Monday, July 31, 2006

How to Eat Healthy on Vacation

Are you planning a week-long getaway? Getting away does not mean you need to gain a pound for every dollar you spend while on vacation. Going on vacation often creates a difficult scenario for otherwise healthy eaters. After a week of binging on foods that healthy eaters would otherwise view as unacceptable, the adjustment back to everyday life can be difficult. Simply because you are venturing far from home does not mean you have to compromise your healthy eating habits. Relaxing dietary standards while on vacation is all too common, even among healthy eaters. Help is on the horizon. Try the following to maintain your waistline (and your budget).

1. Stay in a hotel that offers a kitchenette while on vacation. Buy food at a local grocery store and make your favorite recipes that you have already confirmed are healthy. Admittedly, this option is the most time-consuming, but you will have reassurance that the transition back to everyday life (and diet) will not be a hard one after eating dessert twice a day and fried foods while on vacation. I actually had much success with this option when we vacationed in Lexington, Kentucky. We were newly vegetarian at the time and wanted to have more control over our food selection. We took some nonperishable food items such as dry pasta along in our car since we were driving and not flying. When we arrived at the hotel, there was a grocery store nearby that we used to purchase produce. If you choose this option, it is not an all-or-none proposition. You could still choose to dine out one night while on vacation, or you could prepare dinner each night and go out for coffee and dessert. If you do have dessert, choose calorie-friendly coffee as your beverage selection. Dessert and a high-calorie oversized coffee concoction can easily eat up all of your daily caloric needs. If you are ordering the double caramel latte, then simply skip dessert.

2. If you do not feel like cooking for yourself while on vacation, eat in the cafe section of a whole foods grocery store or natural food store. Even some high-end grocery store chains have restaurant-style seating. Their selection is often freshly prepared and amazing, and you will be able to choose very tasty options that you might not have eaten in the past.

3. Eat as raw as possible. Choose a salad entree at a restaurant and go easy on the salad dressing. This allows you to create a dining experience without sacrificing your desire for healthy food. Often you can create your own personalized entree by choosing among several side dish options such as vegetables. You could also customize a menu option to be vegetarian. This allows you to eat healthier by not eating meat three times a day.

4. Choose baked or broiled fish rather than fried. Skip dessert or share it with your travel companion. These are simple calorie-saving choices which will ease your transition when returning home after your vacation.

5. Pack healthy, portable snacks. Take along dried fruits, nuts, whole grain crackers, yogurt, baby carrots, carrots and celery sticks, or grapes for airport layovers or long car rides. Doing this allows you to avoid unhealthy and overpriced vending machines.

6. Remember to pack water bottles too! Staying hydrated is extremely important.

7. If your hotel offers continental breakfast, opt for fruit rather than a cheese danish.

8. Take advantage of what the area you are visiting has to offer. You might be surprised. One restaurant in California specializes in creating raw food entrees that actually look cooked. Their visual appearance is part of the appeal.

9. Some airlines have vegetarian, or even vegan, options. Choose these whenever offered. On a cross-country flight to Southern California, I had an appetizing fruit tray rather than the scrambled egg and sausage sandwich.

10. If you do go overboard with your eating habits one day, try to incorporate exercise into your daily events.

Try one or all of the above tips to ensure that you continue your healthy-eating habits while vacationing. Just because you are going to the desert (Think: oversized Vegas buffets), does not mean you have to desert your diet by eating dessert every night.

A Bear Feed

By Christina VanGinkel

This past weekend, we attended a bear feed. No, we were not off somewhere feeding the bear, but rather eating a meal whose main course included a stew, of which the meat ingredient was bear, served with fresh carrots, potatoes, and onion, all together in a wondrous tasting gravy type broth. The bear that was the main ingredient of this particular pot of stew was harvested last year by the woman herself who made the stew. Wild game is common fare on many tables throughout the United States, with venison by far one of the more popular dishes being served, though bear and other wild game is also just as apt, depending on both the hunter and the season. Actually, this fact can often depend on where you live, and the type of game that is hunted in and around your locale. Besides venison and bear, rabbit, squirrel, elk, antelope, wild boar, and a variety of other wild game, is harvested for its value as a common staple in the diet of many.

To some, eating such fare is ordinary, while to others it would be considered a very rare event indeed. Along with the food being served, this included a display of dishes including salads, desserts, and a variety of other hot dishes and horderves, there was conversation in abundance. It seems like there is nothing better than good food to get the talk flowing, often with the subjects being discussed somewhat affected by the food being served. With the main course a stew of bear meat, it was no surprise when the talk turned to hunting stories.

One guest told of growing up in a family of thirteen where venison was often the main course, and at dinnertime, when you sat down to eat you had better stay in your chair or else you risked having your plate cleaned by one of your siblings. With the ages of guests ranging from toddler to senior, stories such as these were listened to with both understanding and disbelief. Understanding by those old enough to have grown up in such large families themselves, and disbelief by the younger crowd who had never, and I hope never will, know what it is like to have your food for the day depend on what you or other family members were able to harvest from the wild.

Talk of everything from picking wild mushrooms and dandelion greens to make a fresh salad, to the big one that got away, conversation was full of tales of what it often took to put a meal on the table. In all actuality, I came to realize that how much of the food that is in my own freezer at home is still dependant on different hunting seasons, and what is currently ripe for the picking. At the same time, I know many households have not a clue of understanding when it comes to putting a meal on the table beyond what is tempting them from their grocery store shelves.

For example, I have begun checking our favorite blackberry patches for signs of ripening, while mourning the end of the blueberries. At the same time, my husband and youngest son have been working on a food plot for feeding the whitetail and discussing shooting lanes and placement of tree stands for the upcoming fall bow hunting whitetail season. My mother-in-law has been tending her garden throughout the dry, hot summer season, and I know mid winter, that my youngest will be popping open a can of pickled green beans thanks to all her hard work.

Hunting and harvesting the food we eat is common fare for many people in today's world, but for many others they do not have the same appreciation of just how good that venison steak or bear stew really is, as they have no understanding of the gathering that took place to put the meal together. If you ever have the opportunity to sit down to a meal that is in part or completely put together from natures bounty herself, do so, as you are sure to come away from the table with not only a full belly, but also a renewed appreciation of just how wonderful food really is!

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Preparing for Holiday Celebrations

You can begin to grow your own holiday traditions for your family. You should not just stick to the basic holidays, either. Think of each experience in two ways. First you will be entertaining your family. They will get to have great fun wearing Mardi Gras beads and making paper dragons. Second, they will be learning. You can teach them about the Declaration of Independence or talk about the legacy of Martin Luther King. Combining fun and learning is always a great way to go with kids.

Sit down and think of the holidays you know of right off the bat that you would consider for celebrations. Here is my short list: New Year's Day, Chinese New Year, Groundhog Day, Valentine's Day, Spring Solstice, St. Patrick's Day, Mardi Gras, Easter, Memorial Day, Martin Luther King Day, President's Day, Summer Solstice, Winter Solstice, Fall Solstice, Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Independence Day, Cinco de Mayo, Christmas, Ramadan, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Hanukah, and Kwanzaa.

Whew! That is a list. There are many holidays from which to choose. You should start by deciding which ones you want to make part of your family history. While other people feel strongly opposed to this idea, I have no problem celebrating the holidays of other religions in a very secular way. My family is not Muslim, but I will explain Ramadan to my son. We may even have their traditional feast to end the fasting. I am not sure. He will know that we do not endorse the religion but that we are honoring other traditions.

Once you have picked the holidays, think about how far you want to take the entertaining. Obviously some holidays are bigger than others. Focus on the smaller ones. Perhaps you want to cook a meal that goes with the day. That is a good place to start. You should begin to look for a meal that is traditional for the day you are looking at celebrating. If the family is expecting spaghetti, they will be pumped to come home to stir fry, beef and broccoli, and fried rice for Chinese New Year. These meals are a great jumping off point for discussion, too.

If you have smaller children who are willing to do crafts with you, then you can get them in on the act. You can come up with crafts or search online for ideas. Have something that the children can do fairly easily and that you can use to decorate. For example, you could have them make little stars in red, white, and blue construction paper for the Fourth of July. These projects will help them feel as if they have helped get the house ready for the party.

When you start moving beyond the meal, think small at first. Do not try to do too much in one year. You can take years to build up a store of good decorations. Each year, put a budget on what you want to buy. My personal budget for these celebrations is small. I spend $5-10 each year on the holidays we are celebrating. This year, I am buying only one or two items beforehand and picking up plenty afterward at the sales. I get more that way, and we will be able to have an even better celebration next year.

You should put an organizational plan into place before you begin. I started by going to a dollar store. I picked up several plastic containers that have lids. The containers are very small, so they will hold only a few items, but they will work for a while. I used two index cards for each box. I wrote the name of the holiday on the cards and put one on each of two adjoining sides. That way I can read the holiday regardless of the way the box is turned. Because the boxes are the same size (except for the Christmas stuff), they are easy to stack and reach when I need them.

You should think about a similar system for organization. Do not be afraid to try something fun with your family. Entertaining them on special days is a great way to show them that you are interested in helping them to enjoy life.

By Julia Mercer

Entertaining The Family

We often design new looks or bring out special decorations for our guests. I have decided in recent days that it is not fair to do that for other people and not to do it for my own family. Let me explain the epiphany.

I work from home. With a one-year-old, writing, and graduate school, there is not a lot of time left for me to nurture my spirit or my body. My husband is one of the most amazing men on the planet, and he rarely complains about anything and certainly not typical guy stuff. One day I had a meeting with some fellow students. I showered and was getting ready when my husband came in the bathroom. He told me that I looked nice. I said thanks. He just stood there.

He went on to explain that I never got dressed anymore. No, I do not walk around nude! I simply walk around in yoga pants or an old pair of jeans and a tank top. It is my work attire since I have started working from home. He said that what bothered him was that I will get dressed and wear makeup when I am going to see other people.

Yikes! He was right. I had gotten to the point where I did nothing for me or for him, but I would do more to see others. I am making a conscious effort to change that trend, and it got me thinking about entertaining.

My husband and I share cooking and cleaning duties, but I am the organizer. I get everything ready, and he follows the meal plan on the fridge. One of the things that I would like to change is that we do not spend much time treating each other as guests.

I have made it my goal, and I hope that you will do the same, to plan to entertain at least one night a week. That means that we have a couple of options. Though I adore my son, dinner with a one-year-old is not that exciting. He is everywhere, trying to get into everything. He is tossing food around or making a huge mess with the food that does reach his mouth. So some weeks we could opt to feed our son and then have a couple night after he goes to bed. For starters, we could cook without worrying about whether or not our son could eat it. What is better is that we could eat without interruption and take the time to enjoy each other. I am not typically a romantic, but I think that having a nice steak over candlelight would be really nice on occasion. Doing it more often would give us the chance to spend some quality time together.

The other option is to treat the whole family to an evening of entertainment. I have some ideas for that. When I am first getting started with this new entertaining plan, I will be sure that I use a tablecloth and placemats once a week. I will put together and inexpensive centerpiece so that we can feel as if we all take pleasure in each other's company. Then I will work on getting CDs of classical music or nature sounds or creating other types of entertainment for us once a week. I think that it is important to treat our immediate families as if they are special, too, instead of just waiting until company comes to make everything look nice.

I hope that as my son grows up, he will learn to appreciate what I am starting to do for him and his dad now. I want him to know that we all value each other. While we will never make it a habit to run through the Burger King drive-through for dinner, I do not want him to feel as if we think preparing a nice meal is something that is too much of a chore to be done on a regular basis. After all, he and my husband are the family members that are most special to me.

Make an effort to provide an entertaining atmosphere for your family so that they, too, will know they are special.

By Julia Mercer

Casual Spring Design for Guests

When my in-laws and my brother-in-law and his girlfriend come down this weekend, we are having a casual spring affair. I have thought about doing something cool for the decorations. In the end, I decided that I still stick to the idea that simplicity speaks best of elegance, so we are going with decorations that are easy to do and will look great.

We have a small round table outdoors. It is one of those wooden tables with the three legs you can screw in. There is nothing exciting about the table. I picked it up at a discount store for $3. We typically let it sit outside, and we use it to sit down our drinks when we are out there. I bought a white plastic tablecloth to go over it. The tablecloth is plastic, not vinyl. That means that it could make it through the day and see a second use, but it was only $1. If it does not make it, I will not be upset at all. I prefer the plastic in this instance for a couple of reasons. One, we will be outside, and it is less likely to rip in the wind that the paper variety. Two, it is cheap, so there is no problem if it gets ruined.

I am putting together a centerpiece for that table from some items we had. We have a small dessert plate. It is an odd plate that does not match our set, but it actually looks really cool. It has swirls going outward from the center, and it is clear. I also have a star-shaped candle that I made. It is six inches in diameter, and it will sit on the dessert plate. Around the candle, I will put colored gemstones that I picked up at Wal-Mart a while back. The centerpiece should look cute, but it is nothing fancy.

Inside we will have two tables. My husband and I typically eat at our breakfast table. In fact, to make room for my office, we packed away our larger dining room table because it is the two of us and our son, who still uses a high chair. We will bring the table out for the weekend, however. There will be six of us at the table. I found a really precious tablecloth on the discount rack at Wal-Mart for that table (gotta love the smiley face!). The tablecloth is actually plastic, but it has a cloth lining. It was only $3 on clearance, but it was about $10 regular price. Anyway, the foundational color is white, but it has bright stripes of different widths. They are pink, lime green, an interesting shade of blue, yellow, and purple.

The decorations for the main table will be easy to make. I have some mason jars that used to have canned veggies in them. I found some bright pink river rocks at the Dollar Tree that are the same color as the pink in the tablecloth. I will put some of them in two mason jars. Then I will fill the jars mostly with water. After church Sunday, we will pick up a bouquet of wildflowers. I will split the bouquet, and each jar will get half. Since the bouquet will not last long anyway, I am not worried about putting it in the mason jars with the rocks.

Finally, we will have a round table where all of the dishes will sit once we are done with them. It will have a yellow tablecloth on it that matches the yellow in the big tablecloth. This table will not have a center decoration unless I put a single taper on it because it will be holding so many dishes.

The grand total that I spent on the decorations for this shindig is $13. That is a great deal for what I think will turn out to be an excellent-looking design for this casual little event. The best part is that I will be able to get up Sunday morning before early service and put everything together. It should take all of about 15 minutes. Then I will be cool and calm when everyone arrives, and the house and decorations will look perfect.

By Julia Mercer

Celebrating the Holidays

Until my son was born, my husband and I did not do much for any holiday. In fact, we did not even put up a Christmas tree a couple of years. It was just so much headache for a few weeks that we decided it was not worth it. Although my son is still too young to understand really what is going on, I now feel more responsibility for making sure that there are special and fun days in our life.

I grew up in a family where we did not celebrate a lot of holidays. My mother worked a lot, so even on Thanksgiving and Christmas, she often had to work. Do not get me wrong. We had Christmas. We had a nice meal and opened gifts, but our house would never have been in the Winter Tour of Homes. We certainly did nothing for smaller holidays intended solely for fun, such as Cinco de Mayo or even our own Independence Day. We did not even have a Mardi Gras celebration although my mother grew up in New Orleans.

Last Halloween, I began to think about how to create family holiday traditions for my own family. I went out to the after-Halloween sales and picked up a few things. I got a CD with spooky sounds that we will play on the front porch next year. I also got a couple of cheap skeletons to display and a few pieces to put on the mantle. The mantle is the only really good place in our living room to put themed decorations.

We have decided to go with a football theme for Christmas. Yes, we are odd about that. When my husband and I looked through our Christmas decorations, we had mostly things that people have given us over the years. They are leftovers or clearance items that my mother or mother-in-law picked up. We had two football items, and we like them. We thought they would work well. So we got rid of everything else and are starting there.

We have begun to collect items for other holidays as well. This year, those celebrations will be very small. We will be cooking something traditional for the culture that celebrates the holiday, and we will have some small amount of decorations. The main idea here is to have something entertaining that we can use to start our family celebrations. We will grow those traditions each year until we can entertain for each holiday.

We did a small Valentine's Day evening. I made a centerpiece with red carnations, peppermints, and red and pink Life Savers. My husband and I had crab dipped in butter for an appetizer while our son ate his dinner. Then when he went to bed, we cooked steaks and baked potatoes and had a good time together.

For Mardi Gras, I cooked gumbo and red beans and rice. We had margaritas (apple juice for the baby). I picked up three strands of bead for each of the three of us that we wore for the evening. It was fun for that evening to pretend that you are having a grand party. We had so much fun dancing around and singing that I was glad we had decided to have something.

Next up is St. Patrick's Day. Today I picked up a little banner that says "Happy St. Patrick's Day" on it. We will hang it in the kitchen doorway. I also will be getting some cool shamrock straws that I saw and maybe a couple of hats. I think that will be enough for this year's St. Paddy's Day celebration. I will cook something Irish, though for the life of me I cannot think of anything except potatoes! I will have to look that one up. Maybe we should have some Irish coffee while we are at it.

For the rest of the year, we will be celebrating Memorial Day, Labor Day, Cinco de Mayo, and the Fourth of July at a minimum. I want to do something for Chinese New Year and the solstices next year. I am excited already! There are so many choices, and all of them mean fun and learning for my family.

By Julia Mercer

Reminiscent of a Bachelor Pad

My husband is especially thrilled with the idea of a bachelor pad in our new house. The basement has 336 square feet of finished area, and let me tell you that it was intended as the spot for the men to hang out in the house. O course, I am planning to hang out there, too, but my husband definitely has this spot picked as his favorite.

The stairs into the basement lead to this room, which is long and narrow. When you get to the bottom, the current owners have put a poker table there. Although we do not own a poker table, it is something that my husband has set in his sights now that we will have a place that is perfect for it. For now, it will have a basic card table, which will work for the short-term.

The television also will go in this room, which is why it will end up as a hanging out spot on lazy days. We believe in having only one television anywhere in the house, which makes sense to us but is weird to most people we know. So this room will be the TV room, for lack of a better term. The television will go in the corner so that everyone in the room can see the game, which is the main reason we have a television anyway. We are football fanatics, and this room is perfect for watching the game.

Right now, we have a couch and recliner that will go into the room. We got them second-hand, and they are worn. That makes them perfect for this part of the house because no one expects a perfectly manicured room for hanging out. We also found two swivel chairs that we will be getting. They are black and turn completely around so that they will be great for moving around anywhere they are needed in the room.

The best part of the room really is the bar. It is a full bar with shelving behind it so that you can put drink mix cases, glasses, and any accessories you need. My husband pretty much is a beer drinker, so he plans to get a mini-fridge to go behind it. I am a mixed-drink girl, but we have never had all of the equipment. Now we will be able to have everything we need and will be able to serve great drinks to our guests when they are over.

Because of the guy-centered design of this room, we will be using our love of University of Georgia sports to fill the room. I have been searching online, since we are no longer in Bulldog country, for the perfect accoutrements for such a room. I am going to get a couple of banners and a UGA clock to put up. Beyond that, we have a few shot glasses and things that will make their way down to the TV room, and we will add to our collection whenever we can. I am thinking that we will put up a couple of small shelves. Some will have UGA beer mugs, and others will have various memorabilia, such as statues of Hairy and Uga.

This room has pine walls. Although they are sealed, like most wood walls, they have become darker over time. In the main part of the house, that would bother me, but in this room, I think it works well. It means that one has to do little to make the room come alive. Even if we do not have much in the way of wall hangings in the beginning, it will not look bad because of the design of the room.

My husband plans to spend all the time he can in this room, and I imagine that will be less than he thinks now. Still, it is a good place to get away. You are out of any confusion on the first floor, and you are able to enjoy television without it interfering with everyone else in the house. Decorating this room definitely is not a priority, but it will come in time. And when it does, I imagine the results will make it the best guy room in the house.

By Julia Mercer

Decorating the Master Bedroom

One the awesome things about the new house will be that we will finally get around to decorating the master bedroom. When I went to college, I moved into a dorm. Then when I got an apartment my junior year, my mom gave me my old bedroom suit. By that time, it will about 10 years old, and I have used it for six years since. It has made moves with my husband and me throughout the country, and it is about time that it retired. So a new bedroom suit is on the list of furniture that we will buy eventually for our new house.

I am thinking that we will go with something light and airy, perhaps pine. It will be sturdy and durable for the kids running in an out and hopping into the bed, and it will work well for us for a long-term solution. When we upgrade it in a few years, then what we buy now will become the guest room furniture. Of course, that will be in a new house, so we are talking five years down the road. Still I like to plan ahead for how we will get the most out of furniture.

We have two end tables that have never really worked for the living room, and those will be going into our bedroom for nightstands. They do not have much in the way of drawer space, but since we do not have any nightstands now, I do not anticipate a problem. The biggest change that I want is a bedside lamp on each side of the table. As it is, we have a small nightlight that is on one side of the bed, and my husband grumbles every time I ask him to turn it on. We definitely will invest in new lamps.

Then we will have a dresser and chest of drawers. Right now we have only a chest of drawers, so the addition of a dresser will be nice. We will be able to spread out our stuff more, which is great because the closet size is one of the few downsides to this house. Beyond those basic pieces, I do not anticipate any other furniture for our bedroom. I know that some people prefer a room with a sitting chair or desk, but I like to keep the bedroom as utilitarian as possible.

We will be going with a Southern theme for the room. I am from south Georgia and am still homesick, even after years of not living there. You have to be intimate with the South to understand the pull it has on the people who live there, but suffice it to say, my bedroom is going to be the place where I can be reminded of my childhood.

We will use jasmine and magnolia swaths to decorate above our bed, and we will put faux jasmine in a tall vase on the floor. Beyond that, I will be out treasure hunting for items that remind me of my childhood. I want to avoid certain perceptions, which rules out Gone With The Wind memorabilia and things like that. I am looking more for scenes and images that conjure up rocking chairs, front porches, and small towns so that I can think about the good things about my South when I am in my room.

We will be getting a new comforter and curtains for the room as well. I am thinking that we will go with something with magnolias on it if possible. If not, we will be looking for a light color scheme. I am not thinking traditional pastels. Instead I would like something abstract with light greens and tans. Earth tones are great because they work for me and the theme, and my husband will not mind them either. Luckily for him, I am not too girlie, so he does not have to worry about the room being too frilly for his tastes.

I am probably the most excited about the master bedroom although I know it will be the last room to get decorated. Somehow we always seem to put off our own pleasures to make the family happy, but never fear. It will get done eventually.

By Julia Mercer

Decorating The Playroom

In our new house, we will be using one of the front rooms for a playroom. Eventually that room will become the sitting room and the playroom will move upstairs, but that will not be until after our do-it-yourself remodeling of the upstairs is complete, which will take close to a year. That is okay because the space is not usable now. Anyway, I am faced with the decision of decorating the downstairs playroom in a way that can just be moved upstairs when we are done.

My first task was to think about what, exactly, I want the playroom to be. I decided last night that I want it to be fun, of course, but I also want it to be educational. My son is now 18 months old, an we have another baby due in January. Of course, we are not thinking that we are doing any sort of formal education now, but I have to look to the future. My toddler son and I work on little craft projects all the time. We sit at our folding table and work on painting or making mini-books. My first order of business for the playroom, then, will be to purchase a small table and chairs for it. The table and chairs will be in the center of the room and will work for his learning and his fun. He can build towers, put together puzzles, or color in that room using the table. I have budgeted $50 for the set, which should buy a basic toddler table.

Then we will be moving his bookshelf into the playroom instead of putting it in his room. He has a small, two-shelf bookshelf, which is full right now. I think we could squeeze two more books on it, but he is going to have to expand his collection soon. We will be painting the bookshelf to match the color of the walls. Because this room should promote fun and learning, we are going with a primary colors scheme. We will be using the eight primary colors: red, blue, green, yellow, white, black, purple, and orange, throughout the room. I am thinking that we will paint the walls a yellow color although an interesting shade of green could work, too. Then we will coordinate the bookshelves to match.

The other thing that will make the move from his bedroom to the new playroom will be his trunks. He has two trunks that are full of toys. They are painted dark green and brown right now to match the jungle theme he has going, but we will be painting them probably in red and blue to match the idea of the room.

Wall decorations will be basic in the room. I am going to make button nameplates. I have seen them before and am hoping ours come out well. We will get a piece of poster board, some stencils, and a bunch of craft buttons. Then I will stencil a name on the poster board and cover the stenciled area with buttons. Then I frame them with a short, long picture frame. There will be only one frame for now, and then we will make a new one when the baby arrives.

Next we will put up a bulletin board. I found the one for my office for $2 in a second-hand shop a couple of years ago, and I am hoping that I begin to have the same kind of luck when I am looking for them. It will save us on one of the costs, which will help everywhere we can get savings. I will use the bulletin board to decorate with educational concepts that the children can understand. We will do dinosaurs, planets, and more, and they will be able to learn from the information in their playroom.

Next we will use giant swaths of cloth in primary colors to make shapes to go on the wall. We will put red circles, purple squares, and other shapes. It will be useful as a learning tool and also will brighten the room. I am confident we can put up the wall hangings for little money as we will be making most of them.

By Julia Mercer

Our First House To Decorate

My husband and I just bought our first house. We made an offer on a house Thursday, and the sellers accepted it Friday. We are now in the process of getting the final paperwork taken care for the mortgage and getting the inspections and everything else done. The process is a rather tedious one, especially considering we used an underwriter to get a better rate, but the end result definitely is worth it.

The new house is only about three miles from our current house, but we are leasing the house where we live now. It is so amazing to think that in just a month, we will be living in our own home! We have big plans for the house already. While there is no work that needs to be done when we move in, we have plenty of things that we want to do to improve the house so that we get more value out of it when we resell in the future.

My husband is in charge of the remodeling project that is going to turn the attic into a new floor of living space. I am in charge of the decorating downstairs on the main living floor. We have always had to be so careful with what we do because we have been renting. You have to get permission if you want to make any permanent changes, and you really should be careful even if you are just hanging pictures because you could end up paying for it.

We have more rooms in the new house than we have furniture to fill, and when we move into the attic portion, we definitely will have more than we can handle. For starters, we now have a sunroom. I will admit that having a solarium has been a dream I have had for a while, but I really did not think that I would get one until we bought a house later in our lives. This sunroom is not the incredible one in my dreams, but it is better than what I anticipated for right now. The sunroom will be my office when we first move in until we move the office upstairs. Then we will be faced with decorating a room from scratch.

The walls are painted white, which is boring in most cases, but I think in a sunroom it works because the point of the room is to feel light and airy. It has an odd color carpet, and that will change. Our first job will be changing the flooring to a very light hardwood flooring or a white tiling. Then we will use plants to make the room come alive. I want to get a couple of plant stands and put plants throughout the space. We will fill the space with very little furniture. I am thinking probably one white wicker chair and one small wicker loveseat will do. If we put a coffee table, we will decorate it with a set of three candles of varying heights. I am not sure that there is any need to put anything on the walls because I think between the natural light and the plants, there really will be no need to continue decorating. Sometimes it is best to let nature do its work when decorating a new space.

The other major project later in the house will be the formal living room. It is odd because I always thought I would not have a formal living room, but the spaces in the house give us this beautiful room in the front of the house with nothing else to use it for, so we will be turning it into a sitting room or parlor as it is called in some parts of the country. I personally like sitting room the best because that is our intention. We will purchase furniture and wall art that is no so formal that it feels stuffy, but we will be able to use the room when company comes over for informal gatherings. That room, I think, will become one my husband and I love, and I imagine that our children will not like it so much because there will be nothing external for them to do in it. They are too young to understand the beauty of using a room just for sitting and thinking.

By Julia Mercer

Friday, July 28, 2006

Create your own Grocery Planner

By Christina VanGinkel

Magazines and local shopping guides often include grocery planners as freebies. The problem with this is that too often, over half of the categories are often those that we never, or rarely, use, and the planners often focus only on the items and not the cost, which is an important part of anybody's grocery planning nowadays. We might have good intentions as we clip these planners, intending to put them to use, but intent often never turns to practice.

A grocery planner can be an important tool in today's economy though, so what can someone do to make the most of those being offered in this way? Clip a couple of them to borrow the category titles and subcategories from, and then toss. Take a small refillable notebook, or your Palm Pilot or Pocket PC if you are more of the electronic gadget type, and with the aid of the borrowed category titles and your own kitchen cupboards and pantry, create your own Grocery Planner that will work in a way that helps you shop sensibly. If you do use your Palm or Pocket PC, make sure that it connects to your computer so that you can easily print your planner each week before heading to the store.

Build the planner in way that will leave room for checking off those items you need to replace, those you have a coupon for, and a place to record the last price paid including the size, if battening down your budget is going to be a part of the planner's goal.

Next, to make your grocery planner work to its greatest potential, take the time to open your own cabinets, your pantry, and your refrigerator, and take note of the groceries and staples in each of them. Ask yourself what some of your standby meals are, and consider the ingredients you use to make them. Throughout these tasks, make note of the grocery items needed to make each. Referring to the clipped planners from a magazine or paper, also take note of some of the more basic staples that you might overlook. Be sure to take note of items such as salt and other spices, flour, sugar, pastas, etc.

I also have a separate category of those groceries I almost always need. This short list includes milk and bread, along with apples, pistachios, and raisins. My family goes through these five items, three of which I consider short shelf life items, frequently and in large amounts. If your family has such a list, create its own category. Instead of making a check that you need these, keep track of the date that each was last bought, and in what quantity. By doing this, you will quickly build a guide by which you can gauge how much of and how often you buy these item to help you cut down on those trips to the store just to replace these frequently used up items. This might seem like a bit of work, but in the end, think of the time saved for those last minute trips to the store to replace items such as these that you go thorough repeatedly.

I also have a bulk category, under which falls items such as paper toweling and bathroom tissue, laundry soap, and light bulbs. I buy these items whenever I come across a sale; sticking to those brands my family is comfortable with. This helps avoid the dreaded question of 'Are we out of toilet paper?'

I happen to be a coupon clipper too, so I have incorporated my coupons into my Grocery Planner. I use a small file box that I picked up at the dollar store to accommodate both my coupons and small notebook planner. It keeps everything in one place and easy to use. If you would rather paper clip your coupons into the notebook, or even make something fancier such as an altered checkbook cover turn planner and coupon center, go for it. If dressing it up means that you will be more apt to use it, then by all means do so!

Remember that the most organized Grocery Planner will be of no use unless you use it. So create your own in such a way that it will be of use, easy to use, and memorable enough that you remember to take it with you whenever you head to the store.

How to Shop for the Perfect Bank

By Christina VanGinkel

Shop for a bank, you ask? Yes! With money making a lot of what makes up our daily lives go round, finding a bank to help us manage it wisely, is imperative. Once upon a time, your hometown bank was your obvious choice. Then, a new bank came to town, and another, and another. Now, with the Internet, and banking moving steadfastly online, finding the bank that fits your needs is not quite as simple as it once was. The good news though, is that with more than just one single local bank to choose from, some banks are now shopping for your business, and they are willing to make banking with them, pay off.

When shopping for a bank, ask yourself what features of the bank you are going to be using, and find out what fees, if any, are associated with each. If you already have an account with a bank, find out if that account offers you any benefits with that or any other bank. For example, I have a mortgage with a large banking institution. When I decided a few years back that I needed to revamp the way I did my banking, I found out that because I held a mortgage with that company, I was entitled to a free checking account. While free checking is common practice in many bank's advertising, free in this situation meant even free checks. I write many checks, yet have not paid for a single check in nearly five years now. I also have the advantage of online banking, which allows me to view a copy, front, and back, of any check that I have written that has been cashed. This has proved itself invaluable to me several times. I can also transfer money from one account to another with ease, and even make a transfer from one of my accounts into my daughter's checking account with the same bank, and I also have quick access to my minor child's savings account.

Some banks also offer a debit or check card as a service to its customers. Be sure to inquire if there are any fees associated with such a benefit. Other fees that can quickly add up include overdraft fees. You should find out if the bank you are considering doing business with offers any type of overdraft protection, and if so, what type of qualifications must be met in order to receive it, or if it is a fee based program.

If you are planning to take out a loan of any type with a new bank, you should inquire if the bank offers any type of discount off the interest rate for having the payment taken directly out of a savings or checking account held with the bank. Not only does such a service save you money right off the top, but it can also save you the hassle of having to run to the bank each month to make the payment. No more late or missed payments because life got busy.

If you are more interested in saving your money, do not just open the first saving's account you come across either. Different banks offer different types of the most common savings account, with a widely differing interest rate. Be sure to find out the requirements of gaining access to an account that pays you the highest interest with the least fees. I might be old fashioned, but I also consider the fact that a bank is FDIC insured a must. If you have kids, be sure to inquire if they offer any discounted banking services for them too. My bank offers a no fee, no minimum balance savings account for all minor children of its members.

With online banks popping up all over the web, it can be tempting to choose one of them. If you are comfortable with online access, this can work to your advantage. If an online bank has a local bank in your area too, you can have the best of both worlds, dealing with the online front desk almost exclusively, but with the knowledge that you can always go to the brick and mortar bank if you absolutely must.

In the end, if you are shopping for a new bank, be sure to take the time to ask as many questions as you feel the need to, and compare fees and perks before deciding on which bank to pass your money through. While banks may be a business, out to make money for themselves, the best bank for any consumer is one that allows that consumer to keep the majority of their hard-earned money themselves!

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Obsolete

As I approach my forty ninth birthday, it has come to my attention that I have become obsolete. Well, maybe not me, but my computer sure has. By today's standards, my trusty little laptop is a dinosaur.

I remember my first computer. I was so proud, it was a brand new Tandy 1000. It had an 8086 processor, 640K of ram and two 5 1/4 disk drives. Plus remarkable for the time, a 300 baud modem. That computer served me well for years. Many stories, both fiction and confessional were written on that machine.

Then I upgraded to a 286 processor. Wow, the speed improvements. And it had 1 Meg of memory. And a huge 10 megabyte hard drive. Ah, those were the days - more stories to write.
As the years progressed, I went through the upgrade process. From DOS to Windows, from 286 to 486 and beyond. Finally, I bought a desktop that was phenomenal. At least to me. It had an 866 processor, a forty gigabyte hard drive and 128 Megs of memory. I could do anything. Oh and it came with Windows 98 SE.

But I wanted portability. I wanted a laptop, so I could write anywhere. So my next purchase was a used AST Pentium 1, with an 800 megabyte hard drive and a card slot for a modem. Problem was, I had been spoiled by the larger hard drive of my desktop and there was no way to upgrade the laptop with a larger one.

Off to eBay I went. Finally, I decided on an older IBM ThinkPad. With a 233 processor, 244 Meg of memory and a 4 gig hard drive. I immediately upgraded to a six Meg hard drive and loaded Win98 SE and my programs and began writing anywhere and everywhere.

I've never had a reason to upgrade. Sure, someday I may put a larger hard drive into my laptop, but that's about it. I see no reason to upgrade the operating system. Win98 suits me fine. I know it, I know how to fix it and we are a good fit.

But, that's the reason I'm obsolete. Microsoft no longer supports Windows 98 - any version. And more and more programs are coming out today that won't work on any thing except Windows XP. I find that sad.

But, it's okay with me. I have the programs I need to do the things I love. And these new products that are coming out, well it's their loss not mine. See, I'm one of those people that do not mind paying good money for software - even if it is pricey. So, if these companies don't want to support Win98, well, then my money will stay in my pocket.

Will I ever upgrade again? Probably not. Personally, I'd love it if the world went back to DOS. Even now, sometimes I still revert back to the old Tandy WP2 machine I purchased years ago as a first laptop. Today, it still allows me to write without having to boot up and go through all the rigamarow of loading an operating system.

Don't get me wrong I love technology. I have almost every gadget that is out there. From DVD players down to a PDA, I have uses for all of them. But, I just don't see a need to continue to pour good money into all the fancy bells and whistles that computer manufacturers and Microsoft try to convince me I need. After all, the most I do is write and surf the net in my free time.

I guess I should confess that there is one modern gadget I don't have. It's another one of those things that advertisers continually try to convince me I need. I disagree. What is that gadget, you ask. A cell phone.

Nope, I don't like phones in general, absolutely hate to talk on one. I do realize that they are needed, but really feel a land line is more than enough. And it has an answering machine hooked to it (along with caller id), because I do believe that a telephone is supposed to be a convenience for me. I don't believe that I need to be available twenty four seven for anyone.
So, a cell phone like a computer upgrade is not in my foreseeable future. Now that I've looked at things, maybe it really is me that is obsolete.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Food Portions

My husband is a big eater, so when I pack up his lunch, I pack a lot. Tonight, he informs me that I'm feeding him too much. Huh? I never figured he was such a little boy that he felt he had to clean his plate. Who says he has to eat it all?

I guess that made me begin to wonder. The media is full of reports on how obesity is becoming an epidemic problem. And my question remains, why do people feel they have to eat the whole thing?

Aside from our parents reminding us, as children, that there are starving people in the world (and I think that was more to guilt us into eating our vegetables), why do we as a society think that we have to have these huge food portions and eat every bit of them?

I blame the media for a lot of it. Advertising has done its job to make us believe that we deserve more and more of everything. Wasn't that the whole point of 'super-sizing'? We work hard, so we deserve more. Alas, it worked too well. American's are over-eating to the point where they are putting their own health in danger.

How do we, as a culture, change this? I have no idea. But I do think the answer lies somewhere is how we look at food. Somewhere in that mix, is determining what role food plays in our lives.

Everyone claims to love a home cooked meal, but according to reports, very few actually cook them. The latest KFC commercials are a great play on that concept. You have Mom, Dad and the kids sitting at the table eating out of a bucket. With Mom smiling because she's happy that they're all eating dinner at home. What's up with that?

More and more restaurants are beginning to offer curbside service for their menus. The concept is clear, call ahead, pick the food up, go home, and have dinner with your family. Is this really any different that having fast food out?

But because of the meals themselves, what being served is loaded with fats and because it costs so much, you had better eat it all. Not to, would be throwing money out the window (or in the trash). So maybe this plays into why people feel they have to eat the 'whole thing'. I don't know.

I know all the arguments for doing this pick up dinner thing. When I was working full time, I'll admit, I was guilty of choosing quick to fix menu items at the grocery store for my family. The difference was, I still cooked. Every night. Whether it was simple tuna and noodles or a crock pot meal, I still made choices that were, at least an attempt to be, healthy.

And if someone said, I'm full; I never pushed them to eat more. Never laid the guilt trip on them and never will. The worst I ever did was the line - get what you want, eat what you get. Seemed to work out fine for my kids. Everyone walked away from the dinner table content and not hungry any more.

Where my husbands viewpoint came from that I'm feeding him too much, I'll never know. But, I will cut back on how much I put in his lunch since he seems to think it's my fault that he eats too much. Maybe I should cook less altogether and that way neither of us will be tempted. Or maybe, make the meals I cook for his lunch less appetizing so he won't want to clean his plate. Like many of the mysteries of life, I don't know what the answer to this one is.

I suppose my point is this - how much you eat is, and always will be, your own responsibility. You can say no at anytime. I suppose though, it's always easier to blame someone else. You gave me too much or whatever excuse people come up with. The bottom line is simple: take control.

When eating out or eating in, be big enough to say, I've had enough a push your plate away. And when you do overeat, don't blame the person that served you that terrific meal, blame yourself. After all, you didn't have to eat the whole thing, now did you?

Entertaining: Planning A Family Reunion

Unfortunately, communities often aren't as closely knit as they once were and we lose track of relatives quite easily. Perhaps many people have moved away; perhaps there has never been a family reunion because no one wants to actually step up and organize the event. If you would like to try your hand at putting a family reunion together, there are many pro's and con's. The con's are that it will not be done in a day, can get rather expensive, and will need to be organized down to the letter. The biggest pro is watching the joyful picnicking and games, knowing you put this great day in motion.

Why have *you* been chosen to organize the reunion? Everyone else trusts you! A reunion is a big affair and you wouldn't have been chosen if no one thought you could do it. It seems like a daunting task, but if everything is chopped up into separate categories, it really doesn't seem so difficult. Category Number One would be finding a place to have the reunion; Number Two would include sending invitations, calling and writing to see who will be willing to come and when they should arrive; Number Three will be setting up tables, benches, etc.; Number Four will be food; and Number Five should involve any games, entertainment, or activities you plan to have.

Finding A Place: This is the most important step; if you can't find a place to have the gathering, you can't have a reunion! The best step is to contact any family members that may have a big, open space they would be willing to share. A cabin is a good choice, or a lakeside retreat or other privately-owned space. Be sure to get permission; Uncle Bert may not be very happy to see hundreds of people tramping all over his lawn! If you can get use of a local rec center or fire hall, this is another option. Some families may be able to have a reunion on one of their ancestors' homesteads; this is always a great choice and pairs history and fun together in a wonderful way. If someone else now lives on this land, however, you'll have to make sure to go through the proper arrangements.

Sending Invitations: Nothing fancy is needed, but it depends on your own creativity. You will probably want to print them yourself or have someone else print them, because writing out all those invitations by hand seems like more trouble than it's worth (if you have the time and want to do this, however, go for it! Use your own personal preference). Invitations should include a quick run-down of the place, time, attire (if there's going to be swimming, people will need to know if they should bring a bathing suit) and, if you wish, a list of what you would like that particular person to bring to the gathering.

Food: This is the most important part in many eyes! If you want an ethnic menu, tell each family to pick a different ethnicity and make a food from that culture. If you want a dessert bar, you should keep track of who is making what to avoid duplicates (although one has to wonder if having three chocolate cakes is *really* so bad). You could also choose a genealogy-oriented meal and have participants bring foods related to the country of your family's ancestry. If your family is mostly German, each person should make a German dish. Another possibility is not to theme your food and just have everyone bring what they like.

Entertainment: Many reunions lose their stream after the belly-busting lunch; you don't want people to sit around and get bored, do you? You can plan games, music, or activities to make the day more fun. One big thing to remember is that everyone will not want to participate in the same games. The younger kids might enjoy an egg relay race, but your great-aunts and uncles are probably not going to share their enthusiasm. Try having different games for different age groups; races for little ones, and strategy games for the adults.

If you have the time and money, it would be a great idea to take everyone to a local spot connected with your family history. If the family reunion location is close to an ancestor's homestead, for instance, this would make a great activity. Teach kids which of their ancestors lived here and explain what their lives were probably like. There are few things better at a reunion than to see children taking an interest in their family tree.

By Lacie R. Schaeffer

Buyers Guide to Family Cell Phone Plan

By Misti Sandefur

So you've finally decided to get a cell phone for each member of your family, but you're not exactly sure how to choose the best family cell phone plan. Worry no more, just follow this simple guide to buying a family cell phone plan, and then go shopping using the knowledge you'll gain through this guide.

A family cell phone plan allows everyone on the plan to have their own cell phone and their own cell phone number. Not only does each family member have their own cell phone and cell phone number, but you only get one bill, and the family will share allotted minutes; keep your eye on those talkative teenagers though. What's more, many plans include free in-network calling. Free in-network calling allows you to call any of your family members -- or other subscribers using the same carrier -- and it won't use your free minutes. Plus, a family cell phone plan will allow you peace of mind when your family members are on the road late at night. Why? Because if a member of your family has car trouble then they'll be able to phone you and let you know. But what's even better, nearly all family cell phone plans have a roadside assistance plan that can be added. The roadside assistance plan is optional of course, but you never know when it may come in handy. For example, say your whole family decides to take a vacation away from home, and your car breaks down. Because your entire family is with you, you can't call them for help, but with your roadside assistance plan your family won't be stranded for very long.

The first step in choosing a family cell phone plan is finding a service provider. There are many providers out there, but before you decide on one shop around and study each provider's family cell phone plan. The way to do this is get a brochure or information on the family cell phone plan for the provider, then take the materials home with you and look over each plan with your family to decide which plan is best for your family, and also decide which plan meets your family's budget.

While looking over each plan with your family, here's a list of things to consider:

How many family members will be sharing minutes? This is essential since you will need to choose a plan with enough minutes to divide between each family member. For example, say you have four family members that will be included on your family cell phone plan, and you see a plan for 700 minutes. With four family members, and 700 minutes, each family member can be allowed a total of 175 minutes each month (700 divided by 4 equals 175). If you think each member of your family can get by without going over 175 minutes then this plan may be right for you. However, if you have a teenager on the plan, and you think your teenager will be chatting with her friends a lot, then you may need to consider a family cell phone plan with more than 500 minutes.

After everyone agrees on the amount of minutes your family cell phone plan will need, your next step will be looking over the plan for those amount of minutes. You need to read everything thoroughly, because some family cell phone plans have extra charges, and you'll want to consider those charges, as they too will be a part of your monthly bill. One charge may be a charge for additional lines. For example, the first two lines may be free, but additional lines could run as much as $9.99 per added line. So let's say with four family members your plan for 1800 minutes (350 for each family member) will cost $89.00, however, the $89.00 is only for the first two lines, and you need two more lines. Two more lines is an additional cost of $19.98 ($9.99 per added line). Your monthly bill now would total $108.98, and that's if you don't go over your 1800 minutes for the month. This is where comparing plans comes in handy.

Other charges to look for in each provider's family cell phone plan includes: recovery fee, early termination fee, activation fees, taxes, airtime charges, roaming charges, additional charges for making calls outside of your allowed territories, international long distance and additional minutes (only charged if you go over your allotted minutes). If none of these fees are mentioned in the information that you collected from each provider, then ask the provider about the fees on your next visit.

A family cell phone plan may include some of the following features. Some features may be included free with your plan, and others may cost extra.

Caller ID/Caller ID blocking
Call forwarding
Three-way calling
411 connect
Voicemail
Call waiting
No answer/busy transfer
Text messaging
Unlimited mobile to mobile calling
Internet service
Roadside assistance
Rollover minutes
International dialing

When your family is trying to decide on which family cell phone plan to choose there are a few things to keep in mind, so here's some shopping tips to help out...

Choose a provider that offers free, unlimited night and weekend minutes, free, unlimited in-network calling, free long distance and free roaming. These extra benefits may prevent you from going over your anytime minutes.

Don't pay extra for basic voice mail, caller ID, call forwarding or call waiting, because most providers include these features free with your family cell phone plan.

Select a plan with coverage in the territories you plan to call frequently.

Make certain you choose a plan with enough minutes for everyone, because if you have to upgrade to a larger plan you could be bound for another year.
Ask each provider what kind of trial period they will offer you so you can test your phone and service. If the provider offers a trial period, make sure to verify that a termination charge will not occur if you cancel during this trial period, and find out how long the trial lasts.

Once you decide on and choose a provider, read your contract thoroughly for legal disputes and contract modification clauses. If you don't agree with a clause try to get the provider to omit it, and if they don't then state your dissatisfaction and find a provider that will work with you. NEVER sign something you don't agree with, and NEVER sign something without reading it first!

Check with each provider to see if they offer an extended warranty. The warranty should replace your cell phone (free) if your current cell phone is damaged. This warranty may cost extra, but could be worth the investment later down the road.

Finally, after your family selects a provider and plan, ask the provider what you can expect with the first bill. The first monthly bill may be higher, because of activation fees and etc.
I hope this guide aides you in choosing the right family cell phone plan. Happy shopping!

Buying Cell Phone Cases and other Accessories

By Christina VanGinkel

With cell phones almost as popular as the air we breathe, choosing accessories that enhance the usability of them is important. Keep in mind that there are different cases, styles of headphones, and holsters for the assorted headsets, because there are so many different cell phones and different conditions under which people use them.

When shopping for such an accessory as a headset, holster, or case, consider how the accessory will most likely be used. For example, when my husband purchased his latest phone, he knew he wanted a different belt holder for it than the hard plastic one that came bundled with it, that was designed for the cell phone to simply click into place. His last cell phone had such a belt clip, and he had lost that cell phone more than once from that very clip. We poured through catalogs, store shelves, and everything on the hanging rack at the store where we purchased his cell phone and plan. Nothing we found looked strong enough to hold up and keep his phone safe and in one piece under the rugged conditions that he put his cell phones through. When we had just about given up of ever finding the perfect case, we stopped at our local hardware store to pick up a gallon of paint when we saw exactly the type of case that we had been searching for. Made of the same material that canvas tool belts are made of, the cell phone case also had a rugged Velcro closure that was unlikely to pull open easily, allowing him to be assured that his cell phone would not easily be lost. The case came in two basic sizes, and the smaller size fit his cell phone perfectly. The lesson learned was that we had been looking in the wrong place up until that time. If you need a protective case for your cell phone, consider the conditions under which your cell phone will be used, and if there are any special situations, consider alternative outlets for such an accessory. I can tell you that we would never have considered a hardware store when we first shopped for a case, but now it makes perfect sense.

If you participate in a sport that takes you out into the field, the stores that you shop for other related gear might also provide a good outlet for protective and rugged cell phone accessories. Online, visit your favorite store and type in cell phone in the search box to see just what they have to offer. I did this at one of my favorite outdoor stores and found a case that I could seal up any cell phone in and not only see the key pad through it, but under extreme weather conditions, I could even operate the phone without taking it out of the case if need be. This would be great for those wet days a field when a cell phone would be nice to have along, even if the weather is telling you to leave it at home or in the glove box! I also found a convenient holder that attached to the handlebar of my bike so that I could easily snap my phone right onto my handlebars if I so desired.

If fashion is more of a concern than protection, go about shopping in the same manner described above, just do it at your favorite clothing or accessory store. More and more clothing outlets including those that deal with high fashion commonly carry cell phone accessories. Many cases and head phone set ups are one of a kind and individually designed, while others are mass-produced. Whichever is more your style, you are sure to discover something that will suit your specifications, as long as you are willing to take the time to shop. If not, try typing in 'decorative cell phone case' in any major search engine such as Google, and you will be rewarded with a wide range of choices. The first time I searched this way, I even came across a case made of cowhide with the hair still on decorated with Conchos! No matter your style, you are sure to find a case that will be just what you hoped for.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Audiobooks

By Christina VanGinkel

If you love reading, chances are you have at least looked at audio books as a source for obtaining reading material, be it a best seller or some obscure, offbeat title. Stores, libraries, and Internet downloads are becoming increasingly popular sources for audio books. Sites such as Amazon.com and iTunes offer audio books available for immediate download. This seems like it would be a great way to obtain a book you have wanted to pick up, such as the latest bestseller, but do not want to wait for it to be delivered, or for those who are trying to track down a hard to find older title, and cannot find it on their local bookstore shelves. While not all books are available via audio book format, the number of titles that are, is growing by the day.

I am a huge fan of reading, with a book almost always a part of my daily routine. I have even been known to read several books at once. Yet I always resisted the idea of an audio book for several reasons. For one, I often reread passages, especially if I am reading a complicated thriller. For instance, if I believe I might have missed a clue, the idea that I could not easily re listen to a passage would not be a plus in my book, no pun intended. I also equate reading a book with total silence. With a busy family and lifestyle, quiet time is very appealing, and an audio book somehow seemed to reminiscent of a television show or radio program.

Once, a long time ago, I did pick up an audio book on cassette tape, and though I started to listen to it, I never did finish it. It was bothersome to rewind if I wanted to re listen to a part, as I never seemed to rewind it to the place I intended. I went either too far, or not far enough. The sound quality of my cassette player was not all that great either, and it just seemed like to much work to listen to a story, when I could just toss the same story in book format into my bag, or on my bedside table, and read at my leisure. Recently though, our local library, in conjunction with the larger sister library it is a branch of, made it possible to download audio books via the OverDrive Media Console, and after browsing the titles available, I decided to give the whole setup a try.

I never really intended to, browsing the available titles more out of curiosity than anything, but a book I had desperately wanted to read, that had a very long hold list, with something like 75 patrons on the waiting list before me, and only two copies of the book in circulation, was available for immediate download via OverDrive. While audio books available via your library may also have a waiting list, this particular book was available for immediate download, with a lending time of one week. As I was planning a weekend trip where I would be spending several hours each way in the truck, I figured it would be as good as time as any to see what improvements the audio books of today had, if any, over the one I had tried years back.

First, I added the book I wanted to borrow to my cart, much like a shopping cart at any other online store, though this required no money, just an account with the library. I then downloaded a copy of my chosen book to my computer's hard drive, along with permission to transfer it to CD or to my handheld. I chose to synchronize it to my Dell Axim's CF card, where I would be able to listen to it via Window's Media Player, a program that I and I know many others are familiar with. Its controls are easy to use, and rewinding, I soon learned, was simple and accurate. Depending on your own choice of listening device, sound quality will most likely be much improved over a cassette recorder, such as I used the first time I tried an audio book.

Now that I have tried an audio book, not only will I be downloading more from my library, but I can also envision myself purchasing them online from places such as Amazon.com and iTunes. If you have ever wondered if an audio book is something you would enjoy, the best advice I can give you is to try one, as you might end up as pleasantly surprised as I was.

Shopping Tips for Choosing a New Desk

By Christina VanGinkel

I never thought I would shop for a new desk ever again. The one I had been using was an antique model, deep, with four drawers and a handy little pullout piece that doubled as an armrest or extra space for laying things about. However, as the remodel on my craft room, slash office moved on, I had come to the realization that I should buy a new desk for the newly remodeled space. Before I set out to even shop though, I told myself I should take the time to figure out exactly what I would want from a new desk. I decided to create a list of questions to ask myself that would be able to answer what I would want from a desk, new or old. With the questions and answers in place, I hoped to be able to purchase a desk that would last me a lifetime. In retrospect, I thought the list of questions was generic enough, and my answers pointed enough, that anyone could use the list to help them find the perfect desk for their own space.

Where are you placing the desk?

I had been limited to a corner of my kitchen before we remade over the spare room. The newly expanded space meant I would be able to focus on a larger desk if that is what my other needs pointed towards.

How long do you plan to keep and use the desk?

My answer is for the foreseeable future and beyond, which means I wanted to avoid poorer quality materials such as pressed board.

How do you plan to use the desk?

I wanted to be able to place my computer, laser printer, photo printer, Wishblade Media Cutter, and my Dell all in one printer scanner on it, and still have room to store paper supplies and current projects. This added up to a lot of space, something my current desk is lacking. Right now, all of the listed components are not even in the same room, hence the decision to coordinate everything so it would be easier to work on whatever project I currently had in mind. The more I considered my answer to this question, I realized that the desk I would need was going to have to be very multifunctional with a lot of surface space and storage.

How much do you want to pay?

My answer to this played somewhat back to the second question. I wanted a desk that was going to last me a lifetime. I wanted one that I did not have to worry about some cheap laminate pealing off the surface of. Still, I could not afford a solid maple desk or some other extremely expensive model. I needed something in between, something higher in quality but cheaper in price. I decided the best way to actually figure this one out was to pull out my budget and see exactly how much money I was going to be able to commit to the purchase and go from there. I really did not want to compromise on quality, so once I had my needs and wants defined, and a set number in mind, I was better able to focus my shopping skills on finding the best value for my dollar.

In the end, I was able to find a desk combination unit that would answer all my questions well. It fit the space I had. It had a large surface area that would accommodate both my computer and leave room for a workspace, along with shelving that would conveniently hold all of my printers and media cutter. The desk also had a unit of cubbyholes for paper and supplies. I purchased a set of quality storage boxes that would fit into several of the cubbyholes to keep things neat and orderly. The result was a desk that was multifunctional, orderly, and roomier enough for all of my needs. By asking yourself the questions I did, you should be able to find a desk that will fit your budget, your wants and needs, and the space you have available. Knowing upfront what you are shopping for exactly, is the best way to get exactly what you want.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Surviving Socially in a World of Carnivores - by Vonnie Crooks

Surviving Socially in a World of Carnivores

If you are the type of vegetarian that has chosen your diet for reasons that do not include any sort of moral convictions, you may have wondered how to gracefully and successfully incorporate your diet into any number of social settings. For those of you who are not intent on saving the world from all the wicked carnivores out there, here are a few tips for enjoying an evening with friends without drawing attention to the evils of ingesting animals, or otherwise making those around you feel uncomfortable or embarrassed.

Dining Out

- If your companion does not feel it necessary to go on a rant about the pesticides used on the vegetables you are eating and how they are ruining the environment, you might want to avoid criticizing their choice to consume animal products.

- By the same token, if your companion does not try to dissuade you from eating all types of melons or green vegetables, you probably should avoid trying to impose your diet on him.

- Consider your goal for the evening. Is it to spend time with friends and socialize, or is your primary purpose to enjoy a good meal? There can be a balance between the two, but if the main goal is to spend time with friends, then you may want to be more flexible in your input regarding a restaurant selection. Is your companion an insatiable steak lover? Most steak houses now offer several selections suitable for a vegetarian, and many will adapt dishes to make them vegetarian. Ethnic cuisines are also a great choice that provides options for both vegetarians and carnivores.

- Learn to identify whether your server is someone that is vegetarian sensitive or as someone that is clueless, and will never truly get it regardless of how miserable or stupid you make them feel. If the server is the former, ask questions and request advice. If your questions are answered in a fashion that sounds knowledgeable and with an attitude that indicates the server actually cares, feel free to rely on the recommendations provided. If the server is the latter of the two, resign yourself to a simple salad or baked potato and save everyone the heartache of a botched meal.

- Learn to choose your battles in a restaurant. Even the best servers invariably become annoyed with an endless barrage of questions about the menu. Try to select a couple of items that look like good candidates for a vegetarian, or that look as though they could easily be adapted to a vegetarian version, and limit your questions to those items.

- Always end your order with the caveat of - I will have this as long as it is vegetarian.

- Soups are also best avoided unless you are in a known vegetarian friendly zone. Many servers do not differentiate between vegetarian soups and those without meat floating around in the liquid. If they understand the difference, they often will not know for certain if a chicken or beef based broth is used. If soup is extremely important to you, then I encourage you to ask your server twenty questions and badger the chef for a list of ingredients. Otherwise, save your difficult questions for the entree. It provides a more relaxed meal for everyone, and you are more likely to avoid sampling your servers saliva in your food.

Being a Gracious Dinner Guest

- You should never make your host feel uncomfortable about what they have offered to you. It is okay to politely decline what is offered without offering an explanation if it appears that there are enough items for you to eat without appearing to be rude or anorexic. If it looks as though the selections are extremely limited, you can offer an explanation just as a diabetic would explain why he is declining an offer of dessert. You can close with a nice statement about how pleased you are to have been invited, and make a joke about how you would prefer great company over vegetarian cuisine any time it is available.

- Remember what your mother taught you. If you can not say something nice, do not say anything at all. Instead of focusing on the aspects of the meal that you do not like, comment on the things that are done well. For instance, if the only thing on the menu that is on your diet is the salad, you could mention that it is really nice that the salad is topped with almonds. You could mention that you just love salads with almonds (or homemade croutons, freshly crumbled blue cheese, or anything else that is distinctive about the salad). The main idea is to make your host relax about your diet, so that everyone can enjoy dinner. Friends and relationships are more important than a full belly, and if it is a business associate it is also often doubly important to put your host at ease.

- If you are asked in advance, and your host knows your preference, accommodations will often be made for your diet. It is fine to let your host know if asked, but never expect that you will be accommodated. Many hosts will try, but will fail miserably and expect they can pick the meat out of a dish as a means to satisfy your needs. Expect to eat light, and express your surprise and delight if your host does a superb job of providing you with options.

Entertaining at Home

- When entertaining at home, you are in control of the menu. If you have included carnivores on the guest list and you are the type of vegetarian that has a live and let live attitude, but you also get a little nauseous at the thought of handling meat, you will need to make a few decisions. One option is to extend the invitation and make it clear that guests will be enjoying a vegetarian meal. A second option is to purchase a prepared meat entree from the deli section of your local grocery store. Or finally, if you have the stomach for it, learn to prepare a few items that minimize your contact with meat during preparation. An example might be to purchase a package of boneless, skinless, chicken breast and marinate them in something tasty, and then bake them in the oven. This allows you to avoid ever touching the meat, and will also impress your guests if they are aware of your aversion to meat.

Regardless of the venue, the point is not to let your diet rule your life and alienate friends and family. You can stick to your diet without becoming the type of guest or date that no one wants to include, or that servers fear and despise. Avoid situations that will create culinary controversy, and plan for and expect the uneducated. Always use good etiquette to put those around you at ease with your diet. Most people will appreciate this, and everyone will enjoy the meal as a result. Good luck and Bon Appetite!

Shopping For a Fabulous International Wardrobe

Have you ever noticed that even with countless clothing cuts and designs, there never seems to be anything really "different"? Tank tops, skirts, jeans everywhere you look; everything is so bland and hopelessly uniform. Want to mix a love of travel and culture with your everyday wardrobe? Try shopping ethnic. It's really not that hard. "But where can I find ethnic clothing?" uou ask. There are limitless choices on the web, that wonderful virtual shopping mall where you don't have to run around in a hot, crowded store all day!

(1) Style. What kind of ethnic style are you looking for? There is a difference between "genuine" and "look-alike." Many clothing boutiques make at least one shirt or tunic that is Asian- or Middle Eastern-themed. If you want a piece that was actually made in a faraway country, it's going to cost much more, but will look more authentic. Middle Eastern-based designers create beautiful tunics, dresses, blouses, and loose-fitting pant sets for a hefty price. This goes for bottom pieces such as
skirts and pants as well; choose whether you want the real deal, or an imitation. Malls and shopping boutiques might have more ethnic designs than regular clothing stores, so try shopping around.

(2) Price. Ethnic apparel is *not* cheap, as any designer clothing buyer will tell you. It depends on your budget. Another option is to find patterns and make these exotic styles yourself. If you don't have the time, consider layering. One skirt won't look foreign, but if you layer a long skirt with shorter, multi-colored skirts of varying length, you'll have a Bohemian look that wasn't very expensive. Skirts can be found at any department store. The same goes for tops; if it's cold weather, layer a peasant shirt over a shorter shirt of a much different color for a bright, tropical look. Beware; only a few people can pull this off without looking like they got dressed in the dark.

(3) Quality. If you're planning to order online from a credible designer, make sure you check them out a bit first. Read what other customers have to say about the quality of the items they received. If the place checks out, go for it. No, it's not being paranoid; take it from someone who bought bejeweled clothing that looked very sturdy and of good quality when it was purchased, but began "shedding" the embellishments almost as soon as it was brought home. It's especially important to look for quality when you're buying non-authentic pieces from a local store.

(4) Ethnic reflections. There are some important things to remember; if you choose to dress in ethnic clothing, people may think you are from another country. You'll probably want people to see your love of ethnic style but not think you are actually from another country. Try mixed-bag; a little bit of ethnic, a little bit of regular. You might not want to wear a headscarf or veil if your religious or moral preferences don't dictate it, even if the people in your favorite country wear this item. It's important not to go overboard when dressing ethnic-eclectic.

(5) Keeping garments safe. Once you've purchased some items for your ethnic wardrobe, it's important to know how to care for them. A good silk blouse shouldn't just be stuffed in the closet with its "common" counterparts. Check the tags or the website (if needed, contact the site's staff) and find out how to properly care for your clothing. After all, no one wants to pay $200 for a Pakistani tunic to open the closet and discover it's completely unraveled while they weren't looking. Shirts that wrinkle easily should never be folded and put into a dresser, and pants, although it's tempting to throw them into a drawer, should be hung over a hanger to prevent wrinkles and stiffness.

(6) Cleaning. Do you know how to properly wash and care for your new clothing? Don't guess; read the tags or ask someone who knows. Some fabrics *need* to be cleaned by hand; others can be thrown into the washer with no problem. If you're dealing with silk or velvet, it's best to be on the safe side. If your shirt is bright (as many ethnic clothing has a penchant to be) it's best not to mix it with other clothing; remember the pink underwear! Sometimes bright dyes in clothing will stain other items they comes in contact with, so make sure it's completely dry before wearing it again.

Deciding to Build a Screened Porch

By Christina VanGinkel

A screened in porch is a great way to keep cool this summer. With the heat that has been upon much of the country, so have the mosquitoes and other bothersome insects. One couple we know have had such a hard time dealing with the biting creepy crawlies and flying torpedoes, that they literally make a run for their screen house. While nice, they say a screened in porch would be even better, simply for the ease of access to and from their house.

Flipping through one of my favorite magazines, Better Homes and Gardens, I came across a house that has a screened in porch on the second level of the home, with their bottom porch exposed. It looks very inviting with a cushioned chair and a hammock styled bed. Being on the second story the screen porch / room is sure to pick up even the slightest breeze. This reminds me as I browse through the pages, just how much I once wanted such a space.

One of my earliest requests when we moved into our current home over a dozen years ago was for a screened in porch. The first few years, we lived with no porch at all, just a rudimentary set of steps. Eventually they were replaced with a small, but covered porch and it has did its job well the past couple of years, keeping snow and rain off whoever happened to be knocking, or us as we fumbled with keys to unlock the door.

Now however, my husband and I have decided that the time has come to build, finally, a proper porch. By proper porch, we mean a larger one than the small four by four porch we now have, and one that is both covered and screened in. We would also like to have access to it not only from the entry door that now exists, but also from a pair of French doors that we would need to install off the living room. Our living room and kitchen are open to each other, so essentially the doors would make it viable for us to come and go from the two main living areas of our home directly to this screened space.

A screened porch would provide extended living space to our somewhat small (less than 1200 square feet) home, especially during the summer months, but also spring and summer. During the winter months, which in our area means snow, snow, and more snow, and oh yeah, a good long bout of cold, it would also serve as a windbreak as it would be on the north side of the house. Not only is the north side of our home our more private area, but it is also the side of the house that faces both our gardens and the wooded area that backs up to our yard and is home to all sorts of animal life including whitetail deer and wild turkey.

A screened in porch would provide a respite from the heat of the summer sun, and still allow us to take in the outdoor space that first drew us to the land. It would provide a barrier for the bugs, without aid of gallons of bug spray, and it would provide another outlet for my decorating, which happens to be a love of all things rustic. I can already picture my Mother's old rocking chair, a simple strung hammock, and my husband's, great uncle's steamer trunk as a coffee table. Right now, it is tucked into a corner of our bedroom, as we have not been able to decide what to do with it, as it has obviously seen better days, yet neither one of us wants to part with it. An outdoor space such as a screened in porch would be the perfect resting place for such a relic.

A screened porch is a great way to bring the outdoors in, and vice versa. It can open up a small home, or extend a large one. It not only adds space, it opens up new ways of living. Cool breezes, built in shade, and a barrier to the nasty insects that seem to be overrunning all this summer. If your home is lacking something, but you are not sure what, take the time to consider how much a screened porch might be able to add.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Shopping for Textbooks Online

By Christina VanGinkel

Once upon a time, college students, full or part time, were at the mercy of their school or university bookstore when it came to buying their needed textbooks. There was no such thing as finding a deal, heck just finding the textbooks themselves was often enough of a challenge. Students were at the hands of their local university or school store and had to pay whatever list price the textbooks held. Sometimes, used copies were made available, but they usually sold out fast, and sometimes never even hit the store shelves, being sold long before that even had a chance to happen.

Now, thanks to the wonderful world referred to as the Internet, finding deals on textbooks is possible. Not only is buying them at a discount extremely plausible, selling your used copies is also a great way to make back some of the funds you spend allowing you to roll those dollars back into future savings on next years textbooks.

Whether you are in need of engineering textbooks or English, nursing, history, architecture, what have you, head online to save money. First, gather up the required information. ISBN, title, university class code, author, a combination of the aforementioned information, or for some outlets, even just supplying your professor's or teacher's name and school can be all you need to be sure that the textbooks you are purchasing are the required ones. One note to keep in mind: If your professor has specified a particular edition, be sure to pay attention to this bit of information when buying, especially if you end up ordering a used copy to save even more money instead of going with a brand new edition. If your teacher says you need edition five, and you buy edition three because it was a lot cheaper, you might end up reordering the right edition and spending more in the end than if you just bought new.

Be sure to check the condition of any textbook that you are buying. An inexpensive copy is a great way to save money, but if the copy you get is overly worn, with pages missing, or so marked up that deciphering it ends up a class all in itself, your bargain will not be such a great deal after all.

Another great advantage of shopping for your needed textbooks online is that you will not have to stand in line. Anyone that has ever stood in line at their university bookstore with a long list of needed textbooks, knows how slow such a line can move, and how tempers can flare. Ordering your textbooks online will assure you of delivery right to your door. No lines, no waiting, no frustration.

Another great advantage of shopping online for your textbooks is being able to comparison shop. For example, if you are in need of the Textbook of Basic Nursing by Caroline Bunker Rosdahl, edition 7, you can order it from the first place you come across it listed at for $49.95, or comparison shop. I did the second, and was able to find it for the unbelievable low price of $15.00 at Half.com, an affiliate of eBay, although it was a used copy. I was also able to find it at Abe books for fifty percent off retail, again used, and at Amazon Marketplace for thirty dollars in brand new condition.

When you are in need of even a couple of textbooks, a savings of twenty, thirty, even fifty percent or more off each textbook can really add up. Do be sure to consider the cost of shipping, but thanks to media mail, shipping costs will most likely not make the savings disappear.

When the semester or school year is done, and you no longer need those very textbooks you just shopped diligently for, resell them through a site such as eBay, Half.com, or even Amazon Marketplace. You can often recoup some if not all of your costs. Do be sure to take good care of your textbooks though if you plan to resell them when finished. Unmarked copies with tight bindings will garner you the best money back on your initial investment. Going off to college can be an expensive undertaking. Shopping for your textbooks year after year online is a great way to cut corners on the overall expense of your education.

Avoiding Scams When Shopping Online

By Christina VanGinkel

Shopping online has many advantages over shopping in a traditional store, including avoiding the crowds, no standing in lines, and very often, bigger discounts due to the low overhead many online stores have when in comparison to their traditional brick and mortar counterparts. Not all is good though, and a bit of prudence when shopping online can go a long way towards making sure that every online purchase is as good a buy as the next one.

Recognizable companies, those whose names you are familiar with, are more often than not safer to shop with. They have been around long enough to build up a reputation and in order to keep that reputation in good order; they have likely developed a good if not top-notch customer service. There is much to be said for longevity when it comes to an Internet based company. Those that treat their customers with little respect, do not honor policies, and are just plain bad businesses, do not usually last long.

Keep in mind that even some well-known companies, such as the online auction site eBay, deals with many third party sellers. When buying through a site such as this, be sure to be diligent about checking out the individual sellers, not just assuming that because eBay or some other similar site is so big, that the seller must also be safe. Read each site's information on how best to avoid scams, and take to heart any tactics that they recommend for making each purchase as safe a one as it could possibly be.

Stores or outlets that insist that you complete various forms and offers before receiving the best deal, or that require you to buy something else, sign up for an offer, or pay a large fee in addition to the purchase price of the item are most likely not legitimate. Some honest companies, both online and traditional, do have fees associated with shopping clubs, but beyond a nominal fee such as that, chances are you are entering into the world of scams and not obtaining any great deal. The same goes for those sites that promise to send you an item free, usually an expensive electronic item, but sometimes something as minor as a magazine subscription, but only after filling out a dozen or more offers before. Reading the fine print on any such offer can at the least alert you to what is expected of you before you waste your time and effort.

If you are dealing with a relatively new company, avoid providing information that could be kept and used fraudulently. Credit cards should be used only when dealing with well known, recognizable establishments. Instead, sign up for an account such as Pay Pal, that is built in a manner to help defray chances of fraud occurring. If you do pay by credit card, use one that has online access so that you can monitor the billing process in real time. Never email your card information, only use an encrypted online form on a secure server; otherwise, you risk third party involvement of someone gaining access to your financial information even more so.

Also, phone the company's customer service department first, assuring yourself that there is really someone on the other end of the line besides a fly by night scam operation where they rarely have someone answering the phone. Call with a question about the merchandise, and inquire as to their physical address. Be sure to check out the company with the Better Business Bureau if you have any questions, but keep in mind that if the company is very new, they might not have had much time for complaints to have been issued yet. If you do have a problem and need help, check with companies such as the National Fraud Information Center, which may be able to provide the needed information to help you resolve any issue you might be experiencing.

Once you have found what you perceive to be a deal, factor in any associated costs such as shipping and handling, insurance fees, etc., before making your final decision. Be sure to make copies of all details related to the purchase along with the same contact information you sued to contact the customer service department before placing the order. This way, if you do encounter a problem, you will not be wasting time trying to alter track down this information.