Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The easiest (best?) Christmas craft ever

It was a miserable rainy day on Monday.
We had driven ten hours on Sunday after a delightful jaunt back east, and Monday was just feeling very Monday.
And it was CYBER Monday. So this meant I was frantically trying to get every. last. deal. known to online shoppers or face the certain penalty of missing a bargain.
And Little Guy was BORED.
He had just enjoyed five days of constant attention from loving grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, great grandparent, cousins once removed, dog, great aunts, great uncles. Goodness we have a big family.
Not to mention the indoor pool.
Were we the first people at the hotel pool and the last ones to leave every day?
I'm not sure I even have to answer that.

So he was REALLY BORED to be back home, with no playmates (not even a sister who was at school), and no pool. And rain.

Ok, this is good, I thought. We'll do a puzzle. Or some reading practice. Something "productive."

"I want to decorate for Christmas!" he said demanded. How could I turn this down? Such a sweet idea. One problem: I didn't have the keys to our storage locker.

Whoa, whoa, whoa, I just got way ahead of myself. I forgot that I have readers who don't live in the city! "What's a storage locker?" They are asking.
A storage locker, dear rural reader, is akin to your "garage" or "basement" or "attic" or "junk room" where you keep all the things you use infrequently. Or never.
Like huge luggage.
Or skis.
Or Christmas decorations including the artificial tree you inherited with your condo because the previous owner forgot that she actually had a storage locker (side note: Thanks!)

And then, a stroke of brilliance: A Days till Christmas chain!

 1. Cut red and green construction paper into strips. (Obviously I chose this pic because it shows off the gingerbread house we made. Go ahead, admire it.)
2. Form alternating loops. Feel free to teach your child what "alternating" means if you're into that sort of didactic moment thing.
3. Staple. Or tape. Or glue. Whatever adhesive you already have at your house will do.
4. Ta-DAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH. Oh so very proud.
5. Hang on wall and rip off one loop per day till Christmas!

I probably made one of these chains in every Sunday school class from ages 3-17. It is the simplest, most Kathleen-proof craft that exists.
And it was soooooo fun! Little Guy had a blast and the time just flew by while we worked together.
There was a lesson here for me about the Christmas season. A lesson about patience, simplicity, and the value of time spent together over perfection.
I hope your Christmas season is full of all that good stuff.

Right before we hung the chain on the wall Little Guy looked at me and said, "I'm going to teach my kids how to do this when I'm a Dad!" I know you will, buddy.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016


Do you love Halloween as much as the Little Dragans and I do?

 B's first Halloween. This picture is a fake, she actually slept through trick-or-treating.

Ever since I was a little girl, I have proclaimed Halloween my favorite holiday. After all, it combines the two things I love most: pretending to be something I'm not and sugar!

Little Guy's first Halloween. Big sister hugs can be very scary.
We love all the dressing up, the parties, the trick-or-treating, the whole business. 
BUT, there's some other really cool stuff that goes on in the city at this time of year, too. I thought I'd highlight a few places you should check out. Let your candy-fueled adventure begin!

Day of the Dead Activities in Pilsen
El Dia de los Muertos, traditionally observed in parts of Mexico, coincides with Halloween and All Saints Day. To honor loved ones who have passed on, families construct altars in their honor and then place ofrendas (offerings) such as the loved ones' favorite foods or sugar skulls at the altar while remembering them. 
Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood offers many ways to mark the days surrounding the holiday.
UNO's Carrera de los Muertos: Saturday, October 29, 2016 at 8 am.
This fun and festive 5k weaves through Pilsen and ends with a big celebration complete with mariachi bands and Mexican food. Registration is closed for this year, but it's still a fun one to watch as many runners dress in full costume... this goofy family. And now there's a picture of me in gold spandex on the internet. 
"Journey of the Soul" exhibit at the National Museum of Mexican Art:
This is one of my favorite museums in Chicago and the Day of the Dead exhibit is the highlight of the year. Best part: it's free. I'm sure they'd appreciate your donation, though!

Dia de los Muertos Kids Festival: Sunday, October 30, 2016 11:00 am - 2:00 pm
Hosted by Chicago Latina Moms at La Catrina Cafe (1011 W 18th St.), this will be a fun-filled day with activities, crafts, and opportunities to explore the tradition of the Dia de los Muertos!

Make a Mummy at the Oriental Institute in Hyde Park:
In addition to using the "mummy simulator," there will also be crafts, games, and a fortune teller!
Saturday, October 29, 2016 5:00 pm - 8:00 pm, more info and free registration link:

Give away your candy for a good cause!:
I know, right. Blasphemy.
But if your house is anything like ours, we end up with pounds (literally) of candy that we won't--or shouldn't--eat and it sits there until approximately Easter. When we get more candy.
So an alternative is to donate or even sell it at one of these locations who use it for care packages for our troops:

These are just a few ideas to get you started! Whether you dress up, pass out candy, or just turn off all the lights and hope you don't get egged, we all wish you a very happy and safe Halloween!!


Monday, September 5, 2016

Historic Pullman and the origin of Labor Day

On the far south side of Chicago, along the banks of Lake Calumet you can take a walk through history in the Pullman neighborhood: Chicago's own National Park!

The Little Dragans and I checked out this neighborhood by taking one of the guided walking tours offered the first Sunday of each month.

First, some history. George Pullman (1831-1897) began manufacturing the Pullman sleeper cars in Chicago in the 1860s. In order to offer an alternative to overcrowded (and unsanitary) city-living, he built an industrial city. Anyone who worked in the factory was also furnished with a company-owned home--well, for which they paid the rent right out of their paycheck back to the company.

Two houses with a shared porch along "Foreman's Row," one of the nicer sections of town. All brick is original and was fired from Lake Calumet clay. I love the little "eyebrows" above the windows made with darker brick.

These were nice houses, too, especially for the 1880s: two to three bedroom with indoor plumbing (!) and a full backyard. Garbage collection was every single day from the back alleys and the whole town was designed on an impressive septic and fire-prevention system. The idea was to prevent outbreaks of diseases like cholera which were rampant in industrialized cities at the time. A healthy, not-dead workforce is a more profitable workforce, it turns out...

The city also boasted amenities such as a hotel, a market, a church, one bar, and a huge indoor arcade which was one of the first ever North American "malls." Lots of opportunities for you to spend that hard-earned paycheck right back to the company (I feel like you can see where this is headed.)

The beautiful Hotel Florence, site of the town's one bar.

Gorgeous "Greenstone Church" constructed from serpentine limestone. The company wanted to rent the church to any denomination that would use it, but none ever did, preferring to worship in homes or meeting rooms for free. So this church stayed vacant for much of the 19th century.
Basic map of the town as it stood at its peak: 12,000 residents strong.

So this seems like a sort of utopia, right? Rather than live in squalor in the crowded inner city, you get a house with plumbing, places to socialize and live comfortably with your friends, family, and coworkers (who are also your friends and family). Why doesn't everyone do this, right???

Well, it's because of what happened next.
In 1893 the worst economic depression to ever hit the United States slows Pullman car production to near stagnation.

Workers' hours, and ipso facto their paychecks, were cut by more than 30%.

But rent stayed the same. So did the price of goods in the markets in Pullman.
The shareholders still got paid their dividends and the company continued to make an uninterrupted 6% return on the investment in the town.

So now your two week paycheck might be $9.07, but rent was still $9.00 and it was taken directly out of your check. Here's your 7 cents with which to feed your family...

Beautiful homes along "Arcade Row," now sucking up your entire paycheck with no other means to earn income in town.

So the workers went on strike.
And President Grover Cleveland overruled Illinois' governor and allowed the National Guard to be called in.
Twelve workers died, many more were injured.
This was pretty much the death knell for the town of Pullman. A series of court battles followed which eventually led to the forced dismantling of the company ownership of the town. Some of the homes are actually STILL owned by descendants of the families who were able to purchase them after the break up of the monopoly.
George Pullman died of a heart attack in the midst of the turmoil.
AND in an effort to appease labor unions who were (understandably) outraged by the violence in Pullman, President Grover Cleveland ratified the national recognition of Labor Day. Which we are all celebrating today.

If you're in Chicago, a trip down to Pullman is a great chance to stroll its streets and imagine what life was like way back when. The first weekend in October is the only time of year you can tour the old factory and the Hotel Florence. Check the Historic Pullman Foundation's website for details:

Two Little Dragans enjoying the freedom of a day off of school and the fact that they are not expected to work in factories anymore...

Monday, August 29, 2016

El Lago del Bosque...

...diversión sin corte...amigos y español!
Sorry about that, I just burst into song. And in Spanish, no less.
These things happen after you've been at "El Lago del Bosque" having one of the best weeks of the year!

Allow me to explain.
"El Lago del Bosque" or "Lake of the Woods" for my anglophone friends, is a camp in Bemidji, Minnesota (official town motto: yeah, well we haven't heard of you, either) where you get to practice Spanish all day! Woohoo!

I realize this probably doesn't sound like the dream vacation hiding behind that giant sign on "The Price is Right" to everyone. 
But to me, it is heaven. So much heaven, in fact, that I forgot about the "camera function" on my phone and have about four usable photos for this whole blog post. With apologies...

The best parts of our best week of this year:
 #1: La Tienda = The Store
The camp has a bank (el banco!) where you can change dollars for real Mexican pesos and then use them to purchase all manner of sundries in the camp store. This was REVOLUTIONARY for the Little Dragans. Do you see those items around their necks? 
Yes, those are pan flutes.
Do you mean you don't have a pan flute? Why not? Now we have two. But I'm sorry, we can't lend you one. You should go buy your own pan flute like the Little Dragans did.
It was really nice to be able to let my kids go to a store by themselves and buy things. I realize this sounds so silly, but just to let them have that freedom here was really refreshing. 
They spent $40 each (that's 400 pesos) on coca-cola flavored gummies and Toblerone. Because I'm raising them correctly.

#2: La Comida = The Food
This terrible photo is meant to demonstrate the little song we sang before each meal.
But, sweet readers, the FOOD. Just, wow.
Every meal is based on the cuisine in a different Spanish-speaking country and is all super tasty and informative.
But do you know what the best part is?
I didn't have to shop for it.
I didn't have to put it in the cabinets.
I didn't have to prepare it.
I didn't have to listen to complaints about it.
I didn't have to clean it up.

It was perfect. 10/10. Highly recommend.

#3: Super Español = Super Spanish
Every night after dinner, a masked superhero flies in to award one or two campers with a special prize for speaking Spanish all day.
Little Guy did not win last year. B did. All year Little Guy wondered if this would be the year he would win. And he did!!! Check out his face when he won:
I mean, I just want to want ANYTHING that badly. The camera was shaking in this pic because I was crying I was so excited. 
Not to be outdone...
She won the next day. I'm not sure I would be any prouder of these two if they had won Nobel Prizes.

The rest of my pictures are either non-existent or just utter garbage, so I'll not subject you to them. Suffice it to say I could go on and on about the friends that we have made at this camp, the incredible staff who go out of their way to make this week what it is, or even the setting which is that beautiful wildness of northern Minnesota that I could never have known I would love as much as I do now. 

Summer Camp was an important part of my own upbringing, both because of the relationships I developed there and because of the independence I gained by going each year. 

There is a powerful possibility for reinvention at camp where you can step outside of your normal life and be someone a little different for a week. 
Someone a little more spontaneous, a little more relaxed, a little more open, a little more fun...

Maybe it's not that we're really different at camp. 
Maybe it's just that we're better versions of ourselves.

If you're interested in checking out Concordia Language Villages who have summer camps of many lengths, for all ages, and in FIFTEEN different languages, please check out their website!

On the last night, through her very sincere tears, B asked me why we couldn't just stay there all year long. 
I wish I'd had a better answer, because the truth is that I wish we could too.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

In a Pickle

This was supposed to be a delightfully charming post about homemade pickles.

Can't you just see my DIY-smugness radiating out of that mason jar? Oh wait, that's my cat's whiskers, photobombing.

We signed up for a CSA again this year. Nichols Farm & Orchard, if we're being all specific. It's awesome. We get a huge box (3/4 of a bushel if we're still being all specific) with veggies and fruit every week. The Little Dragans call it "Vegetable Christmas," which is perhaps less a commentary on the bounty of offerings from Nichols and more an indication that Santa might need to step up his game around here... but I digress.

A few weeks ago we got a bag labeled "Pickling Cucumbers." So we decided to make pickles, naturally! How hard can it be??

I will state for the record that we did research and choose a recipe. You will note that it is not linked here and correctly assume that this means that it turned out horribly. Since I don't know if it was my fault or the recipe's, I'll not drag the name of the recipe's author through the proverbial pickle brine here, but suffice it to say that she is well known for her own brand of DIY-smugness and apparently wears potholders so she never has to "Drop it Like It's Hot."

With B as my witness, we dutifully followed that recipe to the letter. Here's the finished product.

Promising. So promising.

The recipe said to let it sit for two weeks. So we just sat there for two weeks staring at it.
Finally, the big day arrived!
B took a class last year with an organization called Purple Asparagus in which she was exposed to many exotic fruits and vegetables and instructed to always take a "polite bite."
This pickle taste test represents a type of final exam:

I give her an A! That is very convincingly polite disdain.

Little Guy--having not yet benefitted from the Purple Asparagus curriculum--offered this response:

He turned to me and deadpanned: "Pickle fail, Mom."

Obviously I had to try them. Gentle reader, what follows is perhaps the worst collection of photos of me any human ever posted on the internet, but I am publishing them because JOURNALISTIC EXCELLENCE. You have been warned.

Mmmm....pickles, this should be fun.
Something is not right with this pickle.
Something is--in fact--desperately, offensively, terribly wrong with this pickle.
Why did I go back for another pickle?? Oh no, there it is, the existential dread setting in...

So this post will not be about charming, delightful homemade pickles at all.

Sorry about that.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Summer Series 3: Portage Park

Back at it with more adventures around the city! This time we checked out Portage Park, a residential spot on the city's northwest side with lots of fun gems tucked between rows of charming Chicago bungalows.

This style of house accounts for 1 in 3 stand-alone houses in the city of Chicago—in Portage Park it's more like 99 in 100, probably why Portage Park is part of the "bungalow belt." I taught the Little Dragans the word "bungalow" and for the rest of the day they said "bungalow, bungalow, bungalow" every time we saw one. That only got old after 30 seconds.

Let's check out some of the fun places we visited in Portage Park!

Chopin Park

Portage Park boasts the highest concentration of Polish people in the city limits, and this park is named after the most famous Polish composer, Frederic Chopin. The park is just a pretty standard park with a water feature, but it was fun to tell the Little Dragans about who Chopin was and play a bit of Nocturne while we played there.

Chopin joke:
Q: What did the musician take to the store?
A: His Chopin Liszt!

(Grant: That is even worse than a Dad-joke, Kathleen. 
B: Seriously, Mom, that's not even a little bit funny.)

Portage Park and Epic Outdoor Pool

Now this park is worth the trip to the northwest side! Have you been wondering what a portage is? It's the land between two bodies of water. This portage was between the Chicago and DesPlaines rivers and before roads, sewers, and drainage systems it used to flood every spring. The Native Americans loved this area because they could portage (turns out you can also use it as a verb) from one river to the other without having to get out of their canoes! B's just up there portaging away through the playground which is great fun.

Once we worked up a sweat with all that portaging we headed over to the BEST PUBLIC POOL IN CHICAGO. There, I've said it. And I should know: I swam so much as a kid that my skin actually emanated chlorine.

Built in 1959 when Chicago hosted the Pan-American games, this Olympic-sized pool with full diving well was used again for the 1972 Olympic swimming trials where none other than Mark Spitz set a new world record! The facility is beautiful, there's also a kids' area, and it is so huge that even if it is crowded you will feel like you have the place to yourself.

A word of caution: The staff there are very protective of this space (understandably) and if you are wondering if you are breaking the rules, you probably are. I broke like 16 rules within the first five minutes of being there including (but not limited to): carrying a bag, taking photos, having my hair down, B's swimsuit possibly not looking like a swimsuit, Little Guy going down the slide head first, smiling, splashing, breathing, etc. I think we should put these Lifeguards to work on the rest of the city...

Hagen's Fish Market

I love checking out these tucked away little family businesses. I love that they just sell fish! It's tiny, but so friendly. And I loved my catfish po' boy, too! Little Dragans, notsomuch, but you can't win 'em all!
Do you think the fish were scared of Little Guy's shirt?

Fantasy Costumes

This. Place. Is. NUTS.

We spent almost an hour walking around in this monstrosity that is as big as a city block and has 1,000,000 items (not an exaggeration) in stock. Costumes, accessories, decorations, makeup, wigs, and even an "over 18 only" room that we reluctantly missed out on. I seriously can't wait to come back here and buy our Halloween costumes!
Room of masks. Just masks. Floor to ceiling. See also: wig room, weapon room.

Six Corners and Josi's Frozen Yogurt
We wandered around the Six Corners area for awhile, which has some great Art Deco facades, including the old Portage theater. At one time this was the largest retail area outside of the Loop. We were getting pretty hot, so we were extra excited when we stumbled upon Josi's Frozen Yogurt!
I just can't say enough great things about this place. It's a pretty standard frozen yogurt + toppings/pay by weight cafe (along the lines of Sweet Frog), but it's the little personal touches to the shop that make it so special.
Poem machine: for when the poem-cravings strike.
Wall of post-it note love. And we do love us some post-it notes...
Toy area!
This guy likes it too. I guess all those girls I knew in college were right: The froyo diet CAN make you skinny!

But the BEST part about Josi's is that they designed their cafe and business to be an Autism Friendly Business, one of the first of its kind in Chicago. They're all about inclusion and providing a safe space for families to get out and enjoy a treat together without worrying.

In fact, once a month they host a "No Apologies" play hour before the store opens for business. You're invited if you have a special needs child, just rsvp via their website. No name tags, no forced interactions, no apologies. Just a good time with your family and some delicious treats.

I hope someday every business will be mindful of the needs of families of all shapes, sizes, colors, flavors, and abilities. And I'm glad Portage Park boasts at least one awesome one! If you can get to Josi's, stop in and show them some love and tell them how glad you are that they're doing what they're doing in our city! I know we'll be back!!