Friday, May 31, 2013

35 Things

Tomorrow I turn 35.
So exciting, right?
Talk about total mom jeans.
Turning 35 is kind of a bummer (only 5 more years until 40. AAAAAHHH!).
So, I decided to do something positive...more precisely 35 positive somethings.
I jumped on the Random Acts of Kindness bandwagon and decided to do 35 nice things before my birthday tomorrow.

Amazingly I was able to fit most of them into this week...though there were a few good deeds I counted that happened a week or two ago. I freaking saved a big ole' snapper turtle. I had to put that on my list...especially since it bit my toe, and I stopped traffic in both directions.

A bunch of the nice things involved people I know and love, but there were other completely random deeds. (I got a lot of the ideas from The Birthday Project. A Florida woman started the whole idea on her 40th birthday and blogged about it.)

Here are some highlights.

  • Left a handful of quarters at the local laundrymat. The two woman in there looked at me a bit bewildered, but thanked me before I left.
  • Gave water bottles to two construction workers, who kind of acted like this had happened before.
  • Paid for the guy behind me at Starbucks. This was hilarious because the cashier asked me if I thought the guy was cute. "Umm. No. It's just my birthday."
  • Donated a bag of dog food to an animal shelter. Scott said this one shouldn't count because I gave the kids false hope about getting a dog. Ooops.
  • Left a note to the mailman about how much I appreciate his service. Cheesy? Yes. But, maybe it made his day?
  • Gave a McDonald's gift card to a family at McDonald's. Considering we don't eat at McDonald's it was fairly easy to give away the gift card Johnny had received from preschool and it made the family happy.
  • Taped money to the vending machine at the YMCA with a note. This was kind of funny because at first no one really wanted to open the note, but it was gone when I came back the next day.
  • Returned all the wayward carts at Trader Joe's. Why the heck do people just leave carts haphazardly in the parking lot and in handicapped parking spaces?? Drives me nuts.
  • Handed water bottles to trash collectors on a super hot day. They were the most surprised and thankful of everyone.
The best part of my little project was getting the kids involved. Julie loved thinking of ideas and decided to write beautiful notes to her teachers and a family friend who was diagnosed with Cancer.
Just shows turning 35 can be positive, right??

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Preschool forever

The first day of preschool

I wish my kids could just stay in preschool.
Aren't those the best years?
A little bit of learning. A lot of playing. Tons of friends.

Today was Johnny's last day of preschool. I'm pretty bummed the year went so quickly.
I didn't have too many reservations about sending Johnny off to preschool. I wanted to keep my baby a baby, but there was no doubt he was ready.
Sporting his spiffy Lightening McQueen backpack, he proudly walked into the classroom that first day and promptly introduced himself to another little boy. He hung his backpack on a hook and dove into the puzzles with a handful of other kids. Before I left the classroom, I remember him looking up at me so happy...kind of in disbelief that he was finally old enough to go to school.

I think that's how he felt today at the end-of-the-year picnic. He wrestled with his friends and danced goofily during the little preschool performance. But, when  his name was called by his teacher to  collect his end-of-the-year projects, he just beamed.

"I'm so big now Mommy!" he blurted out as we drove home today from his last day of school.

I just smiled and thanked God that he can be little for one more year.

The last day of preschool

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Wednesday Wow

Kelly, my sister (I always have to clarify because I literally have 10 friends named Kelly) got me hooked on the Just Fab. Have you tried it?

It's this super cool site to buy shoes, clothes, bags, jewelry...pretty much anything to go with any outfit. I found these emerald green flats on Just Fab a couple months ago and today I sported them with jeans.

The only bummer about the site is you must belong in order to buy anything. AND if you belong to the site, you must remember to "skip" purchases each month unless you want your credit card to be charged for a shoe purchase (which you could later redeem).

I forgot to skip last month, so I was charged, but that just meant a new pair of sandals for me. Ooops!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Monday Munch (a day late): Mambo Italiano

I'm always on the lookout for fun, delicious spots to take family and friends when they visit us. Obviously Chicago offers endless dining opportunities, but sometimes I'm looking for something closer to home.

My healthy foodie friend Lindsey suggested Mambo Italiano in Mundelein. Through Lindsey's whole Food Revolution craze, she befriended the owner who also loves to cook from scratch using real foods.

After a trip to the mall in Vernon Hills, I decided to take my parents to Mambo for a quick lunch. The authentic Italian food did not disappoint. I loved the minestrone and Julie and Johnny scarfed down the lasagna.

Next time we'll stay for dinner and enjoy a bottle of wine or two.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Camping Chronicles

With oldies blaring on the radio, our camper covered some major ground up and down the East Coast. I was probably in second grade when my parents first bought the used Winebago from my uncle. To Kelly and I it was a dream come true.
Every summer we set off in the RV on a new adventure. As soon as the wheels started rolling, Dad shoved in the Roy Orbison cassette tape, and my sister and I scrambled up to the loft where we played Barbies for hours. We made some of the best memories on our camper vacations.

Scott also has some great childhood camping memories so we are determined to be a camping family.


 We have taken the kids tent camping a couple times, but we decided to start off slow this weekend and opted for a rustic cabin at Jelltystone Campground in Millbrook, Illinois. Jellystone Campgrounds are akin to family summer camp. There are activities planned pretty much every hour...from ice cream socials, obstacle courses and talent shows to hay rides every morning and arts and crafts every afternoon. The weather was less than ideal for Memorial Day weekend. It was a bit chilly, so no pool time and it started pouring on Sunday, so we headed home earlier than expected. But, we got in two campfires, a handful of hay rides, a round of mini golf, a couple hikes and a night hike when we used light sabers to light the way. Overall a successful trip!


Thursday, May 23, 2013

Way to go Mom!

My mom is way cooler than most people her age. Heck, if she didn't sport those tacky themed sweatshirts for every holiday, she would almost be cooler than me. What other 65-year-old grandma competes in Foam Fest? Foam Fest is one of those super popular dirty races--except foam is a big part of the event. Racers are forced to climb towering cargo nets, slide down steep foam-coated slides, squeeze beneath barbed wire and jump in muddy ponds. My sister signed up for the race a few months ago, but we convinced Mom to join along. Despite her trepidation she did it--forged every obstacle covered in foam and emerged all muddy and scraped. My mom was no doubt the oldest competitor and everyone was cheering her on along the race. This was Mom's first "dirty" race, but she has participated in countless other races, and she usually earns some type of medal for her age group. She's an inspiration to my sister and me. We only hope we're as cool at 65.

Mom (on right) with Kelly and her friend Shruti

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Wednesday Wow

Two consecutive nights of going out on the town?? I feel like some sort of socialite!
Technically I'm doing "research" for an article, but still...
Last night I hosted a fashion party at Bevello, a local shop in Deer Park. We drank wine, munched on snacks and tried on a slew of cute outfits.

Check out these hot mamas.

We all left with something---some more than others. Here is a little top I bought. I'm all about bright colors in the summer.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Artists for the night

I'm so not an artist, but I was last night.
After a few glasses of wine and great conversation with some fun girls, my paintbrush swished away and I created a masterpiece. Wink. Wink. Last night was media night at Bottle & Bottega in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago--an incredibly fun art studio where amateurs are encouraged to get tipsy and paint. I was invited, and I took along my friend Lindsey, who writes a great food blog. There were a handful of other bloggers and freelance writers and photographers there. We were guided by a real artist who clued us in on some techniques. We all created a piece using the same subject matter: a vase of flowers. Then, came the best part of the night when we painted portraits of each other. I painted Lindsey, who is a beautiful girl, but didn't look so charming in my rendition. Lindsey, however, is quite the artist. We topped off the night by taking pictures of ourselves with our artwork. What a fun night!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Monday Munch: D and J Bistro

The great thing about living in Chicagoland is the food.  No one would argue with that. Each weekend we usually try a new restaurant. Very rarely do we eat at a restaurant twice. This doesn't mean the food is bad. It is simply because there are so many choices. We just don't want to waste our time somewhere we have already tried.
D and J Bistro in Lake Zurich is an exception. This upscale French spot is by far our favorite restaurant in the area. Our amazing realtor first took us to D and J Bistro on the night we decided to buy our house in Lake Zurich. Scott fell in love with the pork chop cordon bleu. I fell in love with the wine list. Since D and J is a bit pricey, it's our special occasion spot.

We went to D and J on the night we finally sold our house in Pennsylvania! This night was also a couple days after our anniversary. We had many reasons to celebrate!

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Food Revolution

Yesterday Julie almost skipped out on a field trip with her Daisy troop. The troop had planned an end of the year party at Build-a-Bear with lunch afterwards at McDonald's. To most kids this sounds like a perfect day. My 7-year-old health nut was hung up on the stop at McDonald's.
A year ago she would have been jumping with glee to eat McNuggets and fries. This year she's my super healthy eater. "McDonald's is so bad for you Mommy. I just really don't want to go," she explained.
I swear there was no coaxing from me at all. Obviously we want our kids to eat healthy, and I was kind of glad she had the willpower to resist McDonald's when all her friends would be going. But, I kind of felt bad. I don't want our kids to think any food is off-limits all the time. I really think there are sometimes foods like cookies and cake at a party, or chips at a picnic, or McDonald's with friends.
It's all about being balanced. I convinced Julie to go to the field trip. We had a great time and the kids ate cheeseburgers for the first time in probably six months. All was good.

The irony is later that day we went to a Food Revolution picnic organized by a friend of mine here in the Chicago suburbs. Lindsey has this awesome story about changing her family's eating habits completely and focusing on real, whole foods. They were a nugget family before, and now she's cooking up kale smoothies for breakfast. In her quest to make food changes, she became a food ambassador for Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution and hosted the picnic yesterday, which was awesome.
She is truly an inspiration.
Eating healthy has always been important in our house. I have never been a short-order cook mom---you know the ones who cook nuggets for one kid, hot dogs for another, and a completely different meal for the adults. I cook a meal and everyone eats it and that's it.
The  meal, I thought was always nutritious since I always cooked with vegetables and never served pre-packaged junk. Lindsey, however, really got me looking at labels and thinking about organic and whole foods. There are truly so many foods that you think might be OK but really aren't.
Instead of just worrying about fat content and calories, I'm really thinking about what's in the food and how that can affect our bodies.
One of the meals I used to serve sometimes, maybe once a month, was fat-free hot dogs and mac n cheese. I knew that was not the healthiest meal, but in actuality, it was low in fat and calories. After really looking at the ingredients, I really don't think I will ever serve that again. The other thing is we used to on occasion take the kids to McDonald's for a special treat. This was really rare, but it did happen. Now we literally never go and the kids never ask. And, in Julie's case, she shuns fast food.

I'm so happy we're raising healthy eaters, but I also don't want to raise kids who obsess about food like I always did. I want food to be a natural, fun part of our lives---not something to be afraid of or worried about. The Food Revolution picnic yesterday is a testament to how families can have fun with healthy food. Everyone packed up a nutritious picnic dinner. There were fruit and veggies to grab on every table. The kids ran around like crazy while the adults chased after them or schmoozed and ate in the pavilion. Food is fun!

Johnny and Lindsey's son Tommy munching on fruit

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Wednesday Wow

I'm completely obsessed with Vera Bradley. It all started in college when my friends all had Vera Bradley luggage, and I was too poor to buy a Vera keychain.
Knowing my love for Vera, Scott treats me to a bag on pretty much every holiday. So, I have a Vera for every occasion.....big overnight bags, small overnight bags, totes, wallets, and purses. My most recent love is the crossbody hipster Scott gave me for Mother's Day. I just love this mint pattern. It's so different from any of the other patterns I have in my closet. This bag will come in handy in the summer when I can just throw in my wallet, phone and some snacks and take it to the park, or museum or pool or wherever we happen to be going. Today I brought it along to a park playdate and picnic.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

What's up cranky mama?

So, I have to ask what's up with all these cranky mama blogs and Facebook posts leading up to Mother's Day? All of them whining about what they want and don't want for Mother's Day. All of them complaining about their kids and their husbands, and insisting all they want for Mother's Day is to be left alone.
One mom demanded her husband take the kids out of the house as soon as they woke up even if it meant changing the kid's diaper on the front lawn.
I know the blogs were meant to be funny and obviously every mom wants to be treated special on her special day. But, what's the deal with the bad attitudes?
I admit that I like my "me" time, but I think part of Mother's Day is spending time with your children.
I had a bowl of whipped cream and bananas shoved in my sleepy face at 6 a.m. by Julie and roughly 125 slobbery kisses planted on my face, eyes, and nose by Johnny. All of this was preceded by a boisterous "Happy Mother's Day! Mommy. We love you!"
Would I have liked to sleep in a bit? Of course.
Would I take back those moments for some extra shut eye? Heck no.
Those little troublemakers who so many moms insist they don't want to spend time with on Mother's Day are who made us moms. They didn't ask to come into this world. We brought them here because we wanted them (or maybe some of us didn't), but they didn't have a say in the matter. They're here and they love us unconditionally.
This doesn't mean I'm above being spoiled on Mother's Day. Scott went overboard with beautiful flowers and gifts. (The new Vera was my favorite.) But being with my lovelies is what it was all about.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Monday Munch: House of Pho

Scott was a Vietnamese linguist in the Air Force. Before I met him, he traveled to Viet Nam twice to search for remains of missing soldiers. I'm always so proud to tell that story because I think that is such a tough and admirable job. While Scott was in Viet Nam he fell in love with the beautiful country and its people. He also fell in love with the food. When we started dating he convinced me to try Vietnamese food. It was a tough sell at first, but I have learned to love pho (a Vietnamese soup with shaved beef) and summer rolls with shrimp dipped in peanut sauce. We found an awesome spot for Vietnamese food in Schaumburg. House of Pho is in an unassuming strip mall, and is pretty casual, but the pho is delicious. Our friends were visiting from Maryland this weekend and they begged us to take them for Vietnamese food. So we went to House of Pho. The only downside of the restaurant is they do not have a liquor license, so bring your own wine, beer or cocktails if you want something to drink.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Making me a Mommy

I can say I wasn't exactly ready to be a mom.
Then again, who really is prepared for what motherhood has in store.
I had just lost 35 pounds on Weight Watchers when the pregnancy stick showed positive. I was 26. Scott and I had been married a little over one year and we were planning a Caribbean cruise with friends.
Those two pink lines scared the heck out of me.
I was convinced I wouldn't have a clue about taking care of a baby and I was surely going to screw something up.
Little did I know how right I was.
 I had no idea how to take care of a baby. And I sure made mistakes along the way.
Many people say your firstborn child is an experiment. How true that is.
My baby girl Julie taught me so much about being a mom.
 I laugh now thinking about how frazzled I was as a first-time mom. I would never skip naptimes, and I would completely stress if feedings were off schedule or if baby Julie was around someone with the sniffles. I felt that if I provided this perfect scenario she would be this amazingly happy, well behaved, content and healthy baby. My baby girl taught me to lighten up. Some things just don't go as planned.
My toddler Julie taught me to let go.
Julie was this smarty pants little toddler. Before she turned 2 she recognized every letter in the alphabet, and also knew all the letter sounds, along with shapes, numbers and colors. But, she was completely strong-willed, and sometimes impossible to make happy. Some nights I would go to bed crying wondering what I was doing wrong. My toddler Julie taught me to let go of who I wanted her to be and just let her be who she's supposed to be---orneriness and all.
My preschooler Julie taught me to love her for who she is.
By the time Julie started preschool, I knew to expect the unexpected. At 3, Julie had dozens of imaginary mermaid friends. Each day after preschool Julie would tell me long, elaborate stories about how she played with all of her mermaid friends named after various colors of the rainbow.
Her preschool teacher complained that sometimes Julie seemed to be in her own little world. Julie taught me to be OK with that.
My elementary schooler Julie has taught me to never underestimate your kids.
I can't help but be ecstatic about a good report card or an excellent note from the teacher, or a song played beautifully on the piano or the much improved kick on the breast stroke, but I shouldn't be surprised. She's capable of anything, and I need to let her know that. All the time.
Today Julie taught me that I am loved.
This morning Julie brought me breakfast in bed---a bowl of whipped cream and bananas. She then told me to look underneath my pillow where I found a drawing of she and me, along with some homemade coupons for hugs, kisses and poems. She sang me songs, wrote me stories, and secretly recorded little love messages for me on the iPad.
"Mommy. I love you more than you can know. You make me feel like sunshine," she whispered covertly.
Julie---thank you for making me a Mommy.
Happy Mother's Day everyone!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Simply the best

I clearly remember my first grade teacher.
Her pointy nose and pixie cut. Thin frame and stylish clothes. She went by "Ms." instead of "Mrs." or "Miss" so we never knew whether she was married.
She was not one of the good ones.
I was painfully shy in first shy that I never raised my hand. Ever.
It was hard for me to even speak when called on.
So, "Ms." assumed I had something wrong with me...a learning disability of some sort.
Of course that put my parents, both educators, up in arms.
Because of this assumption I was placed in a low performing second grade class. (Back when they placed by ability.) This meant my teacher was Mrs. Anthony--the best teacher imaginable. She made me feel like the most special kid in the school, though I'm sure she did the same for everyone else in the class. By the middle of second grade, this complete introvert was happily performing plays based on books in front of the classroom. One particular performance I played the part of "Mama Bear" and I went out on a limb and pecked "Papa Bear" on the cheek. (He was played by Mark, my second grade crush.)
Mrs. Anthony knew each student performed at different levels and quickly moved three of us to an elevated reading program and placed us in a pull-out gifted and talented program taught by a different teacher once a week. She taught to each student's level and pushed us to our abilities, without us even knowing. She believed in us.
She was simply one of the best.
That's what I want for my kids--teachers who bring out their best.

We weren't sure how this year would go for Julie. We moved 600 miles away two weeks before school started. No time to meet the neighborhood kids or become familiar with the area.
The day before school started, Julie was a wreck. She was nervous and sad and certain she wouldn't make friends and her teacher would be mean.
Then a phone call came the night before the first day of school.
It was her first grade teacher Mrs. Johnson calling to talk to Julie.
That really stuck with me. A teacher that would take the time to call every student the day before school has to be something special.
Mrs. Johnson is Julie's "Mrs. Anthony."
She notices the students' strengths and weaknesses, and motivates them to improve. When they do succeed, she's their ultimate cheerleader. Julie's printing at the beginning of the year was ineligible, to put it nicely. By the middle of the year it was so neat it "resembled a computer font," to use Mrs. Johnson's words. Then, there's the case of Julie's disorganization. Julie's desk is a mess and she regularly forgets things. One day Julie was supposed to bring something home to me which never made it home. I assumed Julie had lost it on the commute. Mrs. Johnson quickly admitted it was her mistake because she forgot to hand it to Julie. She felt so bad about it the next day, that she sent Julie home with a little penguin puppet because penguins are her favorite animal.
Little touches like these really make a kid feel special.
Mrs. Johnson is simply one of the best.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Wednesday Wow

My all-time favorite thing to wear in the summer is flip flops!
They are the best invention ever. Not only are flip flops super comfy, they look adorable with a sundress and are perfectly acceptable with casual shorts and a t-shirt. Plus, it gives you extra incentive to have beautifully pedicured toes.

Here are some new Coach flip flops I recently scored through an online sale. The color is periwinkle. Do you love?

Monday, May 6, 2013

Monday Munch: Tuscano's

There's just something about Chicago and Italian food. Authentic Italian food.

This doesn't mean the glitzy places with $60 entrees.
Sometimes you find the best Italian in the most unassuming spots. Like Tuscano's in Schiller Park. You probably wouldn't stop in the small restaurant tucked in the strip mall off North River Road. But, if you know any locals, they will tell you Tuscano's serves up the real deal.

We took my mother-in-law to this restaurant on a recent Friday night.
A pianist crooned old-school Italian tunes and a handful of waiters and bus boys tended to our every need. Water glasses were never empty and the bread basket was refilled immediately. Dipping the warm, crusty bread in olive oil and parmesan was pure bliss.

The fettuccine with clams and mussels in wine butter sauce was amazing, as well as the linguine with shrimp and red sauce.

The owner brought the kids bowls of ice cream for free.

We all left happy.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Pet fever

We had a strange menagerie of pets growing up....and they never seemed to last very long.
  • The obligatory goldfish who went belly up after a week.
  • A hermit crab who perished after my dad threw him out of our camper. My dad sought revenge after the darn crustacean pinched my hand until I bled.
  • Two lizards who withered away to nothing because of malnutrition. (My mom refused to deal with reptiles, so my sister Kelly and I were in charge.)
  • A box turtle we found in the backyard who escaped.
  • A rabbit who killed itself by ramming its head into a wall in the basement.
  • Two really annoying love birds who my parents told us "flew away."

There were also a few who outlasted my stay in the house...a hamster who Kelly, the animal lover, took along to college. And our rabbit named Snowball who lived a few years, which was nothing short of a miracle in our house.

As kids Kelly and I both loved animals and we so longed for a pet. I distinctly remember my reoccurring dream of finding an adorable cocker spaniel puppy who looked like Lady from "Lady and the Tramp" underneath the tree at Christmas. Of course this never happened. My mom is allergic to dogs and cats and pretty much anything furry. Though we wanted a real pet more than anything, we came to realize our fate was with the smaller, hairless and weird pets.

Since I never had real pets growing up, I never really thought seriously about bringing a pet into our family. Now it's a serious topic of conversation.

Julie and Johnny have major puppy fever. They practically pounce on any dog they see. Whenever Kelly and her boyfriend Rob visit with their two dogs Dusty (a rescued pitbull mix) and Taz (a rambunctious, yet adorable Boston terrier), they are all over them. They smother the dogs with hugs, kisses, and constant attention. So much so that Dusty, who is older, usually hides from the kids two hours into a visit.

Does it look like Dusty is ready to escape?

The other day the kids met "Santo" a 9-week-old Golden Retriever puppy our neighbors just adopted. He is literally the cutest being I have ever seen.

Santo didn't help the puppy fever.

Santo really got me thinking. What if we did bring home a dog?
Not growing up with dogs, I never thought too seriously about being a dog family. I don't have a clue about taking care of a dog, and, at this point, I have no desire to potty train another living thing.

But, I can definitely see value in having a dog as a member of the family.

When my dad talks about his childhood, he often mentions his black lab "Pug."  He loved that dog, and I think my dad felt Pug understood him like no one else could.

My neighbor, (Santo's owner) told me the other day "There's nothing like the relationship your kids have with their first dog. It's like they grow up together." A few months ago their 12-year-old Golden Retriever "Chewy" died leaving a hole in their family. Even though Santo is adorable, our neighbor said the kids, who are now in high school and college, will always remember Chewy as "their dog."

I admit I want that for Julie and Johnny. I want them to care for another living being and experience the unconditional love a dog inevitably gives.

Not sure what will happen or whether we'll definitely have a dog in our home, but now it's not out of the question.
Do these two belong together or what?

Puppy Love


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Wednesday Wow

My mother-in-law is all about the bling, so of course she brought me the most adorable bracelet when she came to visit last week.

I just love the gold and sparkles. Can you tell from the photo that the band is emerald green leather? Love the color! It makes it such a unique addition to my jewelry box. I so love unexpected pops of color.

Thank you Janice!!