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.