Doesn’t it feel fabulous outside? The sunshine, the temperature … OK, it’s not quite tropical, but it’s definitely an improvement on what we’ve been experiencing. Last night I was talking with some friends about what we have planned for today. Sledding and hiking were on the list for several families, which played right into my current state of mind. I’ve been reading Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder. There’s an updated version out, and if you haven’t read it, do.  I guarantee it will have you bundling up your kids on even the nastiest days for a few minutes outdoors.

In the December issue of the Missouri Department of Conservation magazine, the author of the article titled “Get Out!” has dozens of seasonal tips for outdoor activities. The piece is a fitting introduction to the department’s new kid-centric magazine, Xplor, which launches its first bimonthly issue in February. Click here to sign up for free delivery.

My family has a fondness for almond bark. Yes, it’s just candy coating made with vegetable fat instead of actual cocoa butter … and yes, it’s deathly sweet. But I can’t imagine Christmas without almond bark pretzels. It’s the easiest thing in the world to make — it cracks me up that there are recipes for it — and this weekend, I taught M. how to melt it up, coat pretzel rods till they’re draped in just enough goo, and then dip them into mounds of sugary sprinkles.

He lost interest after 47 … then came back around 75 to count my progress … but by 118, when I finally finished my fifth bag of pretzel rods, he wasn’t even particularly eager to lick the bowl. Who knew he even had a sugar saturation point? Of course, then S. woke up from his nap, took one look at the counter top, and breathlessly asked, “Oooooh, Mama, what is this?”

We packaged up most of the pretzel rods to give as holiday gifts, but I have a stash reserved for the relatives who’ll be arriving later on this week. Whether any make it that long is an open question.

I’m home on this rainy Monday with a sick kid — it seems like a perfect time to recommend the resource Lit2Go: Audio Files for K-12 in iTunes. It’s broken out by ages, with mostly children’s poetry (from the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson) and nursery rhymes in the kindergarten section, and more scholarly stuff — lectures like spherical trigonometry or the text of Silas Marner — for older kids. Everything’s in MP3 format and is free to download.

If you have a St. Louis Public Library card, you can also download free audiobooks, songs and videos via GetItNow. First-time users are guided painlessly through the process, and the site is detailed as to what devices are compatible with each title. The lending period is typically seven days, after which time the download is no longer accessible — so no late fee, virtual or otherwise.

When my husband decided to leave the active duty military in 1998, I was relieved beyond words. He was in Air Force communications, and although his job didn’t require him to deploy for long time periods, it did put him into hostile territory — at that time, it was Bosnia-Herzegovina. But we both knew that he’d joined at a lucky time, after the first Iraq war and before whatever lurked ahead, and that Bosnia would eventually seem like a walk in the park compared to future military deployments.

He continues to support the military in his present job, with a fervor that’s perhaps stronger than when he was still on active duty. When he returned to civilian life, I’m the one whose ties to the military were almost completely cut. And lately, as casualties mount in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’ve been feeling that my small gestures of support are more and more futile.

But a couple of weeks ago — before the shootings in Texas, ironically — I decided that I was going to make donations to military-related causes for those on my Christmas list. To get myself in the spirit of the season, I’d planned to attend the Operation Shower fundraiser at Monarch last weekend. It’s a nonprofit that throws baby showers for moms-to-be with military ties. Unfortunately, a sick babysitter quashed that plan. But that’s such small potatoes compared to what deployed servicemembers are going through that I hardly dared whine.

There are tons of other opportunities to lend financial support, sometimes where you’d least expect them.  For example, at work the other day I was looking up some literature on children’s emotional well-being and came across a plea for donations of books on marital relationships to soldiers and their spouses.  It’s from John Gottman, a very respected expert who cites startlingly sad statistics on miliary marriages.

I suppose my former status as a military spouse predisposes me to support these kinds of family-related efforts, but there are tons and tons of others — everything from doing yard work at the homes of those who’re deployed to sending care packages, either as part of a group like The Care Package Project or on your own. (If you choose that option, the deadline for the cheapest holiday shipping rate to Iraq and Afghanistan  is Nov. 13; visit the Missouri VFW homepage for details.)  Heck, if you’re flying through Atlanta or Dallas or Bangor, Maine, you could even join the troop greeters, as seen in tonight’s PBS documentary.

So … have you done a random act of kindness today? Tough sometimes, isn’t it? And other days it’s easy — like tomorrow, I’m already planning to bring chocolate cupcakes to all the staff at S.’s school. One just had a baby, one is packing for a year in Mexico, and the other was in employment limbo the last time we spoke. The cupcakes are in the freezer, and I have two boys who’ll be only too ready to help me frost them in the morning.

Then again, isn’t it always a little easier to do something for someone you know (and like) than a stranger? So here’s an opportunity to expand your horizons. I recently received an e-mail from a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon who’s organizing a book drive to benefit school libraries there. She’s aiming to help at least 28 bilingual libraries with a stock of 22,000 English-language books. You can read about the official Peace Corp program Books for Cameroon here, and you can keep up with her blog posts about daily life in the Peace Corps here.

I’ve been to Africa a couple of times, and although we Americans tend to have trouble relating to the continent at all, what struck me most about my visits there was that the patterns of daily life are so similar. People bake cookies, as this Peace Corps volunteer, Wendy Lee, mentions in her blog. Kids play outside. Couples go out for dinner. Strangers point a clueless tourist in the right direction.

Lee is from St. Charles, and she’s hoping fellow St. Louisans will form a big part of the 2,300 donations of $5 each she’s hoping to raise via the Peace Corps Partnership. Go on, make this your random act of kindness for the day!

I’ve been keeping an eye on homepages designed to encourage random acts of kindness or anonymous favors to strangers. For all the mainstream publicity the cause gets, few people take time to post stories or ideas — perhaps because most of us aren’t eager to toot our own horns, or because we know what we could do and are somewhat embarrassed that we don’t do it more often.  So I have high hopes for Pay It Forward St. Louis — I can imagine it one day being a vibrant place to share ideas and encourage us all to be more brave about talking up this concept.

As long as I’m sending out surfing suggestions, check out the blog STL Meal Deals, which just posted a nice little roundup of kids-eat-free deals. For adults who’re springing for a sitter, there are also some very good offers at very nice restaurants.

Poor East St. Louis! It can’t catch a break. Earlier this year plans I read about the new Malcolm W. Martin Memorial Park and Mississippi Viewing Platform directly across from the Gateway Arch. The park opened without a whole lot of fanfare in early June — or I should say, that was the opening of the new viewing platform, designed by the well-known St. Louis architecture firm. The huge fountain that’s the park’s centerpiece had been around since 1995. You’ve maybe seen it from the Arch … and probably not been over to see it in person. I haven’t.

The reason I’d expected to hear more about this new park is that it’s bound to be a great place to watch the fireworks tonight. No way you’re headed to East St. Louis after dark, you say? Well, the park has 24-hour security and it’s just two “doors” down from the Casino Queen, according to a nice little story the Beacon did on its opening.

So why does it rate a mere sliver of newsprint as a viewing location?  Because Citygarden opened in downtown St. Louis, maybe?  I’ll admit Citygarden is a fabulous park — my kids ADORE the little square of stepping chimes near the 9th and Market corner.  But aside from St. Louis Front Page, which did a helpful “if-you-go” story on its southwestern Illinois site,  and a tiny little blurb in the Post-Dispatch, I hardly saw the new east-side option mentioned anywhere.

And I’m probably posting this too late to be of much help … ! It looks like an attraction that could finally put East St. Louis on the family-friendly activities map. But it’s worth noting that the park exists, and one of these days we’ll get over to check it out too.

Today’s a bit of a departure from my usual focus on free events — the boys really want to go to a waterpark this week, and sometimes, when it’s this hot, that much cool water sounds too good to pass up!

The current issue of St. Louis Kids Magazine contains an article I wrote on 51 family-friendly summer activities. Twenty-five of them are free, but they’re followed by some that are under $25 for a family of four and some that are “Worth the Splurge.” Thanks to the publisher of the magazine, I also wound up on KMOV’s Great Day St. Louis program on Monday to talk about the list.  Happily, they used plenty of footage from the venues we highlighted (five under $25 and five splurges) so it wasn’t five minutes solid of my face on camera!


This morning we put up the Christmas tree. Yes, you read that right! S. has a birthday in two weeks, and when I asked him what theme he wanted, he replied that he wanted to put up the Christmas decorations. Specifically, he wanted the tree and the angel and wreath window lights. Then, after he’d thought about it awhile, he decided he also wanted Christmas cookies. And the big ghost that hangs above our patio on Halloween.

Because it was such an unexpected request, I had to think for awhile before acquiescing. I mean, who in her right mind would agree to put up a Christmas tree at this time of year? But he was so cute, and so earnest, that I granted his request. We only used the top 1/3 of the tree (and I’m thanking my lucky stars that we bought an artificial one last year, ’cause where would I have found a real one in June???) and thus we got by with only 1/3 of the ornaments. Timewise, though, it took about the same as the full tree, since we had to figure out how to get the top section to stand in a support designed for the base.

But now we’re set: The birthday presents are below the tree, the sugar cookies shaped like trees and angels and stars and snowmen are in the freezer, and the ghost is in his place above the patio.

If your kid won’t go for a Christmas theme — and I admit I’m probably one of the few “blessed” in that way! — let me tell you about M.’s birthday. He invited his classmates to the house for a massive water fight. We had to postpone once due to the weather, but the second time was the charm: a sunny, humid afternoon that was just right for keeping the soaking-wet kids warm without dry-roasting the adults seated in the shade.

We asked the kids to bring their own weapons (thus saving the price of buying guns for everyone) and wound up with a mishmash of guns, balloons and buckets that worked out really well. The neighbors loaned us their hose, so we were able to have two adults working to keep the weapons loaded with liquid ammo. Two hours and two snack breaks later, a few of the kids had broken off for the more quiet slip-n-slide option at the other end of the yard, but most were still heavy into the water fight.

Of course, that option only works if you have a big yard that can be doused and trampled! Here are some other tips for successful parties that I’ve heard and seen recently:

  • Time travel.  Prepare a time capsule for the birthday boy or girl, with lots of photos and some favorite items from 2009.  Their friends can bring small items to contribute too.  It’s kind of a retro idea, but one that’s new to the kids — and from the sound of it, they really dig it.  The party’s theme could be either the future, in anticipation of opening the capsule in a decade or so, or the past.
  • Share the cost. Several of M.’s classmates have birthdays in close enough proximity for them to do joint parties, and that has worked out well.  A few weeks ago, for example, we attended one at a big sports rental hall, complete with balls and bouncy houses. The hosts were able to share the cost of the rental and the favors — and we parents were thankful not to have two parties scheduled within in a short time frame.
  • Free concerts or playgrounds. Just last night we happened to be in Lafayette Square, where enterprising parents had turned the evening’s festivities into a celebration of their second-grader’s birthday. If you’re using a city picnic shelter, you’ll have to reserve in advance, of course, but you can also simply picnic — or, if you live close enough, have the kids adjourn to the backyard for cake and ice cream after they’re done at the playground.