Friday, June 27, 2008

Clean as a Whistle: A Dishwasher Hack from the Land of Very Hard Water

One of the first things we did upon moving into this house was replace the avocado green dishwasher, not for looks, but for lack of function. The poor thing just didn't clean the plates or glasses.

Jim and my dad installed a new dishwasher, and I was pretty surprised when it didn't clean the dishes very well either. They came out with bits of food sealed to them rather than rinsed clean and the glasses (dark blue) looked like they had been dipped in milk and left to dry. After a couple years of rewashing many dishes per load and having glassware that I was embarrassed to show to guests, we resorted to handwashing everything.

Our still pretty new dishwasher became a giant drying rack. That lasted for almost a year before I got tired of seeing the perpetual backlog of dirty dishes on the counter. So, I started looking for solutions.

Our water (from the Ohio River) has very high levels of calcium and other minerals. The water here is actually so hard that I'm reasonably wigged out when we're somewhere that water is more tempered. On a recent trip I finally asked Jim what he thought was in the water that just didn't rinse off. He informed me it was properly softened water and that the unpleasant experience was merely liquidity without massive mineral deposits (as opposed to the normal pelting of tiny rocks one experiences here).

It turns out that the hard water was giving our dishwasher a hard time. Rather than looking at a whole house water softener, I looked for a solution localized to our dishwasher. A lot of people with hard water suggested a performance boosters like Glass Magic to solve these problems (but such products are heavy on phosphates which encourage algae growth downstream).

Someone in the Amazon comments for Glass Magic mentioned the use of vinegar instead, so I started experimenting. By adding 2/3 cup white vinegar to the bottom of the dishwater before washing, I've been getting splendid results.

It's nice to be able to hand a guest a sparkling glass now (that I didn't have to handwash).

I guess there's a little Stepford wife in me after all.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Ease that Itch: Zanfel Poison Ivy Creme

We're unlucky when it comes to poison ivy, oak, and sumac.

During a river clean-up, I leaned against a thick poison vine and ended up with a looping vine-shaped rash from my right shoulder to my forearm. It was such a 3-dimensional dark red rash that friends though I'd had my arm branded. The marks lasted for months, and I was relieved not to have lasting scars.

Jim reacts even worse than me. A small exposure can rapidly turn to sprawling discomfort. This is a problem in our area where even urban and suburban yards can easily become infested with poisonous weeds. One patch of English ivy in our yard is notorious for harboring poison ivy.

Then Jim found the website for Zanfel. Their claims sounded extreme to the point of improbability; especially after disappointing experiences with water-free after-exposure washes like Technu.

But pricey Zanfel ($38 for a one ounce tube) works as advertised. For well over a year neither Jim nor I has suffered a major poison weed outbreak even though corners of our yard are full of the stuff. Jim (who maintains our yard) has only had a few mild spots after exposure thanks to Zanfel.

We keep a spare tube on hand (though one ounce lasts a surprisingly long time) for the inevitable day when Ranger decides to explore the ivy patch. Zanfel is a smart addition to any first aid kit in poison ivy prone areas and also a good item to include in your camping gear.

Now if only we had a good solution for lurking mosquitoes!

LeapFrog Tag: Winners (and Great Deals for the Rest of Us)

In the wee hours of this morning (while Ranger slept), I notified the Tag winners by email. Congratulations Corey, Keira, Mandy, Cheryl, and Jodi (and their lucky kids)!

LeapFrog is offering two great deals through the end of this month (6/30/2008) on new Tag Systems purchased through their shop at
Thank you for all of your entries!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Wii LOVE Fit

Our last home was less than a mile from a glorious greenway, so (weather permitting) Jim would bike the misty trail every morning before work.

My own exercise predilections tend to involve less interaction with pollen and sunshine. Indoor pools and instructor lead classes in yoga and other group exercise have been hallmarks of my own exercise since graduating college.

Sometimes Jim and I meet in the middle. With enough allergy medicine, I'll play outside if there is water and/or shade involved: kayaking and hiking through woods. Jim will join in indoor group fitness as long as it's interactive and mildly competitive (even if we're not good at it): years of social dance classes.

Even when hail and lightning straight out of King Lear pounded the greenway, he was never tempted to break out one of my yoga videos for some centered breathing. In retrospect, the only fitness video I can ever remember him doing was a fun baby and toddler yoga video hosted by a French anthropologist who is probably Ranger's first crush.

So when I saw the Wii Fit at Camp Baby's Nintendo Party in April, I thought how Ranger might enjoy its physical interactivity. It struck me as something in my exercise domain and most likely outside of Jim's interest.

Was I ever wrong. Last week Nintendo sent us a Wii Fit (around $89 including balance board) to try at home. Ranger and I played for a couple hours before Jim was home from work. After dinner Jim tried it for the first time and he's been pretty devoted to using it daily ever since.

Not only is he enjoying the fun, arcade-like balance games, he's really gotten into the yoga, aerobics, and strength training. So, I asked him why this engaged him in a way that exercise videos never have.

His first answer was that he loves the graphs of his daily progress (time spent exercising, BMI changes, etc.). When it comes to exercise, Jim loves to see charted progress. It turned out to be more than that though. He really liked being able to work for higher levels of achievement with each exercise (you're scored with a certain number of stars at the end of each activity to represent your skill level for that particular round). This transcends the one-way communication of exercise videos. Videos can't tell whether you're doing the sun salute or sitting on the couch eating ice cream much less whether you're actually burning calories.

Secretly, I believe that the answer to his affinity has been part of his cerebellum back in the days of Konami's Contra for NES or maybe as early as his first meeting with a Pong console or Space Invaders. Children of the 70s just cannot resist the siren's song of electronic interactivity.

Jim's Take on the Wii Fit:

You know something is up if I am breaking my regular silence to add more than the occasional editing to a post on Baby Toolkit.

Put simply I am a fan of the Fit.

I wasn't so sure that I would like it at first, but I heard nice reports from Adrienne after she set it up and she and Ranger explored its features before I got home.

That night I got my first opportunity to take the balance board out for a spin. The first steps include setting up a profile including your name, height, birthday and associating them with your Mii (the little Nintendo Wii avatar that ostensibly looks like you and is used in many Nintendo game titles).

If you don't have a Nintendo Wii or haven't taken the opportunity to create a Mii, the creation process basically encompasses choosing a basic body type and facial features and hairstyles to come up with some sort of approximation of your actual appearance (if you choose to go that route). Being a B-I-G guy, I choose the largest body type available in the Mii creation phase - yes, it was embarrassing, but I figured who was I kidding. Which leads me to my first slightly embarrassing moment with Wii Fit.

After putting in my basic profile information and associating it with the maximally sized Mii avatar that I had already created, the Mii had me step on the balance board and take some initial measurements (wieght and your Center of Balance (CoB). Then, using the weight measurement, it calculated my Body Mass Index (BMI) based on my height and weight. When Wii Fit displays your BMI score (with ranges from underweight to obese), it then sees fit to adapt your Mii's body shape to match its actual measurement.

So. Having already gone through the mild embarrassment of choosing the largest body type available when I created my original Mii, I was a little surprised that my Wii Fit (empowered?) Mii ballooned well past that image.

Talk about a motivator to lose weight. I am not fine with being overweight (I am a Systems Administrator who spends a LOT of time surfing a desk) and I haven't resigned myself to it, but I have come to have a healthy acceptance of who I am and what my weight means in that equation. But, to push the limits of a game's ability to display my virtual self...

That's kind of hard to take.

And there may be some controversy in that little wake up call given that the BMI measurement can't take into account muscle makeup or bone density when deciding where one lies in the fitness scale. A totally ripped 5'9" muscular 280 pound, athletic trainer might show up as obese on the Fit's BMI scale.

But I won't lie, my density isn't muscle based... even if my Mom always said that I was "big boned."

After the initial measurements and a few general balance tests, the Fit assigns each user a Wii Fit Age (kind of like the Nintendo DS' Brain Age game's Brain Age). My initial age was 48; over a decade past my actual age. Sometimes, especially after mowing our yards situated on a 45% slope, I feel like I am 90, so I was actually encouraged by the number. It could have been worse. As it stands, I believe the Fit Age is meant to be just another motivator; as if my husky avatar wasn't enough.

The Fit is all about motivation. It includes charts tracking how often you use the Fit, how much and what activities you have tried on (and off if you want to track extra-curricular activity as well) the Fit, and what resulting changes you have seen in your weight and BMI. In every fitness schedule that I have attempted in the past, the only ones that have been successful for me have been those where I have regular charted my weight, activity, and sometimes calorie intake in various spreadsheets I created for the task.

What I love about the Wii Fit is that it takes care of all (well, almost all... there is no calorie counting in this incarnation) of this charting for me. It makes it easy to watch your progress over time and see long term trends related to your activity levels and overall weight gains and losses. You can go back over chart history and see if any weight gain is a temporary blip in an overall downward trend or the start of a more permanent up tic and, most importantly, react accordingly.

The fitness activities available through the Wii Fit are parceled out over the long haul. You simply can't do everything at first. They start you out slow from a selection of Balance Games, Aerobics, Yoga, and Strength training. As you rack up minutes on the Fit, more activities, and more repetitions and durations of already unlocked activities will be unlocked.

I think the idea is to start the user out slow and and allow them to work up to harder routines. Its a noble idea, but falls a bit flat as the user isn't actually locked out of an activity after attempting it (which is a good thing). So while you might only be able to initially do three reps of the the arm twists (with the advanced six reps coming after an hour or so of total Wii Fit use), if you really want to do more than three reps, you just have to restart the activity over and over interspersed with slightly annoying delays as you navigate the beginning menus of each activity.

Also, since I have been the primary user of the Wii, I have unlocked way more activities and settings than the rest of the family. Unfortunately, unlocking activities is not Wii Fit wide. It appears to occur per profile, meaning that each family member has to log long hours on the Fit in order to unlock all the available activities. Again, I think I understand the thinking (making sure novice users don't overdo it and pacing their learning of the Fit's basic techniques as well as providing another motivational element), but it is still slightly annoying in execution.

As for the activities, they range in quality, but overall I have enjoyed all that I have unlocked and tried. The Balance Games seem dubious in fitness value at first, but after a single thirty minute session where I focused solely on balance games, I noticed a definite muscle burn in my core trunk muscles and in my calves and shins.

The Yoga exercises have become an instant favorite. I enjoy the relaxation and calmness that comes from the deep breathing focus of each pose. The balance board helps you keep the proper form by measuring your balance, measured by keeping a small red dot inside a larger yellow circle onscreen, during each activity. As you correct your form, as prompted by your virtual trainer, it becomes easier to keep the red dot steady in the yellow circle. Stretching more, tightening the muscles identified by your trainers soothing voice, and maintaining your breathing, your initial jittery red dot will calm down and stabilize and (eventually) show the effectiveness of your pose.

Similarly, this simple feedback mechanism, in a number of clever variations, is used to great effect to improve your speed, accuracy, and general form in all the Wii Fit's activity modes. You end up getting a good workout.

Which brings me to another point. Wear something you'd wear to the gym while using the Wii Fit. Especially if you are out of shape. Because. You. Are. Going. To. Sweat.

A lot!

I have been using the Wii Fit for two and a half weeks for at least thirty minutes a day on an almost daily basis. In that time, I have seen a loss of roughly five pounds, a reduction in my perceived stress, and a bit of a boost in my overall energy levels; all the benefits that one is to expect from a regular exercise program. The fact the Wii offers plenty of motivational aids ranging from its charting capabilities to classic video game motivational aids like leaderboards and rankings has really helped me stay with the Fit as an exercise program and staying with any exercise program is key to long term well being. That alone makes the Wii Fit a success in my book.

So, while there are little annoyances here and there, I think the fact that the motivators within the Wii Fit have been effective in helping me keep with a regular routine is endorsement enough.

Friday, June 20, 2008 Polite and Effective

Though we like to shop locally, sometimes the things we want aren't always available from local businesses. As a result, I end up shopping via Amazon for everything from specialty sugar to the world's best rechargeable NiMH batteries to earthquake straps.

Until recently, I wasn't aware that Amazon has a 30 day price-drop guarantee that if the price of something you buy drops within the next 30 days, you can get a refund on the price difference (if you request it). Or that there are some great online tools (like that will watch the prices for you. (Thanks, Parent Hacks!)

So, after six weeks of registering Amazon purchases at, I've recieved $11.15 in rebates on $137 in purchases. That's an additional 8% savings and all I had to do was fill out a couple forms (registering purchases and requesting refunds). The whole process of registering and getting the refunds has taken less time than writing this short post.

And what mom doesn't smile a domain name with manners?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Boy Crazy: Unexpected Side-Effects of Having Sons

Something must happen to women with sons that desensitizes part of our brains. I originally thought the change to be a result of pregnancy, but it seems to happen equally for adoptive moms, so it's probably caused by an undocumented boy-emitted radiation.

For instance, I stumbled into this post (warning: don't drink beverages while reading this and you may want to don rubber pants if in the small-bladdered stages of pregnancy) and found it hysterical. So, I pestered friends and family with it, and almost universally the parents of boys responded with "hysterical" and a gross story of their own while girls-only parents said merely "gross!"

And, yes, it is totally gross to sneeze pasta, but when Mavis writes, "naturally he tried to eat it." I nearly blew out a lung laughing because that's our boy-parenting lot in life.

One hot but halcyon day we attended a wading pool party at a friend's house. At some point Ranger picked up a pita and snacked on it while continuing to run around the yard and play.

The pool water, pristine and fresh at the beginning of the day, had slowly turned cafe-au-lait colored by the constant traffic for muddy toddler feet. Ranger meandered into back into the pool from his travels around the yard and was holding a bucket underwater when I said "Hey, he already finished his pita."

Probably in response, he raises his hands from the murky depths revealing a last dripping triangle of pita. He pops it in his mouth before I can stop him, chews, swallows, and grins. I just started laughing. Sure, the thought of me eating that drippy pita makes my throat tighten up a little. But his audacity, indecipherable internal logic (the kid won't eat ice cream but pops dirty wet flatbread without any hesitation), and spontaneity are so surprising they simply delight me.

Jim reminds me that there is an interesting discussion of attitudes more common to moms of boys in Queen Bee Moms and Kingpin Dads (a book I would recommend that every parent read and consider well before facing even the tween years). That discussion however might be bit high-brow for this particular post, so I'll save it for another day.

If you have hot weather, young friends, and a wading pool or sprinkler, then you have all the ingredients for a wonderful summer play date. Popsicles, bubbles, chalk, lawn toys, and dog are all optional.

Happy summer!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

LeapFrog Bounds Ahead With Tag: Win a Tag System

Rarely does a toy come into our house and seize everyone's affection, but in an unexpected swap for a doll house Ranger acquired the (now discontinued) LeapFrog Learning Hoops basketball game. This serendipitously- acquired game reinforced Ranger's burgeoning interest in letters and numbers. Unlike most battery-operated toys, this one quickly wormed its way into all our hearts and became a regular, often nightly, family activity.

When LeapFrog recently offered us a chance to try their new Tag reading system, I hesitated. The recommended ages of 4 to 8 seemed so much older than 2.75 year old Ranger that I pictured the device as a recipe for frustration. But the three blinking eyes of the beloved basketball game stared me down, and I decided we could use it without our alternate testers (ages 5 & 7) if it sent Ranger into a tailspin.

LeapFrog sent us the Tag reading system ($49.99 retail value, which includes the Tag Reader, Learning Connections software, a USB cable, and their self-developed soft cover book, Ozzie and Mack) and two additional hardcover books (retail value: $13.99 each) which were already among Ranger's favorites (The Little Engine that Could and I Spy: Imagine That!).

Please note: the Tag requires 2 AAA batteries (not included) and a USB-ready computer (XP, Vista, or Mac OS X 10.4+) with an Internet connection if you plan to use any book or accessory other than the preloaded Ozzie and Mack or use any of the system's Learning Path tracking features. The software is uncomplicated to load and easy to use. Downloading new books is also very easy.

The Tag (with 16MB on-board flash memory) can hold up to 5 books or activities at one time. The audio download for each book is stored locally on your computer, so even when you unload a book from your Tag Reader, it stays on your computer for fast re-installation later.

So what did Ranger think? It was love at first sight. He seized on the Reader (which I call a pen and he calls a temperature because it looks much like a fat digital thermometer). This similarity may have bolstered his interest as he used to carry a digital thermometer EVERYWHERE we went (here it is visiting a local pumpkin patch last October). Maybe he's just a futurist. Either way, I can't help but imagine that I may eventually find him frustrated sitting on the floor with a digital thermometer surrounded by books.

I started him with I-Spy, thinking an activity book might be better for his young age. He loves pointing at words and images and hearing them voice or illustrated with sounds. He soon figured out how to get the reader to read entire pages. He loves the sound effects and music from clicking on the pictures.

In many ways (for kids under 4) the Tag is a far more compact and successful version of the Little Touch LeapPad. It's a big improvement because Ranger no longer needs to hit go when he chooses a new page and doesn't get the wrong sound because a page is bent or laying improperly on the reader. There's no book cartridge for him to unseat, so it requires far less parental maintenance during use.

I love the Tag Reader's compact size. At 6.5 inches by 1.25 width" and 1.25" depth, the Reader easily fits in my bag (as do the 6.5" by 9.75" storybooks) and the Reader can fit in many pockets. It is lightweight, durable, and not much bigger than a cell phone. The Tag easily entertains Ranger during medical appointments and restaurant dinners.

The Little Engine That Could regularly delights Ranger with its excellent voice acting and great sound effects. We've read this book to him for over a year, so it's household classic. It's great to see him interacting with it on his own terms. It's funny how much he likes repetition of certain phrases and scenes.

I had originally discounted Ozzie and Mack's ability to interest Ranger. It struck me as the somewhat limited game that inevitably comes with the new video system but really isn't a killer app. Ranger has since schooled me on judging a book by its bundling. Ozzie and Mack is designed to showcase the abundant features of the Tag's dot pattern based reading system. It has lots of great incidentals that exceed the limitations of a classic story like The Little Engine That Could or even an activity based book like I-Spy. From the title pages' awesome alphabet to the hidden knock-knock joke in periphery of page 25, Ranger is constantly delighting in discovering new ideas. He's excited to learn on his own and loves showing me what he's found, and I love seeing his revelry in independence and information.

He really likes the control the stylus-type reader offers him to focus on HIS interests, and it works well with the developing agility of a toddler (better in my opinion than the Little Touch).

Being a random button pusher, he's found a combination that causes the reader to instruct him to "Tell your parents..." to connect to the software and how to download other books. We don't really like our toys telling our kids what to do; somehow it's just reminiscent of Saturday morning commercials instructing kids to pester their parents for products.

We're also not fans of the interruptive battery replacement warning. The warning starts long before the batteries are drained to non-functioning levels (so far, it's been ongoing for 3 days prior to battery failure), and we hate the thought of replacing any battery that still has life. I'd really prefer a small periodic warning flash in the on/off light to a message that interrupts play. Even the traditional notification of battery death (the toy not working) is preferable to an audio message. I'd like to an option to turn this notification off in future versions (or updates of this reader's firmware).

One of Ranger's best random button pushing discoveries is that the Reader can play the stories in full without the books. When Ranger accidentally discovered this cool feature during a car trip to a nearby town, both he and Jim enjoyed listening to his newfound book-on-Tag. The quality of the storytelling and voice acting really makes for an enjoyable listening experience.

We plan to get a lot of travel and waiting room use out of the Tag on top of normal at-home play. The books are high quality; Ranger recently water-tested Ozzie and Mack with accidental baptism at lunch on Father's Day. The dried pages still function properly. He sometimes jabs the books with the Reader- leaving impressions of the tip in the page, but those haven't affected function of the stylus or the books.

With an almost 50 dollar price tag, I was skeptical that the Tag could offer enough utility and value to meet its cost, but it is a flexible, well-designed, creatively-engineered system that really does much more than read words off a page (as if that's not amazing in its own right). This isn't another rote recitative Teddy Ruxpin because it puts the excitement of self-guided learning in your child's hands (demo).

And LeapFrog has generously offered to give 5 LeapFrog Tag Reading Systems prize packages away to Baby Toolkit readers!

To enter, send an email with the subject LeapFrog Tag to babytoolkitcontests [at] gmail [dot] com. One per household. U.S. readers only. Five winners (selected by random number generation) will each receive a Tag Reading System and one additional Tag book (prize package value: $64).

Entries will accepted through 11:59 PM CDT June 24, 2008. Winners will be notified by email; prizes not claimed within 10 days of email notification will be forfeited.

General disclaimers regarding contests on Baby Toolkit: we'll do our best, but we can't guarantee prize delivery. If a prize item were to be lost in the lost in the mail, we would take it as a message from a higher power that the situation was simply not meant to be (no compensation or replacement will be issued). We will use a random integer generator at to determine winners. Jim, Adrienne, their parents, and Ranger are not eligible for this contest. We respect your privacy and will not use your personal information for any purpose beyond determining a winner and sending prizes. Prizes are supplied by and will be shipped from LeapFrog.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Happy Father's Day!

Or "Happy Soccer Ball!" as Ranger's been proclaiming all morning. The book we got for Jim has two paneled spheres on it, so Ranger thinks we've given Daddy something soccer-related.

Today we raise a tall glass of juice to all you fabulous, involved, caring, geeky dads out there. Thank you for making each day more interesting.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

King Me: Birthday Crown

11/2008: Update Play crown tutorial now available.

A young friend is soon turning two, so I got out the sewing machine and whipped up a little birthday accoutrement.

Fortunately, I have friends who don't get too concerned when I call and ask for their child's head circumference with no real explanation.

The little thane loves dress-up, so I suspect this crown will see plenty of use long after his birthday has passed.

I drafted my own pattern (using Ranger's head for height reference). The awesome gold fabric had been given to me by the recipient's mom last year.

The crown reverses to corduroy and is adjustable (thanks to the miracle of Velcro) from 18 to 23.5 inches.

It has a fusible fleece interfacing by Pellon inside to give it rigidity.

If all goes well, I hope to post a full tutorial for this design (added 11/2008) in the next week and start working on a more feminine version. Ambitious plans in these lazy days of summer.

What ages do you think would appreciate a birthday crown?

What would you think if your child received something like this as a gift?
We're trying to think of simple gifts that are fun but enriching these days.

Happy birthday, sweet prince!