Sunday, February 28, 2010

And So It Begins...

So do you remember back on ohhhh January 5 when I told you about how I had completed one of my goals for the new year? That would be almost exactly two months ago now.

Why don't you go grab something to drink and eat as I give you the update on my saga. We last left off when I had requested a leave of absence from my work - with a resignation letter typed up just in case - and my boss agreeing to a ninety day leave.

The next step was to figure out how. So I read the information on our intranet. While we have two kinds of leave - FMLA and personal leave - they don't differentiate well between the two, and there is no information about how to submit a personal leave.

January 5: I submitted a case to the online HR (it's all centralized now, whee!). I asked whether my situation qualified for FMLA or personal leave and, if personal leave, how I went about submitting it.

January 8: I called the 800 number for HR to inquire about my case, as it had been the three business day turnaround and I'd yet to hear a word. I was told that my case had been assigned to someone who would contact me with an answer. They couldn't help provide me with any info, nor could they give me an estimated turnaround time.

January 12: I received an email announcing that my case was closed and that to submit FMLA, I had to call an 800 number. Well, let's see. That a) repeated what was online word for word b) didn't answer the question of what I qualified for and c) skipped over the question on how to submit a personal leave. I immediately reopened it and requested an update on the specific questions I had.

January 15: I submitted a question to my online case (the only way I had to converse with HR on my case) asking for an update on the status.

January 21: I submitted another request for an update, since I'd yet to hear a word.

January 25: My case is once again marked closed. I am told that they cannot decide what is a personal v FMLA leave and that I should instead just apply for FMLA and see what happens. Seriously? Seriously, this is the solution you give me after almost three weeks of waiting?

January 26: I submit my FMLA claim and am told that paperwork will be processed and sent to me within 24 hours. I was to fill out my section of paperwork, then have my physician complete the remainder of it and return it. (The FMLA came about based on some of the behavior regression we're seeing with Mister Man - with me being at home and getting him into a more regular routine, the hope is that we can help stem this.)

February 1: The FMLA paperwork arrives in the mail. Again, it takes a week to mail something now? I fill out all the paperwork for my side and take it to the pediatrician - who of course is off until that Thursday.

February 4: The pediatrician calls me and asks about where we stand on some of the steps we'd talked about when I'd brought Mister Man in previously. As I was seeing a specialist on February 8, she requested that we hold off on turning in the paperwork until we heard from that person.

February 8: I waste four hours of my time at a doctor who doesn't want to see us. I'm highly irritated.

February 9: We have a massive snowstorm, and I leave work early. When I get home at 3, I try to connect to my work remotely, as I do every day. I can't connect. A call to the help desk later, we discover that I have mistakenly been put on leave and my access has been blocked. I ask my boss to submit a case to online HR (sound familiar?) reinstating me.

February 11: (Note, I am off work here and in Florida.) The pediatrician calls me to chat about our next steps and what I heard from the specialist. She agrees to fill out the paperwork and fax it in.

February 12: From Florida, I call the 800 number for the HR help to find out where my reinstatement is. Again, I am told that the case has been assigned to "someone" and that they will get back to me when they have a resolution. I explain the urgency and need that I am reinstated, to no avail.

February 15: I am still unable to log in from home, so I rearrange my childcare and go into the office. I finally get ahold of the person who is assigned to my case who is remarkably helpful and gets me reinstated immediately. He also actually answers all the questions I have on leaves from the previous closed case. I had given up on ever getting answers to those questions, but now I completely understand.

February 16: I get a call from the FMLA administrator saying that they have rejected the claim as the pediatrician neglected to fill out two sections of it. I contact the pediatrician's office, and I await another call from the pediatrician.

February 17: My boss and I decide that we are going to forget about the FMLA and just apply for a personal leave, now that I know how to do so from the conversation I had earlier this week with the helpful HR guy. We decide to wait until Thursday afternoon to apply for it starting three business days later.

February 18 4:45pm: I head to the pediatrician's office to pick up a copy of the paperwork that I remember the pediatrician said she was leaving for me. When I pick it up, the nurse notices that it isn't the same paperwork that is in the file. She makes a copy of the new paperwork for me. I notice that it has the two missing sections filled in and that it was faxed on the 15th.

February 18 5:15pm: I contact the benefits administrator (they were closed by the time I got home on the 19th) to see where my claim stands. They tell me that it was approved for a leave starting February 22. Ummm hold on a moment - so *I* have to call them to find out that it was approved. And it starts less than a business day later? I make arrangements to move the start date back a week so that I can transition some things at work. I cannot move the end date back a week and am hoping that my pediatrician will send in a note requesting the end date be changed. I then call my boss and let him know that the leave has finally been approved, and we don't have to go the route of personal leave (where my job is not protected).

February 25: I work my last official day (I'm off on Fridays). It feels really weird to be handing so many things over to different people and to say goodbye to those I enjoy working with. I also realize that it takes almost three hours to upload my critical files to a shared drive so they can be accessed while I am off. So much for signing off at 5pm or shortly thereafter.

I never imagined that this would be a two month saga. I never dreamed it would take two weeks to figure this out. Yikes!

March 1: This is tomorrow. This is my first official day of leave where I would be working and can instead settle into a new routine. So what am I going to do? Do I go get a massage? Change the oil in my car? Go grocery shopping? Clean up and organize the PTO room? Help stuff invitations for Mister Man's school event? Get a mani/pedi? Go to the gym and work out? The world is my oyster.

Orrrrr not. Nope, instead on Day One, I will be home with Little Miss, resident sickie.

Eleven weeks, four days to go. Wish me luck!

Friday, February 26, 2010

I So Didn't Even Want To Eat That Snickers Bar

And really, how often in life do you say that statement? Snickers are one of the few candies I actually will eat, and I don't think I'd had one since Halloween. I ate it this morning though, and it was almost torture to eat it. What a waste.

The good news is that it was completely worth it. (You're scratching your heads now, aren't you?)

See, Manic Mommy is having a virtual blood drive. This is the third year she's done it, and I think it's pretty awesome of her. She's encouraging people to donate blood, which is worthwhile all on its own. As an added inducement, she's gotten prizes donated for those people who donate blood from January 1 to February 28 and email her picture proof of the donation. For more details, read here.

I've participated the last two years that she's held it, since I'm a regular blood donor already. And no, I haven't won any prizes (yet!). I have two main reasons that I donate blood.

When my grandfather was ill before he died, he used gallons of blood. While the transfusions kept him alive, nothing was enough to return him to health - but without donations, no one has a chance. He was a regular blood donor, but I don't think even his massive quantities of blood made up for what he used. I'm helping to replenish what he needed.

I also have O negative blood, which is the universal donor. When there is an emergency and they don't have time to type someone's blood, O neg is what they need to use, so it's most in demand, as well as being in the veins of something like four percent of the population. As a regular donor, they like my good clean O neg, and it is bagged separately for use with babies who need it. Seeing that neonatal sticker on my blood each time and knowing that I'm able to give hope to families who otherwise wouldn't have it - there's no way I'm going to stop donating.

So did you notice that today is February 26 and the contest started January 1?

Yeah... me, too. Sadly, I'm not posting this now because I managed to donate twice in the timeframe (which is doable, every eight weeks get back out there!).

I tried donating early in January but was declined because my iron was low. Then I got sick. Then I was busy with work. My iron was low again. Work. I went to Florida for Disney's Social Media Moms conference. Work. I got sick. Work.

I knew that today was my last chance, so I've been preparing all week. Somehow, I needed to get my iron up to where it normally is. Until December, I'd been donating every eight weeks or so for years.

When I've donated before, their suggestions for getting your iron up were to eat chocolate covered raisins and Snickers bars. So yep, that's what I ate for breakfast. Of course, I didn't actually have chocolate covered raisins, but I did have raisins and chocolate chips, so I had a nice half cup of that. And then the Snickers bar that I ate on my way to the donation. That much chocolate that early in the morning is not fun. Apparently, I'm no longer eighteen, as I think at some point that would have appealed to me.

When I got there, they offered to test my iron for me before doing the rest of the paperwork to avoid wasting time for both of us. As I sat down, I asked how long it takes for the iron to metabolize. Oh, two to three hours, she told me. Great. So that junk I just ate to get my iron up within the last hour wasn't even going to make a difference. Whee.

She stuck my fingers for the sample and put it into the neat-o machine that gives the iron readings. Annnnnd... 14.8. For me, that's super high. And well above the 12.5 needed (I usually hover in the high 12s and low 13s). Yay, I could donate blood!

Apparently it was the quinoa and spinach that I had for dinner last night. Go fig. And yes, I will be posting the "recipe" for this, since even the wee ones ate it and loved it - to the point that Mister Man asked if he could have spinach and quinoa for breakfast this morning.

So how about you? Have you donated blood lately? Can you go donate blood still for Manic?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

I Don't Even Really Need One, But Now I Have Two

There are definitely some things that put me on the fringe.

I took forever to get a cell phone. I remember working on consulting in the late 90s and going out to lunch with the guys on my team. All five of them would put their (identical) cell phones on the table when we got to lunch. There was a blank spot near me. And I was totally cool with it. I finally got one in maybe 2001 or 2002.

And now we have no landline and haven't for the last seven years. I'm funny that way. And umm no, I don't know how to text, and I have a phone that pretty much lets me call people. I will admit to beginning to lust after some of the cool phones with cool applications, but ... not yet.

When I graduated college and moved on my own, I purchased the usual staples of a new housekeeper. I had a vacuum, a kitchen table, a sofa, a bed, and the other usual odds and ends. But I had no microwave.

I cook. I like to cook. And at the time I had a tiny galley kitchen that had no spare counter space. Even after moving to places with larger kitchens - and yes, that became a criteria), I just didn't see the need for one. I don't like the texture of most reheated food, so I tend to eat leftovers cold. I don't eat microwave popcorn or microwaved ummm meals. Why bother?

Several years ago, a friend of mine offered to teach me how to make soap. I'd seen some of what she'd done with the cool colors and shapes and scents and such, and I was thrilled to learn. Can you tell that this was back when I was single and childless and had this thing I think is called free time?

As she was on her way (she fortunately lived very far away), she called to confirm that I had everything she needed to teach me to make soap. I did, and began to get out the measuring spoons, the liquid measuring cup, spatulae, and molds. I placed the newspaper on the kitchen table and set up drying racks.

Once she arrived, she unpacked the supplies she'd brought, broke apart the soap into the liquid measuring cup and walked into my kitchen. She walked around and around again. I watched her in silence.

"Ummm, where's your microwave, Michelle?" she asked.

"Uhhh, microwave?"

"Yeah, I need a microwave to melt the soap."

Apparently no, we couldn't just do it over the stove because she had no idea how to do that without ruining the soap. Soooo we packed up everything and headed to Target where I bought a microwave (the cheapest one I could find - this hobby was quickly becoming more expensive than I'd anticipated).

Once unpacked and plugged in, the microwave did its job melting the soap, and we got down to work. I learned how to know when the soap was melted, how and when to add dyes and scents, as well as the fun glitters and other powders available. We made soap to keep us clean for a year.

It was really easy, and we had a blast.

I debated returning my microwave after that, knowing that I could easily figure out how to do the soap on the stove, but I couldn't bring myself to return something that had been used, however briefly.

I haven't made soap since shortly after Mister Man was born, but I do still have most of the supplies needed, and someday I'll teach the wee ones. I see this as a great birthday party one day for Little Miss.

And that microwave? Well, it's down in the basement in the room that I will someday make my craft room waiting to melt some more soap. I can't quite bring myself to get rid of it.

That doesn't mean that we're completely without a microwave though. When we moved into our house, although the previous owners stripped all the cable and stereo wires from inside the walls (sadly, I'm not joking) they left behind a microwave that nicely matches the kitchen. It keeps great time on my kitchen counter now. Plus, it's a great shelf for those things that I just can't quite find a home for. With cabinets only a few inches above it, it hides the mess nicely.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Have You Learned What The New Credit Card Rules Really Mean?

Disclaimer: I am not a financial professional, nor should anything here be construed as advice. I simply like to read, a lot, and am somewhat annoyed by the coverage of the new CARD Act implementation, as I feel that there are some points that are not made as clearly as they ought to be. This is for informational purposes only. If you have questions about your specific credit cards, contact your financial professional or credit card issuer.

Whew, that was a mouthful, wasn't it? Regardless, the above pretty much sums it up. A year ago April, the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 (CARD Act) was signed into law. It was designed as a way to help consumers better understand their credit cards and not be penalized unfairly. The CARD Act is huge. Massive. And it has a lot of different pieces to it. In fact, the Fed still hasn't ruled on what "reasonable" late fees are -- something that will go into place in September of this year, along with the last of the protections.

In the interim, there have been a few different pieces implemented. In September last year, credit card companies began to have to give you forty-five days' notice prior to changing terms for your credit card, such as raising the interest rate and late fees or changing the rewards program on the card.

Yesterday, February 22, the majority of the provisions took effect. The way some of them have been described isn't very clear, however. Hopefully some of the below information will help you.

Interest Rate Changes:
Previously, banks could raise interest rates at any time. This included both your existing balance and new balances, and they could do it even if you were late on another payment that had nothing to do with them (called universal default - you default in one place and your rate is hiked elsewhere).

Now, banks cannot do this. The rate you are offered cannot increase in the first year you have the account (unless it is an introductory rate, e.g., 0% for six months). There are only three ways that your rate can increase:
1) You have a variable interest rate, and the Prime rate published in the WSJ has climbed. On the flip side, there are also no more floors, so when it was a rate of Prime + 5.99% and Prime was 2% but your minimum rate was 10.99%, you still paid 10.99% - now you'll pay 7.99%.
2) You are more than 60 days late making a payment. At that point, you can (not all issuers have this, so check your credit card agreement) be moved to the Penalty Rate, which is a higher APR. This applies to your entire balance, not just new purchases. However, if you make six payments in a row on time, starting in September, 2010, they will have to move you back to your original rate. The lesson here? Make your payments on time, even if it's only the minimum!
3) Your credit card issuer has given you the proper notice that it is going to increase your interest rate. Again, they have to give you the forty-five days mentioned above, but this increase has two caveats. First, you have the right to opt out (and if you opt out, they will close your account and have you pay it down although you won't have to pay it all immediately - they can, however, increase your monthly payment such that you pay off the balance in five years or double your monthly payment). Second, the rate increase will apply only for new transactions; your existing balance will remain at the original rate.

This brings us neatly to the next item.

Payment Allocation:
This one was always a little murky. Credit card companies can apply your payments however they want. If you have multpiple interest rates, many (but not all!) card companies would apply the payment to your lowest interest rate balance. The effect of this would be that you would pay higher interest than you would have intended. This rule particularly hurt people who opened accounts with 0% rates and made many purchases or transferred balances at 0% but then made subsequent purchases at a higher interest rate.

Now, all credit card companies have to apply any payment greater than the minimum payment to your highest rate balances first. This will help lower the overall interest that people pay if they carry a balance and have multiple rates. However, do your best to pay off your credit card every month so that none of this is an issue for you!

Grace Periods:
Grace periods over the years have shrunk and shrunk. When I got my first credit card, it was a thirty day grace period. By this time last year, I had a card with a twenty-one day grace period. That means that my cycle closed on (for example) the 11th of the month. The credit card company then had to process the account and create and mail my statement. The statement had to be mailed giving me at least fourteen days to pay (per Regulation Z). For many people, this was a challenge to time the bills right, get it turned around the mail, etc - especially when there was a holiday or weekend involved.

Twenty-one days after the 11th meant that my bill would generally then be due on the 2nd of the month, if the month had thirty-one days. Or on the 1st if there were thirty days. Add in February. Now make the 2nd a Sunday, and you have to make sure the payment is in by the 1st. Then again, this is why I pay all my bills online from the issuer's site setting up the payment to be automatically withdrawn on the due date.

Now there are two changes. The statement must be mailed at least twenty-one days prior to your due date, which gives more time. The effect of this means that most issuers have increased their grace periods to 25 days (with some at 23).

The due date for your statement must also be the same each month. If it falls on a weekend, it moves to the next business day. This makes it much easier to remember exactly when you need to pay a bill. Tip: if you're someone who gets a check the same date each month and that poses a challenge to paying your credit card on time due to the timing of your due date, try calling your credit card issuer to see if you can move the due date to a date that works better for your checkbook.

Paying To Pay:
Some credit card issuers charged to take an online payment. Most charged for a phone payment, anywhere from $15 to $25. This is no longer allowed. Making a payment must be a free service. The exception to this is an expedited payment, for example it's 8:15pm and your payment was due today - if you call and make a payment by phone, they can still charge you (although not all do).

Protecting The Young:
I remember being a college student and having credit card companies setting up tables all over campus offering all sorts of goodie. Many of my friends applied for credit cards because of the "fun" of it or because of the high pressure tactics. And yes, some of them got into trouble with them. As an alumnae today, my college has a deal that I'm sure pays them millions to solicit alumni.

Today? No more tables. Credit card companies cannot be give away their free gifts within 1,000 feet of campus or at campus events (bye bye huge tables blocking my way at football games!), which should severely limit credit card solicitations on campus.

If you're under 21, there are also additional protections, although some of it is a sham. Those under 21 cannot receive prescreened offers unless the person consents to receive them (and really, who wants that?). Those under 21 also need a co-signer for the credit card or need to show proof of their ability to repay the debt. That sounds good, right? Unfortunately, in reality that means that the simply have to declare an income. If they say they make $100,000 per year, that's enough proof (per the interpretation of the Fed by the way, not a decision from the credit card companies).

Fees, Fees, Fees:
Credit card companies have come to rely on fees to provide credit to people who ... maybe shouldn't have credit cards. They did things that ranged from charging over the limit fees each time a card went over the limit (e.g., interest pushed you over the limit $39, pay down to just under the limit and then make a purchase $39, and you can do that every day throughout the month and be charged $39 each time). And the subprime cards? They charged huge fees from an application fee to an activation fee to an annual fee to a monthly fee and sometimes all of the above. There was one secured card that gave a $250 limit and charged $256 in fees in the first year. Yikes!

Now consumers have to opt into allowing over the limit fees, and many credit card companies have simply done away with them, knowing that few people will do so. If you do opt in (why?!), they can only charge on over limit fee in a given billing cycle. Additionally, you can't be charged an over limit fee if interest or other fees charged by the credit card company push you over.

And any fees (not late fees, returned check fees, or interest - the avoidable things) has to be capped at 25% of the credit limit for the first year. Granted, 25% can still be fairly high, but that limit is unlikely to be reached except for the very low limit cards aimed at those with no or poor credit. However, this is only the case for the first year the card is open. After that, there is no cap on fees, and I wouldn't be surprised if people with those cards are shocked in month thirteen with the fees charged.

Statement Changes:
I'm lucky that I've always understood my statement. I've been able to figure out what I owe and when I owe it, and that's all I needed to know. But not everyone is that lucky, especially when there are terms that change or fees on specific transactions like cash advances that were hard to find or understand.

Now billing statements have to be much clearer. And also a whole lot longer. The credit card statement I received on Friday was three pages long for less than a page of transactions. (And yes, that cost has to be made up somewhere - Alliance Data Systems is already charging $1 per month for those electing to receive a paper statement.)

The new statement has to clearly lay out how long it will take you to pay off your bill if you pay only the minimum monthly payments (yikes!). It also has to show what payment you'd need to make to ensure you pay off your bill within three years, and they include a toll free number to a non-profit credit counseling agency. There will be a box showing your total interest and total fees paid year to date, along with a late payment warning. You'll start to see this immediately, with major terms outlined clearly and in large type.

Wow this got long fast! There are a lot of other provisions within the CARD Act that went into place yesterday ranging from double cycle billing to . I hope this was helpful to you. If you're interested in learning more about the CARD Act, let me know what you're confused about, and I'll put up another post. In the meantime, know what you're signing up for, and use your credit wisely - it's your money you're spending, so don't waste it on interest and fees!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Tasty Tuesday!

We're in the midst of Lent, and some people in this family who remind me of that more than ever. It's possible those people happen to be six year old little boys who go to Catholic school where they teach you not to eat meat in Lent on Fridays.

I will not be the one to disillusion him in his quest, and I like the reminders to follow the traditions I grew up with (as we're now Episcopal, they aren't to hard and fast with the giving things up or avoiding meat).

I don't really want to be stuck with spaghetti each week or plain tuna fish or grilled salmon. This is the perfect time to do some other things that we don't cook or eat too often. I think I fell upon the perfect solution (thank you, Sampling People at Costco!).

Salmon Patties

2 6oz cans of salmon
1 egg, beaten
3/4 c bread crumbs (save those heels of the crusty loaves you buy and don't quite finish!)
1 T parsely, chopped
black pepper
olive oil

Place the cans of salmon (and their liquid) into a bowl. Gently flake, but do your best to keep nice chunks in there. Add the beaten egg, parsley, and pepper. Gently combine. Add 1/3 c bread crumbs and stir again.

Form the salmon into approximately 10 patties. Roll them in the remaining bread crumbs.

In a heavy skillet, heat on medium low enough oil to cover the bottom. Fry the patties on one side, add a little more oil and flip to fry the second side.

Yum!  (ok, so my husband made them this time and minced the salmon, used flour in place of bread crumbs and then reheated them when I got home... they don't look as good as they usually do, but they tasted great!)

As you can see, we served them with rice and corn. It was a great combo, and the wee ones loved them. Be grateful I have a picture, as there were no leftovers and I almost forgot until I was halfway through eating.

For more recipes, check out Tempt My Tummy Tuesday with Blessed with Grace!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Good Deeds Gone Wild

This year, we put Mister Man into a parochial school instead of our (admittedly, very good) local public school for a variety of reasons. It was something that I agonized over before finally making the decision - and of course afterwards.

I feel pretty confident that it was the right decision now. We love this school for so many reasons, from the truly differentiated education for students starting in kindergarten to the specials (art, music, gym, Spanish) that also start in kindgarten to the truly caring teachers there.

They've come up with some projects and activities for the kindergarteners that have really been winners. One that we're working on right now is focused on Lent. Each child was sent home with green strips of paper. Whenever the child does a good deed, we write it down on the paper and send it back to school. The good deeds will all be woven together to make one giant chain of good deeds showing how these little people can together make a big difference in the world.

I BIG puffy heart this idea. I love the concept, the explanation, and the execution.

And you know who else does? Mister Man thinks it rocks.

He is now walking around all day looking for good deeds that he can do from cleaning up the nursery at church to putting away groceries with Daddy to clearing all the plates at dinner (instead of just his own). And he isn't satisfied with just that; he wants to find more things he can do.

It feels kind of wrong, but I had to tell him today that he'd done enough good deeds for now and didn't need to look for any more right then. He had a long time yet to do more good deeds and didn't have to do them all right away. That still feels wrong just typing it - telling a child not to do any more good deeds?

This has been such a huge success with him that we may continue it once Lent is over. While he won't send it into school to make a chain with his classmates, we can do it at home. And this will also allow Little Miss to get involved (who of course wants to do anything her big brother does).

I'll be really interested to see if and how this changes his behavior at all in terms of some of the (typically) selfish six year old behavior he sometimes exhibits. Regardless, it sets him on a great path.

What do (or did) you do at home to help build a strong character?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

That's A Lot Of Love

Little Miss loves me. A lot. And she tells me frequently. I'm still trying to figure out if this is something that she does because she's that demonstrative, because she's really insecure and needs to be reaffirmed all the time (ummm unlikely knowing her), or whether she just thinks it's funny. Regardless, we had what I thought was a rather entertaining conversation yesterday.

Little Miss: Mommy, I love you.
Me: Yes, my little peanut, I know.
Little Miss: And you love me, too!
Me: I do. And how do you know that? (Here I'm expecting some four year old version of because I show her on a daily basis.)
Little Miss: Because you've told me like a thousand times.
Me: Oh, I think I've told you more often than that.
Little Miss: Ok, you've told me you love me a hundred times!
Me: Ummm, definitely more than a hundred times.
Little Miss: Fine. You've told me one hundred forty-nine times then.

Apparently I haven't been doing such a good job teaching her to count.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Everything Pudding

Ok, so how many of you read the Betsy, Tacy and Tibb books growing up? (And how many of you plan to find the books for your daughters to read?) They were some of my favorite books in late elementary school. And yes, the inspired me.

How, you might ask?

Wellll if you haven't noticed, I sorta like to cook. And I may or may not have mentioned that my mom's idea of cooking meant boiling to death an entire box of pasta then putting it in the fridge in a Ziploc for us to pick at as we were hungry. (No, I'm not joking).

I certainly didn't get my enjoyment of food from her (cottage cheese with canned peaches is her standard breakfast because it's easy but ewwww!), nor my love of cooking. She still dosn't get it, but she will at least eat some of the food, generally whateve is left that no one else wants to eat.

So back to Betsy, Tacy, and Tibb. In one of the books, Betsy comes up with a great idea to cook. They decided to learn how to cook by making "everything pudding" which essentially consisted of everything but the kitchen sink.

I thought that was a pretty cool idea, but my mom pretty quickly laid down the law that if I made it, I ate it. Or maybe it was my friend's mom, and my mom simply copied.

Regardless, we made everything... cookies and cakes and muffins and bread and pancakes. And using no recipes, putting in some sometimes odd ingredients, we occasionally came up with some pretty good stuff.

We also quickly learned to make very small batches of things to avoid having to eat a whole lot of something nasty.

I look back on that now, and oh the fun we had! It was a great way to spend a sleepover, and generally a pretty inexpensive proposition. We were always safe, and it was a great way to exert some independence safely. I only wish that we'd taken photos of our work and written down some of our better recipes.

In fact, I think I might have to try this with the wee ones one of these day wen we have some free time. I have a feeling they might enjoy continuing this little tradition.

So what did you love to do as a child that was - maybe - a little more unique?


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

I Need Some Ideas Here

Today is one of my favorite days. Living where I live, the day before Ash Wednesday has special meaning. Granted, I'm not in New Orleans where this is the culmination of a wonderful celebration of Mardi Gras (ahhh to be in college again where I can drive down on a moment's notice and spend a day and a night there, sleeping under a tree). Nope, here we have something totally different.

It's Packzi Day (pronounced essentially "poohnch-key").

Mmmm, packzis.

They're a Polish delicacy - thus the name I have a hard time reconciling pronounciation with spelling - that is traditionally made on the day before Ash Wednesday when all the fats and sweets had to be used up. We have an awesome bakery near me that makes them. In fact, they're awesome enough that I woke up early this morning so I could drive twenty minutes out of my way before work to pick up a couple. For my family. Ahem.

Ok, so I got my six packzis, the owner was taping up the box, and I shouted "no no no -- wait, don't tape it!" He looked up with a question on his face. I explained that it was for my breakfast.

And looking back now, I understand why he laughed. To clarify, I only ate one packzi today. Single.

Needless to say, he laughed and untaped the box. And adding insult to injury, he grabbed a plastic fork and stuck it into the box for me. Apparently I do something memorable to him every year I buy packzis.

So what is a packzi?

It's essentially a lovely donut stuffed with fruit. Traditionally (from what I understand being Irish and Scottish and German but not Polish), they were cut in half with sliced fruit and whipped cream being placed inside and powdered sugar atop. Prune filling was also another traditional flavor.

While the bakery I patronize has those options, it also goes for the big flavor. They have raspberry filled glazed packzis. They have custard filled chocolate frosting packzis. They have apricot filled packzis. Pretty much pick a (good) flavor, and they have them.

Mister Man chooses blueberry and pineapple packzis - to be doled out over a several day period - for his, while I got nontraditional with my chocolate frosting filled covered in powdered sugar.


And the other tradition here? That would be Shrove Tuesday where the British essentially do the same thing - celebrating the last of the fun before the start of Lent.

Thus, my church has a Shrove Tuesday party with English crepes served with both lemon and sugar (traditional) and nutella, ice cream, whipped cream, cherries, and more.

Did I mention that a friend of mine took me out for lunch today for Mexican? Yikes.

So Mister Man and I headed over to the church where we indulged in some traditional yummies before playing their version of bunco. My partner and I were terrible at Beetle Drive, unable to roll a six (which you have to do to start the game) most of the time. Mister Man managed to win most of them, however, and I have a feeling we're going to be playing a lot of that game around here.

It's been thoroughly drummed into me that Lent is fast upon us (no pun intended, I swear). But I'm stuck. I can't come up with anything good to give up this year.

I don't drink pop or caffeine. I don't drink alcohol enough to remember that I'm trying to give it up. I don't swear; I rarely chew gum. Chocolate is done so often. So what do I do for Lent this year? I've got three hours before I need to figure it out, and I'm not there yet?

Do I commit to planning out meals for my family for each day in Lent?

Do I commit to doing a particular (painful) exercise each day?

Do I go for the chocolate route?

Do I clean one room in the house thoroughly each day?

Do I give up the Food Network (that would make my husband happy)?

So after all the fun indulgences I had today reminding me that a solemn time is nearly upon us, what do you suggest? Help a girl out, would you?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Tasty Tuesday!

Well, ok so I'll admit to having been out of town for most of the last week, which means I haven't done much in the kitchen. Yesterday I had sushi for Valentine's Day (mmmm, sushi), and today I worked and got home too late to make a "real" dinner.

So you know what's left? I've gotta go with the blondies I made for the Super Bowl. Honestly, I'm tempted to whip up another batch right now so I can be sure I have pictures. Really, that's the only reason. What, you don't believe me?

Ok, so I just want some more of the treats. They went quickly and were soooo yummy. I had hardly any leftover (two, to be exact).

Double Chocolate Blondies

2 sticks butter, room temperature
2 c brown sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 t baking powder
2 t vanilla
1/4 t salt
2 1/2 c flour
12 oz semi sweet chocolate chips
1 c milk chocolate chip chunks

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a 13x9 pan.

Cream the butter and sugar until it comes together and is lightened and creamy. Add the eggs and beat until well mixed. Do the same for the vanilla.

Add the baking powder and salt and beat well again. Add the flour and stir until just combined (some flour will still be showing). Add the chocolate chips and stir until distributed.

Scoop the batter into the pan, spoonful by spoonful. Use the back of a spatula to squish it until it's fairly evenly distributed and flat. Sprinkle the milk chocolate chunks atop the batter, and lightly press them in. If you have any leftover chocolate chips, do the same.

Bake for 25-30 minutes, until a tester comes out clean. Let cool thoroughly, then slice into 24 (or more) bars.

Enjoy! (And hide them from your family.)

Does this sound good to you? Go find more with Tempt My Tummy Tuesday over with Blessed With Grace.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Oh Those Things They Say

Soooo, I know I've been somewhat MIA, but I promise I have a good reason. I'm finally back - at least physically, if not mentally - from Orlando and a conference there, with more to be posted on my other blog in the next couple days.

While on "vacation" with my parents and wee ones, I had several ahhhh memorable moments, shall we say.

Proof that my parents spoil the wee ones:
Upon walking into our hotel room, Mister Man turned around to look at us and asked, "Where's my bedroom?"

Granted, when my parents take us on vacation, we usually stay in a rented condo for a longer period of time, so having a standard hotel room apparently came as a surprise to him.

Upon deciding that she was finished with volunteering, Little Miss declared, "I want to go. I don't like this place. There aren't even any 'lands.' I want to go somewhere that has lands. And rides."

So this is why so many volunteer opportunities don't include four year olds....

Upon seeing yet another character at breakfast, "Grandma, did you order Daisy, too? And did you order and pay for Donald? I see them; I see them!"

And yes, that would be a character breakfast at Chef Mickey's that my parents took the wee ones to, not knowing that they were in for more than a typical breakfast place.

Trying to convince Little Miss that it was ok to ride the teacups, as she is not a fan of "spinny rides," Mister Man tried the logic of: "But I'm the Fear Master. It's ok to ride because I'm the Fear Master, and I take away your fears. Fears: begone!"

Nope, it didn't work, as evidenced by:

"Slow down. Slow dowwwwwn! Slowwwwwww! Dowwwwwwwwn!" from Little Miss the entire teacup ride.

And no, we weren't spinning. At all. Fortunately, Mister Man joined me on the ride immediately afterwards where we spun as fast as we could the whole ride. Now if I could just find someone to ride the roller coasters with me, I'd be set.

Being directed to dinner at the Wide World of Sports, Mister Man insisted, "Mommy, don't follow them. They're going to try to trick us. Look, they have red light sabers; that means they're bad guys."

Uhhhh, no. However, I do think that it's time to take away some of those Star Wars books.

Upon exiting Energy Universe at Epcot, Little Miss explained, "It's important to never fall asleep for a nap while watching television. It gives you nightmares, and you'll dream about dinosaurs coming to get you. Make sure you don't fall asleep with the tv on, Mommy."

Yep, that's all she got out of the educational ride about how energy is created. Needless to say, she was very worried when she saw Grandpa the next day asleep with the television on.

There were so many more, but I can't remember them. Maybe once I catch up on my sleep, they'll come back to me. Even if they don't, I know they will always be creating more.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

I Love Red Tape

Last day for the soup giveaway... and what, only two people like soup? Come enter here; you've got great odds!


In Illinois, we've got the I-Pass that allows us to go through the "temporary-just-until-we-pay-for-the-highways-built-in-the-1950s" tolls, which makes it ever so convenient. And it's technically half price now, since cash tolls are twice the price.

Needless to say, my husband and I both have I-Passes, even though we don't go on the highways that often. They pay for themselves, and they're awfully convenient.

Well, most of the time.

When we went to go see Disney on Ice last week, I noticed that my husband's I-Pass didn't go off when we went through the toll. In fact, I was pretty sure I saw flashes of light behind us instead of the nice blue light on the toll pole that shows that the toll was properly deducted.

I sighed and asked if he'd refilled the I-Pass lately. Or if by chance he'd noticed the yellow light going off the last (at least) twenty-five times he'd gone through a toll. Mmmm no. He didn't believe it was out of money.

I tried calling the 800 number on the I-Pass figuring to get it straightened out immediately. After being told that I had a "more than ten minute" wait to provide them with money and arriving at the Allstate parking lot, I decided we could try later.

When we got to the toll booth on the way back, we went into the cash lane, and the lovely man working in the toll booth confirmed that yes, the I-Pass was out of money.

My husband then, smartly, decided that he'd call to fix it the next day. And - amazingly enough - he called. Except that he was told that they couldn't talk to him about the account at all, and no, he could not give them money to replenish the transponder because he wasn't on the account.


I totally get wanting to avoid identity theft. I completely understand not wanting to talk to people regarding, say, credit card accounts when they aren't on the account. This reminds me of getting married and having no issues changing my name on my credit cards and bank accounts but requiring original notarized copies of my marriage certificate to change the name on my grocery loyalty card.

The next day, I called, and fortunately, I did not have a more than ten minute wait.

I gave the transponder number to the woman who requested it.

I verified my name.

I verified my date of birth.

I verified my email address.

I verified my home address.

I verified my email address.

I gave my phone number.

It wasn't the right one. No biggie, right? I asked that she update it, but she couldn't do that. She couldn't talk to me about the account until I provided her with the correct phone number.

Apparently all the other information isn't enough for me to provide them with money.

I sighed and asked what my options were. She reiterated that she could do nothing for me until I validated my phone number.

I explained that I had moved three times since getting the transponder, plus a few different work numbers and two cell phones. I could almost hear her shrug with disinterest.

I sighed again and began listing phone numbers, hoping that I remembered them correctly.

The fifth phone number was finally the right one. Thank goodness. From there, I was able to successfully replenish my account and pay them money.

But seriously? There is a time and a place to be overly careful verifying information. A tollway authority where one is trying to give them money is neither. I mean, really, if someone else wants to fund my account, why should I care?

I think I remember now why I'm not a public servant. Not that I ever really forgot.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Tasty Tuesday

It's cold and snowy in Chicago, which is - appropriately - perfect weather for soup. And lucky you, I'm giving some away here.


So for those of you living under a rock, Sunday was Super Bowl Sunday. Ahhh, the day when everyone forgets diets and good intentions and it's all about getting together with family and friends to critique commercials. Of course, if I had my act together, I'd put up my Super Bowl menu the week before the game, but hey, be glad you're getting it at all!

This year, we had:

Bufalo Chicken Dip (mmm)
Crab and Artichoke Dip (ahh)
Veggies with homemade Spinach Dip
Chips and my Guacamole
My husband's Chili (and I missed a bowl yet again!)
White Chocolate Party Mix

Plus the goat tacos I promised awhile ago. Yep, they're meatless, and I didn't even use the goat cheese that gives them their name. But ya know, they still worked out pretty well.

I made these for the Super Bowl, but going forward I'd probably make them less for a party like this and more in a situation where I have girls over for appetizers or a holiday party. They weren't a ton of work, but they were a bit of overkill probably.

And they're best eaten within a couple of hours of being made -- and at a Super Bowl party, there are too many choices and too much nibbling over a five hour period. I'll be honest - the chips were a bit soft at the end of the night.

Fooled Ya Goat Taco's

Scoopable tortilla chips
Guacamole (really, use mine - it's worth it)
Crumbled feta or goat cheese - I used a mediterranean blend

Ok, can I *really* call these directions?

Set the chips out onto a platter. Spoon a small scoop of guac into the chip. Follow with a small glop of salsa. Top with a bit of cheese.

Admire and eat. See, so easy.
Any requests for next week?

Enjoy this and other more "real" recipes with Blessed With Grace and Tempt My Tummy Tuesday.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

What Has Being A Mom Taught You?

Go check out my giveaway here and then come on back orrrr read this, then go enter! Mmmm, soup!


I'm far from an expert, after all, I've only had this gig for six years, but there are so many things that I've learned. They have to be only the tip of the iceberg, though. Being a mom teaches you so many things. So many. I'll start the list with ten, but I really want to know what being a mom has taught you (ok, or dad or aunt or uncle or just a person who hangs around kids.


My Top Ten Things I've Learned As A Mom

10. Kids have a reason for everything they do. We may not understand that reason. The reason may leave us rolling our eyes or groaning or sighing in frustration, but they always have a reason. It's part of our job to figure out what that reason is and help them understand if it's a good reason or not and figure out how to best reason their way through the situations they come upon in life.

9. There will always be something I regret. Who didn't think they were going to be a perfect parent - or at least "better" than our parents? Nonetheless, there will always be moments where I wish I could hit the rewind button and do it over again. And yet, we do the majority of things to the benefit of them. They'll turn out well in the end, even though we'll have days that we wish we could forget.

8. Sleep is for the weak. I remember (vaguely) the days when I wouldn't wake up until the afternoon. I remember lazy days when I may not have actually fallen asleep for a nap, but I came awfully close. I remember being exhausted from a long week and going to bed when I got home from work. Now? I laugh. Those first few months as a mom - especially as a second time mom - I still look back on those days and wonder how I survived on so little sleep. I functioned - not just managed, but actually functioned - with almost no sleep. While sleep is nice, we can do without. And we do. Regularly.

7. Things really aren't that disgusting. Vomit? Ok, so I still don't do vomit. Fortunately the wee ones aren't pukers, and Mister Man is good at making it to the toilet on the rare occasion when he throws up. But drool on my hand or shirt? Please. I don't even notice it now. Wiping someone else's bottom? Ha! Blood? Well, I'll be honest and admit that this never bothered me before children. But really, some of the things I do? I just step back and shake my head sometimes. Before I was a parent, no way could I do half this stuff.

6. Simple decisions, aren't. How hard is it to choose an outfit for the first day of school? How hard to choose a doctor? What sports do they play? How many? Should we encourage this friendship? Is this the right school? Are we putting them on a path to be happy in life? The things we have to decide, day after day, are sometimes heart-wrenching and sometimes silly. But oh how I wish I had a crystal ball to know that the decisions I'm making are the "right" ones - even knowing now that there is no one right answer.

5. I'm far more patient than I ever thought. I have yet another talent I never thought I did. I never saw myself as a patient person. I had my fair share of instances where I grew frustrated over something insignificant, where I just couldn't deal with any more. But since kids? My well of patience grew. Maybe it's something in the hormones that finally lets this part of your brain develop, but oh the things that I let roll off my back now that before children would have had me spinning in circles....

4. I want better. As a childless person, I thought I had my life pretty well under control. I did the right things with regards to recycling and eating well and balancing my life. Now that children arrived, I realized how shallow so much of that was. There is so much more that I can do and that I should do. I've realized what's really important in life, and I strive to get there. I don't always succeed, but that view of what is better and what I want is right in front of me every day. And I'm never going to stop reaching for it until I get there.

3. I can have more fun for free than I can for $500. Oh how my priorities have changed. While I was never a spendthrift, I had my time in life where I loved doing "big" things. I loved going on ski vacations with my friends where we ate out at fancy restaurants at night and skiied all day. I loved going to benefits for my favorite charities where I dressed up in my formal duds, bought my expensive tickets, and won my silent auction items. I can't tell you the last time I did any of those, although I know it was before children. Now my fun consists more of squatting on the floor trying to make the perfect Lego creation or chasing the wee ones around at a park or working together to make our favorite granola.

2. There's never a happy medium. Before children, my husband and I saw both sets of our parents about the same amount of time, in fact we probably saw his more due to visiting for football games. But since the wee ones were born, my in-laws have visited three times. When they visit, they sit on our couches all day or visit the casinos. They don't have or push for a strong relationship with their grandchildren. My parents? Oh, I've written about them before. They love the wee ones. They moved ten minutes away from us. They are my childcare, and the wee ones frequently prefer their (spoiling) company to ours. Too much or nothing at all. We make it work, of course, but somehow I wish for the right balance.

And the Number One Thing I've Learned Since Becoming A Parent?

I love more than I thought I could. Watching the wee ones run up to me with a smile on their faces? It warms my heart. Seeing their joy brings me joy. Watching them in pain destroys me. And it isn't just them. Watching the world around me, they color it - and me - with joy. Strangers touch my heart far more than they did before. And really, that's one gift I wouldn't trade for all the sleep in the world.

So what have you learned?

Mama's Losin' It

Monday, February 1, 2010

Tasty Tuesday!

Go check out my giveaway here and then come on back for the yummy recipe. Mmmm, soup!


Today is Little Miss's half-birthday, so I knew that would have to play into the recipe I chose for this week.

And let me stop there, since I've recently learned that I need to explain a half birthday. In our family, we don't just celebrate our birthdays each year, we also celebrate the half birthday six months into the year. On birthdays, people get a cake, but for half birthdays, cupcakes are served. There are no presents, but the half-birthday person still gets to choose what we have for dinner.

When the wee ones woke up this morning, Mister Man was so excited to wish Little Miss a happy half-birthday. He rushed into her room and gave her a big hug and a kiss. Then he ran back into his room exclaiming, "A plan! I need to come up with a plan quickly!" He re-emerged carrying one of his treasured Atlantis Legos. What a sweetie.

It didn't end there. He dashed back into his room and came back shortly upset because "I can't find it!" I assumed he was looking for a uniform shirt, but no - he wanted to give Little Miss his Thomas birthday shirt to wear today. I quickly found it, and she proudly went through the day wearing Mister Man's shirt.

Back to cooking though -- since Little Miss chose my pizza for her dinner tonight, there went that idea. Instead, I am "stuck" with her eensy weensy cupcakes.

I bought an itty bitty baking kit baking kit from the book fair this fall that Little Miss received for Christmas. She was so excited to use it for the first time. It actually worked out well because making a cake usually means having lots of leftovers. I found a recipe that makes not too many small cupcakes, which was perfect. I adapted it to (in my mind) improve it, but I love the ability to make a treat like this without having a kajillion leftovers.

Tiny - and not too many - Cupcakes

1/2 c sugar
2/3 c flour
1/4 c unsalted butter, room temperature
1 egg
1 t vanilla
1 t baking powder
1/4 c milk
1 1/4 oz unsweetened chocolate, melted

In a medium bowl, beat together the sugar and butter until fluffy. Beat in the egg then stir in the chocolate. Once incorporated, add the vanilla and beat again.

Add the baking powder and mix, then add the flour and stir until just mixed. Stir in the milk until the batter is smooth, but do not overstir.

Use mini muffin tins, and spray with a nonstick spray. Spoon in a dollop of batter into each muffin space, filling about three-quarters full. This made 24 cupcakes and the 6 itty bitty cupcakes perfectly! Tap the muffin tin on the counter to get out any air bubbles.

(And, yes, these cupcakes really are that little - that's a teaspoon measure sitting next to the cupcake pan for relative size comparison.)

Place into a preheated 350 oven, and bake for 10 minutes. Let cool for ten minutes, then gently twist each cupcake and turn the pan upside down to release.

1/3 c butter, room temperature
1/8 c milk
1/3 c cocoa
2 c powdered sugar
1/2 t vanilla

Carefully mix together the milk and butter. Add the cocoa and stir until combined. Add the vanilla and mix again. Add powdered sugar a half cup at a time until the frosting is at the consistency that you prefer.

Turn the cupcakes upside down and twist in the frosting to coat gently, then use a butter knife to add more frosting and spread it around.

Because these are so small, they will dry out quickly. Store in an airtight container, but eat them quickly!

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