Monday, July 27, 2015

How to Build the Best Fort Ever with Your Kids

Back in our youth, my brother and I were pretty good fort-builders.  With a stolen borrowed sheet, some clothespins and yarn, we could finagle a cover over the front hedges or a lean-to in between a couple of trees.  Give us a couple fried bologna sandwiches and plastic cups of Kool-Aid and our mother wouldn’t see us until the streetlights came on.

My kids have the luxury of a play structure in the backyard, a requirement of every suburban home these days.  They’ve taken some leftover house paint to decorate it and hauled some make-shift furniture into it.  On occasion, however, they will construct a second outdoor home with a blanket and some plastic poles left over from something, or a separate indoor room with the couch pillows and a sheet.  I don’t participate at all in any of the construction.

So, my mouth dropped in awe when I saw this article about these amazing forts that moms could build with – no, for! – their kids.  These things had lights, poles, semi-permanent structures, contraptions hanging from the ceiling of the living room. And if you didn’t want to actually sew and cut, you could order them all ready made.

Have we been doing this fort-building wrong all along, just making it up from whatever was around the house?  Nah. I shook my head at this article and the guilt-laden message it sends.  Moms: unless you are taking charge of building these play structures for your kids, you’re failing as a mom.

I think the real message should be: Moms, step out of the way and let your kids develop their own creativity.

That cardboard “house”? Great. Give the kids the box, some markers, and a pair of scissors and let them figure it out.  It will be just as fun without moms perfectly straight cuts and lined brickwork.

The tent in the bedroom? Wonderful idea for a hideaway. Tell the kids where the sheets are, give them some binder clips and send them off to build their own space.  They will be fine without mom sewing hemmed covers for the sides.

There are a lot of articles out there on how to play with and entertain our kids.  They would have you believe that if you are not hop-scotching and crawling through the playground tubes and providing perfectly pitched pots for the kid to bang on, you are not doing your job.  And we moms, myself included, internalize that message. If you are not entertaining your kids, you are abandoning them. Show your kids you love them by being with them all the time, doing everything with them.

What we’re doing is crippling their creativity.  Every time we say “here, look what I did for you” or “here, this is the thing you should play with and how you should play with it,” we’re not letting our kids develop their ideas and problem-solving skills.  The other day, I took my daughter to the playground. She climbed up on this spinning structure thing and hung upside down and asked me to spin it around. Umm, that’s not the way I would’ve played on it, mainly because my body is not as nimble and partly because my adult mind had an idea of the prescribed way – the safest way - to play on the thing.  But my ideas shouldn’t have gotten in the way of what my daughter thought would be fun.  When we parents tell our kids how to play, we’re not letting them grow as their own people with their own memories.  They can’t develop their own sense of pride and “look what I did” when we do everything for them.

Instead, let’s give our kids the tools to create their childhood.  Give them a blanket, some string, and a sandwich; step back and let them imagine.

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Friday, July 24, 2015

Move Out of My Way - I'm Walking 10,000 Steps #FitBit

I've finally succumbed to the FitBit craze. I won't get off the couch without this criminal-tracking-device looking band around my wrist, counting every step I make. Actually, every swing of my arm, thus I feel cheated walking through Costco pushing that big heavy cart, because my arm is staying still, so I make my kids push the cart so I get my steps counted. And contrary to all my hopes in which I invested $120 - I haven't lost a pound since I got this thing two weeks ago.

I got my FitBit for the same reason we’ve been doing stuff since we were 6 years old: I didn't want to be left out any longer. Not knowing how many steps I'd taken in a day, not being able to confirm that I had been as lazy as I imagined. But the previous FitBit models, though in much cuter colors (like pink!) only had a row of lights and had to be synced to your phone. I'm not one of those people who always have, or can locate, their phone and I didn't want to be tethered to the phone to see all my stats, so I never got one.  Then I came across the FitBit Charge. A little research revealed that this was a re-issued design, perhaps for others like me who wanted everything on their wrist, not in the phone. The Charge has a regular and a heart-rate model. It has a digital screen that displays the time, number of steps, miles, number of stairs, and calories. You can also time and measure a particular activity, for instance, if you are going on a run.  You can get more details, track your food, track your sleep, designate whether you are wearing it on your dominant or non-dominant arm etc. online or on the app.

So what’s all the hoopla about? How has this band changed my life?  Here’s how it works.

10,000 steps is the magic number
The pre-determined goal is to walk 10,000 steps per day. You remember awhile back when some doctor person announced that that was the magic number of healthfulness? That’s the FitBit number. If you get to 9900, keep on moving, walk around the living room, run in place – you’re so close!  You also can adjust higher if you are that overachiever.

It’s all about the buzz and badges.
If you make 10,000 steps, the FitBit vibrates, buzzes and flashes. “You did it!” There’s some sense of accomplishment. When you hit certain milestones – the most steps you’ve walked, 20,000 steps, etc. – you get a badge (like in Girl Scouts) on your profile page. You can take pride in your virtual pat on the back. Unlike the current wave of every kid gets a trophy, if you do not get 10,000 steps, you get nothing. No buzz, no light, not even a “good try” light. Nothing but a sense of “I knew I should’ve parked in that farthest parking space.”

You don’t get credit for everything.
Swam across the lake? Biked up the mountain? Squated 500 times? Ran on the treadmill?  No credit. If your arm doesn’t move, you get nothing. And since it’s not water-proof, all those laps swam don’t give you any steps either. One lady told me she attaches it to her shoe when she’s doing non-arm-moving exercises.  But the worst - when you forget your FitBit! Ugh. I went out the other day (rushing, as usual) and forgot to grab it. I do not lie when I say I was ready to turn around, go home and not take another step 'til that thing was strapped to my arm.  Such is life though, right? Sometimes the good you do goes unnoticed. (A little #FitBitPhilosphy there.)

It makes you admit to your laziness.
I'm a busy mom and do move around a lot, or it seems like it. But other than housework, a lot of my busyness is driving. As a writer and blogger, well, that doesn't take much more movement than going to refill my coffee cup. So realistically, I could sit still all day long. And I often do. And then I rationalize my non-movement as still being productive as I get a scoop of ice cream.  This thing reminds me to get up every now and then, walk the dog, go check the (real) mail, walk upstairs to get that thing I need rather than doing without.  A 2-mile run in the morning has been my goal, this FitBit thing is a visual reminder.

It invites your family to remind you of your goal.
My kids and husband ask me “how far have you walked today?”  On the one hand, their interest is sweet and supportive. On the other, that interest can morph into “I’d go upstairs and get that book you want, but I want to you to get your steps in, so I’ll continue to watch TV while you go get it.” But every now and then it becomes “hey, Mommy, let’s go for a walk so you can finish your steps.”  And that right there is worth 10,000 steps and more.

FitBit or another brand of step-counter or nothing at all - the message is get up and move. And drag your family along.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

5 (or 6) Bites to Eat in Chicago

There’s about a million restaurants in Chicago and if you ask for a recommendation, you’d get as many opinions on which is the best. So to add to that list, here’s my 2 cents on a few delicious bites that I tasted during my days in Chicago.

Pizza - deep-dish Chicago style pizza – is a given.  I imagine asking a Chicagoan where’s the best pizza is like asking a Marylander who has the best crabcakes.  I had a spinach personal size pizza from Giordano’s at Navy Pier (there’s a restaurant and a stand). And while in O’Hare, I enjoyed a cheese pizza from Reggio’s (Concourse C – not sure if they are near other gates, too.)  Be ready for the carb and cheese overload and enjoy.
You can't pass up a deep-dish Chicago pizza
Okay, now on to other food.

Popcorn. Specifically – Garrett’s Chicago Mix. A bag of the caramel corn and cheese mix is a Chicago must-taste. It’s a unique blend of sweet, sticky caramel and lick your fingers cheesy. (The first time I had it, I thought someone messed up the bag.) Once you are within a block of a shop, you’ll smell the hot burnt sugar sweetness. I also got a bag of the caramel with pecans (other nuts are also available) – it’s like a grown-up bag of Cracker Jacks.  For travel, I would recommend the caramel – it keeps better than the cheese or butter.
Get it while it's hot... caramel and cheese popcorn

Mini churros & sweet cream cheese sauce. Fried dough – enough said, right? Churros require a special crispiness, hot (as in warm) but not burn your tongue hot, and sweetness. Add a sweet dip – this one was a cream cheesy; I usually go with chocolate, but this was a yummy different option.  And a cup of coffee – it was the beginning of a great brunch at GT Fish & Oyster.
Churro's in Chicago. Yep.

Kimchi as condiment. I have eaten this fermented cabbage (or other vegetable) native food of Korea all my life. However, I generally eat it with rice, noodles, and Korean or other Asian food. I have never thought to eat it as a condiment on a sandwich or any “American” food.  I had an Oyster Po-Boy with Kimchi (all those yummy words together, how could it go wrong?) at GT Fish & Oyster.  At BellyQ, there was a Warm Potato Kimchi Salad – which I didn’t try, because I didn’t like all those words together, but was intrigued by the idea.  I did however, ask and receive a side of kimchi, which was pretty good.  (I’ll have to do a post on kimchi one of these days.  More later.)
I don't know whose idea it was to put Kimchi on a sandwich.

Grits. I really didn’t plan on feeding my grits-hunger while in Chicago, but I guess there is a touch of southern heritage here (read TheWarmth of Other Suns).  At BellyQ I had Coconut Grits. You like Coconut Rice? Ahh, they coulda slid some slices of mangos on it and had a whole new addictive food. (No pics, sorry, but it was good.)  I also had Shrimp & Grits, because as I mentioned in my Charlotte food post, it’s one of my favorite dishes. I had this bowl, with a more tomato soup taste with a kick, at GT Fish & Oyster for brunch.
Shrimp & Grits. This one up north in Chicago.

Fried deviled eggs. Because. It was deviled eggs. And it was fried. What could go wrong. Nothing.  Except you only get one.  At ThePurple Pig. Yes, as a vegetarian, you can find a good meal at a place with “pig” in it’s name.  Try the calamari with Fregola.  As a carnivore, particularly a pork-ivore, you will find a lot of interesting plates, including the Pig Platter.
Fried deviled egg. Crispy, hot, creamy.

Can I add one more? Because how can I do a food list without some chocolate?  From a foodtruck!  I had a chocolate cheesecake cupcake with chocolate frosting (feel that in your sweet tooth?) from Chicago Cupcakes.  The truck was at Jackson Park, near the Museum of Science and Industry, when I got my fix, but the guy said they are usually downtown and you can check Twitter to find them on any given day. Check them out.
Chocolate Cupcakes. What else do you need to know?
Note that I traveled to all of these restaurants (except the food truck and O’Hare) from my stay at the Hyatt on Wacker Dr. by foot or by bike. So when you go to Chicago, take your walking shoes.

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Monday, July 20, 2015

See Chicago on $7/Day on Divvy Bikes

I added to my zoo "collection" with a visit to Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo, one of the country's oldest (note - it's free!) I checked out my favorites - the big cats (though I'm not a fan of house cats) and the monkeys and apes.  

Visit to one of the country's oldest zoos- Lincoln Park Zoo

As I walked a few blocks to the Old Town section, I noticed everyone on bikes, especially the same baby blue model. These were the rental bikes that are popping up in different cities, including New York and DC, and some city-suburbs. The concept: pay a fee to rent a bike from a stand, ride it to or close to your destination, park it at another stand, and go about your business. Chicago's brand is Divvy Bikes.

The rental fee for Divvy Bikes is $7 for 24 hours, as many rides as you want, under 30 minutes each. Over 30 minutes, its a couple dollars more per ride.

Find a stand with blue Divvy bikes & ride!
At first I thought - do I want to ride a bike seeing as I didn't really know where I was going? But then I reasoned: I didn't know where I was going anyway, so at least on a bike, I'd get there faster.  

I grabbed a bike and breezed through the city. (Apparently, there's no helmet law in Chicago, which all my Maryland friends asked.) Chicago, surprisingly for being such a busy city, turned out to be an easy biking city. The landscape is pretty flat, there are clearly marked bike lanes, and where there aren't, drivers are pretty good at giving bikes the right of way, or at least not running bikers off the road - though they will honk if you don't move when the light turns green.

I road from Old Town through downtown to Millenium Park, about a 2 mile distance, according to Googlemaps. The fun part - traveling faster, I definitely went further than planned and came upon some entertaining surprises. There was a running waiters race on one square and a soft-serve ice cream truck on another.  I wandered through the park, checking off some of the Chicago landmarks, like "The Bean," and caught a little bit of Edward Scissorhands as the movie being shown out on the lawn. I picked up another bike, then rode back to the hotel, the Hyatt Regency, where there was a bike stand a few feet from the door.

How do you know where you can get a bike? There's an app! (But you knew that, right?) This came useful when I was ready for dinner - I read a review for BellyQ, an Asian fusion restaurant that was a few miles from the hotel in the Old Loop. Looked on the Divvy site at the map and ta-da there was a bike stand a block from the restaurant. Perfect. I picked up a bike a block from the hotel and rode straight to the other end of town in about 15-20 minutes.

Dinner by the way, was quite delicious. I had Crab Rangoon, Coconut Grits, and Hamachi (ceviche). And a drink called "Kill Bill." So.... I took a cab back to the hotel. Don't drink & ride!

I got a bike again another day, taking my own riverside and city tour. I saw a book at the Art Institute, Chicago Then & Now, about the architecture and history of Chicago. A read through something like this is useful to develop your own tour through the city.
Interesting look at the architecture of Chicago pre-Chicago fire and since.
There are a few drawbacks to rental bikes (like own-your-own bikes):
  • Rain. I was going to get bikes one day with friends, but it was unpredictably raining and what we didn’t want to do was get caught in a downpour with bikes.
  • Broken bike. One of the bikes I got, I couldn’t adjust the seat. And I didn’t want to go thru the process of getting a new code for a new bike, so I rode it, with the seat lower than I would like. Then I understood why other’s adjusted the seat before getting the bike.
  • Empty bike rack. Every now and then, there’s a bike rack with no bikes on it. Walking a couple blocks to the next bike rack can throw a wrench in your plans, if you’re on some kind of schedule. Otherwise, it’s a minor annoyance. 

The rental bikes are fun, inexpensive, and flexible. I could see them being a quite useful mode of travel in your home city, and it’s a great way to see the city on vacation.

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