Category Archives: Fresh Ideas

Summer Fun WITHOUT the Kids

If you remember, valued readers, last week we discussed some ideas for summer fun WITH the kids, which goes a long way to explain the topic of this week’s post.  As a father of two tween boys (yes, “tween” is a new, 21st century life stage), I’ll be the first to admit that my wife and I look for “adult only” things to do on a regular basis.  And by “adult only” all I’m implying is fun things free from the “complications” of having our sons watching our every move.  Now, what you do with your kids while you indulge yourselves is up to you…babysitter, pawn them off on family, drop them at a friend’s place, wrap them in duct tape (I jest, of course), is entirely up to you.  So here you go, a random list of “adult” fun ideas for summer, in no particular order.

  • Find an “adults only” night at a usual kid’s place in your area. Many establishments that cater almost exclusively to children have begun to offer “adults only” nights, complete with “adult beverages.”  My wife and I have been to adult nights at our local zoo, pool, water park, and science center and a wonderful time was had by all.
  • Eat outdoors at an unusual location. By “unusual location” (I seem to be using “quotes” a lot in this post…not sure why) I mean like the roof of a building, your backyard rather than your back porch, a dewy meadow by a babbling brook, a shaded forest glen, an out-of-the-way pavilion at a local county or state park, the beach.  You know the deal, get creative.  And to make this even easier, allow MagicKitchen.com to help you out by having us prepare and ship your meal to you…such as our hickory-smoked sliced beef brisket that’s basted in Kansas City style BBQ sauce, or how about sandwiches made from our delicious corned beef, or some chicken cordon bleu that can be eaten like a sandwich.  And don’t forget about our wide selection of side dishes.  Oh, I almost forgot, August 31st is National Eat Outside Day, so you have plenty of time to prepare.
  • Host a themed party. Yes, it could be a Game of Thrones, or Star Wars, or Walking Dead, or superheroes themed party, but there are other ways to go.  Such as having all your guests perform a little stand-up comedy routine, or a Jimmy Fallon inspired lip synch battle, or a good-natured Dean Martin inspired roast of a friend.  I guess now that I think about it, this could be conducted during any season.
  • Purchase, set up, and USE a hammock. And I use the term “use” (more quotes) loosely due to the fact that it will be “used” for reading, napping and general relaxing.
  • Take out-of-town friends on a walking tour of your town. Especially if your town has a centralized downtown area.  And you’re not required to take them to the local tourist traps.  Take them to an outdoor market, or a great breakfast joint, or sites of historical significance (theclio.com can help you here).
  • Take a hot air balloon ride. There’s got to be one offered within driving distance of your location and they are awesome…the views, the peaceful feeling of floating in space, the anticipation, not wanting to come down.  It really is a great, all-around experience.

These last two are for the more daring and, shall we say, young-at-heart among my readers:

  • Go skinny dipping. Just try not to get arrested, especially if you climb a fence to get into a public pool…not that I’ve ever done anything like that.  You’re better off finding a secluded lake or section of a large lake, preferably one with a dock, and then take it from there.  Just beware the full moon.
  • Crash a wedding. Not in the manner from that horrible movie “Wedding Crashers” of course, but in a more subdued manner.  Just ensure you know the names of the bride and groom and you SHOULD be fine.  The number one rule of crashing a wedding is: if you’re talking to a friend of the bride, you’re a friend of the groom and vice versa.  Also, don’t push your luck by staying too long.  Get in, eat, drink and get out.  You’ll be amazed how the feeling of possibly being found out can be scary and exhilarating at the same time.

OK kids…oops, I mean adults, before you look back in September and wonder where the summer went, get out there and do a few fun things without the encumbrance of children…just be careful out and if you do get caught in the water sans clothes or doing shooters at a stranger’s wedding reception, run like hell and laugh the whole way home!  Have fun this summer!

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Summer Fun with the Kids

That’s correct, summer fun WITH the kids.  It is possible.  Although, the topic of my next post will be summer fun WITHOUT the kids (boy, that was a hell of a teaser, wasn’t it?).  Anyway, if left to their own devices, most kids will spend the summer on their devices, whether its video games, social media, or a combination of both.

With that in mind, here are a few summer ideas to get the kids out of the house and some rainy-day ideas to keep the kids occupied and, who knows, you might even find yourself having some fun as well.

  • Backyard camp out. Obviously, you aren’t required to spend the night sleeping on the ground with roots in the middle of your back (unless that’s your thing), but it is up to you to create some fun activities to go with the camp out.  This works especially well if you have a fire pit to cook s’mores and mountain pies…a mountain pie maker is required to make these hot, fruit filled, mini-pies of delicious goodness.  Find or borrow an old telescope for some star/moon gazing.  Just remember to leave the backdoor open.
  • Just about anything that involves water. Yes, oceans, lakes, and pools work well here, but I’ve found that kids can spend hours exploring small creeks and streams.  Simply strap some water shoes (or old sneakers) on their feet and off they go, turning over rocks to find crayfish and nymphs (no, not THAT kind of nymph, the larval dragonfly, damselfly or mayfly type of nymph), chasing various kinds of water bugs, minnows and other small fish.  Yes, they’ll come back to you a wet, muddy mess, but that’s the whole point.
  • Take them to a demolition derby. There’s nothing better than watching cars, trucks, vans, and sometimes buses, crash headlong into each other.  Kids are so conditioned that vehicle accidents are bad things (and they generally are), that it’s quite exciting to watch them crash into to each other, intentionally, until only one vehicle is left moving.  Yes, monster truck shows are also cool, but there’s something about being at an outdoor kinda-stadium on a summer evening, usually at a county fair, that promotes family bonding…OK, maybe not.
  • Outdoor art. Find an old, white bedsheet, spread it out in an area you don’t mind getting paint on, provide the kids with some brushes and paint and watch them become little Jackson Pollocks.  If you’re feeling bold, permit them to use application methods other than brushes, such as shoes, hands, balls, or any item other than a brush…let them get creative, within reason, of course.
  • Create a scavenger hunt. Team the kids up or just have teams of one, depending on how many kids (yours and the neighbor kids) are participating.  Give them a complete list or a list of clues to make it a bit more difficult, have a non-lame prize for the winner, and send them off.  You might have a theme for your hunt, such as a nature theme, or an A-Z hunt, or a photo hunt if they’re old enough to operate a smart phone (so age 2 and above).  If it’s a rainy day, conduct the hunt indoors or, better yet, in a local museum.  I’ve found museums of natural history work best as they’re usually quite large and have a wide variety of things to find.  And remember, no running.
  • Indoor science experiments. First rule: safety first.  Here’s one to get you started…”soap clouds.”  Ingredients: a bar of Ivory soap and a microwave.  Simply place the bar of soap on a paper towel and nuke it for a few minutes.  The bar will eventually begin to expand and usually the newer the bar, the larger the cloud.  Once it stops expanding, turn off the microwave as you don’t want cooked soap.  The “soap cloud” is kinda hard to describe.  While it looks wet and slimy, it’s actually not.  It’s dry and when crumbled, it creates soap snow flakes.  And if you’re having trouble getting your kids in the bath this summer, it’s been my experience that they can’t wait to jump in the tub with their newly created “soap cloud.”  Next, hit up Google for some other examples of in-home, safe science experiments.

Yes, some of these ideas require a bit of work on your part, but no one ever said parenting was easy.  And yes, most of these ideas require a bit of supervision, depending upon the age of the kids involved, but you can supervise AND participate at the same time.  From personal experience, I’ve found the participatory supervisor role to be the most fun, but my wife has always said that I still have a lot of kid left in me.  I’m not sure if she means that as a compliment or not.

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Parental Summer Survival Tips

Well, by now, if you have school-aged children, your family should be well into its summer vacation and all the chaos and boredom that comes with it.  The “get up, get ready for school, go to school, attend after-school activities, then eat dinner routine”, as Alice Cooper so eloquently put it, “has been blown to pieces.”  Now, your kids can stay up till 3:00 AM playing video games and getting into God knows what on social media, sleep in till noon and then start the whole process all over again.  It’s enough to drive a parent to turn to, as the Rolling Stones so eloquently put it, “Mother’s Little Helper.”

I’m guessing, by now, you’re more than ready to re-assert your parental authority before the inmates are running the asylum.  If that’s the case, then here are a few tips to restore that God-given parental authority (without constantly screaming “Respect my au-thor-e-tie!” ala Cartman from South Park) that has disappeared from your household during June and a few to simply make your and your children’s lives, less stressful.

  • Re-establish some sort of routine – with reasonable bed and wake up times. A household chore list can really help here, preferably on a white board where the kids can check off each chore as it’s completed.  You know, stuff like putting on a new roof, adding walk-in closets, and/or landscaping of the front and back yards…I jest, of course.  How about sweeping (with or without a vacuum), loading/unloading the dishwasher, tending to pets, folding clothes, dusting, taking out the garbage, etc.  In order to ensure these chores get completed you might want to incorporate a combination of the carrot and the stick…obviously I do not condone rewarding your kids with carrots, unless they place a great deal of value on them, or punishing them with a stick.  After all, the saying has to do with the best way to get a mule to haul a plow.  How about an allowance and the threat of losing devices for a period of time?  Yeah, those sound better than carrots and sticks.
  • Don’t over-schedule yourself or your kids – We all have limits, and running from clarinet lessons, to gymnastics, to the pool, to girl scouts, to a sleep over can wear out parent and child alike. In your and your kid’s busy schedules, be sure to schedule in some downtime on a daily basis.  Sit on the couch and eat Bon Bons while watching Judge Judy for a half hour every day while your kids play Minecraft if you have to. Play board games, or watch the kids playing outside with friends.
  • Day camps of any kind – Baseball, parkour (Google it), Webelos/Camp Fire Girls, swimming, Barbie/G.I. Joe, math…whatever. Any camp that gets the kids out of the house and doing something constructive is, well, constructive.  Consult with your children or simply drive to the camp location, get the kids out of the car, and then drive away at an unreasonable speed…it’s up to you.  You’ll be amazed how they’ll enjoy getting out of the house and how much you’ll enjoy having them out of the same house while you remain.
  • Have a freezer well-stocked with delicious, easy to prepare meals – from MagicKitchen.com, of course! It’s so nice, during those over-scheduled days, to pop a nutritious and great tasting meal from MagicKitchen.com into the microwave, serving it to your kids, and then laying the guilt trip on them about how you worked for hours preparing and cooking said meal.  Seriously, having frozen meals on-hand lessen stress levels by 76%…Ok, I just made that stat up, but even if it only reduces your stress level by 1.7%, isn’t that enough?
  • Have them create an “I’m bored” jar – with your assistance, if required. If you had a dollar for every time one of your kids whined, “I’m booooooored” you’d have several parental stand-ins to care for your kids.  Solution:  flush Swimmy McSwim the goldfish and use his former home to place slips of paper that have “I’m bored” ideas written on them and then have the kids pull one every time they utter that noxious phrase.

    Some ideas: various games (20 questions, board games for when they’re bored), compose your own comic strip, write a song that expresses your love for your siblings and parents (tongue-in-cheek, obviously), card games, make a time capsule and bury in the backyard, build a fort, bake cookies, have an OUTDOOR water fight, build a puzzle, plan your ideal (and realistic) vacation…the ideas are endless.

Summer can be, at times, even more stressful than the school year, but it doesn’t have to be if you do a bit of pre-planning…you know, just like your kids do.  Just remember to get creative and include them in developing the ideas that have such an impact on their lives.  Do this and you’ll find, as The Who so eloquently put it, “The Kids are Alright.”

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Often Overlooked Vacation Spots

When it comes to vacation spots within America, sure, you can look at Orlando, the beaches of Southern California, Washington D.C., various amusement parks like Six Flags and Cedar Point, or just about any major city, but those places can be overcrowded, expensive tourist traps.  What most of us desire (OK, maybe it’s just me) in a vacation is a place where there is plenty to do, but also plenty of opportunities to relax and recharge.  I’m a big believer in not needing a vacation after returning from a vacation and having some money left in my wallet as well.  With that in mind, I present 10 often overlooked, relatively inexpensive vaca spots you might want to check out this summer in no particular order.

  • Great Smokey Mountains National Park, Tennessee & North Carolina – Established in 1934 and encompassing over 500,000 acres, the Great Smokey Mountains National Park is an ideal location for anyone with even a passing interest in getting back to nature. Its numerous accommodation options include camping, cabins, and various low-cost hotels located along its fringes.  As for activities, take your pick: hiking, biking, fishing, bird and wildlife watching, horseback riding, ranger-led tours and other activities, and auto and train tours.  Visit nps.gov/grsm for more details.
  • Key West, Florida — “But isn’t all of Florida a tourist trap?” you ask. The answer is usually a resounding yes.  However, Key West has such a laid-back atmosphere and hidden gems in terms of small hotels and rental properties, that it made the list.  The secret to avoiding the tourist crush is to simply avoid Duval Street, but why would you want to do that?  It offers some of the best bars in the country.  Key West also offers beaches and numerous water-based activities.  Finally, if you get the chance to grab a seaplane to Dry Tortugas National Park, take it.  Its pristine beaches support some great snorkeling and the massive Ft. Jefferson is also worth the trip.
  • Albuquerque, New Mexico – Founded in 1706 and occupied by Native Americans for centuries prior, this city of over half a million has plenty of history to offer visitors, such as the Petroglyph National Park and Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. It also has a variety of museums (to include the American International Rattlesnake Museum), a zoo, aquarium, Old Town Albuquerque, and the Sandia Peak Tramway which is the longest in the U.S., takes riders to a height of over 10,000-feet and offers panoramic views of the high desert.  As for accommodations, it offers everything from quaint B & Bs to trendy downtown hotels.
  • Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – No longer the Steel City, Pittsburgh has transformed itself into a hip, technologically-based city. Its downtown is home to both swanky and economical hotels, a vibrant cultural district that features top-end shows, and nightspots that range from dive to chic.  Its New World history dates back to the French and Indian War of the 1750s.  Thus, history-buffs will find plenty of museums and historical sites to visit.  And after all that, there’s always the city’s sports venues.  The Penguins just secured another Stanley Cup, the Steelers seem to truly be “America’s team” and PNC Park, home to the Pirates, is consistently ranked as one of MLB’s best parks to visit.
  • Salt Lake City, Utah – Yes, there is plenty of Mormon based history in Salt Lake City, but there’s also so much more. This highest of state capitals offers numerous year-round outdoor activities centered around its mountains, state and national parks and the Great Salt Lake.  It also gives tourists the option of visiting its various museums, an aviary, planetarium, water parks, amphitheaters, and concerts at the Salt Lake Tabernacle.  As for accommodations, the city has quaint bed & breakfasts, lodges, resorts and traditional hotels from which to choose.
  • Coeur d’Alene, Idaho – Yep, you read that correctly…Idaho! Coeur d’Alene is located in western Idaho, not too far from Spokane, Washington and it offers something for everyone, except an ocean view.  There are over 50 lakes within a few hours of this mid-sized town of about 50,000, but by far the most popular is the massive Lake Coeur d’Alene.  As one would expect, the town is known for its outdoor activities to include fishing, boating, golfing, hiking, biking and anything else you can think of to do out-of-doors.  The town also puts on numerous festivals and fairs throughout the year and has a surprising number of “artsy” venues and dining establishments.
  • Portland, Maine – The water’s a bit chilly on the shores of this southern Maine town, but the ocean views more than make up for the chill in the water. The surrounding area of Portland offers a myriad of inexpensive places to stay, such as cabins, rental homes, small resorts and traditional hotels.  And while Maine is best known for its rocky coast, the area offers plenty of sandy beaches to choose from.  Did I mention the seafood?  Its fresh, relatively inexpensive and abundant.  Portland is also large enough to offer a vibrant nightlife…if you’re into that kind of thing.
  • La Push, Washington – Ok, if you really want to get away from it all, La Push is the place for you. Located about as far west as you can get in the continental U.S., La Push is home to and managed by the Quileute Tribe which has occupied the area for centuries.  Known for its picturesque beaches and ocean fishing, La Push doesn’t push one to do much at all, except relax and unwind.  However, should you feel the need, the nearby Olympic National Park offers plenty of outdoor activities.  The surfing is purported to be quite good along the coast as is the whale watching too!
  • Mackinac Island, Michigan – If La Push is the get away place for the west coast, then Mackinac Island serves that purpose for the central part of the country. Located between Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas, Mackinac Island sits close to where Lakes Huron and Michigan meet.  Firstly, there are no cars permitted on the island…yes, you read that correctly, no cars!  Next, there are no franchise hotels on the island.  It offers over 1,500 unique room options from small, family owned accommodations to resorts to a Grand Hotel.  Simply relax along a lake-front beach, visit Mackinac State Park, or rent a water craft and hit the lake.  It’s all up to you.
  • Kansas City, Missouri – Those who live in the center of the nation…so-called “fly-over” country, would do well to spend a few days in Kansas City. This mid-sized city is more cosmopolitan than mid-western and presents a myriad of tourist options.  It has some world-class museums devoted to World War I, American Jazz, and the negro baseball leagues…almost forgot, the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library is in nearby Independence.  Its city center contains numerous street cafés and if barbeque is your thing, then KC is the place for you.  And depending on when you visit, you might want to check out a Chiefs football or Royals baseball game.

Now it’s up to you to get out there and check out one of these hidden vaca gems.  What the heck are you waiting for?  Live a little already!

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The Obscure Origins of April Fool’s Day

You’ve all heard the stories, right?  From the fooler or foolee that executed or was victimized by the ultimate April Fool’s joke.  Hell, it was only a year ago that I regaled readers of this blog about my wife and her mother “fooling” me into believing that we were on the verge of birthing triplets, to include ancestral proof and an ultrasound video of the trio.

Another classic April Fool’s story was applied on a national scale when sportswriter, George Plimpton, wrote of New York Mets fireball pitcher, Sidd Finch, in the April 1, 1985 edition of Sports Illustrated.

Plimpton claimed that Finch was raised in an English orphanage, studied Buddhism, and could throw a baseball an astounding 168 miles-per-hour.  Mets fans were ecstatic, networks and newspapers rushed to interview the yoga-practicing phenomenon, and batters feared for their lives.  And it was all a hoax conceived by Plimpton, Sports Illustrated and (gasp!) even the Mets were in on it.  All involved came clean in the April 15th issue.  But where and how did this tradition of fooling people begin?  And why on April 1st?

Let’s answer the second question first.  The month of April is named after the Greek goddess of wit, mirth and laughter, Aprilis.  Aprilis was the daughter of Aphrodite (goddess of love and pleasure, among other things) and Dionysus (god of wine, parties and ecstasy among other things).  With a lineage like that, it’s easy to understand why Aprilis was fond of a god-awful good time.

Zeus eventually tasked Aprilis with making him laugh at other’s expense.  In other words, he had Aprilis use her significant humorous wit to develop and initiate practical jokes on the other gods and goddesses.

Aprilis once famously replaced Hades’ fearsome, three-headed dog, Cerberus, with a fluffy, three-headed bunny named Mazeménos, which roughly translates to “cuddly.”  Simultaneously, she convinced her father to replace the deadly waters of the River Styx with wine which the damned promptly used throw a massive party during which they all became thoroughly inebriated.  Hades failed to see the humor in all this.  However, Zeus laughed his ass off.  Now that we know the answer to the first query, let’s tackle the second.

During the Renaissance, when the artists, authors and royalty of Europe re-discovered the works of ancient Greece, some came across the stories of the heretofore obscure minor goddess, Aprilis.  One future king who reveled in the exploits of Aprilis was Henry VIII of England.

Before Henry wed six different women and had two of them beheaded, he was an impetuous youth with too much time on his hands, which could probably be said of many princes.  After all, he had an older brother, Arthur, who would ascend to the English throne rather than Henry.  Therefore, as the second born male heir, Henry was pretty much left to do as he pleased.

Young Henry quickly fell in with his father’s court jester, Stephen.  A quick word about Renaissance court jesters, or “fools” as they were sometimes called.  They certainly were not vacuous, dim-witted men prancing around in tights and a four-cornered hat complete with bells, juggling beer steins while telling crude jokes.  A Jester was, in fact, a highly intelligent individual chosen for his rapier-like wit and ability to challenge all at court with his biting sarcasm and humorous insults.  Sounds a bit like the goddess of wit, mirth and laughter, does it not?

Anyway, young Henry and Stephen had a grand time “punking” any and all members of Henry VII’s court.  And Stephen, with the protection of the young prince, was able to get away with murder, so-to-speak.  Even after Henry’s older brother, Arthur, died in 1502, making Henry next in line to the throne, he kept Stephen close and used him as an unofficial adviser.

However, this relationship displeased many at court, including Henry’s father who considered Stephen a nuisance at best and a corrupting influence on Henry at worst.  Eventually, Henry VIII’s father had the Duke of Leister accuse Stephen of treasonous activities.  A show trial ensued and Stephen was locked away in the Tower of London in 1508, never to be seen again.  His fate, to this day, remains unknown.

After Henry VIII ascended to the throne in 1509 and throughout his reign, he never forgot his childhood friend who could so easily make him laugh.  As Henry wrestled with the affairs of church and state, he often remembered those carefree days spent with Stephen as they roamed the halls and rooms at Windsor Castle and Hampton Court.  It is believed that largely due to these memories, Henry desired to set aside a special day in which practical jokes were not only accepted, but encouraged, in honor of his first and only true friend, Stephen.

And what better day to celebrate the memory of Stephen, than on the first day of the month named after the goddess of wit, mirth and laughter, Aprilis?  So there you have it, the long, convoluted and somewhat touching story of the origins of April Fool’s Day.  And yes, this entire story is a total work of fiction in the tradition of the tale of Sidd Finch.  I have no idea of the true origins of April Fool’s Day as I feared if I did know the true facts, they would seep into this fictionalized version.  Happy April Fool’s Day.

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February 17th is Random Acts of Kindness Day

When I was in college, I worked at a dry cleaner. I was there long enough to get to know several of the regular customers. Quite often some would linger and strike up some great conversations and some would share wonderful stories. One elderly gentleman did this most times he came in. He knew enough about me to know I was a Freshman in college and that my family was overseas.

One day he walked in, handed my boss an envelope and left. That envelope contained a check and a note. My boss read the note out loud and my jaw hit the floor. The check that was included in the envelope covered my tuition for the next semester, paid in full.

I couldn’t figure out why he would want to pay for a stranger’s college tuition and not expect anything in return. My boss told me that the man had been doing it for years. He would select a student he felt would appreciate it and help them out. This random act of kindness, made 26 years ago still brings tears to my eyes.

People have been committing random acts of kindness for hundreds of years. We may not know exactly what they have all been, nor have we always given them the title of “Random Acts of Kindness”.  It has its very own day assigned to it. This year’s Random Acts of Kindness Day is February 17, 2017.

The first Random Acts day was created in Colorado in 1995. The concept is designed to make the world a little bit better by each of us doing a kind deed. Participating does not mean you have to spend money to be kind.

In case you might be having a difficult time figuring out something nice to do that you may not do on a regular basis, I have compiled two lists. One list is of kind deeds that will only cost you a little bit of time. The second list is for those of you who would like to show kindness via money.

Random Acts of Kindness that Won’t Cost You a Thing

  • Open the door for someone, complete with a smile
  • Volunteer time at an animal shelter or rescue
  • Simply smile at people
  • Do a favor for someone without expecting anything in return
  • Babysit for free
  • Sweep your neighbors porch/shovel their sidewalks
  • Walk a friend’s or neighbor’s dog
  • Volunteer at a food bank or homeless shelter
  • Read to the elderly at a retirement home
  • Send an encouraging card or email
  • Thank a veteran, police officer, or firefighter
  • Give a hug, it’s not just a kind act but a stress reducer as well
  • Donate blood (Perfect for American Heart Month)
  • Be tolerant
  • Compliment a stranger

Random Acts of Kindness for Those Who Can Spare Some Change

  • Pay for the food of the people behind you in the drive through
  • Take flowers to a retirement home
  • Leave a zip bag of quarters on a washer at the laundromat
  • Donate food to an animal shelter
  • Leave a bag of cookies with a note in the mailbox for the postal carrier
  • Take coffee and donuts to your local fire station
  • Donate cat litter to a cat rescue
  • Donate a new toy to a children’s hospital
  • Take muffins and coffee to work
  • Donate money to your electric company to be used for someone who is struggling to pay their bill
  • Plant a tree
  • Hire a house cleaner for an ill friend or one with children
  • Buy a gift card from a car wash and leave it in an envelope on a dirty car at the grocery store
  • Grab a few cases of water and take them to the Red Cross
  • Donate canned goods to your local food bank

Even though Random Acts of Kindness Day is recognized on February 18th this year, you don’t have to limit yourself. Imagine how much nicer the world would be if we could all do just one random act once a week…imagine twice a week. Maybe some of the nice things could begin to draw some of the attention away from all the bad things that happen. Wouldn’t it be nice to shift that focus? How do you plan to take part this year?

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The Rich and Flavorful History of Soul Food

Please, when I mention soul food, do not think only of the food marketed by some older gentleman parading as a colonel from Kentucky.  Soul food, as I discovered while researching this post, is so much more than just fried chicken, corn bread, and sweet potato pie.  Although those dishes do play a role, they are not the end-all, be-all of soul food, far from it.  Soul food has its origins, as one might expect, from West Africa, but it also contains ingredients from Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas as well.  It is, in fact, a fusion cuisine that has evolved over the centuries and is, perhaps, rediscovering its vegetable roots (no, not like turnips or carrots).

What we now refer to as soul food has its origins in West Africa.  When millions of African slaves were forcibly removed from their homeland and brought to North, Central, and South America, as well as numerous Caribbean islands, one of the memories they brought with them were of the culinary variety.  The Columbian Exchange (the transfer of foods, animals and ideas among the Atlantic world) began almost immediately after Columbus first landed in the Bahamas in 1492.  Eventually, African plants and seeds arrived in the slave states of the South, sometimes via the Caribbean.  One of the most significant was rice, along with okra and black-eyed peas.

The West African diet consisted mostly of vegetables and meat was usually only used to flavor the dish.  This tradition easily transferred itself to America as Southern slaves usually only had access to limited amounts of meat.  And what meat they did obtain was of the variety not eaten by their owners, such as ham hocks, oxtail, chitterlings (or chit’lins…pig intestines), or gizzards.  Many slaves also were permitted to supplement their diets through the use of their own gardens, where they grew vegetables that were common to the Native Americans…sweet potatoes and corn.  Hence the inclusion of many corn based items, such as hominy, grits and cornbread under the soul food umbrella.   The slaves also grew “new” greens such as collard, mustard, turnip, cabbage and kale.

After the Civil War, many Southern blacks became share croppers, still tied to the land that others owned.  However, by the time the U.S. entered World War I, in 1917, many Southern blacks began what has come to be known as the Great Migration as they headed north in search of manufacturing jobs and they took their soul food recipes with them, along with their music.  These African-Americans then began to use lard to cook the meat that they now acquired through better paying jobs, to include chicken and pork.  Some of these transplanted Southern blacks managed to open their own restaurants and they became community gathering places within cities, both north and south.

As for the term “soul food,” African-Americans began to use that term in the 1940s, but it went mainstream with the arrival of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s, as “soul” was also placed in front of man, brother, sister, and music.  Simply stated, during this time, “soul” equaled African-American, while “Southern” came to be associated with white.

Around this period, the American diet began to change with the mass consumption of processed and fast food and this is when soul food was transformed and came to be considered part of an unhealthy diet.  While a soul food diet has always had healthy and unhealthy elements, this equilibrium was unbalanced when processed and fast food manufactures altered its composition.

However, recently, many African-American chefs have been leading the way back to the roots of soul food as they take it back to its veggie-centric beginnings.  Often referred to as “down-home healthy soul food,” it features meat dishes, but they’re now grilled or baked rather than fried in lard.  Dishes are also prepared with less salt and sugar and are flavored with onions, pepper, garlic, herbs and spices.  It has been referred to as a sort of homecoming by African-American chefs and culinary experts.  Imagine, soul food as a synonym for health food…well, imagine no longer.

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For Your Christmas Gift List, Go Unique.

As you contemplate what to get your friends, family and coworkers for Christmas, why not avoid the bland, boring, perfunctory, and/or plain?  Nothing says “I refuse to put any serious thought or effort into my gift decision making process,” than a $50 gift card or a tie or cash.  This year, take a risk and go unique and that internet machine makes it easier than ever to do just that.  Simply think about the recipient of your gift and what his/her interests and hobbies are and then take it from there.  With that in mind here are a few uncommon gift ideas (in no particular order…no ranking here, within a wide price range) and where to find them.

Chicken with Artichoke and SpinachHome-delivered meals – from MagicKitchen.com of course.  They (we?) offer a variety of meal bundles such as comfort food, home-style, soup for the soul, diabetic friendly, low sodium, senior, and gluten-free just to name a few.  All you need to do is determine the needs and/or desires (in terms of food) of the recipient, visit http://www.magickitchen.com/ and take it from there.

Simulated sunrise alarm clock – An extremely appropriate gift for those that suffer with the winter blahs, aka seasonal affective disorder.  This simulated sunrise clock gradually brightens the closer it gets to your wake-up time and it offers five calming, natural sounds to wake-up to as well.  It also works in reverse, as both the light and natural sound diminish as you drift off to la-la land.  Find it here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0093162RM/?tag=dodochristmas2016-20

Macaron making kit – NOT to be confused with the Americanized “Macaroon” (the almond-based confection), the French macaron is a to-die-for meringue-based cookie.  This kit provides the receiver with everything they need to make a variety of macarons, from “rose” to “Earl Grey” to “wasabi” (yes, I just wrote wasabi).  Check it out… http://www.uncommongoods.com/product/macaron-kit

3dpen3D writing pen — This hand-held 3D printer is perfect for the artist on your list.  It extrudes (or exudes, I’m not sure which) a warm plastic gel that hardens in a few minutes and allows the user to create works of art that have depth, height and width…hence 3D.  It comes with 50 plasta-gel refills of various colors.  Get it here:   http://www.hammacher.com/Product/Default.aspx?sku=89808&refsku=87427

642 Things to Write About – This notebook of writing prompts brings out the creative writer hiding in all of us.  It offers a series of prompts and space to pontificate.  Here’s a couple of examples: “You have been evicted from your home, but rather than live on the street you go to Ikea.  At night, you hide in the bathroom until the janitor leaves.  Write about your life.”  And “What is the sound of silence and when did you last hear it?” Read more here:  http://www.uncommongoods.com/product/642-things-to-write-about

Pac-Man video game console – This full-size arcade console will fill the owner’s home with the vintage “wocka, wocka, wocka” sound as players run from (or chase) blinky, pinky and those other two ghosts through the most famous of mazes.  The game, while a bit expensive, also comes with 12, pre-loaded classic arcade games such as Galaga, Dig Dug, and, of course, Ms. Pac-Man.  Fulfill your classic gamer’s wishes here: http://www.hammacher.com/Product/Default.aspx?sku=11801&PID=7101032&source=cj

Custom Bobblehead – Why collect bobbleheads of famous athletes when you can give any person on your list their own bobblehead?  Simply visit this site  http://www.1minime.com/ , pick a body-style (they have over 450 to choose from, such as: Scarface, a pimp, various athletes, the grim reaper, a ninja, a princess, a bride, rock star and couples too), upload a picture and they’ll take it from there.

cokemachineVintage-style Coca-Cola vending machine – This mini-fridge vending machine holds ten 12-ounce cans of your favorite beverage (not necessarily coke) and is perfect for an in-home bar, game room or the ever popular man cave.  It offers push-button vending…just remember to keep it well stocked.  https://www.sharperimage.com/si/view/product/Coca-Cola-Vending-Fridge/201599

A Listography Journal – An alternate way to journal, this series comes in a variety of titles that coerce the writer to reflect upon their life as they compile lists of their favorites and from either their present or past.  Titles include lists that deal with your favorite films, books, food, travel places, and things you’d like to do in the future.  Get writing here:  https://www.amazon.com/dp/1452106517/?tag=dodochristmas2016-20

Teas from around the world – Give the gift of global teas to the tea lover on your list.  It contains a set of ten tubes of loose-leaf teas from various global tea-producing areas.  Each tube makes enough tea for 6-8 cups.  The teas range in flavor from Long Jing to bancha tea mixed with roasted rice.  Read more here:  http://www.uncommongoods.com/product/tea-from-around-the-world-set

DIY Computer – For the computer geek, er, genius in your life.  This computer kit comes with everything one would need to build a computer, to include a wireless keyboard, speaker, HD screen, and PCU.  It comes with a step-by-step instruction guide and gets the owner started on coding skills and making their own apps and games.  https://kano.me/store/uk/products/kano-complete

sockMembership in the sock-of-the-month club – Usually socks, well, suck as a gift.  However, many use socks to express their individuality, and this gift certainly will help them in that endeavor.  They offer a variety of socks from traditional to quirky, from no-show to over-the-calf.  The recipient can receive one or two pair of socks every month with a new design that have never been sold before.  Learn more here:  http://www.sock101.com/sock-of-the-month-club-s/1869.htm

Bacon flavored toothpaste – Nothing says fresh breath like bacon!  For the person that just can’t get enough bacon in their life, this is the gift for them.  This 2.5 ounce tube of pork goodness will leave the taste of breakfast in the user’s mouth for hours and cause people in the vicinity to develop a strange craving for crispy bacon.  Yes, this is a real thing and here’s the proof:  https://www.offthewagonshop.com/collections/weird-funny-gifts/products/bacon-flavored-toothpaste

Star Wars BB-8 robot – Modeled after the famous robot from The Force Awakens, this smaller version reacts to commands from either a Smartphone app or its owner’s voice!  It also has autonomous behavior that permits it to wander around on its own as well as an adaptive personality that allows BB-8 to develop a unique personality through interactions with its owner.  Buy it here: https://www.amazon.com/Sphero-Star-Wars-BB-8-Droid/dp/B0107H5FJ6/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1471962679&sr=8-1&keywords=sphero+bb8&tag=goodhousekeeping_auto-append-20&ascsubtag=goodhousekeeping.gallery.399

wine-glassesMusical wine glasses – each glass in this set of two is actually capable of playing a note in the A-major scale.  The note it plays is dependent upon the level of wine in the glass.  Each note is clearly marked on the glass and all that’s required to get it to tone is a quick swipe around the rim of the glass with a wet finger.  A unique take on the toning bells idea, party goers can actualyl play songs which is made easier with the included downloadable sheet music.  See them here:  http://www.uncommongoods.com/product/major-scale-musical-wine-glasses-set-of-2

Wonder Woman apron – We all have a wonder woman in our life so why not let her know that with this colorful kitchen accessory.  It might not improve her cooking skills, but she’ll definitely look better (if that’s possible) while working on those meals.  Peruse it here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00541NO4E/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B00541NO4E&linkCode=as2&tag=tuckerheavy-20&linkId=TOPMX4MOVPHGBKZG

Mossy Oak pink camouflage duffle bag – Have a woman on your list that loves outdoor activities, like hunting or fishing, but still wants to exert her femininity?  Then this is her gift.  This 20-inch bag features the famous Mossy Oak camo accented with pink handles, zippers, shoulder and reinforcing straps.  See if it’s what she’s looking for here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B009RUQC0G/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B009RUQC0G&linkCode=as2&tag=tuckerheavy-20&linkId=XCYP4P2VAYYGSMGE

Bluesmart carry-on luggage – With this innovative carry-on, the owner can track the whereabouts and condition of his/her bag through 3G and GPS technology.  It beams this info to a smartphone.  It also comes with a battery and two USB ports that can be used to charge a phone six times over.  This TSA approved luggage also features a water-resistant surface and a built-in scale.  Be amazed here:   https://www.amazon.com/Bluesmart-1-Smart-Carry-On-Luggage/dp/B00X5OUC1U/ref=as_li_ss_tl?s=boost&srs=12034488011&ie=UTF8&qid=1447630729&sr=8-42&linkCode=sl1&tag=randallheavy-20&linkId=88e08fc43edcdb6ca1d2f6c087bbd695

stripedPlant Theatre funky veg kit – Who hasn’t wanted to grow multi-colored Swiss chard, purple carrots, red Brussels sprouts, or striped tomatoes?  Well, this kit provides its recipient with everything they’ll need to grow all of them (seeds, pots, and peat blocks).  The perfect gift for those who desire to create a psychedelic salad.  Here it is: https://www.amazon.com/Plant-Theatre-Funky-Veg-Extraordinary/dp/B00Q74B3D6/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&qid=1447636639&sr=8-11&keywords=gifts&linkCode=sl1&tag=randallheavy-20&linkId=cbf9f11b0a3ae61da87481d8e45753d2

Exploding Kittens card game – this family-friendly card game bills itself as a “card game about kittens and explosions and sometimes goats.”  I’ll leave the rest to your imagination, but if you’re curious you can check it out here: https://www.amazon.com/Exploding-Kittens-About-Explosions-Sometimes/dp/B010TQY7A8/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&linkCode=sl1&tag=randallheavy-20&linkId=4382a5fc7f6304a38277eda570e1ff6f

There you have it…20 unique gift ideas for just about everyone on your gift list.  So please, this Christmas, take a chance and give a gift that is truly as unique as you are.  I’ll just leave you with a quote from one of my favorite Hugh Grant movies, Four Weddings and a Funeral,  “Why be boring?”  Happy Holidays!

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Sweat the Small Stuff: 5 Small Steps You Can Take to Improve Your Life.

Yeah, I know the quote is usually “DON’T sweat the small stuff,” but sometimes the small stuff matters.  If you think about it, our entire lives are comprised of “small stuff,” in the form of the thousands of decisions we make on a daily basis.  Should I eat just one more?  Binge watch The Walking Dead or work on the house?  Wear these yoga pants or not?  Hit the snooze again?

These seemingly small decisions add up and become who we are.  So why not make a few small decisions that, when done consistently, can actually improve your life for the better?  That’s what I thought, you have no argument…and “I don’t have the time” counts as no argument.

  1. pedometerGet (and use) a pedometer – But just don’t wear it around and look at the total at the end of your day. Set benchmarks (or goals if you prefer) and break them!  Make small bets with your friends, family and coworkers.  For example: “I’ll bet all of you a tarantula that I take more steps than you over the weekend.”  Or create a contest with a prize for the winner.  For example: “whoever takes the most steps today gets the last MagicKitchen.com Panna Cotta.” Of course, there are plenty of pedometer apps for your phone, too.
  1. Breathe deep…the gathering gloom (sorry, I regressed to my teenage years when I kept trying to figure out those strange lyrics to “Nights in White Satin”). Research has shown that deep breathing exercises (just 5 minutes a day) reduces stress producing hormone levels, decreases anxiety, lowers blood pressure, and improves sleep.
  1. scrabbleDo a crossword, or Sudoku, or play Scrabble – In other words, exercise your brain as if it were a muscle (Is it a muscle? Or an organ?…Does it matter?). No, it doesn’t matter.  The brain ACTS like a muscle and the more you exercise it, the more efficient it gets.  Of course, the obverse is also true.  Your brain will atrophy like any other muscle if it remains sedentary for an extended period of time.  Studies have shown brain exercises can extend its cognitive reserve…aka its ability to withstand damage due to aging, such as dementia.  Learning new things, such as a musical instrument or foreign language does the trick as well.
  1. Read nutrition labels – Contrary to popular belief, ignorance is NOT bliss when it comes to your nutrition (sorry for contradicting so many popular idioms in this post). Your body knows what you’re putting in it even if you keep it from your mind and the results (good or bad) happen regardless.  You might set that Snickers bar aside when you find out it has 280 calories, 14 grams of fat, 30 grams of sugar and contains trans fat.  Look at it this way, after eating that Snickers, you’ll have to run about 2.5 miles to burn it off (and that doesn’t even take into account the effects of the saturated and trans fat consumed).
  1. hug2Hug someone…just make sure it’s consensual. The hugging of loved ones reduces stress, anxiety, feelings of loneliness, and releases anti-depressant hormones such as oxytocin and serotonin.  Regular hugging has also been shown to aid in healing and recovering from illness.  Hugs also increase self-esteem, ease tension, teach the concepts of giving and receiving, and encourage empathy and understanding.  All these benefits apply equally to the hugger we well as the huggee.

So, to recap: work the heck out of that pedometer, breathe deep the gathering gloom (or just do deep breathing exercises), work the heck out of your brain, flip it over and read that nutrition label, and get and give plenty of hugs…and don’t forget to do all these things on a consistent basis.

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November is Diabetes Awareness Month…

ada-logo…And in order to help raise awareness about this disease that currently afflicts more than 29 million people in the U.S., MagicKitchen.com is awarding a $250 gift certificate to one lucky entrant.  All that’s required of you is to go to this site: http://www.magickitchen.com/diabetes-awareness.html and simply enter your name and email address.  The contest opens on November 1 and the winner will be announced on December 3.

Lemon Rosemary PorkSince the whole idea of our contest and designating November as Diabetes Awareness Month is to…well…raise awareness among people about diabetes, here’s a few facts regarding the disease as cited by the Center for Disease Control:

  • Of the 29.1 million people who have diabetes, 8.1 million of them (or 27.8%) are undiagnosed.
  • At least 1 in 3 people will develop type II diabetes in their lifetime.
  • The risk of death for adults with diabetes is 58% higher than for adults without the disease and their medical costs are twice as high.
  • Those who have diabetes are at greater risk for blindness, kidney failure, heart disease and stroke.

ground-turkey-noodles-IMG_3995-(2)In addition to the 29 million who have diabetes, 86 million have pre-diabetes (those whose blood sugar is higher than normal, but not high enough to be classified as type II diabetes) and 90% of them are unaware of this fact.  Hence the need for Diabetes Awareness Month…to make them aware of the disease and to convince them to see their doctor for a blood glucose screening.  Because for many of them, there’s still time to stave off full-blown diabetes by simply eating healthy, losing weight and leading a more active lifestyle.

Since there are often no signs or symptoms of pre-diabetes, you should get a blood glucose screening if you have any of the following risk factors:

    • Overweight with a body mass index (BMI) over 25.
    • Are inactive
    • Age 45 or older
    • Have a family history of type II diabetes
    • Have high blood pressure
    • Your HDL is below 35
    • You are African-American, Hispanic, Native American, Asian-American or Pacific Islander.
    • Have polycystic ovary syndrome

Portion Control mealsSo what can you do if you’re diagnosed with prediabetes?  Well, the treatment is simple and totally within your hands.  The CDC states that you can lower your risk for type II diabetes by 58% if you lose 7% of your body weight (or 15 pounds for someone who weights 200 pounds) and perform some moderate exercise (like brisk walking) for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week.

The lessons to be learned here?  You can win a $250 gift certificate from MagicKitchen.com simply by registering and if you or someone you know is at risk for pre-diabetes, get them, or you, in for a blood glucose screening and then start eating healthier, lose some weight and become more active…the ball is in your court.

That link again is http://www.magickitchen.com/diabetes-awareness.html

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