Thursday, December 17, 2009

THRIFTY: Christmas Decorating on the Cheap (and one expensive one)

My two favorite holidays are Christmas and Halloween, and I love decorating for both equally. Especially over the past five years since we've had the girls in our lives, it's become increasingly fun and important to create a festive home for the holidays. As a young family, we are still adding to our arsenal of tchotkes, especially since someone has a lot of fun doing it and is a compulsive thrift shopper. (Ahhem.) Anyhow, I try to be selective about what we collect for the holidays, and I tend to focus on vintage and handmade items. And let me tell you, right now the thrift shops are ripe with goodies.

I just scored this handmade plush JOY sign from a new little local treasure of a thrift shop I just discovered. It was 50cents and is a a perfect, whimsical addition to my girls' room.

I got this pink and red tinsel tree at a yard sale for a couple of bucks in Minneapolis years ago. The vintage tree topper was a recent score for, again, 50 cents. The color combos match perfectly, and pink is one of my favorite colors ever. It sits atop our guest bathroom counter.

Since Lucy is in kindergarten this year, her craft and art making skills have not only improved but have become something she really enjoys. We find it important to showcase her work around the house. One cold, gray afternoon she and I made paper snowflakes adorned with lots of glitter, of course, which we both love. We strung them on yarn and hung them in the dining room window. She loves seeing them when we drive up from outside and the glitter shimmers in the sun when it's shining.

Instead of purchasing a door swag or wreath this year I made my own from tree trimmings, a recycled wire bow and some pine cones I found. It turned out cute and is way cheaper than spending $15-$25 on one at the grocery store.

Some of our holiday decorations have come in the form of gifts. My stepmom got me a set of these light up twigs after I was admiring hers. I found the large glass base at a thrift store and pulled the other twigs and rocks from my yard. The glitter leaves are from the dollar store and the cute beaded initial ornaments were this year's gift from my fabulously crafty sister-in-law Crystal. It's hard to tell from this photo, but it is a really cute and fun little display on our bookshelf in the living room.

But this has got to be the piece de resistance of my Christmas decorations: behold Elvis Presley's Graceland. All decked out for the holidays just like Elvis did it back in the day. I am a huge fan of The King, so much so that we spent our honeymoon in Memphis. And it just so happened that the year we got married and visited Graceland for the first time, in 2000, was also the year that Department 56 released this limited edition beauty. My new mother-in-law, a Department 56 junkie, found out and bought it for us as a wedding gift. And as you can see, it wasn't cheap. The house lights up, and with the pink Cadillac in the drive, you can almost feel that Elvis is in there shootin' up a TV while his Mama is in the kitchen fryin' up a peanut and banana sandwich for her boy. And sweet Priscilla is probably swiggin' on her secret bottle of brandy while applying her black cat eye makeup in the bathroom. The tree lights blink and the "Merry Christmas to All, Elvis" sign strung between two trees is an authentic little replica of the original.
So, I love me some Christmas decor and the cheaper and kitschier, the better. And if I ever become one of those people who install the flag post on the outside of their house, you can bet this will be added to my arsenal that year.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

KIDDOS: Boise Fire Department Tour

Our playgroup had a killer schedule of fun, educational and inexpensive dates each week this fall. One of our favorites was a tour of Boise City Fire Station No. 8 on Overland Road on the Boise Bench, which happens to be the second busiest station in the city. Most local fire stations offer free tours to kids and groups as a public service and let me tell you, they did a super job.

Of course, the kids all got a turn sitting in the drivers seat of the firetruck, which was a huge thrill and a great photo op for the moms.

And they learned about all the gear the truck holds, including how the hoses work.
A surprise highlight was a tour inside an Ada County Paramedics ambulance. We learned that there is an ambulance at each Boise fire station and that they go out on all calls with the fire truck. The paramedic showed the kids how the equipment and the gurney works and explained it all in kid-friendly, non-scary language. What a unique experience to be inside an ambulance in a non-emergency situation first.

The firefighters also dressed up in their full fighting gear to show the kids what they may look like should they ever see one in the case of a fire. This was such a great thing for the kids, I thought, because the guys in gear can be scary and intimidating, especially if you encounter one through smoke and fire.

Of course, we all loved watching them slide from the upper level where they sleep down the fire pole to the garage.

Besides their bedrooms and bathrooms, the upper level also contains a full workout room, so they can stay all firm and fit for their duties (and for the 2010 Idaho Firefighters Calendar which you can purchase now at all Boise and Meridian fire stations - OF COURSE WE ASKED.)
In addition, we saw their kitchen and learned about their unusual shifts, the types of trucks they use for each fire and interesting little tidbits like the fact that firetrucks do not require keys to start. The guys were full of helpful information and gave the kids bookmarks, stickers and bracelets at the end of the tour promoting fire safety at home. We were there a little over an hour and I have to say, I enjoyed it as much as the kids, and not only because the firefighters were cute. It was an educational and important experience for us all.

Monday, November 30, 2009

FOODIE: Kitchen Hacks

So, I'll admit, I'm a bit crazed when it comes to reusing and recycling. I hate to waste anything, even in the kitchen. I try to find a reuse for all food containers and if I can't, I recycle even the smallest parts. What food I cannot salvage, we compost in our backyard container. I've found some pretty unique ways to use kitchen items and thought you might find these hacks helpful too:

1) Wash and save plastic butter tubs, large yogurt containers, coffee cans and the like. They are great for sending home leftovers with your dinner guests, decorating with wrapping paper for holiday cookie giving, or a homemade drumset for your toddler.

2) Keep old egg cartons to use as paint "palettes" for kids craft projects.

3) Wash and snip up leftover fresh herbs before they go bad. Put about a tablespoon into an ice cube tray and fill with a tiny bit of water. Freeze overnight. Pop out the cubes and store in a plastic baggie in the freezer. It's great for when you need a bit of parsley, basil or cilantro for a recipe!

5) Also a good use for ice cube trays: pour in the old coffee left on the pot that you didn't drink. They make yummy ice cubes for making your own iced coffees the next day.

6) Small cookie cutters are excellent for fun with Play-Doh as well as make perfect stencils for art projects.

7) Invest in a pair of kitchen shears. I use these things for everything, from opening packages to trimming fresh flower bouquets to cutting up pizza into bite-sized pieces for Alice.

8) Save the small clean brown paper sacks that fast food restaurants always give too many of. They are great for packing work or school lunches in later.

9) Another easy way to save fruits and vegetables that are getting too ripe or about to go bad is to dehydrate them. Slice up the apples you didn't get to eating or the abundance of tomatoes from your end of the season garden harvest. They make delicious dried snacks.

10) Use cloth napkins. I find sets at thrift stores or garage sales and keep a basket on my table of mis-matched ones for everyday use. They are also super easy to make out of scrap fabric and make great gifts. It's also way more eco-friendly than the paper ones.

These are just some of these hacks I've stolen from others (like this fantastic website of tips from parents, learned from friends or discovered myself. As always, I'm up for tricks or thrifty ideas to save money, time, and resources.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

CULTURE: Rocking Out to Records

Not only am I a fan of vintage things and ways of life, I am seriously old school when it comes to technology. Some of my aversion comes from nostalgia and preference (like I will never read on a Kindle because I love the smell and feel of old library books in my hands) as well as cost prohibitive (um, seriously My library card is FREE). Plus, I don't really like the compatibility issues and how quickly gadgets get upgraded or outdated; it's too complicated for me (my book doesn't have to be plugged in, fits in my pocket, and all I need to know is how to turn a page). And I like my music the same way. Enter the centerpiece of our living room: The Crosley Traveler Stack-o-matic Turntable:

I've had a record player as long as I can remember. My parents have a heavy old console one with a radio also embedded within the giant, lovely piece of furniture. I got a new "stereo system" of my own, my first, as a gift for my graduation from junior high school. It was from JCPenney and had a turntable, radio and tape deck. I replaced many a needle on that thing and rocked out to my NKOTB tapes and Beatles records for years and years. It finally broke for good about twelve years ago, when new record players weren't yet being made and getting my old one repaired in rural Oregon was impossible. I sadly parted with it. When we moved to Minneapolis I found the Crosley Stack-o-matic at Restoration Hardware in St. Paul and was so excited. It took us a while to save up for it, as it cost around $200, a lot for two grad students. I loved the look of it, with the tan vinyl covering, how it stacks and drops up to six records at a time, and the fact that it is portable and can be folded up and carried like a suitcase. Also, the two small speakers spout the old school gritty lo-fi sound that I love about playing vinyl.

And I was also thrilled to finally be able to play my beloved old friends again, like these classics. The Annie movie soundtrack is mine from childhood, which my mom gave me more recently. She also gave me a slew of our old Disney records, like Disco Mickey and these sweet little storybooks:

Lucy loves listening to stories this way and turning the pages with the chime. I loved them, too, and have fond memories of being read to via this shiny black vinyl disk. Over the years we've all amassed quite the collection of vinyl, including the girls, mostly from garage sales and flea markets for around 50cents a piece. Of course, my favorites are my collection of Elvis albums and I'm a huge fan of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Nina Simone, lovely ladies of jazz and blues. But of course I would be remiss if I didn't have a Cyndi Lauper album or two and some ABBA represented in the collection. And a little bit of samba and some Christmas tunes. And forty or so 1950s Hawaiian albums that I got off of Ebay. And we do, in fact, tote that Crosley around, mostly to the backyard for BBQs and firepit nights in the summer months. Our guests always comment on how fun it is and love digging through the albums to pick the next one. We do too, because it is a lot more of a personal, physical, memorable and exciting musical experience than pushing the tiny shuffle button on my Ipod.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

ARTSY: Unique Family Portraits

I've never been a fan of the traditional posed professional family portrait. I typically dread the conversation about matching clothing and the thought of getting my children to behave properly while posing unnaturally. However, the grandparents really want nice photos to frame, so I usually succumb to JCPenney Portrait Studio once every year or two. As a mother of two young girls, it's also become increasingly important to me to document their growth as children with some sort of portraiture. So, about four years ago, we decided upon these:

It was around Thanksgiving time and we were taking guests to Minneapolis' ultimate tourist attraction, The Mall of America, the world's largest shopping mall. After riding the roller coaster in Camp Snoopy, the old amusement park in the center of the mall, we came upon a caricature artist and had our portraits drawn. I love the way they are quirky and exaggerated, much like our real personalities.
Of course, we get new ones of the girls done more often, since they change so much. This one of Alice and Lucy was drawn by an artist at the Western Idaho State Fair just this past summer.

I think the portraits of Eric and I are hilarious. Eric thinks he looks like a Hobbit, sporting his winter beard and cute little ears. (He also swears he never stands like this., but you get him talking about politics and he does.) The artists typically charge around $20 for black and white drawings and I got the matching frames at IKEA in Minneapolis for less than $10 a piece. They are a fun and inexpensive take on the typical family portrait and a great way to support struggling artists.

Friday, October 30, 2009

FOODIE: 1st Annual Food Network Cookoff

I was not born a cook. I didn't have a lot of training and was as scared of the kitchen as I was of learning to sew on my stepmom's vintage Singer sewing machine. My husband, Eric, has pretty much taught me the basics over the past ten years, and he is the best chef I know. He has given me the tools to make me brave enough to attempt recipes and the help when I need it. We've been fans of the Food Network for years now, but really got addicted about a year and a half ago. I think I spent my entire five-month maternity leave nursing baby Alice on the couch while watching Sandra Lee creating Tablescapes and Ina Garten throw fabulous little lunch parties. (I also watched WAY too many E! True Hollywood Stories, but I'll save that for another post.) Not only did I sit and watch, however, I learned. And I cooked. And baked. And probably can blame that summer for the 15 (or so) pounds of baby weight I've still to lose. But my husband, Eric, loved having a wife who had yummy new dinners and desserts waiting each night. And I loved doing it. After my maternity leave was over I had to go back to work full-time, which didn't allow me much time for cooking. Although we still watched the Food Network religiously, and drooled. But I soon got laid off and picked up where my cooking frenzy left off. I got so excited, in fact, that this summer I decided to host my first ever Food Network Cookoff. I stole the idea from my sister-in-law and her friends, who have been hosting Food Network Cookoffs for several years now. First, I put out a call to my friends who love to cook and immediately got enthusiastic responses. Each of the four participating ladies picked their favorite Food Network chef to represent. I'm always up for a challenge, and love her idea of semi-homemade cooking, so I chose Sandra Lee.

I immediately hit the Boise Public Library and checked out every Sandra Lee cookbook they had on the shelves. Three of my brave friends chose Alton Brown, Paula Deen, and Guy Fieri. We all met early in August to go over the rules, which are simple. Each chef has to cook an appetizer, entree, and dessert using a recipe by their FN chef, with no substitutions, eliminations or creative changes allowed. Everything is to remain anonymous and top secret; you cannot tell anyone what your recipes are or have any help in making them. Each chef gets to invite five "judges" to dinner at my place to sample and vote on their favorite dishes. That means, enough food to feed 24 people needs to be hot and ready at my place by 6pm on the date we selected in October. Why plan this two months out, you ask? Well, friends, it turns out there was a lot of sampling to be done. I mean, I made so many recipes that just weren't "winners," if you know what I mean. And I was out to win. And so were my three competitors, mind you. We cooked our asses off for two months and when the night in October arrived, we truly brought our game.

These ladies rocked it. Here they are in my kitchen, finally relaxing and having a glass of wine after a long day slaving over the stove. I bought all the chefs vintage aprons to wear along with nametags. The guest judges supplied the beer and wine for the event.

And we all ate our hearts out. Seriously, by 9pm everyone was in a food coma. This is a shot of the entree table before we dug in. As you can see, all the dishes were labeled with letters for voting purposes and during the awards ceremony, we all stated the title of our dishes and handed out copies of the recipes to the guests. Here you also see two of the five Crockpots that took up residence in my kitchen that night. I'm surprised we didn't blow a breaker. The silver Crockpot holds the Entree Grand Prize winner, this lovely pork chop recipe by Alton Brown. At the far end of the table you can see my entrant, these spicy baby back ribs by Sandra Lee. And I seriously recommend both, and not only because they are so easy and made in my beloved Crockpot, but because they are delicious.

After many drinks in the garage-turned-bar, the guests were greeted by the chefs and given the rules. Soon after the eating commenced. And commenced. And commenced again. And by all accounts, everything was wonderful.

After taking our time savoring each bite, and going back for seconds and thirds, we all had to fill out this ballot, voting for our favorite dish in each category. Eric got the privilege of tallying them up and handing out gift baskets I made for the winners of each category. I filled the baskets with cookbooks and kitchen gadgets. So who won, you want to know? I already gave away the Best Entree winner and I'll tell you I (Sandra Lee) tied with my friend Kristyn (Paula Deen) for Best Appetizer, with a crab bisque and a shrimp dip too die for. Paula Deen took the cake (a turtle cheesecake, to be exact) for Best Dessert. Damn her and her buttery buttered butter.

At the end of the night, not much was left but empty reminders of a 5-star meal lovingly slaved over by four women who love food. And I'm not being pretentious by claiming it was a 5-star meal. Seriously, we were all out to impress and that we did. I haven't had a more eclectic, amazing meal in a long time. It was a fun way to try out new recipes I might not have had the time, nor the balls, to try before. I'm pretty proud of how far I've come in the kitchen and am excited by how much further I can go. And let me tell you, I just saw Julie & Julia and Julie Powell's amazing cooking project inspired me. I'm already prone to take on insane, year-long projects, so you never know. I hope this inspires you, too. If anything, I hope it helps you realize that food is fun and with a good recipe and a little practice, anyone can cook.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

CRAFTY: Spooky Squash Ghosts

I've made these cute little ghosts for the past couple of years for our Halloween party and they are cute, easy, and cheap quick decorations. We picked up a couple of butternut squash from the pumpkin patch for 45cents each, and a few came from grandma's garden. First, you thoroughly spray paint them white in the backyard or other well ventilated area:

After they've dried, use a black Sharpie marker to draw or cut black felt to glue the eyes and mouths onto the squash to make ghosts:

The one on the far left is Alice's, so it's a bit more abstract. I think they are darling and they last longer than a carved pumpkin. Lucy and her little friend loved drawing scary faces and they make great party favors for guests to take home rather than a bag of cheap plastic and candy goodies. We love decorating for Halloween and the amount of stuff we have for this holiday rivals the amount we have for Christmas. We also made this little recycled craft my friend Shannon over at came up with and they are so simple and fun for kids, too. Both of these crafts, the squash ghosts and the jar jack-o-lanterns, would be nifty activities to do AT your kids' Halloween party. And, as always, the best thing is that they are very inexpensive, easy, and eco-friendly!

Monday, October 19, 2009

ARTSY: Recycled Girly Skirts

Last fall I took a Sewing for Beginners course through the Boise Schools Community Education program with my sister in law. We loved it, and learned to make great things, like pillows and purses. Most importantly, however, we learned how to use, and feel comfortable with, our machines. This was especially important to me, as I own a 1932 Singer which has simple mechanisms, but initially scared the shit out of me. I mean, this is an ANTIQUE and it was my stepmom's, so I really didn't want to bust it. The class helped alleviate my fears and, in fact, I learned to use it and now feel like a somewhat more advanced amateur seamstress. I've made all sorts of items and gifts and plan on making plenty more for holiday gifts. I have a huge assortment of vintage fabric and rick rack but have been really keen on recycling old clothing into new, funky items.

So I whipped up these cuties as back to school skirts for my girls and two of their friends. I got the idea when I found two pairs of women's pajamas pants made from jersey cotton leftover from my clothing swap last spring. To make Alice's skirt, pictured above, I cut off the bottom portion of one pant leg, made some accordion folds in the top, stitched them to fit her waist, and sewed on a monogrammed wool patch made by Boise artist Grant Olsen. Grant is well-known locally for his eclectic style and being prolific in numerous media. Lately, Grant has taken up sewing and quilting, making "security blankets for adults" out of recycled fabrics. He recently had a show of these sweet miniature patches at the Flying M Coffeehouse downtown Boise and I purchased a few. Alice, as you can see, got an A and Lucy got this one:

She is just beginning to learn all the states in kindergarten, so this shape of Idaho was perfect for her. I also made a matching skirt for Lucy's girlfriend, Vivi, with a darling one of a whale in the ocean because she lives near the beach in southern California.

For these skirts I cut out the middle portion of the pant leg of another pair of women's PJs. They bunch up around the waist and you can fold them over to make them as long or short as you like. Therefore, the only stitching required on this one was the sewing on of the patch. Of course, these skirts are kind of one size fits all, and only if you are a girl under the age of six. These fun skirts were "sew" easy and fun and really cost next to nothing to make, and I loved the collaboration of two artists working with recycled materials!

Monday, October 12, 2009

CULTURE: The Idaho Historical Museum

This little museum sits in Julia Davis Park, right near the Zoo Boise and the Library!. It's a quiet, nondescript building that many of you probably haven't been to since your required fourth grade class visit. I've been there several times in my three years living in Boise, typically for work related events and meetings, but decided one blustery fall day recently to take my girls for a little afternoon out and spend some quality time exploring the exhibits the Idaho Historical Museum has to offer.

We entered the second floor via the elevator since we had the stroller and immediately came upon this display about Lewis and Clark's journey into Idaho territory as we now know it. This hand-carved canoe and larger than life sculpture of Seaman, the dog that accompanied them on their exploratory mission, was carved by Idaho chainsaw artist Dennis Sullivan. He and his wife, Frances, are known best for their incredible Dog Bark Park Inn in Cottonwood, Idaho, where you can stay in the world's largest beagle (you gotta see it to believe it). Anyhow, the casual visitor to the Museum would not know this little detail, as it is not listed anywhere on any sort of signage. But, I digress.

There is also a really nice display of various types of saddles and how they are made, including a highlight on Ray Holes Saddle Co. of Grangeville, Idaho, the oldest western saddle maker in the whole country, I believe.

Here Lucy examines the old 10cent slot machine that, if memory serves me, came out of the last legalized gambling facility in Idaho in the 1950s. You can now put your change in it as a donation. The old machine sits outside the old saloon exhibit where DejaMoo, the infamous two-headed calf resides. And, no, I'm not including any shots of that tiny, sweet thing because you really ought to pay the couple of bucks to see it yourselves if you haven't already. And you certainly ought to have the pleasure of explaining why some baby cows are born with two heads to your children.

Lucy also had a great time stacking these blocks which simulated cargo in an old ship to balance the weight correctly. Other highlights in the Museum included a display of old children's toys, some really shiny minerals, hand-beaded moccasins, a recreated medicine and herb shop from Chinatown in old Boise, and the faux red velvet wallpaper in the Victorian living room that I covet. But, I have to say, the real highlight for my girls at the Historical Museum was finding these in the gift shop:

And, of course, for 50cents a piece, they each got one.

But, for $12 a piece, they did NOT get one of these. Not because I don't want to buy these plushy two-headed calves for every child in my life and every set of parents-to-be I know, but because we are still on The Compact. Truly, the gift shop at the Idaho Historical Museum has really unique books and gifts, a very special one to be featured at a later date on this website. All in all, while the Museum is certainly kid-friendly, it's not extremely kid-fun. They do host several great educational events throughout the year that are more interesting (like the more interactive Museum Comes To Life day each year in September), but all kids under the age of 6 get free admission to the Museum. So, it doesn't cost a fortune, you can all learn a little more about our great state, and it's something unique and warm to do when the weather is cool.
Bribe your kids with a cheap old fashioned candy stick at the end and get a little holiday shopping done in their gift shop and I'd say it's a day well spent.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

DESIGN: Crazy Daisy Corelle Dishes

I gave birth to Lucy in 2004, before anyone knew anything about certain plasticware possibly contaminating us with BPA. Of course, she used Avent's BPA filled bottles at the time, and no one knew better. The big BPA scare came about when I was pregnant with Alice, and my hormonal, mothering instincts were in overdrive. I got rid of all plastics in the house with the wrong numbers on them, including refillable water bottles Eric and I had been using since our undergrad days at the University of Idaho. I was especially concerned with all the plasticware Lucy had been using and that Alice was soon to inherit, so I rid the house of it and made a commitment to these glass bottles, which we L-O-V-E and highly recommend. This also meant ridding our home of all the darling plastic dishes that were so handy for toddlers who like to chuck things on the floor. I began doing some research online on what other paranoid parents were doing in this BPA situation. A lot of parents recommended Corelle dinnerware, as it was affordable and is known for its generations of durability. Plus, you could find it in thrift stores for next to nothing and therefore you wouldn't feel devastated if your kid did break a piece. Or five. I was familiar with Corelle dishes through both my love of Pyrex and my childhood. Of course, my parents and my grandparents all had Corelle dishes for everyday use, and it wasn't until I hit the thrift store that the nostalgia took over and I HAD TO HAVE THESE for my girls:

My Grandma Shoda had this pattern, called Crazy Daisy or sometimes also known as Spring Blossom Green (there seems to be a bit of a controversy amongst Corelle collectors as to its appropriate pattern name). They came out in 1973, just three years after the Corelle company started. I've seen nearly complete sets of these dishes from between $50-$100 in antique stores and on collectors sites. I've also seen them, luckily, in my local thrift shops and at garage sales.

So I began the hunt, and have tracked down quite a few pieces for next to nothing. While I'm not quite near a full set, I have found many of these cup and saucer sets, which are perfect for the girls' tiny portions and we use the cups as bowls. I have to say that Corelle is NOT indestructible, as we have found out over the past few months, but at less than 25cents a piece, I can take it. Also, the color green on the dishes is my favorite and the daisy pattern just makes me happy. I also think the company is great, and if you're not as into vintage items like I am, check out their website, because they've got funky new patterns galore (like this one) to love and I'm sure someday your grandchildren will be collecting them from the the Savers and Goodwills of the future.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

An Anniversary of Sorts

Today is my six month anniversary from being laid off. While this past half a year has been filled with much pain, depression, and stress as a result, it has also been overwhelmingly wonderful, soothing, exhilarating, and love-filled. I have shifted my priorities, my career goals, my parenting style and almost every aspect of our daily lives in a new, positive way. So, in celebration, this post is dedicated to the last six months of my girls' lives. Here's to many, many more.