Wednesday, July 30, 2014

No Toys? No Problem!

It’s every mom’s secret fear: You find yourself waiting – at a crowded restaurant, on a plane, in the doctor’s waiting room, stuck in endless traffic – with several bored children and no toys.

So what do you do to keep them entertained? Here are a few of my favorite tricks!

”I Spy”
Take turns picking out an object somewhere in the room and telling each other, “I spy with my little eye, something [color]!” and try to guess what it is. Something red could be a bottle of ketchup, something green could be a potted plant, something yellow could be someone's T-shirt. You can also get more specific for littler ones: “I spy…someone wearing a baseball cap” or “…a picture of a little boy” or “…salt and pepper shakers.”

“The Alphabet Game”
This one works with children who recognize the letters of the alphabet, even if they can’t actually read. Go through the alphabet together, trying to find an example of each letter, in the correct order. It’s best in the car when there are constantly different signs going by, but in the doctor’s office you can flip through magazines; in a restaurant you can use the menu; at the grocery store you can look at package labels and aisle signs.

“Down by the Bay”
This one only works when you’re not going to disturb others while singing. If you don’t already know the tune, check out YouTube for an example. The lyrics are: “Down by the bay, where the watermelons grow, back to my home I dare not go. For if I do, my mama will say, ‘Did you ever see [fill in the blank]?” You fill in the blank with a rhyming phrase, like “some llamas wearing pajamas” or “a fish washing a dish” or “a crook reading a book.” You can take turns filling in the rhyme, or everyone can just blurt out whatever comes to mind. The sillier the rhyme, the better!

Another noisy one best saved for traffic jams. You remember the old chant: “Categories (clap clap)! Names of! (clap clap) [specific category]s! (clap clap) Such as!” and then you fill in something that fits into that category starting with each letter of the alphabet, in turn. Good categories include vegetables, types of clothes, colors, food, vehicles, things that grow. Get creative with your answers: anyone can come up with “purple” as a color that starts with “p,” but how about “persimmon,” “plum,” “peacock,” or “pewter”? Feel free to skip over the hard letters. Nothing starts with “x” other than “xylophone” and “x-ray,” anyway.

“Who Are They?”
True confessions time: My husband and I played this game on our first date. We were at a restaurant, and seated near us was a table of maybe a dozen people ranging in age from late 20s to early 60s. We decided they were the employees of a law firm, and carefully identified the partners, the paralegals, and the interns. We determined who was secretly having an affair, who was ready to jump ship to another firm, and who was actually an undercover FBI agent. Children love to make up stories, so encourage them to imagine where the family in the car next to you in the traffic is headed, what the couple at the next restaurant table is talking about, or what the grocery store cashier is going to do after work today.

No matter where you are or how little you have on hand, you – and your children – always have your imagination with you. Use it! You’ll be amazed at how quickly time goes by. (Even when you’re in line at the DMV.)

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Friday, July 25, 2014

Stuff That Makes My Kids Laugh

A few months ago, blogging about all the reasons your toddler or preschooler had a meltdown in the course of a day was all the rage. Most of the reasons were random, senseless things like, “I dropped a grape” or “The dog looked at me funny” or “I was wearing my red socks instead of my blue socks.” And as I was reading all of those lists, I was nodding in exhausted sympathy, because my kids have meltdowns for much the same reasons on a regular basis.

But this morning, as I watched my daughter doing a happy dance for no other reason than that I had just put my glasses on (“Mama, you can seeeeee!!!!! YAAAAAYYY!!!), it occurred to me that I’ve never seen a blog about all the random, senseless things that make my children do a literal dance of joy. So I wrote one, and here it is.

  • She ate a blueberry.
  • His friend let him borrow a favorite book.
  • We got to go swimming in our pool. (We do this on a nearly daily basis this time of year, but somehow it never loses its delight.)
  • She found an ant.
  • She squished an ant.
  • We had pancakes for breakfast.
  • He built a cool “thing” out of Legos.
  • We stopped for ice cream.
  • Her brother made silly faces at her. (This is also sometimes a cause of meltdown, but it’s close enough to 50-50 that it really belongs on both lists.)
  • His sister jumped on him. (Ditto the 50-50 thing, above.)
  • The supermarket cashier gave her a high five.
  • He got the empty crayon box to whistle, just like Daddy does.
  • I let them watch “Handy Manny.”
  • She found a matchbox car that she’d lost under the car seat months ago.
  • He found the World’s Most Important Lego Piece between the couch cushions.
  • There was a bunny in our back yard.
  • Daddy came home from work.
  • Mommy came out of the bathroom. (I had been in there for maybe 30 seconds, but you’d have thought I’d walked to Siberia and back.)
  • Her stuffed monkeys survived the washing machine.
  • I let him play with the garden hose.
  • I tickled him.
  • I came in their bedroom and said, “Good morning!”

My children may occasionally be frustrated or sad or angry because of tiny little things, but when I get frustrated or sad or angry because of that, I need to remind myself of all the times they made me smile because they get excited and happy and joyfully wriggly because of tiny little things, too. They’re two of the best tiny little things that make me excited and happy and joyfully wriggly!

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Monday, July 21, 2014

The Best-Laid Plans

Before summer started, I had all kinds of fabulous ideas of what I was going to do with my kids this summer. We were going to have a weekly library day, a reading time every afternoon, writing practice with sidewalk chalk after lunch, have the kids help me make dinner a couple of times a week. We would do scavenger hunt walks now and then. We’d go to the splash park with friends at least once a week. I’d have written up a whole year’s worth of kindergarten lesson plans for the coming fall. I’d post in my blog at least every other day. And both my kids would be completely potty-trained by the end of the summer.


Today is July 21st. We’re pretty much at the midpoint of summer. I should be well into this list by now, but…not so much. We have yet to go to the library, only one child has deigned to play with sidewalk chalk and it was mainly for scribbling on her own body, the closest I’ve come to help with dinner is my son making his own peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich once. We have been to the splash park twice, I’ve pinned a bunch of homeschooling stuff on Pinterest, and I’ve blogged at least every other week. Potty training is…let’s just go with “stalled.”

But much like any other to-do list, sometimes you add the stuff you weren’t planning on doing but did just so you can cross it off. And there were plenty of things I didn’t really plan for but that I did.

We took the kids to Storyland for the first time, and spent the entire day riding rides, eating treats, climbing on stuff, and just generally having fun together.

We’ve spent enough time in our swimming pool that my son can now swim safely without his “floaties” on. And both kids fearlessly jump and dive and splash in the pool.

We’ve spent time at the grocery store talking about different fruits and where they come from.

My son and I had a great discussion about why it’s not healthy to smoke cigarettes, inspired by being stuck in traffic behind a guy sticking his arm out of his car window with a cigarette clenched between his fingers.

We’ve achieved a few minor victories in the potty training wars. And I, personally, have learned to stress less over our slow progress and rejoice in those small victories. (I’ve also learned to love OxyClean like I love life itself.)

We’ve gone out to dinner and received compliments from servers and fellow diners alike on how well-behaved our children are.

(I did say “well-behaved,” not “neat.”)

So who cares if I haven’t gotten to everything on my list yet? I’d say that the stuff I did is just as important as the stuff I didn’t do. Besides, I still have half the summer left to do the rest. Or at least, to add a bunch of other good stuff that I hadn’t planned on doing. 

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

My Favorite Life Hacks

The expression “life hacks” is one I discovered while browsing the internet. For those unfamiliar with the term, a life hack is some kind of shortcut or technique that simplifies life. There are all kinds of lists all over the internet of good life hacks, but I thought I’d put together a compilation of a few that I find to be the most useful, the most interesting, or the most cool.

Proper use of a bobby pin
Most women who put bobby pins in their hair put them in at the orientation in the photo above: straight side down, wavy side up. WRONG!!! Putting a bobby pin in your hair with the flat side up will not only hold your hair more firmly, but it will be easier to slide into place, it will lie smoothly (and less noticeably) against your head, and that little sticky-uppy part at the end won’t poke out of your ‘do (and since your head is curved, it won't poke YOU either).

Banish static cling from clothes
Got a skirt, dress, or blouse made of a lightweight material that is always full of static cling? Don’t reach for that bottle of Static Guard, reach for a safety pin instead. Pin a small safety pin into the seam allowance and it will disperse that nasty static. You may need one on each side of the garment.

And from hair
Got static in your hair, not your clothes? Smooth it down with a used dryer sheet. Not only will it be less flyaway, it’ll smell fresh and clean!

Know which water glass and bread plate are yours
Don’t you just hate it when you’re at a wedding reception or a large business dinner and the place settings are all mashed together so it’s not clear which water glass and which bread plate are yours? Here’s all you have to do: put your hands in your lap and make the “OK” sign with each of them. Look at your left hand: It’s also in the shape of a lower-case letter “b,” right? That’s because your bread plate is on your left. Now look at your right hand: It’s a lower-case “d,” because your drink is the one on your right. Now you just have to be sure to claim them before the guests on either side of you who don’t know this trick do.

Iced coffee in the Keurig
I love iced coffee, but when you have a Keurig, it just doesn’t make sense to brew a single cup and wait for it to chill. But if you brew it over ice, it gets watered down. Here’s the simple solution: make a cup or two of your favorite blend, pour it into an ice cube tray, and freeze. The next time you want an iced coffee, brew it over the coffee cubes instead of plain ice. Don’t forget to put the sugar in first so it dissolves while the coffee is still hot!

Sugar in your iced coffee
Speaking of dissolving sugar in your coffee, don’t you hate it when you get takeout iced coffee and there’s all that sugary sludge at the bottom that just won’t dissolve no matter how hard you stir? Just ask them to pour a splash of hot coffee in your cup after adding the sugar but before adding the iced coffee. I learned this trick from the scariest-looking, most tattooed and pierced, and absolutely most wonderful Dunkin Donuts employee I ever met. Wherever you are today, my friend, THANK YOU AND GOD BLESS YOU!

Sneeze manipulation
Got an annoyingly ticklish nose but that sneeze just won’t come? Look at a bright light. It’s called the photic reflex and it’s present in about one-third of us. So it might not work, but it couldn’t hurt.

On the flip side, feel a sneeze coming that you really need to stifle? Press hard on the bridge of your nose with your finger, or push your tongue up against the front part of your hard palate right behind your front teeth. Both techniques seem to calm an impending sneeze.

Clearing your throat without clearing your throat
What if that tickle isn’t in your nose, but in your throat? I had some vocal issues a number of years ago and learned that clearing your throat is TERRIBLE for your vocal cords. So how to get rid of that tickle without an annoying – and unhealthy – “hem hem”? Drop your chin down to your chest, turn your head slightly to the side, and swallow. The motion will soothe the irritated nerves and even help clear that annoying phlegm.

Dry mouth
About to make a speech and suddenly realize your mouth is full of sawdust? Vocal audition and you ran out of water five minutes ago? Ready to play your fancy brass fanfare and you haven’t got enough spit to drown a flea? Bite your tongue! No, really. Bite your tongue gently and it will stimulate the flow of saliva. And keep in mind that if you bite the sides instead of the tip you’re less likely to hurt yourself.

Elegant cocktail garnishes
To make an elegant cocktail garnish of lemon or lime, cut off both ends, slice across the peel from end to end, and carefully cut off the entire peel so you have a roughly rectangular shape. Scrape off as much of the white pith as you can, then re-roll the peel tightly and put a rubber band around it to keep it rolled. Put in a Ziploc baggie and freeze. When thoroughly frozen, remove the rubber band and slice into ¼-inch wide discs, then keep frozen until ready to use. Drop a frozen disc into a drink and it will add flavor, keep the drink cool, and slowly uncoil as it thaws. Plus you still have the rest of the lemon or lime for juice!

Pizza cutters are for more than just pizza
Whenever I go out to breakfast with my kids, by the time I finish cutting up their pancakes or waffles for them, my own breakfast is cold. But that never happens at home, because at home I use a pizza cutter to zip through even a tall stack of pancakes in seconds. A pizza cutter is also handy for trimming crusts off bread or sandwiches, cutting toast into points or fingers, slicing up peppers or mushrooms, and even slicing brownies or bar cookies – just pop the whole thing out of the pan onto a cutting board and slice away!

I hope you find some of these hacks to be useful, interesting, or at least cool. And please share your own favorite life hacks in the comments!

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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Cheap Stuff Kids Love

About a year ago, I posted a blog entry called “Cheap Stuff I Love.” I listed a bunch of free or inexpensive things that I really enjoy, like Dunkin Donuts’ Butter Pecan iced coffee and non-stick foil. But after having spent this past weekend camping with two small children, I realized there is another list waiting to be written: Cheap Stuff Kids Love. And here is that list!

Dirt – free (optional accessories: bucket, $0.99 and shovel, $0.79)
You don’t even have to go to a store to get dirt. It’s everywhere, free for the taking! There’s some in the yard, there’s some at the beach, there’s lots at the playground. Kids can shovel it, roll around in it, scuff their feet in it, or add water and make it into pies. It comes in multiple colors, from black to brown to red to beige. And it’s completely washable! And non-toxic! (Well, mostly.)

Bubbles - $0.99
Hardly a day goes by that one or the other of my kids doesn’t beg me to let them blow bubbles – or to blow bubbles for them. My 3-year-old is fascinated by the fact that I can blow single, giant bubbles rather than the stream of tiny ones that she’s just beginning to master. So she’ll blow some for herself for a while, then she’ll hand me the wand and request, “Blow a giant bubble, Mama!!”

We blow bubbles outside and watch them drift through the yard; we blow them in the kitchen and get a clean kitchen floor in the process; we blow them while sitting on the potty to help, ahem, move the action along. We blow them with wands, with straws and string, and with bubble guns. We love bubbles.

Paper Towel Tubes – free with purchase
One of the most exciting moments of the week in my house is when I get to the end of a roll of paper towels. I can actually bribe my children by promising the most well-behaved one the next empty roll. In their hands, it becomes a musical instrument, a pirate’s telescope, a drumstick, a hat, a long claw, a sword, and anything else their imaginations can come up with. And around the same time that it starts to lose its appeal, it also starts to fall apart and can be tossed in the recycle bin with no hard feelings.

A Recorder - $5
Although considerably less of a delight to parents (and dogs within a 2-mile radius), a recorder is a joy to all children. Even a cheap recorder is capable of making lovely, tuneful sounds, but in the hands of a small child, it can also produce glass-shattering squeals and squeaks at impressive decibel levels. Whether marching in an imaginary parade, sitting on the sofa, or following Mom around the house, playing a recorder is one of the most satisfying (not to mention one of the loudest) experiences a child can have.

Scotch Tape - $1.50
I once read that when taking a long plane or car trip with small children, you could keep them entertained with small pieces of scotch tape. And I soon discovered that any time my kids were bored, I could simply give them a few strips of scotch tape and they would stay busy for hours at a time. My daughter prefers to stick small pieces across her nose and mouth; my son likes to wrap long lengths around his waist and ankles. Occasionally they’ll tag team me and cover my entire body in small bits of tape, giggling uproariously the whole time. At ten cents a yard, it’s worth every penny.

Packing Materials – free with purchase

As an introvert and an Amazon Prime member, I get a lot of packages shipped to my house. And the vast majority of them come with some kind of packing material. tends to pack with long strips of inflated plastic pillows that are just the right size for little feet to jump on. Other vendors prefer old-fashioned bubble wrap, which is just the right size for little fingers to pinch. Occasionally, a really old-school vendor will ship something surrounded by white or pink Styrofoam packing peanuts and their accompanying halo of static cling. Whatever the packing material, the physical challenge and the audio reward are just the right combination for hours of fun. And when you’re done, just stick them back in a box and send them off to someone else!

Board Game Pieces – $8-$12
The gingerbread men from Candyland. The Sesame Street characters from Chutes and Ladders. The dog, the iron, the racecar, and the top hat from Monopoly. The pink and blue pegs from Life. The penguins from Penguin Pile Up. At some point in time, my daughter has been completely enamored with each of these sets of game pieces. She sobbed inconsolably when we lost the blue Candyland gingerbread man for several hours (he was eventually found, safe and sound, at the bottom of my purse). She steals Cookie Monster from her brother every single time he and I sit down to play Chutes and Ladders. I once found two tiny contraband penguins in her pocket after we’d been playing games at a friend’s house. These games may go for $8-$12, but the lovable cast of characters inside the box are worth much, much more.

The outlay for all seven items on this list will probably run you less than 25 bucks, and that even includes a bonus roll of paper towels. And you get to keep the board game, although I’m not sure how much good it will do you when the iron, the dog, and the top hat are busy having a tea party with the gingerbread men. 

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Tuesday, July 8, 2014


Going on vacation is always fun, but it’s also a lot of work – especially if you’re a bit neurotic, as I am. I have lists of what I’ve packed in the past, what I’m planning on packing now, and what I think I should pack in the future. I have lists of what I need to get, what I already have, and what I don’t need this time. I have lists that are alphabetized, categorized, and color-coded. I spend nearly as much time making lists as I do collecting the stuff that is on them. And I definitely spend more time planning and packing for vacation than I do actually being on vacation. But what really takes up my time when it comes to vacation is not the preparation, nor the vacation itself. It’s the “de-vacationing” that comes after we get home.

The first part of de-vacationing is laundry. Even if a trip was only a quick overnight, my family somehow manages to generate 27 loads of laundry. In fact, whether the trip was overnight or two weeks long, the amount of laundry is roughly the same. It’s like some weird magic vacation physics. And since my family often goes camping for vacation, a large part of that laundry is washing sleeping bags.

I live on the edge when it comes to washing sleeping bags. I used to carefully read the labels and have them dry cleaned, until I noticed that one of our sleeping bags carried a dire warning: “DO NOT DRY CLEAN!!!!” It was in such a threatening font that I decided to give in to that warning and instead ignore the warnings on the other bags that said, sweetly and non-threateningly, “Wash only in a large capacity front-loading commercial grade washer.” Pfft. Ain’t nobody got time for dat. If I can stuff that baby into my washer, then that’s where it’s going. So far, neither the washing machine nor the sleeping bags are any the worse for wear. I do draw the line as throwing them in the dryer, though. I have had the experience of sleeping in a sleeping bag whose stuffing had shifted in the dryer and I will never again subject myself to that. Instead, my back yard is covered with sleeping bags draped over every available surface. At this very moment, there’s one hanging over the fence, another draped over two carefully placed patio chairs, a third hanging over the railing of the pool steps, and a fourth looking like a heavily-padded tablecloth on the picnic table. I spend most of “drying day” praying for no rain.

Another large part of de-vacationing is re-stocking and de-stocking. Our camping supplies include a mix of perishable and non-perishable items, so things like Ziploc baggies, rolls of paper towels, and long matches are re-stocked prior to being packed back away in the attic, and things like pancake mix, Clorox wipes, and batteries are pulled out and added to our daily stores before their boxes are tucked away for another year. Of course, this leads to a complete reorganization and repacking of all the items in every box. There is a complicated system of nesting and tucking items together to maximize use of storage space. (This is where my years of playing Tetris come in handy.) The paper towel roll nests perfectly inside the Dutch chimney, and the space left by that cereal box I just took out can be filled with two boxes of ziplocs and a pack of firestarters. If I do my job correctly, next year these boxes will look like so many clown cars, with many more supplies spilling out than could possibly have been packed in there.

And of course, the final stage of de-vacationing is cleaning out the car. Once the bulk of the boxes and bags have been removed, the process of picking through the detritus begins. Like a gold miner panning in a river, sorting through mud and stones to find a glimpse of gold, I sort through petrified raisins, stale Froot Loops, and empty juice boxes to find miniscule Lego pieces, Matchbox racecars, stuffed animals wedged under seats, and other treasures hidden amidst the chaff. If I could invent a vacuum cleaner that would suck up Cocoa Pebbles while leaving Legos behind, I’d be a millionaire (and the hero of every mom who ever lived).

It may take some time, but at some point after arriving home, the car is clean; the boxes are once again stashed in the attic; the scents of campfire, bug spray, and sunscreen have faded away; the photos have been posted on Facebook; the updated packing lists have been filed; and all that’s left is a few tan lines and a lot of happy memories. We are officially de-vacationed! Hmm, I’d say it’s time to start planning the next vacation. Now, where’d I put that packing list?

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Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Best Things on a Hot Day

I was looking back over some old blog entries and stumbled across a list I'd written of the best things on a really cold day. Things like an oversized sweater that you can pull your hands and nose inside of, or a mug of hot cocoa with melty marshmallows. So I decided, on this very HOT day, to come up with a similar list of wonderful things about a really hot day.

Running through the sprinkler.

An ice cold glass of milk.

Opening the refrigerator door and just standing there for a minute.


A long, cool shower.

Trying to stay ahead of the drips of your ice cream cone.

Humming into a fan.

Dunkin Donuts butter pecan iced coffee.

Jumping into the pool. Cannonbaaaaaallll!!!!

Going into an air-conditioned store (or restaurant, or mall, or house).

Splashing cold water on your face and wrists.

Squirting your friends (or even better, your siblings) with the hose.

Three words: Slip 'N Slide!!!!

There, the hot weather doesn't seem quite so bad any more, does it??

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