quest to save money before Christmas, the points will add up and provide some opportunities for later savings. Just think – you'll be able to use those gift certificates for birthday gifts in the new year or even a little something for yourself.

The Mint Chocolate Milk Mustache

I totally expect to see Eggnog showing up in the grocery store around the holidays each year. It's just a sign that Christmas is coming. But the other day I found chocolate mint milk and chocolate cherry milk. Seeing as I have a total weakness for mint/chocolate anything, I just didn't have the willpower to resist spending $2 on a quart of Swiss Valley Mint Chocolate Milk. For anyone who has tried a grasshopper (you know, crème de menthe, crème de cacao, ice cream) – that's what this tasted like. It was delicious. The grocer said the Swiss Valley Cherry Chocolate one tastes like a melted chocolate covered cherry… that's pretty tempting too since one of my favorite milk shakes is Cherry Bon Bon.

DH let Miss K give it a try and her response was "It tastes like mommy's Pop Tart!" Yes, I often stash mint chocolate chip Pop Tarts in the freezer. It's a weakness, I tell you. Anyway… Until the quart was gone, each time we asked Miss K what she wanted to drink, she said "Mommy's favorite milk." Between the two of us, the quart had a shelf life of exactly two days.

In this morning's coupon section of the paper, I noticed Prairie Farms offering the same two varieties, along with Pumpkin Spice. How many years have these been around that I've totally missed out?!!! I need to get rid of that rock that I've been under!

Joining the Technorati Community

I've decided to join the technorati community. In order to do so, they need to verify my blog and a new post with their link is the first step.

Technorati Profile

It will allow me to get indexed better and more people find me (I hope!). So - sorry for the nonsensical post, but that's just how it works. :)

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Saving at Christmas – Part II

Ever since I started typing up Part I of the Saving Money at Christmas series of posts, my head has been spinning with ideas. What should I write about next? Wow, so many ideas…
November 6, 2007 Tip: Cash Back or Rebate Websites

Today's Tip: Price Guarantees and Price Matches

Have you ever gone out shopping, found the perfect item and made the purchase only to find it on sale elsewhere or at the same store...a week later? If you're like me, you get frustrated for not being better prepared. What do you do - kick yourself for buying it early? Return it and repurchase it at the discounted price? Or do you just stop looking at the advertisements once you make the purchase because once it's done you just don't care?

If you are stretching your dollars, you have as much work to do after the purchase as you did (or should have done) before. A price guarantee (aka price protection) means that the retailer will refund you the difference if the item goes on sale within their designated period. Most retailers have price guarantees to ensure that you get the best price available. Essentially, they save you the trouble of returning the item and buying it back at the sale price. You know... less paperwork for them with happier money-saving customers to boot. Better yet, a price match is when the retailer will honor competitor advertisements on identical items. While some retailers price match competitor sales, others only honor their own. If you can work the two policies together, you could end up with some unexpected savings. Do your homework and keep an eye on the advertisements for all stores. Most places price match competitor ads if you ask!

If you're planning a big ticket purchase, it would behoove you to find out what the retailers' policies are. Consider making your purchase at the retailer that has the best price match and price guarantee policies so you can take advantage of additional promotions and sales prices as long as possible after your purchase. As an example, some retailers have price guarantees as long as 90 days with others are as short as one week. Some offer just the money back for a price match while others give an additional 10% of the difference.

I recall years ago my mom purchasing bread machines for each of us for Christmas. She bought them extremely early and watched as the price continued to drop as Christmas approached. With each drop, she ventured back to the store for a refund. I'm not positive, but I believe she went back a total of three times! So don't think that once you get a matched price, you're done. You're not. Until the time limit is up (varies by store but is usually 30 days), you can continue to work the discounts.

Afraid you'll miss out on catching the price guarantee? Subscribe to a free service like Price Protectr. I can't really say "like priceprotectr" because that's the only one I'm aware of that offers such a service for multiple retailers. RefundPlease currently offers this type of service only for Amazon purchases and AmazingRefund provides this service for Amazon purchases you make through their website. I only recently found out about priceprotectr and have not had an opportunity to utilize it yet. Yet. With priceprotectr, you log on and provide details on the item you purchased. They notify you when the price of that item drops and provide details on how you can get the refund. They used to only do online purchases, but they have extended it to store purchases also for some of their retailers. The only downside is that it currently only watches for the item to go on sale at the same place you purchased it – you'll still need to check competitor ads to take advantage of price match programs.

Basically, to get the most bang for your buck, you need to do your homework before the purchase. Then you need to continue to monitor it afterwards to take advantage of any price guarantees or price matches that the retailer offers! Incorporating the price guarantees and price matches into your shopping plans also allows you to get your shopping done a little earlier before the items are gone from the shelves! Good luck and happy shopping!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Junk Mail at its Best

Thanks to all the free samples of stuff I send away for, I have my name on more than just a few mailing lists. Sometimes, if the kids help me get the mail, I let them claim the USPS spam as their own. Since Miss K ran to the mailbox with me today, she received two pieces of mail for her. One was just a magazine renewal form, she opened it then "read it" and was quickly bored with it. The second piece was from some organization providing doctor services to the world. I'm sure somewhere in the literature I could find the words "all for the cost of a cup of coffee a day." Upon opening it, she squealed with delight at finding a treasure map. She proclaimed "X marks the spot" as she held it up to show me. Sure enough, it was a treasure map – a map of the world that we placed on the floor. I pointed out a few highlights like where we live and our often discussed Hawaii. We left it alone in anticipation of Miss M's arrival from school shortly.

So Miss M isn't home very long before Miss K proudly points out her new treasure map. Before heading off for naps, we spent a great deal of time sailing around it. We had a Playskool type ship filled with a hodge podge crew of Snow White, a few dwarves, a few different Doras, and Ariel… and a stowaway horse from one of the ports of call. I would say "This is Antarctica. It's always very cold here." Then the girls would sail the boat to Antarctica and start to disembark. I warned "It's very cold; don't forget hats, mittens, jackets… all of it!" One by one, the crew confirmed their proper attire and jumped ship to explore. We went to Africa to find elephants and giraffe (and that's as much as I was able to say before I heard "Let's go find the elephants!" and the ship was en route to Africa. We explored the desert where we found camels, desert fox and lizards. We checked out the kangaroo and koala bears in Australia before finally heading back home to take our nap. The map is currently laying on the floor in the living room with its entire crew asleep on North America. The captains are upstairs in their beds, resting.

I can honestly say that I have never had so much fun with a piece of junk mail.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Saving Money on Christmas Shopping

With Christmas just around the corner and Christmas shopping getting underway, I thought I might share some of my favorite money saving tips. I don't claim to be an expert on the subject, but since trolling freebie forums and deal websites is a daily hobby of mine, I feel that I have something to offer. Even if only one person manages to make use of information from my blog, I'll consider it a success. All I ask is that you post a comment letting me know if you were able to utilize any of it!

Today's Tip: Cash Back or Rebate websites.

There are a lot of different ways to be savvy when you're shopping. In this post, I'll be focusing on rebates from online purchases. I'm certain I lost some people with the word 'rebate' because the first thought that comes to mind is clipping UPCs and mailing them in. There will be no clipping involved in these rebate programs.

As many people are aware, several credit card companies, such as Discover, offer cash back programs. What a lot of people don't realize is that if you click thru the credit card's website, you can get additional cash back bonuses. As an example, online purchases with Barnes & Noble get a 10% Cash back Bonus when the purchase is initiated through Discover's website. Depending on what level of cash back your card offers, clicking through the website could mean substantial savings above what you would typically receive for the purchase alone.

As an alternative, if you're planning on doing a lot of online shopping, it might be worth it to check out
Ebates. There are several online retailers listed (upwards of 800 at the moment) – each with a designated Ebate Cash Back percentage along with coupon codes for additional discounts. Starting at Ebates, click through their link to a designated retailer. Once on the retailer's website, purchases are made in the exact same manner as if you went directly to the retailer's website. The only difference is that there is a trackback on your purchase. Ebates credits your account for the qualifying purchase and you can request your rebate payment via check or Paypal. Back to the Barnes & Noble example, you can click through Ebates to earn 4% Cash Back plus find coupons for things like free shipping. As a bonus, each day the folks at Ebates double the Cash Back percentage on one of their top sites (like as it happens to be as I write this post). Keep in mind that these rebates are in addition to cash back bonuses offered by your credit card. There are a variety of websites offering these types of rebate programs, Ebates and FatWallet are the two I am most familiar with. As a heads-up, Ebates is running a referral promotion where if you sign up through the link I provided, you'll receive $5 in Cash Back.

When I'm ready to make a purchase, what I typically do is go directly to a site to determine what kind of promotion I can get and what my final purchase price would be. Then I go thru one a few different online rebate sites or my credit card site to figure out the final price and calculate what the rebate would be. I also check out other coupon websites to see if there are possibly better coupons available, but that's a subject for another post. Whichever site offers the most benefit gets my click-thru for the purchase. I'm loyal to a few different programs, but am not afraid to jump between sites to find the best offer on a case by case basis. It might not be a huge savings, but as I have said before - Every penny counts in my book and the savings add up.

Monday, November 5, 2007

New Exercise Gadget – A Must Have?

DH and I have been watching Everyday Edisons on PBS recently. It's similar to the American Inventor show created by the American Idol people, but it follows the story beyond just selecting a winner. There are a handful of inventors that bring concepts forward and the folks at Everyday Edisons retool them, rename them, perfect them – and bring them to market.

On a recent episode, we watched the story of the Workout 180 Exercise System. Essentially, it's a balance unit that clips into a base to convert it to a step unit. There are different bands built into it for use in strength training and Pilates. In my workout regimen (if we want to call it that), I do cardio and strength two days per week, toning two days per week and one day of step. The diversity of the three instructors provides for a good variety of workout methods including step, band, stability ball, weights and occasionally Bosu. Having a class utilizing the Workout 180 might be a fun new way to incorporate the same types of equipment. Even having one in a home gym might be pretty cool, not that I have a home gym. Anyway, mentioned the gadget to one of my instructors today and joked that I would probably topple the thing over since balance really isn't my thing. She just smiled and said "Maybe that's what you need then." Hmmm.

Unfortunately, my Google searches have come up empty – with the exception of the PBS Everyday Edisons website and the following YouTube demonstration video.

I kicked an email off to inventor Jen Holloway in hopes of getting additional information. I'll be sure to post and update if I hear anything more. In the meantime, be sure to check out the new inventions that premiered on Everyday Edisons. They cover a great range including a stroller, teacher grading pen, drywall T-Square, cutting board and several others items.

EDIT: Wow. I asked for more information and received emails from both Andy at Everyday Edisons and the 180's inventor, Jen Holloway. Looks like it won't be available for purchase until after Christmas, so guess we'll have to put it on our post-Christmas wish-list. Guess that's the best time to get it anyway since we'll be working out to ditch the holiday pounds! I'll post more information (like the website) once it's live. Thanks Jen and Andy for your quick responses!

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Does Your Man Do Housework?

Yup, mine does and yup, all the good ones are taken.

This morning, DH ventured into the unknown to clean the master bathroom. Since we have separate vanities, he typically just goes all out on his but leaves my space alone. That's pretty safe because I'm happy that he does his so I don't complain that he doesn't do mine too. Besides, I'm not wild about having to confront things that I've been avoiding and my vanity falls into that category. You could easily win one of those "purse bingo" contests by standing in my section of the master bath. In addition to the myriad of makeup and beauty products, you could find extra buttons, safety pins, scissors, vacation souvenirs, magazines and loose change. That's the short list. He had pretty much hit his tolerable limit of the black hole on my counter. When I returned to the bathroom, there was a stack of my stuff that needed to be sorted, discarded, put away or at least organized. He cleared it all off, scrubbed the counter and sink, cleaned the mirror and polished the faucet. I think he even restocked my Q-tip holder. Then he even asked me if I was upset with him. Pfft. All I can say is thank goodness he doesn't have a blog of his own to show before and after pictures. It looks great now.

It's kind of a bittersweet thing for me that he's so helpful. I love the fact that he is willing to chip-in, but it makes me feel like I'm not able to be supermom like moms are supposed to be. I'm not one to ask for help. So when DH goes to help with the laundry and asks "Which load of laundry do you want to do next," I pick out the "you" and get up to do it myself. What he is really trying to ask is which load do I consider the priority so he can get it started. I realize that, but I still feel guilty when he is helping.

Everyone that knows me realizes that I'm not an impeccable housewife. SAHM stands for stay-at-home-mom, not a stay-at-home-maid. I don't claim to be the best at housekeeping, but I do what I can. I should say that I do what I can when I feel like it. Just the other day I mopped the entire kitchen and dining room. But more often than not, I just don't feel like it. When it comes to chores, my focus is always on the dishes and the laundry because I have to do those daily or I end up falling behind. I run the dishwasher daily and hate it when dishes pile up on the countertop. The rest of the house can be a disaster, but one plate and glass on the counter will set me off. We have dogs that shed, so I vacuum a few times a week. That's not including the stairs which I get around to doing much less often. But even at a few times a week with the vacuum along with dusting once per week, you can't really tell. The chaos left from the kids makes it always look messy. When the PJ drawer in Miss K's room would no longer close properly, I spent a bunch of time reorganizing and refolding everything. That evening, she pulled everything out of the drawer in an attempt to locate a particular item, then shoved it all back in. Sigh. What a waste of time that turned out to be because the drawer doesn't close again.

So… dishes, laundry, some vacuuming/dusting - Everything else takes a backseat. We're talking waaay back as in backwards-facing-seat-in-the-station-wagon backseat. I'm looking forward to eventually having a playroom for the kids so that the toys will have one place to congregate. I will easily be able to pack up all misplaced kid stuff and return it to its home in the playroom. The girls are getting to the age where they help unload the dishwasher and sometimes help with the laundry. At least that's progress.

In the meantime, thank goodness that DH pitches in to keep us spic and span!

Yup, all the good ones are taken and I'm glad this ones mine.

Don’t Knock it Until You Try It

In recent days, I've found myself being educated by children on keeping an open mind. Specifically, my preconceived notions of which foods would taste good.

As an example, we took my niece and nephew to lunch last weekend. Nothing fancy, just McDonald's on the way to an event being held at the local fairgrounds. As suspected, the kids each ordered a Happy Meal complete with fountain drink. Being at McD's at lunchtime is hectic enough, add four kids to the mix and it is worse. DH waited at the counter for our order while I escorted the kids to the beverage center then off to find a table. I was filling drinks for my girls, but my niece and nephew are old enough to select their own and big enough to reach it. Part way through our meal, my niece needed a drink refill, so I took her back over to the beverage center. The odd thing was that she didn't select just one drink. She picked them all – and proceeded to add small amounts of each beverage to her glass. From what I recall, it was Coke, Diet Coke, Mello Yello, Pibb, Sprite, Hi-C, Powerade and a spritz of soda water. All I could think was "Ick." I must have said it out loud because she politely asked if I wanted to try it proclaiming "It's really good." My immediate response was "No thanks." Then I stopped and looked her in the face. She was gleaming with pride at her concoction. Knowing I would regret it, I said "Sure, I'll try it." To my surprise, it wasn't horrible. What it tasted like was a mouthful of sweet-tarts. As I walked away, I commented to a woman witnessing the event "I can't bug my kids about trying broccoli unless I try stuff too."

How lax my short term memory must be though because just a few days later I was faced with a similar situation. After getting Miss M headed off to school, Miss K and I set out for the gym. Afterwards, I needed to pick something up at CVS so I told Miss K that if she behaved, I would surprise her with something. Just a few doors down from the CVS is the Bread Basket bakery. It always smells so nice and I like having an excuse to stop in. I figured she would be more than open to the idea of a cookie. To my surprise, she pointed at a cinnamon roll claiming "I want that one." Well, it wasn't really a surprise because she has a fierce sweet tooth… how could she not want a cinnamon roll once she saw all that frosting on top. When I asked the guy behind the counter about it, he pointed out that it was a pumpkin roll. A portion of the dough had been replaced with pumpkin and the cinnamon spread was replaced with a nutmeg spread. Kneeling down next to Miss K, I pointed at the display and said "You won't like that one, honey. Pick something else." Nope. No Way. No How. She had picked the pumpkin roll and was sticking to it. I asked him if he would mind cutting a small piece for her to try before I bought it. After tasting it, I asked if she still wanted it or something else and she confirmed that she wanted that one. Not only was I shocked that she liked it, but I was equally shocked that I did.

Miss K has been into the mix-and-match food thing ever since we went to see Ratatouille. She totally got the "two independent foods create an entirely different flavor when combined" thing. I guess I need to quit turning up my nose when she makes those funky mixtures. I will, however, not budge on DH's kool-aid flavored bread and butter pickles. The smell of bread and butter pickles makes my stomach turn so making them red isn't going to make them any more enticing. I'll stand my ground there.

But the next time the girls don't want to try something, I'll be a little less forgiving.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Busted by My 4 Year Old

After continuously trying to get the kids upstairs to get their pajamas on, I finally race them up the stairs then send them on their way. After getting her PJ's on, my 4 year old proclaims she is hungry and comes back downstairs. I sent her away with one of our typical bedtime snacks, a piece of cheese.

After she walked away, I raided the pumpkin and landed a mini Snickers bar. Just what I needed after a very hectic day. Perfect for a quick break before our bedtime ritual of brushing teeth, reading, singing then ultimately, tucking them in. I tore open the Snickers when a voice from around the corner asks:

"Are you eating candy?"

"Um, No."

"I heeaaarr it."

Hard to enjoy a Snickers when you're laughing so hard you're spitting it out. I was so busted.

Happy Birthday, Mom!

It's Halloween and I had planned to do a post on how DH and I typically spend Halloween. But it's my mom's birthday so she'll just have to deal with being the subject of my latest blog post. A bumpy trip down memory lane.

When we were young, I remember my mom used to make the neatest Halloween costumes for us. Even if I was creative and a seamstress, I doubt I could manage to pull off some of the costumes she whipped up for us. She used to dress as a witch and show up at our school with this big black kettle of smoking witch-brew. Before I was old enough for school, she even made a mini-me witch outfit exactly like hers for when I would assist her in my brothers' classes. Not many moms did that then and I'm not so sure many go to that extreme even now.

As with all the holidays, she always seemed to enjoy helping make Halloween special for us. Not an easy task since we lived in the country; walking to the next house to trick-or-treat was not an option, so she would drive us house to house. Oh yeah, and it's Iowa – where you usually have to bundle up in a winter jacket just to survive the night of candy caching. It wasn't until I got older that I realized that each year she had to sacrifice her birthday because Halloween is really a kids' day. I'm not sure if she has ever celebrated her birthday. Even as a Grandma, she always seems to show up to see the kids trick-or-treat. Maybe that's just how she likes to spend her birthday.

I never claimed to be a good daughter – after all, I was a teenage girl during part of my life… and an Italian redhead. Need I say more? So today, I'll point out a few of my memories.

When I was only a few years old, I remember my mom making an Easter bunny cake to celebrate my dad's birthday. It was the cutest cake with the licorice whiskers and all. I used to harp about it every year when my birthday just "barely" missed Easter. In one of my teenage years, my birthday DID fall on Easter Sunday – low and behold, my mom made the cake for me. It's been a long time, but I don't recall dropping any hints about it. I was a teenager, I'm pretty sure I didn't ask for a bunny birthday cake. But I have to say, that was one of the best cakes I ever had. Wonder if my eyes lit up when she unveiled it, because it was extremely special that she would remember something as trivial as a bunny cake. Licorice whiskers and all. I loved it.

When I was in high school, I recall a gift certificate for a color analysis at a charm and modeling school. I was young and didn't know what the paper was that she had wrapped up. It wasn't clothes or makeup, it wasn't electronic, it wasn't anything concrete – it was a piece of paper. Kids didn't get gift certificates in those days. Unappreciative little sh*t that I was – doubt that I ever said thanks. After I had the analysis done and got a lesson on how to properly apply makeup, I realized how cool a gift it was. I STILL use the same makeup theories and techniques to this day and occasionally get compliments on how my makeup looks natural. (That's on those days when I'm not rushing to apply it.)

Somewhere in those teenage years, I recall commenting on my brother trying to grow a beard or mustache. Although I remember it well, I'm not going to repeat the conversation. I'll just say that I looped my mom into it. Now that I'm in my late 30's, I realize that women at this age need to work to keep up our appearances. I think we all realize the necessity for a good pair of tweezers. At any rate, the sad look on my mom's face is imprinted in my brain – I really learned how harsh and hurtful such simple words and joking can actually be. For that, mom – I'm truly sorry.

On a happier note, I remember our first microwave being snuck into the kitchen via the deck… wow, that was a long time ago. One year, Santa got everyone in the family a pair of ice skates, and then we all actually used them TOGETHER. My folks both helped coach us at baseball and softball. And encouraged us at whatever we did. (and still do.) I had good parents and hope my girls eventually feel the same way.

I could go on and on but I'll wrap it up by saying "Happy Birthday, Mom. Thanks for all the good times and I'm sorry for all the rest. I love you."

Monday, October 29, 2007

What can YOU do with 60 Balloons?

Check it out:
What do you think? Cool, huh?

Did I do that? I WISH! Actually, it's the work of a woman I met at the gym. She was taking the same toning class that I was and she introduced herself. Her name is Janie. I later found out that she offers clowning classes (and other classes) at the gym under the moniker of "Zany Janie." Once I got to know her, I realized it is a completely appropriate name for her.

Since then, we have attended a couple of events and book readings with her. Miss K has developed quite a fondness for her. She's pretty cool… and does amazing work in both balloons and face painting.

When I saw the balloon witch at the gym today, I just had to post it because it's so awesome. I stood the kids in front of it to give some perspective on how tall it is, which you can also tell from the fact that it is in front of the door!

Even with balloon classes, I don't think I would ever be able to make anything THAT cool!

Edit: Janie forwarded me information about Balloon Manor, a charity event. They used approximately 130,000 balloons by 65 artists and 200 volunteers. Wow!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Where Did that Red Hair Come From?!

For some unknown reason, Los Angeles seems to be light in the area of natural redheads. Seeing a redheaded child is pretty uncommon. So when Miss M, my first, was born with hair so red it could be called orange, she stood out in a crowd. It was really cool that she was unlike most other kids because it made her the center of attention and I had fun with that. It also had its disadvantages because I was talked into the whole "we need redheads for commercials and print ads so we need to get her an agent." We spent quite a bit on photos and getting an agent through John Robert Powers as a result. Despite hubby's objections, I insisted; I didn't want to look back when she was older and ask "what if…?" What a heap of crap that ended up being. Needless to say, we have a stack of ZED cards to wallpaper her room when she's older and no contracts to show for it. (Shut up hubby, I know you've got that "I told you so" laugh going right now.) I prefer to focus on the advantages of her red hair when I can. Repeat. When I can.

When I was little, my hair was orange also. As I got older, it started to lighten up into more of a strawberry blonde. Apparently it doesn't look at all red anymore because people would look at Miss M, look at hubby, look at me then ask "WHERE did that red hair come from?!" Pfft. At first, I politely responded "Ooh, We get that a lot. My hair was that color when I was little." It was tolerable the first hundred times. After that, it progressed to "Mine was that color before the kids made me grey."

These days, the red in my hair is mostly gone and has been replaced with lots of grey/white hair. Everyone says they think it is blonde (how polite)… with the exception of Miss K. Last March, MIL was in town for a visit and we all decided to go to lunch while Miss M was at preschool. As we're sitting in the booth, Miss K – 2½ at the time – decided to strike up a conversation about color. She pointed at MIL and said "Grammy, Your hair is black." Then she pointed at DH and said "Daddy, Your hair is black." Then she point at me and said "Mommy, Your hair is white." I thought DH was going to die from laughing. Before the end of MIL's visit, I had my hair colored at a salon.

Miss M's hair has already started to lighten up some so it's closer to red than orange. That, coupled with the fact that redheaded children are in full supply here in the Midwest, I don't get nearly the amount of questions as when we lived in Los Angeles. At least now the comments are about her hair color in general as opposed to its origins… that's so much more bearable than being forced to admit I'm getting old and grey!

Friday, October 26, 2007

Handing out Pink Slips at the Gym

No, they are not firing people… they’re handing out evaluation forms that happen to be printed on pink paper. Management obviously has a twisted sense of humor. Evaluation time is our opportunity as members to critique the instructors anonymously. If we have anything to say, that is the time to say it. What I hate is that the forms are handed to us to fill out and return either before or after class – that’s really not much time to put your thoughts together if you want to say something substantial. More than just “I love/hate the instructor/class.”

I started at the gym early last summer when we moved back to Iowa. Out of shape from years of infertility treatments, stress, pregnancy, kids and life in general, I committed to a few days per week on the elliptical and some of the weight machines. After a few months, the only thing I noticed was that my pants were getting tighter. Translation, elliptical = bigger butt. At least for me, it did.

A friend talked me into taking the Cardio/Strength class and I swear I thought she was nuts. After one class, that was confirmed – anyone willing to endure that class was crazy. It was ridiculously difficult, overwhelming, exhausting… Guess I wasn't working as hard on that elliptical as I thought I was. Despite being in pain after just one class, I felt energized and hopeful. I returned for the next class and since then have only missed when I have to. The instructor is Leah, and she is why I keep coming back to the class. Leah instructs this particular class two days per week but she constantly changes the workout. In the year-plus that I have been attending her class, the most we have repeated the same workout is three or four times. I can’t speak for anyone else in my class, but she pushes me to do my best. She’s encouraging when I need it but tough when she knows I can handle it. I recall saying “can’t” once in her class and the whole group was instructed to do push ups as a result. It was good for a laugh, that’s for sure. Her class is as hard as I make it for myself and nobody criticizes me when I’m having an off day. We’re all there to better ourselves.

After a handful of Leah’s classes, I realized that I enjoyed the group fitness thing and started attending step classes the additional three days per week. Eventually, the schedule was changed and I ended up with Leah (Cardio/Strength) and Jayne for (Total Body/Toning) two days each per week and Stacia for step class. Between the three of them (and great encouragement from DH), I’m feeling much better about myself. For a recent baptism, I was able to fit into a dress that I haven’t worn in several years. I’m not one for tight fitting clothes, but I’m starting to see there’s a difference between “tight” and “fitted”; occasionally wearing a shirt that shows that I'm making headway.

For me, it has been a positive experience across the board. There is absolutely no way that I could have conveyed all that in the time allotted in class. Let alone give thought to areas for improvement. When the next wave of evaluations come around, I'm just going to put a note on the pink slip directing them here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Up the Creek Without My Camera!

When my first child was born, I vowed to take a picture of her every day for the first year of her life. I think I only missed two or three days and that’s not bad considering at least one of those days was on video. Everyone scolded me about it saying “You’ll never be able to do that for your second child.” Since it took eight years for the first to come along, I wasn’t going to make decisions based on equity for each child. Years of unsuccessful fertility treatments taught me to constantly ask myself “What if there is never a second child?” I committed to the picture idea knowing that it was a one-time thing and I was okay with that. We put together a really cool website for her – complete with crib webcam - and updated the pictures when I could (or when I would send enough pictures to MIL to do it.) If a second child came along, I would just be grateful and would do my best to take pictures when I could.

My oldest is now 4 (soon to be 5) and the youngest just turned 3. I was obviously blessed with a second… Although I don’t get a picture a day, when submitting surveys that request information about how often I take pictures, I can comfortably check the box “50 or more per month.” These days, I tend to carry my camera with me when we’re heading someplace new, exciting or noteworthy. For example, when my daughter started gymnastics, I took it with to get a few pictures of her first day. They didn’t turn out too hot because the parents were all outside the room looking through a window… but I got pictures none-the-less!

We try to expose the kids to a lot of different activities. They are starting swim lessons next week. Today was my 3-year old's last day of gymnastics; I even skipped my workout to be able to watch her. DH is working on a project that I thought he would need the camera for, so I didn’t bring it along. She’s only three and she’ll probably rotate back to gymnastics after the swim lessons end in a few months since she’s really too small for much else. I felt completely lost but figured I would get by. But wait! There were three other moms there watching their kids on the last day.
♫"One of these things is not like the others, ♪ one of these things just doesn’t belong."♫
I was the only mom there without a camera! There were three digital cameras and one video camera between the three of them. Needless to say, I inherited one part-time to help take some pictures while the video was rolling. I handed each of them my email and asked if they could send me photos that my daughter might show up in. Shortly after arriving home from the gym, I found two emails in my mailbox containing eight pictures of my daughter. Only one was a group picture, the rest were photographs of her by herself doing somersaults or whatever. Those were all from Meg, one of the other moms. She had taken pictures specifically for me because I didn’t have my camera. I know the other two took single shots of my daughter also because they told me. It's great to know people who are so considerate!

They set a great example for me today. With all the places I have my camera, I guess I need to make a better effort to capture some memories for the moms who don’t bring theirs along.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

It's Going to Bee A Bzzy Halloween!

Sorry for the brag spot, but I couldn't resist posting a picture of my BzzAgents-in-training!

My folks took the girls to a fall festival event today and costumes were encouraged. Was nice to dress the girls in their costumes early since Halloween is usually so cold. The kids had a great time at the festival and I sure hope my parents did too! DH and I enjoyed being able to eat lunch at a restaurant and carry on a conversation at the same time.

I don't typically like to dress them alike, but not only did they both like the same costume, but DH and I loved them too. Unfortunately the little one thinks that if she dresses like a bee that she should be able to fly!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Stuffed Mushrooms - No breadcrumbs!

Several years ago, I was a Pampered Chef consultant. I absolutely loved the products and being a consultant rewarded me with just that. Since I enjoy being around people and talking, it was a perfect fit for me and a nice offset to the usual monotony of the accounting world I lived in. Unfortunately, the strains, stresses and time required for the annual audit and financial statement preparation forced me to drop Pampered Chef from my agenda.

Along the way, I met a lot of great people and sampled some fabulous recipes. Although I only occasionally requested a recipe from a hostess, there is one that has stood out over the years. It was hands-down the best stuffed mushroom recipe I have ever encountered. Mushrooms stuffed with sausage - with cream cheese that made it rich and creamy. Unlike many stuffed mushroom recipes, this one didn't contain breadcrumbs.

I went back through my old hostess list and I believe I acquired the recipe from a woman named Cindy Platt of Lancaster, CA. Visually, I can still see the layout of her home and recall how the cream cheese melted like butter in the hot sausage mix. She verbally told me the recipe and it was so simple, I never bothered to write it down. I made it several times shortly thereafter, but eventually I stopped having the opportunity to serve such an appetizer. As a result, the recipe has faded. I know most of it, but I’m missing something. What I’m hoping is that someone will recognize the recipe and clarify for me. Maybe I’ll get lucky and my original source (believed to be Cindy Platt of Lancaster, CA) will come forward! I’m not positive if she’s the person and I really hope that someday someone will email me and tell me if I’m right or wrong. Not only do I want to give credit where it is due but I also need the formal recipe!

Last week, we were invited to a neighborhood backyard party. Everyone brought along an appetizer or dessert (or both for the ambitious) and I decided it would be a great opportunity to retest the recipe. When I lived in California, the sausage available was Jimmy Dean and it was a smaller package than the Bob Evans I found here. I’m hoping that the increased sausage in the recipe is all that is different. Next time I make it, I’ll be sure to use the smaller Jimmy Dean sausages. Here’s the (rough) recipe:

Stuffed Mushrooms
2 packages medium sized “button” mushrooms
1 package Jimmy Dean sausage – regular flavor
1 package Jimmy Dean sausage – hot flavor
1 brick cream cheese
1 onion
Salt and pepper to taste
*Parmesan cheese

Clean the mushrooms and remove the stem. Set aside.
Sauté the onions and garlic.
Brown the sausage, drain.
Stir cream cheese into sausage/onion mixture.
Add salt and pepper to taste
Stuff mushrooms and broil until desired consistency.

*Note: We topped them with parmesan cheese before broiling to provide a pretty browning, but I don't think that was part of the original recipe.

Looking forward to hearing some replies!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

DH's Been Hanging out with Other Women

I am often asked what I do for a living, followed by the question of what hubby does. DH and I have a unique working situation – both of us are stay at home parents. That's a blog for some other time so I'm not going to go into detail. We both feel it's great that the kids have the opportunity to get to know him so well so early in life. While my day consists of taking care of the usual kid/family stuff, going to the gym, BzzAgent and my blog, his follows the more geek/tech route.

His interests typically revolve around things that are computer related. Sometimes he’s doing graphics stuff or tech support for family, other times it’s website related. But since he isn’t “working”, he tends to look for projects to keep his graphics skills from disintegrating (not to mention to keep his brain in check).

Recently, he found something a little different to occupy his time, put his graphics skills to work and help a bunch of people. He started off by examining family crests for our genealogy research. One thing led to another and he ended up on a forum for people who do embroidery using one of those fancy computerized sewing machines.

What he discovered is that the regulars on those boards aren’t really graphics people. They have limited access to free patterns for embroidery – custom patterns typically cost quite a bit. Then comes hubby… he started converting clipart into the file format needed for the machines. He posted a few samples to the boards and was blown away with the response he received. He progressed into designing new patterns and uploading them and was overwhelmed by how many people liked them, downloaded them or just plain appreciated them. It’s a completely win/win situation because he is able to keep his graphics skills sharp and the embroidery forum members are able to get some very cool new patterns for their hobby.

A few have mailed the designs stitched on scraps of material; one even sent us a baby bib with one of his designs on it. Most designers charge for their patterns, so I asked him why he doesn’t do the same. After all, he’s putting in a lot of time on those patterns and the people he’s giving them to are accustomed to paying. He said he doesn’t want to. I guess it’s because he is enjoying what he’s doing and likes being able to offer this to such a welcoming community. All I can do is sit here and smile – because I spend hours on the blog for no other reason than that I enjoy it.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Results are in – Pieceless Jigsaw Puzzle!

As I mentioned in my prior post, “A New Kind of Jigsaw Puzzle – Pieceless”, I requested a sample of Ceaco’s new pieceless jigsaw puzzle. While skeptical at the idea of how easy a puzzle would be if all pieces are connected, I also was completely intrigued.

On Sunday, the girls and I jointly completed one of the many Princess puzzles in their inventory. In this case, a 100-piece puzzle. As is traditional, it remains “on display” on the table in my sitting room until I put it away or until we pick a new one to work on. I was on pins and needles when my Pieceless puzzle arrived in Monday’s mail. I waited for the girls to be busy with something else so I could examine it without their interference. I pushed the princess puzzle to the side and tore open the newest addition to my puzzle collection. What I did was lay it out, then connect the ends to form the edge. That left a huge tangled mess in the middle, which actually was kind of fun to undo. Putting the puzzle together became more like a craft project and less like a traditional puzzle. I enjoy the hunt for that one particular piece – over and over. For anyone who has ever done a puzzle with me, they know that to put the edge together first is completely taboo. I always look at the photo and pick what I’m going to work on, then work my way out to the edges and assemble them when their portion of the picture is ready. With the pieceless puzzle, I methodically put all the strands of puzzle into place until it was done. Interesting. So as I’m admiring it, I start to read the insert inside the box, as well as the directions on the outside. The instructions say “Flatten the puzzle and begin connecting the branches.” Oh. Okay, guess we’ll do it that way when the girls help on round two of testing.

I decided to show the girls the new puzzle and get their take. I laid it out flat, per the instructions, when the doorbell rang. The local energy company is installing new meters, so I talked to the meter guy before returning back to the kids, who by now had turned into pre-nap gremlins. In that short amount of time that I was at the door, they decided to clear the princess puzzle off of the table. All of the pieces were now under the table. I let them finish the new pieceless puzzle, then sent them for their naps. When they were finally asleep, I reassembled the princess puzzle to make sure all pieces were present and accounted for. Of course, a hole remained in the middle where one lone piece belonged. I searched the floor, the furniture, the other room for no less than five minutes before finally locating that stupid piece. In hindsight, I believe that Ceaco must have put some kind of subliminal message inside their puzzle box to make sure that my kids helped illustrate another advantage of the pieceless puzzle.

Pros/Cons for me: The puzzle we were working on is the mid-level puzzle for ages 8 and up. Assembly for me, like I said, wasn’t the same as a regular jigsaw puzzle. Granted, I was working on a children’s puzzle, so it’s an unfair conclusion until I test one a little more age appropriate. As I explained to DH, it does present that “once you start it, you have to finish it” feeling. I’ve racked my brain but haven’t been able to come up with the exact analogy. This is as close as I can get - my MIL has a throw-blanket that has tassels on the ends that constantly get tangled. While vacationing at her house one time, I remember sitting on the couch watching TV and working on ‘fixing’ all the tangles. She kept telling me it wasn’t important since she was planning on cutting the tassels off, but I insisted. Maybe I’m the only person in the world who would spend time trying to untangle a senseless knot. I’m anxious to try out the “12 and up” version of the puzzle to see if it lends itself more to the feel of a standard puzzle. Luckily, our local Farm & Fleet is having their annual Toy Sale this weekend and I already noticed the Pieceless Puzzles in the ad!

Pros/Cons for the kids: Considering my girls are 4 and 3, I think they fared quite well with an “8 and up” puzzle. I definitely saw advantages for them. Aside from the aforementioned puzzle piece scavenger hunt advantage, I did find a few things noteworthy. First, this puzzle really put their fine motor skills to the test, not to mention their focus. Once they started working on a strand, they stuck with it until it was done, then moved on to others that had fallen into place along the way. Because of the nature of how the puzzle is designed (you find where a strand goes, then work it until it’s completely in place), it forced the kids to stay in their own area of the puzzle. With a traditional puzzle, there’s always that “No, it’s MY piece” issue. I needed to help them a few times by saying things like “Can you find the part that’s this color and looks like a hand with fingers?” I also helped untangle pieces when they would overlap funny. – Things that were only an issue because of their age.

For anyone who travels with kids, this would be great for killing that lull time in a hotel. The puzzle would pack easily and there’s no concern about losing pieces. It’s also double sided so it’s two puzzles in one. There’s also the option of working with a flat puzzle as the directions state or closing the edges off and working with the ‘tangled mess’ in the middle. The two puzzle strategies provide different working conditions and a different overall experience. My only concern is that since the puzzle is cut in a particular way, there is no “mixing up the pieces” to make it different from the time before. If you’re laying it flat, it’s more or less always going to be the same. I think it’s a unique twist on a classic idea and have already recommended it to my daughter’s preschool teacher, as well as my sister-in-law who teaches 3rd grade. I’m planning on picking up another one at Farm & Fleet this weekend!