Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Night Light That Keeps Kids In Bed - No, Really!

Cordy has always been an early riser. There have been good times when she would sleep until 6:30 am, and not-so-good times when she would be up for the day at 4:30 am. We don't like her to be out of her room when we're not awake (safety issues, obviously), and we really don't want her waking us up at times when no sane human should be awake.

Winter is especially hard, because we can't use the old "when the sun comes up you can come out of your room" explanation. We recently tried buying her a digital clock, and teaching her to stay in bed until the clock says "6" is a great idea until she comes into your room at 4:36 am with a chipper smile on her face as she exclaims, "Mommy, there's a six on my clock!" Beyond that, teaching a five year old - or at least our five year old with autism - the intricacies of 6:00 versus 6:30 is also difficult.

But we've found a solution that works now. I was invited to try out the Good Nite Lite, a night light that also functions to teach children when it's nighttime and morning. It has a small clock in it that you can program to set a bedtime and set a time when it's OK to get out of bed.

Here's how it works: plug the Good Nite Lite into the wall, and when the internal clock reaches the time you set for bedtime, the nightlight turns on to reveal a glowing blue moon:

While bright at first, the moon dims after the first hour. The moon stays on all night, lending a soft blue glow to the room that isn't too bright to disturb. When it's time to get up in the morning - according to the time you set - the moon changes to a yellow-orange glowing sun:

The sun stays on for only two hours before it shuts off for the day to conserve energy. The beauty of this system is that you can change the times whenever you need, so if you are trying to retrain an early riser to stay in bed longer, you can reset the time in slow increments over days or weeks.

Does it work? I'm amazed and thrilled to say that it does! Cordy understands the sun and moon concept far better than telling time on a digital clock. She loves to see the moon on at night, and really does stay in her room until it switches to a sun.

A quick example: Aaron set it to switch to the sun at 6:15 am each day. He accidentally reset it to 6:45 am one night, and the next morning Cordy didn't come out of her room until 6:45. Her sister was awake and out of her room before Cordy, encouraging Cordy to join her in the hallway, and Cordy refused to come out of her room until she saw the sun on her night light. We are stunned at how easy this has been - never before has she stayed in her room so easily.

Are there any negatives? Well, programming the clock is a little complicated, but the instruction guide does provide fairly clear directions. Just remember to be quick, because if you wait 10 seconds, the time returns to the previously set time.

At this point I'm declaring the Good Nite Lite a brilliant product that I wish I knew about two years ago. I'd gladly sign a petition to make this a required item for new parents. (I'm already considering a second one for Mira - she's starting to be an early riser now, too.)

I don't think Cordy will be giving up her Good Nite Lite for a long time. And I think Aaron and I will be getting more sleep now thanks to this wonderful night light.

Full Disclosure: I was given one Good Nite Lite for review. No positive review was guaranteed or expected. All opinions are my own, and no further compensation was provided.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Dazzle At Your Holiday Parties With Lane Bryant

**Contest is closed - thanks to those who entered! Winner will be announced soon!

I've never been the gal who loves to dress up. My style is very casual, but I know that holiday parties often dictate a slightly dressier fashion. Part of my problem is I don't like to draw attention to myself - I want an outfit that is practical without standing out too much, and I want it to fit me well.

Years ago I didn't know about Lane Bryant, and being a plus-sized woman, I struggled to find any clothing that would 1) fit me, and 2) not look like something my 60-year old babysitter wore in the early 80's. However, three years ago I walked into my first Lane Bryant store and realized it was possible to look good even if I wasn't a size 6.

Right now Lane Brant has so many gorgeous outfits available for holiday fashion, with many items under $50. Many of their sweaters are on sale for $19.99 and up, and all jewelry and Cacique bras are buy 1, get one half off. My favorite Lane Bryant staple item - their Right Fit bootcut jeans - are also only $49.50. (An amazing deal when you consider they are quite possibly the world's perfect, best-fitting plus-size jeans around.)

So what did I buy for my holiday party? Being crazy practical, I started with a pair of pants that will serve me well for the party and for many other dressy occasions:

Next up was a top. I tried on so many of their sweaters, and loved some of the larger tunic sweaters, but I know that at a party I tend to get warm. (Does no one think to lower the thermostat when they invite 40 people into their house?) Then I found this amazing lightweight sweater:

...and paired it with a matching silver cami to wear under it:

The sweater and cami are perfect together, and with a little bit of silver jewelry (that I already own) I have great, understated outfit for the Christmas Eve party I'm going to. Best of all, it fits well and is incredibly comfortable to wear. I won't need to spend the night tugging or pulling at various parts of my outfit whenever I move.

Go Shopping On Lane Bryant!

I'm going to make it a little easier for one person to pick out her holiday outfit. I've got a $50 Lane Bryant gift card to give to one lucky reader! Here's how to enter:

Go to LaneBryant.com and tell me what item(s) you'd love to buy. You can leave a link to the clothes in the comments, if you'd like. Be sure you leave a valid e-mail address so I can contact you if you win.

One entry per person, US residents only.

Entries will be accepted until Friday, December 18 at Noon, EST. One winner will be chosen at random (using random.org) after that time. Winner has three days to respond or a new winner will be chosen.

Good luck!

Full Disclosure: I was given a $50 Lane Bryant gift card for my personal shopping spree, along with the $50 gift card to give to one reader. No review, positive or otherwise, was guaranteed or expected. All opinions above are my own. Your mileage may vary.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Hickory Farms Makes The Holidays A Little Tastier

The holidays are not kind to those of us watching our weight. So many parties, and an endless selection of food. I can't resist party foods, and one of the areas I always hover over is the meat and cheese tray. Sure, the sweets get their fair share of attention, too, but a girl needs her protein before all that sugar.

So when Mom Central asked if I would like to review a gift basket from Hickory Farms, I nearly drooled on my keyboard while hitting the reply button. When I was younger, it was common to have Hickory Farms sausage and cheese as an appetizer at our family holiday gatherings. It's been awhile since I had the chance to savor those treats, and I was curious if they tasted as good as my memory tells me they did so many years ago.

I received an impressive selection of sausage and cheese, all packaged in an awesome "Hickory Handyman Tool Bag" set. My husband took one look at the tool bag and started planning how he could use this bag. I was more interested in the food, of course. Included were three different summer sausage, three sausage snacks, four blocks of cheese, two boxes of crackers and a container of hot mustard.

We decided to start with the mini beef sausage snacks while watching TV one night. My memory had clearly not failed me in this matter - the bite-size sausage snacks were spicy, juicy, and full of flavor without being too salty.

We brought the summer sausage and cheese to a party, and everyone loved the spicy beef and creamy cheeses. (I nearly kept the Hickory Cheddar all for myself because it was so tasty.) I only got a bite of each myself - it was all gone before I could go back for seconds! I wish I could have had another bite or three of the ham summer sausage, a new favorite of mine when combined with a little dab of hot mustard.

This holiday season, Hickory Farms will donate $5 to Share Our Strength for each Party Planner Gift Box sold. Share Our Strength is a leading national non-profit organization working to end childhood hunger in America. Additionally, 40 of the gift items available on the Hickory Farms website have free military shipping, allowing our troops across the globe to share in holiday traditions.

Hickory Farms sausage and cheeses are not only great choices for your holiday party spread, but they make great gifts for friends, clients, and families. With gift baskets and boxes of all sizes and selections, you're sure to find the right gift for several people on your list.

Full disclosure: I wrote this review while participating in a blog tour campaign by Mom Central on behalf of Hickory Farms and received a Hickory Farms gift basket to facilitate my review. No further compensation was provided, and a positive review was neither promised nor guaranteed.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Cookie Dreams & Brownie Wishes

Contest is now closed. Thanks to those who entered! Winner will be announced soon!

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending a blogger event at Cheryl&Co. What? You've never heard of Cheryl&Co? OK, for those who don't know: they are the makers of perhaps the best cookies ever, EVER made. Cookies with real buttercream frosting that are perfectly soft and creamy, melting in your mouth with each bite. Cookies that you would willingly take from a baby, knowing that their limited experience is not enough to appreciate just how incredible these cookies are.

Each Christmas, my aunt brings a large box of individually wrapped Cheryl&Co. cookies to our family dinner. I quickly dive in and find all of the Citrus Frosted Cutouts, claiming them for myself while others pick out their favorites. When friends visit from out of town, we often stop at the Cheryl&Co. store in Tuttle Mall so I can introduce them to the world's tastiest cookies.

Knowing all of that, you can guess I'm biased towards Cheryl&Co. - but I was in love with them long before they invited me to this event. Of course I couldn't wait to get a tour of the facility and learn more about the business behind the cookie, and now the brownie. Yesterday happened to be National Brownie Day, and Cheryl&Co. wanted us to try their new frosted brownies while we were there.

The event started with a very nice lunch, heavy on the fruits and veggies. (Good choice - better to start with healthy foods to offset the sugar that was coming later.) After that we all donned hairnets and aprons for a tour of the production facility.

Jenna makes hairnets look good.

I was honestly surprised at how small the production area was - there were three cookie-dough mixers, and only a couple of machines that put the buttercream frosting on the cookies. While on the tour, I learned that each cookie is still hand-frosted, just like when they started. A machine deposits the right amount of frosting on each cookie, but staff hand-spread that frosting across the cookie.

Any cookie that doesn't meet the quality standards for size, shape, or frosting is set aside and later donated to the Mid-Ohio Food Bank. On average, 172,000 cookies are made each day!

Hand-frosted goodness!

After our tour, we then were taken to the test-kitchen to try our hand at decorating while learning a little bit more about how long it takes to test out new products and bring them to production. I also discovered that I will never have a future as a cookie designer:

I may be smarter than a 5th grader, but they'd kick my butt in brownie frosting.

At the end of the day, we were given another bag of goodies to go with our own creations from the test-kitchen, and we were encouraged to give them feedback on our experience with their products.

What I love about Cheryl&Co: first, they're a local Columbus company, and I like to support local business. Second, they really do know how to make a delicious cookie and brownie. Third, all of their products are made with real ingredients: eggs, milk, sugar, butter, wheat flour, real vanilla, etc. You're not going to find corn syrup in these cookies. They also make sugar-free and kosher cookies.

What I don't like: Generally I like nearly everything about their business. My only complaint is that they still use artificial colors to dye their sprinkles and tint some of their buttercream frosting. We've found that my daughter, Cordy, can't eat artificial colors without having a reaction, both in behavior and skin. She's not alone in this - many kids on the autism spectrum have these reactions.

I brought up these concerns at the event, and was told that natural colors were tested several years ago with poor results. But they did admit that there have been advances in natural colors and it might be something to revisit. Should they choose to try again, my daughter will be first in line to try the new products - she'd love to eat a Cheryl cookie that wasn't a plain frosted cutout.

Finally, I appreciated getting to see so many bloggers I know and love at this event. I spent a lot of time reconnecting with my friends Jenna from Stop, Drop and Blog and Heather from Domestic Extraodinaire, both kind enough not to judge me on my poor brownie decorating skills. Special thanks to Vanessa (Chef Druck) and her husband for putting the event together with the staff from Cheryl&Co!

Now that you're hungry...
So, you didn't think I'd chat about cookies and brownies without giving you the chance to have some too, right? I'm going to share the love with you - one reader will win the Cheryl&Co. Ultimate Brownie Assortment! This is a boxed gift set of 18 individually wrapped brownies, including the new buttercream frosted peanut butter, classic vanilla and hot fudge brownies, along with favorites like toffee crunch, classic fudge, blondie and oatmeal scotchie. This gift set is a $50 value!

To enter:

1. Visit the Cheryl&Co. website, then leave a comment below telling me your favorite sweet treat from their site. One comment per person for this method of entry.

2. For an additional entry, follow me on Twitter (@mommystory) and Cheryl&Co. (@CherylandCo) and tweet "I want to win an Ultimate Brownie Box from @CherylandCo and @mommystory! http://tinyurl.com/ycgcbqk" then leave a link to your tweet in a separate comment on this post. One comment per person for this method of entry.

Entries will be accepted until Wednesday, December 16 at 11:59pm EST. Be sure to leave a valid e-mail address in your comment. One winner will be chosen at random (using Random.org) on December 17 and contacted via e-mail. Winner has three days to respond or another winner will be selected. Brownies will be shipped from Cheryl&Co.

And if you're not the lucky winner - or just can't wait until next week - use the code BRN10 to save $10 off any purchase at Cheryl&Co. from now until 1/31/10.

Good luck!

Full disclosure: Cheryl&Co provided all of the goodies for this event, including lunch, brownies to decorate, an apron, a gift bag with cookies and chocolates, gift cards, and the ability to provide this giveaway to you. I provided my own transportation, and I was not required to blog about this event. But c'mon, how could I resist?

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Win Lee Jeans in December!

December marks the 120th anniversary of Lee Jeans, and they're celebrating by giving away 120 pairs of jeans every day this month.

How do you win a pair? Become a fan of Lee Jeans on Facebook and fill out the entry form (under the Promotions tab). 120 winners are chosen each day to win a free pair of jeans.

Obviously, you need a Facebook account to enter. But hey, I think odds are pretty good at winning a free pair of jeans. And if you've read my previous reviews of Lee, you'd know I like that they have jeans that fit women with hips.

I've already won my free pair - have you?

Full Disclosure: While I am a Lee Ambassador, I was under no obligation and was provided no compensation to inform you about this promotion. I won my free pair just like everyone else - by filling out the form and getting the luck of the draw.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bringing Your Childhood Christmas Memories To Your Kids

*Contest is now closed. Thanks for playing!*

I loved Christmastime as a kid. I'd help my mom decorate the tree, we'd listen to Christmas music and bake cookies, and in the evenings I'd sit in front of the TV and watch the old Christmas classics. My favorite was Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, although I also really liked Frosty the Snowman. The cartoons each had simple messages about Christmas spirit and being good to others, and each featured catchy tunes that we'd sing on the playground at school the next day.

Now that I have kids of my own, I miss those old Christmas specials. I want my girls to enjoy the same timeless stories that I grew up watching, even if the animation isn't up to the same standards as today and the language is a little different. C'mon, when's the last time you heard someone call a child a Junior Citizen?

I know many of these specials are still shown on TV, but I always have the worst luck in remembering when they're on. Thankfully, I'll no longer have to watch and wait with the release of The Original Christmas Classics Limited Keepsake Edition DVD set. The set features seven classic Rankin/Bass holiday specials, including Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Comin' to Town and The Little Drummer Boy.

All have been digitally remastered, although remember that these were originally made in 1969, and so the lips might not always match the voices. But the audio is clear as you listen to Burl Ives singing "Holly, Jolly Christmas" or the children sing "Frosty, the Snowman." Also included is a bonus audio CD of holiday music.

My girls have already watched most of the specials on this DVD set, and I enjoy seeing them fall in love with the same characters I first met over 25 years ago. I'm hoping this will be a holiday tradition we'll carry on in the years to come, also.

Win A Copy!

I'm also giving away a copy of The Original Christmas Classics Limited Keepsake Edition DVD set to one lucky reader! To enter, leave a comment below sharing your favorite childhood holiday memory. One entry per person, and be sure to leave a valid e-mail address in your comment if your don't have one enabled in your Blogger profile.

Entries will be accepted until Thursday, December 3 at 11:59pm EST. One winner will be selected at random (using random.org) to receive one copy of The Original Christmas Classics Limited Keepsake Edition DVD set. Winner has three days to respond once contacted or another winner will be chosen. Contest open to residents of the U.S. or those with a valid U.S. mailing address.

Good luck!

Full disclosure: I received one complimentary copy of this DVD set for review. No further compensation was provided, and no promise of a positive review was given. All opinions are my own.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Disney/Pixar's UP is a Soaring Hit

Before this summer, Cordy had never stepped foot in a movie theater. I worried that at four years old she wasn't ready to sit through a full-length movie, and I also knew that most movies out there tackled subjects I wasn't ready for her to see, or used humor I didn't want her to start repeating.

But when I saw the trailer for Disney/Pixar's UP, I thought maybe this would be a good first movie? Aaron took her to a Saturday morning showing, and less than two hours later reported that she loved her first trip to the movies, and UP was a great first movie. I took her a week later to see it again, and once again she watched the entire film with limited squirming and talking.

After that we anxiously awaited for UP to come out on DVD, which finally happened last week. I received the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack for review, and the day it arrived we ordered pizza for dinner, sat on the floor and watched UP together as a family.

For those who haven't seen the movie, here's the movie's synopsis (from the studio):

Up follows the uplifting tale of 78-year-old balloon salesman Carl Fredricksen, who finally fulfills his lifelong dream of a great adventure when he ties thousands of balloons to his house and flies away to the wilds of South America. But he discovers all too late that his biggest nightmare has stowed away on the trip: an overly optimistic 8-year-old Wilderness Explorer named Russell. Their journey to a lost world, where they encounter some strange, exotic and surprising characters, is filled with hilarity, emotion and wildly imaginative adventure.

Now, that's the basics of the story, but there's so much more in this story than what is written in that synopsis. The opening sequence of the movie is the story of Carl & Ellie, including how they met as kids, their marriage, their struggles through life (including infertility), growing old together, and Ellie's death. We learn that their greatest dream was to visit Paradise Falls together in South America, a dream that Ellie never sees and Carl is determined to accomplish for her.

I'll admit: I cried during this movie. It was hard not to cry, seeing the touching relationship between Carl and Ellie and Carl's willingness to carry out their dream after her death. Thankfully, there is plenty of adventure and humor to keep from dwelling on it for too long.

My daughters loved UP. Russell and Dug (aka the kid and the dog) are their favorite characters and they giggled and giggled over some of the antics between the two of them.

Although the opening is a little slow for young children, the action picks up quickly after that and from then on my kids refuse to budge until the movie is over. If you've already seen the movie a few times, you can always skip the backstory (a la Finding Nemo - who doesn't skip past the mom fish's death?) and get right to the action.

Bonus features on the Blu-ray/DVD combo include director commentary, a new short animated film called Dug's Special Mission, alternate endings, character profiles, and on the Blu-ray disc, a Global Guardian Badge Game, where you can identify countries, states and capitals to earn badges.

UP is available on DVD and in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack that includes a digital copy for your computer or iPod. Even if you don't have a Blu-ray player yet, you might consider the combo pack, giving you the DVD for now and the higher-quality Blu-ray for when everything eventually switches over to Blu-ray in the future. The combo pack is currently $19.99 at Amazon - a great price for a holiday gift for your kids or others you know.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Mickey's Magical Christmas: Snowed in at the House of Mouse

Both of my girls love Disney, and Mickey holds a special place in their hearts. One of the most popular DVDs in our house is an older Disney Halloween special called Mickey's House of Villains, a special where the Disney villains take over the House of Mouse. (Remember the House of Mouse cartoon? Essentially it involved Mickey and friends running a club for all of the Disney characters to visit, where they shared various Disney shorts for the audience and Huey, Dewey & Louie were the club band.)

We've watched House of Villains so much that I had to create a rule that it was only to be seen in October for Halloween. And then, just as it was being placed back on the shelf for a long winter rest, I received an e-mail asking if I would like to review Mickey's Magical Christmas: Snowed in at the House of Mouse? Another House of Mouse special that isn't about Halloween? Sign me up!

Mickey's Magical Christmas: Snowed in at the House of Mouse follows the standard House of Mouse format with a few added surprises. A heavy snow has trapped the Disney characters at the club, and so they decide to make the most of it and throw a big holiday bash. Clips of classic Disney cartoons are shown, with character interviews featured in-between. The character interviews felt a little forced to me, with several of the jokes falling flat with our screening audience. Some of the character voices didn't match up well, either. Thankfully they're short and not the primary focus of the DVD.

The best parts of this DVD are the cartoon shorts themselves. The Nutcracker features Mickey and Minnie in a jazzed-up version of the holiday classic. The music has a Trans-Siberian orchestra feel to it that will have you humming along. My favorite, however, is Mickey's Christmas Carol, starring Donald's Uncle Scrooge as the "bah, humbug!" protagonist. I've loved this retelling of A Christmas Carol for years, and I was thrilled to see it on this DVD. Both of my daughters loved it, too - Goofy as the ghost of Marley kept it from being too scary while still getting the message through to them.

Bonus features on the DVD include the premiere episode of the House of Mouse cartoon and two sing-along songs, along with a featurette about Disney sound effects that is interesting for adults, but not so much for young children.

I like having a holiday-themed DVD for Christmas, and from the first few viewings, I know that Mickey's Magical Christmas: Snowed in at the House of Mouse will get a lot of play over the next two months. I have a feeling I'll have to place limits on how often this DVD is played, too.

If you're interested in purchasing this DVD, Amazon has it on sale for $15.99 right now!

Full disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this DVD, but received no further compensation for this review.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Yummie Tummie Takes On The Clingy Dress

Two weeks ago my brother-in-law got married in a beautiful ceremony filled with family and friends. My husband was a groomsman and our daughters were the jr. attendants, leaving me with no required attire for the event. I did a little shopping and found a great dress on sale at JC Penney (another American Living dress, which seems to be a trend for me) and paired it with a cute pair of black shoes that a friend had given me.

My only dilemma was my abdomen. Despite working out, it still is a little too round and lumpy for my liking. I needed something to help smooth the lumps and hold everything in a little tighter. I briefly considered trying to tug my way into my Spanx, but I didn't want to be super-squeezed the entire night. Instead I quickly reached for my other favorite shapewear, my Yummie Tummie skinny tank.

For those who haven't heard of it, Yummie Tummie is a brand of sleek shapewear that is comfortable, practical, and great for layering. While most shapewear shapes from the bottom upwards, most of the Yummie Tummie line are tops that help hold in your midriff without blocking your ability to pee. (C'mon, remember how hard it was to roll down control hose to use the bathroom, and then try to get them back in place again?) Even better, the tops are designed to control the parts that need controlling without squishing your chest into some flattened uniboob.

I was worried that the lines of the tank would show through on this very clingy dress, and once I tried the entire ensemble on I did notice the faint outline of the tank straps on my shoulders. However, when I tried the dress on without the Yummie Tummie tank, I noticed my bra straps, and the skinny tank straps aren't much wider than bra straps. There were no other seam lines noticeable. (Note: Because the dress had a low v-neckline, I did secure one tiny safety pin to the middle of the tank and the dress to make sure it didn't peek out of the dress.)

I think the proof is in the pictures:

(The vertical seam lines are part of the dress)

And for those who don't know me, know that in those photos my mid-section is much smoother than it normally is! I received several compliments on how good I looked at the wedding that night.

Pros: Overall, the Yumme Tummie skinny tank provided a gentle hold without being constricting. The fabric is smooth and feels like a second skin. I also love that despite being a shapewear garment, it fits smoothly over my hips and doesn't roll up at the bottom when I move or bend. It's also machine washable and has held up well through each washing.

Cons: I can't think of too much I don't like about this tank. If you're looking for extreme control, this isn't it. Yummie Tummie does a good job at providing moderate smoothing and hold, but if you want to lose a few inches off your mid-section, consider a corset because this isn't going to do it. It also only comes in a few colors - white, black and charcoal - although for some of us, white and black is really all we need.

I do love the Yummie Tummie products I've tried thus far. I think next I'll have to try one of the long-sleeve tee options for layering under t-shirts for the cold winter days that are coming!

DISCOUNT: Until the end of the day tomorrow (10/31/09), save 20% off your entire purchase at Yummy Tummie with the code: YUMMIETREATS

Full disclosure: I am a Yummie Tummie brand ambassador, meaning I am given the chance to try out products from the Yummie Tummie collection for review. I was given this tank for free, with no further compensation given. All opinions expressed in this review are my own, and Yummie Tummie made no requests for anything other than an honest review.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Monsters vs. Aliens

Note: My husband, the sci-fi geek, graciously offered to write this review, so enjoy his detailed review of Monsters vs. Aliens!

I have to confess, Monsters vs. Aliens wasn't what I expected. I avoided seeing the film in the theatres, and my girls weren't old enough to demand to be taken to see it. I certainly never intended to purchase the film. So, when a review copy was sent our way, I looked at my wife with questioning eyes, as if to say “What the heck do I do with this?” “We watch it,” she replied, and I grudgingly sat down, telling my daughters we were going to watch the movie, figuring that
even if I wasn't going to enjoy it, at least they could.

But then something unexpected happened – I found myself really enjoying the film. This wasn't an inane deconstruction or parody of 1940's and 1950's monster movies. This was a love letter written to them, disguised as a children's animated comedy. The story of Susan/Ginormica, Doctor Cockroach, the Missing Link, B.O.B. And Insectosaurus was one that I could identify with, and really found myself liking. By the time the movie was over, I was completely enthralled, while my oldest daughter gave me the “Can we go to bed now?” look. (The toddler? She loved it and asked to watch it again the next day.)

Official Synopsis
When Susan Murphy is unexpectedly clobbered by a meteor full of outer space gunk, she mysteriously grows to 49-feet-11-inches tall and is instantly labeled a “Monster” named Ginormica. The military jumps into action, and she is captured and held in a secret government compound filled with other “monsters” like herself. This ragtag group consists of the brilliant but insect-headed Dr. Cockroach, P.H.D.; the macho half-Ape-half-fish The Missing Link; the gelatinous and indestructible B.O.B.; and the 350-foot grub called Insectosaurus. Their confinement time is cut short however, when a mysterious alien robot lands on Earth and the motley crew of Monsters is called into action to save the world from imminent destruction.

The Film
Monsters vs. Aliens is, as I said before, a love letter to the 1950's monster classics, disguised as a kids' film. The writing is surprisingly clever, with fun puns and wordplay abounding. The vocal cast is also one that strongly appeals to thinking adults, drawing upon such vocal talents as Seth Rogen, Hugh Laurie, Reese Witherspoon, Rainn Wilson, Stephen Colbert, Kiefer Sutherland and Amy Pohler. While none of these actors are primarily known for their voice acting, they avoided the pitfall that many animation houses fall into when they use screen actors for animation, and those screen actors are unable to make the transition. Each and every voice actor does a great
job with their role, with many of the actors remaining more or less unrecognizable from their on-screen roles.

Is Monsters vs. Aliens brilliant? No, of course not. It is a children's movie, and I challenge any thinking adult not to realize that Susan will embrace her nature as a fifty foot tall woman before the film's end. (I told my wife, while we were watching it “How much do you want to bet that there will be a 'My name is Ginormica' moment before the film is over?” And I was right.) But it is surprisingly fun and energetic, with a lot of very solid performances. And it's much more intelligently written than I thought it would be.

Bonus Features
Monsters vs. Aliens/B.O.B.'s Big Break in Monster 3D:Ginormous Double Pack is loaded down with bonus features. First off, the entire second disc, B.O.B.'s Big Break, is, effectively, a bonus. It's only a thirteen minute long film, but it's a lot of fun as B.O.B. and the other monsters attempt to break out of their government facility. And hey, it's in 3-D. But there's a whole lot more, including a featurette “Mondern Monster Movie Making”, three different deleted scenes, a feature titled “The Tech of Monsters vs. Aliens”, Sneak Peeks at upcoming Dream Works features, a demo and trailer for the Monsters vs. Aliens game, DreamWorks Animation Jukebox, commentary with the filmmakers, a 3-D Paddleball game, and spotlights on each of the characters in the film.

The Good
Monsters vs. Aliens is cleverer than it gives itself credit for, has a good female empowerment message, and will very possibly be more enjoyable for the parents than the kids.

The Bad
Did I mention that it might be more enjoyable for the parents than for the kids? The film has many down moments, and the pacing starts off really slow. It takes a while for the monstrous mayhem to begin – and in a 93 minute movie, that's a bit unexpected.

The Ugly
3-D only on the B.O.B.'s Big Break short was a little disappointing considering what a big deal was made about the 3-D effects.

Final Thoughts
I expect a lot of people avoided Monsters vs. Aliens, expecting the film to be inane and aimed at the lowest common denominator of film-going audiences. I'm here to say that it isn't. It's a lot of fun, and well worth the time spent watching it. If you're going to pick it up, I would recommend the Monsters vs. Aliens/B.O.B.'s Big Break in Monster 3D: Ginormous Double Pack over the single disc with just the film. The difference in cost is slight, and the bonuses on the B.O.B.'s Big
Break DVD
are well worth the extra cost.

You can purchase the Monsters vs. Aliens/B.O.B.'s Big Break in Monster 3D: Ginormous Double Pack through Amazon.com by clicking on the link.

Full Disclosure: I received a copy of this DVD, but I received no further compensation for this review.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Jeans That Will Fit, No Matter Your Size

While I'm sad to put away my capris now that cooler weather seems here to stay, I am happy to pull out my jeans and sweatshirts again.

If you know me well, you know that I live in jeans. I simply can't understand people who want to wear pants other than denim for everyday wear. I mean, you'd actually have to MATCH your pants to your tops! Denim goes with practically everything!

However, my love affair with my jeans is a torrid one. I've always struggled to find jeans that fit me well. If they fit in the hips, they're ginormous in the waist. If the waist fits, I'll pop a seam before my hips and thighs will fit. There's an entire 12" (ONE FOOT) difference between my hips and waist. You might say I'm extremely curvy. Most jeans are incredibly uncomfortable or leave an enormous gap at my center back.

But in the past year I have found two brands that I love. I'm usually in-between sizes - I can sometimes fit in the upper range of standard sizes, and sometimes I'm on the low end of plus sizes. Thankfully, my two favorite brands are one of each.

First, Lee jeans woo'd me earlier this year with the promise of capris that would fit my curves, without gapping at the waist. Later in the summer, Lee sent me a pair of their new Comfort Fit bootcut jeans to try out. I didn't get to give them a good try until a few weeks ago when the temperature took a sudden dip.

The best feature of these jeans is the comfort waistband, which has a touch of hidden elastic to help provide a better-fitting waist without feeling too tight. The waist isn't a super tight fit for me, but compared to the hundreds of jeans I've tried on, it's one of the closest by far! I don't need to wear a belt to prevent flashing my undies - the hidden elastic holds the waist close. Also, I love that there is ample room in the backside - no feeling like your jeans are trying to become a thong.

I also like the feel of these jeans. The denim is satisfyingly heavy without being stiff. These feel like jeans that will last for a long time. And after a few washes now, the dark color still looks just as good as new.

If I had to pick one thing I didn't like about these jeans, it would be that they are cut a little lower in the back than I'm used to. (Not super-low - it's just below the waist.) Not horrible, but if you're used to higher-waist jeans, it takes a little getting used to.

Lee Comfort Fit jeans come in petite, misses, and plus sizes. I've only tried their misses sizes, so I can't speak to their petites or plus sizes.

Now, if you're plus size and want even more control over the fit of your jeans, I highly recommend the Right Fit series by Lane Bryant. Before I knew about Lee, the Right Fit jeans by Lane Bryant were the only ones I wore. I actually stressed out about losing weight in the spring because I knew I'd no longer fit in my jeans and worried I'd never find anything that fit that well again.

The Right Fit series is designed based on your build. Got extreme curves like me? That's the blue line. Have a waist and hip measurement that's nearly equal? You'll find your best fit in the yellow label line. Red is for those in-between.

These jeans are genius. (Or would that be jean-ius?) It only makes sense to create different cuts of jeans for different body types. I have to do a little wiggling to get them on over my hips, but once they're on and zipped, the waist fits well, and there's still plenty of room in the hips.

Downsides? The Right Fit jeans are stretch jeans, and I find that over time they lose some of that stretch, leaving them looser than before. Not a bad thing if you buy them tight, but not so good if you wear the smallest size they make and they're now baggy on you. And of course, the other downside is they are only available in plus sizes.

I've tried on so many pairs of jeans in my 33 years that I practically feel like a denim expert. These are by far my best recommendations for jeans if you're a woman with curves, whether they be smaller or larger ones.

Full disclosure: I received a pair of the Lee Comfort Fit jeans and a pair of the Lane Bryant Right Fit straight leg jeans to review, although I have purchased other pairs of Right Fit jeans in the past. No further compensation was received for this review.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Taking Care of The Crust Problem

Each school day we pack lunch for Cordy, and it's always the same thing: PB&J, some kind of snack cracker, and organic fruit snacks. She never wants anything else. At the end of each day, she hands us her lunch bag, and we open the sandwich container to find the crusts of her PB&J still waiting for us. Half-eaten crusts gross me out. You'd think we could teach her to at least throw them away at school, right?

For years now I've known about Smucker's Uncrustables, yet I've never had the chance to try them. I have occasionally considered them, but I'd often forget when I walked through the frozen food cases, since frozen foods aren't where one would look for PB&J sandwiches. Then Mom Central contacted me, asking if I would like to try them, and oh hey, they now come in whole wheat, too! Knowing I could get a whole wheat option gave me even more reason to try them out.

I chose the peanut butter and grape jelly Uncrustables in the whole wheat version. Cordy seriously dislikes any change to her food, so I wanted to keep it as close to her usual sandwiches as possible. I'll admit to some skepticism about how they would taste, too. After all, thawing out a sandwich doesn't sound like it would turn out well.

The instructions said to leave it out for 30-60 minutes to thaw, and that it's good for up to 8 hours. I left one of the sandwiches out for a little over an hour, then called Cordy into the kitchen to try it.

At first, my five year old was puzzled. "What is it?" she asked. I explained it was just like her usual peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but without the crusts.

"It's a round sandwich!" she exclaimed with glee.

Despite her affection for the geometry of the sandwich, it still took a little prodding to get her to try a bite. Eventually she did, and quickly proclaimed "It's delicious!" I was thrilled to see there was no clean-up needed, thanks to no crusts. She ate every bite.

I should also add that I tried the sandwich switch on my toddler, too. However, she stopped after two bites and handed it back to me. (In all fairness, she's an extremely picky eater.) This gave me a chance to try a bite myself. I found the bread to be a little too soft in texture for me. The peanut butter and jelly tasted good - I was surprised it tasted so fresh.

Cordy, noticing I had only taken one bite, asked for the remainder of Mira's sandwich. Two minutes later she had devoured the second one. So the final tally in our house was:

No Thanks - 1
Take-it-or-Leave-it - 1
May I Have Another Please? - 1

Nutritionally, Uncrustables are better than the average kid food on the market. They're 210 calories each, which is actually slightly less calories than the sandwiches I make. The whole wheat version has 3 grams of fiber, too. I'm less thrilled they have 10 grams of sugar and are made with high fructose corn syrup, but I am pleased that there are no artificial colors, which is often a deal-breaker for me due to Cordy's sensitivities.

Overall, I'm glad we got to try Smucker's Uncrustables, and I now have another option for Cordy's school lunches. They would also be perfect to pack on car trips, as they aren't messy and leave no food scraps behind.

Disclosure: This review was written while participating in a blog tour campaign by Mom Central on behalf of Smucker’s Uncrustables and I received a sample to facilitate my candid review. In addition, Mom Central sent me a gift card to thank me for taking the time to participate.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Musical That Rocks

There seems to be a new trend in Broadway musicals: take a themed set of songs, create a storyline around those songs, and poof! a new musical! We've seen it already with Abba (Mama Mia!), the Four Tops (Jersey Boys), Billy Joel (Movin' Out), Peter Allen (Boy from Oz) and now there is a musical that combines some of the best rock songs of the 80's: Rock of Ages.

From the press description:

New Line Records just hammered the in-store release of the Original Broadway Cast Recording of five-time Tony Award nominated "ROCK OF AGES." For those of you not in the know, Rock of Ages is the new Broadway musical starring American Idol finalist Constantine Maroulis. Set in 1987 in a legendary Sunset Strip rock club, a small-town girl meets a big-city dreamer and they fall in love to the greatest metal songs of the 80's. The musical is an arena-rock love story told through the mind-blowing, face-melting hits of Journey, Bon Jovi, Styx, Reo Speedwagon, Pat Benatar, Foreigner, Twisted Sister, Poison, Asia, Whitesnake and more.

I received the CD for review, and based on that description alone, I couldn't wait to listen to it. I love 80's rock music, and still miss some of those classic rock ballads that we don't seem to hear anymore.

So what did I think? Overall, I liked it. The vocalists were strong, especially Constantine Maroulis, who I always thought was destined for musical theatre when I saw him on Idol. From what I could tell about the storyline, the songs fit well into the plot, with some songs actually being mash-ups of two or three different songs to produce the needed effect. Combining I Hate Myself For Loving You and Heat Of The Moment produced a brilliant, moving tune. Most of the songs stayed true to their rock roots, too.

On the downside, I wish I could see the performance in person. Soundtracks to Broadway musicals always lose a lot of the details, leaving you wondering what's going on in the plot in that particular moment. I found myself occasionally wondering what I was missing between songs. And while most songs were reproduced well, some were over-musicalized (yep, I created a word there) for the show. The Final Countdown was a little too showtune-y (as if it wasn't enough before?) and Hit Me With Your Best Shot was nothing better than a tragedy.

The one thing I loved the most about this album is it reminded me of so many 80's rock songs that I had completely forgotten about. Yet once I heard them, the lyrics and the tune came back to me almost instantly.

If you like 80's rock, and you like musicals, I think you'll enjoy Rock of Ages. If either one of those isn't your thing, best avoid this CD. Thankfully, I can't live without my 80's rock or showtunes, and while I'll admit I never saw a marriage of these two styles happening, I'm happy enough with the results to keep this show in my iTunes. Because there's no limit to how many times you can listen to Don't Stop Believin'.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

BlogHer 09: The Recap

So I shared a few moments of BlogHer on my personal blog, but there were a lot of items I couldn't fully address due to issues with my advertising. I'm not allowed to discuss anything on that blog that I have been given for free, so specific swag, promotions, or sponsorships are out of the question. Instead, I thought I'd sum it all up right here and let you know what I thought of each sponsor that made an impression with me.

First off: getting to BlogHer 09

We drove to Chicago thanks to the GM Chevy Carpool. My group had the honor of driving the new Chevy Traverse, a crossover vehicle that seats seven.

Pros: It drove smoothly once you got used to the size. (I drive a much smaller car normally.) Visibility was great, the rear camera when backing up was extremely useful, and the front seats were amazingly comfortable and adjustable. Not only were there heated seats, but you could also have cooled seats - I cooled my butt for most of the drive into Chicago.

The XM radio is fun, and the OnStar service is easy to use. (We received a call during the drive, but sadly, there was no Gary with us in the car.) The car also has great acceleration and very sensitive brakes - I always felt safe while driving the Traverse.

Cons: While it seats seven, you'd better hope those seven people pack light. With five of us in the car, finding room for all of the luggage was a struggle. We also had a toddler on the drive, and while the Traverse has LATCH, we could only find one LATCH hook in the entire rear bench, so we had to settle for the seatbelt carseat installation instead.

The middle seats have a lever you pull to move them out of the way when getting people in and out of the back row, but that lever is a little too high-powered. My head was slightly in angle when pulling it once, and I got thwapped in the head so hard by the seat that I saw stars.

Overall: The Chevy Traverse is an easy car to drive, perfect for larger families to use on an everyday basis. For large families who like to travel, I might suggest a rooftop luggage carrier for extra storage. The extra features on this car put it above others I've seen in this class of vehicle.

What To Wear

I felt like a star going to the Oscars thanks to some amazing sponsorships I received for my BlogHer clothing. I was just waiting for Ryan Seacrest to pop out from the crowd and ask, "So, who are you wearing tonight?"

Lane Bryant gave me (along with several other bloggers) a $100 gift card and a $50 coupon to help outfit me for BlogHer this year. They understood that it's often harder to find nice clothing for those of us in the size 14 and up club. I've always considered their clothing to be some of the best "plus-size" fashion out there, and they didn't disappoint me this year. There were so many options, many of which I modeled in the dressing room. I love that their pants always fit like a dream, thanks to an understanding that women have smaller waists than hips. And while I often complain that many of the tops at Lane Bryant are made for bustier women, I still found several that worked for me.

On Friday I wore the Lane Bryant outfit I selected from several options: brown capris, a royal blue top with a ruffle down the center, and a bra that performed a miracle levitation act on my boobs. I felt comfortable and confident all day long in that outfit. Thank you, Lane Bryant, for making it a little eaiser to find something to wear to BlogHer.

(Photo of my LB outfit & Yummie Tummie courtesy of CityMama)

Also, that same day I wore my first Yummie Tummie. (Which I'm flashing in the photo above.) I was selected to be a "brand ambassador" for Yummie Tummie this year, getting the chance to try out their product at BlogHer and tell the world what I thought of it.

Now, I've been I loyal Spanx user for a couple of years. Other shapewear has attempted to lure me away before, but never performed to the level I expected. However, I was pleasantly surprised with Yummie Tummie - first off, this shapewear is like a tank top, not like underwear. There are no worries about how to go to the bathroom in it, and it doesn't flatten your boobs like other products out there.

When I noticed how long it is, I worried that it would roll up and create a big lump around my hips, making them look even larger. But it didn't - it stayed in place all day, with no rolling, no creeping. It doesn't hold me in as tight as Spanx, but instead provides gentle smoothing all around, creating a sleeker line along my midsection. But I could have the wrong size, too - I was between sizes when I measured myself, so maybe I'll pick the smaller of the two sizes next time.

Overall, I'm in love with Yummie Tummie and have already worn my two shapewear tops again since getting home from BlogHer! (Want one for yourself? A little birdie told me that you can get 30% off a Yummie Tummie if you use the code BLOGHER30 between now and 8/7.)

Some of you also remember JCPenney sending me that amazing green dress I drooled over on Twitter. I wore it on Thursday night, and it was a hit - so many people came up to tell me how good I looked in it, and what an amazing dress it was.

I was an idiot, of course, and didn't take any photos of me in the dress. All I can find are photos of just the top half - so if anyone has a pic of me wearing that dress, let me know!

(Photo courtesy of Stimey)

More to come in the weeks ahead, but I wanted to make sure I gave a big thank you to those companies who took the time and effort to reach out to this blogger. While a lot of the weekend was spent arguing about too much swag, sponsored bloggers who were too pushy, and overall bad behavior, I appreciated the relationships I started with these companies and feel that they got it right. I can only hope I got it right for them as well.

Monday, July 13, 2009

JCPenney Has The Right Style for BlogHer!

With BlogHer less than two weeks away, I've been furiously searching for what to wear to the event. Thanks to a nearly 20 pound weight loss, most of my old clothing doesn't fit, including all of my cute dresses that now gap far too much to be decent in public.

I went to the mall a week ago, looking for good mid-summer deals on dresses. There are only a handful of stores that I shop in for clothing, JCPenney being one of them. I saw a dress on their website that I loved, so I wanted to try it on and buy it if it fit. While browsing through the racks, I also found a beautiful green dress by American Living that happened to be in my size, too.

My husband, who was with the kids and I as I shopped, grumbled and asked me to hurry up and try the dresses on. I grabbed both dresses and ran for the fitting room.

The first dress was the one I saw online. It fit perfectly! The second was the green dress, which I worried wouldn't fit, but with a little help getting it zipped up the back proved to be made just for me.

So the dilemma: I wanted both dresses. The first was on sale for $19 - completely do-able on our mostly unemployed budget. The second? Even on sale, it was still $52, which is well worth it for the quality, but outside of my price range for the moment.

I sadly put the green dress back on the rack, even though I wanted it for BlogHer. Once home, I mentioned on Twitter how much I loved that dress:

Like they'd even notice me, right?

So imagine my surprise when a few days later I received an e-mail from Kristen at JCPenney saying they saw my tweet and wanted to send me the dress! How cool is that? Seriously, I should have tweeted about wanting some shoes, too!

I was stunned that JCPenney followed along with Twitter. I've seen other companies directly involved in social media, but did not realize how much JCPenney is listening to us, their customers. I appreciate companies like JCPenney who pay attention to their customers. .

My gain just might be your gain, too, because Kristen also gave me one $50 JCPenney gift card to give away to one lucky reader! This is your chance to buy that dress you couldn't justify, or that jewelry that was just outside of your budget.

To enter: visit the JCPenney website and then leave a comment here telling me what products you would likely buy for yourself with a $50 gift card. Be sure to leave an e-mail address in your comment so I can contact you if you win. One entry per person.

The giveaway will be open until Friday, July 17 at 11:59pm ET. One winner will be chosen at random after that date. Winner must have a valid US mailing address. If winner does not respond via e-mail within 2 days, another winner will be chosen at random.

Good luck! (And if you're at BlogHer, look for me in the green dress!)

Friday, July 03, 2009

Rockin' With Guitar Hero on the Nintendo DS

I know that Guitar Hero has been one of the hottest selling games for some time now. Yet despite our love for video games, we still don't have a large game guitar sitting in our house. One reason is that the guitar takes up a lot of space. The other reason is it's expensive when you add in game, guitar, extra guitar for a friend, etc.

So when Mom Central asked me if I'd like to try out the new Guitar Hero: On Tour for the Nintendo DS, I said sure, why not? It seemed to solve both of my objections to the game: the guitar accessory comes with the game, it is only a small addition to the DS instead of a large guitar, and it costs less. Perfect!

Because we are a family of gamers and have two Nintendo DS systems, we received both Guitar Hero: Decades and Guitar Hero: Modern Hits. (We also have a Nintendo DSi, which is currently not compatible with the Guitar Hero games.)

When I opened the box, my husband - who has been lobbying for Guitar Hero for some time - immediately grabbed one of the games and began learning how to play. Included in the box was the adjustable grip, some stickers and a guitar pic stylus - far cooler than using your regular stylus, right? There were also different "skins" available for the grip, too.

The basics of Guitar Hero on the DS are quite simple. As notes scroll across your screen, you hold down the proper color-coded fret button on the nifty little Guitar Hero grip (which plugs in to the GBA slot of your DS - if you have an older model DS, you'll need to use the provided adapter), and then "strum" on the touch screen with the pick-stylus.

That part sounds simple, and it is. But it quickly becomes more complicated and challenging. Some notes are "hold" notes, where you need to keep the fret button held down after strumming. Sometimes, you need to hit a chord - where more than one fret is held down at the same time. And the transition from one note to another can come at you fast and furious and require a lot of hand-eye coordination to swap frets fast enough.

Then we get into the advanced part of the game. You can earn "star power" for hitting all of the notes in some sequences, and when you have enough star power, you can use that power for multipliers on your score. You also get multipliers for hitting enough notes in a row without missing one. Once you have the basics of the game down, you can go "On Tour", where you work through the playlist of your game, earning money that can be used to upgrade your avatar's appearance and instrument.

There are also options for multi-player play, either cooperative - where one person plays lead guitar and the other plays bass or rhythm - or competitive: from the straight up "Who is playing better?" mode, to "Guitar Duel" where there are complications that get in your way, including outside distractions, and power-ups you can earn to either enhance your own gameplay, or to attack your opponent.

If you and a friend have different Guitar Hero games (like we have Modern Hits and Decades), you can share your song catalog while playing together, giving you twice as many songs to choose from. The host DS is the one who has most of the control, but both DS systems have access to the expanded catalog.

The game is listed for ages 10 and up, and based on my own play, I know my preschooler would not be able to play. However, that doesn't keep her from being a perfect backseat-guitar-player, watching everything we do and shouting Get the red one, mommy! Now push the blue one! She may be playing sooner than I thought.

I'll be honest: I kinda suck at the game. I never claimed to have rhythm. But I'm not giving up, either. Not everyone can be an expert on the first try, so I'm continuing to practice. My husband's only complaint is that it doesn't feel like a real guitar. But that's the reason I like it - it doesn't take up a lot of space, and the guitar pick stylus stores in the grip so it doesn't get lost.

What I really like is that this game is easy to pick up and put down, which is a must for busy parents who sometimes only have 15 minutes to relax with a game before moving on to the next demand from a small person. And I love many of the songs and artists: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fall Out Boy, Coldplay, Weezer, etc.

I don't know if I'll ever be an expert Guitar Hero player, but I'm having a lot of fun with Guitar Hero: Decades and Guitar Hero: Modern Hits. And if I get better, there might be a chance I'll give in and let my family get the Wii version of the game, complete with full-size guitar. But only if I get to jump around while I play it.

Disclosure: I was provided free review copies of Guitar Hero: Decades and Guitar Hero: Modern Hits by Mom Central and Nintendo. No compensation was recieved and no positive reviews were required. Thank you, Mom Central and Nintendo!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Beauty of California Flowers

I'll admit that I'm girly when it comes to flowers. I may not seem like the type, but I do appreciate getting flowers as a gift. They just brighten a room, and in doing so, brighten my mood.

So imagine how I felt when, shortly before my birthday, these appeared at my door:

This beautiful bouquet isn't just a bunch of flowers - it's also making a statement. These flowers were all grown and cultivated in the state of California. So what, right? Well, actually, it's quite an important fact.

75% of all US grown flowers come from California, however they account for only approximately 25% of all cut flowers actually sold in the United States. So where do all the other flowers come from? The remainder are imported from South American countries.

California’s cut flower industry generates $10.3 billion in economic impact for the State of California. The cut flower industry overall generates 121,950 California jobs and $3.3 billion in wages for other industries. Considering the recession gripping the entire country, and the economic crisis that California is facing, I see buying domestic flowers as a small-yet-important thing we can do to help us all.

Beyond economics, there's also the freshness factor. Those flowers on my table meet the strictest growing standards in the world. They were raised in a world-class, year-round environment perfect for growing hundreds of varieties. (A climate I am sometimes jealous of in February.) And California flowers are most likely still in the field just 24 hours before you purchase them and therefore are much fresher and will last longer.

The flowers on my table lasted well over a week before I saw any sign of droop. Their fragrance filled the entire house. It made me happy to look at that bouquet every time I walked past the dining room.

The California Cut Flower Commission, who provided my lovely flowers, recently came up with "hint cards" to help us get the message out about our love of flowers. My husband often forgets that something as simple as a single rose or small bouquet "just because" or for a special occasion is often just as good as, or better than, a larger gift. These hint cards provide a humorous way to remind the special person in your life that you like getting flowers, too.

Until now, I had no idea where my flowers came from. I feel more in-the-know about the flower industry now, and I think in the future I'll take the extra step to make sure my flowers are domestic grown - after all, we encourage everyone to "Buy American" for other products, so why should flowers be any different?

Thanks to the CCFC for sending me the floral bouquet and teaching me a little more about the flower industry!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Give Dad A Sweet Treat & Give Back At The Same Time

When I was very little, I remember my mother and grandmother would take me out to Wendy's occasionally. Wendy's started in Columbus, Ohio, and my grandmother has always liked supporting local businesses. All I cared about, though, was my kid's meal and toy, and if I was really good, I'd get a Frosty as well. Yummmmm...I'd do nearly anything for a Frosty.

(Side note: tell me I wasn't the only one who liked to dip fries in my Frosty? Seriously, nothing better than a hot Wendy's fry with a scoop of Frosty on the end.)

Of course, now my kids have their choice of Frosty treats - chocolate, vanilla, swirled, milkshake Frosty, twisted toffee coffee Frosty - the list goes on and on. I get to be the old person and remind them that when I was a kid, there was only one kind of Frosty, and we all loved it. Regardless, a Frosty is still a special treat for my kids, and this weekend I know we'll be making a trip to Wendy's for that cold, chocolatey goodness.

For the past three years, Wendy's has made it a Father's Day Frosty Weekend tradition to donate 50 cents from the sale of each Frosty to the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. The money raised goes to the Wendy's Wonderful Kids program, which funds full-time adoption recruiters at local agencies across the U.S., who in turn pair up parents with foster care children needing homes. As you might know, the founder of Wendy's, Dave Thomas, was adopted as a child, and it was his mission to help other children find good families through adoption.

So, you and your family can enjoy a tasty (and affordable!) Frosty together, while knowing you're helping children across the country in finding a family of their own.

You can also involve the kids in this great cause by having them create a fun Father's Day eCard on FrostyCard.com. For every card they send, Wendy's will donate an additional 25 cents to the Dave Thomas Foundation. Kids can attach coupons for "taking out the trash" or "washing the car" onto the cards for Dad.

And who knows? Maybe your kids will actually honor those coupons they give Dad. Add in the deal of buying them another Frosty, and I bet they'll do any chore you ask.

Thanks to Mom Central for alerting me to this special event. I've gone to Wendy's for years and somehow didn't know about the Father's Day Frosty special.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

I Double Dare You!

It's no secret that I want my daughters to be tough, accomplished women. I want them to not only embrace their femininity, but also not be afraid to get dirty, be inventive, and have fun doing it.

Which is why when The Daring Book for Girls came out, I had to have it. It was full of how-to advice for all of the things I had forgotten about as a girl, as well as activities I've never had the chance to try. It still sits on my shelf, and I occasionally page through it to see if there's anything new that is now age appropriate for my girls.

So when I heard about a sequel to the book, titled The Double-Daring Book for Girls, I knew it needed a place in our home, too. This book is full of new games, activities and information for the young women in your life. It covers everything from picnic games and how to make a paper lantern to celebrate Chinese New Year, to how to waltz and make your own rope ladder. Great women in history are profiled in short yet informative passages that can easily inspire.

For my girls, we've already made paper lanterns, used some of the advice in the book to tend our "farm" (the backyard vegetable garden), and played several games. Cordy's favorite is the tug-of-war, and honestly she's pretty good at it. She can give the average adult a challenge. But don't try too hard to win, or she'll let go of the rope and send you falling to the ground. (Where's the chapter on not being a sore loser?)

We tried water balloon volleyball, too. Can you guess how many volleys we managed before getting soaked? Try three. Can anyone do better than that?

Overall, this is a fun book that will remind you of your childhood and all of the fun activities we did as kids. With so many ideas, The Double-Daring Book for Girls is the perfect book to battle summertime boredom.

Monday, June 08, 2009

My Night At Yanni Voices

It's such a rare thing that I get to go out to a special event in the evening without the kids, but last night was one of those nights. One2One Network provided me with two passes to see Yanni Voices in concert, along with backstage passes to meet the "Voices" in person.

I've enjoyed the Yanni Voices recorded concert on PBS, and I was expecting a similar show in Columbus. I can tell you that there was no comparison between the two. In person, the show takes on a life of its own! I was stunned at the amazing depth and range of the music, and the incredible talent of the musicians and singers.

While the vocalists were a strong focus of the concert, several of the musicians were given their moments in the limelight. Two violinists battled it out in a "dueling fiddles" type performance that gave me goosebumps. The Brazillian guitarist strummed out a haunting tune. A Hawaiian harp (I didn't even know those existed!) was played masterfully. And the drummer who has been with Yanni since the beginning showed off a percussion set that made me want to pick up my drumsticks again.

But for me, the four vocalists were the best part of the show. These four young, newly-discovered talents have beautiful voices that can bring out waves of emotion from the listener. Even with many songs being in Italian or Spanish, the emotion of the song could still be felt, even if you couldn't understand the words. Nathan made me think he could easily replace Pavarotti in The Three Tenors. Ender's voice was poetic in its strength and ease. Leslie was powerful and pure. And Chloe had a tenderness to her voice that could melt the hardest heart.

After the show, we had the chance to meet three of the four vocalists. We = myself, FireMom and Ellen, along with our guests. We talked at length with Ender and Nathan, and they told us how the stars aligned to get them to where they are now. All four have solo albums they are working on, and they hope to release the albums at some point after the tour. Nathan told me they're planning a new leg of the tour, choosing to restructure the show into more cozy theatres instead of arenas.

And of course, I was thrilled to see Nathan and Ender again, after meeting them at Blissdom. When I asked Ender for a photo, this is how he chose to pose:

He's a hugger. I can tell.

When we mentioned it was Ellen's birthday, she was treated to a rendition of Happy Birthday I could only wish to get:

Yanni Voices is still on tour, and tickets are still available for many locations. If the show is coming near you anytime soon, I highly recommend taking a night for yourself to enjoy some amazing music.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Lee Brings Fashion and Fit To Summer

The one advantage of losing weight is being able to buy smaller clothing. But the one disadvantage of losing weight is having to buy smaller clothing, too. As soon as you change in size, the battle to find clothing that fits starts all over again. Will these be too tight in my hips? Will those be too big at the waist?

My bottom half is notoriously hard to fit. I've got a smaller waist and large hips, plus I like my pants to not be skin tight in the thighs. It makes ordering online practically impossible.

I reviewed a pair of Lee jeans in the fall, and I was impressed with the ability to find a pair of jeans that fit my curves. Of course, that took a lot of back-and-forth questioning with the folks at Lee to make sure I wouldn't have to send them back.

Since then Lee has come out with a new Fit Finder tool on their website. It asks you a series of questions about your body type, your preferences, and then it displays only the Lee pants that are right for your body type. Not a single pair of skinny jeans were present on the screen to taunt me.

From the options given to me, I selected the Natural Fit Belted Desiree Capri pants in Latte. When they arrived, I slipped them on and found they fit me perfectly - not too tight on the hips and thighs, and no big gap at the waist. Perfect! The twill is lightweight enough to not feel heavy, yet still thick enough to prevent anyone from knowing if I wear dark underwear with my capris. They're incredibly comfortable, too - I bought another pair in a denim wash and they have become my go-to pair of capris on warm days.

The only thing wrong was that they ended up being a little big on me, thanks to further weight loss. But hey - I can't fault them for that. I've lost another size in the past month!

The Fit Finder tool was a big help in finding the right pair of capris for me. If I had to give any suggestions, I'd suggest adding a feature to input your measurements so the tool can tell you your ideal size as well. But when it comes to shopping online for clothing, the Fit Finder is a great new tool to make the process easier.

Full disclosure: Lee provided a complimentary pair of capris for this review.