Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Tipping the work-life balance scales

For the most part, my work-life balance scales are tipped toward work: When I'm not at the office, I'm commuting to or from the office, trying to come up with freelance ideas, working on freelance stories, or fielding or finessing pitches.

But for the past few days, I've been letting work slide a bit. Not the actual work, per se, but the emotional and mental work that goes on in the background, before and after the actual work gets done. Here's what I mean:
Instead of coming home from the office and then scrambling to get dinner on the table and the kids into bed before settling down with my laptop and a mile-long to-do list, I’ve been letting the kids stay up a late, sitting with them around the wood stove, telling stories. My laptop stayed closed for more than a few hours at a time. We watched Kung Fu Panda yesterday — twice — and I actually watched it with them, both times. The dining table, my default work surface since the desk in my home-office nook is covered in crap carefully organized stacks of papers, is being used for it’s true purpose. And, after dinner last night, instead of ushering everyone out of the room so I could do the dishes, I made hot fudge sauce and we ate it with huge glops of ice cream — even the 2-year-old, who dipped his spoon in the sprinkles and called it “cake.” ... [More]

Simple, right? Not for me, not usually. In fact, I know I'll get slammed with work (and stress) once I head back to the office. But for now, I'm enjoying the life part of my juggle. What about you? Do you search for balance, find balance, or just keep juggling?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Cuddle and soothe

I love the idea behind these little critters. And anything that can handle more than one job at a time is perfect for people who travel with little kids.

December 28, 2008
Gearing Up

Cuddly Space Savers
By Lylah M. Alphonse, Globe Staff

My preschooler and toddler like to lug their favorite stuffed animals with them when we travel. In the spirit of space-saving, I started to wonder how I could make their stuffed bunnies and puppies do double duty (a travel pillow? a lumbar support?). But the folks at Warm Whiskers beat me to it. Their sweet little Pocket Critters can be zapped in a microwave for 30 seconds and then used as a hand warmer, or chilled in the freezer for 10 minutes to soothe bumps and boo-boos. The 4 1/2-inch-tall plush animals are filled with flaxseed, chamomile, and lavender, so they smell lovely (and just might help lull your little one into a nap while in transit). They cost $12 each and come in five styles online at http://www.warmwhiskers.com/ or call 800-233-0201. [More]

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Taking the time to see the gifts in front of you

This is it. The thick of the holiday season.

No matter what you celebrate, by now the presents should be wrapped and maybe even given, the cookies baked, the food cooked, the tree decorated, the cards written, the music playing, the candles lit. Unless, of course, you're at my house.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Tandoori Chicken Pizza: India meets Italy via Amsterdam

My husband and I were walking through Vondelpark in Amsterdam years ago when we stumbled across a little tourist-trap of a cafe with this interesting item on the menu. One bite into it, and we decided we had to find a way to make it at home.

You can make it with leftover chicken tikka, if you've indulged in Indian food lately, but you can't beat the smokey flavor of tandoori chicken hot off the grill. Typical pizza spices don't work with this recipe, so I whipped up an easy patia -- a Parsi tomato curry with sweet, hot, and sour notes -- to use as a sauce. Make big batches of both -- they freeze well and can be used for other meals.

The pizza has a great balance of heat and sweet; add some melted mozarella and a crunchy-crisp crust, and it satisfies on every level.

Tandoori chicken pizza
Serves 4

1 pound pizza dough (recipe follows, or use store-bought)
1/3 to 1/2 cup pattia sauce (recipe follows)
1/2 pound tandoori chicken breast, cut into thin strips (about 2 cups, recipe follows)
1/2 to 3/4 cup shredded whole-milk mozarella cheese
1/4 cup Patak's Major Grey mango chutney
corn meal for dusting the pizza stone and peel
flour for dusting worksurface

- Dust pizza stone with cornmeal, place in cold oven.
-Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
-Dust the pizza peel with corn meal. Flour the work surface and roll the dough out to a thin disk. Transfer it to the pizza peel.
- Spoon the pattia in the center of the dough and use the back of the spoon to smooth it evenly over the entire disk in a thin layer.
- Slice the tandoori chicken into very small strips and arrange them on top of the sauce.
- Using two small spoons, dot the chicken and sauce with mango chutney. Sprinkle the pizza with shredded cheese.
- Transfer to the hot oven and bake until crust is golden and cheese is bubbly. Serve immediately.

Pizza dough
Adapted from Giada DiLaurentis; makes about 1 pound

3/4 cup warm water
1 envelope active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup "white whole wheat" flour
1 teaspoon white sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 Tablespoons olive oil
extra flour for dusting the counter while rolling
1 tsp extra olive oil for coating the bowl during rising

- Dissolve the yeast in the warm water, set aside for 5 minutes.
- Sift together the flours, salt, and sugar. Pour into the bowl of a standing mixer.
- Add the olive oil and dissolved yeast. Process until the dough comes together into a sticky ball.
- Turn out onto a floured work surface and knead about 5 minutes, until dough is smooth and elastic.
- Brush a large glass bowl with 1 teaspoon olive oil, put dough into the bowl, and turn to coat it all over.
- Cover loosely and allow to rise at room temp for about 1 hour.
- Punch dough down and roll out into a thin disk. Use immediately, or par-bake for about 4 minutes, cool, and freeze.

Patia Sauce
Makes about 3 cups

1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes in juice, no salt added
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large vidalia onion, minced
1 tablespoon minced garlic
10 whole cloves
2 3-inch-long pieces whole cinnamon stick
10 green cardamom pods, slightly crushed
1 teaspoon garahm masala
1 teaspoon dark brown sugar
2 Tablespoons cider vinager
cayenne pepper to taste

- Heat the oil in a deep-sided pan until it starts to shimmer.
- Add the minced garlic and onion and fry until onion becomes translucent, about 5 minutes.
- Add the whole spices, fry until fragrant. Add the canned tomatoes and their juices, stir well.
- Sprinkle with Garahm Masala powder and allow to simmer, covered, for about 15 minutes.
- Mix together sugar and vinager; add to sauce. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt, pepper, and cayenne.
- Remove whole spices before using (or freezing in 1-cup portions).

Tandoori chicken
Makes enough for about 4 pizzas

6 chicken breasts, skin and extra fat removed
1/2 cup plain non-fat yogurt
1/2 jar Pataks tandoori paste
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
1 Tablespoon garahm masala
1 teaspoon ground ginger
pinch cayenne pepper

- Wash chicken in cold water, then slice into 1/2-inch thick strips.
- In a large bowl, mix the yogurt, tandoori paste, lemon juice, and spices. Add the chicken, turn to coat. Cover and marinade for at least 1 hour or as long as overnight.
- Prepare a charcoal or gas grill, or heat a lightly oiled grill pan on the stove over medium-high heat. Add the chicken, being careful not to crowd the pan, and cook without touching until the chicken turns opaque, about 5 minutes. Turn and cook 2 to 3 minutes more. Discard marinade. Chicken will be slightly underdone (which is fine, since they will finish cooking on the pizza).
- Package in 1 1/2- to 2-cup portions and freeze.

The secret to a happy holiday: Ditch the inner control freak

I mentioned to my husband last night that I had written a post about shutting off one's inner control freak, and he just smiled and said, "Let me know when you've figured that one out."

I'll admit, it's a constant struggle for me to let go of my control-freaky tendencies, especially around the holidays, when I'm dealing with blended family issues as well as all of the other holiday hoopla. But I can manage to do it from time to time. And it does make the holidays so much easier. Here's how I do it, in a nutshell:

1.) Respect other people’s turf.

2.) Pick your battles.

3.) Understand that perfection is a myth.

4.) Accept help. Really.

5.) Ask yourself: What are you really trying to control? What’s more important, that things get done exactly your way, or that things get done, period?

Want the non-nutshell version? It's up at The 36-Hour Day. While you're there (or here!), let me know: How do you handle the holidays?

Lower your heating bill in 5 easy steps

Today, I'm over at Alpha Mom, offering up ways to lower your heating bill without resorting to turning the thermostat down to 50 and immobilizing the children in layers of sweaters and quilts. Check it out:

Where I live, in New England, home-heating costs are past "high" and approaching "WTF" levels, even though fuel prices have come down since the summer. I've made it my mission to whittle that heating bill down as much as possible. You, too, can lower your heating bill by following these five easy steps, none of which are "cover the windows in plastic," "buy adult-size footie pajamas," or "re-upholster the couch in fleece." ... [More]
Go to Alpha Mom's Guide to Everything (in five easy steps!) to read the rest, and be sure to tell me your tips! I'm pretty sure my husband would rather that I didn't slip into those giant footie pjs.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Make your charitable donation do more

If you’re feeling the economic pinch right now, just imagine how much tighter the belt is getting for people who didn’t have much to begin with. Most charities are struggling to try and help more people while coping with fewer funds; here are eight ways you can help, by making your money do more than you thought it could:

1.) Buy your last-minute holidays cards (or New Year Cards!) from charities.

2.) Look to local charities for gifts, too. For example: Rosie’s Place, a women’s shelter and rehabilitation center in Boston, also helps sells gifts at their Women’s Craft Cooperative.

3.) Donate to individuals to help them start a business. Kiva allows you lend small amounts of money to entrepreneurs for whom a little goes a long way.

4.) Give to organizations that encourage independent living. Heifer International is one great option, with gifts at different price points, from $20 to $5,000.

5.) Donate online while you’re doing other things. Click on the buttons at GreaterGood.com and give money without spending a cent.

6.) Support causes that mean the most to you. Here's mine: Tomorrow’s Rainbow, an organization help bereaved children cope with the loss of a loved one by encouraging them to interact with miniature horses and other animals, facilitating therapeutic play and fostering peer support.

7.) Donate time instead of money. You don’t have to do it right around the holidays.

8.) Donate what you no longer need. Clothes you don't wear or presents you can't use can keep someone else warm and happy this winter. Contact organizations like One Warm Coat, Toys for Tots, Goodwill, and the Salvation Army for more information.

Want more details? Surf over to The 36-Hour Day and check out the comments... there are plenty of ways to give more for less.

Monday, December 15, 2008

What price would you pay for greater flexibility at work?

Over at The 36-Hour Day, we're talking about job flexiblity, and wondering what price working moms pay in order to get it.

I ask my supervisor who, thank God, has a child of her own and has done the daycare juggle and knows what I’m up against and doesn’t get mad at me, glance apologetically at my other colleagues, and scurry for the door. Leaving early is like shooting a flare into the night, and I know what my childless coworkers and the ones with stay-at-home wives are thinking, because once upon a time, I thought that, too: Slacker.

This aspect of working-mom guilt, I haven’t gotten over. ...[

Why not Working Dads? Well, for one thing... does anyone ever call them that? As Penelope Trunk points out at her Brazen Careerist blog, gender disparity is less about pay than it is about parenting. The bottom line really is that, when they have kids, more women choose to downscale than men. Yes, it's a choice. Personally, I'm OK with the choice I made, but I realized, recently, that I'm not OK with the fact that I had to choose to begin with.

Did you downscale when you had kids? Did you ever rev the great career machine back up?

We definitely see the light

Who hasn't wondered whether that carpet is really clean enough for your baby to crawl on? Also: Travel experts recommend you bring flip-flops for hotel showers for a reason. Here's a solution: A mini UV-C sanitizing light.
December 14, 2008
Gearing Up
Shine a Light on It

By Lylah M. Aphonse, Globe Staff

You tend not to think about germs when you're traveling -- at least, not until you take a closer look at that hotel bedspread, or your baby drops her pacifier in the taxi, or you have to use a gas station restroom. Germ Guardian's new travel-size
Mini Sanitizer Wand promises to kill 99 percent of germs, viruses, bacteria, mold, and dust mites without chemicals; just shine the UV-C light over the questionable surface. Not quite pocket-size (10 1/2-by- 1 1/2-by-1 1/2 inches), the wand weighs about 13 ounces, runs on four AA batteries, and fits easily into a backpack or tote bag. It costs $59.99, and may be found on sale at Lowe's and www.lowes.com for about $30. [More]

Last-minutes gifts from your kitchen

Over at Larger Families, I've offered up 10 things you can cook up and give away this holiday season -- and not one of them is a bean-soup-mix-in-a-jar (though those can be good, too). I made another batch of the spiced pecans last night, and they disappeared before I could stuff them into the gift baskets I was making.

Here's a bonus recipe for you. I make this every year; the Persian-inspired flavors and delicate look make it different from your average brittle, and takes less than 10 minutes to make -- perfect for that last-minute gift for the neighbors.

Pistachio Brittle with Saffron and Cardamom

1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup salted and roasted pistachios (that's 1 cup without the shells)
1/2 teaspoon cardamom powder
large pinch saffron threads

- Set oven to 200 degrees.
- Put the pistachios in a medium-size bowl, add the cardamom. Rub the saffron threads between your palms to powder it, and add it to the nuts. Toss to coat, then set aside.
- Lightly spritz a foil-lined, rimmed baking sheet with non-stick spray. Set it in the oven to warm.
- Mix together the sugar, corn syrup and salt in a 4-cup Pyrex measuring cup.
- Microwave on high, uncovered, for 4 minutes. - Stir the sugar mixture, and microwave, uncovered, on high for 1 minute more. If mixture is not a pale gold color, microwave for 30 more seconds on high.
- Stir in the nuts. Microwave again, on high, uncovered, for 30 seconds.
- Pour molten candy onto warm, prepared tray, and use a buttered spoon or a silicone spatula to spread it as thinly as possible.
- Cool. Break into pieces

Sunday, December 14, 2008

My heating bill is giving me a heart attack

I got my heating bill today. The good part: Thanks to some creative measures and my black belt in Yankee frugality, we were able to trim the bill by about 30 percent, compared to last year at this time. The bad part: Thanks to the current cost of fuel, which is higher than this time last year, I still ended up paying about the same for heat. For now.

Here are 10 things that I've done (and persuaded my husband and kids to do) to lower our heating bill:

1.) Pulled some furniture away from the walls. There's no reason why the bureaus in my bedroom should hoard the heat coming from the baseboards.

2.) Wear turtlenecks and sweaters. They're not sexy, but hey, neither is shivering in the kitchen.

3.) Invest in caulk and bits of insulation. I had no idea I was losing so much heat from places I didn't really think about, like around the fireplace and from electrical outlets in exterior walls (which makes sense, though, because outlets are just holes in your walls with wires poking through, covered with a flimsy face plate). You can find outlet insulators made of flame-retardant foam at home-improvement stores.

4.) Embrace weather stripping. The door to our basement -- which is unheated -- was letting in an unholy draft. After kicking a rolled-up towel out of the way every time I opened or closed it, it finally occurred to me to just install proper weather stripping. And we lived happily ever after.

5.) Embrace the plastic. We had such bad "ghost drafts" that we could practically fly a kite in the family room. My husband hates the plastic -- which is completely transparent -- but loves the lack of an indoor breeze.

6.) Stop heating the whole house. We have programmable thermostats, and we use them. No point in heating the upstairs when we're all hanging out downstairs, or heating the whole house when no one is home.

7.) Get cozy in bed.
That's great, too, but I'm talking about heavy blankets, comforters, footie pajamas if you like them, flannel sheets, and hot water bottles.

8.) Stop using the fireplace so often. I love the cozy glow of a roaring fire, but an open fireplace actually sucks the hot air right out of a room and out the chimney. We invested in a wood stove several years ago -- I thought my husband was nuts, but now I adore it -- and we fire that up for warmth and save the fireplace for the nights when the kids insist on roasting marshmallows.

9.) Turn on the fan.
You can use fans to redirect warm air from near the wood stove to other rooms nearby. If you have high ceilings and ceiling fans, use them to push the warm air down to where you need it.

10.) Actually use all of those throws. We have a ton of throw blankets in the family room, but they were this close to taking up permanent residence on the couch. Now, we put them to good use, and keep the heat turned down a notch.

Want more ideas? Check out the details here, or join the discussion over at Work It, Mom!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Saving money? How about $100 -- easily?

We could all use a little more money... here are five great ways to save $100 a month without feeling the pinch. The article I wrote about it isn't new, but the great discussion taking place in the comments is. Got a great money-saving tip? I'm all ears... um, I mean eyes.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

At Shine: Facebook and flu shots

In the Work + Money section of Yahoo's Shine, I'm discussing the pros and cons of being Facebook Friends with your boss. Would you add yours? What if he or she asked you to?

And, over at Shine's Heathy Living section, we're talking about the flu shot and why I'm not getting one (and my kids aren't either). Much like the cold and flu season, the discussion over there is raging, so wash your hands and join in!

Making money without getting a second job

With the economy the way it is, for most people the holiday season simply cannot be the way it was. Finding a second (or third) job isn't always feasable -- there are only so many hours in the day, after all, no matter how you do the math. But you can turn clutter into cash:
1.) Sell your extra books. I’m a book fiend, a book addict, a book enthusiast. My family has come close to staging interventions for me over my first-edition addiction, but I culled through my collection and made about $200 selling some of them to Cash4Books instead. Cash4Books accepts audiobooks and text books as well as softcovers and hardback tomes, and they even pay shipping — type in the ISBN (above the barcode) to see if they’re buying what you want to sell. ... [More]
Other ideas that have worked for me: Selling music, DVDs, books and video games at half.com, turning loose change into gift cards with Coinstar, getting crafty with Etsy, and earning money by saving money. For details, surf over to The 36-Hour Day.

Monday, December 8, 2008

What does your inbox look like?

I've been trying to get organized -- quite a feat for the self-proclaimed Queen of Procrastination and Duchess of Lazy Perfectionism -- and since my desks at work and at home are just too much to tackle right off the bat, I've decided to take it slow and clean out my inboxes, clearing out the virtual clutter instead of piles of paperwork I really should be sorting through and throwing away.

In doing so, I've discovered that a.) my packratting tendencies extend to electronic communication, b.) I get a lot of pitches from PR people, and c.) I seem to have acquired more email addresses than may be normal. Or practical. Like, eight of them.

Book review: The Heretic Queen

As I've said before, I have a thing for historical fiction, and a thing for ancient Egypt. I was thrilled when I heard that Michelle Moran was working on a follow-up to her debut novel, Nefertiti. Her latest, The Heretic Queen, came out just a few months ago, and when I was finally able to pick the book up I discovered that I was completely unable to put it down.

My review of The Heretic Queen appeared in The Boston Globe on Saturday, and is online at Boston.com. Here's an excerpt:

The mortuary temple of Queen Nefertari is the largest and most awe-inspiring in Egypt's Valley of the Queens. On one wall her husband, the great pharaoh Ramesses II, wrote, "My love is unique and none can rival her. . . . Just by passing, she has stolen away my heart."

Around this real-life tribute, author Michelle Moran convincingly weaves an epic love story, a gorgeously detailed history lesson, and a gripping tale of political intrigue in her sophomore novel, "The Heretic Queen."

This story picks up a few years after her first novel, "Nefertiti," ends. Reviled by her people for her role in the near-ruin of Egypt and dubbed the Heretic Queen for turning her back on the traditional gods during her reign, Queen Nefertiti has been murdered; most of her family has perished in a suspicious fire. The sole survivor is her namesake niece, Nefertari, who lives in the shadows of the royal court, her family's contributions to the country stripped from the official records.

The orphaned princess is taken in by Pharaoh Seti I and becomes close friends with Ramesses II, the heir to the throne of Egypt. Her earliest memory sets the tone for rest of her life: "If the gods cannot recognize your names," an old priestess warns, "they will never hear your prayers."

Though accomplished, intelligent, and the niece of a queen, Nefertari is considered unfit to share the throne not only because of her family connections but also her resemblance to her disgraced aunt. "You know, he might have chosen you," a friend tells her, "if not for your family." Instead, the rising king marries Iset, the granddaughter of a harem girl, endangering Nefertari's position in the court. The power struggle for her future - and that of Egypt - begins.

Nefertari's rival isn't Iset as much as Iset's benefactor: the young pharaoh's aunt, Henuttawy, the beautiful and greedy high priestess of Isis who is using Iset as her own pawn in a complicated political game. Woserit, the high priestess of Hathor, and Henuttawy's sister, takes Nefertari under her wing, positioning her to win Ramesses's heart and rule Egypt as his queen.

But there are other obstacles to overcome, and one of them seems insurmountable: Though beloved by the pharaoh, Nefertari is reviled by his people because of her link to Nefertiti. Henuttawy capitalizes on this at every turn, accusing Nefertari of causing everything from a long drought to the death of Iset's firstborn, encouraging the people to turn on the young princess, trying to hang the label of heretic on her as well.

Like Moran's first book, "The Heretic Queen" is rooted in meticulous research; her fictional characters are based on actual people and historically documented facts, which makes the story resonate on many levels. Moran's careful attention to detail and her artful storytelling skills bring these people - pharaohs, princesses, and queens; petitioners, servants, and soldiers - to vivid life, imbuing ancient history with suspense and urgency.

© Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Do more with less: Homemade treats for the holidays

I've been making gift baskets full of goodies for friends and family members for years now. It takes a bit of planning, but the time and energy are worth it (and it allows me to stretch my budget a bit farther -- something we're all going to be doing more of, given the current state of the economy!)

This week's Do More With Less post at The 36-Hour Day offers up 10 ideas for delicious homemade treats. And not one of them involves bean soup in a jar.

Here's what I put in my baskets this year:

1.) Nut brittles. Peanut brittle is a well-known favorite; use macadamia nuts for a more decadent candy. This recipe from the Food Network is easy and fast (if you don't have a silicone baking mat, generously butter a rimmed baking sheet and warm it in the oven before pouring on the hot candy); make it even more of a treat by drizzling the pieces with melted white chocolate.

2.) Treats dipped in chocolate. Pretzels are a favorite, and if you use long pretzel rods then the kids can help you dip. (Is your household gluten-free? Glutino pretzels work well in this, too -- lay them on a baking sheet and drizzle away.) But don't limit yourself to pretzels. Dried apricots are delicious when dipped into dark chocolate, and regular old marshmallows become something else entirely when you coat them in milk chocolate.

3.) Limoncello. This one took a bit of planning, so if you'd like to give pretty bottles of sunshine-colored lemon liqueur as gifts this year, start now. All you need to do is shave the peel from several lemons and steep them in vodka for about two weeks; add simple syrup and pour into bottles. That's it. I have a few batches hanging out in a dark cupboard right now.

4.) Cookies or biscotti. The trick here is to make one type of dough and use it several different ways -- hey, if we can multitask, so can our baked goods. Country Home magazine has a great sugar cookie recipe that you can use to make five different types of cookies (or, of course, you can just sprinkle a single batch with five different types of colored sugar and call it a night).

5.) Jam. I started making jam because I hated to see blackberries rotting on the vines around our then-new home; now, I make jam because if I don't, my family says, "Hey, where's the jam?" It's probably the most time-consuming item in this post, but it's pretty easy (and, if you don't have blackberry canes running riot near you, you can always use frozen berries from the supermarket). This recipe from Alton Brown is awesome, but you can follow the directions inside a box of pectin with good results, too.

6.) Spiced nuts. Here's an excellent recipe for rosemary pecans from the folks at Wondertime magazine: Heat the oven to 350 degrees, place about 1 pound of unsalted pecan halves on a cookie sheet and toast them, stirring every so often, for about 10 minutes. In a large bowl, combine 2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary, 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, 2 teaspoons brown sugar, 2 teaspoons kosher salt, and 1 tablespoon melted butter; add the toasted nuts, and toss to coat. Package the nuts in 1-cup portions. Then go and make another batch, because you'll have already eaten most of this one.

7.) Spice blends. Make your own garahm masala or rib rub or Cajun blackening spice or herbs de Provence or... you get the idea. It's easy, it's delicious, and it'll definitely be appreciated.

8.) Drink mixes. When I was about 10, my mom showed me how to make my own "Swiss Mocha" mix, a la those International Coffees that were so popular in the late '70s and early '80s (did I just date myself here? I think I just dated myself. Moving on...). This Mocha au Lait mix has just four ingredients -- dry milk, semi-sweet chocolate chips, brown sugar, and instant coffee -- and I'm going to whip up a batch for old time's sake. Also: Shannon from Rocks In My Dryer offered up a couple of great homemade drink mixes in a recent guest post at Ordering Disorder... check them out.

9.) Baking mixes. My youngest brother is crazy for old-fashioned oatmeal raisin cookies, so last year I packaged up all the dry ingredients, attached a tag describing what else he needed to add and how to put it all together, and he happily baked them up at all hours of the day and night. This year, my neices and godchildren are getting "chef kits" with several homemade mixes for chocolate chip cookies, raisin scones, and brownies. Don't feel like coming up with your own recipes? You can cheat and pour grocery-store mixes into holiday bags... no one will know.

10.) Trail mix and Muddy Buddies. Combine your favorite fruits and nuts to make your own trail mix, or toss Chex cereal with peanut butter, chocolate, and powdered sugar and make a batch of Muddy Buddies for your coworkers.

Do you make homemade treats for the holidays? I'm always on the lookout for new ideas... share yours in the comments!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Gift guide round up: Great ideas for everyone on your list!

The holidays are fast approaching, and over at Work It, Mom! I've been testing and reviewing products like crazy in order to offer up the best gift ideas out there. Looking for a great Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, hostess, Secret Santa, Yankee Swap or insert-your-favorite-gift-giving-occasion-here gift? We've got you covered:

Last-minute gift ideas from The 36-Hour Day

Unique baby gifts

Great gifts for toddlers

Great gifts for pre-schoolers

Gift ideas for older kids (age 5 to 10)

Stocking stuffer for adults of all ages (from college-age on up)

Great gifts for guys

For a rundown on some of my favorite products, please check out my new blog, "Get that Gadget!" I'll be updating it often with in-depth reviews of the books, toys, gadgets and gear that I come across nearly every day.

When work and life overlap

I spent Thanksgiving Day on the phone with my Mom, who was on the phone with her relatives in Mumbai, who were in their homes just blocks away from where the terrorists were attacking. While trying to focus on the life part of my juggle, I found myself glued to the news and the internet, researching and refraining from reporting. So, how does this relate to work-life balance?
The odd thing about being a journalist is that work always intrudes on your life, even on your days off, even if it’s been years since you worked in the on-deadline world of daily, hard news. I’m sure that’s the case for many other professions as well — pediatricians who are also parents, for example, or accountants who are trying to rework the family budget to keep themselves afloat in this economy or childcare providers who have kids of their own. ...[More]
Do you work in a job that overlaps with your regular life? How do you find balance when you always feel like you’re on the clock?

What to do with Thanksgiving leftovers

Over at Work It, Mom! we're dealing with lots of Thanksgiving leftovers. We’ve already talked about the many things you can do with a leftover turkey — fine, roast chicken is similar. You can transform it into soup, or salad, or an overstuffed sandwich, for instance. But what about the rest of those Thanksgiving leftovers? The green beans? The mashed potatoes? The stuffing? Check out the great recipes and ideas we've collected in our weekly Do More with Less feature at The 36-Hour Day.

Quiet toys that traveling tots will love

I'm always on the look-out for portable, easy-to-use, quiet toys to take with us when we travel, and this great set by Manhattan Toy has quickly become a favorite with my 4-year-old.
Gearing Up
November 30, 2008

Shhh! They're Playing!
By Lylah M. Alphonse

Quiet toys are priceless when you're traveling with small children, and Manhattan Toy's Feltopia activity set is one of the best we've tried. Think of it as an old-school felt board updated for today's on-the-go tot. The set includes 28 colorful felt pieces - in ocean, fairy garden, royalty, and family room themes - that "stick" to the five felt panels inside the 15-inch-square handled case. The case has four pockets on the back to hold the floppy pieces, and the whole thing folds shut like a slim portfolio. It costs about $30 at Belmont Toys (71 Leonard St., Belmont, 617-484-1101) and online at www.geniusbabies.com. [More]

Working to live, not living to work

Over at Yahoo's Shine!, I've written an essay about how the holidays and my extended family remind me to work to live, not live to work:

I'm gearing up for another too-quick trip to my parents' and brother's houses, where we celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas just before or just after the big dates. There will be plenty to eat and, of course, cake, though all of the kids will mostly feast on icing and then work the resulting sugar high off by going ballistic in my brother's basement, while the grownups cast their diets to the wind and indulge. We'll also be indulging in something else, something that only people with far-flung families can truly understand: A chance to reconnect with the people closest to us.

Distance, I think, may be relative. The 300 or so miles between my home and my parents' isn't much to me, though I know plenty of people who can't imagine living less than a 15-minute drive from their mom and dad's places. My own parents left their homes as very young adults -- my dad came to the US from Haiti at the tender age of 17 to go to college, and my mom came here from India as a 22-year-old gunning for a second master's degree (The child prodigy gene skipped me and went to my brothers and my children, I'm quite certain) so my living a few states away isn't that big a deal.

Did I say the distance between my place and my parents' isn't much to me? What I meant to say is that it doesn't seem like a great distance -- I don't have to change flights in Europe and again in Mumbai in order for my kids to spend a little time with Grammie and Papa, like my mom did when I was a child. A five-hour drive doesn't seem far at all until, you know, I start trying to finagle time off from work and arrange a place for the dog and hold the mail and settle things with my kids' teachers and call their karate coach and pack all the bags and then load everyone in the car.
I guess what I'm saying is that I don't make that relatively short trip as often as I probably should.

On a recent trip, while visiting with my uncle (who is more like an older brother to me), getting reacquainted with my nieces, watching bad TV late at night with my mom, and talking politics with my Dad, I felt like I was missing out by having been away for so long. Or, more to the point, that my reluctance to juggle work and life even more in order to bridge that distance more often meant that, maybe, my kids were missing out on a closer relationship with their grandparents, their uncle and aunt, their cousins.

While I was loading up the car so we could head back home, my toddler stuffed his impossibly tiny hands into the sides of his overalls, trying to imitate my dad (who had his hands in his pockets), and gravely walked the perimeter of the property with his grandfather. From where I stood on the driveway, it looked like someone had cloned my dad. Another "life is short" moment.

The trip was full of moments like that: My youngest brother -- who, ironically, lives relatively near me but whom I end up seeing more often several states away when we're both at my parents' house -- delighting the kids by leaving each of them notes from "a secret admirer" on the front door, ringing the bell and then hiding; my 4-year-old daughter, who looks exactly as I did at that age, jumping on my mom's bed exactly the way I used to (and getting caught, exactly the way I used to); my brother feeding my daughter candy corn at breakfast while my father blocked my view of the kitchen table.

Forget all of the other truisms you've heard; this is what family is for: Reminding you of who you were before you became who you currently are. Reminding you about what's important in life. Reminding you that you need to work to live, not live to work.

And even though 300 miles can seem like several plane trips away when you're juggling work and life, suddenly, it's definitely worth the trip.

Who is supposed to "Cry It Out," me or my toddler?

My youngest child -- he's 2 -- has never been big on sleep. As newborn, he'd doze only if he was being held; as a toddler, he refuses to nap, even when he's falling down with fatigue. He sleeps through the night just fine, but putting him to bed can take ages. When bedtime runs into deadline and I have work waiting for me downstairs, the battle of wills becomes really hard to bear.

When my son was even younger, we tried "cry it out" with absolutely no positive results. The child can outlast me; this is one battle of wills that he wins hands down, and I have to admit I'm a little upset by how I can't handle the screeching.

But right now, he's upstairs, upset at having to go to bed at all, and I'm downstairs, guiltily unable to turn off the monitor, trying to get my work done.

Redefining "work"

I was stressing out about my rapidly expanding pre-Thanksgiving to-do list, wondering why I was so tired and why I felt so far behind on my work when I had crossed so many items off of my list. What had I been staying up late doing night after night? And then it hit me...
... there were certain things I’d had crossed off that I wasn’t counting as work. Things like “make pumpkin bread” and “fold laundry.”

Interestingly enough, when someone else is doing all of that stuff I totally consider it work. But when I’m doing it? It’s something else. Not work. Not life, either. How am I supposed to find work-life balance when there’s this other category in the way? [More]

Where does housework fall on your work-life continuum? Tell us at The 36-Hour Day.