Friday, May 28, 2010

10 cheap things to do with your kids this summer

I've always been a believer that you don't have to spend money on kids to have fun. In fact, I think there's MORE fun to be had on those days when you spend nothing (or very little) at all.

For some (like me), the summer presents a challenge - what to do with the kids? I work at home, their neighborhood friends will be gone for the most part all summer, and they're at that age where they're too young to go out on their own but old enough to get into trouble. Granted, they're going to have to entertain themselves for a good part of the day. But it's MY summer too - and I want to enjoy it with my kids without breaking my bank account.

I have to say - I am the self-proclaimed queen of finding cheap entertainment for my kids and me. Here's a list - maybe I'll run into you this summer!

1. Take a hike. Grab the trail across the parking lot at Forest Park Nature Center and follow it up to the top of Grandview Drive. (It's about a 45 minute walk.) If this is too much for the kids, park at the top of Grandview and hike until you think you need to turn around. Bring a snack - there's plenty of logs and downed trees to take a break on. Once back on Grandview, walk over to the Peoria Heights Tower. For a couple of bucks you can ride the elevator to the top and see a great view of the city. After that, walk down Prospect a bit to Emack and Bolio's and chill out with some great ice cream treats.

2. Tour the playgrounds. A few years ago, when my kids were younger, we decided we would see how many playgrounds we could visit in one summer. There's Detweiller, Grandview, Glen Oak Park, Mineral Springs Park in Pekin, any of the schools... really the list just goes on and on. I think we only made it to nine so I'm sure it wouldn't be hard to beat our record.

3. Hop in the car. Take a daytrip to Starved Rock State Park or Matthiesson. Tip: Wear old shoes and bring a change of clothes and flip-flops in the car. Hike down into the canyons, feel the cool spray of the waterfalls and wade in the waters below. Don't care that your kids are getting filthy dirty and soaking wet - they will have the time of their lives.

4. Spend an afternoon on the Riverfront. Go on a Saturday and visit the Riverfront Market. Or go during the week when it's less crowded and just stroll down the walkway along the river and end up at the Riverplex playground. Have the kids wear their swimming suits and on the way back to the car let them play in the fountain at Riverfront Park. Hint: Bring towels for the ride home!

5. Play a sport. Let them try their hand at tennis at one of the local courts. Or check out their swing or fast pitch on any baseball diamond. Have a foot race (I didn't think my kids could beat me - they CAN.) My son was reticent to try some of these sports for fear of not being "good". Trying them with mom in a casual setting made him realize he enjoyed some of them and that he was surprisingly good at them!

6. Bike the Rock Island Trail. Bring a backpack of snacks - there are plenty of places to stop along the way. If your kids are older, you can start at Alta Road and probably make it all the way to Dunlap. If you think they deserve a little reward after all that biking, check out Jane's Ice Box in town for a cool, sweet treat.

7. Check out your local library. This is old hat for us - we go once every two weeks - more in the summer when we sign up for the local reading program. Sometimes we go in, check out books and are done - other times we bask in the air conditioning and sit and read awhile. There's something about a cool library on a hot summer day...

8. Have a water fight. Sure, you can spend the day at Lakeview Family Aquatic Center or Splashdown Water Park. We'll do that, I'm sure. But for cheap fun, buy a big package of water balloons and invite the neighbor kids over. This has become almost a nightly party at my house lately, as evidenced by the confetti of colorful balloon pieces all over my yard. Have plenty of Popsicles on hand and you'll be the coolest mom in the neighborhood without even really trying.

9. Spend a day in the garden. This is done best earlier in the summer, but my kids can enjoy the rewards all season long. We have a small, fenced-off "edible garden" full of plants and herbs that are safe for them to munch on. Depending on what comes up from the year before, we've had spearmint, peppermint, lemon balm, sage, chives and dill. We always plant tomatoes (that's for me, not them), and sugar-snap peas which they will eventually eat right off the vine. Same for the strawberries that multiply every year. And new this year? We're growing peanuts. Because we're nutty like that.

10. Enjoy those summer nights. Yeah, they end up staying up way too late, but it's worth it for the memories. Catch lightning bugs. Check out the constellations. Let them sleep in a tent in the backyard (you may have to, as well). If there are kids in your neighborhood, have them (and their parents) grab their flashlights for a couple of rounds of flashlight tag. Enjoy the warm night breezes and savor the summer smells.

We live in the Midwest. Summer is fleeting. Enjoy every day of it, but don't break the bank in the process. There's tons of cheap fun to be had and the memories you make will probably rival those that cost much, much more. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments section!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Is "good writing" now an oxymoron?

Or are we all just becoming morons?

I had the pleasure of meeting with one of the great Peoria bloggers, Billy Dennis, the other day.

While discussing this new buzzword called "citizen journalism", our conversation turned to the lack of decent, local writing. Of course, the Peoria Journal Star came up.

I used to subscribe to the Journal Star every day. It was part of my routine. Coffee and the tangible feel of a good newspaper. I enjoyed it, and when I moved away, I missed reading about my town and surrounding areas.

Now it seems as if there's no need. I occasionally hop on pjstar.com and read the headlines, but the articles are incomplete and rather pointless. Occasionally, they'll have a well-written human interest story, like the one on Dennis Slape by reporter Clare Howard. And I must say one of my guilty pleasures is Phil Luciano's column. But other than that, it's mostly AP-regurgitated news and hurriedly-written text that's inconclusive, not to mention riddled with typos.

To paraphrase Bon Jovi, "You give writing a bad name".

I lamented to Billy - and he agreed - that the well-written word is becoming extinct. I think the public appreciates it when they read it, but those in charge - in any aspect - seem to be complacent with mediocre prose. And it's too bad.

Remember the last time you read a good book? Or even a great article - that inspired, informed or enlightened. You can appreciate it, right? Or have we all gotten so comfortable with sub-standard stories that we expect nothing more?

I don't do many things well, but I can write. My goal is to at least help to bring back the appreciation of the written word and the power that it contains. Well-written copy can make the difference in how you perceive a person, see a service, or are persuaded to purchase a product. It's important, and it's a dying art.

Just some words of wisdom from this wistful writer.

Friday, May 21, 2010

How to smile at Wal-Mart (really!)

Yes, it is possible.

I used to go through my day like a "mommified" robot - mentally ticking off my post-it note to-do list without even glancing up. Wrapped up in my own agenda and other life stresses like I was the only one in the world.

Enter Wal-Mart.

Yeah, you know it. The place that can raise your blood pressure 50 points just by pulling in the crowded parking lot. You find a space amidst the shopping carts and walk in like you're going into combat - head down, list ready. Some guy standing at the entrance says, "Welcome to Wal-Mart!" You roll your eyes and think of the other bazillion places you'd rather be.

But one day, I spotted a customer talking with one of the employees. Real friendly-like. They obviously didn't know each other and were just making small talk, but both of them were smiling.

In Wal-Mart.

After drudging through the store, I hauled my 10,000 pound cart to the checkout with the shortest line - you know - that's usually the one that has the price check, or the leaking tuna fish can they have to replace, or a customer who's separated her shopping trip into 17 different purchases.

Again, I noticed the customer interacting with the cashier. Having a conversation. A pleasant one. I listened in - I think they were commenting about some baking item the lady had bought and discussing a cake recipe, which led to a story from the cashier about how much her son - who was in Iraq - loved cake. The customer left smiling, and the cashier looked like that had been the highlight of her day.

I noticed a friend of mine does this as well - engages strangers in conversation. We were at breakfast early one morning and the waitress came up to take our order. All I could think about was how fast she could get my coffee to me, but my friend had a different idea. "So," he asked her, "how early do you have to get here in the morning?" She sighed, "About 4 am - makes for a long shift!" She seemed pleased that anyone would even bother to care what time she got there, let alone ask her about it. Oh, and BONUS - we had GREAT service.

My point is, we all need to be a little more friendly. We all have our agendas, but we're all people going through life just the same. You know how you feel when someone asks you some remote question you can't believe they even remembered - like - "Hey! How did your son do on those baseball tryouts last week?" or "Did you ever take that weekend trip you were talking about? How was it?" It makes you appreciate the friendliness of people.

So next time you're in that Wal-Mart checkout line, stressed out with how late you are and how much money you're about to fork over for groceries and the miscellaneous items that weren't even on your list but the SuperCenter superpowers encouraged you to put in your cart, slow down. Look around. And listen.

It may make someone's day, and if you're not careful, you just may leave Wal-Mart with a smile on your face.

Monday, May 17, 2010

I wish I would've thought of that!!!!

Have you ever seen some cool invention on TV and thought, "Why didn't I think of that?"

I do it all the time.

As stupid as you might think the Snuggie is, my son loves his (because he can play video games without his blanket falling off). And some guy out there made millions by cutting armholes in a piece of cheap fleece.

And what about the person who figured out that tomatoes grow great upside down? That had to have happened on a fluke, but I'm sure he or she is sitting pretty right now. And probably upside down.

I've had my own ideas that I'm sure could have made me millions. Unfortunately, I don't have that inventor's spirit (nor the ready capital) to live the dream. But here are some ideas for any of you budding entrepreneurs out there.

I'd like to invent a device called "Select-A-Meal". You know, like on the Jetson's. Some of you may call this a microwave... I say it's one step better. You don't have to decide what to put in it. You just press a button - "sandwich", "lasagna", "prime rib"... and some technological cooking fairy drops it down a chute to you in seconds.

Someone get on that, please.

I'd also like some sort of workout device with a laptop accessory. It seems as if I spend a lot of time sitting here exercising my fingers and the rest of me is just hanging below. There has to be a way to multi-task. I've seen a few prototypes, but none quite fit what I'm looking for. Any exercise aficionado could make some big money helping we desk slugs tone while we type.

My pièce de résistance, however, may be a little controversial. You know the shields that taxi drivers have in their cabs - the ones that separate themselves from those in the back seat? Yeah, I want one of those for my minivan. Here are the features:

Ability to raise and lower it, like in a limo. Optional sound muting feature. Shatterproof glass.

Think of how many accidents would be prevented if you couldn't reach in the back seat to take some toy/hand some drink/rough up some kid who's driving you crazy while you drive?

I think it would be a best-seller.

Maybe some of these cool inventions already exist - waiting for their patents or holed up in some other red tape. If not, I invite anyone to take these ideas and make them a reality. I know I won't see any monetary compensation, but if I can reap the rewards of a finished product, then my job here is done.

Now if I only had a teleporter... I'm late for a meeting!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Laudable Ladies Lifted Up at Leader Luncheon

I don't know that I've ever been so humbled.

This year I was asked by my good friend and mentor, Joy Duling, to be a part of the YWCA Leader Luncheon committee. In my role, I was to assist in the judging process for the nominees, write the winner biographies and read them at the luncheon, which was held today at the Pere Marquette.

"No problem," I said, even though I'd rather stick a fork in my eye than get up in front of a microphone, let alone stand before a room full of people.

What I wasn't prepared for, however, is how my awe and respect for these women I had the pleasure of writing about would overshadow (most) of the fear I had of public speaking.

Being in that room today was electrifying enough - if the degree of "Female Power" was measured in Fahrenheit it would have been a heat wave. Not only was I on the same stage as YWCA leaders such as Kath Conver and Pam Schubach, and met a wonderfully charming Dr. Joyce Shotick, but I had the honor of sitting next to the guest speaker, Marcia Wallace (depending on your generation, you either remember her as Bob Newhart's secretary or the voice of Bart Simpson's teacher, Edna Krabapple.)

I had a few minutes to quickly scan Marcia's book, entitled, "Don't Look Back, We're Not Going that Way", and learned that other than being a talented and funny lady, she's had her share of challenges in life - surviving breast cancer, then losing her husband to pancreatic cancer. She was as inspiring as her life, as shocking as her spiked red hair, and as hilarious as I remember her from her days on the Bob Newhart show.

But the real stars today were the recipients of these awards. Being present at the judging, I saw how any one of the nominees could have easily won each award - each one was as qualified as the next. I am glad I was not a judge. After the winners were determined, it was my job and the job of my co-chair, Dr. Shotick, to write the biographies of the women and announce that they had each won their respective awards.

While reading through each one of the nominations, I was instantly humbled by the tireless efforts of each of these amazing ladies:

Marjorie LaFont (Julia Proctor White Arts and Education Award), for her 38 years of nutrition education service and a continual desire and genuine passion for creating healthy lifestyles for our community’s children and families.

Brigitte Grant (Edith A. Cohen Business and Industry Award), for her vision and leadership that has helped guide the Children's Home to become one of the most reputable agencies in Illinois.

Kelly Stickelmaier (Lydia Moss Bradley Communications Award), whose spirit and charisma has morphed her original business concept into a shining example for small business in Central Illinois.

Marilyn Leyland (Eliza Pindell Community Service Award), a leader who has provided significant contributions to many community groups, and dedicated a great deal of time to numerous efforts which directly affect the quality of life for families throughout the Peoria area.

Pearly Bonds (Valeska S. Hinton Human Rights Award), for fighting – against incredible odds and great risk – for the desegregation of the public school system, equality in employment, and open housing and public accommodations laws in Peoria.

Dr. Kay Saving (Mother M. Frances Krosse Professionals Award), for being a passionate advocate for the region’s youth and for her work to establish a multi-disciplinary center to provide comprehensive prevention, education, research and treatment for abused children.

Elissa Whitney Chapin (Young Woman’s Community Service Award), for balancing being a scholar, an athlete, and singer as well as a compassionate and generous young person who shares her time and talents with various charitable organizations.

Such drive and ambition these women have. Such devotion and respect for this community and what we all want it to stand for. So much for us to look up to. To be so passionate about what you do and to have such an impact on your community - it's almost beyond words.

I salute these women - as well as all the nominees - for their outstanding contributions, and want them all to know that they are truly an inspiration for those that may be so compelled to someday follow in their footsteps. And I was undeniably honored to be in their presence today.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

It's not a diet... it's a live-it!

OK, Richard Simmons aside, he does have a point.

I was just talking to a friend of mine who is struggling with his weight. Now to me he looks just fine, but after learning a little background about his family history, his food triggers and exercise struggles, I started to get where he was coming from.

I've been trying to lose the same five pounds or so for the past five years. Yeah, it used to be 10, but I've lowered my expectations. My issue happened the second I turned 40 and my metabolism came to a screeching halt. All of a sudden I couldn't eat what I wanted, exercise, and break even. My tiny waist that I was so proud of way back when (before kids) has been replaced by a little "dunlop" (when I bend over, it dun lops over my jeans...) and my thighs and calves are looking remarkably about the same shape and size.

More than anything, I just don't FEEL as fit as I used to, and I am more critical now than ever when I look in the mirror - which irritates me since my 40's have so far been the decade that I've been trying to rise above all that.

But back to my friend. As I listened to him and we discussed what food and lifestyle changes had worked for us in the past, I found myself mentioning a few things that really seemed to make a difference - for me. Now, this is me. I'm not in need of losing a large amount of weight, nor am I an anorexic that just can't seem to see the forest for the trees. That brings me to my first point: You have to strive to reach a weight you can live with. Not a weight you want to be at. Could I get to that dream weight? Yeah, for a day or two. Could I maintain that weight? Nope. Been there, done that. I love food waaaaaay too much.

The key is to compromise, or at least set small goals that you can attain without getting too discouraged. This goes for both diet AND exercise. For your diet - I heard once that you should make one change a week. The first week, go without mayo on your sandwich. The next week, make sure you have fresh fruit with every meal. The next week, cut out diet soda. Whatever. Not, "For the next two weeks I'm only going to eat organically grown fruits and vegetables." You're settin' yourself up for failure, my friend. Tiny goals. Doable goals.

If a diet plan - like Weight Watchers or Atkins or Jenny Craig - works for you, then by all means, go for it. What works for me is simple - buy good stuff and don't have junk in the house. If it's not here, I won't eat it. I do try to have some fat-laden snacks in the house for my skinny boys, but thankfully they don't share my taste in treats, though I have been desperate enough in the past to raid their classroom party treat stash or bake sale purchases. Yes, I'm embarrassed.

And if some idiot is sweet enough to bring me some fresh baked cookies or a box of candy - yeah, I eat it. I'm not disciplined like that. Then I feel bad. But honestly, deprivation is the worst way to go, unless you have a will of steel, and if you did, well, you wouldn't need to lose weight in the first place, would ya?

The same small goal-setting theory also goes for exercise. Have you ever noticed that around the first of the year the gyms are flooded with those good-intentioned, New Years-resolute people? Then by mid-March (at the latest), the classes aren't as crowded, the weight room a little sparse. As commendable it is for people to attempt to set out on these life-changing exercise regimens, they normally don't last long. They're too hard, they take too long, an injury occurs... there's always something. So start small, and find what works for you.

I'm lucky - I've been exercising for years, and I do what I enjoy. I TRY to do three to four days a week of cardio - either on the machines at the gym or walking a four mile route near my house. I enjoy it, and hate to miss a day - which does happen. The other two days I do a weight class at my gym, because if I've learned anything it's that you need muscle to help burn fat. And it does. And I love to feel strong.

On the days when I've found some reason why I can't do the cardio or the weights, I try to do SOMETHING. Yesterday the kids and I went on a bike ride. Granted, it was to Culver's for ice cream, but it was a bike ride nonetheless. The other day I pulled weeds in the yard - that was like a half hour of squats. A game of tennis with an 8-year old always keeps me on my toes. Or you want to be really humbled? Challenge your kids to a footrace. Bet you're not as fast as you used to be. I'm not, but did enjoy my huge slice of humble pie.

One thing that has helped me at least be accountable for what I eat and what exercise I do is a website called Livestrong.com. On a page called The Daily Plate, you can enter in what you weigh and how much you want to lose, and it will calculate how many calories you can have each day to attain your goal. If it thinks your goal is too lofty, it'll tell you so. Then you enter in exactly what you eat and drink, and it will keep track of the calories, fat, carbs, protein, sodium, etc. and let you know if you're over your allotment for the day. In addition, you can plug in any exercise you do and it will back that out of your daily calorie content. That's a nice little gift - realizing that my little walk earned me an extra 300 more calories. Sometimes I don't even use them. But I figure they compensate for the days I went 300 calories OVER.

However, you have to be on the computer enough - and disciplined enough - to log in everything each day, but it does help with your accountability. And the site doesn't make you feel bad when you plug in that hot fudge sundae. It simply spits out the repercussions - nutrient wise - of what you just ate. That's judgment enough and makes you think... for next time.

I know everyone who struggles or obsesses about their weight has different methods that work for them, and that's fine. My goal is not to get trapped in a quick fix diet, but to slowly change my lifestyle so that I just get used to eating well most of the time, exercising as much as I can, and living life to the fullest... without being too "full".

I wonder what's for dinner?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Do worms have eyes? (and other curious questions)

Why do they call them reindeer if they live where it snows?

When I was a little baby, did you have to remind me to breathe?

If pork comes from a pig, does ham come from a hamster?

Yep. Kids say the darndest things. We parents think we're so cool - like we know everything. Then some wide-eyed eight year old pops up with "If you were sucked into a tornado, would the wind be hot or cold?" and I'm stammering like Elmer Fudd.

My youngest son has been particularly astute lately. Usually his questions occur during our nightly snuggle time. I don't know if he saves them all for me or if finally stopping that little body from moving at bedtime engages his brain even more. Lately, his ponderings have been God related, like:

"Why is heaven so great if we're dead when we get there?"
"Do the people who commit suicide go to hell?"
And the toughest one, "Why does God make good people get killed?"

Serious questions with no easy answers. I don't know if I'd rather try to explain those or the ones on an even more touchy subject:

Son: (Points at my belly button) "Mom, did I come out of there?"
Me: "No."
Son: "Well then where did I come out of?"
Me: (Point below my belly button.)
Son: (Horrified expression; leaves room.)

or

"Mom, if Brendan and I are going to be the daddies, who's going to make the babies?"

Usually I can blurt out a couple of carefully-worded sentences and he's done wanting an explanation. I've learned to say a little and wait for questions; if none come, I've said enough - for now.

Thank God for Google. If I had a nickel for every time I've exclaimed, "That's a great question, Honey. Let's go look it up!" I'd be a rich woman.

But my son's inquisitive mind got me to thinking: Do we lose that curiosity as we get older? Does our thirst for knowledge dwindle amidst the day to day facts and figures that occupy our brains? Or are we just afraid of sounding stupid?

I know I'm probably guilty on both counts. I have questions. Lots of them. But I'm smart enough to know that I'm dumb enough not to know the answer. For instance, which way is west? Why do some people like certain foods and others don't? And why when I see blue do others see purple, and vice-versa?

I know someone out there knows... and I guess I really don't care all that much or I'd figure it out for myself. But I do think that kids truly want to know the answers - and sometimes they aren't easy. Sometimes kids' questions make us realize that we really DON'T know as much as we thought we did. I know I turn into an idiot every time my older son asks me a history question - a subject I think I pretty much slept through in high school. But sometimes the answers aren't cut and dried - like the controversial subjects. I know I try to be very careful in how I word the answer to a question like "Why are those two men holding hands?" I feel as if I owe my kids the freedom of their own beliefs, so do I share mine - or just state the facts?

I'm sure there's lots of opinions out there on how to handle kid inquisitions on all subjects, but just keep in mind - these questions usually come out of nowhere, and I have a split second to give an answer or make an impression before the opportunity is gone for good. I can usually come up with something, but I will admit - I have been stumped before. Like the time I was angry, and while making a slicing motion at my neck said, "I've had it up to HERE!" to which my son replied innocently, "But Mom! Look at how much you have left!"

Sigh.