Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Home Improvement DIY Guidelines

Home improvement has come a long way in the last fifty years. Originally, you hired a single contractor who took care of any type of home improvements you wanted for your dwelling place. Anything for fixing the kitchen sink, adding cabinets in the bathroom or digging a pool in your backyard was handled by a single man who took care of all the details to ensure your vision was properly created. Not many people did their own home improvements back then but nowadays, it's a common practice for everyone to indulge in a bit of home improvement now and then.

However, when improving your home, there's a few steps you want to take to prevent injury or do more harm than good. Following some simple home improvement do-it-yourself rules will ensure that your home looks good and so do you after you invest the time and energy into your work. After all, you don't want to improve your home just to have to recover afterwards and now reap the benefit of the reward.

First and foremost, consult a professional. It doesn't mean that you have to pay them to take over the whole project. It just means that you have a professional consultation that will let you know if what you want to do is in fact doable, and more importantly, safe. Since many of us have grandiose ideas of what would look good in our homes, it's hard to see whether or not they are practical. You don't want to invest time, money and effort into creating a mess in a place you'll likely be living in for decades to come. Consulting a professional will give you insights you don't have especially if it's your first time jumping into home improvement.

Second, design a plan. Plan everything out before hand. If you're building a deck, drawn blueprints. If you're adding cabinets, pick them out and make sure they're going to fit. If you're building a loft, design the layout and make the proper measurements. When it comes down to it, the Boy Scouts were right: Be prepared. It will make a boatload of difference if something changes, goes wrong or you decide to take on a different home improvement scheme. Once you lay everything out, you'll know if you can really do it.

Then, get the proper tools and labor. Once you have your plans and are ready to go ahead, don't do it alone if you don't have to. It's always a good idea to have at least one other person assisting you while you're doing home improvements. Not only is is good to have another set of eyes, but it's also good in case something goes wrong. Ensuring you have the right tools for your plan is also key. Without the tools, you can't do the labor. Plan ahead for everything, and make sure you have extras laying around in case you need them. Nothing will take away your stamina like having to go to the hardware store three times in one day because you keep hammering the nails in crooked.

Next, keep everything in order. Clean up supplies you no longer need, throw out wood you're finished with. Continually clean up your area and keep things neat. Nothing hurts more than stepping on a nail, and then having to get a tetanus shot afterwards. By keeping your work area clean, you prevent injury as well as keep everything within arm's length to help you finish quicker.

Finally, test out your new improvements to ensure everything was completed properly. You want to make sure your work truly is complete, and everything is in working condition. You don't want to find out six months down the line that your cabinet door falls off or your sink begins to leak.

Taking the time to make sure you're safe and your home is safe is the easiest way to improve your home. It's better to be safe than sorry, so, be prepared to invest the time in designing a plan that will keep you out of harm's way and improve your home for the better. Home improvement has never been easier for everyone to get involved. So, get your plan rolling and make your harm sparkling!

The History of TV DX

TV DX is the way a television signal is projected through the airwaves. It's an important component of modern day television, for without it, many countries who have yet to perfect cable transmission underground would not be able to reach millions of home viewers with a television. Reception of the TV DX signal happened by accident and continues to this day to surprise the unsuspected viewer who catches a glimpse of a foreign land's television programming.

February 1938 brought forth the first interception of a foreign land's television signal. The RCA Research Station in New York picked up a trans-atlantic signal from London. While checking the area for various local signals, the station picked up a live telecast of a BBC station's soap opera. Even the BBC logo was evident on the broadcast proving that, indeed, what the researchers were viewing was from England. Since the researchers were recording at the time, they recorded the soap opera and it's been archived today as one of the only pre-war British television productions that survived.

When World War II began in 1939, the BBC suspended TV DX transmissions. This limited the capabilities of researching into the signal reception of television and FM signals involved since the whole world was on the brink of destruction. When the BBC began to transmit again, in 1946, countries as far away as South Africa picked up on the signal almost as soon as the BBC flipped the switch and began transmitting. This became a concern for the United States, who knew that any type of transmission being sent on that frequency had the potential to be picked up by anybody else in the world. This was the same reason the BBC suspended transmission during the war, they didn't want communications to be intercepted by the wrong hands.

This type of transmission triggered the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to allocate a particular band for TV DX transmissions. This was both to limit the range of transmission as well as to prevent other transmissions from interfering. Since interference can lead to problems with communications as well as entertainment, limiting the scope of transmission band was the easiest way at the time to prevent problems from arising. The FCC limited transmissions to 42 to 50 MHz for broadcasting. However, even though limiting the band frequency was theorized to stop interference, it soon became apparent that this wasn't going to be enough. TV DX and FM radio station signals from as far away as 1,400 miles were cross-referencing with local signals in sporadic areas. While this only happened once in awhile, usually when the weather acted up, it soon became a problem for local stations who had to take calls from viewers who couldn't watch the nightly news.

By 1945, the FCC changed the band that FM would need to broadcast on to 88 to 108 MHz. It seemed that, officially, the changes were made because of co-channel interference, atmosphere effect on signals and the current range of coverage as television expanded through the country. While this improved the strength of signal in many areas, problems still arose when the weather took a turn for the worse. No matter what you do to prevent crossing signals, it's bound to happen.

TV DX hit a world record in 1957. One particular signal was picked up more than 10,000 miles from its initial broadcast point. England's BBC was picked up in southern Australia. Since then, signals have triangulated from all over the world and viewers have surprisingly picked up on the invasion on their televisions. Throughout the world, everyday, signals are crossed all over the place.

As long as TV DX is broadcast through the air, viewers will be exposed to the cross-interference of two or more television signals. As more companies opt to broadcast their signals through coaxial cables in local areas through a central hub that later connects to a larger one with a production signal, viewers will be exposed to this interference. When you send a TV DX signal through the air, there's no telling where it will end up. The next time you come across a television show that just doesn't seem right, you might be in the middle of trans-continental television signal getting misplaced.


TV DX refers to the long-distance projection of a television signal. While TV is the short-hand form for television, DX is the telegram term for long distance. Therefore, TV DX is the search for distant television signals, stations and projections through the atmosphere. Generally, these types of signals travel through the tropospheric atmosphere through heavy weather conditions, like wind, snow and rain. Often these signals drop out, are lost or never make it to their destination in tact after the distortion the weather and atmosphere cause to the signal from its source.

Normally, television signals are limited to their area of reception. Forty to one-hundred miles is the accepted cut off point for the projection of television signals. During good weather conditions, these accepted levels rise anyway from fifty to seventy-five percent of what they would be in the worst conditions. In many cases, and based on circumstances, television signals can be reached thousands of miles away after long periods of times on anything ranging from a basic transmitter to a satellite dish in space.

Weather plays an important part in maintaining a steady television signal. Since most reception is based on satellite positions and the signals traveling through the airwaves, weather conditions play a key role in making sure the signal stays strong. Everything from cell phone reception to Internet connections are affected by bad weather in an area, even bad weather fifty miles away can affect signal. During powerful snowstorms and windy conditions, signal loss occurs more frequently interrupting television reception both for local stations and individual homes.

The troposphere is what gives television signals the most problems. The Earth's troposphere extends roughly 25,000 feet from the surface. Warm weather, too, can affect the strength of television signals. It usually will intensify snowy TV signals and improve the signal strength. In other cases, warm weather television signals will intensify to the point that two channel signals will cross and you'll get what's called a co-channel interference. Co-channel interference is when two signals merge and transmit to your television. Often sound, picture and clarity will all be blurred together in one mangled mess that you'll be muting as soon as it occurs on your screen. When weather conditions are perfect, that is it's a clear day out, television signal strength will increase in range and be picked up well beyond it's normal scope of reception.

Those clear days improve the signal in just range. An inversion at the horizon during a clear day will actually curve the signal going to a satellite before bouncing back to the Earth, intensifying it. This, too, increases the range. Fog, surprisingly, makes a television signal stronger. TV DX is affected very well by fog, increasing the range by more than seventy-five percent per cubic foot of fog in a given area. A large field of fog, densely-packed, forcing a clear sky above allows for a smooth signal transfer between areas or between the Earth and a satellite.

Fog also produces good tropospheric results, again due to inversion effects. Fog occurs during high-pressure weather, and if such conditions result in a large belt of fog with clear sky above, there will be heating of the upper fog level and thus an inversion. This situation often arises towards night fall, continues overnight and clears with the sunrise over a period of around 4–5 hours.

In most conditions, TV DX signals are received by local stations that are intended to receive the broadcast from a central location. These stations have large satellite dishes reinforced by smaller dishes around the area that focus on the main dish to maximize the signal coverage. The use of antennas can increase the signal reception strength, which is why many local stations will covet one main satellite dish and then surround the area with smaller ones, sharing the main satellite dish for broadcast and reception purposes.

TV DX signals are an important component of television. No matter whether you subscribe to digital cable or just watch the local channels, a strong TV DX reception in your area is important for a good television watching experience. If you feel your TV DX reception is lacking, and you can tell by the type of signal you receive in your area, contact your local television provider and find out how you can improve your signal.

I DIG Dinosaurs

By Christina VanGinkel

If you have a child who loves to play in the dirt, to dig things up, and even goes so far as to pretend they are an archeologist on the dig of a lifetime to uncover a new breed of dinosaur, then any of the I Dig products might be just the perfect toy for them. The I DIG Dinosaurs Dino Dig Play Day, the I Dig Dinosaurs T-Rex Skull Excavation Adventure, the I Dig Dinosaurs Triceratops Skull Excavation Adventure, and the I Dig Dinosaurs Velociraptor Excavation Adventure are just a few of the I Dig products manufactured by the Action Products Intl. company that are sure to delight even the most serious budding paleontologist that you know.

I remember when I was in elementary school, one of the favorite pastimes of all the kids in my neighborhood was to go to an empty plot of ground at the end of our block and dig for whatever we could find. Each one of us at some point in time thought we had actually discovered a dinosaur bone, or even a real dinosaur. Digging for these wonders of times past was actually some of my best memories of playing with the other kids in the neighborhood I grew up in. When I mentioned this to a couple of friends recently, almost every one of them had a similar story of digging holes in their own back yard, or at a friend's house, in search of an elusive dinosaur find. Not a one of us ever found anything even remotely resembling a dinosaur, but we sure had fun trying.

Today, we are often afraid to let our kids roam the neighborhood as we did as kids, so we in turn try to come up with replacements for some of the same activities that we did naturally. The I Dig products succeed in this aspect quite well, even succeeding over the digging for dinosaurs that we did as kids, as they at least offer the kids some form of reward for all their digging!

The I DIG Dinosaurs Dino Dig Play Day kit goes far beyond anything we could have possibly found, and even beyond the smaller kits that this resembles. We had bought the smaller I Dig Dinosaurs T-Rex Skull Excavation Adventure before we ever saw the I DIG Dinosaurs Dino Dig Play Day. It came with its own steel hammer, chisel, Paleontologist Field Guide, paints, and safety goggles. Buried inside the Dinostone, was a replica of a T-Rex Skull. It was ready to be snapped together once we dug up all of the individual pieces. After being painted, it was then ready for display, and with his room filled with many different types of dinosaur toys and memorabilia, it fit right in!

There was also a Triceratops and a Velociraptor kit that we considered, but we had settled on the T-Rex because that was who our grandson thought was the coolest dinosaur of them all. We also considered one that stated that the dinosaur buried within was unidentified and that it would glow in the dark when found, but even that was not enough to tempt our grandson over the T-Rex skull. He ended up having a lot of fun with uncovering all of the T-Rex. Not long after that purchase though, we saw the big kit, the I DIG Dinosaurs Dino Dig Play Day.

It is actually advertised as being sized for a child's birthday or other get together where you are going to need to keep up to six children occupied, and what a way to stay occupied! It comes complete with two paleontologist pith helmets, for the leaders of the archeological dig, and steel hammers, chisels, brushes, and safety goggles to protect their eyes from debris, for six children.

Buried inside of the dust free Dinostone are replica Stegosaurus and Brachiosaurus bones, that can be assembled to create two complete skeletons. There are also over twenty miniature dinosaurs to keep all six children not only busy digging, but also content as they excitedly discover all their amazing finds. This would also be an excellent long-term project for a single child, if you would have the space to set it up long term. If you have a child who loves dinosaurs, be sure to check out the I Dig sets today!

Video-on-Demand Technology

Video on demand (VOD) allows for users to interface with a network and download streams of video to watch to their heart's content. It's an interactive television system. Generally, they are streams from the Internet but in the last year, technology has boomed in creating a seamless way to download programs to a digital device, such as a cable box. VOD can be downloaded to computers as well through cable providers and the use of cablecard technology. Cablecard technology inserts a card into your PC or television to allow for downloads from a cable provider without the use of a cable box.

However, VOD boxes allow you to download a maximum amount of programs into memory. During the time you have those programs on your box, they are yours to play. During play, you have complete control over your watching experience. You can pause, rewind, fast-forward or watch over and over again. Typically, if you download the program to your box, your controls will be faster than if you stream the program directly to watch. Streaming increases the network bandwidth of the host's server which decreases your ability to watch a program without interruption.

These streaming networks can be created in many ways to reduce lag time and allow for an uninterrupted program. Local Area Networks (LANs) as well as Wide Area Networks (WANs) can host videos, and the more high-speed connections hosting particular files will allow for greater bandwidth and a higher share speed. WANs, however, are generally smaller and confined to no more than seven to ten computers. If these computers are all high-speed, their power to produce a great downloading connection increases and allows for a higher quality stream. Both systems provide a higher response for downloaders, and the more users you have on a network, the more sharing that goes on and the more you're able to find to watch on your computer or television.

Commercially, VOD technology was born in the early 90s in Hong Kong by cable provider Telecon. Since video CDs were still cheaper to produce, VOD technology was sporadic and produced low-quality streams as well as downloads to users. At the time, only specific areas and generally the rich could afford to find what they were looking for on a network. Telecon lost millions of dollars investing in the technology at the time and eventually went bankrupt trying to recover.

In the United States, VOD services are widely available all over the country. EchoStar, Comcast and Cox Communications all provide VOD services to their consumers and regions. While most provide a strictly downloadable VOD technology, which stores information in a cable box, some are venturing out to provide streaming technology in the near future. Cable boxes, such as those provided by Comcast and DirecTV, allow users to store programs for an undetermined amount of time. Typically, television programming on premium channels can be stored conceivably forever whereas pay-per-view movies can only be stored for a limited amount of time.

While downloaded onto these cable boxes, a customer can view them as often as they want with that particular box. Even pay-per-view movies, limited in the time allowed on the box, can be viewed over and over again. Some cable providers rent out digital video recorder (DVR) boxes that not only allow you to download or stream programs but also allows consumers to record live television for viewing later, much like a VCR. DVRs are what some call the way of the future and have made an impact in most markets as a viable replacement to clunky VCRs and VHS tapes that degrade over time. DVR boxes provide everyone with the chance to keep up with their favorite shows, watch their favorite movies and not have to leave their home for the video store.

Video on demand technology is just one way cable providers are allowing customers to indulge in the evolution of television and film. Whether you're downloading shows, recording them to watch at a future date or just saving your favorite films to enjoy with the family, VOD technology is the way of the future and the way to enjoy movies and film no matter how you watch them during your day. VOD is the way of the future and along with DVR technology, the way to watch television and film in the busy world.

Aspect Ratios

The aspect ratio of your television determines the type of picture being broadcast for your viewing pleasure. Widescreen and fullscreen pictures are the most common aspect ratios people are familiar with in today's golden age of television. DVDs are now produced in one or the other format, with most studios beginning to make the plunge towards only releasing widescreen films. However, fullscreen and widescreen are not the only types of aspect ratios out there. They're just the most familiar ones in the United States.

Aspect ratio refers to the displayed part of an image's width divided by its height. Most televisions have an aspect ratio of 4:3. With the introduction of high-definition television, this 4:3 ratio is being replaced with a 16:9 ratio. This higher ratio allows for more pixels to be broadcast and ensures for a clearer, crisper picture. The smaller the ratio, the less quality a picture is able to produce. While most people can't tell the difference, the easiest way to define widescreen and fullscreen is as follows.

Widescreen produces two letterboxes when shown on a screen, one at the top and one at the bottom, often black bars. These frame the picture and make it appear wider on the screen, whereas compared to a fullscreen production of the same image, you're able to see more to the left and right of the picture. Fullscreen stretches an image to fit your entire screen. There are no letterboxes or frames. This stretching cuts off much of what is to the left and right of the image and limiting your ability to take in the full environment of a particular television show or movie. Some films are released in both formats, others in just one. The trend seems to follow that widescreen is the way to go, but each person has their own preferences on how they want to view their favorites shows and movies.

Since the beginning of television production, the 4:3 ratio has been dominant. Most computer monitors also use this ratio to project images. The 16:9 ratio has only evolved in the last three or four years with the invention of high-definition television. It is also considered an international format that countries in Australia and Europe use on an everyday basis. Using high-definition cables as well as subscribing to channels broadcasting the higher ratio, you can experience high-definition from the comfort of your own living room. Japan, in recent years, switched from their standard 5:3 ratio to the 16:9 to comply with the international standard sweeping the east.

Anamorphic DVD transfers allow for a 16:9 picture to be stretched to the 4:3 ratio. Since many digital video cameras allow the user to change the aspect ratio on their own, the ability to be able to project the player on a given DVD player had to be addressed. This type of anamorphic technology does just that. During the process, the 16:9 picture is "stretched" during transmission to the 4:3 format which creates the widescreen picture you're used to viewing on both television and film today. Letterboxes are added the top and bottom portion of the picture in order to compensate for the lack of picture, framing the image. This is all done at the speed of light between the time you turn on your digital video camera and project it to your television or computer monitor.

Some older types of ratios include the pixel aspect ratio as well as the original aspect ratio. The original aspect ratio is generally reserved for a home theater experience. It refers to the way the film was originally shot by the production team, as created by a director and a team of producers. Pixel aspect ratio, often referred to as just plain old aspect ratio, is used in computer speak referring to the way pixels are digitized. Imaging systems use square pixels, much like a film image, and these too have to be reformatted depending on the size and ratio you need for your particular project.

Aspect ratios are bound to change as technology evolves into the future. High-definition television is just one stepping stone in increasing the ability to view a clear picture. As technology evolves, so does the ratio required to keep up with an audience's desire to seek a clearer picture on their television, movie and computer screens.

Creating a Maternity Wardrobe

Creating a decent maternity wardrobe can be difficult because of a couple of different issues. First you will find that you will see many clothes that you probably will not want to wear, particularly if you are a professional woman. The clothes will have little animals or even alphabet trains on them, and those clothes are not ones that you can use if you are going to work.

The second problem is that you will not want to spend a small fortune (which you can do easily) on clothing that you will wear only a few months at best. Once you get later into the pregnancy, you may even find that you do not wear the clothes more than a couple of weeks before they are no longer comfortable for you. There are a few simple ways you can start to create a great maternity wardrobe, however.

First you should begin shopping now. The clothes that are on clearance now are the season that you will need in your later months. That means that you can get great deals on maternity wear if you pick up a few things right now. The general rule is that you should purchase maternity clothing in the same size as your normal clothes. While it is possible that you will get too big for them by the end, you definitely will get some wear out of them for less money.

You should create a wardrobe based on foundational clothing. For example, instead of purchasing trendy outfits, you should get a few basic pieces. You will need a couple of pair of jeans, some khaki, and various colored dress pants. Your best option for maternity wear is to get a couple of each of these pieces and then mix and match the tops. You can create great outfits for less if you re-use the pants. An additional benefit is that you will be able to have clothes that will not go out of style in the foundational pieces, so if you get pregnant again, you will not be looking at creating a completely new wardrobe.

Next you should go with accessories! Gone are the days when pregnant ladies did not draw attention to themselves. Pregnant women today are proud of who they are, and they dress to impress. That means that you can stick with the accessory pieces that you have now and work them into your maternity wardrobe. Those jeans and black sweater will look much better with the unique necklace you bought at an arts fair a few weekends ago. You can make your money go farther by using the accessories that you have to create beautiful ensembles.

Buy cheap shoes. By the end of my ninth month, no shoes that I owned were comfortable. I even got shoes intended for moms-to-be, but they did not work. In the end, I bought a couple of pair of really cheap ($5) shoes. Because of their poor quality, they would stretch really easily, which my feet needed, and they would go back to their normal size so that I could wear them again. So when you are looking for shoes, you should get some inexpensive shoes that will work with your feet. Do not put yourself in danger with them but do not think that more expensive is better when it comes to maternity shoes.

Buy second-hand. You can spend a lot less money by buying the clothes that other moms got when they were pregnant. If you check out the second-hand stores in your area, you will see that most of them have better selections than the regular clothes section. That is because the maternity wear was only used for a brief time. You can get great results by going to second-hand stores a couple of times a month when you are pregnant.

A maternity wardrobe is only temporary so do not spend time looking for just the perfect thing. You should spend time getting quality clothes and putting together a wardrobe, but the reality is that you will not be wearing these clothes for long enough to worry about getting the best clothes for everyday of your pregnant life. Go with comfort and price, and you will always win.

By Julia Mercer

Important Considerations When Purchasing Wedding Candles

The big day is approaching. You have thought about this day since you were a child...well, maybe not. If you are not one of those women who has planned her wedding since a young age, you may find yourself overwhelmed with the number of options available to you. Wedding candles are one of the best options to spice up your wedding. From the unity candles at the ceremony to table decorations for your reception, wedding candles come in many sizes, shapes, and types and can fit any wedding budget.

The rehearsal dinner typically is a good place to start the wedding candle craze. Because the rehearsal dinner tends to be more relaxed than the reception, and everyone is catching up with family members and old friends, many brides and grooms want to bathe their guests in a softer atmosphere. The next day will be hectic, and choosing wedding candles, such as white or other pastel-colored candles in single candleholders or small votives, can add lighting to the rehearsal dinner without encouraging loud, raucous behavior.

These wedding candles also work well for the mother of the groom, who while she plans the rehearsal dinner may not be very involved in the planning of the actual wedding. In this case, using wedding candles can add a very elegant feel without a lot of hassle and without matching the decor of the next day.

The next type of wedding candle you may be looking to find is a unity candle. This candle, which you light during the ceremony, is a symbol of the union of two families. Most of the time, the parents of the couple come up to light the candle as a gesture of love for their children's marriage. Then, the couple typically lights a center candle that is larger than the other two and is the visual sign of their joining together. The unity candle can be a simple three-tiered candle, or it can be elaborate based on the tenor of the wedding ceremony.

After the ceremony, wedding candles can still play a part in the big day. Several wedding favor companies have special floating candles that they use for weddings. These candles are usually white and in the shape of flowers, bells, or other wedding-appropriate items. They make nice centerpieces without a lot of hassle. If you plan to use floating candles as your wedding candles, you may want to have someone chosen ahead of time to light the candles so that your guests may enjoy them.

The final wedding candles to consider are the large, decorative candles that you can purchase at candle-making shops or at gift shops. These candles are hand-made with inscriptions. If you purchase a candle at a candle-making shop, you can have your names, wedding date, and other information carved into the candle. The pre-made versions of these wedding candles have elegant poems or other words of inspiration already carved into them. You merely choose the one that best represents your relationship and what you believe about marriage. These wedding candles can sit at the head table to signify their prominence. With all of these wedding candles at your disposal, the event should be well-lit and glowing!

Know that whatever wedding candles you select will be the perfect choice. The day of your wedding will be stressful enough, and you should rest assured that your candle selection is not something that you should focus on too much. While they are important, they are not what you want most people to remember. You want them to think about how beautiful you were on your big day rather than how many candles were on their tables. While that may sound silly, it is these small details that trip up many a bride and groom.

The best thing you can do is to look at your options for the candles and then select them. You should not necessarily go with your first inclination, but neither should you spend hours and hours obsessing over this one small detail of what you are planning for the candles for your wedding. Instead you should be happy to pick the candles and go on worrying about the rest of your wedding planning.

By Julia Mercer

Magnetix and Geomag Magnetic Sets

By Christina VanGinkel

Whether you buy a basic set, such as the 70 Count Clear Magnetix Building Set from Rose Art Industries Inc., or one of their custom sets, such as the Magnetix MagnaWorld Magna Town Square or the Exclusive Magnetix MagnaWorld Architect Series Skyscraper/City, you and your kids are in for some fun!

While the age recommendation on these building sets, i.e., magnetic wonders are listed as being recommended for ages sometimes as young as three, or for some of the more complicated sets, as eight, they are for ages up to 12 or even older. They are in many ways as fun as other building type toys, such as Lego's, and even more fun by some standards, as the intricate designs that people build with them are held together by magnets, and not simply by locking together as standard locking toy blocks would. The one downfall of the Magnetix Building Sets in comparison to other building sets is that while you can build somewhat detailed designs, they do not build anything nearly as intricate as a Lego set would.

When I first saw these ingenious building sets, I was instantly attracted to the fact that they were not just another building set. With their magnetic value, I felt that any child using them would be getting a secondary lesson in the value of magnets, all without even realizing it as they would be having so much fun with them just building and connecting.

With small sets starting at around ten dollars, and some of the bigger sets costing about forty dollars, these are overall a good value, when compared to what other building type toys cost. When shopping for the Magnetix though, I came across a Geomag set, which looks very similar to the Magnetix sets. The one I was able to look at was a sixty-piece set that included 13 rods, 12 spheres, 16 triangles, 12 squares, 6 diamonds, and 1 pentagon for less than fifteen dollars. It was comparable in every aspect that I could see, and at the price listed, was about twenty fiver percent less than the Magnetix. Geomag also has several other sets that are comparable to some of the bigger Magnetix sets, all at a bit less then their counterparts.

One set, a 184 Piece Color Geomag Set, includes enough pieces to build all sorts of buildings, geometric shapes, and even spinning tops. The ad I saw for them said that the shapes in the set could be slotted between the bars and spheres to construct much more detailed objects than a typical Geomag set could. It also came with not only an instruction booklet full of building ideas, but also with information about magnets and magnetism itself. The pieces in this particular set were translucent bright colors. I also saw a couple different Geomag sets that were in pastel colors. One, a 96-piece set, included pink, purple, yellow, and blue rods, and silver spheres to make all sorts of interesting pieces. With both pastel and bright color schemes available, you will be able to find a set to appeal to just about any child. This can be a good thing if you have the type of child who once they build something with one of these sets, wants to leave it assembled in the form of individual pieces of art to decorate their rooms with.

What I liked about both of the sets was how strong the magnets are. When you stick the pieces together, you do not have to worry about them simply coming apart. You must pull them apart with a moderate amount of force to separate the pieces back to their unassembled form. My youngest son did tell me that I must be on the weak side, but he did comply that they would not just simply fall apart.

If you have a young child who loves to build, and has exhausted their limits on toys such as Lego's, or they just want to try something different, be sure to check these out. Both the Magnetix or Geomag sets have enough differences to offer over the Lego style blocks, that they may be just the type of building project for your kids to try, and they are sure to get hours of fun from playing with these ingenious magnetic building pieces.

Being a Good Attendant

Many brides and grooms have moved away from the conventional roles they play in planning and executing the wedding ceremony. Today, brides and grooms have much more leniency when they are planning what they want for their wedding. Brides-to-be now tend to want their future husbands involved in the planning, and the grooms want to be there, too.

The couple often takes on much of the responsibility for planning the wedding, often including the financing. Still, it is nice to know what the attendants should be doing. If you are attending at a wedding for your friends, then you should have an idea of what is expected of you traditionally so that you can offer to help in any way you can.

If you are a groomsman, you will double as an usher in the ceremony. You should be available to help if anyone needs directions, parking solutions, or other problems. You will be there to escort guests to their seats before the ceremony begins. The groomsmen, particularly the best man, also should be there to help with anything that the groom may need. He may be nervous and forget his socks. You are there to see that everything is done right.

Bridesmaids serve in a similar capacity. They should be there to help with any last minute problems, such as someone forgetting something for the ceremony. Also bridesmaids should be prepared to help with the bride and the smaller attendants, the flower girl and ring bearer, to be sure that they are ready.

Maids of honor and best men have a little more to do in preparation for the ceremony. One of the most important jobs of the best man is to take place after the ceremony. He is responsible for ensuring that the couple has made honeymoon plans and that their luggage, tickets, and other needed items for the honeymoon are available. He also should push them to leave in time for their flight so that they don’t start off their honeymoon on the wrong foot.

Before the ceremony, the best man is responsible for organizing the groomsmen to let them know who should do what and to have the escorting run smoothly. The best man also will help the groom to dress for the wedding, and he should hold onto the bride’s ring before and during the wedding.

The maid of honor has similar obligations. She will get the other bridesmaids organized. The maid of honor also helps the bride get dressed and adjusts her train and veil as needed. During the wedding, the maid of honor will hold the bouquet for the bride and the ring for the groom.

Before the wedding, too, there is plenty to be done. The maid of honor should attend all parties, such as the bachelorette party and wedding showers. She also will need to be available to run errands, help select a dress, and take care of other details the bride needs.

The maid of honor is mostly done with her work after the actual ceremony as she will need to help the bride dress for the honeymoon.

In the world of weddings today, attendants may perform these functions, but they also may do other tasks at the behest of the bride and groom. The important part to remember is that the attendants are close to the couple and should work to help make the big day as pleasant as possible for the couple.

Essentially, the bridesmaids and groomsmen are there to provide atmosphere and formality to this event. Their job is to function as the groom and bride ask them to so that the happy couple can have the wedding that they have always wanted. The bride and groom should be happy to have their friends as part of the ceremony, and the attendants should know that they are there to help the bride and groom with anything they need. In some smaller weddings, bridesmaids also are asked to serve at the reception, and they may be stationed at different tables of food, cake, and punch. These traditions are all in flux, so be prepared to do what needs to be done to help out with the wedding day.

By Julia Mercer

The Classic Pedal Racer Car, by American Retro

By Christina VanGinkel

With so many toys requiring the use of batteries to operate, whenever I come across one that I know would light up the eyes of any child, and that does not require any battery power, I am always intrigued. The Classic Pedal Racer Car, by American Retro, is one such toy. Looking very much like a Ferrari F2 Racer from some time during the 1950's, it could be the dream car of any young child (or any old person recalling with fondness their own pedal car from their childhood).

Fashioned after the toy cars that many of us old folks drove around neighborhoods with nothing more complicated than the power of our own two feet and legs, pumping away at the pedals, this toy car instantly brought back memories. What would be so nice about having this classic toy now, would be the absence of the hassles of keeping the batteries charged on the ride-on vehicles that so many of the kids have today.

My youngest son had a ride-on jeep styled battery powered vehicle, and I recall spending every evening hauling it inside (we did not have a garage or a basement at that time), to plug it in and recharge the battery for the next day of play. When he was about four, he also received a motorcycle that was similar, as a gift from his grandmother, but by that time we were experts with dealing with the batteries and we would just pull out the battery and bring it inside to charge, leaving the actual bike outdoors.

My young grandson has a ride-on battery powered go-kart at his house, and while the whole battery debacle does not seem to bother either of his parents, when I saw this car, all I could think of was how neat it would be to have at our house for him. We have a four-wheeler for him, a smaller one that is made for indoor or outdoor use, and the problem we have with it, is that as he is only here sporadically, whenever he uses it, we forget to charge it at all, or we forget to unplug it. He is also outgrowing it in size anyways, so replacing it with a different toy is just around the corner. He does like playing with his ride-on four-wheeler, and can spend hours driving it up and down our hallway, into the living room and kitchen, and out in the yard in the summer.

Therefore, when I came across The Classic Pedal Racer Car from American Retro, I was definitely interested. It has an old world look to it, and I could easily see my grandson pretending to drive it and work on it. Any vehicle he has, whether it is big enough to ride on, or is a remote control car, or just a small, pocket sized Hot Wheels, he spends just as much time 'working' on them as he does driving them around. He pretends that he has run out of gas, has a flat, or just needs to do some normal maintenance. This all probably comes as a result of him spending the first years of his life traveling with his parents as they put on thousands of miles for their jobs. As a result, he loves his toy vehicles, and has no problem making up all sorts of imaginary scenarios while playing with them.

The one downfall that I could find was pointed out to me by my husband. We do not have a paved driveway or sidewalk by our house, as we live rurally at the end of a gravel driveway. My husband went on to say that the car would probably pedal ok in the summer out in the yard, but my fond memories of easy pedaling were all on sidewalks and paved driveways. Even the battery-powered vehicles have problems when out in the grass, not always getting good traction. Reading the description for this vehicle though, I see that it has solid rubber 12" front and 13.5" rear tires, so traction should not be a big issue. It is crafted of heavy gauge steel with chrome accents, and finished with a painted non-toxic powder coating. It is also chip and rust resistant. I also note that some assembly is required, but that is actually good. It means that it would first be a project for my young grandson and his grandpa to put together.

Apples to Apples game

I played a great game with my friends this past weekend. It is called Apples to Apples. It's a simple game that has the potential to provide hours of entertainment.

My group of friends typically enjoys role-playing and strategy games that I shy away from. I just want to have fun when I play a game. I'll take a quick game of Clue over Dungeons and Dragons any day. So when someone told me that they had found a game that I would enjoy, I was a bit skeptical. But I'm now a true believer in Apples to Apples.

I believe that my friends purchased the game at a hobby shop or similar gaming-focused store, so I'm not sure about its availability in chain retail stores like Wal-Mart or Target. I must say that it's worth doing a little searching for. If I remember correctly, they said that there's a starter version of the game that costs around twenty dollars, and then there are one or two expansion packs that allow you to add more cards, both for variety and so that it takes you much longer before you come across a repeat. There's also a "party pack" edition, which gives you the starter game and all of the extra cards in one larger box. Don't worry about spending the extra money all at once. This is one game you're not going to regret purchasing, and you're going to want to play more, so you might as well start out with the extra cards from the very beginning.

Game play is fairly simple. Everyone has seven cards in their hand at all times. These cards feature people, places and things. You will see such diverse subjects at "Britney Spears," "Russia" and "milk." For each round, one person is the "judge." They pick a category from a separate deck of cards. These cards contain descriptive words, like "dirty" or "peaceful." This card is set in the middle of the table/floor and every other player must select one card from their hands that best matches that description. The judge then reads the cards and picks his or her favorite. The player who selected the best card then gets to keep the description card. The number of description cards needed to win varies depending on how many people are playing the game.

The game box states that it's for ages 12 and up. My friends and I are all in our mid-20s, and I think we were really at a prime age for understanding the historical and cultural references. But really, even the famous historical figures are far from obscure, so that's not such a big obstacle for your average 12-year-old. Since each player is left to create their own connections, players of all ages could come together in one game, with everyone playing at their own level.

I think the best thing about the game is that it's only as fun as you and the people you're playing with make it. I have to admit that amongst my circle of friends, we tend to go for low-brow humor and innuendo. We also have our fair share of inside jokes. I must say this is one of the few games I've ever come across where this is an advantage and only adds to the appeal of the game. I haven't laughed so hard in months. But if we were playing with young children or our grandparents, it could have been the cleanest game in the world.

So where's the strategy in a game such as this? As one of my friends said repeatedly during the game, you have to "play to your audience." When the target category is "necessary," will the judge view "beer" or "glazed doughnuts" as the better tongue-in-cheek necessity? When none of the cards in your hand seem quite right, can you come up with an obscure connection or somehow make a small piece of the description work to your advantage? And if you never pick up on any strategies, that's OK. The game is fun in its own right, and you won't even notice if you lose.

You're also allowed to try to convince the judge to vote for your card. Although I must say, if you're playing with me, being too heavy-handed in your attempts at persuasion will just make me want to choose your card less. But this can lead to even more fun with the right group if you get two people vehemently defending their questionable choices.

Monday, February 27, 2006

A Treatise On Grits

I am from the South...the Deep South. I grew up watching football, playing in the yard, and experiencing the joys of living in rural America. As an adult, I moved far, far away from rural America. I moved smack into the downtown area of one of the nation's 50 largest cities. That was, of course, after college at a liberal arts university and graduate school at a massive, anonymous public university. Then I lived the life of the urban dweller, shopping at outdoor markets and going to writers' groups. The one thing that stayed with me through all of those moves and lifestyle changes was grits. Yes, you read right. I said grits.

This Southern delicacy does not get its due elsewhere in the country, which I am convinced is because other people try to spruce their grits up, make them something they are not. This past Thanksgiving grits became a secret weapon for me. Against the hopes and dreams of my family, I married a Yankee. On his behalf, however, he is not your average Yankee. No, indeed, he is not. Instead he moved South for college. Like other men, he moved for warm weather but fell in love with the women. At any rate, it is lucky for me that my husband fell in love with most aspects of Southern culture, and that includes our food.

He eats grits. He loves them, so it is part of our staple diet. After 30 months in the north, I have yet to eat a bowl of oatmeal and doubt I ever will. Why would I eat oatmeal when I can stock up on real grits when I am home and smuggle them back with me?

At any rate, I have a sister-in-law who, shall we say, is not the best at parenting her little ones. They run around without any supervision, so my plan at Thanksgiving was to take grits to my in-laws' house. My in-laws rarely eat breakfast, so we end up going to the store or a restaurant, and inevitably, we end up with the sister-in-law's children. It is not that I want to starve children, but I get tired of taking care of other people. So my husband and I laughed maniacally as we cooked up a plan. We would bring extra-spicy sausage, which my mother-in-law swears is a "weird thing about Southerners," and grits. That way we would have breakfast, and anyone else would be welcome to join in.

Well, what do you know? My little nephews decided that they would try grits. They tried them and did not care for them, which secretly made me glad. It is an acquired taste, after all. Then my sister-in-law comes in and explains that in college, she ate grits. Woo-hoo, good for her, I am thinking. Then she explains that she could never eat them plain (which is the only way real grits come), but she adds sugar, butter, and milk. Okay, wait a minute. Stop.

Grits are not an experiment. You add salt and pepper and a pat of butter. Maybe you put cheese in them for the kids. You can crumble bacon or sausage or add in some scrambled eggs. You absolutely do not go around adding sugar and milk to your grits.

It was very hard for my husband to pry the container of grits from my hand because I knew that I was giving them over to be destroyed. "It will be okay," he whispered.

I tried to be calm but could not help myself. "Why would you do that?"

"It's one way to eat grits," my sister-in-law said back to me.

"Maybe for Yankees. It is not a way to eat grits for Southerners. Why would you want to ruin a delicious food?"

"They're good that way. I don't like them the other way."

I walked out of the kitchen to avoid explaining that grits, like other parts of our culture, belong to Southerners. We are different from the rest of the nation, in part because our past has isolated us. That means that we have the final say on such expert-required topics as grits eating. When I came back downstairs, my sister-in-law was eating her grits concoction. I just shook my head. Why ruin a delicacy?

By Julia Mercer

Lessons from Building Blocks

Watching my son today, I discovered again how much fun simple blocks can be. In the past, my husband and I have built little towers for our son to see. He ends up knocking them over and then laughing. Today, though, he was hard at work on his own tower. He is only 13 months old and is still getting his coordination down, so making the tower was a big step in the right direction for him.

I realized that these simple wooden alphabet blocks are very educational for him. If you think about toys from the perspective of a child, you will begin to see as well that they can teach a lot even if it looks as if your child is just playing. Here are a few of the ways that my son has learned and will continue to learn through his blocks.

Stacking the blocks requires understanding balance and bit about angles. If you stack the blocks sideways, then you will discover that they will fall. He learned that quickly. The first time, the second block did not stay, but by the end of his playing he had learned that he could stack up to five blocks if he placed them right. He also is learning patience, something that his mother never learned! He simply puts the blocks on and then takes the time to see if they will fall. If they do not, then he moves on. That type of understanding of patience will serve him well.

After a few blocks, they would fall every time. He has learned that they will fall, and he will begin to put them back onto the tower. He laughed and just looked at me every time they fell. He never became frustrated or angry, which I took as a good sign. In this way, the blocks are teaching him that he can learn to persevere even when he has technically failed in the past.

The blocks in his room belong in a little blue bucket that we picked up for him. The bucket is the perfect size for the number of blocks that he has, and he gets excited when he sees one of us pull the bucket out. I think that this organizational technique teaches him a couple of good lessons through play. For starters, he is learning that he cannot have everything all the time. We do not leave the bucket of blocks out. He has several buckets that have toys, and he can only have one at a time. He is quickly learning about choices.

The second lesson is about cleaning up. At this point, he is too young for chores, but he is expected to hang around while we begin to clean up his messes. He loves the clang of the blocks as they hit the side of the bucket. He also loves to pour them back out, but he will continue helping you to put them in if you make a game of it. He is learning about cleaning up through playing with his blocks.

The final lesson that these little blocks can teach in their simplicity is about creativity. One of his favorite activities, as I am sure is the case with tons of children, is that he will bang two of the blocks together. He uses them as a musical instrument although that is not their purpose. I strongly encourage that type of thinking because it stretches his little imagination to use something for the purpose he envisions for it instead of its strictly intended purpose.

As adults, we often see play time as just that: play. But for our children, it is a time that they can begin to learn about how to use toys and about a few basic scientific principles. They can learn about the noises blocks make when you hit them together and even that they hurt if you are hit with one of them. They also can begin to pick up on grown-up concepts, like organization and time management. These blocks will help my son while they are teaching him. The fact that he can have great fun with them as well makes it all worth it for me.

By Julia Mercer

A Few Cooking Business

Making money with your cooking does not have to be as tough as you may think. If you are a good cook, there are plenty of people who would be willing to purchase your goods, and the whole process can be done fairly easily.

One of the easiest businesses you can start if you are a good cook is a basic brownie and cake business. You will want to decide on the types of desserts that you will make. When you are starting out, then you probably want to begin with only three to four dishes because you will be able to focus on making them perfect. You can make the desserts and sell them at arts and craft shows to make a little extra money. You will need to package them individually so that they will be easy for people to carry and price them well.

Another cooking-related business you can start is a cake decorating service. You do not have to be a full-fledged caterer or even have a large kitchen to start this business. You will need to have a good supply of cake decorating supplies and gather some pictures of cakes to use as samples to show your customers. Then you will need to have a way to transport the cakes once you are done, and you can get started. This business can be a great way to earn a seasonal income as a cake decorator as the wedding season will be your busiest time of the year.

Putting together a local cookbook may be another fun way to make some extra money. You can solicit donations from local people and pay them a small fee for sending in their cookbooks. Then you will put all of the recipes together and turn them into a cookbook of local talents. You will be able to sell them locally to individuals as well as to stores who want to showcase the local talents.

Putting together your own cookbook is another way to make money from your cooking talents. You will need to decide how many recipes you want to put together and then start gathering the recipes that your family uses. You should come up with some type of hook for your cookbook that would make it different from what people already have in their kitchen. Maybe you could come up with budget meals for large families or meals made from your own garden. Give people a reason to want to get your cookbook.

You could create a cookbook calendar. I think this idea is a pretty interesting one for someone with talents in both cooking and photography. You should create dishes that go with the months of the year, such as chili for January and ice cream cake for July. Make those dishes and then take pictures of them with a decorative background. You can put them into a calendar program on your computer and even include the recipes for the dishes on the back page of the calendar. Then you can sell the cookbook calendar locally, especially if you have focused on dishes native to your region.

Of course, cooking itself can be a way that you can make money. You can open a small restaurant or cafe. The best part is that you do not have to be open all the time. There are plenty of porch restaurants that are open only from 11-2 for brunch or 5-7 for dinner. You could do what works for you and your family so that you can make some money, enjoy cooking, and still have time to spend with the people you love.

These ideas are only a few of the ways that you can begin to make money with your cooking talents. If you sit and think, there are hundreds of ideas for how you could harness your local talents into something that will be appealing to other people. Just remember that the key to a good cooking-related business, as with any other business, is a solid plan. You must be willing to put in the time and energy it will take to create a solid plan for how you want to run your business. Now get started!

By Julia Mercer

Starting a Game Club

Perhaps you love playing card games but your old buddies have all moved away. Or you could enjoy the occasional board game but have no one who wants to play with you. Well, a game club may be just the thing you need. Yes, there are such things as game clubs, and they can be great fun! A game club is a group of people who meet at a certain time and location and play board or card games together. They may have specific games that they focus on, or they may be open to whatever you would like to play.

If you think that a game club may be right for you, try looking online. Do a search for game club and your city to see if anything pops up. You also could ask at stores where they sell games. The owners of small coffee shops often have their fingers on the pulse of that type of local activity. See what they can help you find.

Sometimes, though, you may find that you will not be able to locate a game club or that one simply does not exist in your area. In those cases, your best course of action is to try to start up your own. If you already play games, then perhaps you are just going to set everything in stone. Maybe you meet up with some friends occasionally to play chess. You need to tell them that you are going to start meeting on every Monday or every other Tuesday or whatever schedule works for you.

Be open to having new people to play. You should take a short game with you everywhere, including work. See if you find people who are willing to play with you. Gauge their interest in gaming and consider asking them to join you in your game club. Another way that you can find people is to invite neighbors over. See if they have any interest in playing games. Do not force people to play, of course. Games are not for some people, but you may find that you have something in common with your neighbors that you did not know about.

You also can try posting notices to get people you do not know into your gaming club. You should post online at gamer message boards. You can even take out a small ad in your local paper if you are willing to put a little more money into the game club. Most libraries and many grocery stores also have public-use bulletin boards. Make some flyers and put them up there when you go out.

On your notices, you should tell people the time, date, and location of the meeting. Also let them know what kinds of games you will be playing. If you are into computer games and a group of people shows up planning to play checkers, you are in for a little embarrassment. Also let people know if they should bring their own games or if you will be providing all of the games for the evening.

Once people arrive, be sure that you have a number of games for them to play. Do not encourage only one game; you should have a variety for people unless you are playing chess or checkers. You also should have enough tables and chairs set up so that people will be comfortable.

If you would like, you can ask people for their names and phone numbers so that you can contact them if you need to cancel the nightly meeting. Also be sure to ask them to come back and to be kind to everyone. The fact is that you may not get a lot of game-playing done during this first meeting, but you will be glad that you hosted the event.

It can be great fun to be a member of a game club because you will meet people who share your interest and with whom you can discuss a common like. You may be surprised at the number of people who come out. Although games have a reputation for being a nerdy pursuit, there are a great number of people who enjoy playing them but just do not have ready-made game partners.

By Julia Mercer

Designing a Local Cookbook

Putting together a local cookbook can be a great way to make new friends, put together something that showcases your town, and make a little side money as well. If you are planning to put together a local cookbook, you will need to begin by defining local. You may want to stick to only your town (or neighborhood in larger cities). You may want to include a three-county region. You may want to include the entire state.

The benefit of a small local audience is that people will buy because they know Aunt Betty has a recipe in the book. The larger the audience, the fewer people from each town who will be promoted. On the other hand, if you have people from a larger geographic area, then you can have the book available in a larger area.

Now you will need to begin by coming up with any parameters. Decide when the recipes will be submitted and how long you will take to decide on them. Decide on any ideas you have for themes if you want to go that route. You may want all vegetable recipes or only local lore recipes, for example. Decide how you will have people turn their recipes in to you.

Once people turn in their recipes, you will need to begin to test them. The best way to do that will be to make meals that consist entirely of the recipes that you received for your family. Gauge the reaction everyone has to the meals so that you can get a clearer idea of whether or not the recipes are good. You should have a rough idea of how many recipes you want to put in the book. When you decide that a recipe will not make it, then you should send a rejection to that cook immediately.

Narrow down the possibilities and then decide which recipes you will include. You need to contact the selected cooks and let them know.

Now it is time to get to work on the cookbook. You will need to write a basic introduction. Explain the purpose of the book and talk a little about the fun you have had in putting it together. Let people know that you received wonderful recipes and that you are excited to share them. If you will be querying publishers to see if they want to produce your cookbook, then you should get started on a bang-up letter that will interest them.

If you will be printing it yourself, and that may be a better option for a local job, then you will want to begin laying out the recipes in a format so that you can print. Keep in mind that you should leave space somewhere for notes about recipes. You can purchase a basic layout software pretty inexpensively and learn to use it with a basic tutorial. (You also can hire a college student to do this work fairly cheaply.)

Next you will need to find a printer. That person will walk you through the various types of binding that are available. You will be able to pick the thickness of the cover, the type of paper, and all of the other details. You probably want to find someone to create cover art for you.

While the printer takes care of the cookbook, you should begin the marketing. Write a press release and send it to all of the papers where there will be cooks featured. Also contact local stores, particularly locally owned ones, and see if the owner will carry a few copies of the book. You should offer to bring them and set up the display to make it as simple as possible. Even offer to take the books back if they do not sell.

Keep a listing of where the books will go and begin delivering them as soon as they arrive. You should really talk up your cookbook to everyone you see and carry a couple of copies (and change!) with you all the time. You never know when you will run into someone who will want to purchase a copy.

A cookbook is a great way to showcase your writing and cooking ability and to help bring together a community.

By Julia Mercer

Cleaning Games

Cleaning up is rarely a game. Still it is something that parents want to teach their children from a very early age. While all of life is not a game, toddlers and preschoolers are not ready to hear that news. Instead they want to know that everything will be fun, and if it is not fun, then they do not want to participate.

As a parent, I do not believe my job is to make my son believe that everything is fun. Some part of life are necessary even if we do not want to do them. For example, I do not want to wait in life to get a new license, but I must because the law says I must. In my house, my husband and I are the law, and we say that the house has to get cleaned up everyday.

That rule does not mean that we have to seem like dictators, however. By teaching our son early that most anything can be interesting if we use our imagination, we are teaching our son that while he cannot control everything that he has to do, he can make the most of those chores.

One of the easy games that you can make of cleaning is the timing game. Bet your children that they cannot pick up all of the toys within a certain time. Make it realistic but challenging. Set a timer and then let them go at it. You can always add a reward if they beat the time, such as an additional few minutes outdoors or an extra story that night.

Another easy game is the music game. Think about your own cleaning chores. They go more quickly when you are doing something enjoyable along with them. The same concept works for your little ones. Put on some tunes. You can even say that you want to pick up the toys during a certain song, clothes during another, and do straightening on yet another. Use the music as your motivation.

You also can try a musical chairs type approach. Clean when the music is on and freeze when it stops. Of course, your children will love this game. It will teach them to pay attention and to follow directions while they are learning to help clean up.

Explaining rewards is another easy way to help the cleaning process along. Make sure that your children know why they must clean up. You can explain that they cannot watch a movie until the room is cleaned, for example.

With really small children, you can use their dolls or stuffed animals in a grand display of creative play. You can explain that Susie the Bear wants the room clean. She would like to play, but she cannot play with all of the blocks out because they are too big for her. Then put Susie on the mantle and let her watch the cleaning.

Allow your children to make up their own cleaning games. When my husband was a child, he and his older brother (as only older siblings can do) told their younger brother to play a game with him. They made him pretend to be a robot and directed him to clean the room. He thought it was great fun until their mother caught on and put a stop to it. I plan to use that type of game-playing with my son.

Allow your child to be a superhero and help clean up a destroyed city. Or you could allow your child to play house and pick up. It is amazing how quickly superheroes and little housekeepers can clean up when they want to.

Your child should be able to show a creative side when picking up the toys. That means that he or she will be playing while picking up, but that is okay. You should encourage this type of imagination because it will serve your child well in other areas of life. Instead of just making cleaning up part of the drudgery of the day, you can make it far more fun for everyone involved. Just be sure that your child is actually cleaning so that you are teaching the skill and need for cleaning up our messes long after your child is too old for the games.

By Julia Mercer

A New Food Plan

I am beginning to think a little differently about food. To be perfectly honest, it is scary. We are trying to control the amount of sodium we are eating. At the same time, I cannot help but think about the relationship I feel, and I am sure that many of feel, between what I eat and how much energy I have. Over time, I have discovered that while comfort foods may be great when we are eating them, they do not make us feel better in the long run. In fact, I have found that I feel pretty crummy after a day of eating junk food.

To that end, I am approaching food differently. Let me share my plan with you so that perhaps you will think about doing something a little different, too. For starters, we rarely go out to eat. It is not something that we were able to afford during our graduate school years, so we have just learned to live without it. (Trust me, it is tough. I love restaurants.) Still, though, I am trying to make more health-conscious choices when we do go out. Instead of deciding that we are not going to go out at all, I am promising myself that I will try out some new foods. Sometimes the healthier alternatives really are tasty.

When it comes to home, we are going through the food cabinets. I cannot imagine just tossing foods that have too high of a sodium content, so I am getting rid of these foods by eating them. We have some things that have been in our cabinet for a while. You probably have these foods, too. A couple of months ago, we found a great deal on those rice and pasta pre-mixed packaged. Of course, we stocked up on them. We are down to only a couple, but that is one item that does not fit the sodium-restricted diet.

I sat down and made a list of everything in the cabinets. Then I will use that list to make my grocery plans for the next couple of weeks until we have used up all of that food. In the end, I think that it will work out well because we will eat the food that we already have. Instead of just throwing away the food, then, we will be using it without spending more money. I have decided to give us a bye on the sodium content in those foods because we already had them.

The next step, which will be a little tougher, is that we are going to track our sodium everyday. When we tracked it for three days, we discovered that we were between 1,600 and 1,800 milligrams each day, which is far below average. A normal sodium diet should have about 2,400 milligrams, but most Americans get about 3,500 milligrams. We are working on keeping ours as low as possible since there is no harm from having a lower sodium diet.

Still, when we are not monitoring our sodium, we are more likely to skip out on a low-sodium option. We will keep up with the sodium each day. That means that we will have a running list. Because I work from home, it is simple enough. My husband does not work from home, so he will just keep up with what he ate while at work. We have purchased a book with sodium listings so that adding it up will be easier.

The final step, which we have not begun yet, will be the most challenging. That is what makes the project exciting! We will learn to reduce sodium and be healthier through making many of the foods ourselves. For example, we had a Mexican lunch with 600 milligrams of sodium. Of that, 480 came from the refried beans! We can make our own refried beans (the beans themselves have no sodium) and cut out most of that sodium. We will be able to have a delicious meal for only 200 or so milligrams of sodium.

While we are a little concerned about the work involved, we are convinced that by starting out on this new diet, we are going to be healthier in the long run.

By Julia Mercer

A Typical Toddler Diet

Because I now have a toddler, I find that I am discovering all of the interesting ways to get him to eat the way he should. While my husband and I tend to eat pretty well, we are especially concerned about the diet our son is developing. I have found that planning out his meals and snacks is essential to making sure that he is getting a delicious and well-balanced meal.

For starters, breakfast should include a little carbohydrate as well as some protein. That way your toddler will get a boost of energy to get him or her moving (as if toddlers need more energy!) but will have enough to sustain that level until snack time. Try a pancake with a little scrambled egg and a bit of fruit. You can cook the fruit into the pancake to make it easier, or you can simply give him or her a little applesauce or a couple of blueberries sliced. You should stick to a small amount of egg and a fairly small pancake. Remember that your toddler has a tiny stomach, so you do not have to provide a lot of food at once.

A tasty mid-morning snack can be a little bit of fruit yogurt. My son will eat about 1/2 cup of yogurt at a time. We do not purchase the already-mixed variety because of the sugar content. Instead we blend up some of the fruit in the food processor and mix it into the yogurt. This snack can go with a cup of water, which your toddler needs, or a nice glass of vegetable juice.

Lunch typically consists of one vegetable, such as broccoli or squash, and a protein. We try to vary the proteins, and lunch is a good time to do that. Instead of always providing meat, we try a little tofu or some beans that have been cooked until they are very tender. He can feed himself small pieces of the vegetables chopped. Fruit juice usually accompanies lunch. Remember that a toddler only needs four to eight ounces of fruit juice everyday. We may add part of a pita loaf because he loves to eat that on his own.

The afternoon snack consists of something a little more fun. He loves wheat or butter crackers, and we spread a thin layer of peanut butter over them. Added to a couple of raisins, this snack is tasty! With a toddler, you should cut the raisins in halves or even quarters because they are tough to bite. He only eat three to four raisins, but that is enough for him.

For supper, he has some version of whatever we are eating. We typically have chicken or ground turkey or perhaps some fish. Although some experts say to avoid all seafood until the age of three, we find that advice impractical since we love seafood. We give him a bit of fish and know that he likely will not develop an allergy to it. We also make sure that we provide him with two vegetables at dinner. We go for an additional green vegetable and then an orange, such as carrots, or purple, such as eggplant.

Our son does not eat as much as a typical toddler according to all of the information he has read. He is more active and sleeps less as well, so we give him a snack just before bed. If we do not do the bedtime snack, then we have discovered that he wakes much more easily. We usually opt for mashed potatoes or another heavy night-time snack so that it will help him get through the night. We try to add a bit of cheese or a couple of bites of meat because the body holds on to the protein longer. These are not full servings, just enough to allow him to go to bed full.

This typical toddler diet will allow him to grow big and strong and get the nutrients he needs. We are hoping that by having a tasty and varied diet early in life, he will grow up to appreciate the tastes of healthy food. And every time he smiles and claps when he sees broccoli, we know that we have done a good job.
By Julia Mercer

Food In The Car

Eating when you are traveling can be an expensive item. You can spend a good portion of your vacation budget just by eating meals on the go. Plus, you will not be getting nutritious meals, so you will find that you will not feel as well as you would otherwise. There are some ways you can learn to save money on food while you are traveling.

First before you go, look online for coupons. Also check your local newspaper. Although you will be traveling out of your area, you will be able to find coupons for chain restaurants. Decide which ones you think are good deals and cut them out. Put them into a zippered sandwich bag and take them with you. If you decide to stop for a meal, then you will just need to pull out the bag and see where you can go. If you have national chain convenience stores near you, then you may want to think about their specials. Many of them sell coffee mugs for a couple of bucks and give you significant discounts on refills. Get one of those mugs before you head out, and you could get free coffee for the drive.

You should pack most of your meals to take with you. Although it may be a pain, it will save you money in the end. All it requires is a little planning. First think about the trip and decide how many and which meals your family will eat on the road. Then start making your grocery list.

You will need two coolers. One will be for drinks and the other for food. You should get drinks that you and your children can open and drink individually. Now here is the kicker. You will spend more than you normally spend on food because you will be buying for convenience, but you will spend less than if you were eating out or buying in gas stations. You should get some bottled water and juices so that everyone can grab a drink on the way.

For snacks, stick with cheap and easy. Some cereals are good because everyone can grab a handful. Pretzels are also a good idea as are individually packaged snacks. Many cookies and crackers now come in 100 calorie packs, and that size is great for a snack when you are on the road.

For breakfast, you should get frosted pastries that go in the toaster. You can eat them cold, so there will be no need to find a toaster. You also can make biscuits and breakfast meats. Although you will have to eat them cold (unless you decide to heat them in your room), they are not too bad to eat that way. English muffins and bagels are other foods you can get for the road. Pick up some sliced cheese and individual sizes of cream cheese for the trip. And, while we are at it, you will need to get paper goods. Pick up some small paper plates as well as plastic utensils and napkins. They will definitely come in handy on the trip.

You can bring sandwich stuff for the road as well. Get food for sandwiches, some Roma tomatoes, and some veggies that you can eat with your hands, such as broccoli. Also get some chips and other items in individual packs so that everyone gets full. If you go with fruit, stick to bananas. You can eat a single banana easily, and they are not as messy as apples and oranges. Get the smallest bottles of condiments you can find and make sure they are squeezable. Chances are that you will have to toss them at some point, so stick with the smaller bottles.

These meals are all healthy alternatives to the meals you will eat on the road, and they are great for eating in the car. Just remember to bring along plastic bags to gather up the garbage, and you will arrive at your destination with a clean car as well. Be sure that you explain to complaining children that the vacation will be better if you can save now on the cost of the food to get them there. Save your money for the attractions.
By Julia Mercer

Getting Started Decorating

Being good at decorating requires that you have a solid plan in place. There are some basic rules to being a good decorator, and you should learn the basics of the trade before you begin to work on your first project.

The first decision you have to make is where to begin. Some people prefer to pick a theme first, such as French countryside or safari. Other people want to pick out the colors they love first. You should decide and then build the room from there. Under no circumstances should you go out shopping just to see what you find. You can end up with paint that looks great in the store but terrible on your walls, or you could find a cool table but never be able to find anything to match it.

Know how you plan to buy every piece of furniture and every accessory before you purchase it. You should have an idea of where that painting will go or which table will fit that beautiful vase before you purchase it. You can avoid problems of placement by measuring the room before you go shopping. Draw out a little floor plan and mark the distance between all of the spaces, such as the window and the corner. Then you will be able to tell once and for all if something will fit. Also take a measuring tape with you so that you will not come home with a giant picture that will not fit on the main wall.

Think about lighting early in your decorating plan. Many people get just a lamp and call it a day, but that will not work for many people. You should think about the ceiling light already available in your room. Then think about where you may need light in the room and design the lighting around those plans. You do not have to stick only with lamps. Instead you can use creative lighting to make the room come alive.

Do not fall into the trap of thinking that you must use the things you already have. For starters, you may not be able to fit everything. It is okay to get rid of something or to store it if you think that you will not be able to fit it into the room where you want to put it. Consider whether or not it fits. That coffee table that seemed to work so well in college probably is no longer a good idea now that you are married with three children. Get rid of it. Do not just decorate around what you already have, especially if what you already have is not going to work for the theme you have in mind.

Be willing to throw out some of your things. Before you get far into the decorating process, you should go through what you have. If you are decorating your living room, then sit down in the room for a few hours. Go through all of the drawers and tables. Make sure that you want everything you have. Toss anything that is broken. You will not repair it later. Throw it away now. Then you should get rid of things like magazines or collectibles that you do not care for any longer.

Stop before you make any purchases and ask yourself if the purchase will fit into your design. Do not buy something because your mom is with you, and she likes it. Do not buy it because it is cute. Instead you should learn to shop for what you want because you find that it works for your space. And should you ever arrive home with something that you realize now will not work, then you should return it instead of saving it for another project that you will do later.

Your first decorating project can be a lot of fun if you know what you are doing and how to get started. While there are sure to be some bumps along the way, the whole process should be about having fun. If ever you are getting frustrated with the process, take a step back and review the basic principles outlined here. Then get back to it.
By Julia Mercer

Decorating To Sell

When you are trying to sell your home, you may need to do a little decorating to get the job done right. While it may seem silly to decorate a home that you are about to leave, you will discover that people are very superficial. They are willing to pay more for homes that are decorated well and look organized than homes that are not.

If you are trying to sell your home, your first task will be to get rid of clutter. Go through each room in your home. Are there magazines lying around? Are the toys falling out of the toy box? Take care of these clutter issues first. Take this opportunity to begin going through your things so that you do not have as much to do when you are getting ready to move. Go through the toys and toss the ones that the kids do not play with anymore. Throw out those old magazines. If you are one of those people who believes that a proper storage place can be on top of a counter or cabinet, then you need to work hard at making those objects disappear. You want people who visit to focus on the cabinets themselves not on the plastic containers stored on top of them.

You should think about what is on the walls as well. If you have any art that could be offensive, take it down. I know. I know. It is tough for me to even say, but you do not want to turn off potential buyers because they could not get their eyes off the painting in the living room. If you need to add something, then get tasteful but inexpensive paintings to hang in the place of what you removed.

You should be sure that the accessories in each room are minimal. Real estate agents know that people like to see a single accessory. They want a small vase with a bunch of flowers on the dining room table instead of a huge centerpiece and four attendant arrangements. That is because people want to see space when they look at a home, and if they find that the room looks cluttered, they are likely to believe that the house is too small.

Take an afternoon to wash all of the windows and mirrors in the house. Glass surfaces should be sparkling. Once you do this once, you can keep up with glass wipes that you can use daily. Also give the furniture a good polishing and wipe it down daily as well. You will want to take some time to clean off ceiling fans, baseboards, and other detailed places. You would be surprised at the odd places people will look. If they focus on the ceiling fan or light fixture and see only dust, they will think the house is not clean. Although they can clean it when they move in, it will be a turn off to them for purchasing. You should get some antibacterial wipes and wipe down the bathrooms and the kitchen daily as well. It will not take long, and it will help you to create a good cleaning habit for later.

If there are things about your home that bug you, chances are they will bug the person looking at the house. For example, if you notice the really crummy faucet in the guest bathroom every time you walk in, replace it. You do not have to replace it with something that is expensive; just make it look more modern and newer. Spending $25 on a faucet head can help you increase the selling price of your home by a lot more money. You may want to do other projects, such as fixing any flooring problems or repainting rooms that need a fresh coat. These repairs are inexpensive compared to how much you can sell the house for, so take the time to make everything look brand new.

Though people are buying a home that has been lived in, they want to feel as if they are getting a new home. You can help them in that process by making your home look as beautiful as you can. Impress them and perhaps you will have a sale.

By Julia Mercer

Decorating the Bathroom with Organization in Mind

Are you tired of finding toothpaste all over the bathroom sink? Are you fed up with finding a disaster every morning after everyone else has left home? The problem may not be your family. It may be your bathroom organizational scheme.

The bathroom and the kitchen are the most important rooms to be sure that you do right. Instead of just decorating them based on what looks good, you should decorate them based on what you need in the room. If you already have a disaster in your bathroom, then think about a good redecorating party. While you probably want your family to help, you will be able to get this project done more easily without them.

You will need to begin with two large boxes. Mark them for things that you must have in the bathroom and items that are optional. Take everything in the bathroom (minus towels) and put them in one box or the other.

Now you should wipe down everything in your bathroom. Be sure that you clean all of the surfaces well, including those hard to reach places. Once you have everything clean, look at the space you have. Which space is most easily accessible? Do not count the counter space because that is not space that you should use for storage unless you have a tiny bathroom. Instead look at cabinets, drawers, and other storage possibilities.

In most bathrooms, the medicine cabinet is the most easily accessible. Look at the space you have selected and then look at the items you have available. Begin putting the most important items in that spot as long as they fit. If you cannot fit an item easily, then leave it in the box. The key to good organizational design is making things work well. You should begin with items that are used daily, such as deodorant, contact lens solution, and toothpaste. Put things away based on how often they are used.

Once you have the must-have items in their locations, you can look at the decorative items that you have. Are they necessary? If they are, then put them in a strategic location. Putting anything near the sink is rarely a good idea because it will get wet. Putting too much in the bathroom is also a bad idea. Instead you should stick to one to two decorative pieces and put them on the countertop where they belong. Other pieces should be discarded.

Next you will use the area under the sink. Unless you have small children, you should use this area for overflow and cleaning supplies. You should invest in some type of organizational device, such as stand-alone tiered shelving or a turntable, and put cleaning supplies together and extras of shampoo, conditioner, and other items together.

Use small containers that you can use to sort and label the other items. Remember as you are sorting to ask yourself if you really need the items in the optional box. You may find that you really do not need them. If you have not used something in six months, get rid of it. If you got something and always mean to use it, throw it away. My general rule is that if something can be replaced for less than $2, it can be tossed. I will buy another one if I ever decide that I need it.

It is important to design everything with accessibility in mind. You probably will discover that you cannot keep the bathroom organized because you cannot find everything. Be sure that you and everyone else will be able to locate anything needed in a few seconds. Your children will not work to put something back, so the organizational system has to be easy to understand. Instead of making it tough to put something back, toss like items into one basket. You will have to search to find them but will be able to toss them back in when you are done.

Keep organization first in mind when you are designing your bathroom. Cut down on unneeded items, whether they are toiletries or decorations. The bathroom is a place where work is done. It is not a room for leisure, and the decorating scheme should match that idea.

By Julia Mercer

Organizing A Decorating Project

When you plan to decorate a new room, you will want to make sure that you are keeping a file for all of the supplies you will gather during the process. For the beginning, you can use a simple manila folder. Be sure that you gather pictures and ideas on scraps of paper that will help you decide what you want. Be sure that you keep all of this information together. If you have pictures, then take them with you to the store when you begin.

Once you are ready to start researching, you will need to move the redecorating file to a larger container. For example, you may want to get an accordion style folder or a canvas tote bag. Those options work well because they are easy to carry so that you can take the information with you when you are looking for items, and they are large enough to hold everything you will need.

This file will become the lifeline for the project. At this point, it should include a pen and paper as well as anything you collect. You want to put everything into the notebook you have, including the prices you saw for what items and where you found them. Keep this notebook so that you do not have to rack your brain to decide if those vases are cheaper here or at the store you visited last week. Write everything pertaining to the project down.

You will gather a number of supplies, including fabric samples, carpet samples, and paint slides. You want to put everything in this file so that you will have it. Once you have selected a fabric, for example, take a small piece with you so that you can compare it to the paint samples that you are viewing. Relying on seeing the colors by eye is tough; you should have them with you to compare one-on-one.

If you can find a bag or other container that has pockets on the inside that will work really well. If not, you should get a couple of plastic containers to put into the tote bag. That will help you because you will be able to put smaller items in the containers so that you can find them easily.

Once you have decided not to use certain items, such as a layout you cut from a magazine, get rid of it. There is no need to keep items that you know you will not be using. If you have children, you may want to consider keeping the carpet samples for them as they somehow find them particularly fascinating.

If you will be doing several projects or the entire house at once, then you may want to consider getting an accordion folder because it has several sections. You will be able to label each folder and keep paper information about the projects by section.

Keep other items in the tote as well, such as a measuring tape and some scissors. You never know when you may need these items to measure a piece of furniture or cut a little snip of fabric. Also carry a calculator with you to calculate the price of items measured by the square inch or foot.

Once you have completed a project, you can empty your file of the materials for that project. You can use the original manila folder you used labeled with the project name to file the information on the purchases you made, including the receipt, payment plans, and manual, into a filing cabinet at home. That way you will keep everything you need in one place.

Decorating or redecorating your home can be fun, but to have a good time you need to be organized. Even if you love to decorate, it will be far more difficult if you find that you are not able to find what you need when you need it. Plus you never know when you would be giving up a good deal because you could not remember where you saw something. Keep your decorating files organized, and it will make the entire process of decorating your home go much more smoothly. You will enjoy the preparation as much as the final result.

By Julia Mercer

Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Commandments Of Interior Decorating

Interior decorating is part art, part science. The art comes in when you have to design the look and feel of the room from the desire to make the room say something to people who enter it. The science part is making it all fit together by measuring the spaces you have and working within them to create something beautiful.

Before you begin decorating, you should learn about the rules of the trade. The very first commandment of decorating is to always go in with a plan. A floor plan is a wonderful way to guide yourself through the process. At the very least, you should know where you intend to put the major pieces that you will bring into the room.

Do take some time to write down the style you have in mind. If there is something you are visualizing, then you should write it down as well. Be as specific as you can. If you imagine a safari scene, then write down that you would like palms or giraffes or whatever that theme means to you. Being specific will help you to create an image that you can begin to put together rather than just going at it with a one-word theme in mind.

Decide what your focus will be in the room. Every room needs a focus. In some rooms, the architecture does that for you, and the fireplace or a beautiful bay window may be the focal point of the room. Look around. If there is not something that stands out, decide which portion of the room will be the most appealing and visually scintillating based on your design scheme.

You also must pick out a piece of furniture that will be the centerpiece. It does not need to be the biggest or most elaborate piece of furniture that you will have. Instead it should be the piece that best defines the theme. You will build the rest of the room around this piece of furniture. If you are going with a Victorian theme, for instance, you may find that you will have a beautiful armoire around which you can design the room. Everything else you get from curtains to recliners will match that piece of furniture.

Fabric is the most versatile part of the room. Even if you think you know what you want, be sure that you do some research before you start buying. Instead of buying and then making sure it all goes together or anticipating finding a great area rug to match, you should be sure that you have those details covered before you get anything. Otherwise you could spend years shopping to find just the right accessory to match something you purchased on impulse. Decide on the fabrics, then floors, and then furniture, and then paint.

The room should be usable when you are done. Some of the most beautiful rooms that you will see in design books and on television shows are rooms that cannot be used. They are absolutely gorgeous and will stay that way because no one will be spending any time in the room. You need to define clearly the way you will use a room before you begin. If you will do reading in that room, then you will need more lighting than if the room is primarily for watching television. These issues matter, so get the sorted out.

Be sure that you spend what your budget allows. That goes both ways. Of course, you do not want to spend more than your budget permits, but you also do not want to go too cheap. Furniture will last if you buy quality pieces. If you can afford to spend $1,000 on a couch but spend only $200, then you will find that you will need to replace the couch sooner than if you had purchased something with better construction in the beginning.

These issues all matter. Together they are the basic commandments of interior decorating. Learn them and use them before you begin any redesign of your home. Spend the time to do everything right so that you do not have to worry about correcting problems later. Decorating can be fun, but you need to do it right.

By Julia Mercer