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Last weekend, our family had a light schedule – one track meet and two volunteer hours over two days. For us, that means a free weekend. We decided to take a mini vacation and head up to The Dells for the weekend. (That’s Wisconsin Dells for you out-of-towners.) The Dells are known for their waterparks and over the years, we have visited most of them. This time we decided to try something new. We chose Mt. Olympus because they have both indoor and outdoor waterparks, roller coasters and go karts. Fun for all ages!

I called to confirm that everything was included in the cost of the room and I asked about one room in particular. I wanted to make sure it was attached to the waterpark. I was assured it was. The room had three beds and a separate bedroom – perfect for our family of five. The cost of entertainment for 2 days and 1 night was $320.00.

We were allowed to check in as early as 10:30, although our room would not be ready until 4:00. In the mean time they would give us park passes. When we arrived at noon to check in, the line was to the door. We waited an hour before we got to the front desk. (There were 20 minute parking signs for check-in parking!) To occupy our bored kids, we sent them to the adjacent arcade where they spent $25.00. When it was finally our turn, we were told that our room would not be attached to the waterpark, but was instead “offsite”.

“Are there shuttles?” I asked.

“No.”

“Could we get another room in the hotel?”

“No,” the emotionless employee said. “We are full. I could give you a condo for $599.00.”

No thanks. Offsite will have to do.

With our passes in hand, we headed out to the park. We had to move our car and because the place was so big, we stopped to ask an attendant how to get to the other parking lot.

“Well, you used to go up that way,” he said while pointing at a barricaded road, “but I guess you can’t now.” He offered no other suggestions, but instead just stared at us.

I wanted to say, “Thanks for your help. Don’t strain yourself. We will find it ourselves.” Instead, we just said “Thank you” and drove on.

Finally, we got into the park, but found ourselves on the waterpark side anyway. We would have to walk to the roller coasters. We walked a 1/3 of the way through the park when my husband suggested we get a drink and snack. One drink and one snack for each – $50.00.

My daughter got something in her eye and we went to look for the first aid station that was marked on the map.  When we got there, nothing was marked on the door other than “Employees Only”. I noticed first aid supplies through the window on the door so I assumed it was the right place. However, no one was there. I went next door to one of the booths and asked for them to call someone. When a first responder came to assist us a few minutes later, I told him that my daughter got something in her eye. He opened a cabinet and handed me a bottle of eye wash. I asked him if he could flush her eye. My daughter put her head back and he poured no more than 5 drops in her eye. Annoyed with yet another Mt. Olympus employee, I told him I would take her to the bathroom and flush it myself.

It was now 2:00. We found a small roller coaster and waited in a crazy long line – about 30 minutes. My son wanted to go on the Go Karts next. One hour in line. Another roller coaster – 30 more minutes. It was now 4:00. In four hours we had checked in, gone on three rides and had a snack. They promised us a text that would give us our room number by 4:00. Never came. At 4:30, my husband called the front desk and got the number.

We had to walk all the way back across the 200 acre park to our car. We got the map and drove a mile or so up the road to our hotel. And here it was:

It was a converted Mom and Pop motel from the 50’s. This was not on the website! It was last updated around 1980. Look at the TV and the microwave.  The room had a fire alarm on the wall, but no sprinkler system. How safe!

To say it was a dump is being too kind. The patio floor was gross. (The cup on the table was full of the wine which  I needed to calm my anger.) Look at our view from the patio.

There was a hole in the wall. (Look at the age of that phone!)

There were mystery stains on carpet, holes in screens and condensation trapped between the window panes.

Here is the pool and playground. There was no front desk on site. We were on our own. In a dump. For $320.00.

Our kids changed into their bathing suits and we headed back to use the waterpark. My husband dropped us off and went in to check us out of the motel from Psycho. He brought in my camera, but never had to use it. He simply told the manager where we were staying and that it was a dump. He told them that we were checking out and he wanted our money back. The manager did not argue very much. At first he wanted to give us a discount, but my husband told him that we weren’t staying even if it was free. By some miracle, a room opened up in the hotel onsite and we could have it for the same price. Wow!

My husband went to see the room before agreeing to it and found that although it was nothing special, it was clean, modern and big enough for our family. He then headed back to the Psycho Motel to gather the rest of our things.

When my husband arrived, he found the door to the motel was held open by a rock. Two men in their 20’s had set up shop in the hallway with a truck parked in front of the door. They had their cell phones charging in the wall. Apparently, they planned to be there awhile. I wonder what they were selling. Glad we were out of there!

The icing on the cake was when my husband went back up to the new room with the second round of stuff from the car. His key didn’t work. His phone was locked in the room so he couldn’t call for a new one. He had to trudge down to the front desk again with stuff in tow. After a visit from Maintenance to change the battery in the door, we were back in business.

Mt. Olympus is the only waterpark that allows non-hotel guests to use their facilities, which I did not know before we booked it. The non-hotel guests wear different color wristbands and you could see that the majority of the waterpark/amusement park guests did not stay at the hotel. Mt. Olympus doesn’t seem to observe any occupancy restrictions, which is scary when you are three stories up on a platform with a hundred other people. The lines are long and the employees make it worse by moving in slow motion.

The next day, we headed to the park when they opened at 10:00. It was a much smaller crowd  as we were all hotel guests and everyone got on the rides a lot faster. We enjoyed the waterpark and many of the rides for a couple hours. By 12:00 it was starting to fill up and by 1:30 it was getting ugly. Although we were able to stay until 9:00 pm when it closed, we decided to call it a day and head south.

The weekend proved something that I have always known. It is nice to get away, but even nicer to come home.

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On April 2, 2012, the National Archives will release the 1940 census to the public, opening millions of records to genealogists. A census record is released to the public 72 years after the census is taken. According to Ancestry.com, over 132 million people lived in the United States in 1940 and today, 87 percent of Americans can directly link themselves to one of those people. What better time to start researching your family tree?

I have been researching my family history long before records became available on the internet. Now there are hundreds of thousands of sources to find your family’s roots online. My favorite is Ancestry.com. I am sure you have seen their commercials. NBC airs a show on Fridays (7:00 Central Time) about tracing the ancestral lines of celebrities called Who Do You Think You Are? Their stories and discoveries are intended to make you want to check out your own family. To make things even more enticing, Ancestry.com offers a 2-week free trial.

I also like FamilySearch.org. This is a free website provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I have found tons of information on FamilySearch that were not as easy to uncover on Ancestry. For example, I was looking for a man named John Hughes. It is a popular name and with the limited information I had, using Ancestry was like trying to find a needle in a haystack. FamilySearch, however, had records on Cook County, IL Death Certificates. Since I knew he lived in Chicago, I looked there. His name came up on the first page.

To start researching your family tree, write down what you know. You obviously know your own dates, your parents and probably, your grandparents. Set up a family tree on Ancestry and type in those names and dates. Just like on the commercial, a little leaf will appear when they think they have a record match for that person. If you don’t get a leaf, you have the option to search on your own. You may find someone else that is searching for the same person or you may find a distant cousin.

A compiled family history is a great idea for a Mother’s Day! It is hard to come up with something for the person that has everything. If you don’t have time to research the family tree yourself, why not give her a gift membership to Ancestry?

A family tree project is also fun for the kids. Although my kids often ask me why I keep looking up dead people, they are amazed by some of my findings. For example, my great-grandmother was named Rosina. Fifteen of her descendants, including my middle daughter, use the name in some form – Rosie, Rosemary or Rose as a middle name. My oldest daughter has a slight build. When I showed her pictures of her great-great grandfather, and her great-grandmother, she could see how that trait was passed down to her.

If you like puzzles, a family history research is perfect for you. It takes patience. You try to place things together that you think make sense, but sometimes the pieces just don’t fit. Sometimes you have to walk away from it. When it finally all comes together, you are a left with a feeling of satisfaction and a priceless history of your family’s journey.

This weekend my husband and I went to a cooking class at Sur La Table. It was called Date Night: Cabernet Lover’s Feast. Although I am not a huge fan of Cabernet, the menu sounded delicious!

Blue Cheese Crostini with Applewood Bacon-Cabernet Reduction
Roasted Beet Salad with Toasted Pecans, Goat Cheese and Cabernet Vinaigrette
Au Poivre Ribeye with Roasted Garlic Potatoes
Cabernet-Poached Figs with Vanilla Ice Cream

There were 16 people in the class and we were broken up into two tables of eight. We were taught by Heidi, the head chef and an additional staff of four others. Heidi started by telling us about the different knives we were using and how to correctly hold them. Seems we have been doing it wrong for years. To properly hold a knife, you should hold the blade with your thumb and index finger and place your middle finger against the bottom, where the blade meets the handle. Most people hold the blade by the handle and place their index finger on the top of the blade. It really does make a difference.

We were each given a course to work on – my husband and I were assigned the Crostini. Some of the work was already done for us to save time. In our case, the bacon was cooked and chopped. We needed to chop an onion and it turns out that we have been doing that wrong, too. I worked in hot dog and beef restaurants and thought I knew how to dice an onion. Heidi showed us a better way and it yielded small, evenly chopped pieces. She also lit a tea light candle while we were chopping to help relieve the tearing that sometimes goes with chopping an onion. Heidi talked about how to get rid of the smell of onions (and garlic) by rubbing your hands on the inside of a stainless steel sink. Amazing!

As we continued with the rest of the recipe, Heidi went around the room and helped the others. Often she would stop and give us a tip, like when to use a garlic press (when the garlic will be served cold) and when to mince the garlic (when it will be served hot). She explained the myth about cooking with EVOO. It is not meant to cook at high heat and if reaches the temperature where it starts smoking it turns into a trans-fat. She mixed hers with grape seed oil which is more tolerant to high heat. It was very interesting and informative. While we cooked, we talked to the other couples. The age span was 20’s to 60’s with us right in the middle. Sur La Table did not have a liquor license for serving so we were only given taster cups to drink from. They did offer us coffee and water and had a nice cheese and cracker plate for us to nibble on. The whole time we cooked, the staff picked up our empty bowls, used knives, etc. and cleaned everything. It was nice to not have to worry about the cleanup.

The class was two hours long and we got to eat our dinner at the end. The crostinis were done first, so we munched on them while the steaks were cooking. I can’t wait to make this appetizer for the next party. It was so yummy! The rest of dinner was good, too. I tried beets for the first time in the salad and I will definitely cook with them again. The potatoes were not that exciting as I make them at home that way. The steaks were pepper crusted and juicy. My only complaint is that there were 6 steaks for 16 people and for the price of the class I would have thought we would have a least ½ a steak each. Figs are not my favorite so I tried them and then passed it on to my husband. (Poor guy, whenever we don’t like something or want to finish it, we always offer it to him.)

After dinner, we went next door to have drinks with friends. It was a great evening of learning, entertainment, food and wine and drinks with friends. Can it get any better than that?

I love giving and receiving gift cards. My friend, Nancy, calls them “free money”. My kids especially like gift cards because they can get what they want. Gift cards are a great gift for teenagers, for people whose taste you don’t know well (if you think you know it, you are usually wrong) and for the person that has everything.

Some people don’t like gift cards. They think buying them does not put any effort into giving a gift, especially with gift card malls in grocery and drug stores. I disagree. I think that if you pick a place that you know they like, they will appreciate the gift. It is soooooo much better than buying something they don’t like or that doesn’t fit and having them return it. What make matters worse are those that don’t include gift receipts or buy a gift at cute little boutiques that have a 7 day return policy. Ditto for the bargain shoppers that buy items on clearance that can’t be returned. Yes, it’s the thought that counts but when they can’t use your gift, it’s not very thoughtful.

Not all gift cards are good gifts. If you get someone a gift card to a store that you like, but they don’t, it is the same problem. Sadly, you can’t return gift cards, but there is a way to “exchange” the gift card. In the past, I have sold gift cards on eBay. (Is there anything you can’t sell on eBay?) People buy gift cards on eBay because it is like getting a percentage off their future purchase and if they combine it with a store coupon, they are getting an even bigger bargain. Based on my experience, you can get between 75 and 90% of the cards value. Sadly, not every gift card sells.

Yesterday, I read about Plastic Jungle. They will buy back your gift card for a discount and resell them to someone else. Plastic Jungle also accepts merchandise return cards from some retailers. The minimum card value must be at least $25.00 but they do not need to be for the full amount listed on the card – for example, $31.75 on a $50.00 card. The site is very user friendly and I quickly sold two of the three cards I had. (Sadly, the last was only for $10 so they wouldn’t buy it.)

Payment options are check, PayPal deposit or Amazon gift card. The Amazon gift card is a $1 or more extra so I took that as one of my payments as there is a book I want to order for the same amount. You have to ship the card to Plastic Jungle but they provide a postage paid label for you to use. As soon as they get your gift card, they pay you. Very simple!

I like to save things. Not in a crazy, hoarder type way, but if I see something I like, I hang onto it. I am constantly ripping articles out of the newspaper and magazines because I thought they were interesting. If I find something online that interests me, I print it out. I have a couple of scrapbooks and a box full of emails, jokes, poems, short stories, fortunes from fortune cookies and anything else that inspires me. I have binders full of recipes that sounded great (I have only tried about 10% of them). The only problem with saving all these things is that there is not much organization to shoving them in boxes and binders. I often forget where I put that great Halloween decorating idea from the year before.

Earlier in the week, my friend, Amy asked me if I was on Pinterest. I had no idea what that was. She explained that it was like a virtual corkboard where you can Pin items from the internet – inspiring quotes, recipes, travel destinations, crafts, home décor, etc. That way, the things are all in one place and can be organized into categories. It sounded like it was right up my alley. You can also connect with friends and see what they are into and Repin what is already out there.

Pinterest is by invitation only, so Amy sent me an invite through Facebook. She warned me that it is a bigger time waster than Facebook and that even after a few days of use she may need an intervention. It is pretty user friendly. You set up a board that you name – Quotes, My Style, Books I’ve Read, etc. and then start finding the things that interest you. I pinned some quotes and recipes and set up a now empty board for books. I spent about an hour or so the first night. Since then I have been on and off between customers during the day.

One of the features I like about Pinterest is that you can save pictures or articles to plan a room remodel. My next project is the family room and I have been looking on and off for pictures of fireplaces. Ours needs a makeover! When that happens, we will need new paint, furniture and window treatments. (Don’t you love how that snowballs!) Before Pinterest, I just printed out pictures I liked and stuck them in a folder.

In my own mind, I have justified hours wasted looking at other peoples’ interests because I am saving paper and ink printing out the things that I like. And, I found a recipe that I am going to try this weekend. See, I bet if you join Pinterest, you will find ways to justify wasting time online, too!

A few years ago, I went to a Pampered Chef party that a neighbor was having. I have been to so many Pampered Chef parties and have plenty of gadgets that I use once and never take out again. However, it was a ladies night out, there was wine and I needed a break. If it cost me another gadget, I was willing to do it. I went and politely listened to their sales spiel and flipped through the catalog. Although they never mentioned the item that night, I found something that I would actually use. It was an eight quart bowl that collapses down to fit in the cabinet.

We use it several times a week for salad because you can mix it without half of the salad ending up on the counter. The bowl comes with a lid that is great for storage or to bring the bowl to a party. When you collapse it down, it can be used as a chip bowl and it fits nicely in the cabinet. We definitely got our $25 worth.

A year ago my husband was being thoughtful and cleaned up from dinner. He put the lid in the dishwasher (it is dishwasher safe) but it slipped down and burned on the heating coil in the bottom of the dishwasher. After that, it never fit the same. We kept broken lid if only to help drain the water from washing the lettuce. I found it very annoying that the lid didn’t fit, but my husband continued to use it. This winter, during a party, my husband put the salad on the deck with the lid covering, but not closing tightly. The bowl did not fit in the fridge due to the several sides already dished up. Not knowing he put the bowl outside, I let the dogs out. Can you guess what happened to our salad? They did not eat it, but instead tasted each piece, wondering why it did not taste like the smell coming from the grill.

Recently, I went to unload the dishwasher that my husband loaded the night before. He put the lid in the dishwasher again. The poor lid had now permanently curled up to look like a hard shell taco. It has seen its last day. What would we do with an eight quart bowl without a lid?

I looked online at the Pampered chef website hoping to find a replacement lid. Unfortunately, they didn’t sell them separately. I decided to call the customer service number and spoke to someone about my dilemma. I gave him my name and verified my address and he found the exact date I bought the bowl. Turns out it was under warranty and they would replace it for FREE! I quickly boxed it up and took it to the post office. Less than 10 days later, I had a new lid.

Thank you, Pampered Chef, for keeping such great records and guaranteeing your products will survive the wrath of the dishwasher!

A friend from church sent me a website that helps you declutter your home. It is called FlyLady. Since my house is a cluttered mess right now, I thought it would be good to check it out. Her first question is “Do you live in CHAOS? (Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome)”. Although I don’t think I am that bad, I do think we have a lot of junk that we never use/don’t need/forgot about. So I kept on reading.

The idea is to start small, cleaning and decluttering until it is a habit. Day one she wants you to clean your kitchen sink. Since I don’t have a kitchen sink right now, I improvised and just washed the dishes we had in the bathroom tub. That was it. Day two, she wants you to get dressed first thing in the morning, right down to your shoes. I thought that was interesting. I get up between 5 and 5:30 everyday, but don’t usually shower and get dressed until 8:00. However, that is the time when my kids want to go over their spelling words “one more time”. It is also the time we are looking for lost items that need to go to school with them. That means my shower and personal time either has an audience or it is rushed. That was reason enough for me to get completely ready first thing in the morning.

Sidenote: A benefit I didn’t even consider is that the first person showering in the morning has all the hot water. Yesterday morning, I was downstairs and fully dressed with make up on at 6:20. I went to make myself breakfast and sit for a minute before the morning chaos began. However, we had no milk – at all. The bottle was even missing. So, fully dressed, I went to the store. At least I got a good parking spot.

Back to my story. On Day three, she wants you to join the group. This is free and comes with email reminders and little decluttering projects. She is a bit of an email Nazi. In one morning, I probably got 10 emails. I hope that is because I am new. Clutter comes in the form of emails, too! However, I did find some emails interesting. First, she suggested going through and throwing out 27 pieces of paper in your pile. She didn’t want you to go looking for a pile. She was pretty sure you had one on your counter. I did and threw out almost that many. She had two more projects for the day. Go through your house and gather up 27 things to throw out. Should be easy! She even had a project for the kids. Go through your room and throw out 11 broken toys and/or those with missing pieces. Guess what my kids got to do? I even went a step farther and had them throw out the unmatched socks in their drawers. What are we waiting for? They are never coming back!

The only thing I don’t like is that she doesn’t send you a Day 1, Day 2, etc. email. You have to look that up yourself. On Day 3, you join the group and they bring you to a calendar page. This still does not list your daily activities. I think you can add your own activities but I haven’t gotten that far. Here is the page that you find the daily activities.

Today is Day 4 and I haven’t looked to see what my assignment is. Based on what I have seen so far, I think I will run through all 28 days, even if it is just an experiment for my blog. If I get a cleaner house out of it, all the better. Check out FlyLady and let me know what you think.

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