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.