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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.  



Uno Spin

While watching the Democratic National Convention the other night, I caught a glimpse of the father of three kids I used to teach.  He was in profile at the edge of the screen, chewing gum, and then he kind of lunged forward for a split second and his face filled my television.  I was able to hit rewind on my remote (since I have DVR) to double check.  Not exactly an old friend, but a fun face to see in that arena.  The next night I caught a glimpse of another familiar  site lurking on the edges during the DNC--Uno Spin.  The Obama family was playing it as part of the montage of Barack's life--of all the things they could have been shown doing together, they chose to be seen playing Uno Spin.  I totally get that.  It's a great game--the familiar card game we all know so well (the one I've finally forgiven for being such a blatant rip-off of Crazy Eights) and the spin aspect adds some great touches.  The spinner itself is satisfyingly sound--not only because it makes a satisfying sound (think Wheel of Fortune) but because it works so smoothly (unlike the spinner in The Game of Life--which has gotten so rickety that they've added a new twist to the game--a person whose 'career' is in computers, actually earns money every time the spinner goes off its track).  And some of the wheel's rules are quite fun--'Trade Hands' means everybody passes their entire stack of cards to the player to their left, 'Show Hand' means you have to hold your cards up for everyone to scrutinize.  You can definitely hit a patch of bad luck in Uno Spin, but most of the bad luck is publicly and objectively ordered by the spinner, and not by a vengeful sibling discarding mean-spirited cards to prompt a whole lotta pain.  Of course there's room for that too (we wouldn't want to miss out on all that kind of fun), but as in Sorry!, it's comforting to not have every bad turn be the result of some overly-competitive family member. Phew. No wonder the Obamas looked so happy playing it.  



Nyttja Picture Frame

Can you tell that an Ikea just opened up in Brooklyn?  The wonderful thing is that it doesn't feel like do-or-die shopping like it used to, when I'd have paid $9 to cross the Verrazano Bridge so the pressure was on to spend at least a hundred dollars to make up for the fact that I'd just shopped in a no-sales-tax state (NJ) but had to pay a toll that would match the sales tax of a hundred dollar purchase in NY.  (Welcome to my head).  My latest Ikea obsession is their NYTTJA frame collection.  The 8 1/2" x 11" colored frames--very nice smooth finished edges (not like the raw unfinished blonde wood RAM frames which I also like);  primed and ready to turn any regular paper-sized artwork into a masterpiece.   If your kids go through your printer paper as quickly as mine do, chances are you have TONS of 8 1/2 x 11 art in your house too.  FYI the link here sends you to something that doesn't look like what I'm talking about.  I'm wondering if this is an in-store purchase only.  They're lightweight and cardboardish on the back, so a good strong double-stick tape will hold it, I suppose you could even put some magnets on the back and have it make refrigerator artwork look even more polished. The colors are great.  But the price is what's so remarkable.  $1.99 per frame.  And I'm proud to report that since the Ikea's so close to me I can dash over there and pick up a few frames at a time (enter through the cashiers in front to avoid the rat-in-a-maze showroom experience).  I'll probably spend a hundred dollars on these frames eventually--between framing my own kids' work, my own artwork, birthday party favors and gifts--but at least I don't have to do it all at once, like in the old days.



It's So Amazing!

I didn't do any research on this one. But my seven year old daughter came home from a friend's house a few months ago having read It's So Amazing by Robie H. Harris (or maybe they just flipped to some of the more provocative sections), and she couldn't stop talking about it. I forgot about it (welcome to my style of parenting) for a few months and then found myself at a bookstore the other day wanting to get a book for her to welcome her back from a week away and I remembered how much she liked this one. She beamed from ear to ear when I gave it to her, and promptly disappeared to read it. She emerges every now and then, mostly to point to the paragraph about conception--she holds it up and says 'did you see this part?' as if to say 'I know what you and Daddy did...' She's torturing her older brother with it too. 'Did you see this part?' she'll ask, holding it up for him. He just rolls his eyes to the ceiling and changes the subject. In particular, she's confused as to why the cartoon couple looks naked in their shoulder area, but you can see pajama bottoms sticking out by their feet, at the foot of the bed. Frankly, that part confuses me too. Are we illustrating the basics or indicating that the deed can be done with pajama bottoms all bunched up around our ankles? There's no blatant nakedness in this picture--rather it's a cartoon couple under cartoon blankets in a cartoon bed, etc. But the book doesn't shy away from nakedness. And we all especially enjoy the lineup of naked people (no Barbie bodies, thank you very much)--again, more cartoons but with detailed saggy boobs, thinning pubes on the older folks, etc. It's so Amazing is straightforward and chatty. The book is narrated by a bird and a bee--one of whom loves to talk about the nitty-gritty (like my daughter) and one of whom would rather just change the subject (like my son). I've answered every question my daughter has ever asked me as honestly as possible, and now it does seem like the right time to hand her a bunch of information and let her browse at will. I've offered to read it with her, made myself available for any questions, and am also interested in her having it around whenever she wants. I'm not sure where we'll go from here, but It's So Amazing seems to be a great beginning.


Ikea Grater

We eat pasta several times a week. My son is a parmesan cheese freak and I love having him grate his own cheese. I'm not much of a cook (see the first sentence) and am not intuitive enough in my own kitchen to know how to delegate out little tasks to the kids. Pitiful I know. But grating their own parmesan cheese is the perfect little way for them to get involved, especially if you have this great (no pun intended, really) grater from Ikea. It's a satisfying frosted tupperware-like container with a tupperware-ish lid. You put the grater top on top of the bowl and grate away. The good news is that you can keep your grated stuff in its own tupperware container if you, I don't know, have leftover parmesan cheese? (I know we never do) The really wonderful part is that the bottom has a skid-proof rubberized coating so an enthusiastic nine-year old parmesan cheese fan can grate all he wants and there's never any mess. No metal pyramid to balance with one hand over some unattached bowl or plate. Just one perfect little unbudging grater. I've never been good at keeping lids with tupperware so I lost the optional lid a long time ago, but it doesn't matter to me at all. What might matter is that the grater I purchased five years ago was white, and now I see that they make them in different colors. Looks like I need another trip to the Ikea Marketplace. *Sigh*



Karito Kids

I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I had not heard of the Karito Kid dolls until I was invited to a "Mom's Night In" event hosted by Beth Feldman of These dolls make one think immediately of American Girl dolls but instead of coming from some historical time period these girls are from various places around the world. They are contemporary and funky with cute outfits and current story lines. At the party I received Piper, the latest addition to the collection, a surfer girl from Australia. She's cute with long blonde "highlighted hair", board shorts and a cute little summer top. Taller than an American Girl doll, she can stand up on her own. The other unique thing about the Karito Kids is that on the website girls can choose a charity to which Karito Kids will donate money on behalf of the child who has registered. An activation code in the front of the book that comes with the doll gets you in and there are four charities to chose from. My daughter chose to donate to "a safe and secure home" for kids in Honduras. She chose this because she said without a safe home a kid can't really be happy. As my daughter plays games on the site she will earn more points she can donate to charity. For me the dolls are cute and offer a new alternative to the AG dolls that have become such a rite of passage for girls of a certain age and I know my daughter's awareness of history has been raised by reading the books that accompany those dolls. So while Karito Kids are a little more expensive I'm hoping this doll will raise my daughter's awareness about the needs of those less fortunate - so I say more power to Karito and the kids they inspire.


MLB Power Pros 2008

I've written here about the Wii and how it has changed the tenor of life in our house from sedentary to active even in the tiny 1100 sq feet world we call home. The whole family loves to play Wii Sports - the kids take on dad daily. But the biggest hit in our Wii home is the MLB Power Pros 2008. And the biggest fan is my seven-year-old boy. Just this afternoon, having not played the game for three days he looked at the box and said "I love MLB Power Pros. I can hit so many home runs." He loves the game - constantly asking one of us to "verse" him. He, of course, gets to be the Yankees - always. And he tries to convince his opponent to be one of the worst teams in the league to assure his win. "You can be the Padres," he says with a smile. My daughter answers back - "Oooo, the Padres" (insert eye roll). When he cannot convince someone to play against him, then it is Yankees vs Yankees. But the best thing about MLB Power Pros is that my little boy - who longs some day to grow up and be a pro himself - gets his baseball fix even when he can't run out into a backyard to play. He can read the pitches on MLB Power Pros and hit a few home runs. He can pretend to be his favorite players, he can even analyze a swing and try to strike an opponent out. So, sure while it is not the same thing as living in the suburbs with a lush backyard and space for home runs, at least it's something. And, if you could see the hilarious way he torques his body forward each time he bats - well that provides a little comic relief for the folks, too.




I've been a fan of Cranium games for awhile.  We loved the Treasure Hunt game when the kids were younger--lots of fun surprises plus everyone works toward a common goal which is nice; now I'm a huge fan of Whoonu.  It's a simple game where there's a pile of cards with various things on them (waffles, reading the newspaper, weddings, fizzy drinks, jumping rope, ...) and in every round the object is for people to guess the favorite things of the person who's 'it.'  You select one or two of the random cards in your hand--the things you think 'it' would love best--and put them in a secret envelope along with everyone else's picks from their own randomly drawn sets of cards.  Then the person who's 'it' looks at all the cards and organizes them in a row--from their most favorite to their least favorite.  And then people get points based on how high up their own guesses were in the heirarchy.  It's a simple premise, but here's why I love it:  It inspires loads of conversation, and there's so much room for surprises.  My nine year old son has complained about living in Brooklyn as long as he's been old enough to complain. Brooklyn's boring, why can't we live in Ohio where it's exciting?  Why can't we have a driveway, kids in Ohio are so lucky...Brooklyn's so boring.  I might have eventually figured out that he was warming up to his city-surroundings, but maybe not, given his 'glass half-empty' personality.  But in a rousing game of Whoonu a few months ago he was given a pile of cards to consider:  Baseball games, hot dogs, sleeping late, watching tv, New York City.  As he sorted through them his face remained passive until he got to the New York City card and his eyes lit up, he beamed, and he plopped it down with a 'well definitely this is my most favorite!' and then organized the rest accordingly.  I was shocked at this dramatic shift.  He explained in a 'duh, mom' kind of tone that New York City's the most awesome place to live--and attributed much of it to the Giants winning the Superbowl and the Mets general awesomeness.  Thanks Whoonu.  I don't think anything could have been higher on his list than watching tv.  



Spot On Magnet Hooks

A new friend walked into my kitchen one day, turned in a slow circle, and then remarked 'wow, I don't think I've ever been on a kitchen before without realizing it was a kitchen!'  Perhaps this was because of our towering leafy plants, or maybe it's because we have nothing resembling traditional cabinets, maybe our long unkitcheny Ikea curtains threw her off?.  Or maybe it's that the usual tell-tale kitchen giveaway is the refrigerator and ours was almost completely hidden under an over-the-top but artful arrangement of children's artwork, photo magnets, and souvenirs. I used to feel kind of guilty that my fridge was so cluttered, but I've come to realize that my own personal aesthetic involves lots of colorful meaningful things, and that my fridge most certainly reflects that.  But personal style aside, I'm also raising three children in less than 1600 square feet, and I've come to realize that no surface should be under-utilized, living rent-free; everything should be pulling its own weight.  And that's why these Spot-On Hooks come are so perfect.  I discovered them in A Cook's Companion on Atlantic Avenue (one of those dare-to-dream kitchen stores where I can only usually afford the tchotchkes near the register).  I've since found them online at several other places (including The Container Store). These babies have totally earned their keep.  Each one is strong enough to hold a cast iron skillet, so now all of my frying pans and sauce pans dangle from the side of the fridge closest to the stove (amidst laminated robots, and framed newspaper clippings), and the kids' lunchboxes hang from them too.  And to top it all off they're really beautiful-big circles with little hook 'cut-outs' and they come in gorgeous colors:  avocado green, mango yellow, cool retro blue, chocolate brown, .... So they're doing double duty: helping us save all sorts of precious space and adding to the colorful vibe.  I never don't need more of these.  In fact, as I sit here typing this, I'm realizing I could put about five more to instant use.



Winsor & Newton Cotman Watercolour Field Set

I get so little completely free time that when I do get it, I tend to squander it wondering what to do.  I'll decide to take a nap, then on the edge of dozing off decide that I'd rather be thumbing through an O magazine or something.  I'll scan the table of contents then realize I should be at the gym instead.  I'll open my drawers to find my gym clothes and then realize that my time might be best spent getting rid of clothes I never wear.  I'll start to collect clothes I never wear and then get filled with fatigue and get mad at myself for not having nodded off in the first place.  Next thing I know my kids are home again and I have nothing to show for my down time.   No restful mom, no finished magazine, no morale-boosting work-out, no weeded out clothes.   I hate that.  I remember who I was in my pre-kid life, and I remember that the Winsor & Newton Cotman Watercolour (they're British) Field Set was an important part of my solitude.  I've recommended it to art students over the years, and even though I haven't touched mine in some time, I do have romantic ideas of returning to being that kind of person.  At some point.  In my former life I made many little paintings using my set.  It travelled with me to Portugal, Chile, Madagascar, Israel, and the little cakes of color aren't close to running out.  It's got a cute little collapsible (but very solid) brush, and I used to keep a few Q-tips in the set for instant-erasing.  I'd also use a water bottle cap full of water to keep the set going for a long time (I've been known to use beer too if that's all that's available).  But from the look of it, they've added a few new features.  It comes with a little sea sponge, and a canteen for keeping water.  There's also a little tray table that you snap in that doubles the amount of paint you can have going at any given time.  It's really a great little set.  Technically, if a cake of color runs out you can just purchase one other little chunk.   I suppose if I had a little water color painting for every tiny chunk of down time I've happened across in the last nine and a half years I could fill a gallery with my artwork.  And I might have ordered a few more cakes of color by now.  One testament to how much I love my Cotman Watercolour Field Set is that I can locate my set at a moment's notice.  And that's saying a lot in this house with the closets and the drawers and the shelves that have never really been properly organized--given how unfocused I've been known to be during those moments when I should be taking care of them. 



No-Pudge Brownie Mix

I discovered No Pudge Brownie Mix a couple of years ago when it screamed out at me from a supermarket shelf in a supermarket I never go to in a different part of Brooklyn. I can't remember why I was there, but the hot pink almost retro-looking box got my attention, and boy am I glad. This stuff is incredible. I don't understand about the No-Pudge part, having never been able to grasp much about nutrition. I'm like the girl on that commercial, standing in the bakery pointing to rolls--does this one have carbs? what about this one? and this?--I get that 'fat-free' can sometimes mean more of something else--sugar?, but again, this is not my field of expertise so I'm making no claims here on behalf of the product, except for how delicious it is...please read on. You make the 'brownies' by mixing the chocolatey powder with any kind of yogurt you want. I put 'brownie' in quotes because the way we choose to use it is to make little individual portions in pyrex dishes. Two tablespoons of mix combined with one tablespoon of yogurt, microwaved on high for one minute, and you get this thing that's a lot like molten chocolate cake. We've tried it with plain yogurt, vanilla yogurt, banilla yogurt, strawberry yogurt, chocolate yogurt. I've only ever tasted the Fudge Brownie mix in the pink box--they do have other varieties. I may branch out at some point (there's a mint one, not sure what else), but there's been no incentive to do that yet. The website is full of other kinds of recipes, mostly sent in by fans: applesauce brownies, cherry cola brownies, etc. Check it out. This stuff is incredible.



Bamboo towel - The Company Store

My daughter was born with a keen sense of luxury. Her favorite chocolate is Jacques Torres dark. She can taste the subtle differences between various olive oils. She notices when the toilet paper is not Charmin. I'm certain she is meant to be queen someday. With those royal aspirations in mind, my daughter has declared the new Bamboo towel we received from The Company Store the softest towel on earth. It is the only one she'll use and while I might like a turn once in a while, she appreciates it on a level I'm just haven't reached yet. It is remarkably soft for a bath towel, almost baby blanket like in its feel and against your skin it is a dream. And, it is eco-friendly as well. I don't completely understand the details of it - something about bamboo's renewability. All I know is my daughter knows luxury when she feels, tastes, sees it and she loves this towel. For me - well, I'm eyeing that bamboo bathrobe I saw at The Company Store online - after all I have to cultivate my sense of luxury with a future queen for a daughter!



Second the Votivo

I just want to second the amazing scented-ness of the Votivo candle. In our case, it is the cinnamon candle that please the olfactory senses for half our family - my husband and daughter who could eat cinnamon well, in a candle - not that they are eating the candle. And for me - the red currant candle is to die for - so luscious and sweet with that little tart under scent. I don't know how Votive does it - but those candles are remarkable. Maybe I should start a new craze the "candle diet" where I feel like I'm eating all these amazing flavors and really only smelling the candles. After all, they say the nose is where taste begins.



The Wonder Pets

I remember when my oldest son was young and I thought I could control everything that went into him, and by extension I thought all parents were really in charge of what their kids watched for ever and ever, no exceptions. And then his younger siblings came along and I realized that if my 6 year old was watching Yu-Gi-Oh, then my 4 year old was watching it too, and my one year old was likely in the room. Now I understood how a 3 year old girl could be into Hannah Montana, now I get how an 18 month old boy can hum Darth Vader's theme. It's all clear to me now. The fun flipside of that is that my older kids can often be caught enjoying some very 'young' shows. Hearing my 9 year old son walk around the house singing Dora jingles or having everyone join in in a good round of Blues Clues (with feeling) can be pretty cute, especially given the other influences out there. And I'm grateful that my older kids, who'd have otherwise been wayy too old by the time it came along, have gotten to enjoy The Wonder Pets. We all love The Wonder Pets. There are hidden clues all over the show that are gratifying for people of all ages, and the graphics (animated flat photographs and colored paper, from what I can tell?) are soothing as well, not jarring like some of the more technicolored computer-generated shows. The show's premise is this: three school pets turn into superheroes every day after the kids have left the little schoolhouse. To songs set to classical music tunes they find out where some baby animal is trapped/stuck/distressed/whatever, and they travel to save it. There's a MacGyver quality to the machines they build, and some basic physics or other little life lessons involved. And then they cap off every episode by celebrating the rescue by eating celery--'this calls for some celery!'--which, I have to say, really has propaganda-ed celery into being something all my kids will eat. Some of their sayings/singings 'this is serious' or 'the phone, the phone is ringing...the phone? I'll be right there' have become part of our family culture. And I've even found myself walking grown friends through the details of the show, some of them are so clever. I'm sure other incredible shows for little kids will come along and we'll miss them completely--now that our attentions are aimed more in the High School Musical direction, but I have to say I'm glad that we caught the The Wonder Pets when we did. One last really great kid's show for the whole family.



Votivo Candle--Black Ginger

A few years ago, I was at a fancy French restaurant having dinner with another mom--in theory I know that the atmosphere was gorgeous, the food fantastic, the conversation stimulating...but my biggest memory, the only thing I remember really really well, was the way the bathroom smelled.  I got up to use the bathroom and came back to the table with big eyes: "the bathroom smells great!"  Later she got up to use the bathroom and came back with big what-a-great-smelling-bathroom eyes as well.  Before we left we did some detective work, which just meant that one of us went back in, picked the big candle up off the back of the toilet?  some shelf?  the sink?  (see, another thing I don't remember) and read the name on the bottom.  Votivo Black Ginger.  A few months later she gave me one for a baby shower gift.  I think my favorite thing about it is that it's a very grown-up smell, and doesn't remind me of any part of having a houseful of children, except for the one night at the French restaurant when I escaped all of that.  I also love that, of all the Votivo 'flavors' and 'smells' I never ever would have gravitated towards something called Black Ginger.  What is black ginger anyway?  I'd have gone for something muskier, fruitier, vanilla-ier...  I think I caught wind of it today in a dressing room in Anthropologie.  Maybe not (I didn't investigate--too many people around), but it did send my love of it right back to me. It's a really gorgeous, gorgeous-smelling candle.



Flip to Win Hangman--Melissa and Doug

I don't know who these Melissa and Doug people are but I'm constantly impressed with the quality and the affordability of their wooden toys.  We picked up this Flip to Win Hangman game as a house gift last weekend and it ended up being kind of a surprise hit.  When I saw it in the store it looked like a cute idea, and I have a habit of rewarding cute ideas by buying them.  And of course there was some laughter about how much longer a simple game of Hangman takes with this clunky wooden board whose wooden letters and body parts are attached by bungee type cords and which you pick up to flip and snap over for guessing and scoring, but there's something about the process that's inviting, and we had a hard time tearing the kids away from it.  Plus the bottom chunk of the board is a dry erase board and the 'marker' comes attached so there's something kind of mesmerizing about that, since, face it, every kid loves a dry erase board.  We left it with the family we gave it to (something that should be obvious, but somehow wasn't to my youngest child) but will be picking up one of our own to take on our upcoming vacation.  It's nice to have a travel game that's truly self-contained, it would be impossible to lose any of the pieces--(the dry erase marker could be lost I suppose, but easily replaced if necessary)--and yet it has the satisfying tactile feeling of a classic wooden game with lots of different parts.  I know I know, Hangman could be played on a free napkin with a broken pencil but honestly, this is just downright adorable, and I'm certain many more rounds were played with this (by the six kids in the house between the ages of 4 and 9) than would have been played otherwise.  I suppose the only downside (besides it not being free like the kind you play on an airplane barf bag) is that you really do just get eleven 'strikes' before your guy hangs, unlike how you can draw out a game on paper by adding teensy details to your doomed guy at every erroneous guess.  But it keeps you honest (like computer solitaire does) and the games don't go on forever, which can come in handy.



Marie Belle Chocolate Rose Tea

My mother used to swoon at the idea of her first few sips of coffee--and credited her enthusiasm for her beloved beverage for getting her up and at 'em before dawn every morning. I've never been a coffee drinker, but now, I think, I understand the obsession. When I'm taking my first few sips of Marie Belle Chocolate Rose tea when I get up in the morning, my body shudders at the excitement of how wonderful it's going to be to be sipping it again at 4 o'clock. Likewise at 4pm, when I'm settling back in after all the various school/camp pick-ups, and I take my first sip of afternoon tea, I flush at the thought of how it's going to feel to be sipping it again, the next morning, at 7am. A friend once pointed out that the thing about childhood is that the years fly by but the days go on forever. This chocolate rose tea is one reason to savor all those slow days. And when our beloved family pet had to be put to sleep, and I had to go hold her paw in her final moments, and I was so grief-stricken that I walked down the wrong avenue to get to the subway, which of course wasn't where it should have been because I walked down the wrong avenue, and I found myself standing in front of the Madison Avenue Marie Belle shop I realized that the only thing I could do was to go stock up on more of her tea. Friends have winced at the thought of combining chocolate and tea, but are always won over when I pour them a cup. Adding milk makes it extra perfect, of course. I could (and probably will) rave about other very specific brands and flavors of loose tea (stay tuned), but this one deserves to be first--and not just because it's in the prettiest tin.



Tales from the Odyssey--Mary Pope Osborne

Of all the phases my nine year old son has gone through--and there have been many (Yu-Gi-Oh, Scooby Doo, Dragonball Z, Star Wars)--Greek Mythology is by far my favorite.  He was introduced to Greek Mythology in 4th grade when he stumbled upon a series of books satirizing Greek Myths (in which Hades is the hero, Zeus the evil brother, etc.) and I realized that the cart was before the horse--he had no idea what was being parodied, and was believing Hades' version.  I mentioned this to his teachers who immediately got their hands on the Mary Pope Osborne 'Tales from the Odyssey' six-book series, and then we all sat back and watched him devour them.  Full disclosure:  He was never into the Magic Tree House series; while he might have been into the adventures themselves he couldn't get past the Jack and Annie characters which to him seemed a bit condescending.  The Greek Myths on the other hand...nothing childish about them at all.  One terrible thing happens after another, and he just can't get enough.  But the best part of this particular obsession is what's happened after he put the books down.  Things in the world start to make sense to him, now that he has this Greek Mythology in his head--it's easy to forget how many references there are in our day to day lives (Nike, the Olympics, Honda Odyssey).  His passion for mythology got him properly hooked into the excellent Rick Riordan Lightning Thief series (click here for the story about meeting him), and he can hold his own in conversations with grandparents and other visitors who are eager to engage on the subject.  And what mom doesn't love it when her nine year old son has an involved and energetic dialogue with grownups, about anything?



We Love the Wii

Through a fortunate series of circumstances, we received today the Nintendo Wii.  And Wii love it.  After solving a mishap in which pop tart goo ended up on the Wii Sports disk - we are live and playing actively right in our own little living room - and it is little - we live in Manhattan!  But the kids are managing to be physical without jumping all over the furniture or twisting in endless dizzying circles until I take them out to the park.  But here's the big, amazing, awesome thing about the Wii.  He'll hate me saying this but it's gotten my husband off the couch, too.  Not that he's a complete couch potato - but once the kids are in bed, he settles in front of the Yankees and pretty much stays there for the duration.  Granted, he's watching the game on Tivo so he can fast forward but then comes a dvr-ed Jon Stewart or he'll sit with his laptop working.  He might get up for a glass of wine and a snack but mostly he's sitting on the couch.  And then we got the Wii.  Tonight he played golf first.  The physicality of the golf game was subtle but he was standing up, swinging his arm.  Then, he tired of golf and switched to boxing.  It was hilarious!  My couch comfy husband up, punching, ducking, juking and generally going for the knock down.  I think he broke a sweat.  We joked about it - you know - how I got in shape - Wii Boxing!  I think it could happen! 


Skin So Soft

My next door neighbor used to be an Avon lady--back when the only way you could get your hands on Avon products was in person.  I'm sure she was a patient and gentle sales-person but for me there was a certain amount of peer pressure, given that she was my best friend's older sister and all of our transactions took place in her teenagery room surrounded by her teenagery things.  So I'm extra grateful for since I can buy bucketfuls of Skin So Soft without having to go through any makeovers or get talked into thinking I'm the kind of person who should smell powdery fresh all the time. It's the only Deet-free thing that's ever kept mosquitoes from eating me alive.  Apparently it was created to be a bath oil, and somewhere down the line someone discovered that it repels mosquitoes.  PERFECTLY.  No icky strong citronella scent, no toxic spray to get in your mouth and eyes, just lots and lots of free-flowing pine-smelling (but pine, in a good way) oil.  I can't imagine trying to get through a summer without it.  Go to and search for Skin So Soft, but don't get distracted by all the various's the Original Scent Bath Oil that works.



Schleich Animals

I was an enormous stuffed animal fan when I was young, I gave them out generously as gifts (with matching board books!--how clever!) at baby showers, and grew up to become the 'stuffed animal specialist' at FAO Schwarz in my early twenties.  Now that I'm a mom, I can't stand them.  Whereas my sister and I would throw birthday parties for our favorites, which would require making 300 paper hats for all the others, and we'd just weep Corduroy-style at the thought of a less-than-perfect creature being left to collect dust on a store shelf (hence the enormous collection at home), my own children haven't gravitated towards them.  They have some cute ones, but mostly, they're decorative. They look nice sitting on a shelf, in a fantasy child's bedroom kind of way, but really they just collect a lot of dust and take up valuable square footage.  The mere fact that no consignment shop will accept stuffed animals kinda makes me appreciate the cringe-factor of all that old fur.  Which brings me to the Schleich creatures.  Fantastically detailed, little hard rubber creatures--both real, and imaginary.  There's something for everyone.  Unicorns, woolly mammoths, lion cubs (for the newly Lion King obsessed), hyenas, fairies, farm animals, jungle animals, marine life.  I've enjoyed weeding out all of our old yucky bath toys and have found these Schleich creatures popping up in the shower.  This morning an old bear greeted me enthusiastically from the soap dish.  They're durable and satisfying, play well with action figures, and fit well in block and lego building.  I suspect my children will grow out of them at some point, but am in no hurry for that day to come.



Eat, Pray, Love

I took the plunge so many women before me have taken into the marvelous "Eat, Pray, Love" by Elizabeth Gilbert. Often I resist the thing that everyone is talking about, call me a contrarian but I'm just not a big joiner. Still when the crowds are right, they are right. "Eat, Pray, Love" is a book to be savored. It is the story of Gilbert's journey, after the difficult dissolution of her marriage, through the pleasures of Italy, the spiritual devotion of India and finally seeking balance in Bali. Gilbert's language is sensual yet approachable. She's funny and touching and there are times I feel like she's put words to the emotions I find myself running through in the chaos that life can be as a woman with so many choices and so many different messages about what we are supposed to want. I'm still in Italy but I have no doubt the rest of Gilbert's journey will be just as vicariously soul-satisfying for me.


Olympus Digital Voice Recorder VN-4100

I've recently started a little bit of a freelance writing career for myself and what a lifesaver this little baby has been for me. Most of my work has involved interviewing people over the phone. And this recorder, with an assist from a Radio Shack recording controller, can hook right up to my phone. I'm not much of a note taker - I sort of jot down salient and sometimes not so salient words when I'm on the phone to remind myself of some point in the conversation. But generally I get so caught up in the discussion with whomever I'm interviewing I forget about notes, then I panic that I won't remember what the person has said and definitely won't have direct quotes. Then I remember my trusty little Olympus recorder and I breathe a sigh of relief. I can imagine a myriad of uses for the kids - if I were to let them get their hands on it - everything from SpyKids recreations to evidence of a sibling's transgression. And I could see it being useful if say you were in dispute with someone - like our downstairs neighbor at the old apartment who used to call and harass us with the most awful, judgmental and a little bit frightening comments. Sounds a little Big Brother but if I'd had this recorder, there might have been an outcome to the whole three year drama that was far less satisfying to her than us moving out.




I know I know, there are entire websites devoted to hating on these shoes, and I don't know anyone who loves them who thinks they're wearing gorgeous shoes, but I'll only consider ending my affair with Crocs when someone else can figure out a way to prevent my feet from stinking the way Crocs have.  A good friend turned me onto Crocs a few years ago, and fully six months before they really hit the big time.  I remember doing mini sales-pitches all over the country as friends and families would ask me about them.  They're the closest thing you can get to being barefoot, they slip on and off with ease.  And they're very very comfy. I've gone through no fewer than seven pairs of Crocs in the last four years.  My current favorite is a pair of black Mary Jane style Crocs that I actually wore to the Sex and the City premiere at Radio City.  It was pouring pouring rain and I had to wait in a long line that kept having these crazy pauses where we'd all have to stand on those little sidewalk grates for minutes on end and all the fancy ladies around me were getting their Jimmy Choos stuck.  I may not have won any fashion awards for the evening but if there'd been a common sense award it would have been mine.  Crocs have added some great-looking new styles, but sadly my favorite one is in a Mens shoe only and doesn't run as small as my foot would require.  Recently I decided to take a break from Crocs as a day to day show and switched to a kind of high tech hikey/sandaly kind of shoe.  It's a gorgeous pair of shoes and cost as much as three pairs of Crocs.  But after I spent a few days in them I had that Robby Benson moment from the end of Ice Castles--remember "We forgot about the flowers?"--there in the middle of the rink after his blind girlfriend had fooled everyone into thinking she could see until they started throwing the long stemmed roses onto the ice and then her handicap was revealed?  Well that was me.  I forgot about the foot odor!  I thought I'd take a little aesthetic break from Crocs and I walked all over town fooling myself and what slammed me back down to earth was that old familiar funky foot smell that infected pair after pair of Birkenstocks for decades and is now threatening to destroy my high-tech hikey/sandaly shoes.  And honestly?  I haven't even smelled that smell for four years now, so effective have Crocs been in eliminating it.  So, these new expensive walking shoes will have to be demoted to an occasional walking shoe, and I'm off to buy another pair of Crocs.  Sometimes I wonder if they'd consider making a little Crocky insole--a non-stick slip of Croc-rubber that could transform any shoe into an odorless paradise.  And I do wish they'd make some of their new Mens styles--that really look like regular shoes on the outside--for women.  Not quite sure why they keep thinking women want to show toe-cleavage all the time.  But of course beggars (smellers) can't be choosers so you won't get any complaints from me.



Nisska Comb

You only need to have your family of five be infested with lice once to recognize the beauty of the Nisska comb. Technically it took me two infestations to realize that owning one wasn't enough, I have to make sure I bring it with me wherever I go as well. Two winters ago I managed to ignore every single family member's complaints of itchy heads until it was wayyy too late. We were all completely full of lice by the time I put two and two (two thousand and two thousand?) together. I whisked us off in the dead of night to the famous lice lady in Boro Park, and she combed us all out using a Nisska comb (which we were then forced to buy from her as part of the package deal) and gobs and gobs of Pantene conditioner. A few months later a few bugs reappeared when we were at my parents' house. I had neglected to travel with the Nisska comb, and ran from drugstore to drugstore looking for an adequate substitute. I found some ridiculous red-plastic comb with teeth that were so short I could barely reach down to anyone's scalp. I used it and a few other different types of combs and freed us of the bugs and nits that way. But I learned my lesson and my Nisska comb, in it's beautiful green pouch, is never far away from me. If any one of my kids claims itchiness we do a just-in-case comb-out. We haven't had any bugs in eighteen months, despite swarms of them swirling through school community scalps again and again. Keep one close by. If you ever need to do a combout (no chemicals necessary, there's nothing like cleaning the head completely) just pour gobs of Pantene conditioner onto dry hair and start to comb through with the Nisska comb. Swipe every pass of conditioner across a white tissue, check the result. The bugs and nits stand out beautifully against the opaque white goop. Comb, swipe, repeat. Comb, swipe, repeat. It's really not that bad.


**We were just contacted by a company in Brooklyn (Exit15) that sells the Nisska comb. They've offered free shipping to our readers. Follow this link and use the code Nisska15 at check out. Feb. 10, 2009