A Sad Update

I recently blogged about the plight of a colleague, Lori Hall Steele, a fellow freelancer who faced losing her home during a bout with a serious illness. I’m very sad to report that Lori passed away yesterday, leaving behind her mother, a young son and many people who know there’s a little less light left in the world with her passing. Here’s a link to her obituary, which also serves as a touching tribute to her life, devotion to family, and her talent as a writer.

I wanted to publicly thank those of you who read my earlier entry and donated to Lori’s cause. Updates on the fundraising efforts on her behalf will be posted at the Lori Hall Steele fundraising blog. I apologize but I don’t have any information as to whether they are still seeking donations or other forms of assistance, but if I hear anything new, I’ll post an update. Thank you once again for your kindness and generosity.

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Staycations – All You Ever Wanted?

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Sure, the term “staycation” is kind of annoying, but I’m going to argue in favor of the idea of a “stay-at-home-vacation,” if not its shorthand term-du-jour. Call it something else if you’d like, but there are benefits to “traveling” close to home during these tough economic times.

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Create your own getaway by exploring your own back yard

For one – this should get your attention – if you play it right, you’ll save money. While I realize it’s just as easy to drop a ton of cash in your own back yard, right now people are holding on to that cash–which is probably a wise move. If you think about it, money spent on air fare or car rentals could easily fund a fabulous local getaway. Send half of that money to your savings account or use it to pay off debt, and you get to enjoy yourself while also benefiting your family’s bottom line. (Maybe we should call it a “smartcation” instead).

Second, local independent businesses need our support now more than ever. After all, nobody is bailing them out; they must swim within a far lower-risk business model or sink, as many are doing.

Third, not shelling out money to an all-inclusive resort (something my family isn’t really into anyway) removes the creativity and spontaneity from travel. While it’s perfectly fine to do so in some instances–or all the time, if it’s your thing–we like to think of ourselves as explorers in our family and we love customizing our vacations. Finding new things in our area becomes a unique challenge, not something that makes us feel deprived.

Fourth, Traveling close to home – whether in your own neighborhood, town, or in nearby major cities – requires you to think like tourists and view well-traveled destinations and attractions in a new light. Taking a staycation is a great opportunity introduce your kids to museums, parks, and restaurants you might otherwise take for granted. Contact your area’s convention and visitors bureau to see what they suggest; you might find a few untapped surprises in your midst.

Next month, my husband and I were going to spend a long weekend at a swanky spa resort, but after we did the math, we realized that we could vacation at home (with a mandate to not work or do anything but necessary chores) without the kids and go exploring for less than half the cost. I’ll write more about what we decide to do when we’re done planning our staycation.

Are you traveling more or less this year, and is the economy affecting how you travel? Share your thoughts in the comments section. And if you hate the word “staycation,” suggest a better word and if I like it, I’ll adopt it here from now on!

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Cold Weather Bicycling

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With temperatures dropping, I’m finding my weekly bike rides are getting a bit more challenging, but only slightly so, simply because I have to guess at how to dress depending upon the weather. To give you an idea of how tricky this can be, it was in the low ’70s here in northern Illinois on Halloween and for a few days afterward, then suddenly it dipped below freezing at the end of the next week, when I looked out my office window to see wet snow falling straight downward. I went for a ride one day last week wearing long underwear as one of my layers and felt – and probably looked – a lot like The Heat Miser as I rode.

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When I lived in Chicago in the ’90s, I used to ride my Specialized hybrid mountain bike from my North Side apartment to downtown and back every weekday, even in January. Often I’d be the only one riding along the lakefront, watching as waves crashed along the icy shoreline.

I love gear as much as the next outdoorsy nerd, but in this case, I just keep things simple using layering. If it’s below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, I wear lightweight long underwear under whatever winter weight leggings or sweats happen to be clean at the time (who, me, procrastinate on laundry?), a fleece sweatshirt topped off with a thin windbreaker. When it’s really cold, I wear a thin winter hat under my helmet, a neck gaiter to warm the air without having to fuss with a scarf, and windproof gloves. I bring water no matter the temp, since bicycling works up a sweat no matter what the thermometer says.

The only two things so far that will keep me indoors are rain (no fenders on my hybrid mountain bike) and ice. I’m considering trying a ride in the snow, but after breaking my leg slipping on my own icy driveway a few years ago, I’m a bit of a chicken when it comes to moving swiftly over the snow.

Do I bring the family bicycling? Not in cold weather. My nine-year-old might be hardy enough for a cold weather ride or two, but I know my younger kids would never enjoy it, even bundled in our Burley bike trailer with the plastic windshield. If I do take the oldest boy riding, I’ll have him share his thoughts on it, good, bad, and ugly (gotta love kid honesty). I think knowing your limits and your kids’ preferences is key here, and I think as my younger boys grow older, they might actually dig riding with their crazy mom on cold November days.

To read more on prepping for cold weather cycling, check out IceBike and the Winter Bicycling section of Bicycling Life. Don’t fear the 1990s web design; there’s some great info in there. Finally, for a quick but entertaining read, check out this essay by writer Ethan Gilsdorf, who cycles around Boston year-round.

Do you engage in any off-season activities like cold weather bicycling? Why? If not, what’s holding you back? What’s your favorite cold weather outdoor activity? I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions – leave a comment and tell me what works for you.

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You Can Also Bring the Family . . .

To vote! I brought my two younger boys this morning (where our neighbors at the polling place spoiled the boys with bakery doughnuts so I could concentrate) and my husband is off with our oldest son this evening.

We really wanted to stress the importance of voting and it’s led to many interesting conversations about how government works. It’s also been interesting hearing what the kids have absorbed already – I got a Hillary Clinton question this morning from one of the boys. Of course, my kindergartener has already felt the sting of his first election loss. It seems his peers felt Clifford the Big Red Dog would make a better leader than his choice, Duck for President. He still proudly wore his “I voted” sticker and understood that it still mattered that he voted.
I read today that while many are talking about this being an historic election, we should keep in mind that every election is historic. Brilliant thought, that.

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Photo Friday: Halloween in Woodstock, Illinois

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For the Photo Friday shindig over at Delicious Baby.com.

Every year on Halloween, the boys and I head over with friends to the Woodstock Square, located a few blocks from our home. There’s a Halloween costume contest and all the merchants on the Square hand out candy to trick or treaters. Also, as pictured here, there’s often great ghoulish fun at our Opera House on the Square. It’s a great time, though every year as our town’s population increases, it seems to get a little more crowded and chaotic. My guys are so excited about this year; I’m really savoring their enthusiasm about Halloween while I can, because I know soon enough they’ll outgrow it.

At night, we get tons of trick or treaters at our house. My oldest is going to hide on our enclosed front porch dressed as a ghost to scare visitors. My favorite part of the night is making kids who show up without costumes do tricks for their treats. It’s all good-natured, and I end up giving kids who do a treat extra candy.

What’s your favorite part about Halloween? What are your kids going to be? And, most important, how early is too early to start dipping into the candy stash?

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Take an Autumn Hike

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Not everyone has a distinct change of seasons like us lucky Midwesterners. But if you live in a region on our side of the globe where the leaves change color as the days grow shorter, don’t miss an opportunity to take in some fresh air, sunshine, and eye candy with an autumn hike.

What’s different about hiking in fall vs. other seasons? I’d say the gear you need is about the same as spring, with perhaps a lower chance of getting rained on. Taking my decidedly Midwestern bias into account, here are some tips for how to prepare for your next autumn hike:

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–Bring Water (& maybe also snacks). Even with the temps dipping, you should bring water along while hiking (unless you’re taking a short stroll or walk as opposed to a longer, more challenging hike). Why? As I’ve written before, dehydration is a serious concern on the trail for both kids and grown-ups alike. In hot weather, it leaves you vulnerable to heat stroke, and in cooler temps, hypothermia. One of my rules for hiking is “hope for the best, but plan for the worst,” and in this case, why open the door to a more serious health risk when carrying water is a simple preventative measure? If you’ll be hiking for a long(ish) period of time, bring a snack or even pack a picnic in your backpacks–just be sure to pack out all of your trash (check the area where you’re hiking for rules & regulations; in ecologically sensitive areas, that apple core might do more harm than good). We love Nature Valley Granola Bars, mini bagels, and apples for hiking snacks–all keep well. They even make individual packs of peanut butter that add a little protein to your trailside snackage.

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–Dress in Layers. Don’t roll your eyes! I know every guide to hiking mentions this, but some things bear repeating. Spring and fall pretty much require that we dress in layers on the trail to keep from overheating or developing hypothermia. I remember hiking a forest preserve trail near my parents’ suburban Chicago home in September; we wore shorts and t-shirts and left our jackets in the car. The hike started out in the sunny 70s and dropped into the windy 40s by the time we were done an hour later. Had we brought even windbreakers, we wouldn’t have suffered as much as we did; thankfully the hike was short and we didn’t develop hypothermia.

What exactly does “dress in layers” mean? This is a tricky time of year, where neither shorts nor long underwear really fit the bill. Here’s a basic guide to dressing in layers from REI.com’s Expert Advice section. For autumn, you’ll probably want warmer layers like a fleece vest, and a windbreaker of some sort because this time of year can get gusty. I always pack rain ponchos for the family, too.

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–Exercise Your Leave No Trace Ethic. Kids watch everything we do, and if we wander off-trail (potentially trampling delicate foliage) or casually discard that granola bar wrapper, we’re giving our kids tacit approval to do the same. The expression, “Take only pictures, leave only footprints” is a good one; just be sure those footprints remain on trail.

Really, these tips are simply good common sense prep for just about any hike, with some additional mind paid to quick shifts in weather and temps. So what are you waiting for? Pack up the kids and head out for some fresh air and sunshine! Don’t forget to come back and share stories and photos of your latest fall hiking adventures–post links in the comments section.

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Seasonal Traditions

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I have a confession: I grew up hating fall, because in true Calvin & Hobbes form, it meant the return to school (yuck!). Also, it got dark too early and that meant less time playing outdoors, and I was an outdoorsy kind of kid. It wasn’t until I became an adult and had watched enough seasons come and go that I learned to appreciate autumn. I feel really lucky to live somewhere with four distinct seasons; there’s something to love about each one (though I could do without our summer humidity and mosquitoes!).

The boys call these “Ghost Pumpkins.
The boys call these “Ghost Pumpkins.

Since becoming a mom, I’ve grown to appreciate seasonal shifts even more, since we’ve built family traditions around them, from trips to sledding hills to spring hikes to maple syrup festivals to visits to the local pumpkin patch in search of Jack O’ Lantern pumpkins and to take our annual “kids squinting into the harsh autumn sun” photo.

Here’s one of our early attempts, taken in 2002, when my middle son was just a tiny longshoreman:

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Apparently baby bro was not feelin’ the “grunge baby” look
Apparently baby bro was not feelin’ the “grunge baby” look

Things settled down a bit after the arrival of our third son, which coincided nicely with the arrival of our only frame-worthy pumpkin patch photo so far.

That’s the great thing about family photos; you never know what you’re going to get, and often the silly or accidental results make the best memories.

Some years, the weather doesn’t cooperate:

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Or maybe your kid stubbornly prefers pumpkins of a different shade:

I’m getting da gween one, and dat’s dat!
I’m getting da gween one, and dat’s dat!

Or perhaps there’s slim pickins in your neck of the woods:

That’s what I call a straight-up marketing strategy
That’s what I call a straight-up marketing strategy

No matter what the weather or your kids’ temperaments bring, there’s always something fun or funny to capture as your family heads out to enjoy seasonal fun. In fact, this year I ordered school photos of my offbeat middle child making a purposefully silly face. Why? Because every time he looked at the proof, he’d giggle to himself for minutes at a time. How could I not order a print that would fill the house with that much laughter?

Speaking of laughter, here’s this year’s outtake from the pumpkin patch photo session:

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And here are the two I’d consider “framers,” despite a certain recalcitrant middle son’s tendency to snarl when I press the shutter release

I can never decide which to choose–the one that makes me smile, or laugh. What do you think? I think they’re all framers.

Do you have a hard time capturing those “perfect” family memories? How does your family enjoy celebrating autumn? Share your thoughts, opinions, and links to photos in the comments section.

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Photo Friday: Exploring Our “Back Yard”

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Today’s Photo Friday image was taken almost three years ago during a long weekend trip to Chicago. We live a little over an hour northwest of the city in a quiet rural county, and while we take a couple of day trips there each year, we really enjoy spending a long weekend in the city whenever possible. (In those instances, Priceline is our friend; we’ve snagged 4-star rooms for as little as $40/night–though keep in mind when booking a room that parking downtown usually runs into the mid-30s per night).

On this weekend trip during “spring” break (note the winter coats–leave it to our cold-hardy family would spend spring break exploring a Midwestern city!), we took the kids to several popular Chicago attractions, including: The Art Institute, Shedd Aquarium, and Pizzeria Uno* (where we learned we’d been remiss in raising our kids to enjoy Chicago Style pizza, because the deep dish, buttery crust combo did not appeal to them at all!). Their favorite thing about The Art Institute? The elevators! And their favorite part about the entire trip? A train ride on the El from the Loop to Lincoln Park and back for under $10.

That’s the cool–albeit sometimes frustrating–thing about traveling with kids: what wows you (Uno’s pizza!) won’t necessarily register with them (”Mommy! What’s wrong with dis pizza?”), and they find complete joy in things most grown-ups take for granted. When I was a miserable law student riding the El every day to school and work and back, I’ll admit I enjoyed those train rides but everyone commuting looked so miserable and blah. When I was pregnant with Jackson and working for a nonprofit organization downtown, I used to ride up in the front car like this to keep my nausea at bay. But to my kids? That elevated train ride was magical and exhilarating.

I love how reciprocal the parenting relationship can be; while my husband and I encourage them to explore and appreciate the world around them, but they teach us to remember to experience the simplest of things with joy unfettered by expectations.

Thanks to Deb Dubrow at Delicious Baby for hosting Photo Friday each week.

*Insider Tip: To fully appreciate the Chicago style pizza served up at Uno’s, skip the chains in other cities and even in the Chicago suburbs. There’s no substitute for eating at the original restaurant on Ohio Street, or its sister site a block away at Wabash & Ontario, Pizzeria Due.

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Virtual Getaways–Affordable Family Fun

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Here’s a travel money-saver you might appreciate: virtual travel. Let’s say you’re researching an article and feeling generally sorry for yourself because your family has no big travel plans in their immediate future (ahem). Why not take an eTour or even an eHike of Glacier National Park, courtesy of the National Park Service web site? Yeah, I know it’s not the same thing as being there, but 1) it beats a sharp stick in the eye and 2) there are far lamer things you could be watching, on or offline.

So far, it looks like Glacier is the only park with what they’ve dubbed eTours and eHikes, though I found a few video podcasts while procrastinating searching around the various park web sites. An eHike or eTour is a great family activity; many of the slides on the eHike I took today featured clickable sound clips with wild bird calls and other sounds of the forest. There are video clips showing rangers explaining natural phenomena (have kids look for the Smoky Bear icons) and other videos showing waterfalls and other points of interest on the hike.

There are also free podcasts about Glacier National Park (available for download via iTunes and other MP3/MP4 formats), and many other parks, like Katmai and Grand Canyon, also offer them (search nps.gov for “podcast” to download tales about your favorite parks). I’m thinking about bringing a handful along on my next walk around our city park.

Again, eHiking is no substitute for the real thing, but they’re fun teaching tools for kids and their parents, and I think they’re a great idea. I hope more parks decide to get in on this.

What do you think? Have you come across any fun sites featuring virtual tours? Share your thoughts, links, and ideas in the comments section.

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