Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Wii Love Animal Crossing: City Folk!

I have been in love with my Wii ever since we bought it earlier in the year. While most of the games have been active, with Wii Sports or Wii Music or Wii Fit, I've been wanting something a little less swing and sway and a little more relax and putter about.

Years ago that would have meant pulling out my Final Fantasy X game for Playstation and beating some beasties into the ground with my RPG party. But you really can't play that around a 4 year old without having to answer some troubling questions. So I needed a game that I could play around my kids, and something that I could drop in and out of as needed without having to remember my skills.

Nintendo's answer to my problem - Animal Crossing: City Folk.

I can best describe this as a RPG for women. Don't get me wrong - guys can have just as much fun, but this is a relaxing, social game that nearly anyone can play. And for those (mostly female) friends of mine who don't play a lot of games because they don't have the time to finish the game, or don't understand the 284 combination button moves needed to control many characters, let me explain why this game is for you. It's very intuitive to play - only one button is ever needed. And it's not your traditional game, because there is no single objective, no final challenge, no "The End" on the screen with credits. Come and go as you like, play for a short time or all day long.

In Animal Crossing: City Folk, you are just starting out on your own, moving to a small town near the city to begin a new life. You pick out the empty property you want and soon find yourself with a mortgage and the need to earn some money. The local shopkeeper hires you to run errands for your first day, which also helps you learn the basics of the game. You can also earn money by collecting and selling fruit, fish, or turnips.

The real fun lies in the details. You can quickly form friendships with the other townsfolk, decorate your house to your own tastes, and plant flowers and trees around the town to decorate as you see fit. On Saturday night you can watch a band play at the museum's coffee shop. A short bus ride will take you to the big city, where you can shop at the fancy stores, have your hair done, and take in a show. The game is also sensitive to date and time. When it's dark at your house, it's dark in the game. Now that it's December, it's snowing in my town.

But perhaps the coolest feature is that your friends can come visit your town, and you can visit theirs. Using your internet connection, you can play together with friends, with your characters interacting together in the game. Typing out conversation to each other could take forever, though, so Nintendo rolled out the Wii Speak, a wireless set-top hands-free microphone. Once you have the Wii Speak, you can have real-time voice chat with friends who are playing with you. (Assuming they have the Wii Speak also, of course.) This feature makes this game a truly social event - you can visit your friends across the country without leaving your couch.

I've been playing Animal Crossing: City Folk for over a month now, and I think I can safely say I love this game. Occasionally I'll find myself wandering around the town aimlessly, but this game is a great stress-reliever when I want to unwind after a long day and escape to a simpler world. Cordy's still not terribly interested in playing video games yet, but once she is I'm sure this will be on the approved list. The non-violent nature of this game makes it perfect for young children.

The only thing that would make Animal Crossing: City Folk more enjoyable is knowing more people who also have it so we could play together. Hear that, people? I want to visit other towns and go shopping with you! So if you buy this game, let me know, OK?

(And trust me - buy the Wii Speak also!)

Friday, December 12, 2008

Gift Guides Make It Easy

I wanted to put together my own gift guide here this year, but after seeing so many of the great gift guides that others had put together, I decided I'd hold off until next year. Instead, I've been trying to review the best gift items I've come across lately, and leaving the gift guides to those more organized than me.

One in particular that I wanted to mention is the Mom Central 2008 Holiday Gift Guide. It has gift suggestions for nearly anyone you can think of, from infants to adults, men and women, and in all price ranges. I've browsed through it several times, and was pleasantly surprised to see a selection of products not only from major manufacturers, but also from mom-run small businesses.

They're also doing a daily giveaway, with different prize packages available each day. All you have to do to enter is register at Mom Central, visit each day's giveaway and comment.

Good luck with the holiday shopping!

MC Blogger Button

Thursday, December 11, 2008

An Art Table For Two, Without The Fighting

I'll admit that a lot of the big kids' furniture we have in our house is really more space than it might be worth. A giant easel, a kid-sized chair (especially when they insist in sitting in our chairs anyway), a small kid table that tips over easily, etc. Our house doesn't have a lot of floor space, so deciding which items can stay in the living room is difficult.

But recently I had the chance to review the new Step 2 Creative Projects Table, and I think I've found the one piece of kids' furniture that is worth every square inch. When I first saw the picture of this table, I knew it would be big, but I hoped my girls would like it. This table is designed as an art table for one or two kids. Got two kids who fight over the easel or art table? This is the table for you!

The table has two stools and two seating areas - one on each side of the table. This is way better than having two kids sit side-by-side, which inevitably ends in pushing, stealing crayons from hands, and tears. There is a wooden shelf in the middle which not only provides more storage, but serves as a good dividing line for determining each little artist's space. More storage is provided with four little storage cups, molded storage areas, and two lower wooden storage bins that are large enough to hold coloring books, sketch pads, or other books.

Set up was relatively easy, although I'd warn you to be sure to read all instructions before starting. There was an errata that came with the instructions that we missed at first, and had to repeat a step as a result. I'd also recommend a power screwdriver, or someone with good arm endurance, because there are several screws. I really like the mix of molded plastic and wood - the wood gives the desk extra stability and weight.

The stools are the perfect size for my slightly larger preschooler, and even my 18 month old can sit on the stool, too, although when she does her feet don't touch the ground. They should both be able to use the table for several more years.

Cordy started using the table exactly 2.5 seconds after seeing it.

While we're using the table for art, we've also found it works for nearly anything. Cordy has asked to sit at the table for dinner, and Mira occasionally uses it for climbing practice. (Like I said before, it's very sturdy, so I'm not worried when she climbs on it.) I think in the summer we'll take it outside for days when they paint, so it can be easily washed down afterward.

Mira excels at finding unconventional seating arrangements

My girls love this table, and I love how versatile it is. If one of them should ever lose interest in it, the upper wooden shelf can be moved back to create a single-user desk with lots of desk space.

If you have two or more kids who like to draw or color, the Step 2 Creative Projects Table is a must have. Even if you have an only child this table will provide ample space for any art or craft your child should want to pursue. My two use their table daily with few disagreements unless Mira climbs onto the table and sits on Cordy's artwork. The table not only gives them a place to keep all of their crayons, papers and coloring books, but it gives me a few extra moments of peace each day while they color.

Monday, December 08, 2008

A Smart Plush Playmate (& Contest!)

Contest is now closed - congrats to Ali!


Cordy's new favorite plush toy is her smart-e-dog. I received this toy for review after she looked over my shoulder while reading an e-mail about it and shouted, "Mommy, look at the doggy! Can I have it?" At that point I was committed to reviewing this toy.

Smart-e-dog, along with its friends smart-e-bear and smart-e-cat, is an interactive plush toy that can entertain your child through songs, stories and games. I think this gives the best description of what it does:

Designed primarily for non-reading 2 to 6 year olds, smart-e-dog encourages children to discover and explore through a library of literally thousands of award-winning songs, interactive stories, educational games and other content that parents can selectively purchase through the Internet and download to the toy with a super-easy USB connection. Measuring 13” tall, this plush pal utilizes electronics about the size of a deck of cards. The squeezable, adorable animals will enchant little ones with their “smarts” from hearing a song to reading a story to playing a game. There’s always something for kids to discover as the software changes and grows with the child’s interests from the nursery to kindergarten.
Basically, what arrives is a plush animal, instructions on how to connect to the online site, and a USB cable. It wasn't hard at all to connect, and I was amazed at how many songs and stories this dog can perform. To change what the toy can do, simply select the songs/games/stories you want it to have, then download the preferences into the toy using the USB cable. Most additional songs and stories are $.99 each, although there are some freebies available, too.

The smart-e-dog also has two settings, depending on how old your child is. It can either ask your child before playing any song or story, to give your child the chance to choose something different, or you can set it to automatically play without asking. The second choice is great for younger kids who may not understand how to choose between songs and games.

The software interface is a little confusing at first, but it doesn't take long to figure out how to create new playlists, download new songs and stories, etc. You can have the toy call your child by name, as long as your child is named something more common than Cordelia. (Cordy's name is never available for anything, and I'm used to that. Miranda was in the list of names, for the record.)

Cordy loves her smart-e-dog. She was confused by the interactive mode, so I switched it to shuffle instead, and now she loves letting the dog choose what to do next. When she gets the hang of it I'll probably switch it back. She takes her smart-e-dog to bed with her, brings him downstairs with her in the morning, and he has claimed top dog status among her other canine stuffed animals.

I like him too because he sings songs that aren't the usual boring "Twinkle, Twinkle" and - a feature all parents will appreciate - he has volume control and an off button.

To see all of the features, visit the smart-e-bear website and click on Learn More for the full tour.

Win one for Christmas!

I'm giving away one smart-e-plush, in your choice of dog, cat, or bear! Hopefully it will arrive just before Christmas to add one more present for your child.

How do I enter?
To enter, leave a comment by Friday, December 12 at 11:59pm EST, and make sure I have a way to contact you if your e-mail isn't in your Blogger profile. (Seriously everyone - I can't count the number of people who leave no contact info and I have to choose a different winner.)

Want a second entry?
Blog about this contest or link to this contest via Twitter and you'll have a second entry. Please leave a separate comment with the link to your blog entry or specific tweet.

One winner will be chosen after 12/12 by random drawing (Random.org). Winner must respond within 48 hours of being e-mailed to claim prize or another winner will be chosen. I want you to have the best chance of getting this by Christmas, although due to the congestion of the USPS at this time of year, I can't guarantee delivery by then.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

How To NOT Ruin Your Clothing

I've said many times that I'm a domestic zero, failing at many simple household tasks like cooking and cleaning. But in our household I'm the one in charge of laundry, and so every few days I must make sure to get stains out and keep our clothing clean, without shrinking anything or turning white socks pink.

I've always been nervous about bleach. Knowing it's powerful ability to whiten anything - whether it was white to begin with or not - I rarely use it because I don't know when it should be used. Must the entire load be white? If some of the t-shirts are white with a design on them, will the design be ruined?

Recently Mom Central gave me the chance to try out Clorox 2, a color-safe bleach alternative. It's been around forever I'm told, but since it had the word bleach in it, I avoided it. After being assured that it really is safe to use on colors, I gave it a try.

I can happily report that I did not ruin my clothing with Clorox 2. The colors are still just as bright as before they were washed (a big plus, since I tend to make colors fade), and stains came out easier than before. I forgot to put any stain treatment on one of Mira's shirts (dry-erase marker), and I was surprised to see it come out of the wash without a single stray black mark.

Clorox 2 comes in several scents, but I was thankful to see it came in a Free formula too - no dyes or perfumes. Due to Cordy's sensitive skin, we have to wash everything in dye-free, fragrance-free detergents.

Win it!
Want to try out Clorox 2 for yourself? I have three coupons for a free bottle of Clorox 2 (any scent) to give to three lucky readers.

To enter, leave a comment below with a story of your worst laundry disaster, and make sure I have a way to contact you should you win. You can comment anytime between now and Wednesday, December 10 at 11:59 pm. Three winners will be chosen at random.

Good luck!

Eebee Charms and Encourages Exploration

When Cordy and Mira were babies, I tried out all of the baby DVDs designed to make them geniuses. My girls, however, never showed much of an appreciation for Mozart or Bach. And despite the success of those DVDs, I found they were really not very useful past 8 or 9 months. At that point I wanted them to watch programs that they would learn something from, and that something would be more than bad puns from Spongebob.

While Cordy has moved on to preschool programs and activities, Mira still falls in this age of being mostly non-verbal and wanting to explore and learn. Parent Bloggers recently introduced me to Eebee and his DVD Eebee's Adventures: Figuring Things Out. It advertises itself as a DVD that encourages toddlers 12 months and up to explore and participate in active learning.

When I first watched the DVD, I wondered if this was advanced enough for my 18 month old. The first scenes were of Eebee - a non-verbal puppet with some interesting hair - and his real-person playmate Kristy tackling a mountain of pillows. This was something Mira could already do. But soon I realized that this was only the beginning of several scenes, and that most were right at Mira's developmental level.

For each scene, they would show Eebee and his friend attempting some activity, such as crawling through a tunnel, playing with a flashlight, and building block towers. They interact like a parent introducing a new game to a toddler, and then stepping back to let the child explore while providing encouragement. The scene then cuts between Eebee and real children doing the same task. There's no dull explanation of what to do, or why the child should try this activity. Instead, this DVD works on the idea of having a child watch and then mimic the ideas.

Mira was immediately drawn in by the puppet Eebee. He's a cute puppet, and makes babbling and cooing sounds like a typical non-verbal baby or toddler. She enjoyed watching the kids and Eebee trying to do the activities, some of which required problem-solving skills, such as putting stacking cups together out of order and having one not fit as a result. After viewing it a couple of times, I noticed she was now trying some of the activities they did. She is more interested in blocks now, and she has taken an interest in the stacking cups that she previously ignored.

This is a fun DVD, and even if your child doesn't like to watch it (a rare event, I think), it also serves as an educational tool for parents, too. Watching Eebee and Kristy interact is practically a script for parents to follow in interacting with their own children. I was impressed at how Kristy encouraged Eebee without doing too much for him. It reminded me to pull back a little and let Mira explore in her own way more. Extras on the DVD include interviews with the experts who put this DVD together, explaining the developmental principles behind the action.

As part of this set, we also received an Eebee's Adventures soft vinyl book called Bath Time. This book is designed for the bath, and includes two squeezy areas that suck in and then squirt out water. Mira thought the bath book was fun, although her older sister had more fun squeezing the squeaker in the book continuously.

Overall, I'm impressed with Eebee's Adventures, and I recommend the Figuring Things Out DVD for those with young toddlers. There are two other DVDs in the collection, along with other books and toys, including an Eebee plush doll.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Dad's Corner: LEGO Batman Review

Since I've got a lot of gifts to review at the moment, Aaron has happily play tested another video game for the family.
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So, I'm back to review another video game for dads, moms and their kids. This time out, I got to put my hands on a copy of LEGO Batman for the PS2, which I was greatly looking forward to. Why? Well, because I love superheroes. I love LEGOs. I love video games. And I loved the first LEGO video game put out by Traveler's Tales - LEGO Star Wars (both volumes, actually). On the other hand, I was not so much a fan of LEGO Indiana Jones, so the question going in was "Will LEGO Batman deliver?"

Well, deliver it did, and I frankly cannot get enough of this game. LEGO Batman is fun, quirky, engaging, has tons of replay value and manages that wonderful line of being both easy enough to let inexperienced gamers play, but having challenge enough for experienced gamers to enjoy the game.

The game is outright goofy. You're playing as LEGO versions of Batman, Robin, their allies and their enemies, for crying out loud. The cut-scenes, establishing the story are done all in mime, and have numerous silly elements (Robin is a particular source of comedy here). And the game itself isn't too terribly complicated. There are four buttons used: One to fight, one to jump, one to activate your character's special power or interact with the environment, and one to switch from Character A to Character B. That's it.

You also can't die. I mean, you can be defeated, exploding into a little pile of LEGO bits. But you don't die. You just lose a little bit of your money - found in the form of round LEGO studs. That's it. So, no matter how bad you are at playing video games, you can get through the game eventually.

Another wonderful thing about the game is that you always have a partner. (Batman and Robin, go figure.) And the partner does lots of wonderful things to help you. But you don't have to rely on the AI - oh no, a second player can hop in to the game. Even better - that second player can drop in and drop out as needed. So, if dad is playing the game and your kid gets home from school, he can join in. But when it's time for dad to go help with dinner, dad can drop out and the kid can keep playing. It's a lovely feature that was introduced in LEGO Star Wars, and I'm glad to see that it remains.

All of this establishes why the game is fun and easy, but what about the replay value? Well, I'm glad you asked. The game is broken into three storylines, one focusing on Batman and Robin chasing down the Riddler and his allies, another chasing down the Penguin and his allies, and the third going after the Joker and his men. In the main storylines, you play as Batman and Robin, and get to use various gadgets and special tech suits to chase down the baddies. Once you finish any of the three storylines, however, you get to flip the story. In each scenario, Batman and Robin arrive as the villains are already in the middle of the crime - but how did the villains get there? Well, once you've completed a storyline, you get to play as the villains and find out the other half of the story. Tremendous fun, and since you're dealing with LEGO figures, the amount of guilt you might feel for doing heinous acts to the helpless citizens of Gotham City is fairly minimal.

But as much fun as the villain arcs are, the real beauty of the game comes from "Free Play Mode." As you play through the story, you'll notice that there are areas you can't get in to, or items you can't reach, all because you have the wrong abilities at the time. In Free Play Mode, you get to come back through the game with any characters you have already unlocked - hero and villain alike. Rather than being restricted to Batman and Robin and whatever Tech Suits you find in that level, you get to bring in a team that includes Batman, Robin, all their tech suits and a whole host of villains. I enjoy playing through the game's stories, but Free Play Mode - and trying to unlock every hidden thing in the game, is where I really find my fun.

Overall, I love this game. I felt like LEGO Indiana Jones didn't work, but I'm enjoying LEGO Batman even more than I liked LEGO Star Wars. And while thirty-something dads can love the game, it'd be a great game for most kids as well - especially kids who are fans of Batman.

So, to sum up:

The Good: LEGO Batman is fun, easy to learn, and extremely forgiving to new players. The Free Play mode and villain storylines add a lot of replay to the game. Two-player cooperative play is extremely easy to use, making it a great game for families.

The Bad: Some players might find the game too easy. Also, going back through the levels to find hidden items might not provide a different enough experience to make replaying the entire game rewarding for all players. Also, while the violence and destruction are against LEGO characters, buildings and landscapes, the game is largely about beating up your opponents and destroying the landscape.

The Ugly: Even in Free Play mode, figuring out how to locate some items might drive some players insane. Also, the goofiness of the game might not fit for people expecting the feel of Batman from this summer's The Dark Knight.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Does Your Computer Need A Tune-Up?

My poor laptop is a workhorse. If it were a person, it would be getting hours and hours of overtime each week and taking Ritalin to deal with all of the multi-tasking I put it through. At the moment, I have six windows of Firefox open, with a total of 17 tabs displaying 17 different websites. It's no surprise, then, that the laptop is starting to show signs of wear: crashing occasionally, random errors, and a slooooow processing speed at times.

Mom Central offered me the chance to try out Norton's PC Tune-Up service, where an expert works with you remotely to make sure your computer is running as well as it should be. It's really an easy process. I called the toll-free number, and then the Norton expert walked me through the steps to set up a secure connection between his computer and mine.

I'll admit I wasn't sure how much they could do remotely, but he did find a few places where my computer was running inefficiently - mostly too many background processes running by programs that didn't need to be eating up RAM. The technician suggested several things that I already knew how to do (as a blogger, I know my way around a computer a little bit), but he did have several ideas I haven't considered before. And he was far friendlier than I expected - no "my knowledge is superior" attitude.

Since our chat, my laptop is running better and I haven't had a crash. While it's not as spry as a shiny new laptop, I'm hoping I bought myself another year or two of time before I need to consider a replacement.

If you're not computer savvy, or just aren't sure where to begin with a slow or uncooperative computer, the Norton PC Tune-Up service can assist in getting your system working with you instead of against you.

Try it out! I've got three Norton PC Tune-Up codes to give away to three separate winners. The code will give you one free tune-up for your computer. To enter, leave a comment on this post between now and December 5, 2008 at 11:59PM EST. Winners will be picked via random drawing after Dec. 6.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Home Depot Gift Card Winner

Congrats to Julie Pippert - she's the winner of the $100 Home Depot gift card!


Thanks for playing everyone!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Lee Jeans Giveaway!

I know, it's like giveaway central right now, isn't it? But hey, with the holidays fast approaching, it's fun to help get a few items off of your lists.

Today, I'm giving away TEN pairs of Lee jeans! As some of you know, jeans are my nemesis. I have a hard time finding jeans that fit well in the hips without having a waist twice as large as my waist. In the past, I've had good luck with the Lane Bryant Right Fit jeans, but if I continue on my goal of losing weight, I'll soon be too small for those. Tough dilemma, right?

Lee Jeans, however, sent me a pair of their jeans to try out, and I was surprised that I didn't have a waistband that was swimming around my midsection for once. I like dark jeans, and these look very good and wear even better after washing several times. I think these will be my new go-to jeans as I leave the plus-size jeans behind.

And now I have ten pairs of the Lee One True Fit Premium Bootcut jeans to give away. These jeans are a little lower on the waist (not low-waisted, though) designed to fit most body types and come in petite, average and plus sizes, with lengths of short, medium and long. There are three colors to choose from: Union Blue, Blackdigo, and Galaxy Blue.

How do I enter?
To enter, leave a comment below telling me your fit problems when trying to find good jeans (too long? too tight in the waist? etc.) by Wednesday, December 3 at 11:59pm EST, and make sure I have a way to contact you if your e-mail isn't in your Blogger profile.

Want a second entry?
Blog about this contest or link to this contest via Twitter and you'll have a second entry. (Please leave a separate comment with the link to your blog entry or specific tweet.)

Ten winners will be chosen after 12/3 by random drawing (Random.org). Winners will be able to pick the size, length and color of their jeans.

Good luck!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Let's Get Ready To Boogie!

Ever since I got my Wii, I've been searching out fun games to try for it. Until now, I really only played my Wii Sports and Wii Fit, deciding this game system was really all about me getting into shape. But when Parent Bloggers asked me if I wanted to try out Boogie Superstar, I about fell over myself to reply as fast as possible and beg to be one of the reviewers.

Boogie Superstar is a dance and karaoke game, with a design similar to an American Idol competition. The only device you need to play, besides the Wii controller, is a microphone, which is supplied with the game. I was a little diappointed to see that the microphone wasn't wireless, like every other Wii add-on, but at least it does have a very long cord so you can move around while singing.

After watching the intro, you choose a character and then have the option to fine-tune the character to make it look just the way you want. You can change the hairstyle, haircolor, clothing, shoes, etc. Many of the clothing items are locked at first - you have to play the game and earn points to buy them.

When I got the game, I was far more excited about the karaoke part of it, and for the first few tries I selected only singing competitions. At first I was a little surprised to see so many of the songs were locked - again, you have to play the game and earn points to unlock them. As I scrolled through the list, I saw several songs I wanted to sing that were currently locked.

However, while I worried I wouldn't know any of the songs, I did find four that I knew relatively well on the starting list. (Bleeding Love, Hot & Cold, Pocketful of Sunshine, and Makes Me Wonder.) Seeing Hot & Cold on the list was a big surprise - that song has only been on the charts for a month or so! With only a small bit of instruction, I was soon singing loudly to some of my favorite tunes. Was I on-key? Not always, thanks to a cold, but the game is very generous with it's range of what is on-key. My first competition (a series of three dance, song, or combo sets) earned me a win over my computer competitors - not a surprise, since I think I'm a decent singer.

I finally decided I had to try out the dance portion, in order to give it a full review, and so I went into the practice room to practice my dance moves before attempting a competition. I learned that I suck as a dancer. Clearly this game was meant for younger people in better shape. Unlike other Wii games where you don't have to move at lightening speed, you have to keep up a dance club groove at a zippy pace. The first time I tried a competition with dance sets only, I was beat by one of the computer characters.

But playing against friends, though, yielded a different result - play against people your own age, and suddenly age is no longer a factor in the game. And if you're really concerned, make it an adult game night and set out a bottle of wine.

And for the record - Boogie Superstar is a great upper-body workout. After playing several rounds, my arms and upper back were sore the next day.

Despite my lack of dance ability, this is a fun game. It especially works well as a party game, both for kids and for adults. While I tested it out solo at first, I felt kinda lame singing and dancing by myself. I know there are some concerns with songs having bad words in them (Makes Me Wonder has the word damn) or inappropriate lyrics for kids (Britney Spears & Toxic, perhaps?), but at the same time, these are the same songs that your kids are listening to on the radio all the time. The age range for this game is 10+, so unless your children aren't allowed to listen to the radio, I think the songs are acceptable.

If you've got a family who likes to act silly together, Boogie Superstar would make a great game for keeping the family entertained at holiday gatherings. Now if only they'd make a Boogie 80's version of the game. I could totally rock at singing Whip It.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Fuzzy Warmth From Lands' End

I've always loved Lands' End for what I call my comfort clothing. You've heard of comfort food, right? Well, comfort clothing is that soft, sometimes fuzzy, clothing you wear when you want to lounge around. It's clothing you wear for yourself at home, where there's no need to hold the tummy in or wear heels.

Lands' End recently sent me a few items to review, and I can report they have successfully been admitted into our collection of comfort clothing.

Terry travel slippers with bag:
While I generally want my feet to be free (foot claustrophobia), when it's this cold out, our living room floor can be pretty chilly. These soft slippers help keep my toes from freezing off, and with their rubber sole, in a pinch I can run outside to get the mail without finding my shoes.

The travel bag is great for packing the slippers in your suitcase when going out of town. I know they'll be coming with me whenever I stay at a hotel again - I hate walking barefoot on hotel floors. They come in four colors - I chose the grey with the red bow (go Bucks!).

Men's low shearling moc slippers:
Aaron took one look at these and said, "oooh, fuzzy!" He was right - the shearling lining is incredibly soft and warm. Of course, I then had to hand them back, since they were intended for him. He's been wearing them every day since, and loves how warm they keep his feet.

These slippers also have a rubber sole that lets you walk outside in them if needed, yet the sole is still very flexible and padded.


Kids' Angel Fleece Pajama Set:
Mira is wearing 24 mo. clothing, so she can still wear those cute one-piece fleece blanket sleepers. But Cordy doesn't have nearly as many options for cute and very warm PJs. Her room is one of the coldest in the house, and she sleeps with three blankets to stay warm.

These fleece PJs, though, are perfect. Warm, pretty, and the fleece doesn't pill up after a few washings like many do. These PJs are available for girls or boys, in sizes toddler through big kid.

Win one!
Thanks to Lands' End, you can win comfort clothing of your very own. I'm giving away one item above - your choice! To enter, leave a comment below telling me which item you'd pick by Friday, November 28 at 11:59pm EST, and make sure I have a way to contact you if your e-mail isn't in your Blogger profile.

Want a second entry? Blog about this contest or link to this contest via Twitter and you'll have a second entry. (Please leave a separate comment with the link to your blog entry or specific tweet.)

One winner will be chosen after 11/29 by random drawing (Random.org). Winner will have the choice of the travel slippers, the men's mocs, or the kids' fleece PJs in the size and color of their choice.

Good luck!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

SeatSnug Makes Booster Car Seats Safer

When Cordy reached three years old, we realized she had outgrown most car seats. At 40" and 40 lbs, she was big enough for a booster seat. I really wasn't convinced she was ready for it, though. While she fit the size requirements, I worried that her tantrums and outbursts would pose a problem when she wasn't strapped into a 5-point harness.

While we bought a larger 5-pt. harness system for our SUV, our smaller sedan simply couldn't fit one of those monstrous seats. We bought a Graco TurboBooster instead, choosing to let Cordy slowly get used to it. But my worry has remained that she could too easily slip out of the seatbelt if something set her off into a meltdown, putting herself in a dangerous situation in a moving car. Thankfully, meltdowns are ver rare these days, and she has started to use her booster seat with few problems.

Mom Central recently offered me the chance to try out SeatSnug, a device that is placed on a seatbelt and keeps the lap portion from loosening during a drive. This not only prevents children from pulling on the seatbelt and loosening it, but it also stabilizes the booster seat, preventing it from shifting, rocking, or tipping from normal driving motions.

I'll start by saying this isn't the easiest device to install. The written directions weren't very clear, but the installation video on the SeatSnug website helped a lot. (Note: they're in the process of revising the written directions to make it clearer, but the video is extremely helpful.) So don't let your husband decide he doesn't need to see the video to install it, OK? Once the SeatSnug is on the seatbelt, it's practically impossible to get it off, so it's best to get it right the first time.

So how well does it work? This device lives up to its claims. Once on and in the locked position, you can't loosen the lap portion of the seatbelt, but the shoulder portion of the belt can still be loosened for comfort and movement. I didn't set the lap portion very tight - just enough to keep her secure. If you need to adjust the lap portion of the seatbelt, there is an "off" button that lets you adjust the belt, or you can leave it in the off position if you remove the booster seat for an adult.

Aside from the installation, we haven't had any problems with the SeatSnug. It makes me feel more secure in my decision to put my daughter in a booster seat, and she has no complaints about the lap belt remaining secure while in the car. I recommend this product, and I think once Mira is old enough for a booster, we'll be buying another one for her.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Another Reason To Buy More Chocolate

I've always joked that I accept payment in chocolate, and in this case, it was true. I was sent a box of Ferrero chocolates along with information about their Share Something Sweet promotion. Of course the chocolates are long gone (yum!), but their charity promotion really caught my eye.

Ferrero has partnered with Share Our Strength, a national organization working to end childhood hunger in the United States. Each day, 12 million children in the U.S. are at risk of not getting enough food to eat. Share Our Strength has raised more than $200 million dollars since 1984, using that money to provide grants for programs to bring meals to low-income children and advocate for federal nutrition programs.

So far, Ferrero has donated $150,000 to Share Our Strength this year, and they're giving others the opportunity to donate simply by sending an e-card. Visit Ferrero's website and send a free e-card to friends, and for each e-card sent, Ferrero will donate another dollar to Share Our Strength.

I already love Ferrero Rocher and Rondnoir chocolates, and now I appreciate the company even more for donating to such a worthy cause. If you have a moment, send a Ferrero e-card to a friend and help support Share Our Strength. It doesn't cost you a thing, although looking at all that chocolate may tempt you to buy a box the next time you go shopping.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Build Yourself A Happy Holidays With Home Depot

Some guys are hard to shop for. While Aaron isn't exactly the handyman type, I know several guys who drool at the mention of power tools. For dads and husbands like that, a gift card from The Home Depot might be the perfect solution for Christmas or Hanukkah this year.

Aw, who am I kidding? I'd love a Home Depot gift card, too. I never thought I would get excited about a home improvement store, but being a homeowner has changed that. Looking at the landscaping options alone makes me giddy, and let's not even mention the brushed nickel bathroom hardware. Drool...

This year The Home Depot has 17 holiday gift card styles to choose from including a gingerbread man that can be decorated with stickers and a card that looks and feels like it is covered with the handyman's wrapping paper - duct tape. Aren't they cute?



Win one! I'm giving away a $100 Home Depot gift card to one lucky winner! Yes, you read that right - $100. Give it as a gift or keep it all for yourself - your choice!

To enter, leave me a comment by Thursday November 27 at noon EST telling me what one home improvement project you want to work on the most. (If you live in an apartment, what one project do you wish you could work on the most?) Be sure to leave an e-mail address if you don't have it configured in your Blogger profile or I won't be able to contact you if you win.

One winner will be chosen at random (Random.org) on the evening of Thursday 11/27 so you'll know if you can cross one thing off your shopping list for Black Friday.

Good luck!

Two Nintendo DS Games For The Kids (or Husbands Who Act Like Kids)

Please welcome my husband, Aaron, to Mommy's Must Haves. I've got a lot of great holiday gift ideas coming up in the next month, and he's helping to play-test and review some of the things that I don't have time for. In this case, he took these games from me before I had the chance to play them, so in return I let him write the reviews. Enjoy!

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Ok, confession time, I may be a thirty-something dad, but I still like video games. If I’ve got a free moment on the computer, I’ll pull up City of Heroes or, if I don’t have time, Solitaire. And I rarely leave the house without either my Palm Pilot (loaded with Solitaire, Sudoku and Text Twist) or my Gameboy DS in my pocket. So, I was more then thrilled to get my hands on two fun new games for the DS - Kirby Super-Star Ultra and Pokemon Ranger: Shadows of Almia. And I have to say, both games are wonderful for audiences both young and old.

Kirby Super-Star Ultra
I’ve always been amused and intrigued by Kirby, the little pink fluffball, but I’ve never actually played any games starring him before – other than learning to love him in Super Smash Bros, Nintendo’s fighting game. So, it was with some anticipation that I put this cartridge in my DS. “Am I going to be at a disadvantage playing this game, since I don’t know his history?” The answer, I am pleased to say, was “Not at all.”

Kirby Super-Star Ultra is a relatively easy game to learn, with simple but fun controls. The DS’s touch-screen is barely used in most modes, with most of Kirby’s controls being managed via the standard control pad and A-B-X-Y buttons. Where the controls are used, they’re simple enough that you don’t even really need to use the stylus, and can just activate them with a quick flick of the finger. The game includes several adventures for Kirby to go on, each slightly different as they add both difficulty and complexity in terms of Kirby’s controls and abilities. It also includes a mode where you can play through all of Kirby’s adventures as the mysterious Meta-Knight (whose powers are different enough from Kirby to add a very interesting twist to the game), and then there are multiple mini-games that you can play.

One of the best things about Kirby Super-Star Ultra is that it is relatively easy to play through – even the final adventure shouldn’t be a challenge for most gamers, meaning that younger kids will hopefully be able to play through the game without being significantly frustrated. At the same time, there are a fair number of “hidden areas” and extras in the game, and tracking those down with give more experienced gamers plenty to do.

Pokemon Ranger: Shadows of Almia
I’ve been a Pokemon fan going way back. We had the Red, Blue and Yellow Pokemon cartridges for the original GameBoy, ran a Pokemon League for the Pokemon Trading Card Game back in the late 1990s and have played through most of the Pokemon games that have made their way through the various Nintendo handheld consoles since then. However, a notable exception to the games we’d played include the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon and Pokemon Ranger games, so I was incredibly excited to get Pokemon Ranger: Shadows of Almia.

That excitement quickly faded as I started playing. While I liked the idea that I would use the stylus to capture Pokemon, I was unthrilled to realize that most of what I was familiar with from Pokemon was now gone. There were no items to collect and use in battle. Nearly every encounter with a Pokemon was about capturing the creature, instead of doing battle to gain experience for my Pokemon. And the Pokemon I captured would stick around long enough to do one task, and then they shuffled off. This was not the Pokemon game I was familiar with.

And then, I started playing deeper into the game, and I realized something: it wasn’t trying to be. Pokemon Ranger: Shadows of Almia is a different beast entirely, with different goals and different play styles. But disliking it on that basis was like disliking hot butterscotch topping on a sundae because it wasn’t hot fudge. Different, but still yummy. The ability to use Pokemon to do “Field Clears” was oddly elegant, and the “Poke Assists” that the Pokemon could use in battle to help you catch their fellows add a lot to the game. The changes make Pokemon Ranger a more challenging game and make you more involved. It was true of the earlier Pokemon games that the human player was kind of secondary to the creatures in the other Pokemon games – in Pokemon Ranger, your avatar matters. You aren’t defined by the Pokemon you’ve captured, you’re defined by the quests you’ve completed, the power ups you’ve earned, and your ability to use the Capture Styler.

So, is Pokemon Ranger: Shadows of Almia for everyone? No. It is definitely a more challenging game than the earlier games in the Pokemon franchise. Knowledge of Pokemon types and what is strong and weak against what will not be enough to get you through this game. You’ll need to have the manual dexterity to use the stylus – and well. Younger players might find this game frustrating as a result, but for slightly older kids who have been fans of the Pokemon series in the past, Pokemon Ranger: Shadows of Almia might be just the game for them to find under the Christmas tree this year.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Saving Energy (and Money!) This Winter

When I woke up this morning, I wasn't prepared to be so cold. Like typical Ohio weather, last week was beautiful and the week ahead will be freezing cold. I swear Ohio is bipolar.

As I start bringing out the winter clothing, the heavy blankets and firing up the fireplace, I've been thinking a lot about home energy costs for winter. Thanks to the Hurricane Ike wind storm that tore through Ohio earlier this fall, our local electric company wants to raise our rates 45% over the next three years to recover some of the money they had to spend on fixing the power lines. Natural gas is also expected to be higher this winter, too. And while Aaron has a contract job at the moment, it could be over as early as December, meaning we need to save as much money as we can, and home energy is a good place to start.

Home Depot recently e-mailed me some tips on how to save energy at home, and in the process reduce your energy bills. They also asked if I would like to install some new energy-saving gadgets in my home on their dime, too. I had already been thinking about this topic, so of course I agreed.

Our house is only four years old, so I know it has Energy Star appliances, a programmable thermostat and good windows. But just like any house, there are always areas to improve on.

I went shopping at Home Depot with my good friend Lisa from Condo Blues - she's kind of an expert on home improvement stuff and has great ideas on making a home more energy efficient. Together we picked up a hot water heater blanket, some weatherstripping, foil tape, dimmer switches, insulation for the areas behind light switches and electrical outlets, lots of caulk, CFL lightbulbs, and a cover for my air-conditioner.

I knew that CFL bulbs helped save energy, and I've been slowly trying to make the conversion each time a light burns out. I was surprised to learn that they make ones that are "daylight" bright - Lisa pointed out that these are great for the bathroom or wherever you put on makeup!

The hot water heater blanket was something I've wanted for awhile. Our utility room is actually out in the (uninsulated) garage, so I'm sure a lot of energy is lost from the cold air on the tank. I also didn't realize that cold air can come in through your air-conditioner unit, even when off, so hopefully the insulated cover will help reduce that influx of cold air.

Lisa was the one to recommend the insulated "sealers" that go underneath the light-switch and electrical outlet plates. If you have a plate that is on an outside wall, it can let a lot of outside air in. (Try it - take off the cover plate and see how cold it is.)

The dimmer switch was for Cordy's room. She doesn't like having her overhead light off at night, and even if I turn it off after she goes to sleep, she'll wake up and turn it back on again. She already uses only a 40 watt bulb, but that's still a lot of light at night, so with the dimmer I can reduce the amount of light (and energy) while still giving her some light overhead at night.

I'll post an update in two months to see how much energy we're saving with these new items. I'm excited at the thought of cheaper utility bills without having to wear several layers in the house!

Here are a few more tips from Home Depot:

Top 10 ways to save energy – and money - in your home.

1. Install a programmable thermostat. You can save up to $180 a year by installing a programmable thermostat that controls the temperature of your home while you're at work or asleep.

2. Change to CFL light bulbs. Americans could save close to $8 billion in energy costs by replacing each home's five most frequently used light fixtures with CFL bulbs. CFL Bulbs use up to 90 percent less electricity than incandescent bulbs and are now available in dimmable and spot light bulbs.

3. Choose ENERGY STAR appliances. Save money and the environment by replacing standard model appliances with ones that are ENERGY STAR-qualified. ENERGY STAR-qualified appliances use 10-50 percent less energy and water than standard models.

4. Install a storm door. Storm doors can help conserve energy by keeping cold air out during the winter and heat out during the summer.

5. Update your windows. ENERGY STAR-qualified windows can reduce your energy costs by $126-$465 per year when replacing single-pane windows or $27-$111 a year when replacing double-pane, clear glass windows. For a quick fix, add heat control window film to your windows and save up to 50 percent on your cooling costs.

6. Install dimmer switches and motion detectors. Dim the lights by 25 percent and save an average of 15 percent a year on energy costs, and extend the bulb life by four times. By adding motion-sensitive exterior lighting and adding dimmer switches indoors where appropriate, you can control the wattage, saving you on your energy bills.

7. Install a ceiling fan – and learn to correctly rotate it. Ceiling fans aren't just for when it's hot outside. Ceiling fans can save you $10 a year on utility bills, plus the additional air conditioning or heating savings gained when a fan is operated properly. ENERGY STAR-qualified ceiling fans use 50 percent less energy than standard fans and circulate 25 percent more air.

8. Regularly maintain your furnace and water heater. Regular maintenance on your furnace and water heater will increase energy efficiency in your home. By combining proper equipment maintenance and upgrades with appropriate insulation, air sealing, and thermostat settings, you can cut your energy use for heating and cooling, and reduce environmental emissions, from 20 percent to 50 percent. Regular maintenance will help make these investments in your home last longer and be more energy efficient.

9. Seal your home from heat and cold. Allowing air to escape through gaps and cracks is like throwing your money away. By sealing your home with caulk, sealant and weather-stripping, you can save up to 20 percent on heating and cooling costs.

10. Install insulation. According to the Department of Energy, the leading cause of energy waste in the home is inadequate insulation and air leakage. Homeowners typically can reduce heating and cooling costs by up to 20 percent by sealing their homes and adding insulation in attics, floors over crawl spaces and accessible basement rim joists.

If you're looking for more information on energy savings projects and products, just visit homedepot.com/energy .

PS - Stay tuned - I have an AWESOME contest coming very soon!

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Public Service Announcement - MRSA

Many of you know that I'm a nursing student at the moment. As a result, I have weekly clinicals where I work in a hospital caring for patients. This quarter has been an especially tough one for me, because so far I've had four patients with MRSA - methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. You may not have heard of this bacteria, so let me explain.

Our bodies are covered with Staph bacteria. It's even in our noses, too. Sure, it sounds creepy, but most of the time Staph bacteria is harmless to us. Most of the time our bodies keep it in check, but when given a weakened environment and an entrance, it can overgrow and make us sick. When this happens, we often require antibiotics to clear up the infection.

However, due to the overuse and misuse of antibiotics, some bacteria are becoming resistant to many antibiotics, creating these superbugs that are hard to kill. MRSA is one of these antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and it is becoming the new epidemic in healthcare. There are two ways to acquire MRSA, either in the community or in a hospital setting. Hospital MRSA infections are, sadly, often caused by poor handwashing by healthcare workers. Community MRSA infections are most often spread through public places like gyms, schools, daycare centers, and even our households.

A MRSA infection on your skin looks like a pimple, abscess, boil, or spider bite that doesn't go away. They're usually red, warm, swollen and painful. If you think you or a family member has a MRSA infection, see your doctor right away. Special, more powerful antibiotics are required to treat this infection. The treatment is often longer than a standard treatment, and in those who already aren't healthy, the infection can be life-threatening. More than 19,000 Americans die of MRSA each year.

MRSA is spread by contact, so it is important to remember a few basic tips to keep yourself and your family safe. These tips are provided by Stop MRSA Now:

  • Scrub up - Wash hands frequently with soap and warm water for at least 15 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand rub sanitizer.

  • Wipe it down - Use a disinfecting bleach solution to wipe down and disinfect hard surfaces. (1 tablespoon of disinfecting bleach diluted in 1 quart of water)

  • Cover your cuts - Keep any nicks or wounds covered with a clean, dry bandage until healed.

  • Keep to yourself - Do not share personal items, like towels or razors, that come into contact with bare skin.

  • Use a barrier - Keep a towel or clothing between skin and shared equipment.
At the hospital, any patient who is suspected of having MRSA is put on contact precautions, meaning that anyone going into their room is required to put on a full gown and gloves, along with washing hands when leaving the room. I follow all of these guidelines carefully, not only to prevent transmission between patients, but also to make sure that I don't put myself or my family at risk.

To learn more about MRSA and how to keep your family safe, visit the Stop MRSA Now website.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Winners!

It's been a busy few days, so I'm just getting around to picking winners for last week's contests. Without further ado:

Once Upon A Potty book winner: Mel

My Baby A-to-Z DVD winner: Amelia Sprout

$25 Kroger winner: Kristen at We Are That Family

$25 Kroger winner from A Mommy Story: Oona

Congrats to the winners and thanks to everyone for entering!

Monday, November 03, 2008

A Baby Book That Won't Make You Worry

When a woman announces she's pregnant for the first time, within weeks she's almost guaranteed to receive some kind of pregnancy and baby advice books from friends or relatives. Most of these books focus on what can go wrong, what you can do wrong, and ways you can screw up your baby for life. It's a little intimidating, to say the least.

Even though my second child is no longer a baby, I was still very excited when Parent Bloggers asked me to review the book Amazing Baby by Desmond Morris. I've never read anything by Morris, but I remember watching his series The Human Sexes on TLC and loving how he explained complex scientific concepts in simple details that helped make sense of how and why people behave the way they do. His social anthropology skills and ability to translate it to the common person are impressive.

Amazing Baby takes a look at the incredible biological process of infancy, from gestation to two years old. All topics of infancy are covered, including physical development, bonding and attachment, emotional development, learning, play, and eating.

There are no scary "what if's" in this book, save one simple one on the last page: a child who is given a loving, stimulating environment has a much better chance of growing up to be a happy, well-adjusted adult. And if you had read the book up to that point, you'd discover that it's really pretty hard to mess that up.

Babies are designed to adapt to life. For as fragile as they seem, their DNA has the foundations to accomplish most of what needs to be done to grow and adjust. They have survival skills that could rival many survivalists. For example, did you know that babies are born knowing how to swim? It's an instinct they lose as they get older, but if you placed a very young baby in water face-down, he would automatically know to hold his breath and would try to propel himself forward by coordinated movements of his arms and legs without panic, eyes open to take in his surroundings. (Obviously, I'm not recommending you try this at home. It's not like the baby can pull himself out of the water or anything, and while I believe in the concept, I'd worry too much to try it.) Babies also can recognize their mother's scent within hours after birth, and their mother's touch can soothe them in many situations.

The book is beautifully laid out, with full page photographs of babies filling every other page. Some pages have a thin overlay page over a picture, with the overlay showing drawings of the inside the baby's body, and the photo underneath providing the outline of the body to place it in context. I really loved these - there were ones showing the muscles of a baby, the parts of the brain and eye, the bones, and the lymphatic system. This book would serve as a beautiful coffee table book to look through even long after your baby's first two years.

Because I'm a nursing student, I've read much of the information in this book before. But even knowing much of it, I was still fascinated to read Morris' conclusions of how perfectly designed a human baby is. His descriptions are vivid and easy to understand, and all of the data he relays is interesting as well as informative. After skimming the entire book once, I've already found myself drifting back through parts of it again, just to read more in-depth while remembering my own daughters passing through those stages of development.

Amazing Baby is the perfect name for this book, and Desmond Morris does a fine job of proving just how amazing the human baby really is. This would be the perfect gift for a first time mother, because it doesn't focus on everything she has to do to make her baby "perfect" (which does nothing but cause more stress), but instead gives her a sneak peak of what to expect from her baby in a non-frightening method. Had I read this while pregnant with my first child, I would have been even more excited to meet her and less nervous about screwing her up from the start.

The book has a retail price of $40, but I checked Amazon and they're currently selling it for $26.40.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Get Ready For Winter With Lands' End

With this week's arctic blast chilling me to the bone, I've been forced to dig out all of my sweaters, long-sleeve shirts and thick socks. As I pulled out my winter coat, I realized that I no longer have an "everyday" winter coat. My only coat is a long black wool coat - somewhat formal for playing in the snow or taking a walk. So when Lands' End offered to let me try their women's Weatherly Jacket, I quickly agreed.

Cordy has worn a Lands' End winter jacket for the past two years, and I love that it keeps her warm in the coldest of conditions. The Weatherly jacket also promises to keep you warm in temperatures as low as -10 degrees F when worn over layers.

The first thing I noticed is how lightweight this jacket is. Using PolarThin insulation, the jacket isn't puffy like others, and feels very smooth when putting it on. You can adjust the waist tabs in the back to create the perfect fit, and the cuffs have adjustable velcro straps to keep the cold from rushing in your sleeves. A pull cord at the bottom adjusts the hem.

What I love: First, I love all of the pockets on this jacket. There are two storage pockets on the front, with two smaller, fleece-lined pockets that serve as hand-warmers. Inside, there is another pocket plus a smaller pocket to hold your mp3 player. I also love the tall sherpa fleece collar. The outer fabric of the jacket has a coating that allows water to bead up and roll off - very useful during last Friday's downpour.

I have very few complaints about this jacket. I would prefer to see it slightly longer for those of us who are long-waisted. A hood might be nice, too, although this does give me the chance to show off some fun winter hats.

Overall, I'm a big fan of the Weatherly jacket. It's warm, it's lightweight, and I don't feel like the kid in A Christmas Story who can't put his arms down in his bulky snowgear. It comes in a rainbow of colors, too - I chose garnet red, since I do live in Buckeye-country. Pair it with the Lands' End women's Chalet shoes and you'll look stylish at the sledding hill this year!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Don't Forget To Backup Your Data

Last week, Aaron's computer was attacked by a root kit virus. I don't know if you've heard of them, but they are mean little computer viruses that infest the deepest levels of your system. Often the only way to get rid of them is to completely erase your hard drive and start over, and after trying several options, Aaron had to erase everything. Thankfully, he had a backup of some of his data, but he still lost several programs and files.

I know the importance of backing up our data, and we have an external drive that we share to back up our files. But I never know which files to back up, aside from the obvious photos and iTunes songs. I also can never remember when I last backed up files, so I can't be sure it's all on the drive.

And then I received an e-mail about the Clickfree HD 801, and after reading the description I asked to try it out. This portable backup device requires practically no effort - just plug it in and sit back as it creates a backup of all of your files automatically. There is no software to install, and no settings to fuss with. (Unless you really want to.)

I was doubtful of the claims of this drive being truly "clickfree", so I connected the USB cable and waited to see what happened. The drive automatically started up, scanned my system, and began backing up files. I didn't have to do a thing.

It did take a very long time, but I have a lot of files to backup. Two weeks later, I plugged it in again, and it quickly scanned my system for new or changed files, updated them to it's hard drive and was finished within minutes. It's also small and easy to stash in a drawer between uses.

I have to say I love my Clickfree backup device! This is honestly the easiest electronic device I have ever owned, and it serves a very important purpose. As long as I can remember to update it every week or two (which, as I said, is very easy), I know my files will be safe in case of computer viruses or a massive hard drive failure.

The Clickfree HD 801 holds up to 160 GB of data - enough for two computers for some families - and can be purchased at Amazon.com.

Kroger Brings The Savings To You

In these tough economic times, I've been looking for savings everywhere I can. And lately I've been having great luck with our local Kroger for saving money on my groceries and more.

Every week I scan our local Kroger ad to look for the weekly deals and plan our meals accordingly. I love the Kroger Fuel Rewards program, which give you a minimum of $0.10 off of gas at any Kroger-owned gas station when you spend at least $100 at Kroger in a month. (I spend about four times that much, so the gas savings really add up!)

I've also taken advantage of the Kroger Pharmacy's $4 prescriptions twice in the past two months, since we're currently without insurance.

And I've recently started taking advantage of the Kroger.com website to help me save even more. While I'd like to be an avid coupon-cutter, the truth is I'm not so good at remembering to do it. And when I do remember, I often forget to bring the coupons I need with me to the grocery. Kroger.com provides downloadable coupons to print, and if you don't want to worry about carrying coupons, they also have partnerships with P&G's eSaver and Shortcuts, both of which let you pick the coupons you want and have them automatically added to your Kroger Plus card. When you go to the grocery, the coupon discounts are automatically added to any of the selected products you buy when you scan your card. For someone who is forgetful of little paper coupons, this is a HUGE service to me!

Win a $25 Kroger gift card!

Want to win a $25 Kroger gift card? Leave a comment on this post between now and Friday October 31 at 11:59 pm Eastern time. Be sure to leave a way for me to contact you if you win. One winner will be chosen at random (Via Random.org) after Friday.

Kroger gift cards can be used at any Kroger Co. store, including Fred Meyer, Ralph's, and Food 4 Less.

Also, be sure to enter for a different $25 Kroger card over on my other blog as well!

(This contest is part of the Bloggy Giveaways carnival.)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Got Allergies? You Might Want To Try This Spray!

Around here, we're an allergy-type family. I have general hayfever, Aaron is extremely allergic to ragweed and slightly allergic to pets, Cordy has sensitive skin and food allergies, and Mira...well, she hasn't shown any allergies yet, lucky thing. Even one of our cats is allergic to dust, mites, dogs, and several foods.

I decided to try out a sample of the new Clorox Anywhere Anti-Allergen Fabric Spray to see if it could help keep the allergens under control. It boasts that just by spraying it on common items we all use - the couch, fabric chairs, our bedding, etc. - it can break up many of the allergens that lead to our sneezing, watery eyes, or itchy skin. The bottle specifically mentions cat and dog dander and dust mite matter, and it claims to be completely safe for kids and pets. I wondered about this last claim, since my family is fairly sensitive to any chemical products.

It's really easy to use - just spray a fine mist on any fabric surface and give it a little time to dry. As it dries, it breaks down any allergens on the fabric, making it safer for you to lay your head down on the pillow or relax on the couch. I especially like that it has no strong odor, or any odor at all, unless you put your nose directly down to the fabric right after spraying it. The very light scent is fresh and clean. It's even safe to use on stuffed animals.

I misted down most of the furniture in our living room and all of our beds. It dried in under five minutes, and left no odor behind. This isn't our peak allergy season right now, but I can say that there haven't been any serious allergy attacks in the past week or two. The cat even seems to be doing well - dust mites really bother him, and I can't wash all of the areas he lays on constantly, so the spray is helping him. And no one has had any kind of reaction to the spray, either.

More long term testing is needed in this house, I think, but so far I think the Clorox Anywhere Anti-Allergen Fabric Spray has potential to be a very useful tool in my cleaning. The lack of any strong odor and the fact that it is safe to use around kids and pets is a big plus for me, too.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

What's Better Than Dancing Puppets?*

*Mira would tell you that NOTHING is better than dancing puppets.

Most of you already know that I'm a bad parent who lets her children watch TV. Mira, suffering from second child syndrome, is very familiar with all of the offerings of the TV at only 16 months. Once Cordy was in school, we tried showing her only videos made for her age group, like Baby Einstein, but she had already sampled the older kids shows and while she loves puppets, those puppets moved too slow for her.

When I received the My Baby A to Z - Come Explore Shapes With Me DVD from Parent Bloggers, I worried it would be just as slow and she would have no interest in it. The puppets on the cover looked cute, though, and everything deserves a chance, so we put it in one morning when Cordy was at school to try it out. Cordy is a little smarty pants who already knows all of her shapes, so I decided Mira would be the only test subject.

Mira's attention was immediately captured with the dancing puppets on the title screen. As it started playing, she climbed onto my lap and continued to stare at the screen. The DVD features two puppets who serve as hosts as they explore different kinds of shapes with the audience. It's not too fast or slow paced, but just right to keep toddlers engaged and following along. There are plenty of opportunities to interact with the video, too: the puppets go out into the world and explore to find shapes, asking the children to find the shape, and sometimes asking the children to move their bodies to mimic certain shapes, like the roundness of a circle or the angular nature of a triangle.

Other puppets also join in to help demonstrate the shapes, as well as occasional clips of computerized stick figures creating shapes and playing with them. Mira loved all of the puppets, but she was especially fond of the two primary ones.

My favorite part has to be the occasional moments when the puppets announce "It's time to move!" and then groove to the music. It's a reminder for kids to get up and move instead of sitting passively watching TV. All I can think when they say this is "STOP...Hammer Time!" and I'll confess I'm saying that every time to get Mira to dance along. I love the random dance party segments, and think more videos for children could benefit from move 'n groove time.

Cordy, who is 4 years old, did see the DVD a few times, and she thought the puppets were cute. But as expected, she already knew all the shapes and was pointing them out before the puppets. Like I said - smarty pants. They recommend the DVD for ages 2-5, but a 4 or 5 year old might be beyond the subject matter.

Mira is just at the age where she can learn the subject matter, so this video is perfect for her. She's just beginning to notice different shapes, and My Baby A to Z - Come Explore Shapes With Me helps reinforce what I'm already teaching her. I'd recommend this DVD to anyone with children as young as 15 months. And for adults, I can report that I've seen this several times, and I'm not sick of it yet - a very important measure of a DVD for children.

Win a copy! I've got an extra copy of My Baby A to Z - Come Explore Shapes With Me to give away to one reader. To enter, leave a comment below by the end of the day on October 27, telling me your favorite puppet or muppet from your childhood. (Mine has to be Animal from the Muppets.) One winner will be chosen at random on October 28. Make sure I have a way to contact you if you win. And if you want more chances to win, check out Parent Bloggers - they're giving away 20 more as well!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Revisiting The Potty Struggle

It's been a full two years since we first tried to introduce the idea of using a potty to Cordy. We've tried nearly every technique to get her to use the potty, and while she will use it and stay dry at school now, she still resists at home and won't do it at all on the weekend.

I was offered the chance to review the old favorite Once Upon A Potty from Parent Bloggers, and decided that it was worth a try. The book has been around for years, and I think nearly everyone has heard of it, but we still didn't have it.

The book is actually two books - one designed for a boy, and one designed for a girl. The girl book follows the story of Prudence, as told by her mother. It tells of how Prudence has always used diapers since she was a baby, but now she's been given a potty to use and at first is very confused. But with a lot of patience and a lot of sitting, she eventually figures it out.

I really like that the book begins with a very brief and age-appropriate anatomy lesson of where each bodily excrement comes from. It was also nice to see that Prudence was allowed to play with the potty at first while she tried to figure out what it was, even wearing it as a hat in one picture. The images are simple but clear and get the point across easily.

Cordy enjoyed reading the book, listening all the way through and then asking to read it again over and over. She especially loved the part where Prudence sat and sat and sat...she giggled and repeated it with me as we read an entire page of "sat and sat..." And she showed a lot of understanding about where everything comes from.

She didn't recognize the potty in the picture at first, insisting that it wasn't a potty and it didn't look anything like her potty. The potty in the story is a little old-fashioned looking - it looks more like a Victorian chamber pot than the plastic potty you might find in a store. I also changed the words a little when reading it to her - the book refers to Wee-Wee and Poo-Poo, but I preferred to call them pee and poop, since those are the words we use.

Has the book helped at all with her potty training? While I'd love to report she's completely potty trained, that still isn't the case. But it has shown her that sometimes she has to sit for a while before anything happens, and she'll now give it a minute or two before declaring she's done and asking to leave the bathroom. And more importantly, her little sister Mira has been following along as well, and now follows me into the bathroom to sit on the potty (fully-clothed, but still) every chance she gets. I think Mira might be potty trained faster than Cordy.

The book also comes with a CD, including the Joshua and Prudence Theme song, The Potty Song, and a read-along of the book. The songs are very jazzy in nature - not bad at all, but Cordy also wasn't very interested. She did like the read-along, though.

There's a reason Once Upon A Potty is one of the most read potty books over the years - it's clear in message, it explains the process without pressure, and it helps make the idea of the potty less frightening.

Want to win one? If you have a boy, or know someone with a boy of potty training age, leave a comment below to win the boy version of this book and CD. One winner will be selected at random after Friday, October 24.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Trying to Green Up My House

You may have noticed the new little icon in my left sidebar. I'm currently participating in the Green Works 30 Days to Natural experiment. In the past few years I've been wanting to make better choices for our family that helped us live healthier and protected the environment.

For this challenge, I'm trying out the Clorox Green Works line of cleaners, all made with biodegradable ingredients and free of phosphorus, bleach, and other toxic chemicals. None of the products are tested on animals, also. I'm replacing the remaining harsh cleaners we had with Green Works products to see if they clean just as well as the old products. I've already been using them, and so far I can tell you that I'm liking what I'm seeing. (And smelling!) Reviews will be coming soon.

The 30 Days to Natural website encourages you to sign up for an account, and in return provides you with a wealth of tips to live in a healthier, more environmentally-friendly way. You can have daily tips e-mailed to you or sent to your cell phone. And you can watch videos from three moms who are vlogging their 30 day transformation to a greener household.

It's been fun so far, and several of the daily tips have been useful and reminded me that it doesn't take a lot of effort to make eco-friendly choices.

Win A Lands' End Fleece Pullover!

*Contest has ended. Congrats to the lucky winner, Firemom!

Cold weather will be here in a matter of weeks, so if you haven't started pulling out your winter gear, you might want to think about it. I'm going to have to buy some new winter gear this year because I've lost some weight since last winter's postpartum blahs.

If you're looking for some new winter gear, too, why not start with winning a pullover? I'm giving away a Lands' End Women's ThermaCheck 100 Half-Zip Pullover to one lucky reader this week. These pullovers are made from a special fleece that is not only very soft, but the only permanent antistatic fleece out there. That's right - no shocking someone just by walking across the room, and no looking like a lint trap after a week or two. It's also incredibly lightweight, making it perfect for layering in the winter.

To enter the contest, visit Lands' End and decide what color you like best, then leave a comment on this post telling me which color is your favorite no later than Monday, October 20 at 11:59pm EST. One winner will be chosen at random (random.org) after Oct. 20.

And if you're in the mood to shop, be sure to take advantage of free basic UPS shipping at Lands' End now through October 20. (My advice? Check out their shoes. The Chalet Shoes look so cozy, and they're on sale, too.)

Free Shipping Code: OUTERWEAR
PIN: 1013

Good luck!