Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Toys for Boys

Recently, my 5 year old daughter was invited to a birthday party for a 5 year old boy. Now while this might not sound all that unusual, it actually is. It seems that in her preschool class, the boys and girls tend to segregate from one another-- so this was actually the first "boy" party she had been invited to.

I was used to the girl parties. We've been to dozens and gift buying is easy. Whatever my daughter happened to be into at the time (be it Dora the Explorer or Barbie dolls or My Little Pony), that would in turn be a perfect gift for one of her little girlfriends. Girl gifts are easy because girls like dolls and dress-ups and play kitchens and whatnot-- things that my daughter likes. I know girl stuff.

But this boy party? I had absolutely no idea what to buy! Now, I do have a little boy of my own, a 3 year old. But he's still into little toy trucks and things like that-- in fact, his favorite thing to play with is his sister's Loving Family dollhouse). I had absolutely no idea what 5 year old boys were into. So I asked around, to some of the mom's of the 5 year old boys in my daughter's class, and this is what I came up with:

Rescue Heroes. Apparently, 5 year old boys like Fisher-Price's Rescue Heroes. Rescue Heroes is a collection of action adventure sets, featuring amped-up firefighters, policeman, etc. There are big Rescue Heroes and then there are Micro Adventure sets like Urban Fire, Underwater Nightmare and a Deluxe Avalanche Play set. Little boys love this tuff and they love to collect all of the sets-- kind of like the way little girls like to collect My Little Pony dolls.

Thomas the Train. I've seen the PBS series, but otherwise I don't know too much about Thomas. But 5 year old boys do. Go into any toy store or online toy website and you will be greeted with a ton of Thomas memorabilia. Wooden Thomas train sets, Thomas clothing, Thomas game and puzzles. It's all there, to the delight of 5 year old boys across the land.

Power Rangers. Remember this campy TV show from the 1980's? Well, Power Rangers are back and there's a full line of toys to accompany the show. There's the Power Ranger's Mystic Force Adventure Set and there's The Mystic Force Titan Saber. There's dress up sets and video games. 5 year old boys love Power Rangers so any Power Ranger's gift will do.

Boy's dress up stuff. My 5 year old daughter loves to dress up in her princess dresses (she has Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty dress up outfits). Well, little boys like to get in on the action too! Most 5 year old boys have no interest in wearing fairy princess outfits or glittery, high heeled plastic shoes-- but they do still like to dress up! Enter one of the many little boy dress up sets available. There are Batman, Superman and Spiderman dress up kits. There's also Power Rangers and outfits from the popular kid's show Lazy Town. While little girls marvel at their Disney Princess dress up chests, little boys can have dress up trunks filled with policeman costumes, Martian costumes, pirate outfits and more.

5 year old boys also like to play outdoors. So any rip roarin' water slidin' splish splashin' adventure set should work just fine. They also like things like binoculars and magnifying glasses and bug kits. There's a whole science aisle at my favorite toy store and some of the experiment kits include making your own marshmallows and soda pop. I don't know how Mom would feel about those, though.

5 year old boys tend to like dinosaurs, too, and luckily there's a whole slew of dinosaur gear out there. Dino action figures and puzzles and things like the Animal Planet Dinosaur Mountain Playset.

So what did I end up getting for the 5 year old boy that I was shopping for? The Rescue Heroes Micro Adventure Aquatic Rescue Command Center. The kid loved it! And now, if my daughter gets invited to any more parties for her 5 year old boy friends, I have a whole list of gift ideas.

Computer Bundles and Deals

By Christina VanGinkel

Choosing accessories for your computer is as important as picking the right computer itself. After figuring out whether to go with a Macintosh or a PC, and if you choose a PC, which brand to go with, then you have to figure out how much memory, what size hard drive, and other specifics such as if you want a TV tuner in it. You even have to decide on which operating system and bundled software to get with it, as buying these when you buy the computer itself can save you big dollars in comparison to if you buy these items separately.

More companies are also offering new buyers the options to add accessories that they might not otherwise have given much thought to. Printers, digital camera packages, memory cards, gaming software, handhelds, and more are often accessories now being offered.

Sometimes these add ons are offered in bundles. For example, a digital camera bundled together with a docking / printer, and graphics software may be offered to a new computer purchaser for a deep discount over the cost of the same items purchased separately, but only if they order them at the same time that they order their computer. Software bundles are also popular additions, such as Internet security bundles, or gaming bundles that follow a theme, or a home office bundle of assorted software, everything from bookkeeping to screensavers, to simple gaming titles.

Many bundles offered are media or camera related, possibly a suite of wireless items, including keyboard and mouse, or ink cartridges and photo paper. What you need to keep in mind when you are buying, and all of a sudden you have the choice to add this bundle or that bundle, at discount but only if you order at the same time you order the computer itself, is not to jump into anything. Many of the deals are as good as they sound, but some are not. A bundle of software for instance, might look like a good price, but if the games are older editions, there might not be as much value there as you first thought, or if the paper being offered with the ink cartridges is not of the value you would normally buy, then ask yourself if you think you would even use the paper to print on. If you doubt that you would even play the games or use the software that is being offered, then there really is no bargain at all.

At the same time, if the offer is for something you had contemplated purchasing anyways, but maybe had planned to wait a few months to order, not wanting to spend so much money all at one time, then do take a serious look at what is being offered. A handheld that is being offered at fifty percent off, and is the model you had researched already, is surely worth looking at. Bundled offers such as these often include extras such as cases or cradles too, so be sure to take all of the elements of the bundle into consideration before you pass because it was not in the original plan of what you intended to buy. Digital camera bundles often include memory cards, carrying cases, tripods, and more. Most often when a digital camera is sold, it comes with nothing included, even the needed memory. So being able to add a digital camera bundle to your initial purchase is often a great way to save money. Again, as I have said throughout, no matter how good a deal a bundle may sound, it is only worth its value if you are going to use the items included.
Not all bundles or add on products are advertised, so be sure to ask wherever you might be contemplating purchasing your computer from, if they have any bundles available. At online sites, such as Dell, bundles might be offered during system customization, or during the final stages of the checkout process, so be sure to click through the site keeping watch for these offers.

The next time you are shopping for a new computer, see if there are any extras being offered that you can buy at discount if you buy at the same time you do the computer. This is a great way to get those extras you might have thought were only in your dreams.

Jewelry you wear Every Day

By Christina VanGinkel

I never think much about the jewelry I wear day in and out. My wedding ring, another simple silver ring that was my mothers, and a chain with a vintage key that fits a safety deposit box heaven only knows where, that belonged to my father who passed away thirty years ago this July. I have other pieces of jewelry, but it is these three in particular, that I always wear. They come off for nothing. I shower with them on, I walk the dogs with them on, I eat, sleep, all in the company of these three items. Tonight though, when I go to bed, I have to take them off and leave them home. I am having surgery tomorrow morning and as I read over the list of dos and don'ts before surgery that the doctor's office sent home with me on my last visit, I see that no jewelry is to be worn. The information provided on this subject is detailed. It specifies all sorts of jewelry, including any body piercings that some people might have. While I do not have anything as dramatic as a body piercing, these three pieces of jewelry might as well be piercing my body, as they are such an integral part of who I am. The thought of taking them off sends a small sense of dread through my body. Much the same as asking me to hold my breath for the coming days, as I have simple habits that involve twisting the two rings and running my fingers over the notches of my father's key. Simple habits, but ones that I do throughout every day. If I am stuck on a subject that I am writing about, for example, you can be sure that I will be either twisting the tings or playing with the key.

This all got me thinking about why such mundane objects can mean so much to the person who owns and wears them. With me, two of the pieces are not really my own, only lent to me for a time. My daughter already knows that when I no longer can wear them, she is to have them. The ring will of course be too large for her small frame, as it is large for me, and she is even tinier than I am. I could have had it resized I suppose, as could she, but I never did. I just wear it on the same finger as my wedding band, tucked behind it so it does not fall off. I do not wear an engagement ring with my wedding band, though my mother also gave me hers to have reset, as my husband and I were too broke when we first married to be able to afford our own. We never did have it reset, and I gave it to my daughter some time ago. She has a beautiful engagement ring of her own, but loves jewelry to the point that she could happily wear a ring or two on each finger. She also wears the pinkie ring of sapphire and diamonds that my husband did purchase for me on our tenth wedding anniversary. When I said I am not a jewelry type of person, I did mean it.

I love jewelry, I just do not lead a life where wearing it is conducive to everyday tasks. For the same reasons that getting my nails done would just be a waste of money, I just cannot see myself wearing rings that might lose stones or catch on stuff. So then why the big deal about taking off the items I do own. Because human nature is what it is, and jewelry is what it is. The pieces that I own are connections to some of the most important people in my life, both past and present.

I suppose I could ask that these be brought to me after I am out of surgery, but the hospital requests that jewelry not be put back on until you go home. A simple security measure, but in the world we live in today, an understandable one. Slipping my rings off my fingers now seems odd. My hand suddenly feels light, as if it has nothing substantial to hold it down, telling it what to do. Tonight when I go to bed, I will take them off and they will wait for me to come home in a few days. What items of jewelry do you wear that have become so ingrained into who you are, that you barely give them any thought, that is until something like this makes you think about what they really mean to you?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Fine Details of Shopping for Cell Phone Service

By Christina VanGinkel

Shopping for cell service is nothing new in our household. We have two cell phones for business use, and one for personal use. We have changed actual phones several times, going from a bag style analog phone to the newest flip style digital phones. We have also changed service providers, and plans with our current service provider several times. Someone looking at our buying practices when connected to cell phones and service would assume that we have been through the practice so many times; we should know all the idiosyncrasies of shopping for anything cell related. The problem with that scenario is that the plans, practices, areas of service, even the basic plan features can vary greatly depending on not only the carrier, but also which plan you have. Each time we buy a new phone, change providers, or add or remove a service, it is always a learning experience.

When shopping for service, it is best to acquire detailed printouts of the particular plans available, which you can get either from the cell providers themselves, or via most websites that the providers post. While printing off every single plan may be a bit much, you can and should for each plan that is approximate to what you are interested in buying.

Important aspects to consider right away, before you even look at the fine details though, include several basic aspects of cell phone use:

Included Minutes

How many minutes are included in a plan is important, but bigger is not always better. You need to know your own calling habits to figure out which plan might make better sense for you personally. If you already have service with someone, look back at your bills for the last six months or so, and actually review how many minutes you used. Ask yourself when and how you plan to use the new phone. Do you intend to have it for mainly emergencies with the occasional call home? Do you want to make it your main phone, possibly even replacing your home phone? Be frank when giving the answers to these questions as it is the only way to accurately judge just how large of a plan you need to look at.

Calling Area

More service providers are offering nationwide calling. If you plan to travel even occasionally, this can be a money saver in the long run if you plan to take your phone with you, but only if your phone will work in the areas you are planning to travel to. Be sure to ask for a map of service coverage before you sign that contract if this is an important issue to you.

Local calling plans are becoming just as popular and are aimed at those individuals who do not want to pay for a service such as nationwide calling that they would most likely never use.

Pre Paid

Pre paid was originally aimed at those individuals who for whatever reason could not purchase a typical cell phone service. Today, many companies are offering much more attractive products for this market, geared somewhat for those who are not sure they would use a cell phone long term, or frequently enough that they would be enticed to sign a multi-year contract. Pre paid plans have also notoriously had access to phones of a lesser quality than typical cell subscribers have, but that is also changing. If you only want a phone for the truly occasional call, this might be the way to go, but as with any cell phone service, be sure to look at what is being offered carefully. Some service providers of these types of phone require you to purchase minutes at much higher rates than typical cell phone service, and while minutes may not expire each month, some do after so many months, or require you to make a purchase at least every so many months, or else both your phone and minutes already paid for will expire. I cannot stress how important it is to read the fine print if you consider one of these styles of plans.

Cell phones are becoming much more common for individuals to own, but at the same time, more complicated in choosing what you may want or need. Comparing plans line by line is the top way to make sure you are getting the service that will best fit your lifestyle.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Reminiscing about Video Games

By Christina VanGinkel

The video game market is an area that has definitely had its ups, and its downs, over the years. One of my first introductions to video gaming was years ago in a local tavern when they installed a Pac Man machine. I was not a drinker, but would stop in the tavern for the occasional soda. Before long, if someone needed to find me, chances were good that I was there at the tavern playing Pac Man. I would play it so long, when I would stop, my hand would not want to open from being in a curved position holding the rounded controller for such long spans of time!

I was also the proud owner of the earliest Pong game and to this day, I will browse Ebay every so often, and contemplate buying back a piece of my past. From Pong to Pac Man, my husband then bought us a Sega Genesis and a Nintendo. I had contracted the chicken pox at the same time my two oldest children did, and was housebound for weeks. He went out and bought me the Nintendo complete with Duck Hunt and Mario Brothers. To keep me occupied as I was not the type to sit and do nothing, yet I had read every book I could find, and crocheted so much my eyes were going cross-eyed at the thought of another yarn project.

Every time I buy myself a new game these days, I blame it on him, telling him if he would never have brought that Nintendo home, I would never have become as addicted to video games as I am. I mastered Mario Brothers in the time I was sick, and continued to play it for months on end, every spare chance I had. The best part of it was I did not have to scrounge together quarters as I did when I use to head off to play Pac Man! When the Sega Genesis came out, we were one of the first ones to buy it in our small town. The idea of playing Sonic was just too much temptation, so it was a given as soon as we saw it advertised, that we knew it would be something we acquired. We saved up for months, tucking away every spare dime we could squeeze out of our meager budget.

Today, our family still owns that Nintendo, and my young grandson recently took it home to use. I sent it with instructions that if my daughter no longer wanted it in her home; she was to return it to me. She looked at me with a look akin to horror, and asked me if I really thought that she was that stupid. She would never throw away anything video related of mine, she went on to tell me, because she knows how much I am addicted to all of them, both old and new!

In our home, we also have a Sony Playstation One and Two, and a Nintendo 64; we still have the Sega Genesis too, but are in need of a power supply for it. My youngest son has also acquired a love of video games and their systems, and has owned a handheld color Game Boy system, which was also passed down to my grandson, and now owns a Sony PSP. We also each have a computer, and I have a Pocket PC and he has a Palm Pilot. Even when we are not at home, we can still take our games with us.

My favorite games on the computer are as varied as the market itself. I am a big fan of Doom, playing the first version all the way through to the end without a single cheat code, and have been trying to master Doom 3 since shortly after its release. I also am a Halo fan, and love card and Mahjong games. Lode Runner was a favorite time waster for many months running, and I just ordered Ice Age 2, the Meltdown to play with my young grandson. As for handheld gaming, I love to play my son's snowboarding game on the PSP, and have several small shareware games on my Pocket PC, perfect for wasting time with when I am stuck in a waiting room or even the checkout line at the store. Race games are also favorites, and we have several titles across different platforms.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Shopping for Children's Clothes

By Christina VanGinkel

Young children can wear virtually the same size for so long, you forget that they will eventually grow out of what they are wearing, but then nature reminds you of this fact by having that same child go through a growth spurt, and suddenly, sometimes in a matter of just days, they have absolutely nothing in their closets that fit.

This can be tough on a budget, especially if you do not constantly keep clothing in mind. Watching a show on newborn babies just the other day, there was a clip showing a new mother of twins, lamenting the fact that she had purchased all sorts of cute little outfits for them to wear, knowing ahead of time that she was going to be having twin boys, but that nothing in the closet fit. She felt like she had wasted time and effort, not to mention money, picking out all those clothes. I wanted to be able to shout into the television that did she not understand that with newborns, what does not fit one day, may very well be too small just a day or so later? She needed those bigger sizes, and would be continually shopping for larger clothing for years and years to come!

If you have a growing child in your household, there are a few ways to stay on top of the clothing monster:

Budget a few dollars each week whether your child needs an item or two that week or not. If you are bad about setting money aside, simply subtract the amount from your checkbook, and just create a secondary ledger where you add the equal dollar value. It can be as simple as another page in your checkbook ledger, or in another notebook entirely, or even into a database, you create on the computer. The logic being though, that if you subtract an amount each week, even a few dollars, when you do need something for them, it will not be such a big deal coming up with the money.

Shop with quality in mind, being vigilant about checking the durability of seams, zippers, buttons, etc.

Get into the habit of checking your favorite stores, both brick and mortar, and online, for any clearance that might be suitable. If you have an upcoming occasion where you know a specific item of clothing is going to be required, if you plan ahead, even a few weeks, this can often mean saving by finding something on sale, rather than paying full dollar value for a last minute purchase. Also, when making a purchase, consider if the items will be able to be worn again. Suits or fancy dresses might have a very short life span when compared to how much wear they will get out of them, so be sure to consider this issue when shopping for such an item. If this is the case, and you find an item that just fits, but is rock bottom on the price, you can comfortably save the difference, because what are the chances that if you paid more for an outfit that had some grow room, that it would be worn more than the one time anyway?

In addition, while it might be tempting to buy bigger sizes, expecting kids to get more wear out of them, be realistic when going this route. My son prefers his clothing a bit on the loose side, so this works to some extent for our own personal scenario, but if your child is going to balk at wearing something that is not a perfect fit, chances are they will avoid wearing the items at all, and then you have not gotten yourself any bargain in the end.

Try to be aware of the styles that are popular if shopping for a school aged child. While it is never good to indulge a child so that every piece of clothing they wear is considered top fashion, kids do like to fit in. As long as what they consider fashionable is not over the top, and you are comfortable with what they would choose on their own, then keep this subject in mind when shopping for pieces that will be worn to school.

Snowboard Shopping

By Christina VanGinkel

I can hardly believe it, but another snowboarding season has come to pass, and with the end of it, comes the need for a new snowboard before next season. My youngest son has progressed from requiring a board that is rated as a good, all-around type board; I believe it was referred to as a free ride board, to shopping for one that will help him master and ride the rails better, a free style board. Where he could hardly make it down the hill two season ago, he now spends large amounts of his time in the terrain parks practicing tricks and flips.

I have been known to utter to mere strangers that it is somehow almost unbelievable to me, his mother, just how graceful he can be with a snowboard strapped to his feet, yet he still manages to trip walking across the bare floor. He will be fourteen next season, and he is currently approaching the six-foot mark at an increasingly scary pace, and has hovered just under the two hundred pound mark for months. All of that size though looks like nothing when he is hitting pipes and rails. He is fluid and knows no fear. That may not be a good thing if I think about it too much, but for what he strives for when he lands a perfect ride, it is just what he requires.

Because of this though, we have decided he would be better outfitted on a board that is created specifically with terrain parks in mind. They are more flexible, and the edges are better equipped for such stylized riding. Knowing nothing about this type of board though beyond this simple analysis, has left us a bit blindsided when it comes to the actual shopping. To make sure that we get a board that will do everything he wants it to, that will go to the limits of the extremes that I know he will push it, we decided to go straight to the experts. We asked him what it is he wants in the board, and had him quiz quite a few of the older kids that spent the majority of their time this past winter in the terrain parks right alongside of him.

What we came up with was a list of more questions, which included specifics such as:

Will he be planning to ride in competitions, and if so, what kind?
Will he be riding half pipes, or mainly doing the big air competitions which is what he has competed in up through this point?
A lot of the kids like a board that is a bit shorter than your average free ride board would be, but when you are shooting past six feet, and have such a big weight distribution, what does the term short really mean?
Consider how comfortable he was on his last board, and use that as a size comparison.

Also, take into consideration boots and bindings if they are also required. In our instance, both are, as he was having issues with one of his old bindings sticking last year, and he was barely squeezing his feet into his old boots the last few weeks of season. For this very reason, we are not shopping for his boots or bindings at the same time we do his board. We will consider bindings, but the boots must wait right till season starts, lest we have him go through another growth spurt and end up with boots that will not fit his feet. He is currently a size thirteen, but with this last half an inch in height, his feet seem to have grown almost half a size. I am afraid that if we bought him a size fourteen, he would need a fifteen by the time next season rolls around.

If shopping for a snowboard is in your future, ask yourself what type of terrain the board will be used on, what size the rider is now, and if there is any chance of them being significantly larger by the time they will sue the board. Shopping for a snowboard in the off-season can net you big savings though, so now is a good time to shop. Just be smart about it and ask as many questions, no matter how weird they might be, before you buy.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

iPod Clothing

Unless you've been living under a rock for the last several years, then you already know that iPod MP3 players have taken the entire world by storm. It seems that everyone from grade school children to senior citizens can be seen sporting carrying around one of these portable music players. Even though numerous other companies are have entered the lucrative MP3 player market, Apple still has a chokehold on the industry thanks to the innovative iPod.

It's interesting to note that in addition to the iPod being a boon for Apple's bottom line (which is of course to be expected), these trendy devices have brought previously unknown companies additional revenues from manufacturing and selling iPod accessories. Anyone who owns an iPod will tell you that the device is great on its own, but is absolutely fantastic when dressed up with various accessories. That means companies that produce cases, lanyards, armbands, FM transmitters, and speakers are experiencing an incredible boom thanks to iPod sales.

Now, clothing companies are also scrambling to cash in on the trend by manufacturing clothes that are specially equipped to make it easier for the wearer to access his or her iPod. Usually, a person would have to stow the iPod away in a pocket, purse, or backpack, or else secure via an extra accessory such as a belt clip, armband, or lanyard. With iPod clothing, the task of operating an iPod becomes much easier because the clothes either have specially integrated buttons, or allow quick access to the controls on the device.

The first time I saw iPod-specific clothing was during the Turin Olympic Games a few months ago. Members of the United States men's and women's snowboarding team were wearing special jackets that allowed them to listen to their iPods while going through their snowboarding runs. Apparently, iPod jackets have been around in the snowboarding world for quite some time now; but as I said, I first saw it during the Olympics.

Since then, I have noticed several more articles of clothing that are produced specifically for iPod users. First of all, a company called Kenpo, Inc., sells jackets with an iPod pocket on the inside, and iPod controls on the sleeves. In order for the jacket to work, you must first connect your iPod to the dock inside the jacket. The dock allows the control buttons on the jacket's sleeves to operate the iPod, so all you have to do is touch your sleeve in order to skip a song, repeat a song, turn the volume up or down, or turn your iPod off. At a suggested retail price of $275, however, the Kenpo iPod jacket probably a bit out of range of the younger iPod crowd. After all, why would they want to spend that kind of money on a jacket when they could either buy a new iPod or get a couple hundred songs from iTunes for the same price?

Tunewear is another company that offers iPod-specific clothing. Currently, the Tunewear lineup is limited to t-shirts. These iPod t-shirts appear to be regular t-shirts with the addition of a plastic pouch that can house the iPod. In addition, there is another component on the t-shirt that allows wearers to wind up their headphone cord to keep it out of the way. I wasn't able to find out a suggested retail price for the Tunewear t-shirts, but I have to say that the shirts don't look very good at all. I know everyone has their own taste in clothing and that some people are sure to love the Tunewear iPod shirts. But they look kind of odd because the plastic iPod pouch looks like it's attached to the shirt as an afterthought. I can tell you right now that I wouldn't want to wear one of those out in public!

Another piece of iPod specific clothing that I have seen recently is an iPod belt from TuneBuckle. This piece looks just like a regular belt, except that it has an elongated buckle in the front. The wearers iPod fits into the belt buckle in a horizontal (rather than vertical) position.

After reading a review of the TuneBuckle belt, I found that there are a couple of problems with this design. First of all, it doesn't allow you to see your iPod screen, which means that you can't scroll through your playlists to find a specific song. Instead, you have to go through your songs one by one using only your Forward and Back buttons. Second, the belt buckle itself has a highly polished chrome finish, which I guess is similar to the backs of iPods. One reviewer said that because of this chrome finish, the belt buckle inevitably starts to show off fingerprints and dirt smudges after a short time. Anyone who has had that problem with their iPods knows how unsightly chrome becomes when it's dirty.

In addition to the products mentioned here, Levi Strauss and Company have announced that they will be manufacturing iPod jeans in the near future. The jeans will reportedly allow users to carry and access their iPods without showing a bulge in their pockets that would tip other people off to the iPod's presence.

All in all, I have to say that I'm not very surprised that all of these iPod-specific clothing options exist. In fact, the only thing that does surprise me is that there aren't even more clothing companies getting in on the action. Maybe we'll see that soon enough!

Pixter from Fisher Price

By Christina VanGinkel

The Pixter systems have evolved over the last several years, first debuting with a handheld model that displayed in black and white. It then progressed to a color version, and then a multimedia version that not only displayed in color, but also offers streaming video capability. The title selection has grown along with the increased capabilities of the easy to carry game system, perfectly designed for the preschoolers in your life, all the way through the pre-teen years.

Depending on the age of your child, the models you will find available currently, not taking into consideration second hand stores and closeouts, are the Color Pixter or the Pixter Multi-Media. The Color Pixter has a range of titles that include some popular characters including Spongebob Squarepants, Dora the Explorer, Scooby Doo, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Arthur, and even Jimmy Neutron. This is just a small sampling, with titles and characters that are sure to please even the most discriminating child.

Most titles for the Color Pixter are for ages four and up, though there are also quite a few titles for kids a bit older. An example is the Jimmy Neutron in Space cartridge, it teaches ten skills, by prompting kids to collect parts on their various visits to planets to build a robot. Kids have to navigate mazes to accomplish the task, and the software is recommended for kids over the age of six. Another title for the older age group, Cyberchase, gets the kids participating with teaching twenty-five skills including numbers and operations, patterns and relationships, geometry and space, measurement, reading literacy, and more, right along with the Cyber Squad. Cyberchase has three skill levels, so the game also grows with the child as they learn and master the skills. Progress reports are provided so that parents can actively see their child's progress too, which is a very nice bonus feature.

The wide age range associated with the titles is a huge plus, along with how some of the titles, such as Cyberchase, also have multiple skill levels, allowing the Color Pixter the opportunity to grow with your child, instead of just becoming one more toy that they have quickly outgrown. The Color Pixter system itself, is recommended for kids ages four and up, but a younger child could easily use it with supervision. My grandson is not yet three years old, and within minutes of turning one on, he was happily connecting dots onscreen, and when the butterfly he connected flew away, he was so full of giggles that I instantly decided that this was one of my best purchases to date for him yet! He called me the morning after I gave it to him, and went on for the first five minutes of our conversation on just how much he loved his Pixter, and how much fun he was having, telling me all about the stampers and pictures he had discovered. For a two year old, five minutes is a whole lot of excitement! After going on and on about it, he then told me he had to go because his Pixter needed to be played with. Now that is what I call enthusiasm for a new toy. Keep in mind too, that he only has the system, with no additional cartridges yet, though two have been ordered, but have yet to arrive.

The Pixter Multi-Media is also recommended for children ages four, up, with an assortment of titles suitable for the same age group as the Color Pixter, with a range of titles also more suitable for ages seven, and up. BBC Walking with Dinosaurs for example, encompasses over twenty-two minutes of video on the life and final days of the dinosaur reign. Knowing how much my young grandson likes dinosaurs, I am actually a bit disappointed that I did not splurge and get him the Pixter that is multi media capable. Yet when I compared the two, the color one seemed just a better fit for both his toddler-sized hands, and my pocketbook, as the Color Pixter was on sale and the multi media one was not. Either is sure to be a big hit with the kids, so if you are considering a handheld game system, but feel that the kids should be learning something instead of just playing, the Pixter systems are definitely the way to go!

Furniture Pieces from Garage and Rummage Sales

By Christina VanGinkel

This past weekend our town held their annual garage sale event. Once a year, everyone that is interested in clearing out their old junk, whether it is books, clothing, nick knacks, electronics, furniture, or whatever, prepare for weeks ahead of time, and people from near and far come to shop. This coming weekend, the town next to us holds the same type of event. Actually, they were the first town in our area to hold such an event. What started out as a way to get people in the mood for a bit of spring cleaning, has exploded into several town wide events that once the current season one ends, some people immediately start planning for the next!

What I find so interesting about these annual events, when compared to your average weekend assortment of rummage and garage sales, is the amount of furniture that is sold at them. Maybe it is the idea that so many others are clearing out the old to make room for the new, that many people become really revved up about the chance to make way for brand new furniture pieces. Therefore, in the end, they join the crowd and before they know it, they too are selling off furniture pieces that they might or might not have, under different circumstances.

Buying second hand furniture at sales such as these is usually a good way to find a bargain. People are of the mindset that once it is out the door, it is not coming back in, so they are willing to bargain almost from the first minute of the sale. In the same mind set, it can often be too appealing and you might end up bringing home more furniture and other stuff than you can realistically use, or even want. One good friend of mine, who I would refer to as a sale junkie (not just for these events, but year round!), came home last year with a beautiful crib! She got it for a song, but the problem was she had just sent her fourth and final child off to preschool the fall before. When I asked her what in the world she needed a crib for, she laughingly told me she did not have a clue. However, it was too nice, and too good of a bargain not to buy it!

This is a classic example of how easy it is to be caught up the temptation of a fantastic bargain though. In addition, bargains are only real bargains if you have a use for what you are saving money on. She did end up reselling the crib for a tidy profit though, so in the end, it was a good deal. With the funds she made from the crib, she plans to shop this year for a sideboard for her dining room, something she has always wanted, but never been able to afford.

The towns put out maps for the event, with locations of all the houses that are holding sales, along with a short description of what one might find at each sale. Glancing over the lists from this year, I see that furniture is once again a popular item. Pre sales are frowned upon though, and the same friend has noted two listings that have sideboards listed as main sale items. We are going to split up as the houses are on opposite ends of town, and we will each go and check out the sideboards first thing, then meet to go tot eh rest of the sales together, well, not all of them, just as many as we can take in over the span of a single morning and afternoon.

If you are shopping for furniture, be sure to check out the rummage and garage sales in your area this spring and summer. Penny saver newspapers are great sources for sale listings, as are bulletin boards and other local papers. If you live near or in a town that holds an event similar to the ones by me, be brave and face the crowds, as you never know what great discovery you might find. You might just find the bargain of a lifetime, or at the least, find an item or two to help you furnish your home, at savings that will leave you a few dollars to top off that ever growing in cost tank of gas!

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Playskool VideoNow Jr. by Playskool

By Christina VanGinkel

If you have a preschool aged child that could use a way to pass the time while in a vehicle, or sitting in a waiting room, the Playskool VideoNow Jr. by Playskool could be just what you need. It looks similar to one of the many different handheld game consoles that are so popular, except instead of playing games, this unit plays personal video discs, or otherwise referred to as a PVD. This is something that could be especially nice for those times that activity would be frowned upon for various reasons, and some actual calm time is what is mostly in need.

I know, many of you are probably thinking how many electronics can a child today own. The fact is though, that the lives of children today are often very different from when we were kids. They are off to this appointment or that one, and time spent in a vehicle is many times much longer than we would, or they would like it to be. By providing them with distractions such as this, you can potentially avoid behavior in a vehicle or waiting room that is just not wise.

How often have you sat somewhere, think waiting room, with a toddler, where there are no books or space to spread out and play? On the other hand, if there are a couple of toys, they look like the only way you might allow your child to play with them, would be if you could scrub them all first and then sanitize them! I cannot tell you how many times through the years that I have sat with a toddler in a vehicle, where what was suppose to be a ten minute quick trip, turned into at least an hour or more.

While something such as the Playskool VideoNow Jr. by Playskool may not be the only diversion, you would want to provide for your young child, it would make a nice addition. I always use to pack a small book style bag for times where I knew my child was going to have to sit and be behaved for lengths of time, and I kept things like a few crayons along with a color book, a couple small Golden books, a snack such as Cheerios, in a bowl of with a snap lid, and a bottle of water or juice. At the same time, I cannot tell you how many times the kids quickly became bored, with what I had provided, and something such as a Playskool VideoNow Jr. by Playskool would have been quite welcome. If you have ever experienced a toddler telling you repeatedly that, they are bored, and there is not a lot you can do about it at the time, you will appreciate just how convenient something like a Playskool VideoNow Jr. by Playskool could be.

The Playskool VideoNow Jr. by Playskool is fully portable, and is designed with chunky sized toddler hands in mind. It runs on three AA batteries, and after the last track on a disc is played, it automatically goes into a sleep mode to help preserve the life of those batteries. This feature alone demonstrates that the manufacturer was considering how this player would most likely be used by its consumers. While it is meant to be a great distraction for toddlers, toddlers do have a short attention span, and I can easily imagine one watching a video, and as soon as it is over, tossing it aside. For this simple action alone, that it will shut itself off shows planning by the designers of it. It also has rubber bumper corners for those very same times, to help absorb some of the bumps and bangs. The lid also is designed well, allowing access by opening with both hands only, so the very toddlers, who are using it, cannot get at the discs inside easily.

The screen on it is small, but is in full color. VideoNow discs include titles such as Dora the Explorer, The Wiggles, Blue's Clues, Sesame Street, Thomas and Friends, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Barney and Friends, and many other titles. With such a wide selection of titles, you are sure to find several that will keep your toddler entertained for hours on end!

Thursday, May 4, 2006

Entertaining Children: Theme Parties

One proven fact that is universal is that most people, whether young or old, enjoy parties. Parties become even more pleasurable if they are planned well and offer enough activities to keep guests busy and smiling. Although the following theme parties will be described for children, it would be very easy to adapt some of them for adult parties, singles functions, church events, etc.

A theme party that works will be a complete package of food, ambiance, decorations, and music all geared toward the theme whether or not the guests are in costume.

There are many things that you will be able to choose as a theme. Anything goes here, and you are only limited by the boundaries of your imagination. Choose a place (i.e. "Moroccan party"); a time period ("40s Party"); a culture for something like a "Native American Party" or something totally different like a "Blue Party" or "Yellow Party."

After you have chosen what you want the theme to be, start thinking about the various aspects of what you will be doing. If it is a party for children, look for games that will fit the theme and the ages of children who will be attending. You will also be thinking about foods that match with the theme that will be easy to eat as party food (unless it's a themed dinner party for adults or mixed groups, of course.)

Consider what you want to do about costumes. Having every guest "dress up" just because you decided to have a themed party may be a bit bothersome or even annoying to them, so seriously consider just having yourself or your family members, if they will be attending the party, dressed for the theme. As an alternative, for a children's party with a Native American theme or Cowboy theme, etc. you may want to provide hats or other accessories so the children can feel a part of the ambiance without the parents having to buy, make, or rent a costume.

If you have a good library nearby, you may be able to find some music that matches your theme, or perhaps a book or two for a storytime session for the children at the party. If you can't find things like music at the library, check online and that should be helpful.

You will probably find that the easiest part of the planning is finding food to serve to fit your theme. There are hundreds of excellent recipe sites online that will provide you with an abundance of tasty options from which to choose no matter what your theme turns out to be.

Some theme possibilities such as countries, regions, or time periods will have many choices for foods, decorations, and music. If you choose a harder theme, though, you may have to dig a little deeper.

If you need some idea starters, see if any of the following would work for you.

(1) Safari or Jungle Theme Party. Serve food that you would find in Africa (Egypt included) and try to find some African drums music. Decorations including tableware can be jungle prints and there are many games that could involve safari animals.

(2) Cartoon Theme Party. It may take a little while to come up with a menu for this one because your guests probably wouldn't be thrilled to be served Popeye's spinach. Nothing wrong with grilling what you'd call "Wimpy Burgers" though, right? Just think of other characters that are well known for their food choices. There's always ET with his favorite candy for one clue. An activity for this one would be watching some great old cartoons that you find on video.

(3) Unbirthday Theme Party. This one might be the most fun of all, so let your imagination run wild. Every one of your guests will be the guest of honor since it's an "unbirthday." Try serving cupcakes upside down on a plate (with a fork to scrape up the frosting!) and if you can, have a small gift for everyone. Think of things that are usually done at a birthday party and do them backwards or opposite (thus the upside down cupcake idea). Try pinning the ear on the donkey. If you don't do cupcakes, have a "Happy Unbirthday" cake made for the celebration. If you have party hats, make sure the children wear them backwards or to the side of their head.

Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Selling Old Jewelry

By Christina VanGinkel

I had misplaced a ring that I wanted to give a good friend, and in looking for it, I came across two turquoise rings that belonged to my mother and brother, one each. I had never worn them myself, as they were not even close to the style that I do wear. Both were large and oversized. Both were also in need of a good cleaning, and the one ring, the largest, was cracked both in the stone and the band area.

I asked my husband if he had any desire to keep the rings, and as he did not, I gave them to my friend with the other ring that I had found stashed away in the same small box. I told her she could keep them, or knowing they were also not something she would likely want, I told her to sell them on Ebay or maybe pawn them at the local pawnshop. For reasons that are hard to explain, once I found them, I knew I had no desire to keep them myself, nor did I want to profit from them. I did not believe them to be worth much, but funds had been tight for my friend, and I figured that she could always use the extra dollars. Just because I did not want to make any money from them did not mean that nobody should. My thinking can be a bit odd at times, but when it comes to money, I am about as sensible as can be.

She gladly took the rings, and after doing a bit of research on eBay, she took them to the local pawnshop to see what they would offer her. She sold them for a grand total of fifteen dollars. She probably could have made double that on eBay, but once she paid her listing fees and seller's fees, along with having to package them up and mail them out, she figures she would have not come out that far ahead. She called me from the pawnshop and asked me if I had any issues with her selling them for the fifteen dollars. She knew the price was average, that even though it was a low price, it was about as much as she would get for them anywhere. As I told her when I gave them to her, the money and the decision were hers. Fifteen dollars in her pocket, was better than the rings continuing to collect dust in the bottom of a box, at the back of my closet.

Selling cast off or old jewelry can be a good way to clean out your jewelry box or in my case the back of my closet. You can use the money to buy or put towards an item more to your current likes, or towards some other use such as a bill. How much you get for the items though, can vary depending on many issues such as overall condition, type of metal, quality, condition, clarity, and the authenticity of any stones, and even the current market of both jewelry in general and metals such as gold and silver. Checking the price on any piece you are interested in selling through an appraisal will provide you with both a fair assessment of the retail and wholesale price. Depending on where you actually end up selling, the price you can hope to get should fall somewhere between these two. If you sell to a dealer or through a place such as a pawnshop for example, chances are you will get less than if you sell to a private buyer or through an outlet such as eBay, where the person buying the item most likely wants it for their own use and not to resell for profit.

If you suspect that an item has at least a moderate value, I would highly recommend paying to having an item appraised. This way, you will have less of a chance of selling an item at much less than its worth. Any piece that has a diamond or other quality stone, is made of gold that is at least 10k or higher, or even a piece of costume jewelry that is of obvious quality, should be appraised before any decision on a selling price is agreed upon.

Tuesday, May 2, 2006

Painting Old Furniture

Redecorating can be an expensive venture, especially if it is new furniture you seek. Many of us look through our favorite stores and catalogs, longing to spruce up our homes and bring in something fresh and new, but furniture is expensive and there is no guarantee that we will still like it in a few years. One inexpensive way to get new furniture in your home is to paint your existing furniture, or to buy used furniture at garage sales or thrift shops, and paint that. Often garage sales offer old dressers, chairs, tables, and other pieces of furniture that may be scratched of have an unattractive finish; yet a fresh coat of paint can make it look brand new. Many people do not think of painting their existing furniture because it has (or had) a nice wood stained finish, or because it is an antique; yet, you have to live in your house and if you want a change, painting your furniture is much more economical than buying something new. If you would like to paint some of your old furniture to give some of the rooms in your home a new look, consider the following tips.

The first step in painting furniture is to prepare the furniture. Whether you have a solid oak table or a cheap, pressed wood dresser from your childhood, it needs to be prepped. If the furniture has an exceptionally shiny finish, you may want to consider sanding it down a bit; not to remove the finish, but to take off a bit of the smooth surface area. After sanding, wipe the furniture clean with a damp cloth. When it is completely dry, put it on some newspaper or drop cloth or other item that will protect the surface of the floor where you are working. This is also the time to remove any pieces that may be damaged by the paint, such as upholstery, backing, hardware, or any other part that should not have paint on it.

The next step is to prime your furniture. Good bonding primer can be found in any paint store or discount store. If possible, choose a primer that is close to the color of paint you will be using. Using a regular paint brush, simply paint the primer onto the piece of furniture, just like you would the paint. The primer will look ugly and uneven, but its purpose is to prepare the surface for the paint. The primer bonds to the surface of the furniture and gives a rough finish to which the paint will adhere. Primer usually has a very strong odor, so make sure you have good ventilation in the room where you are working. Allow the primer to dry for at least four hours, and then apply a second coat. Two coats of primer insure you have covered every part of the furniture.

After allowing both coats of primer to dry appropriately, it is time to begin painting. This part is fun because you will watch your old piece of furniture be transformed into something completely new. Once again, make sure your work space is well ventilated, and you can begin painting. Paint the same way you did with the primer. Cover everything, and then allow the paint to dry at least four or five hours before putting on the second coat, depending on the humidity level. Sometimes it takes much longer for paint to dry on exceptionally hot and humid days. Painting in an air conditioned room is much easier on you and on your paint!

If the piece of furniture you have painted includes drawers, you will want to take them out and paint them separately. It is best to allow the paint to dry for several days before putting back any upholstery or hardware. For surface pieces such as dressers or tables, it can be a good idea to put a polyurethane finish on the surface, to protect from spills and other damage. This should be applied after the paint is completely dry, and then the polyurethane must dry for several days before placing items on the surface.

Enjoy your new furniture and pass the good news on to your friends!

Bring on the Summer Festivities!

The years are passing by faster and faster and here we are once again ready for all of the summer get-togethers to begin. If you have not already done so in the past, it is a good time to learn some picnic, potluck, and reunion food safety rules.

One of the basic safety tips that many of us already know is that using mayonnaise in picnic foods isn't a good idea. That doesn't stop all of our picnics and reunions from having lots of potato and macaroni salads, however, does it? One way to avoid this risk is to find a pasta salad recipe that could become a picnic favorite. The base will be vinegar, sugar, etc. and no risky mayo to be found. A relative of mine used to bring a great taco salad to picnics and when she did, not having potato salad didn't bother me at all. It may surprise you to find out that it isn't even the mayo itself that is the problem; it is when the mayo is added to other foods, especially proteins, that it becomes a virtual bacteria magnet.

Another good idea is that if you are taking a main dish that contains meat (party meatballs, any casserole with ground meat, fried chicken, etc.) take just enough for the meal if that is at all possible and especially if you are not going to have an ice chest. Taking a dish of meat is fine if you just cooked (or reheated it) and are taking it to a gathering where it will be eaten right away. The problem occurs when these foods sit around all afternoon after lunch without refrigeration. Inside or outside is not safe, but outside in hot temperatures rapidly increases the risk factors.

In addition to meats and any dish with mayonnaise, many foods that are based with protein start spoiling at temperatures from about 40 degrees and upward after not having refrigeration. Bacteria absolutely love warmer temps than 40 when there is no coldness to be found.

Foods need to be thoroughly cooked at all times but it is especially important when there will be additional bacteria threat factors such as the warmer temperatures. If it is a smaller gathering and you are grilling hamburgers for everyone, the burgers need to be cooked all the way through (to 155 degrees F. if you are checking internal temps). If you will be tossing chicken parts on that barbecue, be sure the internal meat temp gets to 165 degrees.

Before the picnic, when you are preparing the food, be sure to keep your hands clean and do not cross-contaminate (and cross your fingers that anyone else bringing food will also know these rules!) Do not use the same cutting board for meat or poultry and for something else like chopping vegetables. Do not put cooked food on a plate or cutting board where raw meat had been before.

One safety rule that may not be as familiar as some of these that I have already mentioned concerns melons if you are planning to make a fruit salad. Now, fruit salad is generally a great choice for a picnic but there is a precaution to be sure to take before preparing it. You may not generally think of washing a melon before cutting the rind away, but it needs to be done. There are bacteria problems that can be transported from the rind down into the flesh of the fruit with your knife even though you will be cutting the rind away from it. Fruit and melon needs to be kept colder than about 40 or 41 degrees, too, so if you have that ice chest, by all means, don't forget the leftover fruit salad should be put in there after the meal.

If there is no way to protect your leftovers and they have been sitting around without refrigeration for more than a few hours (I think the "rule" is 4 hours, but I tend to trust much less time, like 2 hours) then toss it out and don't wonder if it might be safe. It won't be worth the sickness if it *wasn't* alright.

The bottom line is that if you enjoy taking questionable foods to picnics and reunions, by all means invest in a good (and large if need be) cooler to protect yourself from illness that is all too common when food and warm temperatures get together.

Monday, May 1, 2006

Choosing Colors, Part II

While choosing the colors for our guest room, our children's rooms, and even our living and dining areas, choosing the colors that will adorn the walls and furnishings of our master bedroom and bath can be quite a quandary. We want the master bedroom area to be a haven of relaxation and intimacy. Women want the room to be romantic and perhaps feminine looking, and men might want it to be simple and unobtrusive. Since decorating often falls to the women, the room becomes more of a fluffy, lacy boudoir than a comfortable suite shared by equal partners. If the man is happy in such an environment, then that's all the better. If not, it is important that couples communicate clearly to one another about their color desires, as well as likes and dislikes.

First, a couple must list all the colors they absolutely hate or would never want as a wall or furnishing color in their bedroom. Once that list is clear, they should make a new list with the colors they might consider; on this list, they must leave off colors that their partner put on the hate list. After a few discussions and list making sessions, the couple should come up with about a half a dozen or so colors that they would like to consider for their master bedroom and bathroom. Couples should keep in mind that they can decorate the two rooms in different colors, but preferably in complementary colors.

When the colors have been agreed upon, the couple should go together to the nearest paint, wall paper, or fabric store and start narrowing down the color list. When they begin looking at samples, pictures of real bedrooms, and pieces of wall paper and fabric, it will help them get a better sense of what they are looking for. When the couple finally agrees on a single color (or combination of colors for the bedroom and bathroom) they need to decide on a shade. For instance, if they agree on green, there are hundreds of shades of green from yellow-green, blue-green, dark green, pale green, and kelly green, with many variations in between. If one member of the couple is less interested in choosing the shade, then the other member of the couple can choose.

The easiest way to add new color to the master bedroom is by either painting the walls, changing the curtains, or adding a few accessories like throw pillows or a new quilt or comforter to the bed. Other options, including wall paper, a new head board for the bed, new furniture or new carpeting or flooring, can also wonderfully change the look of a room, but these changes are much more expensive and not as easily changed. Sometimes simply buying a several yards of fabric and making a new comforter cover can be an inexpensive way to change a dull master bedroom into a fresh, new haven. Other times, simply a fresh coat of paint or a new color on the walls will give a lifeless room a new spark.

If you do decide to paint or sew, remember, these changes are temporary. Do not be afraid to do something a little different or a little daring. If the two of you are suddenly into nautical themes, consider a red-striped comforter and seafoam green walls, to give the impression of a lighthouse on the edge of a stormy sea. If you are both into woodsy living, consider forest green walls with an off-white quilt and lots of colorful throw pillows. If gardening is your passion, and the male half of the couple does not mind a floral look, you could paint the walls a very pale pink and put a bold colored floral comforter cover on your bed. Tone it down a bit with solid colored throw pillows and maybe a dark colored rug. Remember, if you grow tired of your new look in a few years, you can always change it again with minimal expense.

In the end, remember the purpose - to make the master bedroom a safe sanctuary for you and your spouse to find retreat and alone time. Keep the work, the mess, and all evidence of the children out of the room, if possible; and if you focus on keeping it as a haven, you will find that any color will do!

Choosing Colors, Part I

Choosing a new color for a room in your home that you want to redecorate can be a daunting task. Whether you plan to wall paper the room, paint, or buy new fixtures, furnishings, or accessories to give the color change, it can be scary to take the plunge and go with a new color; especially if the color is bold or daring. I have often imagined having a living room with white sofas and dark red walls, but since I have black cats, white furniture is a non-issue; but the dark red walls appeal to me. Living in Northern New England, however, I hesitate to make the walls anything but light and bright, since our winters are so dark and so long. I have also imagined having purple or periwinkle blue room. It is my favorite color and while it is bold and bright, I have long imagined it on the walls or in the form of a quilt or shower curtain. But purple scares me much like dark red. Recently I visited a friend's new home. She had painted their entry way and mud room a painfully bright kelly green. It was almost fluorescent. The rest of the house was nearly as bold: her daughter's room was lavender, the son's room was bright blue, and the master bedroom was pink - thankfully, a pale pink. While I might not be as brave and bold as my friend, I admired her home. Most of the work she had done involved paint. Wallpaper, she pointed out, would have been too hard to replace. In a few years if she tires of her bright colors, she can simply paint over them. That got me to thinking.

My first bold leap was to paint our small downstairs bathroom. Bathrooms are rooms in which we do not spend a lot of time, so I knew I could go bold. I chose a color somewhere between deep blue and periwinkle. Sometimes I think of it as purple, and other times it looks blue. Either way, it is bold, bright, and beautiful. I first painted the trim and cabinets white, and then I did the walls in the beautiful purple/blue. To avoid overkill, I put a white lace shower curtain on the shower and put a blue and white rug on the floor. I love my blue/purple bathroom. I love it because I can go in there, enjoy the bright color, and then walk away.

In my living room and kitchen, however, I spend a lot of time. In those rooms, I wanted something soft and soothing; something that would convey warmth and coziness, and a give a welcoming feel. Since we have brown sofas with red throw pillows, I went with something very safe. I chose a very pale, sandy color, with a hint of peach. With the white trim and the hard wood floors, it looks delightful, but sometimes I think it's too boring. That's the beauty of painting. Maybe next year I will paint it yellow or green. The kitchen was painted the same color as the living room, but the trim still needs to be painted white. After that, I might go for something bolder or brighter, as the kitchen is on the north end of the house and sometimes seems a bit dark.

Our daughter has a room also on the north end, and she asked for dark blue. I was concerned that her room, which is very small, would be entirely too dark, but she loved the color, so I took the plunge. Again, I figured we could paint it again in a few years if she changes her mind. Yet, like the bathroom, we put white accessories in her room and painted her furniture white, and it looks lovely. My other daughter's bedroom is bright yellow, a bit too bright for my taste, but she likes it and that's really all that matters. We chose a subdued quilt that has soft pinks and pale greens in it, which seems to tone down the bright walls. A pale green rug on the floor also gives a good balance.

Whatever colors you choose, make sure they make you feel good and they make you smile. When in doubt, wait a few days or wait until the weather changes.

Creating a Mexican Feast

Last night my two teenaged daughters had a movie night with our church youth group. Movie nights happen once per month and always involve a fun, but clean, movie that is enjoyable to teens. Also, movie night always involves a special dinner for the kids. Since our church and youth group are relatively small (only a little over a dozen kids in the youth group) it is easy for the youth group leader and his wife, or a couple of parents or other adults in the church to prepare a fun dinner for the kids. Last night the youth group leader and his wife prepared a Mexican feast for the kids. Since we live in Northern New England, Mexican food is not easily found. Good Mexican food is even harder to find. The youth group leader is originally from Southern California, so not only does he recognize good Mexican food, he also knows how to make it! He made quite a feast.

First, there was the pico de gallo, but of course we just called it salsa for the kids here in New England, who had never heard of pico de gallo. Apparently, it was an old family recipe, but our youth group leader was happy to share. He said that it was a double batch, which filled a large bowl significantly. The recipe was as follows: twelve tomatoes, two jalepeno peppers (with the seeds removed), one large onion, two bunches of cilantro, a few splashes of lemon juice and lime juice, and a few tablespoons of white vinegar. Everything was then put into the food processor for a short time - just to get it all chopped up, but not pureed. Much of the pico de gallo is created to taste, so no batch is ever exactly the same as the batch before. This pico de gallo that was served to the kids last night was decadent: tangy, scrumptious, and with just enough zip from the jalepenos not to set the New England youth group on fire.

The main courses included tacos and enchiladas. The tacos meat was prepared with ground beef and just your ordinary, every day taco mix that can be bought in any grocery store or supermarket. There were about three pounds of ground beef, to feed all those hungry kids, and they were encouraged to build their own tacos. Provided for them on the large table were taco shells (or soft tortillas for anyone who was wearing braces on his teeth), shredded cheddar cheese, shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, chopped green peppers, and of course, sour cream. There were plenty of taco shells, tortillas, and fixins, so that everyone could feast as much or as long as they wanted.

The enchiladas were chicken and three cheese enchiladas. After the chicken had been baked in the oven, it was chopped up and mixed with two cans of Mexican style diced tomatoes, a four-ounce package of goat cheese, an onion, and a bunch of cilantro, chopped. After simmering this mixture for about ten minutes, it was then spooned onto open flour tortillas, which were then rolled up and placed side by side in a baking pan that had been slightly oiled with cooking spray. Next, a small amount of half and half was poured over the enchiladas, and then they were baked for about ten minutes in the oven. After ten minutes, the enchiladas were taken out and covered with shredded cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses. Then it was all baked for another five minutes with foil over it, and then five more minutes without the foil. The enchiladas were absolutely delicious and the batch made from one pound of chicken made enough enchiladas for each of the kids to have two.

Lastly, the kids were treated to dessert. A favorite Mexican dessert is creme caramel, otherwise known as flan. Flan can be made in many different ways, but the easiest is to simply mix a bunch of eggs and milk into a baking pan, and add a bit of sugar and then sprinkle nutmeg on the top. After baking, cut the custard into squares and cover them with caramel sauce. Even the most finicky kids loved the flan and were asking for more.

Even in Northern New England, a Mexican feast is easy to throw. Just use these recipes or create your own, and be sure to bring your pinata!