Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas

“Joy is not in things; it is in us.”

—Richard Wagner

Monday, December 22, 2008

I'm Dreaming of a Green(er) Christmas

This post may be coming a little late in the season to be useful for others, but keep it in mind for next year - please??

Some of the most wasteful Christmas traditions involve sending paper Christmas cards and using wrapping paper for gifts. Seeing someone haul out a new, empty garbage bag to stuff full of paper, bows and boxes drives me nuts (did you know that wrapping paper is recyclable?? Unless it's laminated, metallic, or has an extraordinary amount of tape on it - so why the trash bag?). I've decided to make some changes, starting with wrapping paper.

I never buy wrapping paper (or anything else for that matter) at full price. In the past I would always stock up on paper, gift bags, Christmas cards, etc at the end-of-season sales. That's going to stop - this year I'm not going to buy any new wrapping paper and instead either reuse paper from gifts my family has received or use another much more eco-friendly option - fabric! I got this idea from another person who bought a bunch of Christmas-themed fabric at the end-of-season last year and is now cutting it to size with pinking shears (which keeps the ends from fraying) and then tying the gifts closed with re-useable colorful cord or other ties. After the gifts are open you can give the recipients the option of keeping the fabric or giving it back to you for reuse next year. Over time you should come up with enough different sizes and shapes of fabric that you will be self-sustaining and not need to add to your stockpile anymore.

I'm hoping to take this a step further and try the Japanese art of Furoshiki or "cloth wrapping". It looks like a wonderful idea and elminates the need for a closure at all. I found a couple of videos on YouTube - check out demo 1 and demo 2, as well as this schematic if you just want to jump in and try it without watching someone else do it first!

This follows the idea of wrapping an item in a scarf or decorative towel - then the wrapping becomes part of the gift. Another idea I've used is reusing the wooden crates that Clementines come in and making that the base for a gift basket - I've done this a few times and loved the results. Or using the Sunday comics or other colorful ads or magazine pages to wrap small gifts. And what about making Magazine Bows for an additional festive touch?

The other change I'm making is going to be Christmas cards. I've noticed that the cards I enjoy the most are the ones that include a little newsy "Christmas update" letter - I love getting all the year's news in one place and I really appreciate the effort people make to put those letters together. My second favorites are the photo cards - there isn't any personalization but it's fun to see the pictures of the pets and kids in their holiday best. My least favorite are the cards that are just signed - no note or anything else to indicate they meant this card for me and not Uncle Tom or Aunt Betsy. Why bother? It seems silly and I feel like they should just save their postage for such a cursory effort.

So, with this in mind, I'm planning on sending e-cards to most of the people on my list - they will get the pictures I am sending in my paper cards, but most of these people are just going to look at the card and picture, smile and then after Christmas it will all go in the garbage. The other people - close friends and family - will get the paper cards and real photo. I know they will appreciate the extra effort and will probably put the photo in an album.

So, what to do with the cards you do receive?

  • Send them to a school or charity that can re-use them in art projects or even in making new cards as a fundraiser.
  • Cut off the front, attach it to some card stock and make your own cards for next year
  • Cut off the front and use it as a Christmas postcard - uses less postage too!
  • Cut out pretty shapes or images from the card and use them as gift tags
  • Cut out shapes attach a yarn loop and they become child-friendly Christmas ornaments
If you must buy cards at least look for cards or wrapping paper that are printed on recycled paper. Here are some sources for those products, courtesy of

RedStamp - cool card designs by different artists. Click Eco-Friendly under the type of card you want; some are even made from (sustainable) wood (prices vary).

Green Field Paper Co. - a bit pricey, but you can actually plant its Grow-A-Note cards after the holidays are over (about $4/card).

Pleasantrees - its recycled paper cards in traditional-ish designs (nothing too artsy-fartsy) come with free personalization, plus it plants three trees with every order (about $2/card).

BuyGiftPaper - not the schmanciest site, but it offers long rolls of solid and patterned recycled wrap ($14/roll).

Smith & Hawken - 30 feet of recycled, classic-looking, holiday-themed gift wrap ($9/roll).

Fish Lips Paper Designs - fun sheets of wrap, printed on recycled paper ($4/2 sheets).

Meaningful, one-size-fits-all gifts don’t have to cost a lot of money and you don't have to necessarily even wrap them - learn someone’s favorite tune on the piano, promise a month’s worth of back rubs, or issue a snow-shoveling voucher. Who wouldn't love that?

Lastly, light-emitting diode (LED) holiday lights use 90 percent less power than the old incandescent kind (even though I love those "old-fashioned" lights :-(. It’s also easy to forget to turn those lights off if you decorate outside; use a timer so you don’t let them burn longer than three hours. Lights left on all day can drive your energy consumption up eightfold!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Not a Garbage Can

Another factoid from my Living Green: 365 Ways to Make a Difference calendar:

"Your toilet is not a wastebasket, and it’s wisest not to use it that way. Disposable diapers and tampon applicators are among the many items that sewage treatment doesn’t treat. All too often, they pass through the system and wind up in waterways and on beaches."

I hate to admit my ignorance here, but I had NO idea. I thought if you were on city water/sewer (vs a well and septic) you were OK! Whatever you put in the toilet went magically away to the water treatment plant and was filtered out, the water treated and back to our water facets it went.

Of course I know better than to toss a disposable diaper in the toilet, but now I'll be more conscientious about, um, other items!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Chicago Politics - WWALD?

Just what would Abe Lincoln do? Think? Say? Or would he be curled up in a ball hiding in the corner just thinking about what politics in Chicago has become.

You may have heard that the Governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, was arrested today (this afternoon he was released on $4500 bond) and faces corruption charges involving the newly vacated Obama senate seat, the Chicago Cubs and Children's Memorial Hospital.

It seems especially ironic that in the wake of Obama's victory and path to the presidency, which was built on his image as a man of integrity, honesty and change, we have Blagojevich who is trying to enrich himself by alledgedly trying to sell the vacant senate seat to the highest bidder? He is looking for the best deal and if no one gives him that well, then he'll just appoint himself.

I sat next to a man on the train ride home today and noticed he had printed and was reading the lengthy criminal complaint outlining just what Blagojevich had alledgedly said/done. Turns out he works for the Chicago Tribune himself and his brother-in-law is the one that broke this case. I congratulated him and then peered over his shoulder to read some of what the Governor, and even his wife, alledgedly said. It was disgusting, appalling and down right low class, some of the things they said and demands they made. I can't believe those words were coming out of the mouths of the Governor and First Lady of Illinois; incidentally, after reading the affadavit I use the word "lady" very loosely.

My first brush with Chicago politics and all the ugliness and dirt that can come with it was six years ago when my former employer was indicted by the FBI and is now in prison. He was said to be extremely politically connected in Chicago and the word was the vigor with which he was prosecuted was in order to make him an example. But he never cracked, talked or gave up any of his friends - or cronies as the paper said. I lived through all of that craziness and if nothing else I walked away realizing that you really can't (shouldn't) believe everything you read in the paper. I saw first hand how various situations ended up as carefully crafted (and sensationalistic) headlines. Never again will I read something and assume it is so; there are always two sides to the story.

However, with this one, I find it hard to believe there is anything that can redeem the Governor and his behavior, especially in light of the fact that his predecessor, former Governor George Ryan, himself is currently six and a half years for his racketeering and fraud gubernatorial missteps. Is that not enough to strike fear into one's heart and make them cross their "t's" and dot their "i's" knowing that they are also under the same type of scrutiny? The words "narcissist" and "sociopath" have been used to describe our Governor and now I understand why.

Ironically, just last week there were some stories about a push to have Ryan's sentence commuted; yes he is 74, and yes his wife is ailing and this and that. But I don't feel sorry for him - he did the crime so do the time. Look on the bright side Mr. Ryan; soon you may have another former Illinois governor to keep you company.


“In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.”


Saturday, November 29, 2008

Vegetable Lasagna - the No Boil way

Are you turkeyed out yet? Maybe just a little? Here is a convenient one-pan-meal that you can easily make for $10 or less.

I came across a recipe for "No Boil" Lasagna several years ago and since then I have not boiled one lasagna noodle. It's the best way to make lasagna and cuts the prep time in half if not more. You do not need to buy special noodles since the key is to have a little extra liquid in the mixture as well as sealing the pan tightly in foil to allow the steam to build and cook the noodles.

This is a veggie version that Hubby and I cobbled together over the years - we love it because it has a lighter feeling than a meat lasagna and the leftovers are delicious! You can use any combination of vegetables you have on hand - fresh or frozen. When we made this last week we only had onion and mushrooms and it still tasted great.

I submitted the recipe to Recipezaar so you can see it there, or I have included it below.

Noelle's No Boil Vegetable Lasagna - $8

8 lasagna noodles (1/2 of a 1 lb package) $2
1 (15 ounce) container small curd low fat cottage cheese $3
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese $1
1 teaspoon dried basil
2 eggs
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup frozen broccoli (thawed and drained)
1 cup zucchini, chopped
1 cup green pepper, chopped
2 (26 ounce) jars spaghetti sauce, any flavor (read the label on your jar for ounces - many are 24 oz; if so add a little more water)
2 cups (8oz) shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese $2

Preheat oven to 350.

In a large bowl combine cottage cheese, Parmesan, eggs and basil; mix well.

Heat olive oil over medium heat; saute garlic and onions for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add rest of vegetables and cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Add veggies into the cottage cheese mixture and mix well.

Spread 1 c of pasta sauce in bottom of a 13x9" baking dish and spread evenly. Layer with half each: uncooked lasagna noodles, cottage cheese mixture, remaining pasta sauce and mozzarella.

Repeat layering.

Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake 1 hour.

Uncover; bake an additional 15 minutes or until hot and bubbly. Let stand 15 minutes before serving.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

An especially appropriate quote for Thanksgiving, don't you think?

“The ultimate test of man’s conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard.”

—Gaylord Nelson, Earth Day founder

Thursday, November 20, 2008

First Ever Giveaway

UPDATE: As of Dec 2 the shoes are clean! Congrats to theredqueen who guessed Dec 1 and was the closest guess we had. Your prize will be coming shortly!

This is what I came home to last weekend after Hubby and my little guy where doing yard work. Both of their shoes tossed outside along the driveway. Can you guess what is on them?? Come on, take a guess............

Nope, not mud. It's worse, much worse.

It's dog poop.

The good news is that the shoes have made it from the driveway to the back deck. The bad news is they are still in their less-than-dignified condition four days later.

Here is the giveway part - how many days do you think it will take Hubby to clean BOTH pairs of shoes and return them to the inside of the house? Count days starting from November 15, the day the poop incident occured.

Winner gets.... something yet to be determined but it will be a worthwhile little prize - possibly a handknit item from yours truly. One entry per person please :-)

So get to posting your guesses!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Giving Thanks to Mother Earth

Thanksgiving is coming - time to pull out the nice dishes, silverware and linens, right? How about taking a minute to make a few changes in some of your preparation in order to be a little more gentle to our environment?

Just in case you do actually have flatware that needs to be polished and will be serving coffee with the pumpkin pie check out these tips from my Living Green: 365 ways to make a Difference Page-A-Day Calendar (email edition)

"Want to shine up the silverware for Thanksgiving without resorting to the petrochemicals in silver polish? Just boil a few strips of aluminum foil in a pan with baking soda and put the tableware in the simmering water. Presto—off comes the tarnish. Dry thoroughly and buff to a high gloss"

Speaking of aluminium foil...

"Holiday cooking seems to spawn a lot of used aluminum foil. It may not have occurred to you, but it can be recycled, just like beverage cans. Check with your local recycling authority. Most want it rinsed off first."

And for those of you that brew your own coffee:

"Dioxin is among the chemicals that go into making bleached coffee filters; a study from Ohio’s Wright State University shows that the chemical leaches into the coffee. Buy widely available unbleached filters, or sidestep paper altogether by going for cloth or gold-plated metal filters."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


“A clear stream, a long horizon, a forest wilderness and open sky—these are man’s most ancient possessions. In a modern society, they are his most priceless.”

—Lyndon B. Johnson

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Domestic Diva

This was one of those really busy but refreshingly domestic weekends. A weekend full of time in the kitchen like I used to have BEFORE having children. Ironically now that I have a bigger family that could actually benefit from my love of cooking I don't have nearly as much time to actually do it. However, this weekend I was able to make a big batch of apple butter, bake a pie pumpkin and freeze the puree to use in our Thanksgiving pumpkin pie and whip up some homemade soup. Hubby wanted Chicken and Dumplings but I wanted to try and avoid using any canned soups and the recipe he loved so much uses 2 cans of cream of chicken soup in the recipe. Instead I cobbled together my own version which isn't so much stew-like but is a soup - not creamy but still yummy! And it qualifies as one of my "Meals for $10 or Less" - especially so since I snagged a 6 lb Perdue whole chicken on sale for 99 cents/lb. In reality after you buy the chicken you should have most of the ingredients on hand to make this healthy, hearty, meal-in-a-bowl soup.
Homemade Chicken and Dumplings Soup - $8.98

1 whole chicken - appx 3 lbs ($6)
2-3 bay leaves
10 whole peppercorns
1 tsp sea salt
3-4 celery ribs washed and cut into chunks - use the leaves if you have them $1
1 lb carrots (divided) washed; half cut into rough chunks, half cut into bite-sized pieces - 79 cents
1 large onion, peeled and quartered - 69 cents
2 medium red potatoes washed and diced into bite-sized pieces - 50 cents
Additional veggies to taste (optional)
Chicken bouillon cubes (optional)
  • Rinse the chicken; reserve the giblets for another use. Place chicken in a large stockpot or Dutch oven; cover with water adding the sea salt and other spices, rough cut carrots, celery and onion. Bring to a boil and then simmer until chicken is cooked through. When tender, remove chicken to a platter and allow to cool . Remove meat from bones and set aside.
  • At this point I like to let the broth cool so the fat will gel and you can skim it off with a large spoon (or if it's cold outside do what I did and put it on your deck for an hour or so). After skimming the excess fat start to warm the broth up again. When it's warm strain the broth to remove the whole spices and cooked veggies; discard these and return broth to the pot. Taste it - if it tastes weak I cheat and add chicken bouillon cubes until I get the full chicken soup flavor I am looking for. If the chicken flavor is good then adjust seasonings to taste and add the bite-sized pieces of carrot and potato and as much cooked chicken as you like. I usually also add frozen peas; tonight I added frozen green beans and frozen corn because I had them on hand. Return the soup to a gentle boil. In the meanwhile make the dumplings.
Dumplings - these are rolled dumplings which taste like homemade noodles (not to be confused with a biscuit or drop dumpling which has a cakier texture like a biscuit).

2 c all-purpose flour
1 t baking powder
1 c hot chicken broth
1 egg
  • Sift the flour and baking powder into a large mixing bowl. Make a well and pour in 1 c of hot chicken broth, mixing first with a fork then with your fingers. Add the egg and mix well. Add additional flour as needed until the dough is workable.
  • Knead the dough for a few seconds on a floured board. Separate the dough into 4 or 5 parts; roll each section into a thin roll. Cut into 1" - 2" pieces and drop dumplings into the boiling soup. Stir and simmer for 10-15 minutes. Test carrots and potatoes for tenderness and serve.

Working backwards in my cooking spree, yesterday we decided to make a dent in the 1/2 bushel of apples we picked at the orchard last month, so we made Apple Butter. It's a fun recipe to make with kids if you have a crank-style apple peeler.

My daughter quickly took over the job of peeling while my little guy was happy to watch and eat apples.
We used a recipe similiar to the one we made earlier this year - it turned out dee-licious and since it cooks all day in the crock pot you get the additional benefit of having your whole house smell like apples and cinnamon. I love putting it on toast; the only thing that would have been better is if I had been able to squeeze in making a loaf of homemade bread in my domestic delirium.
Surprisingly my girl and I had a little down-time too, probably during one of Hubby's 4 trips back to Home Depot.
We discovered that we both enjoy Oreos with milk. She even likes to dunk them which I find especially cute. Yes, that's my girl.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Falling... part II

Another fall tradition is the Sycamore Pumpkin Festival - a fun, small-town fest that I have been going to on and off for almost 20 years. (Yes, that hulk you see above is made entirely of pumpkins!)

The original draw for me, as a young single person, was getting outside, eating some roasted corn or other festival goodies and looking at all the original ideas the pumpkin carving/decoration contest participants had some up with.

There is a theme every year - I think this year it was "Pumpkintopia" but don't quote me on that. The entries are all separated by age but I'm always impressed by the level of creativity and effort that everyone puts into their pumpkins.

Then, after I had children the parade was just as big a draw...

My daughter made a new friend and 45 minutes later they were holding hands and walking to the parade. I love seeing how easy it can be for kids to get along like this - an hour earlier they hadn't even met and now they were pals walking hand-in-hand!

Settling in for the parade - apples in hand (picked two weeks earlier) and life was good. It was cold and very windy - notice the layers, hats and gloves - but the kids didn't mind. They had no recollection that two weeks earlier, in the apple orchard, they were wearing shorts and had red cheeks not from the cold but from the sunny and a-little-bit-humid October day.

Everyone loves a parade! My little guy didn't want to leave even though his hands were turning purple.

The car ride home was blissfully quiet - always the sign of a very good day...


You know it's fall when we head up to Wisconsin to go apple picking. You couldn't tell weatherwise but it was mid-October when we went. Last year it was terribly hot and humid - it felt like the middle of August, not October.

This year it was better - still not the cool, crisp fall-like weather but a bright, happy day nonetheless. The trees were bursting with apples high ...

... and even low enough that a 21-month-old could pick his own.

It's always a fun time - the whole apple picking activity says "Yay, it's Fall!" even if the weather is warm enough for shorts. There are hay bales, cider doughnuts, turning leaves, a tractor-drawn hayride to the orchard and who could resist climbing on the ladders even if you have a Daddy on hand to lift you into the trees...

Oh, and the apples! Nothing tastier than a fresh apple that you picked off a tree with your own two little hands.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Colleen Kueter 1968-2008

I didn’t know Colleen personally but after reading about her and her life I am sitting here with a lump in my throat and a deep sense of sadness.

I learned about her from a notice of her passing on the homepage of a website I belong to called Ravelry. It's for knitting, crocheting and fiber enthusiasts. I didn't know her, but I feel like I could have known her…turns out we have so much in common.

I found out she was only 40 years old and died of an aggressive form of liver cancer on October 17, only two months after having been diagnosed. She had two children 5 and 2 yrs old who both had birthdays just weeks before she died.

I read her blog Spiffy Knits and found that she loved to knit and dye fiber and spin her own yarn. After reading portions of her blog I could feel her excitement about her yarn dyeing and spinning and how much she enjoyed being a WAHM (work at home mom). She was also an "older" mommy like me - she had her children when she was 35 and 38 years old and they are almost the same ages as my two children.

She left the corporate world to do what she loved - work with fiber by spinning, dyeing and knitting it under the name "Spiffy Knits". Just last year, almost a year to the day when she would die from liver cancer, she formed a little internet business called "Tiny Lady Cooperative" with two other women so that she could sell her hand-dyed yarn and fiber.

Through the magic of Google I was able to see her Obituary, her LinkedIn page, her Amazon wish list and her family's Flickr page. I saw photos from when her two children were born (2003, 2006), of her working on renovating her house and re-modeling her kitchen. I could tell from her smile and light in her eyes that she was an energetic, happy person. Her wish list on Amazon gave a glimpse into where her interests were and what was important to her at different times in her life - it varied from books on "How to Be Your Own Literary Agent" - marked in 2004 to "Nourishing Foods for Cancer Survivors" marked days after she was diagnosed in August 2008. In between those dates were books about motherhood and knitting; knitting patterns, books about color and about dyeing with natural dyes grown yourself. She seemed to have a zest for life, that much seems painfully clear.

My heart breaks to think of her family without their mommy and their wife. Her little boy, the two year old, will likely not remember her at all. My son will also be two in January and having that point of reference is almost too much. It all makes me want to cry. I cried on the way from my office to the train thinking about it all.

Her story moved me enough that I am going to make a donation to the college fund that has been set up for her two children. I feel like that is the least I could do for someone that I didn’t know but sounded so much like me and someone I wish I had met. There is a fundraiser going on at Celebrating Colleen organized by the internet cooperative she formed with two friends last year.

I guess I'm hoping that word will get out and maybe the fundraising activities will be successful and at least her children will have some sort of college fund of substance for them since they won't have their mother.

UPDATE November 6 : I just found out that I won one of the raffles I entered in Colleen's fundraiser! I'm so excited - check out the gorgeous basket of sock yarn . Even more exciting is the fundraiser brought in $12K for Colleen's children's college fund - I'm so happy that I was able to participate and it makes me feel so good to know that so many people cared about her and her children to try and help.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Gift of Nothing

I know in my last post I reminded everyone that the holidays are coming, so start repurposing those colorful magazine pages and make bows for all those gifts that you will be giving in a few months.

However, I really am anti-consumerism. I don't like the excess, over-the-top gift giving that is common in the United States. The idea of having to save for Christmas gifts all year long or worse yet, go into debt in order to buy gifts so that one can abide by an implied standard by giving a certain amount of gifts really turns my stomach. And it makes me sad too.

I try to stick to a tight budget and get a lot of pleasure from making gifts or finding gifts during the year and putting them aside for Christmas gifts (this works great as long as you don't 1) forget what you bought 2) forget where you put what you bought).

Last year we gave my daughter a terrific book that I found on the Mutts website (I love Mutts! It's a wonderfully thoughtful and pertinent comic strip drawn by Patrick McDonnell. I love his messages and the artwork really speaks to me as well. The characters are sweet and wonderful too!)

When I came across this book review for "The Gift of Nothing" I thought I would share it here on my blog. Maybe it will find its way on your gift list this Christmas season - you can find it here.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Magazine Bows

This lovely gift bow was made from a page of a magazine - can you believe it? Sometimes I see really colorful, pretty ads or pictures in magazines and think "what could I make out of this? It seems too nice to throw away". Well, now I have a project, just need to find the time to give this a try.

While I haven't tried it yet maybe you can - check out this link for an easy tutorial. I also borrowed the picture from that website too. I think this would be fun to try with kids too - they could find the pictures, or put the strips on the brads? Minimal sharp objects or sticky materials to worry about.

Get going - the holidays are coming!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Tree Smart pencils

From my trusty "Living Green 365 Ways to Make a Difference" calendar (email edition, of course). If you have to use a pencil why not try one of these out?

"Tree Smart makes pencils directly out of old newspapers, without any mulching or chemicals. They wrap the paper around the graphite and bind it with an adhesive that dries hard as wood, so the pencil is easy to sharpen. Funky-looking, too.

Do your part: One sheet of recycled newsprint makes four pencils. More information is available at"

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


“When we destroy nature, we diminish ourselves and impoverish our children.”

—Robert Kennedy Jr.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Oh My Goodness

Uh oh, what is this all about? Hmmmmmm, it looks like an awful lot of yarn.... Lorna's Laces hand-dyed yarn to be exact. You can read all about the soft, woolly delights in my knitting blog.

In addition to that adventure this morning I also bumped into the last jerk - er, I mean man, that I dated before meeting my now-Hubby. I was with my knitting friends having a late breakfast before heading over to Lorna's. I was wearing typical Saturday morning attire - jeans, t-shirt and a hooded sweater. No make-up and the onset of a pimple rearing its head on my chin. So, imagine my sheer delight - more like horror - when I looked up from my cheddar broccoli quiche and noticed him sitting at the table right in front of me. With a wedding ring on. With his skinny wife (who, coincidence or not has short, dark curly hair just like me.... hmmmm....) After I got over the shock of course all I could think about was the pimple, the no-makeup and the extra 20 lbs I was carrying since I saw him last. Especially since one of the last things he said to me was "your body just doesn't match your mind" which was apparently a reference to my sharp-as-nails intellect cough, cough and my, let's say, rubenesque figure. All class, this man was.

Anyway, we clearly both noticed each other but thankfully neither acknowledged it. I was glad to see that he finally had a decent haircut - must be the new wife's influence - as well as a double chin. Guess his body is starting to catch up to his inflated ego and intellect as well.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Take Your Blog to Work Day

Have you heard of "Take Your Child to Work Day"? Well, my kids are too young for that yet so I decided to take all of you with me on my commute to and from work. I thought it might be fun to share some of what I experience every day.

I've heard us commuters referred to as "cattle" and while I find that reference kind of offensive I guess when you see the mass of slow moving people all going east (in the morning) and west (in the evening) we do kind of look like cattle. Many of us just put our heads down and walk, knowing that our feet will get us to work without our brains really having to think about it.

Some days you will get dripped on when the window washers are working up on their scaffolds, so when you see soapy drips on the sidewalk you know to steer clear and do NOT look up! This particular morning a man was cleaning this metal pillar with soapy water and a rag. Yup, good old-fashioned soap and elbow grease! These buildings are beautiful and I can't imagine the cost to maintain them, including all the little things like washing all the windows regularly and keeping all the shiny metal looking good. I haven't washed the windows of my house and I've lived in it for four years.

This is a rare sight - a vacant lot. It seems to be in a prime location so I'm surprised someone hasn't built something on it. I used to be able to cut across this lot and shave a few seconds off my walk but then several years ago they put up the fencing. Shortly after that I saw that it was being used to store movie equipment when they were filming the Batman movies - "Batman Returns" and most recently "Dark Knight". I saw cars with the Gotham City PD emblem on them parked there as well as row after row of trailers for the extras.

Almost every morning I walk down Wells St. and get a chance to see this adult video/bookstore sandwiched between two fast food restaurants. It always makes me laugh a little - grab your take-out lunch at AsiaGo or Taco Fresco and then stop in the adult video store before heading back to work? In fact, in addition to this store I have counted three adult video/bookstores within a two block radius of my office. I'm not sure what that says...

Ahhhh, good old Standard Parking. If you ever drive into Chicago you'll probably park at one of these and it is NOT cheap. So take public transportation if you can! I wonder how this company was able to get a corner on the parking garage business...

I had to get a picture of the Sears Tower - can you see it peeking out? It has the two-pronged white antenna sticking up.

Here is another shot looking south towards the Sears Tower

I have been watching this construction project for quite a while, from when it was at ground level. Oddly about six months ago all work seemed to stop. Now with the financial crisis I wonder if this was a little foreshadowing of what was to come. These are "hotel condos" which I don't know a whole lot about but I understand that when you are not living in your unit you can have it used as part of the hotel option which can earn you some cash flow. But the building has to be finished first...

This is The Merchandise Mart - it is a huge building and actually has its own zip code as well as a lot of interesting history. You can't help but feel its presence when you walk by.

Marina Towers - you may recognize them from the opening credits of the "Bob Newhart Show" (I'm dating myself) or the crash scene from "The Hunter" when a car drives off the building and into the Chicago River below. The famous "House of Blues" is also located in Marina City.

You can also see the new Trump Tower, which is under construction, in the background. The old Sun Times building was razed to build the Trump Tower; while I am normally against tearing down perfectly functional structures in this case it was a definite improvement. The prior building was hideous and hugely non descript. In fact the building they moved into now is still pretty much just a brown shoe box... nothing like the beautiful Tribune Tower but I digress...

Just an interesting shot looking down Wacker Drive...

Ahhh, the elevated train! aka "the el". This is why the heart of Chicago's downtown is called "the loop" because of the pattern that the el tracks form.

It is absolutely deafening walking under the tracks when a train is going by, but you really feel you are in a bustling city when it does.

One of the many high rise office buildings I have seen go up. It's really fascinating to see them go up from literally a hole in the ground to this point and beyond. "Awwww, I remember when you were just a muddy hole in the ground - look how big you are now!!"

The Lyric Opera is right near Union Station which makes me think it would be ultra convenient to take the train into the city, catch a performance and then hop a train back home. Unfortunately, I don't care for opera... I wish I did, but I don't.

I feel very cultured every time I just walk by their entryway - just look at how pretty and elegant it is. This is one of the various street performers I see and hear on a daily basis. He is a regular and I really enjoy hearing him play his makeshift drums. He is always so upbeat (no pun intended) and seems to really enjoy himself. He changes what he plays and sings based on if the Bears are winning, or if it's Christmas time. Having played an instrument when I was younger I know how hard it is and always appreciate it when I hear a street musician playing and I make sure to let them know by dropping a few dollars in their bucket.

The water taxi - I love this idea and although I don't use it anymore (I walk instead) one summer season I used it every day and it was a wonderful way to start and end my day. The ride is only about seven minutes up the river but something about being on the water is so soothing.
This man is a bit of a puzzle to me. I've seen him for at least five years - interestingly he started out sitting in a wheelchair (always has had the dark glasses on but recently I saw him do something that makes me thing he isn't blind). About two years ago he switched to a regular chair, then crates and now in the last few weeks he has started to stand with his hands out. He doesn't say anything but is very friendly if you talk to him. He also used to have a different religious themed quote on a large piece of poster board that he had propped next to him. He has phased that out but will occasionally put a poster out - one of the recent ones was in July when he announced his 91st birthday.

He is one of three people that are always posted right outside the train station - I wonder if some of the changes he has made has been to "compete" with the other people asking for money? One of them is an elderly woman who sells "Streetwise" a publication for homeless people to sell to try and earn money, and another very frail looking man who holds a piece of cardboard saying he is a Veteran. Interesting how they all seem to appeal to different groups of people...
And here I am, at the end of my day and hopping the train to go home.

Hope you enjoyed your little virtual tour of Chicago!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Lester Fizz, Bubble-Gum Artist

We just picked up a signed copy of this adorable children's book today. The author is a friend of ours and we have been looking forward to when the book would be released - here it is! She also gave me her blessing to use the above picture here on my blog :-) This hardcover book was released just at the right time for the holidays - it's a cute story and it's beautifully illustrated. I love the real-life art references too. I think it would be a lovely gift for children 4 years old and up.
Here is the write-up about the book from Ruth Spiro's website: "Everyone in the Fizz family is an artist. Everyone, that is, except Lester, whose paintings are pitiful and doodles are drab. He can’t seem to find a way to fit in with the illustrious Fizzes, until one day a mouthful of gum becomes a work of art in Lester’s talented lips. With inspiration all around him, Lester develops his special talent. The school art contest is coming up. Will he be able to show the Fizzes that, with his gum, he really is an artist? Ruth Spiro’s inventive text is bursting with wordplay, tongue-in-cheek humor, clever art references, and notes about the famous works referenced in Thor Wickstrom’s exuberant illustrations. This is a delight for young artists and bubble-gum fans."

Monday, September 15, 2008

Fresh Tomato Soup

Many people find themselves with the end-of-the-summer tomato deluge - if this is you, try making this soup. I've also considered making the base first, freezing it and waiting to make the roux until I have thawed the base and am ready to serve the soup. I think that may taste better than freezing the whole thing, but I haven't tried either yet because we never have any leftovers.

I found this recipe last year because I had a ton of tomatoes to use up. I'm so glad I decided to give it a try because I never knew how good freshly made tomato soup could taste! I've tried to make homemade spaghetti sauce a few times, and while it's OK frankly, I've never made a sauce that made my face light up and say "oh my gosh, that's GOOD".

However, this tomato soup did just that. And even better, it's very easy to make. The original recipe is from and you can see it here or the original recipe is below.

Garden Fresh Tomato Soup by Charlotte (original recipe)

4 cups chopped fresh tomatoes
1 slice onion
4 whole cloves
2 cups chicken broth
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons white sugar, or to taste


In a stockpot, over medium heat, combine the tomatoes, onion, cloves and chicken broth. Bring to a boil, and gently boil for about 20 minutes to blend all of the flavors. Remove from heat and run the mixture through a food mill (or strainer) into a large bowl, or pan. Discard any stuff left over in the food mill.

In the now empty stockpot, melt the butter over medium heat. Stir in the flour to make a roux, cooking until the roux is a medium brown. Gradually whisk in a bit of the tomato mixture, so that no lumps form, then stir in the rest. Season with sugar and salt, and adjust to taste.

Noelle's variations:

I blanched and peeled the tomatoes before chopping them. To make peeling the tomatoes painless cut a small "x" in the bottom of the tomato, plunge into boiling water for 30 seconds then transfer immediately to a bowl filled with ice water. Let it sit for a few minutes and the peel will slide right off.

I use a whole medium-sized onion (not one slice)
I omit the cloves (spice)
I add 2-4 sliced cloves of garlic (depending on your tastes)
I omit the added salt and sugar
Also, since my little guy is milk allergic I use Earth Balance spread for the roux and it works great.

I use tomatoes from the garden and you just can't go wrong. It's a wonderful soup, easy to make and it's even healthy to boot. Let me know what you think!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Soap Dope

I e-subscribe to the "Ask Umbra" column on the Grist website. Sometimes I find her information interesting and other times it's a bit over the top.

Last month someone asked a question about Method brand cleaning products; this was especially interesting to me since I have had the same thought - if these products are being sold at mainstream stores is it really a good "green" product?

I'll let Umbra give you her answer but I was pleasantly suprised... Dope on a Soap

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Thrifty Knits

I've never been a big garage sale person or thrift stores either. In fact until last month I had never even been in a thrift store and I had never bought clothes at a garage sale (at least not before I had kids - now I know what great finds they are for children's clothing!). Since I've been learning about thrifty knitting (from Ravelry of course) I've actually been to both a thrift store and a rummage sale in the last month. I think you can say I've been bit by the thrifting bug!

Thrifty knitting to me means recycling/reclaiming wool from sweaters and knitting with it or felting (intentionally shrinking) a sweater and re-purposing it into something else; i.e. a purse or a bag.
This was one of eight sweaters I found at a church rummage sale today (I paid $1 each). This sweater was cute in real life but huge for my daughter and much, much too small for me. Plus it had some signs of age, such as pilling, etc. I decided to felt it (washed it in hot water with a lot of agitation and threw in a pair of jeans for extra friction) to see what I would get. The measurements started out as 19" wide (from armpit to armpit) and 17 1/2" high (from top of the shoulder to bottom of waist ribbing).
This is what I got after washing it two times. The measurements are now 13 1/2" wide and 11" high. I cut the arms off in anticipation of making the body of the sweater into a bag of some sorts but when I saw what it looked like I thought "wait, that would be an adorable vest for my daughter" but when she tried it on it was actually too small after all that shrinking, but it would have been perfect for the cool fall weather. So I'm going to let the ideas percolate for a few days before I go any farther and see what I come up with. I've also found a book called "Second-Time Cool: The Art of Chopping Up a Sweater" that I have requested from my inter-library loan; I'm excited to see what ideas it will give me too .

The great thing about felting is that once the wool is felted you can cut it up with no worry about unraveling; once the wool becomes felt it's just like cutting fabric. I will have to do some sewing but I am looking forward to learning more about this technique and seeing what I can come up with.

My thrift store find was a beautiful men's LL Bean Fisherman's sweater made of 100% wool and imported from Ireland. It was a thing of beauty and I grabbed it for $2.99. It is a size large, which is what size my husband wears, so I've decided to let him wear it for a year before I consider recycling the wool. It appears to have never been worn, so felting it feels wasteful. At the most I will harvest the yarn and re-use it, if I even do that. I'm guessing if I had bought that much 100% irish wool from a yarn shop I would have spent atleast $80 if not more.

I'll post more before and after pictures on my knitting blog and will update this post with a link once I get that done.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Wine Cork Reuse

What do to with all those wine corks rolling around in your kitchen junk drawer ... hmmmmmm
How about this? These trivets may not be terribly attractive, but what a fun idea for kids. Sadly, I became tired of looking at all those wine corks so I finally threw them away a few months ago. Darn! I should have Googled "wine corks" back then and maybe I would have seen this idea. I'm always thinking of craft projects that I can do with my daughter, or take the necessary materials to her school so they can make the projects en masse.

Or, how about collecting the corks and sending them in to be recycled? Yemm & Hart is "collecting wine cork stoppers with the goal of converting them into a useful self sustaining products". Read more about their program here. They also mention that "... each contributor has been promised a set of the samples of the finished product ..." - cool!

Or you can do something right at home according to this article. It mentions using shredded cork as mulch, added to your compost pile or using cork as "bulletin boards, pincushions, or even potted-plant aerators".

Bet you never thought that much about cork, did ya? But it's another, albeit small, way that we can reduce, reuse and recycle to be kinder to the earth.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Weekend Update

We had a Big Garage Sale this weekend - we decided to part with all our baby paraphenalia plus a few other large items so we could make room in the basement for the kids to actually play in. I'm happy to say it was a success and we made a little over $500! Which is going straight into the Property Tax fund since the second half of the bill is due tomorrow. Oh well, at least we have more room in the garage and the basement.

The goal of the sale was two-fold; get rid of stuff and make some extra money too. We tried to mark stuff to sell, but not ridiculously low. I knew that whatever I had leftover would be going to charity (and would be a tax deduction) or I would eBay or Craig's List it and sell it that way.

Hand in hand with maximizing our "profit" was minimizing our expenses. We put an ad in the paper but also asked some neighbors to go in on it with us so after we divided it by five it ended up costing each family about $7. We also put a free ad on Craig's List as well as had the neighbor girls get their markers out and draw some colorful signs we posted on a few key streets in the neighborhood. We had only one folding table, so we borrowed a second table and Hubby got creative with a few leftover sheets of drywall, two sawhorses and some folding chairs to create two more large surfaces to put stuff on. For the most part Hubby watched the kids, but we took turns too and also juggled them between customers - not hugely convenient, but we made it work. I was really pleased that we were able to keep our costs down to less than $10 to put the sale on.

A friend of mine had a large garage sale last month and she thinks so differently, it's sometimes painful to watch... kind of like a train wreck, but you can't turn away. I try to wave my arms and warn the conductor, but he just goes full speed ahead! Cutting costs just isn't an issue for her; she bought the most expensive ad for the newspaper ($60) and rented (it would never, in a million years, occur to me to rent tables for a garage sale) several tables at $14 a pop. She also prices stuff ridiculously low - like a full set of 6-month old Calphalon (purging this because of a new-found concern about the non-stick surfaces) for under $50. She bought it for $500. Of course it flew out of her sale, why wouldn't it? But I'm pretty darn sure someone would have paid more for such a nice set of almost-new Calphalon. But her goal was just to get rid of everything, who cares about pricing, just move it. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but when you are living paycheck to paycheck that doesn't seem to be the smartest choice. She told me that after her expenses (including hiring a babysitter for her son so her husband could go and play tennis) she hardly broke even. It would have probably been a better option for her to just donate everything and get the tax deduction instead of sitting out in the blistering heat for two days.

A few weeks ago she mentioned they bought a new mini van, which surprised me because their old mini van was not even 3 years old. She said it needed new tires, was out of warranty and they had paid it off. So instead of buying the new tires, they bought a new mini van. My mind is still trying to comprehend the reasoning behind that purchase. To add insult to injury it was a Toyota; I've been a lifelong Toyota owner because of their dependability and longevity. My first car, a Celica, was 10 years old when I bought my current Toyota in 1999, which I still have, and plan to have for as long as I can. Would I like a newer, snazzier car? Sure, but my practical self can't justify getting rid of my current car which runs great and hasn't given me a stitch of trouble other than routine maintenance.

She is definitely someone that falls victim to Retail Therapy and has an excuse for why she needs everything she buys. It makes me sad, and we've talked about it but I think it's like losing weight. Once you hit a certain point it feels like you will never get to your goal weight, so why not just keep eating. Being deeply in debt probably feels like that; like you are never going to pay it all off, so if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

Sometimes I'm a little jealous of her reckless spending - I wonder what would it be like for just a day or a week to be in her body and spend that freely. 401K contributions? What are those? Kid's college fund? Oh, I'll worry about that when the time comes. Property taxes coming due? We'll just refinance the house and squeeze out a little more equity to cover it. Shop sales or clip coupons? Too much trouble and Whole Foods is right at the corner - very convenient to buy everything there.

Sigh... I've predicted to Hubby that they will be in bankruptcy within 5 years - I really hope I'm wrong, but the writing seems so clearly on the wall.


Another great factoid from my "Living Green - 365 Ways to Make a Difference" calendar:

"Telecommuters say they stay fresh on the job and save lots on commuting costs. They also produce a measurable reduction in each day’s accumulation of smog and greenhouse gases.With just a tenth of the workforce telecommuting one day a week, more than 1.2 million gallons of fuel would be saved and more than 12,000 tons of pollution kept out of the air."

Occasionally I do telecommute and I find it to be some of my most productive time - first, I can be at work ten minutes after getting out of the shower and getting dressed. Second, I have none of the distractions (annoyances!!) of working in a setting that can sometimes get very loud. Lastly, I get the added benefit (both healthwise and moneywise) of being able to make my own lunch in my own kitchen - eating out every day gets expensive and many times I am not organized enough to get a brown bag lunch organized to take to work.

The downside is I don't get my 2 mile/day walk to and from the train and sometimes it does get a little lonely being at home and away from the hubbub of an office.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Computer Recycling

From my "Living Green: 365 Ways to Make a Difference" calendar (online version - no waste!)

"Although a number of computer manufacturers offer some form of recycling, Dell’s program seems to be a standout. Some makers accept their old computers only when you buy a new one; Dell will accept its old models regardless of whether you’ve made a new purchase"

This reminds me of the dinosaur I have in my garage - from 1995 - the year I learned ALL about what the internet was all about. My life has never been the same! I credit that time in my life with helping me leave my first husband and five years later find my Hubby - the man I'm married to and father of my two children. But those are post topics for another time...


"It matters if you just don't give up"

- Stephen Hawking

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Almost Famous?

Wow, I just received a comment on my very first blog post from March of this year.

Not only was it from someone I do not know, but it was from the author of a book I mentioned in the post. Cool!

I'm flattered that he took the time to write a comment, albeit an unhappy one, but find it strange that he bothered posting on my little nobody-knows-me blog. He is, after all a published author and has even been featured on the "Today Show". I guess I touched a nerve (which was not my intent - blogging is all about your own opinions/thoughts/ramblings, is it not?) enough that he dashed off that comment.

I wonder how he found my blog - was he Googling himself? Did someone else read my blog and forward my post about his book to him? Either way, I feel kind of famous now and seeing his comment did make me smile. Thank you, Jeff!

Adios Bar Cars

Metra announced today that they will elminate the "bar cars" from the commuter trains. Yay!

I won't miss 'em. If you can't make it for a 30-60 minute train ride (depending on your destination) without access to alcohol then I think you have a much bigger problem. Plus it was always a hassle when you had to pass through these cars to get to the passenger cars on the other side - people standing there, alcohol in hand, gabbing it up and apparently oblivious to the fact they were actually on a commuter train and people needed to pass by. It just seemed ridiculous. Good riddance!

Friday, August 22, 2008

License Suspended

Chicago Tribune photo

Not mine!
Theirs -> Fulton's on the River What makes this even more gross is that I took business colleagues there for lunch three weeks ago... ick!
If you allow yourself to really start thinking about all the gross, disgusting stuff that could be happening to your food while it is being prepared (did they wash their hands properly? did they sneeze on it? was the waitress mad at me and did she spit in it?) you will never want to eat out again. So, I try not to let this stuff get to me, but I do think that Fulton's is now officially off my roster of lunch restaurants. Too bad, they have a lovely location right on the river too :-(

Thursday, August 21, 2008


"Maybe he is in a monster's mouth"

- My daughter speculating as to why her brother started crying while sleeping in his crib

Grilled Veggie & Goat Cheese Sandwich

Wait - don't go away!! I know this recipe sounds a little strange but believe you me - it is FANTASTIC!

We signed up with a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) this summer. In a nutshell it means you pre-pay for a seasons (June through October) worth of organic fresh fruit and veggies from a local farmer. In turn every week he packs a 1/2 bushel box full of everything that is ready to go from his farm that week. There are a couple of things we really like about this program - 1) we are helping to support a local organic farmer 2) we are getting fresh organic produce and 3) we are forced to try new veggies!

We did this two years ago and although we had good intentions I'll admit by halfway through the summer we kind of pooped out and a lot of our wonderful produce ended up in the composter (we joked that we had really nice, expensive organic compost in there!). This summer we are spliting a half share with a neighbor so the amount of produce we get is a lot less and for us that seems more manageable at this point in our lives.

A few things we have eaten from our CSA that I normally wouldn't think of buying: beets and beet greens, kale, lots of different mixed baby greens, fennel, garlic scapes, green garlic, patty pan, cabbage (we tried it sauteed and it was great!) and then this sandwich. I normally do not like eggplant, but there it was in our box last week: a baby eggplant. Thankfully they also include some recipes they have gathered to use the ingredients in that week's box and I was determined to eat that eggplant!

This was originally found on I loved the recipe as written but next time I would peel the eggplant. You can substitute whatever grilled summer veggies you have on hand.

3 T olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 12-inch-long baguette, cut in half horizontally
1 small eggplant cut lengthwise into six 1/2-inch-thick slices
3 medium tomatoes, cut into 10 slices total
3 oz soft fresh goat cheese (such as Montrachet)
12 fresh basil leaves

Prepare barbecue (medium-high heat) or preheat broiler. Combine oil and garlic in small bowl; let stand 5 minutes. Brush cut sides of baguette and both sides of eggplant and tomato slices with garlic oil. Grill cut sides of baguette until toasted; about 2 minutes. Transfer baguette, cut side up, to plates. Season eggplant and tomatoes with salt and pepper. Grill eggplant until cooked through, abt 6 minutes per side, transfer to plate. Grill tomatoes until warmed though, abt 1 minute per side; transfer to plate. Spread goat cheese on bread, dividing equally. Overlap eggplant slices, then tomatos slices on baguette halves, covering completely. Garnish with fresh basil leaves. Cut each sandwich diagonally into 4 sections and serve. 2 servings.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Weekend Update

Last Thursday kicked off a nice 4-day weekend and car trip to visit my new nephew in St. Louis. It's a five hour car ride and my little guy did not like it. And he made sure we all knew he did not like it. He cried, hollered, thrashed and swiped at his sister. She was a sport and just kept her head down until he got tired of it.

I wish we had more of this - it was fun when they were playing with each other.

I could have done with a lot more of this.

And this. You'll notice her arm is securely wrapped around her little red lunch bag. This girl is very protective of her food. She didn't put that bag down for anything.

Finally seeing my little 3-week old nephew made it all worthwhile! What a sweet little pumpkin he is! That new baby smell.... ahhhhhh.

We baked a cake for Hubby and my Dad, both of whom are August babies. The girls had a lot fun helping me. Notice my daughter (on the right). Yup, she is sneaking frosting right in front of me and I (inadvertently) caught it on camera for posterity.

I found out that mysteriously my little guy knows how to properly hold drumsticks - it was almost eerie. I'll have to dig this picture out to show him before he leaves on his first World Tour with his rock band in 25 years.

There are some things about Missouri that stick with you, even after you go home.

The Waffle House, for one. I know that it must seem a little nuts to the people that live where there is a Waffle House nearby but we always making a stop here for breakfast before we head back to Chicago. I know it's just a diner with diner food but I love their waffles. And they cost a whole $2.49.

This sign on their door however, not feeling much love for it. The first time I saw it I didn't know what to think ... but then I had a Waffle House waffle and I didn't care. Now I just laugh when I open the door and look for an open table.

Last but not least, how about this billboard. What a great combination! Beer, bait and bullets - one stop shopping! Yee haw!!!