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26.5.09 Photobooks

About a year ago I was wondering if there might be some way to turn a blog into a bound book--words and pictures all together.  I thought it might be a good gift to give a few friends and relatives.  So I did one of my 'stab in the dark' google searches--"turn blog into book"--and lo and behold came up.  I lost steam on turning my own blog into a book--partly (and I'm hoping they improve this) because of issues with text-wrapping from one page to the next. But I remembered being impressed by their layouts, and by the overall aesthetic of their website, so when my family got back from a week in Guatemala, I decided to use their site to make a photobook, rather than one of the popular photobook sites (that I still have a certain amount of devotion to, so I won't mention them here).  I just decided to go hog-wild and I chose their most expensive library-image-wrap-hard-cover binding, and their premium paper.  My book was over 80 pages long.  And the whole thing ended up costing less than $55.00.  (Which is also LESS than the other more famous site I've been using).  I love this book!  The layouts take some getting used to, partly because they aren't sized for 4x6 photos--but once I got the hang of zooming in, and layering photos, I found the flexibility I needed.  The site does warn you that a little bit of the edges of the pages will be cropped, and it doesn't (yet) show you a little imaginary line where the cropping will occur, so I ended up with a few instances where one of my photos got sheared in a way, but on my next book (India!) I was able to take that into account and was, again, very pleased with the results.  My second book had about twenty more pages than my first, and cost the same amount--seems I was in the 80-110 page price range (or something like that).  Books that have much fewer pages would cost much less.  


Square Up

I never know what our favorite game of the season will be--(see earlier Qwirkle post on our tradition of giving one great game every Christmas). I got the idea to give Blokus to my daughter this year because of my partner JC's rave review of it on this blog. And it's already risen to the position of most favorite classic Christmas game. My family was the first to leave the homestead after the Christmas holiday and my sister's family remained at my parents' house and they searched several different stores to find their own Blokus (since we brought ours home)--proving what a hit it was. The other game though that came through this year was this little game my mother gave my daughter. It's called Square Up and it's a colored version of those little sliding numbers games I always used to play when I was younger. Remember the scrambled numbers with the one empty slot? And you had to use your thumbs to move them back into the right position? And there was always that terrible moment where you had to undo a perfectly good row to help another row of numbers come into place? Well if you loved that you'll love Square Up. It comes with two large boards with removable colored tile--(this just makes them super-easy to slide around, removing them is not part of the play)--but the fun part is the little Boggle-style shakers with the nine squares in them. The brilliant part is that the plastic lids are fused on so you'll never lose the little crucial squares. You shake the Boggle-style shaker, then play alone or compete with another player to slide the tiles around to match the order of the colors in the shaker. The part that makes it easy-ish is that you're only working to match your middle nine. We particularly enjoy slamming down the see-through plastic lid to announce that we've finished first. And of course we've alreayd discovered that even if you're completely lost it drives your opponent crazy to just move tiles around quickly and noisily--because it makes them think that you're cruising through it effortlessly (even if the purple you need is all the way on the other side of the board). This is a great game for two people and a nice palette cleanser after the more brain-tiring Blokus game. It's been a good year for games in our family.




Every year I've tried to give one great game to my family for Christmas. A favorite that comes to mind was a great (possibly discontinued?) game called Picture, Picture-where people stare at the same large image (cluttered candy shops, rural fishing scenes, etc.) and are challenged to find one thing beginning with each letter of the alphabet. Of course we are huge game players and someone always manages to push the limits of what's acceptable and then we'd end up in knock-down-drag-out fights and challenges (v=virgin seem to be pushing it, but you can't imagine the arguments that would ensue!). I used to give the games to my parents--and then they'd become 'house games' that would be pulled out whenever we'd all be together. Now that I have kids, I try to give one great game to them every year (my middle child being the typical recipient since she craves the most together time and board games always ensure that). Two or three Christmases ago my big game discovery was Qwirkle. A beautiful game with wooden tiles and symbols--that you align like a picture version of Scrabble--each row has to contain the same color in different shapes or the same shapes in different colors. Of course it didn't take us long to figure out a way to bend the rows to maximize points--but we all know the trick so no one has a distinct advantage. The game became so popular that my mother recently tracked it down to add to her collection of house games, so that even though the original version lives with us in Brooklyn, it'll always be handy when we go visit them. The newer version comes with a cloth bag to keep the tiles in--turning it into a travel game of sorts? It's a true family favorite.



American Apparel Interlock High Waist Skirt

I remember an ad for a shoe when I was growing up--the jingle went 'looks like a pump, feels like a sneaker.' I don't remember which shoe was being advertised, because I didn't need anything to 'look like a pump' in those days. Now that I'm teaching at a fancy Upper East Side school, however, I need everything to look kind of fancy and yet if there isn't that 'feels like a sneaker' quality to an item of clothing it won't work for me. That's where the American Apparel interlock high-waist skirt comes in. Everything from American Apparel feels soft and comfortable, but this particular item is classic enough to fly at work. A long A-line skirt--with a high waist that conveniently covers all my trusty Spanx undergarments--it comes in lots colors, and some even have fun contrasting stitching and/or differently colored waistbands. I have asphalt, brown (with a pink waist band), navy blue, and black (with pink stitches). And every time I walk by an American Apparel store I duck in to see if another color might enhance my wardrobe. The cotton is thick and structured, a step nicer than sweatshirt material. I've had my brown and pink one for several years now and it's holding up beautifully. These skirts are so comfortable I wear them on days off as well.



32 Third Graders & One Class Bunny

Don't know if you are the same sort of last minute shopper that I am - but assuming you are or maybe you need a gift for a grown-up January birthday - consider "32 Third Graders and One Class Bunny by Phillip Done.  For a teacher or a friend it's a great book written in short chapters about the life of a third grade teacher.  By Phillip Done, winner of the Schwab Distinguished Teachers Award, it gives quick, funny snapshots of a third grade classroom.  Clearly Mr. Done - I love his name!  I'm so done I'm MR. Done! - but I digress -  loves his students and truly enjoys teaching - what I love is that he's not all smoozy about it.  He doesn't wax poetic or try to convince us he is perfectly in charge of the world in his classroom.  Instead he points up his own humanity while appreciating the lovable foibles of piloting a classroom full of eight-year-olds.  His stories remind me very much of parenting - love or hate it - it has it's highlights.  One of my favorite lines was when Mr. Done compared his classroom to Mrs. Wilson's - the Martha Stewart of teachers - everything is perfect in her classroom while Mr. Done's is well - normal.  He runs through a litany of the perfection in her classroom - then a list of his own classroom's challenges - ending with "And my Venus flytrap is a vegetarian." The line made me laugh out loud - and also helped me feel a little better about those other "perfect" mothers and my own crazy cat-haired decorated home. 



Neopets Puzzle Adventure

My seven-year-old son is enthralled with Neopets Puzzle Challenge.  I've played it only once myself, but I can see the attraction.  It's like the board game Othello (which I played endless games of against my college roommate when we should have been studying), but, being computer-based you avoid all those mishaps of not turning over all your pieces, etc, and it has these cute clever characters that my son finds endlessly endearing.  His nine-year-old sister plays it less often - mostly because we have only one Nintendo DS and she cannot pry it from his hands.  But she is also less enamored of the game Othello, too.  Overall, it is a cool game because the strategic elements make my son think and he really sticks with the game and works to overcome increasingly more difficult opponents.  I'm going to have to give it another try - after he's in bed!!  



Boogie Superstar

We are gaga for this game. I'm in love with it because I can hear my son singing, for real. No joking around singing, because he has to get it on pitch to get the big points, and the big points are needed to unlock the more sought after songs. True, I've heard enough Pocketful of Sunshine and Bleeding Love to last me a lifetime, but having this glimpse into his real singing voice has been a blast. We all get up on our feet to attempt the dance moves--a little blue figure pops up to instruct us when we're not getting it quite right. My family got the wii this summer and we played the sports package solidly for about two weeks, then we didn't use it anymore. Boogie Superstar has been the perfect way to get back into playing with it. The karaoke duets are hilarious, and the dance moves are easy but challenging since they switch pretty quickly and since they're very very fast--you have to match this metronome like ball exactly. A few weeks before we got this game I found my eight year old daughter trying to learn dance steps by watching instructional videos on youtube (poor thing had to teach herself sign language through youtube earlier this summer, when I kept ignoring her requests for a real class). This is a lot more fun. The other good thing is that even when one person is holding the control and dancing, there's nothing to prevent the entire family from being on their feet trying to nail the moves as well.



Young Frankenstein on Broadway

When we were coming out of the subway station after seeing Young Frankenstein on Broadway, my son's friend pointed out a bit of graffiti--the new kind of graffiti, where they use a boxcutter to remove part of one poster and then stick it on top of another poster, not the old kind where they just use sharpies to add body parts and funny quotes. In this particular bit of subway art, someone had cut the last syllable off of an ad for Will Smith's summer blockbuster Hancock, and pasted it over another word, so that the new poster said "[second syllable of Hancock] is the new good." My son and his friend chuckled about this, and later I heard him explaining it to a friend. "It means 'poop'" he explained. I heard him from the other room and I called out 'What did you say it means?' And he smiled and said 'it's a kind of poop, kind of like saying doody." I felt a need to clarify. And I did. I feel bad for him, because he really wants to know all the bad words. One time, coming home from school in 2nd grade, he said "what grade are we in when we learn curses?" Poor thing, I thought he said 'cursive' so I answered plainly, "third grade." He must have been so excited. Later he said 'so in third grade we learn all the curse words?' and that's when I realized what he'd meant. "Oh no," I began, thinking as I was talking. "You're on your own with those." It did get me thinking that there could be some fun book or course where kids are given the curse words. Not in titillating ways but in plain English. A friend of mine from England was horrified once to hear teenage boys calling each other 'pussy' because of its derogatory nature. I really don't think those boys think of it as meaning anything other than 'wimp,' which is problematic in itself, but if they knew the origin, they might be more sensitive when yelling it across a playground, or in front of a group of nuns or something. My kids have heard a few choice swear words from me, but I like to think that I use them very very rarely and so when I do it proves how frustrated/angry/hurt I am. This is no stubbed toe *&^%, this is BROKEN toe *&^%$#. There's a difference, and we ought to clue them in by example. Which brings me back to Young Frankenstein. There is no Mel Brooks comedy I can think of that doesn't have its share of lewdness and inuendo, the occasional racy bit, or clever doublespeak. And this is no exception. I have to admit that during one of the first big musical numbers "Please Don't Touch Me" I cringed at some of the words: "You can stick me, you can lick can savage me and ravage me..." and I found myself scanning the audience to see if anyone else had brought children to the theater. Of course all of those things he would be allowed to do, he was only allowed to do in his dreams, because she didn't want to be touched, hence the name of the song. But I do like to think that kids who don't know what's going on won't be taught anything new from a song like that--especially when it's sung as quickly as Elizabeth sings it. Of course the song ends with an entire chorus of "Tits, tits, tits, tits, tits, etc." so that was the end of thinking that it might go over their heads. But again, it causes me to wonder about all the acts of violence they've seen by the age of ten--through video games, Star Wars, Tom and Jerry, whatever, and why keep basic body bits out of it? They've seen bodies being blown to bits but we have to protect the--oh no! someone said 'tits!'--from consenting adults using their bodies for pleasure (in a basic PG-13 kind of way, of course)? So once I talked myself down, I settled in and enjoyed. It was a really funny show, and both boys thoroughly enjoyed it, especially a hilarious dance number featuring the monster in coat and tails. The sets were gorgeous, and Igor was funny enough for two musicals. I don't go to Broadway shows as often as I should, but for some strange reason I've been to three shows now in a month (friends in from out of town, special deal from a credit card, some really great shows on the TKTS boards), and this was the nicest theater by far. I highly recommend it. It may not be for the very young, but again, there's nothing in it that's worse than what any city kid might see patched together or scrawled on a poster on a subway platform on the way to school every morning. My son is still talking about it.



Leapfrog Didj

I just love it when you find a company whose products you adored for your kids when they were younger and then you learn they make something for their older years, too.  The "Didj" from Leapfrog totally fits that bill.  I just love Leapfrog.  I've always felt kids needed be engaged with technology - it is the way of our world anymore - but reading and math will always matter.  Leapster manages to marry the two in a way my kids love and I feel comfortable with.  When my kids were younger, first we got the LeapPad with Princess books and later Thomas books for my son.  Then, I introduced video games to them with the Leapster.  They played Spiderman and The Incredibles while spelling and doing math problems.  Now, at a lovely event hosted by Leapfrog at the Four Seasons last weekend, I learned that Leapfrog offers a video game-like system for my seven and nine year olds.  My kids were thrilled to try the Didj and they play it every day now.  It looks very much like the PSP - small, hand-held with strategically placed buttons.  It has my kids asking questions like is 36 divided by four nine?  Or saying, mom I know what nine times nine is - all while playing a video game.  They love it and I feel good about them playing - what could be better?  Thank you Leapfrog!




I accidentally invented the referee the other day. We were at my daughter's soccer game and there was a slight dispute about whether the ball had gone into the goal the right way--through the front, as opposed to the wrong way, through the side. Just then a teenager wearing a yellow vest ambled over and announced that it was a fair goal, that it had gone in through the front. That was a big relief to those of us on the sidelines who'd each seen different versions of the goal, and it was a relief as well because the two coaches had had a slightly uncomfortable moment of each assuming it had gone in whichever way would have favored their own teams. Wow, if only there could always be some impartial observer calling the shots, I thought. And then I realized that the yellow vest was the yellow vest the volunteer teen referees wore, and that that was precisely the purpose of the teen who'd been paying attention. We are a huge game-playing family. Games at this point are kind of divided into those that don't require referees--the wii comes in handy since it just tell you if the shot was in or not, keeps track of points, tells you whose turn it is, etc. and Sorry! is nice since all the really nasty moves are actually dictated by cards you draw right there in front of everybody. Fantan is also pretty straightforward. But even games like Yahtzee can lead to disputes (how many rolls was that?) and disagreements. Pictureka falls into the 'we need a referee!' category. But we love that we're all back on speaking terms. It's a massive game of Where's Waldo, if Waldo had no Waldo, and was instead filled with very edgy Spy vs. Spy types of graphics. The board is really nine different panels, and the reason you never, say, find all the objects and never need to play the game again, is that there are prompts during the game where you flip the two-sided boards, switch, or rotate them. You draw color coded cards--one color is 'all play'--first to find an object wins the card. Another card goes to the highest bidder, who then finds the items on the card in 30 seconds. Some of the objects are straightforward--find 5 hearts, for example. Others leave something to the imagination, which means the four of us who stay up to play will end up pouting and fuming and whining. Find 8 things a doctor would use. Well, a table? a lamp? a flashlight? It didn't say find things a doctor would use while BEING A DOCTOR, did it? You can imagine how well we do with 'seven things that fly'--does steam from a teapot fly? Yes? No? Why not? Be prepared to debate that one through clenched teeth. Or better yet, just get a teenager in a yellow vest to sit somewhere nearby.



Tay Tea

We go upstate to the Catskills a few times a year. A couple of years ago my husband discovered an obscure brand of tea called Tay, at a coffee and tea festival (don't ask), and learned that its creator owns a shop in Andes (about ten minutes from the farm we visit). He bought a sampler pack (at the festival you're not asking about) and we really loved it. It came in a little bamboo box, and had a somewhat useless bamboo strainer, but the tea was fabulous. This spring we finally had the chance to visit the Tay Tea shop. What a beautiful place! I bought a few tins of loose tea (I've abandoned the bamboo strainer in favor of a regular metal one with a tiny bamboo handle), some caffeinated, some de-. Tea has kind of changed my life. I was never a coffee drinker (a rebellion I think, from when I was twelve and had to get up for school at like 5:30 and my mom would push a steaming mug of coffee under my nose and say 'come on, don't you need it?')--Coffee seemed boringly grown-up (so did bridge, and knitting, and once I hit college I realized I'd have felt a lot cooler had I been familiar with any of those things). Tea was just herbal for me, I'm not sure how that happened. I'd drink chamomile, or Red Zinger, and call myself a tea drinker. One afternoon about five years ago I was having trouble keeping my head up at a friend's house while our daughters played together. 'Let me make you some tea!' My pal offered. 'Umm, chamomile?' I suggested to which she said something like 'Pshaw! none of that, I'll show you a good cuppa tea.' She returned with PG Tips with milk and sugar (if offered, I'd have declined both). I sipped it and was in heaven. It woke me up (so this is the caffeine I've missed all these years) physically and it woke me up to the world of tea. I'm now the kind of person who fantasizes about my morning cup even before my head hits the pillow at night, and who dreams of the 4 o'clock cup, even as my morning's brewing. While I still keep PG Tips on hand, and enjoy a good basic up of Liptons when I'm at work, I'm proud to say that my kitchen shelf if a glorious display of loose teas in beautiful tins. Better than Sex is one of Tay Tea's non-caffeinated blends that has changed the lives of many of my girlfriends (a mix of chocolate and vanilla and peppermint), other names are Muse, Duchess's first Love, Marry Me Again (an Earl Grey with a lavender nod to Elizabeth Taylor), Tuk Tuk Chai and Dream. I cannot say enough about these beautiful teas. In the midst of all this mothering, these little teas are like mini-vacations, and if another mom's at my kitchen table enjoying it as well, then I'm all the more fulfilled. In searching for the Tay Tea website for the hyperlink above, I just noticed that the quote on the site is 'we drink tea to forget the noise of the world.' Kinda perfect for this mom of three.



Thieves Oil

I've always been a huge fan of the subway. I grew up in a small town and so any experience with a subway meant that I had travelled to some exciting place. We spent some time in London when I was twelve and everything about the Underground appealed to me. The crazy-colored map, the dark cool tunnels, the impossibly long escalator descents, the ads plastered on the walls, the whoosh of hot air that announced the train's arrival, the jostled crowds, and the blackish dusty smell. That experience must have lodged itself deep into my psyche in some Proustian way, because now whenever I pass a subway grate and get that same whoosh of hot air, and sometimes when I'm in the tunnels and I catch that same smell, I'm filled with that early sense of adventure and awe. Of course now I realize that that smell that I described as dusty and black is probably a wicked combination of human excrement, rat hair, and solidified exhaust, but once lodged in the pleasure center, always lodged in the pleasure center, so it remains to me a desired smell. A recent moment that filled me with pride was when my two older children were describing favorite smells and each, separately, confided that the smell you get as you pass over a subway grate when the train's running underneath is tops for them. I've also always preferred travelling by subway to travelling by bus, since the bus seems to be always full of people on their cell phones, and with very few exceptions in New York City, is NEVER faster than walking. So it was upsetting to me to return to work, and to my beloved subway (and all the reading I get to do down there), and to realize that something about the hour-long commute was sapping my strength. It wasn't the several bits of stair-climbing, or the one lengthy underground walk. I can handle that sort of activity. Rather, it seemed to be related to the fumes. It almost felt like I went down there with about a seven on a scale of one to ten, and came upground at about a four. Of course there's nothing scientific about this. Surely sitting and reading and bits of walking weren't exhausting me. So I mentioned this to a friend who happens to be into all sorts of essential oils. Thieves, is what she told me. I looked into it, intrigued by the name, and found out that it's a blend of oils developed by grave-robbers to avoid contracting the bubonic plague (or something like that). I guess if it was good enough for grave-robbers it could be good enough for me, so I invested in some, and have been known to dab it into my scarf, or just rub it onto my temples or something, if everything down there is getting too exhaust-y. It's a mix of clove, lemon, cinnamon, eucalyptus, and rosemary and it's only driven one stranger to relocate to another bench. Many people ask me what I'm wearing and I don't think they're expecting me to prattle on about grave robbers and the bubonic plague. A friend swears by theives toothpaste as well, but I think I'll stick with the oil for now.



I haven't yet heard from my friends that I overdid it, but I just found myself spending about forty-five minutes browsing and sending cards from this site. I find it hilarious, and there's always something so specific that I know exactly who to send it to. The name of the website is 'someecards [some e-cards]--when you care enough to hit send,' which, sadly, is about as motivated as I can get these days to keep up with friends and family. I'm not sure if it's the city-pace--am I trying to do too much?, or the three kids-situation--am I trying to do too much? likely it's some lethal combination of the two...but I do know that I'll be thinking of a pal, remembering a birthday, or whatever, and this site allows me to hit some kind of nail on some kind of head, even if my timing is way off. The cards, accompanied by Victorian-era-style illustrations of people looking as though a thought has just occured to them, are cheeky and spot-on and allow me to feel much more clever than I have the energy to be now that my brain has turned to mush. I used to dally in the 'happy birthday' and 'thankyou' categories, and lately I've branched out into the 'movies' and 'TV' sections (example: If I'm ever murdered, I hope it's interesting enough to be the inspiration for a Law & Order episode--not sure what the occasion is for sending that card, but it reminds me of the kinds of thoughts that cross my mind, and feels like a fun-enough nugget to pass along (especially to a friend who writes for that show)). I'd like to think I could have written some of these, and maybe back in my less-cluttered days I could have kept up with some of these contributors...but in the meantime, and in case that particular brand of sophistication never returns to me, I'm grateful that those kinds of people are creating these cards and that someecards allows me to pass them around.



Tornado Lab

I'm a weather junkie so I'm predisposed to enjoy a tornado toy, but what a cool toy this is! From Discovery Channel, this tornado in a jar not only teaches the kids about how tornados form but because it uses water to do it, it offers all kinds of other opportunities for scientific exploration.  In addition to the tornado lab and a DVD exploring tornadoes and hurricanes, the toy comes with small red foam cubes and small yellow plastic balls that the kids can add to the tornado to learn how the density of an object impacts its behavior.  My kids have also added various food colorings and even dipped their fingers in to see how the tornado changes.  And, because the device that whirls the water around is small, rounded and way down at the bottom of the container I don't have to worry about injury when the kids do stick their fingers in.  Sure, it can be  a little messy, but who cares - it is science in a jar!  And, my son's teacher even has plans to use the toy for teaching about weather this fall in their study of planet earth. 




I have to admit I was prepared for WAT-AAH! to NOT be a favorite thing...biased, I suppose, by the fact that it's basically water in a plastic bottle, and that's something that's making me increasingly squeamish these days, in a global-warming kind of way. I teach at an independent school that has just completely banned all plastic water bottles (they've provided everyone with Sigg-bottle-like containers) in an effort to get green. I've already phased out ziploc bags (three months and counting) and come close to losing sleep at night for all the composting I'm NOT doing. But my 9-year old son cannot stop talking about this beverage. His friends are all jazzed about the logo--he brings in empty water bottles and they refill them with tap water and carry them around like status symbols (they'd be confiscated in the school where I teach, by the way). But that wasn't a compelling reason to add this to my favorites list. But then my husband started waxing poetic about WAT-AAH! last night. It's so pure tasting, it's like the best most purest water I've ever had. Really I asked, and took a swig. Really, he said. He's the king of flavored water, and usually ends up drinking sediment-laden lemon-lime flavored stuff--that we bought for the kids on sale and didn't like--without complaint (he's a middle child who's used to eating leftovers and doesn't need every meal to be exciting--go figure). Anyway, he went on and on about how fresh and pure it tasted, and my son's bouncing up and down in the background saving empties to bring to his friends, saying how good it here we go. My family officially LOVES WAT-AAH! It is really really good (fresh tasting, pure tasting), and is working nicely as part of our more-water-less-juice-and-chocolate-milk campaign (even though it's not doing much for our internal crusade against global warming). There are four different varieties (not flavors, all fresh, pure water)--Body is plain (great-tasting) water, Brain has electrolytes, Energy has electrolytes and oxygen, and Bones has calcium. But I really don't care about those added things--it's just nice that they all taste exactly the same, so we don't end up with a whole lotta one kind (like when we buy Carnation Instant Breakfast variety pack and no one drinks the Strawberry). *I should add that I just clicked on their website to make sure I had the right link and my kids heard the music and ran over and demanded to find the nearest store that sold it, and said 'well we're going there tomorrow.' Rarely have I seen them this enthusiastic about water. Plastic bottles? Who cares!



Spanx Reversible Tights

I was going to call this 'Spanx (duh)' but then thought that might be too cheeky (npi... really). Because, basically, I have wholeheartedly welcomed the entire Spanx brand, since returning to work last winter. That explains the Spanx. And the (duh) was going to be there because everyone I know is crazy about them too. Of course I've never quite figured out how to determine my size, falling, as I always seem to do, right ON the cusp of that jagged line that meanders up ominously between various weights and heights, and of course putting them on the first time requires acts of contortions I'd rather not have my children see (but maybe these acts wouldn't be necessary if I would experiment with other sizes). But honestly these things make me feel very put together. Held together. Together together. While blissfully preventing my thighs from rubbing together. I have to look kind of fancy three days a week, and back in the winter I had to look fancy five days a week. This does not come naturally. But I have to say that having a pair of these on underneath always made me feel like I was pulling something off. I'm not a pantyhose person, but find tights to be quite nice in the chillier months. And the Spanx reversible tights that I found at Chicos have really blown my mind. For the life of me I cannot figure out how these sturdy matte tights work without the chocolate brown being noticeable from the jet black side and vice versa. And of course there's the Spanx top that meanders up high enough to both ensure that there won't be any visible bulges, and that each trip to the bathroom will take a little bit longer than usual, due to all the shimmying involved in putting everything back. I like the separate biker short-style Spanx and could have devoted a whole blurb to them. But these tights made the hugest difference for me last winter. So the comfort and versatility have made them my absolute favorite.



Crayola True to Life Series

My youngest child just started school in the same building as her older brother and sister.  Hallelujah! Only one PTA meeting to feel bad about missing every month, only one school asking us for more than we can give.  It's simplified everything.  The trick is that, now, she has to leave with them in the morning.  No more packing them off to big kid school while we laze around in pajamas only JUST starting to consider what we want for breakfast, and what we should wear for the day.  It puts a little more pressure on bedtime, and it puts a little more pressure on establishing some solid routines.  Throwing out nighttime television (shhh unless the Mets are on) and morning television is a good beginning for us.  Our little girl cannot tell time but 'after Dora,' and 'one more Backyardigans' has felt a little bit like 'I'm staying up til 8,' and 'I'm not going to bed til 8:30.'  So cutting out those thirty minute chunks of time that eat away at her bedtime so easily seemed right.  That left us with the question--well what are we going to do after dinner then?  (Some of you will shudder as you struggle to answer the same question, and others will shudder at how ridiculously tv-centered our lives must be that we'd even have to ask it).  Here's what we do:  we do a lot of drawing, and then when the little one goes up to bed, we break out the board games she doesn't have the stomach for (she actually cheats at Candyland so we figure she's not ready for the hard stuff yet).  So it was fun to be able to offer my kids the new and exciting Crayola True to Life stuff.  Crayons, markers, and pencils, each with a tri-colored tip.  I'm guessing the True to Life series gets its name from the idea that, in nature, no green is just plain green, no blue, just plain blue.  In each case, there are a handful of obviously related colors (yellow/red/orange) and surprising combinations (purple/orange/red).  The names of these blends are stunning--Maui Sunset, Grand Canyon, Yosemite Campfire...  And we've all really enjoyed drawing with them.  If we had to pick a favorite, we'd choose the crayons.  There's something about the texture of the crayons and the blending of the colors that goes more hand in hand than in the case of the markers.  Markers seem to me to be a bit more specific.  If you want to color in something with a marker you tend to feel strongly about the color you choose.  But with crayons, you get that kind of scrubbly texture anyway, and the colors don't tend to be as pure.  So the subtle surprises in the crayons are slightly more satisfying than with the markers.  A circle filled in with Amazon Rainforest (three green shades) with the marker creates a kind of schizophrenic disk of scribbled lines, yet in the case of the crayon, you end up with something that looks like a lemon that isn't ripe, with some extra greenness at one tip.  In that instance, the True to Life series really does earn its name.  As an art teacher, the only drawback I can see is that some children know exactly what color they want something to be, and don't feel very flexible about variations on that idea.  Young children can be much more rigid in their expectations of their artwork than grown-ups tend to think they'd be.  That said, I could see using the True to Life series in many different types of art projects--designs with watercolor washes on top, invented flowers and fruits, or anything else where the surprises would be welcome.  And in one final nod to the markers, I'm looking now at a 'board game' that my four year old just created this evening using them.  Long intersection lines form the boxes that the pieces travel in, and there's something really lovely about how the gold turns into purple and the purple turns into olive green, and there's something really interesting about what happens when those lines overlap.  I'm not sure she has the sportsmanship to play this game any time soon, but games and drawing, and sometimes combining the two?  Who needs TV?**

**stay tuned, we're only finishing our second week.




At the beginning of the summer we ran out of ziploc bags.  I decided to take this as a challenge. How long could I go without them?  We made it through summer camp season with loads of little tupperware-like containers.  I bought a set of about fifteen small containers at Ikea--with lids that fit pretty well but not always perfectly...and I went to Chinatown (to the basement of the Elizabeth Mall) and found a perfect Sanrio-style set of three rectangular containers, with pretty designs that my daughters love--because it's SOO much fun to spend money on fun new things in an effort to go green.  My middle child went to a camp that required completely disposable lunches every day so we just went ahead and did that--but in general we were pretty green and it felt pretty good.  By the time school started I felt like we were on a roll, and decided to enter the school year ziploc-bag-less.  It helps that one of our school's beloved fourth grade teachers has decided to stop having a homeroom in favor of being the school's roaming green guru--determined to teach the kids about recycling and other good awareness-type things.  But of course I did feel a little bruised when my oldest came home from school saying that he'd been called out for using tinfoil.  Wrap-n-mats to the rescue!  I saw these things on a fantastic website called a few months ago and thought they looked pretty great. Plastic-coated (not sure the specifics but it seems to be plastic that's been vetted pretty well) cloth squares cut and sized to wrap perfectly around a sandwich, and close with a velcro tab.  I sent my daughter to school with her sandwich folded in one for the first few days and we're all in love with it.  (That green teacher even spotted it and is going to hold it up as an example for others next week).  So I just went online last night and ordered two more.  I had to browse around a bit to find patterns that wouldn't embarrass my 5th grade boy--but in the process discovered that they make a blank beige one that can be personalized with fabric markers or, I suppose, sharpies, in addition to some great polka dot prints in sophisticated color combinations.  I'll never be one of those people who makes all sorts of crazy sacrifices to keep our level of trash down as far as we should--I compost our tea leaves and coffee grinds because I can just toss them in our garden, but everything else would be too time-consuming and messy--but I have to say it feels good now to know that my three kids' home lunches aren't resulting in a speck of trash.




I am addicted to Blokus.  A strategy game developed by a mathematician, I feel sure it must be helping my kids with mathematical concepts.  It is an easy game to learn but a challenge to master.  And it comes with all these colorful, fun plastic game pieces.  The rules are simple:  you can place your piece anywhere on the board as long as it corner, and only its corner, is touching another of your own previously placed pieces.  It seems easy and at the beginning of the game it is, the board is wide open and there is plenty of room to maneuver.  Then, just a few turns later the board clogs up and lo and behold an opponent has successfully blocked your next brilliant move.  It is frustrating in a "let's play again" sort of way.  And I find my kids are just as skilled at the game as I am.  (my husband may be slightly better at it than me - but I'll never admit to that!)  As the school year has begun we are playing nightly as a family then, when the kids tuck in for the night, my husband and I play a few games over a glass of wine.  Every game is different and every play changes the board in remarkable ways.  There is some controversy about how the name is pronounced but if you think about how you play - it is a blocking game - thus 'block us' rather than the sort of bizarre sounding 'blow-kus'.  That sounds like a game requiring two consenting adults - but that's another post!




Neti Pot

Believe it or not my kids don't mind using the neti-pot.  I was introduced to it when I was hugely pregnant and mightily congested and wasn't allowed to take any real medication (remember those days?).  I found it exhilarating, once I'd gotten my head tilted forward at the right angle, to realize how all my inner passages were connected--specifically, how the nostrils connect up top without getting all involved with my mouth and throat.  It really is incredible.  You mix some (non-iodized or kosher) salt into warm water and then pour the spout into one nostril and watch as everything trickles (or gushes) out of the other nostril.  Then you do a lot of messy sputtering and snuffling, and repeat on the other side.  I remember that it brought me about ten minutes of clear-headedness--enough so that I could get to sleep.  My older two kids can do it, and really don't mind.  We usually do it leaning over the bathtub.  It's quite a production, but satisfying when it works, and less expensive than scrolling through a zillion different types of cold medicine (cherry? grape? bubble gum? pills?  liquids? quick dissolving tongue tabs?).  It's a nice non-medicinal approach, and honestly, kind of fascinating to do.