Friday, March 30, 2012

Meatless Friday: Shrimp Pasta Salad

Last week, during my opus to Aldi, I mentioned that I was going to make a pasta salad with shrimp for a Friday meatless meal during Lent. I bought a bag of frozen cooked shrimp at Aldi and wanted to try it out. The pasta salad came out great and was the perfect meal to have during our recent warm weather streak in the Northeast.

The recipe is very simple, and all of the ingredients came from Aldi:
  • 16 oz. bag of farfalle pasta (this is the non-box pasta Aldi sells; it's their "gourmet" version in a bag)
  • olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 bag fresh spinach
  • 1 bag frozen cooked shrimp, medium size
  • salt and pepper
  • about 1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

Thaw the shrimp in a bowl of cool water. Cook the pasta according to the directions. While the pasta is cooking, remove the shrimp's tails. Wash spinach and trim ends.

When the pasta is done cooking, drain it and put in a bowl. Add olive oil (I didn't meaure, just put poured some in until I thought it was enough; you can always add more). Crush garlic in a garlic press and add to pasta, along with some salt and pepper, and mix up. Add shrimp, spinach and cheese and mix thoroughly.

That's it! Very simple and perfect for a simple lunch/dinner on its own, or as a side salad. It's a great dish to take to a summer picnic or even for a spring brunch. The leftovers were great too.

You can also add other things to the salad too -- I think I might toss in some grape tomatoes next time, or instead of shredded mozzarella, feta cheese might be yummy too. Experimenting is always fun, right?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

I'm a Prairie Head

A few books from my "Laura" collection.

I have a major love for Laura Ingalls Wilder. My obsession is so great that my friends poke fun at me. Of course, they are "Twi-Moms," so their vampire love and obsession with futuristic "Hunger Games" is hard to transfer to the adventures of a 19th-century pioneer girl. But I swear, give me an hour, and I will have you (or your daughters) convinced to try out a bit of my Laura.

My love of Laura Ingalls Wilder began in the '70s, when I started receiving the Little House books as gifts from my aunt and uncle. The yellow-edged paperback covers had those charming Garth Williams illustrations of Laura, her big sister Mary and her little sister Carrie. One by one, I read them all. I was just in the single digits then, so when Laura started courting future husband Almanzo, I was not as thrilled as I was with her adventures on the banks of Plum Creek scaring Nellie Oleson with leeches on her legs. But I did read Laura's grown-up adventures anyway. And started back at the beginning again. And read them again. And again. Many times. Over and over.

My original dog-eared copies of the "Little House" books.
By the time I reached adulthood, I have gotten rid of many of my childhood books. But all the Little House paperbacks still managed to remain on my bookshelf, and when I married my husband and moved to my own little house, Laura's books came with me. I didn't crack them open until my daughter was born, and one winter day I started revisiting those now-yellowed pages while my baby napped. Over several cups of coffee on winter afternoons, I was immediately sucked in again to Laura's world. How I loved these books! And what a different perspective I had now, as a wife and mother! Ma's ability to "keep house" on the dirty prairie, create meals from few ingredients at times, make holidays happy without money or stores and raise her daughter's to have a little spunk in a time when girls were not taught to have spunk. And there was Pa's endless upheaval of the family, dragging them all over frontierland, was somewhat annoying to me. I think Ma was a saint. And all those praire chores. God bless modern conveniences.

Despite this, the wisdom of these pioneer women totally shined through the drudgery of the lives. They were strong, brave role models. I knew I wanted my first daughter to know about Laura, so imagine my delight when I came across a series of books called "My First Little House," a series of picture books based on Laura's stories. I searched out every single one of them, and they soon became Big Girl's absolute favorite books. We read them over and over, and over and over, and she was hooked. We watched re-runs of the TV show. When she was a bit older, I read every book in the series to her, chapter by chapter, night after night, until we finished. I explained American history and social history, and we watched videos of places Laura lived and visited on YouTube. I re-read the biographies and researched online to explain to my daughter some of the difference between the books and Laura's real life. We made butter, just like Laura. She wore a "Laura" costume to her preschool Halloween party, much to the delight of her teachers and wore it again to school as she got older for "dress as your favorite book character" day.

I kept collecting books about Laura, including travel books and books featuring artifacts from her family's life. Big Girl could now see pictures to go with all those words. And soon she was reading the books herself. And reading them over and over.

We read The Long Winter during a particularly long, recent snowy winter. It really hit home for both of us, as we kept reading about the family starving and trying to figure it all out in our heads of what that actually would have been like, more than 100 years ago, to be hungry and cold constantly, to twist hay into "logs" to burn for heat while our hands cracked and bled, to shake snow from the bed coverings every morning, and numerous other real complications of 19th-century life.

When Wendy McClure's The Wilder Life was being released, I could hardly contain myself at idea that someone else was obsessed with Laura as much as I was. And as it turns out, there are many people like me, many people who hope to do the "Laura Tour" of all the homesite museums, or attend "Laurapalooza" in the summer. There are countless web sites, books, homeschooling blogs and many others who revisit Laura's pioneer life regularly and analyze what is true and what is fiction, and how it all fits in to our collected history.

-- one of my favorite quotes --

Some may think my love of all-things-Laura is rather silly or old-fashioned, but I don't really care. There are so many lessons to learn from this writer, daughter, mother, pioneer. If you travel beyond the "Little House" books to her journalism work, a reader can really get a sense of who Laura really, truly was. She was a wise lady, who lived a great life, and I am so happy to have "known" her.

Whether you pick up the Little House books or not, encourage your daughter to give it a try. Or just encourage your daughter to find her own "Laura." Share something you love from your childhood with your child. It's all about how you sell it, right? If I was not as excited about Laura's life, my daughter may not have been as fascinated as she is with her. But enthusiasm goes a long way, and along the way, you and your child will share a special bond over a book, or two, or three.

Fellow Prairie Heads should note that Wendy McClure has a new e-book (Kindle & Nook) which comes out Tuesday! The book is Don't Trade the Baby for the Horse: And Other Ways to Make Your Life a Little Laura Ingalls Wilder. The book, which is affordably priced at $2.99, is actually an off-shoot of her recent book, The Wilder Life. I've already pre-ordered mine for my Nook.

And we are not done with Laura and Little House! Look for future Prairie Head posts on this blog.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Book Review: Take Two!

Since the twins were born, I have been collecting books on twins. While I haven't kept all of them -- bye bye twin pregnancy books! -- I do love picture books about twins, and we have a few really great ones, some of which I will show you here in future posts.

About a week ago, I received a copy of a new twin book, Take Two! A Celebration of Twins by J. Patrick Lewis and Jane Yolen.

The book, which is published by Candlewick Press, is a collection of poems categorized by different subjects: "Twins in the Waiting Womb," "Twinfants," "How to Be One" and "Famous Twins." There are numerous poems in each category, and it's likely there will one there to describe any set of twins you know, whether it's a mischievous duo or a loving pair, double trouble or double blessing.

The poems are as much for mom and dad as they are the twins themselves, and in this house, Big Girl got the biggest kick out of the book. I think she read it from cover to cover, but she's so proud of her twin siblings you would think she gave birth to them herself! She loved many of the poems in the 72-page hardcover book and read many out loud to all of us.

Here's one that definitely spoke to me!

Be Even More Careful

You wished for a singleton; now you've got two:
A single in pink and a single in blue.

You wished for a family; that's not a crime.
You wished for a family -- but not at one time.

The book is charmingly illustrated by Sophia Blackall with colorful, adorable, sweet illustrations of twins, in both boy/boy, girl/girl and boy/girl combinations, in all ages and stages. Moms and kids may recognize Blackall's artistic style -- she is also the illustrator of the Ivy & Bean books, which Big Girl has loved and read more than once.

Take Two! is not just poems and pictures, however; the authors chose to include little twin facts which are on the bottoms of several pages throughout the book. It was interesting to read many of them, including one particular snippet about a long-ago Russian woman with 16 sets of twins... Seriously? God bless her!

Take Two! would make a charming gift for new moms of twins, who might need a chuckle during those long days of feeding, bathing and diaper changes; or to give multiple-moms-to-be as the start to a nursery's twin library.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

This MoM Can't Live Without: Kitchen Shears

When the twins started eating solid food, kitchen shears saved my life. Do you know how time consuming it is to cut up food into little bites for two children -- especially when they are screaming bloody murder for their meal?

Enter my tool of choice: Scissors.

Pancakes are easy to trim into small bites for toddlers with kitchen shears!

Kitchen shears saved my life. They are way faster than cutting food with a fork and knife most of the time. It works on just about everything: Pancakes, meat, pizza, grilled cheese, veggies, etc. Just cut food into strips and then chop the strips to bits. Voila!!! Little bites.

Confession: I sometimes grab for my own food now too.

And we now have several pairs in my kitchen. And I put them in my diaper bag when we are eating out. I know, crazy. But it works. Trust me.

Try it. You'll love it. Your knives will be jealous.

To find other products which have saved my sanity
as a MoM (mom of multiples),

Monday, March 26, 2012

Menu Planning

Do you plan your menus? I didn't until I realized it saved me money, aggravation and keeps us all healthier. It saved me money because I check my freezer to see what I have to use first, then I re-stock with meats and frozen veggies, etc., on sale. And it also saves money because when you have a plan, you might follow it instead of relying on take-out and fast food. And it saves me aggravation because I don't have to figure out what I am going to do when the twins are screaming at my feet and want attention. (And sometimes I can prep the entire dinner during their nap, which makes the after-school pre-dinner rush go smoothly.) It keeps us all healthy because I make sure we have healthy options included in our meal, like veggies and fruit, and allows me to stick to better food choices. It also allows me to try out new recipes because I can plan ahead, and any Pinterest, Food Network, blog reading addict (like myself) understands how important it is to try out all those new recipes!

Many of my favorite bloggers do menu plan, and they inspired me to do the same. (Frugal Upstate is great at this -- she usually posts her menu plan every Monday.) Basically, I look at my calendar to see what our week is going to be like. If we have an activity after school that involves me volunteering or running around a lot, I try to do something simple. If my husband is not going to be home, I do a kid-friendly meal or something fun, like breakfast for dinner (Big Girl likes that).

I also try to keep my meals in a pattern. Monday night is usually a pasta night, which can be as simple as sauce and pasta, or as elaborate as meatballs with pasta, baked ziti, or penne a la vodka. Tuesday I usually make chicken or some other meat meal with potatoes and veggies. Wednesdays can be the kid-friendly night or breakfast-for-dinner night. Thursday is piano lesson night, so Big Girl's tradition is to have Annie's Macaroni & Cheese (which I stock up at Target when it goes on sale for $1). The babies eat before I leave, and hubby and I fend for ourselves with leftovers or other easy meals. Friday is currently meatless for Lent, so it's fish, or grilled cheese, or whatever I can dream up, depending on if we have an activity scheduled. Weekends vary, but I do like to make homemade pizza if we are home and hanging out -- I usually buy pizza dough for $3 at the local grocery and we make our own sheet pizzas. I also try to work in crockpot meals, casseroles and other things I can cook during the day and finish off at dinner time.

I mentioned that Monday is usually pasta night (because leftovers are good for hubby's lunch during the week, or on Thursdays for leftovers). Other people use other theme nights, like Taco Tuesdays, or Crockpot Wednesday, Baked Potato Bar Thursdays, or Frozen Food Fridays (frozen fries, chicken nuggets, etc. -- kid pleasing!). Some people prep the week's meals on Sundays, to make life easier during the week. You can work it however it suits your family and your schedule.

You can put your weekly menu plan in a frame:
Print out a Monday-Sunday sheet and put it in the frame.
Use a dry-erase marker to write in your selections for the week on the glass.
Now your family won't be asking "What's for dinner?"

So that's basically it. I make sure to look at my list on Sunday to guarantee we will have everything we need. I try to use what I have first. What good is a fridge, freezer and pantry full of food if you don't use it? I am getting much better at this since the twins came along, because I can't just run out easily to pick up something.

And I also should note that I'm not a slave to the menu plan. If something comes up, it comes up -- no biggie. A plan can be changed and adjusted, and I do it all the time.

There are some great menu plan display boards and ideas on Pinterest, but mine is fairly simple. I write it on a plain piece of paper and put it on the side of the fridge, or I use a weekly planning pad (with a grocery list spot on the side, kind of like the photo at the top) which I got for $1 at Michael's craft store. There are many, many free printable menu plan pages available on the internet.

The blog Bold Turquoise put together a meal planning binder that you can recreate yourself:

I don't think I need to get that fancy and uber-organized, but if you are up for it, then go for it!

Do you meal plan? Share your successes and tips in the comments section.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Easter Baskets for Big Kids

The Easter Bunny found this chocolate bunny,
made in Germany, at Aldi for $1.99.
Isn't he cute?

Earlier this week, there was a post on Easter Basket ideas for little kids. This week, I focus on older kids. Big Girl is 9-years old, in 4th grade, so her basket options have changed over the years. I've found that this year, boys are really still just boys, but girls? Girls have gone one of two ways: They are still kids, or they act like they are 16 years old.

So far, my Big Girl is really still just a little kid. She loves art supplies and stuffed animals and LEGOs and all those types of things. She loves to read just about anything: books, both fiction and non-fiction, and magazines -- lots of magazines, like American Girl, Cricket, National Geographic Kids. She likes some music -- like "Austin & Ally" and One Direction -- but it's not a huge focus in her life. She has not asked for a cell phone or an iPhone Touch yet, but some of her friends have phones and are texting. She's not a kid who is obsessed with her looks or clothes or make-up just yet. She likes what she likes -- comfy shoes, casual clothes without lots of glitter or rock star-ish sayings, and headbands. She calls the latter her "signature style," after reading the American Girl book about style, which makes me laugh that she's figured out her "signature style" when I'm still not sure what mine is as a 40-something.

So while my older child doesn't mind toys and crayons and LEGOs in her basket, some of her friends may not be happy with those types of treats. I've created a list of ideas below, based on my daughter's tastes and those of other kids whom I know. Perhaps it will help you out when looking to fill up the basket for your tween, and many of the choices on this list are inexpensive and can be found at $1 stores or discount department stores. And I tried to stick to my own personal rule, which is if it doesn't fit in a basket, it's not for Easter. The Bunny only hides some eggs and has enough room in his cart/arm/however-he-does-it for one basket per child. No wrapped gifts or piles of gifts...

I'll start like I did with the toddler list, offering some non-candy options. Like I said in the other post, I try to keep the candy treats in the baskets to a minimum, since we get a lot of candy from other people on Easter, and the Bunny does put some in the hidden eggs. However, our Bunny also includes a big chocolate bunny in Big Girl's basket (see the photo at the top of this post.) When the twins get older, they will get one too, but they are a little young for that, so the bunny will leave them a smaller bunny.

So those in search of candy alternatives, start with some of these suggestions:
  • Granola bars
  • Small bags of snack food
  • S'mores kits
  • Small boxes of dried fruit, like raisins or cranberries, or yogurt-covered raisins
  • Goldfish or other small crackers
  • Trail mix
  • Sunflower or pumpkin seeds
  • Little bags of peanuts
Educational stuff, art supplies, etc.:
  • books -- can never have too many books! (Buy the first book in a series so your child might get hooked and read the series throughout the summer)
  • bookmarks
  • magazines (if you are really generous, add a note that you've subscribed to it too)
  • art supplies like colored pencils, small pads, markers, stickers
  • small journals
  • fun pens, like the scented kind, or brightly colored glitter gel pens
  • a big box of crayons -- the older kids still love them and who doesn't love a big box of sharp crayons?
  • puzzle books, like crossword puzzles, Suduko, Mad Libs or word search
  • craft books
  • cookbooks, like ones on cupcake and cookie decorating
  • an apron, if he or she likes to cook
  • small craft kits (Check at Target's $1 Spot or Michael's craft store)
  • tiny picture frames 
Warm weather supplies and daily necessities:
  • sandals, flip flops, Crocs
  • bathing suit
  • refillable water bottles
  • hair accessories
  • jewelry
  • socks
  • sunglasses
  • wallet
  • small purse 
"Grooming" items!
  • nail polish
  • brightly colored brushes and combs
  • scented body spray
  • lip balm
  • deoderant
  • fun body washes
  • toothbrush
  • fun toothpaste
  • body lotion
  • fun little bottles of hand sanitizer
  • CDs
  • DVDs
  • video games for DS, Wii, etc.
  • inexpensive MP3 players for those who don't have one
  • gift cards for online computer games like Animal Jam, etc.
  • Gift cards to just about anywhere! Pick a favorite store and put a few dollars on it.
  • tickets to a concert, play, movie or special event
Toys for older kids:
  • travel games
  • card games
  • small jigsaw puzzles, like 100-piece ones (Dollar Tree sells a ton of these; they are great to pack up for vacation trips or to do outside on a picnic table on a summer night)
  • baseball cards or other collectible cards
  • beach balls and inflatable pool toys
  • batting gloves, baseballs, golf balls, and small sporting good items
  • small LEGO sets and collectible LEGO minifigures
  • fun key chains for house keys
  • gardening kits to grow seeds
  • garden gloves and garden tools, if your tween likes to help outside
  • bug catchers
  • flashlights
  • binoculars
  • sidewalk chalk (the 3D one is cool), or bubbles, like the new colored bubbles (don't all kids still like bubbles?)
  • nature guides or astronomy books for summer hikes and camping trips
  • accessories for bikes, like bells, license plates, baskets and other gadgets
 Hopefully this will help the Easter Bunny fill up baskets for your older children.
If you think of anything I've missed, please include it in the comments section!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Dressing a Little Boy

Ever since my sole son -- Buddy Twin, as I call him here -- was born a little more than 2 years ago, I have been lamenting the selection of clothes for boys. After raising a daughter for many years, I found it easy to make her look pretty adorable on a budget. But a boy? Much harder. Most of the less expensive clothes look less than desirable to a Mama who prefers a preppy look.

And as mom of twins, less expensive is a key part of that last sentence. Bunny Twin, my littlest girl, is lucky to have a pretty decent wardrobe of clothes from Big Girl. I have had to fill in the gaps in places -- Big Girl was born in July, while Bunny was born in December -- but I am able to re-use many things, which helps out the budget.

Re-using little girl clothes is also easier because you can make them look "new" with a fresh pair of tights, a new hair accessory, or a brand-new sweater. It's also easier to make discount store clothes look nicer as well with the same tricks.

But boys' stuff? Not as easy, in my opinion. I am able to get things like khakis and jeans in less expensive stores, but other things have been a little difficult. I'm not really a graphic tee fan, unless it has a classic look to it. Oh, who am I kidding? I'm picky. It's not about being fashionable, or wearing a brand, even I end up drifting to certain brands over others. It's more about the "look" -- as I tell my oldest, "it doesn't matter what you're wearing, but you need to look clean and neat and like someone cares about you." (More on that in a future post.)

I have sought advice regarding a boy wardrobe in a variety of places, and many of my friends have pointed me to thrift stores and consignment shops, which is fine. (My nearest Once Upon A Child is a bit of a drive, and I have yet to check out Savers, although many have recommended that too.)

And I have had my share of great hand-me-downs: Just recently a friend of mine gave me a bunch of clothes, which contained all of the fabulous items you see at the top of this post. Certain stores seem to offer things that suit my preferred style: Gymboree and Gap, to name just two. Marshall's has yielded some cute stuff, as has the occassional Target find.

But just about a week or so ago, Kohl's had a sale and I scored an adorable interchangeable wardrobe that will make the little man look oh-so-preppy-cute this summer:

5 pieces, under $5 each, all from Kohl's
Each piece was less than $5 (and generously funded by Buddy's Grammy). The blue shirt goes with both pairs of shorts, and I'm sure the red shirt will be worn for Memorial Day and July 4th. All three tops can be used with khakis and jeans in the spring and fall. This MoM is happy and hoping for no unfortunate stains to muck up my visions.

If they do, I can always pull out this:

A Gap Hawaiian shirt acquired through the same set of hand-me-downs above. We are ready for a luau!!

Moms of little men, where do you find your clothes? Share in the comments!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Nobody's Perfect

Social media can be wonderful and stupid all at the same time. We all feel the need to gush and vent and spout off thoughts and ideas and opinions so easily and quickly and spontaneously that it can turn into a vast social ocean of misunderstanding and misinterpretation. That's why teens make so many mistakes online, where conversations and comments turn ugly and hurtful.

And adults don't act much better.

Despite what many of my Facebook friends might think, almost anything I say online is not spontaneous. It is pretty calculated, and I know that before I hit that enter button, to think twice. I'm not stupid or naive about that at all.

Last year, I got into a heated debate with a local politician running for office over his twisting of facts, which, in my opinion, created a problem where there was not a problem. Our argument and my thoughts about it ended up on the front page of the newspaper. People thought I would be upset and angry about it, but I really wasn't. (OK, maybe I was upset for 5 minutes standing in the driveway at 6 a.m. reading my name just under the fold, but I got over it pretty quick and laughed about it.) In that incident, like with many others, I said what I said and I meant what I said, otherwise I would not have said it. I've sat through enough Internet safety seminars to know that you don't post anything online, comment or photo or otherwise, that you don't want the world to read. My only disagreement with the situation was that they didn't call me to comment about the argument and only reported an online dialogue. I actually joked with the reporter that same evening that it must have been a slow news day to put my Facebook comments in a front page story about nothing. It was a very Seinfeld-esque sort of moment. In hindsight, it's actually hilarious.

That conversation was not the only heated one I've had on Facebook. Frankly, I don't mind the debates most of the time. I think they are healthy, and bring out many sides to a story instead of everybody just accepting what they are told all the time. I've questioned behavior rewards at my daughter's school, the changing rules regarding cupcakes in local classrooms, why we need more Girl Scout leaders and a host of other issues where I often "feel out" local opinion. The problem is that some people can't stand the heat of a debate -- some take it personally. The bad thing about social media is also the bane of the electronic world: People can't hear the inflection in your voice, they don't take the time to read and think before responding, they jump to conclusions and don't think about the big picture. It can get ugly, and it can get ugly pretty quick.

I've actually been de-friended by two people on Facebook likely as a result of conversations like this -- or at least that's the only reason I can figure out why they de-friended me. (Is "de-friend" even a word?)

For one of them, I sort of expected it. I could tell that this person, whom was just an acquaintence in real life, totally didn't "get" me and thought I was some cold-hearted person. She couldn't be farther from the truth, but sometimes people just don't like you in life or give you a chance and you have to move on instead of begging them to be your friend.

As for the other person? Well, that one really baffled me, particularly because I tried to be nice and friendly despite odd things that had happened in the past. I believe in second chances. I know for a fact that people change, people can change, and the past should not define you. We all make mistakes. So I was very open to being nice and friendly. Gave advice about writing. Tried to be encouraging. Did we have a heated debate about something once or twice? Yes, but I was never mean and I always state facts to back up things. I am a writer by profession who needs to do research. I'm not someone who says "I believe this... just because I think so." It's "I believe this because..." and list facts and figures and reference statements. Because I've done that for so long in my job, my mind just works that way. One of my friends said that my mind never seems to take a break, never seems to stop working. She's kind of correct. I am totally a constant thinker.

But sometimes we can hit a nerve. Of course, I can relate to the other side of this. Things can annoy me on any given day depending on my mood.

I'm sure more people have dropped me from their friends' lists without me realizing it, but these two just stand out because when you share mutual Facebook friends, you realize that suddenly these former friends are commenting under your mutual friends' updates and that they are not your "friends" anymore. And it's kind of weird.

In the past few years, I've learned to concentrate on what it is important, to make a difference, to fight for what is right, such as local public education and matters in my community. You cannot do this without ruffling some feathers, or saying something that may make others uncomfortable. We are so worried, so very worried, about other people not liking us (and honest, that includes me too!) that sometimes we bite our tongues and let things go. I've found that since I've had the twins that I don't bite my tongue as much because I don't have time to waste anymore. I may be the loud mouth at a meeting, the brave one always asking questions or sending e-mails or writing letters, or the instigator who starts a discussion on social media. But if we just close our eyes and pretend that life is one big smiley face and avoid conflict at all costs, nothing will ever change, or get accomplished, or improve. There is always a something better when something is failing; we just need to work together to find it.

Today was not a good day for me for a variety of reasons, but part of my bad day resulted from a venting Facebook post gone awry. Some might consider it an unnecessary vent, but hey, it was one of those annoying days where something really hit a nerve. And it was partly related to one of those de-frienders, which in hindsight shows me that clearly, deep inside, I actually am upset by how that situation turned out. What does Oprah call it? A light bulb moment? A HA! I am not the Tin Man! There is a heart in here!

I keep asking myself: Why do I care? Seriously, why? Because I am pretty confident in my knowledge of things, people can assume that I don't actually have feelings. Just because I spout facts and opinions does not mean I don't have emotions. I have them. A lot of them. Maybe I tried to hide them too much because I don't want to let the guard down. Or maybe I'm doing a bad job of hiding them. And maybe that's why I get so adament when I feel I am being misunderstood, or misinterpreted, and get pretty insistent that someone is not getting "it," or me. Maybe that's why I'm so passionate about doing what is right, about making a difference, and fostering change in the right direction. It's often misconstrued... as arrogance, maybe? Or conceit? Or -- dare I say it -- bitchiness? I'm not sure what you're thinking, because I only live inside my head and can't read your mind.

But whatever you think of me, whatever opinion you have, remember that my intentions are usually always good. I have a big heart beneath that brain of mine. I am not some stupid loud mouth making trouble for the sake of making trouble. I spend a heck of a lot of time caring about what is "right" in this world and community, and often it's time I don't really have but I get devoted to the cause. I don't just crawl under my living room rug and ignore the outside world or pretend that life is some big party and look the other way. People are always telling me things that bug them, things that bother them. Sometimes I know it's just venting, and sometimes I think people think I'm the one who will make a stink about an issue, because maybe, just maybe, they haven't found their own bravery just yet. So I often take the fall for their cause as well as my own.

I am not perfect, but neither are you. That said, one thing is certain: Life is short. There's enough pettiness on reality TV and I don't need it in real life. I don't need drama, even if I accidently sparked it. I'd like to feel comraderie, but sometimes it just doesn't feel that way. Now, don't take pity on me, please!! Like I said early on in this post: I say what I say and mean what I say, otherwise I would not say it. I could be gentler. I could be kinder. I could be smarter. But so could we all.

When I started this blog, I vowed to myself that it would be real.
So this is it.
Today, instead of tips and twins, it's real. And raw.

Easter Baskets for Little Kids

The twins' first Easter baskets, with Big Girl's basket in the middle.
I am still using those little felt baskets, which cost practically nothing at Walmart,
because I haven't found an alternative that I like just yet
and they don't realize that Big Girl's basket is bigger!

The Easter Bunny has been busy preparing to visit our house. With three children's baskets to fill, he has to start early or he won't be able to shop on a budget. Luckily, the twin toddlers' baskets are pretty much ready to be delivered, thanks to a few trips to Target's Dollar Spot and Dollar Tree.

Are you still stumped for ideas to fill a toddler's Easter basket? I've got a list of suggestions below. Next week I'll tackle the "tween Easter basket," because the Bunny is still working on that one but plans to wrap up all the shopping this week. (I will post it on Friday.)

I must preface my list by saying I have one important rule "gift-giving" rule for Easter. Each kid gets a basket, and a basket only. That means all "gifts" must fit in the basket -- there are no piles of wrapped gifts or big things which will not fit in the basket. This is Easter, not Christmas, right? And speaking of baskets, we use the same ones every year. Right now, the twins' ones are small, but eventually I would love to get all three kids baskets with their names on them, like the ones with monogrammed liners at Pottery Barn Kids. Right now, that doesn't fit in the budget. It's fun to take out the same basket every year and leave it out for the Bunny, don't you think? If you don't have a basket yet, try any container for your child -- a bucket, a plastic bowl, a metal pail, whatever works or fits in your budget.

Little gifts to fill baskets are usually not expensive. There are several little things, and perhaps a pricier DVD, affordable piece of jewelry, and the occassional video game for Big Girl are sometimes included. There are no filled plastic eggs in the basket, because the Bunny leaves some eggs to find in the house, with tiny trinkets, edible options (like small M&M bags), and coins. (The egg opening is monitored carefully and we count to make sure we have found them all. The Bunny only hides a few eggs so it's not crazy, and each kid has a different kind of egg to find, so it makes it easy to cater the "fillings" to each child.)

For toddlers' baskets, let's start with edibles. My little kids are not candy connoisseurs yet, and frankly, we get candy from a lot of other generous folks on Easter as well as in the hidden eggs. So that is not a priority from the Easter Bunny in the basket. (If you are filling Easter eggs with candy for a hunt, be sure to watch for coupons -- there are many this time of year! Dollar stores also offer great options for egg-filling; I've found tiny bags of jelly beans, which are better than putting handfuls in the eggs, which usually end up squished on the floor, right?)

The Easter Bunny found adorable chocolates at Aldi last week.
The bags of little bunnies and chicks were only $1.49 ea.,
and will be divided up among the children.

There are many alternatives to candy in Easter baskets. All the options below are great because you can pack them in the snack bin to grab-and-go for an outing:
  • Goldfish crackers, or even better -- Annie's Bunny Crackers!
  • pretzels
  • raisins
  • dried cranberries (my twins LOVE thes)
  • little boxes of cereal
  • little boxes of animal crackers
  • travel containers of Ritz bits, little cookies, etc.
The Bunny can include some future necessities for the warm weather season:
  • sun hat/baseball cap
  • bathing suit
  • socks
  • sandals/sneakers for spring
  • hair accessories, like barrettes, bows, etc.
  • sunglasses
  • underwear for those starting potty training
Our bunny always likes to include some "art-ful" fun:
  • coloring books (check out $1 stores and Target's Dollar Spot, which had pocket-size ones recently with stickers -- great for restaurants and outings)
  • washable large crayons
  • drawing pad
  • play-doh
  • stickers (again, look in $1 stores and Target's Dollar Spot)
  • finger paints
  • art smock
Of course, tiny toys always please the kids:
  • travel toys, like small Magnadoodle-type boards
  • small cars and trains
  • bath toys
  • finger puppets
  • flash cards
  • small LEGO Duplo sets
  • small baby dolls, and bottles/clothes for baby dolls
  • play phones
  • toy dishes and play food
  • small sets of figurine toys, like Little People (check age restrictions)
  • magnetic letters for the refrigerator
Practical stuff may not be exciting, but toddlers might not care yet and it fills in gaps in the basket grass. Plus if you get excited when they are "opening" their baskets, the tiny ones will get excited too:
  • toothbrushes
  • toothpaste
  • sunscreen
  • comb/brush
  • band aids with a favorite cartoon character on them (affordable with coupons or look at $1 stores)
  • sippy cups
  • new utensils -- fork/spoon sets with favorite characters
  • plates and bowls for dinner time
  • bibs (mine must still wear bibs and they know it!)
  • disposable plastic placemats for when we eat out
  • snack storage cups
Outdoor supplies for when the weather warms up:
  • sidewalk chalk
  • bubbles, lots of bubbles!
  • small gardening tools
  • pin wheels
  • small balls
  • plastic trucks
  • sand toys
  • mini license plates with their names for tricycles and outdoor "cars"
Of course, our Bunny always includes BOOKS -- we can never have too many books in our house!!
Dollar stores are great places to find inexpensive board books that can be abused by toddlers without worrying that money was wasted. The Bunny found some really great ones last week at Dollar Tree. Other entertainment ideas include:
  • DVDs of favorite children's shows and movies
  • CDs of children's music, classical music, etc.
  • A photo album featuring favorite people, or create your own A-B-C photo book with familiar pictures
Hopefully this will help the Easter Bunny fill up baskets for your tots.
If you think of anything I've missed, please include it in the comments section!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Do you shop at ALDI?

I do. I decided to try it out after hearing friends and family talk about some of the good deals you can get there. If you are a grocery store snob, you may not like it -- it's no frills shopping and mostly store brands -- but if you want to save money easily and still eat decent food, you will like it.

First, for grocery store snobs, here's a fact: Aldi is owned by the same people who own Trader Joe's, which is clearly a popular choice among the yuppie crowd. And if you want to feel European, Aldi is based in Germany and is widely popular there.

Like anything, Aldi has its good and bad points. There are some great deals on many things, but some items are not cheaper, in my opinion, than buying them on sale at the grocery store or at Target/Walmart with a coupon (or without a coupon). I don't buy a lot of meat there, because I can get decent quality meat at a local IGA on sale. And some products I have not liked, which could happen anywhere. And that said, there are a lot of great things at Aldi, and if you give it a chance, you may just like it.

I've found that it is a great place to buy milk (hormone-free, and only $2.99 a gallon -- $1.50 cheaper than my local grocery store), snack foods, fresh fruits and vegetables, frozen veggies and dairy products, among a few other items. I don't really buy much "processed" stuff, so I stick to basic food with which I can cook from scratch.

If you've never been to Aldi, here's the deal. You need to pay a quarter to use a shopping cart (you get the quarter back when you return the cart), and you need to bag your own groceries. (Bring bags or pay for bags. I bring bags.) I don't mind this process, especially the latter since I'm fussy about how my groceries are bagged -- I like my frozen stuff together, my produce together, etc.

The store doesn't advertise, although you can pick up next week's flyer when you leave. The actual store itself is also no-frills, meaning no fancy displays. It is smaller than most grocery stores, hence the limited selection, but you have enough to choose from for simple meals, and less selection can mean less chance for impulse buys, right?

They sell mostly their own brands. And here is my philosophy regarding "generics" or "store brands" -- if you are baking from scratch, who cares what package it came out of? Most store-brand items are packaged or made in the same factories as the brand-name versions. Just take a basic baked ziti -- all the ingredients are available at Aldi, and no one will know the difference, right? I have an aunt who is probably one of the best cooks I know, and she is an Aldi shopper.

Also, if you are on a diet, Aldi's has a brand called Fit & Trim that caters to some dietary needs (although you should still read the label). My daughter's favorite rice cakes are under the Fit & Trim label.

And if you are planning to visit, plan on paying with cash or debit card -- they do not accept credit cards or checks.

All these differences -- 25 cents to rent a cart, bagging your own groceries, etc., among other tricks --are how the store is able to sell things less expensively. Many people shop exclusively at Aldi, and save a lot of money doing it. If you don't like to clip coupons but want to save on your grocery bill, then Aldi's is for you.

Famous frugal families like The Duggars (of TLC's "19 Kids and Counting") are known to shop at Aldi, as is one famous blogger who paid off a lot of debt by saving in many ways, but Aldi was her saving tool of choice on her grocery bill. (She wrote a great article about Aldi here.) She even started a blog about it and includes many, many recipes solely based on Aldi's products. Here's one of the meal planners with recipes. Aldi's web site  also has a ton of recipes on it.

I was surprised to hear how many of my friends shopped at Aldi. It's not completely convenient -- my closest one is in adjacent city and requires driving through a congested area -- but it's near Target, where I do some bargain shopping as well. If I have a chance to run errands without the kids, it's good time to go over to that area and loop around to a few stores, including a Freihoffers bakery outlet, Aldi, Dollar Tree and Target. I am able to zip in and out of stores with my list and save on gas as well by getting everything done at once.

Now I'll share a few of my favorite things to buy Aldi, starting with these frozen green beans:

They are so good -- I just cook them in a frying pan with some olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper and they are delicious. The best frozen green beans ever! $1.49 for a pretty decent sized bag... (Mommy tip: I tell the twins they are "green fries" and they gobble them down.)

Fresh produce is a big part of my regular Aldi's shopping trips. When you purchase produce at Aldi's you don't pick and choose each individual apple, banana, etc. The produce comes pre-packed -- kind of like at Costco. But it is a decent deal: bananas are 44 cents a pound, a 5-lb. bag of red potatoes is $1.99, a 3-lb. bag of Gala apples is $2.49 (that's 83 cents per pound!), a 16 oz. container of strawberries is $1.49, a four-pack of really nice Anjou pears is $1.29... You get the picture. (It's not organic, mind you, but I can't afford organic right now with three kids at home and bills to pay. Frankly, I just want to make sure we all eat a lot of fruits and veggies, and this allows that. Before my Aldi trips, I was finding that I was not eating enough fruit, because I was saving it for the kids. Now I'm eating more and I don't feel guilty.) Recent trips have also include 5 lb. bags of sweet potatoes, grape tomatoes, cantelopes, pineapples, grapes, English cucumbers and packs of red and orange bell peppers. The produce area cannot compare to a big grocery chain, but most of the time I've had very good luck there and there are enough options.

I buy a ton of snack items at Aldi as well. I pack two lunches each weekday: one for my husband and one for Big Girl, so we need to include affordable snacks in our grocery budget to save on the lunch bill. Big Girl likes those veggie chips that are like potato chips made with vegetables -- Aldi's has their own brand of them and they taste better than the brands they sell in regular grocery stores. (Hmm... I wonder if the Trader Joe's version is made in the same factory?) She also likes the small snack rice cakes, and the Aldi's brand is just as good as a name brand, and much, much cheaper. My husband doesn't mind the granola bars or several other snack items I've purchased.

Last night, I actually tested out their take-and-bake cheese pizza ($4.99 for a 16-inch pizza), which looks just like the kind you can pick up at Costco. It was actually very good! For my meatless Friday, I'm hoping to make a pasta salad with farfalle pasta, fresh spinach, grape tomatoes and shrimp -- I picked up a bag of cooked frozen shrimp (medium size) for $3.99, as well as all the aforementioned items. I've never tried the frozen shrimp from Aldi previously, so we'll see how it fares.

If you check out Aldi, let me know how it was for you... Or share your favorite Aldi products in the comments. "The Easter Bunny" recently found some really adorable Easter candy there which will be making an appearance in my children's baskets in a few weeks. It's as cute as anything you'd find in a Lindt or Godiva shop. I'll share more on that in a future post.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Meatless Fridays and Faith

It's Friday, and I won't eat meat today.

It's not because I'm some Holy Roller or something. It's Lent, and that's my tradition. I'm Catholic and I will always be Catholic. Not a strict Catholic, but Catholic nonetheless.

Why do I even feel the need to clarify this? Religion is such a touchy subject, isn't it? I was raised Catholic, and have felt the constraint of its rigid rules often. I have thought, from time to time, about converting to another form of Christianity, about attending another church with another denomination. But I can't. It just doesn't feel right to me, for the most part, even thought I'm not crazy about the new Mass translation... And Whitney Houston's rousing "home-going" made me contemplate being a Baptist.

The Catholic Church is my home. To me, Mass is more comfortable than other Christian services. It is what I grew up experiencing; it is what most of my family still attends. I was married in a Catholic Church and I wanted my children to be baptized in the church, which they were, and now I am raising them as Catholics.

Big Girl reading during her Holy Communion Mass
Believe me, I have my share of disagreements with the Church, and I do sometimes fit the term "Cafeteria Catholic," meaning I pick and choose what I would like to follow and sometimes find fault with certain church beliefs. I'm not going to get into all my disagreements with the church here. But If I don't believe it all, you may wonder, why am I still a Catholic?
Because it's my home. It's my tradition. And it has always been my faith.

The Twins, Baptism Day 2010

I believe I know what God wants from me, and what is right and what is wrong. I don't push my faith on others, and I am a very firm believer in tolerance. I can't stand it when people allude that something is wrong with someone else's faith. There is a Muslim mosque being built near a major highway near my home, and I can't tell you the negativity that has been mentioned regarding that building.

Or how when the director of my daughter's religious education program greets boys wearing hats at the door of the school with that statement "Why are you wearing a hat? Take that off? You're not Jewish!" it makes me seethe in my soul and makes me want to scream out that Jesus was a Jew and a compassionate one at that so take it down a notch and find another way to tell a little boy that it's not good manners to wear a hat inside.

Or when a friend of mine made a comment about how Catholics adoring Mary was ridiculous made me want to walk out of her house because I found it completely offensive because Mary is an important figure in my religion.

Religion has always fascinated me, and I have always been drawn to find out more about traditions in all religions. Now, I'm not someone who is so politically correct to change the name of Christmas trees to holiday trees, but I also don't think wishing someone "Happy Holidays" is demeaning the "reason for the season" either, especially if you don't know his or her religious background.

When I was a little girl, one of my favorite series of books was "All of a Kind Family" by Sydney Taylor, about a Jewish family with many kids growing up in turn-of-the-century New York. It was fascinating to read about all the Jewish holidays and the fun traditions the family followed and it was so far removed from my Catholic upbringing, in a small town where I surrounded by mostly Catholics. I recently searched them out (some of them are out of print now :( unfortunately) and read them to my daughter. She loved them too. She liked so much we had a long discussion with our pediatrician, who just happens to be Jewish and wears a yarmulke.

(Funny story about our Jewish pediatrician and my daughter: When we read the Sydney Taylor books, the yarmulke came up. I explained to my daughter that a yarmulke is what her doctor wears, because he is Jewish. My daughter said "Wow! I didn't know that! I thought it was just a doctor's hat!")

Faith is faith is faith. (Of course, there are cults and wayward leaders, but that's a different discussion.) I believe that religion, whether Catholicism or not, can provide structure and morals and give children the same sense of "belonging" that I felt growing up. No-meat Fridays are my religious tradition and a part of my childhood, so I continue the ritual for my own family as much as I can. But I also place a great value on tolerance, and why we need to understand and respect other religions. Everyone is different, but that isn't something of which to be afraid, or to shun, or to put down.

So when I eat fish or cheese pizza or egg salad or whatever tonight, I will be honoring my family's tradition and my religion, but I will also remind my children that part of being a good, moral person of faith is being respectful and tolerant of others' beliefs too.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Getting My Green On

St. Patrick's Day is Saturday, and for Irish-Americans (and wannabe Irish-Americans), the blessing of March 17 falling on a weekend is a fun prospect.

I'm sure many will celebrate with a Guinness or a green beer, but some of us won't drink ourselves into  oblivion. If you are still scrambling to plan some fun to honor the Irish heritage this weekend, look no further than this post. (One of my goals with this blog is to offer up some ideas I find in my web surfing, so from time to time, I hope to put posts with a fun list of links to great ideas.)

So, here are several great links to get your Irish up...

Let's start with this:

The Shamrock Shake! Check out the copycat recipe here to make it at home. You can recreate the once-a-year McDonald's treat without having to leave your kitchen.

And on a side note... does anyone remember Uncle O'Grimacey??

You could also start a tradition with your little ones with having a leprechaun visit overnight: My oldest has woken up to silly little trinkets left on her bedroom floor -- chocolate coins, a tiny toy... Think green and think rainbow, like rainbow-colored twizzlers. Or have your leprechaun do a little mischief --  put green food dye in the toilet bowl, leave tiny green "footprints" on yesterday's newspaper, tint the milk for the morning bowl of Lucky charms green... All you over-achieveing Elf on the Shelf mommies can surely dream up something!

Of course, if there's time, have your little ones set a leprechaun trap on Friday before they go to bed. You can see some ideas here -- Family Fun magazine is alway is a great source of things to do with kids.

Maybe you'd like to celebrate your heritage with a special Irish gift, whether for yourself or a loved one. Head over to this link, Ogham Art, to see the most unique Irish gifts, decor and jewelry (I love this piece.) I have a pretty frame with my children's name written in the ancient Ogham alphabet. And if you ask, they will even design a tattoo for you!

Older children might want to hear the real story of who St. Patrick really was.

And if there's time, cram in some crafting. I always love a dollar store craft! Sustainably Chic Designs did a post on some crafty St. Patrick's Day decor created from Dollar Tree items.

Kids can also craft up some St. Patrick's Day cards for loved ones, with shamrocks and rainbows and leprechauns and pots of gold, but if you run out of time, check out this American Greetings link with a few free printable cards.

UPDATE: I also just saw a preview for this TV movie, "Chasing Leprechauns," which will air at 8 p.m. Saturday on the Hallmark channel. Looks like cute family entertainment. Check out the preview on the link.
As for me, I will celebrate with my own family, as well as visit my husband's family -- however, St. Patrick's Day for me also means something different. It was my grandfather's birthday, and he died just before my twins were born at the age of 90 years. So I always remember him on this day!

Enjoy your St. Pat's, and be safe!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Decorating for a Boy/Girl Room

My twins are growing up and I know soon they will be progressing from cribs to beds. My house isn't big enough for each to have their own room, and my older daughter is seven years older than her younger sister, so for the time being, the twins will continue to share their own room. I think they like it that way, and will continue to like it that way, since they love being with each other. So we will continue in the "shared room" vein for a few more years, at least.

Of course, this presents a decorating dilemna. How do I make their room cute? How do I pick coordinating bedding? I'm sure I'm not alone in this issue. When I planned their nursery, I had a hard time choosing bedding, until one day, during a visit to Babies R'Us, I fell in love with a Cocalo line of bedding separates.

The sets each featured elephants -- you could buy patterned green sheets for both, and elephant sheets like the one in the girl's version, in both blue and pink. I chose it all -- the bumpers, the bed skirts, and both sets of sheets for each. They are so cute, so cottagey and vintagey -- which I love. Neither had a quilt, but who really uses that? I chose soft blankets for each, and the twins love their blankets, even now, 2 years later.

I painted the room a soft green color, which worked well with the bedding. It's hard to find a good color for boy/girl room, and since my older daughter had a yellow nursery, I wanted something different.

For a while I've been thinking about how this room will "grow" with the babies. They are 2 years old now, about the same age my older daughter progressed to a regular twin bed. Buddy Twin is a climber, and Bunny Twin is soon to follow suit, and before I know it they will be escaping the cribs on a regular basis. With that thought in mind, twin beds are on the horizon and I need to think about a transition for this room.

I'm always looking for coordinating bedding that will fit in the green room, since I don't want to paint it just yet. I'm guessing the kids will be in beds by this summer. (I'm dreading the thought of how insane it will be when they can get out on their own and run around!!!)

The update will likely be costly: Two new mattress sets, two bed frames (although I might do the mattress-on-the-floor thing initially) and two new bedding sets. I'm still thinking about the possibility of toddler beds for a few years to postpone the big expense and same some space, but I'd still have to get the beds ($100 or so, combined), plus figure out the dreaded bedding. You may think "What does it matter? Throw some blankets and sheets on the bed and be done with it." But like many of you, I want their room to look complete finished and fit my style, however eclectic that may be. And, of course, I have to fit that into a modest budget.

Source: via Kellie on Pinterest

I loved this bedding set from PBKids,
but alas, it's gone!

I've been browsing and trying to gather ideas to fit to twin beds (Thank you, Pinterest!). For a long time, I had a few Pottery Barn Kids quilt sets in mind, but alas, all -- that's right, all! -- of them are now gone from the catalog. And then PBKids had two sets based on "The Very Hungry Caterpillar," which were perfect for a green room, but now they are gone too.

(Pottery Barn -- what gives??? You keep taking all my choices away. I'm disappointed because their "shared spaces" tab only really has boy/boy or girl/girl rooms, but there are some of us with boy/girl twins! And I always put them on my mental wish list to wait for a sale/coupon, and then they disappear. PB, you need to fix this issue and think about us with boy/girl rooms.)

Another great PBKids coordinating set that has disappeared...

PBKids also offers Dr. Suess-themed bedding, if one is looking for primary colors and having a matching set for both children. I'd like to have my children's beds' "coordinate"  but I do want them to have something different so that each feels special and has their own look to their bed.

Target has a pretty cute (and affordable) alternative: Circo bedding has an "ABC" comforter set, with blue for boys and pink for girls. There is the color green in both designs, which means they would work in our current twins' room.

Has anyone else had this issue of decorating for a boy-girl room? How long did your twins share a room? Did you have a gender-neutral theme? If there is an much-older sibling in your house, did you move your girl twin in with the older sibling? (Just curious.) Share your tips and experiences in the comments -- I'd love to hear them.

(UPDATE: I wrote a more recent post on boy/girl decorating here. And there will be more in the future, so keep reading the blog!)

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Lost Friends, But Not Forgotten

Those who know me only as a MoM might be shocked that I had a much different life before kids. I may be "old" for a mom by some standards, but it doesn't really bother me. I got married at 31, and before that I lived a rich and exciting life with no regrets -- I'm glad that I was able to have fun and I can now enjoy my little family world without feeling like I missed something. I may still live in the town where I grew up, but that doesn't mean I didn't have many adventures far beyond its borders. I was not the small town girl living in a lonely world, as the song says.

Much of my 20-something world revolved around two things -- writing and music -- and basically the two intercepted. While I made a living working at a newspaper, the off-hours were spent with a variety of musicians and bands and traveling all around New England drinking way too much black coffee and sleeping on floors and trying to help my talented friends reach new heights. I met so many interesting characters I'd have to write a book as big as a Kindle hard drive to tell you about them all.

I will tell you about one of those friends from the past: Doug Lloyd, Jr., a photographer who I first met while writing for a freebie magazine called The Hartford Planet. He had really, really long jet-black hair, which was always in a ponytail. He was fun, witty and somewhat flirty, but always a friend -- not the often sleazy guy whom a girl would encounter in the nocturnal local music scene. Just a nice, generous guy. We always worked well together, and teamed up for many interviews with bands and performers who passed through the state. We met many a mediocre music celebrity together, on tour buses and backstage and survived mosh pits and visited venues all over the state together.

A candid shot of me, in CBGBs in the '90s,
shot by Doug Lloyd, Jr.

Eventually, The Hartford Planet folded, and Doug moved to New York to pursue bigger and better opportunities. He worked as another photographer's assistant in the fashion industry, but still took many photos at night, and even took some music shots for magazines like Spin. Like many of my talented friends, he always seemed on the cusp of just "making it." And despite his busy schedule, anytime I headed to the Big Apple with my musician friends, Doug met us or even offered us a place to sleep in his tiny Greenwich Village studio apartment, which was on the same street as great music venues like The Bitter End and Kenny's Castaways. Every time I made the trip to NYC for a weekday show at CBGBs or Brownie's, Doug showed up.

Liner notes featuring photos shot by Doug Lloyd Jr.

Over the years, I met my husband, got married, had kids, and lost touch with my big city photographer friend. Of course, Facebook has rekindled my relationships with many of my old music friends, so occasionally I would think about Doug and wonder what had become of him. I assumed he was doing great things in the city, meeting fabulous people and still taking pictures. Every now and then I would Google his name or search on Facebook, but there were so many people with his common name, including several photographers, so after clicking on numerous links and coming up with nothing, I would give up.

A really bad point-and-shoot photo I took 
of Hartford Planet covers by Doug Lloyd, Jr.

A few weeks ago, I searched his name again... And again... Like any journalist would do, I was trying to uncover the mystery of where Doug was and what he doing now. And I finally found some news about my friend.

And it wasn't good.

My friend Doug had died.

I found his obituary, and realized he passed away years ago -- YEARS -- and somehow I had never realized it or found this news in a previous online search. I didn't know his family and never met a relative, so of course I never knew. It was such a sad twist to search for a friend and find a death notice. The obit was short, very short, and didn't do justice to the talent he had behind the lens or his pleasant, generous personality. He was young -- 34 years old -- at the time of his death. I don't know how he died. I don't know where he is buried or if he was cremated. I feel, in many ways, that this friend from my past was suddenly swept off the earth and nothing is left of him here. Did my old music friends remember him? Are his photographs preserved somewhere? Will he leave a legacy on this earth of something he had accomplished in life? Or will it be like he never existed?

We all want to make a mark on this world. Most of us want to make a difference. Leave a stain, a footprint, a blip on the radar. We want to be remembered. Many of us have families, with children, who will carry on a memory of what we did and who we were. But some, like Doug, did not have kids to carry on his legacy. I'm sure his family remembers him often. And I hope my old music clique does too.

We all need to remember, to share stories and memories and old photos and past times. Because if we don't take time to reflect on those with whom we shared great moments, we aren't honoring their life.
Or our own, for that matter.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Happy 100th, Girl Scouts!

Today is the 100th Birthday of the Girl Scouts. A century ago, on this day, GS founder Juliette Gordon Low rapidly called a meeting of some local girls in her hometown of Savannah, Ga., and the rest is history. With gazillions of cookies sold and badges earned, Girl Scouts are still thriving in the 21st century.

I was a Girl Scout in my youth, and now my oldest is a scout and I am her leader. I decided to co-lead her troop because it became very clear early on that the number of girls wanting to be a scout far outnumbered the number of adults who wished to be leaders. So here I am five years later, still muddling through the process.

I say muddling, because Girl Scouts has changed a lot over the years. For starters, there's a lot of paperwork and training and rules that either I didn't know about as a child or didn't exist. I'm sure lawsuits and safety issues necessitated some of the changes. And since I've been a leader, books have changed, badges have changed, the program has changed. A lot of changes and talk of more to come. And let's be honest, some changes are good. Some changes are bad. GS has basically become a business, but I try to stick with it because it does cater to girls who need inspiration and opportunity, whether it's learning a new skill, fitting into a group, making a friend, or setting goals. I try to do what I can do for my girls, but on many days it is difficult to please them all, or deal with the typical issues one faces when trying to lead a group of 9-year olds. And as a mom with a young family, it's hard to devote the time needed to plan, go through training -- a lot of training! -- and fill out paperwork and keep track of finances and think about what we are going to do. I believe the organization can be better, and hopefully it will improve in the next decades for my daughter's future daughters.

So why stick with the scouts? Number one, it's for my daughters. And number two, I believe scouts can help her and eventually her sister, as well as her peers. I don't care whether my girls like camping or not or can sell a million boxes of Thin Mints. That's not what it is all about.

The bottom line is in the numbers. Girls who are Girl Scouts often go on to bigger and better things. Just take these numbers: 80% of women business owners were scouts, 69% of female U.S. Senators were scouts, 67% of female House Respresentatives were scouts, and basically ever female astronaut who has been to space was a scout. Of course, you could utter the old adage "Is it the chicken or the egg -- is the type of girl who goes into scouting or the program?" I don't know, but I do know that the program is designed to encourage girls to pursue interests beyond the basic gender biases we see, and that was all Juliette Low's idea.

In a new book about Low, author Stacey Cordery surmises that the GS founder started the scouts with one goal in mind -- to give girls a chance at economic independence away from men. Low had gone deaf, had a failed marriage, was considering divorce when her womanizing husband died and left all his money to a mistress. (I know! Scandalous!) Her life suddenly was not what she thought it was going to be. Her husband was not the man she thought he was, she didn't have children, and at the time, that was a big societal failure to a Southern Belle like "Daisy" Low.

Low was inspired by the Boy Scout organization, and worked in its girl-centered European counterpart, the Girl Guides, before heading back from Europe to Georgia to start her own off-shoot. Now, 100 years and several generations later, here we are. Girls are still earning badges, making friends, holding hands and singing songs and selling cookies. Tonight, at 6:30 p.m., Girl Scouts all over the country -- including myself and my daughter -- will gather in Promise Circles to honor the legacy that Juliette Low left us.

So, if you daughter asks to be a Girl Scout, let her try it. And if you can, be a leader too. I'll help you muddle through :)

Friday, March 9, 2012

Reality Bites

I am a blog addict. I love blogs -- those perfect blogs of moms with perfect homemaking skills who bake pies and homeschool their kids and read the Bible everyday and have a weekly cleaning schedule and take dreamy blog photos of their sweetly decorated houses and coupon themselves into freebies and end up with fabulous saving accounts and no debt.

That's not me.

In many ways, I long to be like those women. But I'm totally not. I watch bad, trashy, reality television and news shows. Instead of reading the Bible everyday, I read the newspaper and follow politics and pop culture and local news drama. I attempt to keep things organized in my house, but alas, it doesn't always work out that way. My couponing skills are improving, and I have the knowledge, just not the time to do all the mental math it takes to get to free stuff, and a quick trip to Target for diapers and some groceries can end up costing me $100 in the blink of an eye. And despite my love of baking (which I love more than cooking!) my kids often get -- gasp! -- baked goods out of a bag. Like Oreos. (I serve milk with them -- doesn't that count for something?)

My days seem to fly by, especially with two little ones at home during the school day and a part-time writing job to nurture. I can just about get the regular tasks of life done between the insanity of trying to take care of twins and continue to keep Big Girl on track. There's not room for much else lately, despite my best efforts, and I when I do get the chance to cross a big task off my list, like cleaning out a closet or filing my never-ending pile of papers, I want to do a happy dance.

So why read those sunshiney posts on those mom blogs? It's kind of inspirational. Aspirational? Relaxing. Educational? A lot of reasons. Sometimes a bit of reality creeps into their blogs. And then it becomes something to which I can relate, like when they show a photo of a room with toys all over the floor or a "before shot" of a closet clean-up. I have a lot of those moments lately. (See photo above.)

I've been posting here and there on this blog for a few months now, but I'm thinking about amping up the frequency. Writing for me, as it is for many, is a release. A chance to vent. A chance to share. It's time consuming, yes, and Lord knows I don't have a lot of time, but it makes me feel better, and sometimes you just have to do stuff just for yourself, right? Being a stay-at-home mom can also be lonely, and when you have twins, it can be even lonelier and confusing. I wished I could have figured many "twin" things out sooner, and faster, but I didn't, so it does cross my mind to share what I've learned in the hopes it may help some of you sooner, and faster, than it did me.

I've blogged before, both as a mom blogger and a "somewhat political" blogger, and both opened me up for a lot of negativity and judgemental comments. I'm sure it will happen again, because when you put yourself out there, there's always someone to criticize you. There was a woman I know who started to blog some mom things and swiftly pulled it right off the 'net when she got a negative comment. I was confused by that, because you can't be a writer without taking some heat. I've taken lots of heat, both in my professional writing life and this hobby writing gig. You just deal with it. Everybody's got an opinion. Sometimes it hurts, but most of the time you need to just shake it off. If you've got good intentions, you've just got to remind yourself of that. (With that said, be kind, reader!)

So here I am. Again.