This morning at the gym I had to laugh — two women were arguing over which weather forecast to believe. One TV channel said tomorrow would clear up and be sunny; another said that wouldn’t happen until Wednesday. Both women just wanted to be outside without rain, and I can’t say that I blame them. I am pretty tired of mud-stained jeans and socks myself.

It’s hard to advocate outdoor activities given the weather lately, but I’m going to go ahead and do it, for two events downtown. One is this Friday (May 21): the U.S. Bank Bridge Bash. It’s  a rare opportunity for kids to witness a wrecking ball taking a swing at a building, in this case the eyesore skybridge. For my boys, that 5 p.m. swing will be the highlight of the day. But plans also include food and live music from 4 to 7 p.m. between Eighth and Ninth streets on Washington Avenue.

And if wreaking balls aren’t your thing, maybe you’re into chess? It seems like most kids are these days — and with the Chess Club and Scholastic Center in the news so much, the trend probably won’t wane anytime soon. Starting this month, the folks who book the Old Post Office Plaza downtown have started promoting what they call Chess Club Mondays from noon to 7 p.m. We haven’t been down to see it yet (blame the weather!) but if you know anything about chess, it should be an interesting way to spend part of the afternoon.

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.

Our neighborhood is tucked away down in South St. Louis, and we’re not the kind of place that would ever register a National Night Out block party. Heck, some of us don’t even register our cars (not in the city, anyway). But party we will, come tomorrow at 6 p.m. I expect the nuns, perhaps some cops, a couple of engineers and computer geeks, a nurse and therapist, retirees, a teacher, a few businesspeople, a few perpetual students, enough kids to constitute a herd … you get the idea. Just your average neighborhood. We’re nosy about the newcomers in the rental units (surprisingly many this year) and dismissive of the latest conspiracy theories floated by the neighbors who’ve always had one too many beers.

Rather than invite you to our event, I encourage you to find your own. Some will be easy: This morning in the neighborhood just to our north I saw a 60-ish woman plastering every tree along her street with homemade tagboard signs promoting their block party. Some may even be registered with the official National Night Out folks. Our ZIP code’s not — no surprise there! — but many others in St. Louis are.

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.

My dad used to take us on loooong drives around this time of year, sort of aimless wanderings to have a look at the countryside. Perhaps it was a rancher’s way of keeping tabs on what his neighbors were doing, or maybe it was a way to fulfill the eternal male love of cruising. He would be tickled with the idea of the National Road Festival this weekend (June 19-21) throughout the Illinois counties traversed by the historic highway.

Never heard of the National Road? Neither had I, actually, until I stumbled onto the event earlier this spring. Turns out the National Highway’s origins date back to Thomas Jefferson, who signed a bill in 1806 which eventually led to a road (a wagon trail, really) through Pennsylvania, Maryland and the territories that later became West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. It was built, but in 1838 funding was halted, and by the 1850s the dream of a cross-country road was supplanted by the railroad. Later, of course, when the auto was invented, paved highways revived the dream, and Highway 40 followed the route of the original National Road. You can read the full story of its history here.

The festival that celebrates the road is really more of a smorgasbord of small-town events — ones most fathers will get a kick out of, like stock car racing, street rod shows, barbecues, horse racing, outdoor concerts and more. The online schedule includes event along all 164 miles of the road in Illinois; scroll down to find those nearest St. Louis.

Of special note are:

  • the guided tours of Cahokia Mounds‘ excavation sites Friday and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.,
  • the weekly free PB&J sandwich and music extravaganza at lunchtime in Highland on Friday (June 19),
  • bluegrass music in Woodland Park in Collinsville on Sunday (June 21) from 3 to 8 p.m., and
  • the River-to-River poker run from Pocahontas on Saturday.

If Dad’s not worn out from all the action on the Illinois side of the river, bring him to Brentwood Ice Rink for the Father’s Night Skate.  From 7 to 8:30 p.m., dads get in free with a paid child admission.

M. has never been big on the library. He HATES the idea of returning books. Borrowing, OK. Returning, not so much. Consequently, I gave up trying to check out children’s books a couple of years ago, though I’m still a regular for my own sake. But they might have snagged him this summer, with the book club. He waited in high anticipation until June 1, when he could sign up for the city library’s children’s reading program.

The St. Louis County system likewise revs into high gear in the summer, supplementing its already fine offerings with even more activities. This week, for example, girls age 12 to 17 are invited to see the author of the Gallagher Girls young adults series, Ally Carter, at 7 p.m. tomorrow (June 12). She’s reading from the third book and signing copies at the St. Louis County Library Headquarters on Lindbergh Boulevard in Frontenac.

Next Tuesday (June 16), the same library hosts an Annie live music event with a rollicking band, Dino O’Dell and the Veloci-Rappers, singing about everything from swimming in peanut butter to space aliens at 2 p.m. It’s part of his week-long St. Louis Library tour. The various branches are hosting everything from Teen Chef competitions (all ingredients provided) to naturalist programs. There’s a complete schedule online here. sing-a-long screening at 6:30 p.m. And on Friday (June 19), there’s a

After running ahead for weeks in the Parents Connect annual poll for Best Local Blog, I’m now in second place … which is a major bummer!  But you can help: Just click here to vote for STL Free For All.  Thanks for all your past votes, and remember that the poll that welcomes ballot-stuffing — you can vote every single day.

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.

A fellow mom mentioned that tomorrow (March 26) is Make Your Own Holiday, and I had to laugh about it, because her teenage daughter wanted to “make” Christmas.  I have a 2-year-old who would be all over that idea — he’s constantly asking when we’ll put up the Christmas tree!  I can think of a few other days to celebrate … maybe “Be Nice to Your Mom” day, or “Kids Wash the Dishes Day,” or something along those lines.

Lest you think I’m making this holiday up, I cited some sources, including the Christian Science Monitor and the original reference guide to quirky holidays since 1957, Chase’s Calendar of Events. (It includes 12,000 quirky holidays and counting, thank you very much!)  You can even send an e-card marking the day.