Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Websites Everyone Should Know About

In my travels around the interweb (not on a horse, though don't I wish), I find all kinds of interesting and mentionable things. I'm sure you do too. I keep lists, and I think to myself sometimes, "Self, you really ought to tell people about that. More people should know about this awesome bit of virtual real estate." But then I don't know how to work it into whatever post I'm writing.

Here's this funny story about something dumb I did when I was a kid. And, by the way, check out this great coupon site!

Not only are there simply no segues available to smooth that transition, but I run the risk of sounding like some really bad marketer.

So here I am, telling you about the top four sites I think more people ought to be checking out. (And just to clarify, no one put me up to this, paid me to say this, offered me swag or other bribes, or anything. I just thought you might be interested in knowing about these spots.)

1. Violence Unsilenced. The brainchild of Maggie @ Okay, Fine, Dammit, this incredible site offers a space in which survivors of domestic or other personal violence can tell their stories. It is possible to post anonymously. The rule of commenting (comments are moderated) is that only supportive comments will be allowed. The site is brilliantly designed with a giant "Quick Escape" button, should you be a reader of the site who is in danger and need to erase your trail fast. It also has a "Take the Pledge" page, where bloggers can show their support of the courageous stories appearing here and grab a button for their own sites. Having felt a tremendous sense of relief myself after telling the story of my own post-partum depression -- which is nothing like as scary as working through domestic violence, I assume -- I can only imagine what a tremendous service this site will prove to provide to people everywhere. Please, check it out, tweet about it, spread the word, and take the pledge yourself as a show of support.

2. Swap Mamas. This great site, net result of much loving labor by MommyPie, is a meeting place for all things swapable. The idea here is that you might have 2T little girl clothes, outgrown. You put your 2Ts up for grabs, pay to mail them off to the swappee who makes the best deal with you (no money is allowed to change hands), and get something in return. Perhaps it's some new books to read. Or a small kitchen appliance. Or size 4Ts. Or perhaps you find someone who needs what you have, but that person doesn't have what you need. Karma says, send your stuff on anyway. You can also put out the word that you need 4Ts. And if you've already done a good deed for someone else by sending your gently used things out into the world without a direct trade in sight, then the person with the pile of 4Ts that need to be mailed out is more likely to choose you as the lucky recipient. Even if you can't send her a thing she needs. See? What goes around comes around. Lots of great members are already there, swapping, chatting, and getting to know each other. So what are you waiting for? Go check it out and start swapping!

3. Retrevo. This clever site matches needy consumers with people who have extra coupons for the digital boxes necessary to convert analog television. Explicitly no selling of coupons is allowed. The only thing changing hands is a coupon. The idea is that some people who claimed these coupons for free boxes (coupons no longer available) may not have need for them, while others who no longer can get such coupons are now out of luck with the new digital-only broadcasts. If you know someone who has or needs such coupons, send them here. And twitter it if you can. It's good to get the word out.

4. The "For Parents" page on the Environmental Working Group website. This site is devoted to shedding light on the chemicals we are exposed to on a daily basis. Although much of the site has technical information that can be hard to get through, the "For Parents" page is well organized, with all sorts of useful tips for everything from greening up your home to avoiding exposure to BPAs. This page is broken down into sections with quick tips, more information and comprehensive product information. From there, if you want to learn more, you can navigate throughout this extremely comprehensive and useful site to learn all the ways that you can help protect your children (and yourself) from unnecessary exposure to the dangerous and sometimes toxic chemicals that, terrifyingly, surround us in our daily lives.

And there you have it: four great, completely different, sites worth knowing about. Happy Travels!

(Cross-posted from my main blog, Mommy's Martini.)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Have You Thanked a Teacher Today?

Quick! What's one memory that stands out vividly for you from elementary school?

For me, it's Mrs. Jones in second grade, telling us the gruesome, horrifying, so-awful-that-I-wanted-to-hear-every-word story about the time she was bitten by a rattlesnake. I was breathless, terrified, and intensely interested all at once. Something clicked with me that day. Not about rattlesnakes (though I now suspect the point of the story was that we should learn how to avoid these beasts), but about story-telling. She may have been a country lady in the South who thought pin and pen were homonyms (much to my mother's horror), but Mrs. Jones could sure tell a story.

So can Phillip Done.

An elementary school teacher for over twenty years, Done has written a delightful, horrifying, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny book entitled 32 Third Graders and One Class Bunny. This book captures all the heartache, simplicity, complexity, and astonishment of eight-year-olds as they work their way through class projects, fall onto the floor in impossible paroxysms of laughter over red strips of paper ("you said strips . . . like strips naked!"), and try to remember things they have already been told five times that day alone.

The ultra-short chapters -- vignettes might be a better word -- are compact nuggets of perfection. Some are sad (how do children cope with pet death?), others quirky (what happens when you becoming addicted to the laminating machine?), still others philosophical (what are the key things a third-grade teacher wants his students to finish the year knowing?). The snapshots are arranged roughly chronologically, moving from the first-day jitters of a new school year and a new profession through the pitfalls and highlights of Halloween, the class musical, the pet parade, parent-teacher conferences, and the Last Day Party as viewed by a seasoned teacher.

If you have children in school, or if you recall your own elementary education with some fondness (or regret), you may think you don't need to read this book because you have already lived it. But I promise you, unless you actually are an elementary school teacher, you need to read this book. It will give you a perspective you never could have imagined on a subject you thought you knew intimately. You will laugh, perhaps get a little choked up, and throughout never cease to be amazed at the good will and patience of truly gifted teachers.

Do yourself a favor, as you are contemplating what to say to your own child's teacher in this term's parent-teacher conferences: read this book first. It's lighthearted and truly enjoyable, quick and fun to read, but it leaves you with an abiding sense of the power of inspired teachers -- not, certainly, because Phillip Done tells you he is one. If anything, he's overly modest about accomplishments and overly generous with the stories of his gaffes. But because, by the end, you can tell his students love him, and he has truly taught them, and their lives will never be the same.

All children should be so lucky as to have a teacher like him. And perhaps you will put the book down, and thank a teacher in your own life the next day.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Get Your Grove On, Little One

Earlier this winter, the Swingset Mamas sent me a sample of their "Swing, Dance, and Sing" DVD, one Nick Jr. rated in its "best for preschoolers" gift category. I previously mentioned it in my holiday gift guide, but I thought I'd like to give it a more in-depth discussion now that we've watched it multiple times. Two sweet-voiced women with a passel of adorable kids have put together this DVD, which comes with a bonus CD with a sampler of just a few of their songs. The short, colorful videos for each song feature these Mamas in an incredible range of styles -- from zydeco to 60s mod to ballad -- singing about everything under the sun.

Everything that's good for you, that is.

More than just wholesome, this DVD is packed with useful lessons. There are songs about wearing sunscreen and eating your vegetables and reading books and tidying up and many other useful preschool habits. Interspersed among the lessons are sillier songs -- one which is a series of knock-knock jokes, for example.

I appreciated the gentle and widely varying music, the easy-to-understand lyrics, and their attempts to capture children's interest with lots of color, choreographed dance moves for kids to follow, and an overall very upbeat tone.

Frankly, though, I think this DVD is a little boring for adults. The songs are very simple, musically, and the quantity of teaching moments they manage to pack into each 3 minute melody is a little redundant for a grownup who is past the "it's fun to tidy up!" stage. On the other hand, I know I am not the intended audience for this DVD. And it did keep my nearly five and two-and-a-half year olds completely engrossed. Furthermore, compared to the children's bands I've heard that make me want to remove my own ears rather than be forced to continue listening any longer, the Swingset Mamas are a most welcome addition to the repertoire in our car CD changer.

The only complaint I have that is related to the intended viewers of this DVD is that most of the songs have a pace that is a little too slow to really get kids up and moving. Although my children found themselves singing along and waving their arms in imitation of the children on TV, their participation was more passive than I had hoped.

The mamas themselves are energetic and cheerful, and I love that they've included a bunch of singing, dancing, and bopping with kids on the DVD. I will definitely play this again (we've already watched it several times), and I will love it if the conversation we had about the song "Eat the Rainbow," for example, actually helps my kids eat more foods of every color. But I might turn to other more heavy-hitting dance tunes next time I need them to burn off a little steam.

If you are looking for simple, engaging music that isn't saccharine for your preschoolers, I would absolutely recommend the Swingset Mamas.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Little Help for Your Hands

I am a lotion and cream fanatic. I have a pump bottle by the sink in the kitchen and another in the bathroom just around the corner. I keep sample sized-bottles in my purse, my desk at work, and my car. I have a pot of body butter and some Oil of Olay in my gym bag. I have fancier, heavier face creams in my medicine cabinet, pump bottles of lotion for my legs in my bathroom cupboard, and a giant pot of what we call "Cow Cream" on my daughter's dresser.

Between the washing my hands dozens of times a day that is necessary when one has little children, the dryness of a wintery climate that forces one to have the heat on at least five months a year, and my own genetic proclivity towards eczema, I wear a lot of lotion. And I can't stand lotions that are overly scented.

So when the SkinMD people contacted me and asked me if I wanted a sample of their super hydrating "shielding lotion" to try, I jumped at the chance -- but not before asking for two bottles, one to try, and one to share with you.

Here's what I like about this lotion: it's light and not greasy, absorbs quickly, and definitely makes my cuticles and hands feel less flaky. It has no discernable smell, which is great if you are senstivie to the cloying scents of products at places like Bath & Body Works. (Just walking into their store gives me a headache some days.)

The SkinMD lotion contains lots of natural ingredients like aloe, comfrey, yarrow, and vitamin E, all of which are good for moisturizing. (In fact, I remember my mother opening vitamin E capsules and rubbing the oil straight onto her poor cracked knuckles in the winter.) There are still nine ingredients I can't pronounce, not counting the three active ingredients that produce the sunscreen, so I'm not sure the word "Natural" on the label is completely accurate; nonetheless, I do appreciate all the herbal rather than chemical help. I also notice that it does not contain one preservative commonly used in personal care products to which my sister and many other people are allergic, so that's a plus. SkinMD seems to have de-chemicaled to some degree.

And let's not let it slip by too quickly: this product deserves props for containing sunscreen. While SFP 15 isn't major, so you won't be using this instead of your normal sunscreen in the summer, I think it's always good to have a lotion with sunscreen as your everyday one. I use a face lotion with SPF 15 in it as my daily moisturizer, and then I know that if I end up outside for longer than I'd expected to be, at least I have a little something on my face. If I had ever been outside without gloves at all in the last month, I am sure the SPF in the SkinMD lotion would have been perfect for me. But, alas, in Michigan in winter, sunscreen on anything but your face is somewhat superfluous.

I really can't speak to the fancy claims about "transforming the outer layer of skin into a hydrating invisible shield," since while I've felt very good, I haven't felt like I have brand new, transformed skin this last month. And I certainly haven't become invisible. But I will say that this is a very nice moisturizer, scent free with SPF, and mercifully not greasy, and so it has become the latest bottle that I carry around in my purse.

If you'd like to try SkinMD lotion for yourself, leave a comment on this post telling me what your most important quality is in a hand lotion: what's the one thing you can't do without? Contest will last till Thursday, February 12 at midnight EST, and I'll announce the winner of the free bottle of lotion on Friday 13. Because everybody deserves a shot at a little good luck on Friday 13.

Edited to add: According to, the winner is:

Random Integer Generator

Here are your random numbers:


Timestamp: 2009-02-14 03:46:14 UTC

And that means, Mrs. F with 4! Quebec must be harder on hands than Michigan, so I'm very happy for you. Congratulations.