Giveaway and Review: Alcatel One Touch Idol S2 Smartphone and Tablet

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Until a few short months ago, I still used a phone that looked pretty much like this. Well, not exactly like that, because it was portable.  But it did have a screen that was about 1.5 inches square, with no data capability, and you had to press a key three times to get the right letter of the alphabet when texting. Which meant that it was never used for texting. It was basically like an emergency phone line. Or a walkie-talkie. Or maybe a bottle containing a SOS note.

For a long time, this didn’t bother me.  Who wants to be available 24/7?  I’ve given up instantaneous everything almost, even the Ramen noodles which I love. Convenience isn’t everything; slow and plodding could be a decent personal motto.

But then things started happening. My husband was gifted two iPads from work, and I got the little one. And you know, after I got used to it, the thing was actually pretty handy. It was nice not to have to rely on the big now-clunky desktop all the time.  And those smartphones… people did look kind of smart using them.  I started to notice how agile Beth-Anne and Nathalie were with their phones and, well, as someone on social media, I finally began wondering whether I ought to join the game. Sure it looked efficient and all that, but it also looked kind of fun.

And then, as I contemplated relaxing my grip on the Ghost of Telephones Past, I got the most perfect gift over the holidays and in time for 2015: my very first smartphone. The crew at Alcatel One Touch generously gave an Idol 2S as well as a Pop 8 tablet and just like, they swept me into the new millenium.

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Like a proper nerd, I read the manual (a couple of times). The truth is I had never used a smartphone before and had no earthly idea how they worked. I was nervous, but didn’t need to be – the phone is easy peasy to use, and it was a cinch to start figuring out what all the fuss is about. Turns out these gadgets are really useful!

Texting, unsurprisingly, is a revelation.  Tapping a big key just once is a lot faster than punching a little one three times. But not just that – the Idol S2‘s predictive keyboard is fast and accurate. In the spirit of research, I borrowed my sister’s smartphone to compare, and was that new phone’s texting capabilities ever clunky (how does she manage with something so slow)!  I double-checked my impression with my 14 year old nephew, who categorically strikes me as the best possible judge of my phone. He played around with it for a few minutes and handed it back: It’s a good phone. It’s fast.” Gold seal of approval, people.

There’s a lot of other things to like about the phone.  It’s very slim and good-looking, for starters. It’s gentle on the eyes, with its clear wide screen (5″ HD 720 display), which is lovely when using the 8 megapixel camera.  As a blogger and a mom, this is a boon.  I also like that the battery lasts a good while.  I’m not glued to my phone, but heavier users will be glad to know that charging the Idol S2 is fast.  I love the camcorder, and that the phone can turn into a little flashlight.  It’s a marvel!

The Pop 8 tablet is a great little toy too.  Like the Idol S2. the Pop 8 is slim and sleek, and handles easily.  I was a bit less of an inexperienced user when it came to tablets, and the Pop 8 is intuitive and simple to use. It’s perfect for check-ins with the online world and handing to the kids for an educational app or 5.  Both the phone and the tablet clock in as fast, effective devices at affordable price points.

I can say without hesitation that my presents from Alcatel One Touch are among the most impactful items to enter my realm.  And as a former Techno-Resister, you’ll know I speaketh the truth when I say I really love my phone!!

The amazing thing is that you can enjoy similar presents too:  Alcatel One Touch is generously offering both the Idol S2 smartphone and a Pop 7 tablet to one lucky reader!  The contest will stay open until Sunday at midnight EST, and is open to Canadian readers (except Quebec).  Enter to win by liking our Facebook page, following us on Twitter or Instagram or simply leave a comment. It’s a great giveaway – best of luck to you!

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A Parenting Trial

I thought for a good while about what I’d like to post for today and realized I couldn’t do much better than to re-post an anecdote I wrote almost five years ago (five years ago!).  I’m not sure how to introduce it, except to say that sometimes life’s like that, and to give thanks to my husband’s robust sense of humour, which helped him through this and many other trials.  And, of course, if you have your own, please do tell!

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It happened on the way to the cottage.  We got stuck in traffic, as we often do, in congestion worse than usual.  Also worse than usual was the mood in the car, due to bickering between my husband and me.  We were headed for a long, long drive.

My husband tried to pacify himself with an extra large coffee at the Tim Hortons drive-thru.  I don’t like coffee but used to take a mouthful or two when he would douse his Tims with double sugar and double cream.  Lately my husband had cut these indulgences out though, so he alone made short work of the bitter blackness.

As we continued to idle in the middle lane going pretty much nowhere, our then 4 year old son announced that he had to pee.  No one can really agree on whether it’s better to have boys or girls (thank God), but there are indisputable advantages to sons when it comes to peeing in a pinch.  Seizing the day, and the fact that we were barely moving, I unhooked the boy from his car seat.  In inspiration I grabbed the empty Tim Horton’s coffee cup as a urinal while he stood up in the car and peed into it.  My son silently followed all of my instructions with the acquiescence of the child aware he is in the midst of unusual and interesting permissiveness.  When he was done, I snapped the plastic lid back on the cup, returned it to the cup holder, and re-buckled my son, feeling pretty satisfied at the efficiency of it all.

As the going nowhere waxed on, my husband got bored.  He pulled out one of the harmonicas he keeps in the car.  He likes to play them when he’s driving.  I think it’s unsafe driving practice to play an instrument while driving, but my husband ignores me and it’s not illegal and I have to pick my battles.  That’s why we have a full set of harmonicas in the car.  Except that it’s rarely full.  There is usually at least one harmonica missing because the kids love to play on them, and freely I allow it, and reluctantly so does my husband, and somehow the little instruments don’t always make it back to where they belong.  And when they don’t, my husband blames me for it.  It’s kind of The Harmonica Issue.

Anyway, on this motionless car trip, during which my husband and I have given up trying to talk to each other, he tried to entertain himself by making a little music.  I was looking out the passenger window, but still saw his arm lift to bring the little silver instrument to his lips.  I heard his deep inhale.

But the expectant brassy blast of sound didn’t come.  Instead, flipping his head from left to right, my husband was sputtering in disgust.  There was some old mushed up peanut butter and jam residue in the harmonica, and he had sucked it right into his mouth.

I knew he wanted to blame me for this incident (if I didn’t give the harmonicas to the children then they wouldn’t be able to input their lunches into them for later resurrection, blah, blah, blah).  But since he wasn’t talking to me, he couldn’t.  So he said nothing and I continued to look out the window, trying not to laugh.

Then, suddenly, from the corner of my eye I saw his arms waving  all over the place.  I turned to look.  My husband’s face was red, eyes darting.  There were more sputtering noises, louder and more dramatic than before.  Also a good bit of cursing coming from him.  His window went down, Ben stuck his head far out of it, and spat and spewed and then spewed some more.

He had tried to cleanse his mouth of the peanut butter and jam residue in his mouth.  By drinking from the Tim Horton’s coffee cup.

Post printed with reluctant permission of husband.

Laughter Might Just Be the Best Medicine

WrBMbB7RxM4u5JIqXabhCKuTR0zsSEMC8Xdf1FuxKIhsMI2ViuajPHeRyrGeWZxHThere used to be Readers Digest magazines scattered around my childhood. I didn’t read many articles, but I did always search out the jokes and riddles of the Laughter is the Best Medicine section. They were short and easy to read, and I liked the little cleverness of each short set of lines. And yes – sometimes they were funny.

In the (gaping) span of time from then until pretty much last year, I think I had what I can only call an under-appreciation of the power of humour. I have always loved a good laugh, but I didn’t seek it out. It never occurred to me that one could inject more humour into one’s life. Laughter and jokes were more like the good fortune of stumbling on a penny on the sidewalk. It didn’t help that I didn’t watch much TV.

Gratefully, late to this game (like so many others), I have clued into the fact that popular culture is a great source of good times and good laughs. Last year someone told me to give Chuck a chance. I watched that show to its bitter end, primarily because most episodes afforded me one good belly laugh. Which is sometimes precisely what is needed at the end of the day.

It made me think: there must be more.

I revisited Russell Peters‘ stand up shows, and tried out a few others. This year I discovered Sherlock which isn’t really a comedy but it does combine some great light moments and good fun with mystery and drama. I watched The Heat with my husband. On my bookshelf is People I Want to Punch in the Throat. Beth-Anne reminds me that I can re-read comedy (I thought Bossypants was a great read too). And because Tina Fey created it, I watched the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt episodes (the supporting cast is so funny).

This newfound discovery of humour has given me a more conscious respect for humour, in all its forms. I’ve always appreciated it in person, but words and the screen offer rich possibilities too. I also have a burgeoning realization of the potency of humour – it can be a much needed distraction, but it seems like regular applications of it, like exercise, can have more long-term effects too. Keeping laughter closer to the forefront of the mind can lighten a heavy load, or shed a layer off a gray day.

Like many moms, I’m trying harder to toss myself into the mix of people that I take care of, and finding funny moments has become a regular tool with which to do just that. It turns out that laughter really is one of the best medicines in the cabinet.

The New Domesticity: More Choices

I read Emily Matchar’s Homeward Bound: Why Women are Embracing the New Domesticity shortly after it came out. Of course I did; I’m interested in urban homesteading and had just opened a store along these lines. Soon after though, I came to the realization that I couldn’t continue working on the store – it just wasn’t compatible with my home life with young kids.

This work snapshot, though it involved challenges, still encapsulates to me a lot of positives. I was able to choose to try a venture, and I was able to choose to stop. I think about this when I hear the term women (and sometimes men) “opting out” which has negative connotations. I like to focus on the “opting” part, which means there is a choice or options, which I see as a good thing.

I’ve chosen to stay home for a few years while my kids are young; I’m choosing to return to my paid work as a lawyer when they are in school. Maybe you are making similar choices; maybe yours are opposite. I appreciate the frankness of my work colleague who once said of my decision to stay home: “I don’t know how you do it. I’m never happier than on Sunday night, when I know I can have a break from home and go to work.” We shared a laugh and that was it. No drama. She knows I know she loves her kids and is raising them well with a knowledge of herself; I hope I am doing the same.

I like being at home. I like doing things with my hands as well as my head, so I often make things: bodycare products, arts and crafts, toys, gifts, dinner. Making do is also something I do well. The “new domesticity”, as Matchar calls it, makes staying at home more interesting for me – often making something, with its space for creativity and a personal touch, is more fun and satisfying than buying it.

But not always. Sometimes making something is actually quite hard, or too time-consuming, or just not fun. In these cases, I either go without it, or if I need it, I relish being able to go online or to the store and employ cash or plastic to buy it. Ah, the luxury of choice.

I’m also not sure I agree that women (and some men) who are opting for the new domesticity somehow become detached from the collective action that makes the world a better place. Does knitting your own scarf or chopping wood for your own heat really mean that you can’t join a protest or attend a meeting or sign a petition, especially in the world of online communication?

I’ve met many people who are staying at home for various reasons, and these people are at least as active, and often more active, in their involvement in the causes that are close to them than they would be if they were working full-time. They are advocating for changes in their children’s schools, to protect the environment, for a wide range of the social issues that they believe in. I really am not persuaded that choosing the new domesticity equates with civil irrelevance.

The emergence of the new domesticity, or any unconventional path for that matter, is a good thing insofar as it’s a manifestation of greater choices. I understand that if workplaces offered greater options for its workers that these alternatives might be less attractive or necessary. But while we work toward those changes in the future, it’s good to have greater options for the present. The traction of the new domesticity seems to show that these options are sorely needed.

Naturally Dyeing Easter Eggs With Kids

2011_04 - various 487I love colouring Easter eggs with the kids, and we do this naturally with items out of our pantry.  The kids love it too.  When I last asked the kids if they wanted to dye eggs, my eldest immediately set himself at the counter and said, “Let’s get out the turmeric!”  So we headed to the cupboard and fridge and retrieved our dye sources: turmeric, onion skins, beets, and purple cabbage.

Making the dyes is quick and easy.  Just add equal parts of the dye source and water into a pot and add a splash of vinegar (about a tablespoon for each cup of water). The vinegar helps to set the dye, so don’t skip it. And don’t worry too much about quantities here, which will result is slight variations of colour, but it will all work.  Then boil the contents of the pots for 15 to 20 minutes, let cool, and strain.  And just like that, you’ve got your natural dyes!

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Playing with the natural colours is fun, but here’s a partial code when using white eggs (using brown eggs will create different colour tones):

– purple cabbage makes light blue tones

– beets makes pink tones

– turmeric makes yellow tones

– onion skins makes red tones

We got additional dyes by colour mixing.

I do this activity with my boys, so we dyed pre-boiled eggs in the cooled dyes in order that they can participate more fully in the process.  But you can get different and usually deeper colour tones by boiling eggs directly in the pots of dye.  I’d love to have green eggs this year, and read that red cabbage will transfer green dye on brown eggs, so that’s on our “to try” list.

There was almost no waste from the dyeing process, as we ate both the boiled beets (peeled and sprinkled with a little red wine vinegar) and the boiled cabbage (plain! the boys pulled it out of the pot and ate all of it without a word from me).

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There are lots of ways to decorate the eggs.  We’ve experimented with tying elastics around the eggs or applying stickers (paper hole reinforcements are fun) before dyeing.  But our favourite for hands-on fun is to draw on still-warm freshly boiled eggs with beeswax crayons.  The heat melts the wax and the crayons just slide on – it’s a lovely sensory experience. When the eggs were too hot to hold at first, the boys drew on them while they perched in a paper carton; later they could hold them in their hands.

If you’d like a sheen on the eggs, rub a little oil on them after dyeing. I usually present our eggs out on our playsilks so I haven’t applied the oil before.  But it is pretty and I think the boys would enjoy the process so this year I’ll probably use paper instead of the silks to cushion the eggs.

As with all DIY projects with children, it’s important to focus on the process. My first time doing this with the children (who were obviously too young), I had their attention for 5 minutes and then basically dyed the eggs on my own which I enjoyed, but kind of missed the point.  Except that maybe it didn’t, because now the boys line up at the table when it’s time to dye our eggs, ready to chop cabbage or pour the vinegar or draw on the eggs.  It’s all part of the process, and has become one way in which we welcome the spring.

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Make Your Own Artisanal Natural Cold Pressed Soap

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I’m here to tell you that creating the best handmade soap suited specifically to your needs or those of the people you love is entirely within your power.

But first I’m going to tell you how I failed to accomplish this for many years.

One November ages ago, I rode my bike down Queen Street and saw a sign in a cute indie fashion shop that said “Soapmaking Workshop”.  And although it’s hard for me to imagine doing this for any other type of workshop, I got off my bike and without thinking about it laid my money down.

The workshop was held in the kind of creepy basement of this shop, and about 10 of us squished in there.  The facilitator was knowledgeable and methodical, and had the credibility that comes with having your soap being carried in various shops around the city.  I left with my bars of soap and then proceeded to not make any for six years.

Why?

One word: lye.  And maybe two more: sourcing ingredients.

These two things, but especially the first, means that making soap isn’t really beginner DIY bodycare.  Making soap depends upon a chemical reaction called saponification, and uses lye to get there.  Lye is a caustic alkali that reacts strongly with other materials, including skin – carelessness with lye can cause serious burns and other injuries.  It scared me, and it scared me off for a good while.

But then I recently opened a store that was all about handmaking things (and, because the world spins fast, I’m actually not involved in it anymore – more on this another time) and I decided to make soap already.  I gathered my materials (not much, really), bought the few inexpensive things I didn’t have from the dollar store (like safety goggles and rubber gloves), and then I researched it thoroughly online and in books, and researched it some more, until I had basically memorized the entire process.

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I am a beginner soapmaker and would not dream of telling you how to do it – there are many sites and books that do it far better than I could.  I have The Soapmaker’s Companion by my bedside, and the resource that gets recommended, all the time, for being both instructive and encouraging and down-to-earth about lye, is Anne Watson’s Smart SoapmakingIt’s making its way to me in the mail.)

What I can tell you as a beginner soapmaker is that if you are determined to avoid regular soap (check safety ratings of your products on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep website) or relish the loveliness of artisanal handmade soap, or both – you can do it!  Especially if you like cooking, this will be a fun and easy extension of what you already do in your kitchen.  Don’t be cocky around the lye, but don’t let it boss you around either – a good respect for it will do. Educate yourself and then enjoy how widely it’s available now – several of my local hardware stores carry it.  As for the other ingredients, you can make very good soap (and better than almost everything at the store) from oils in your pantry.  If you want to get some extra nice carrier oils and essential oils, go to your local natural health food store or buy them conveniently (and often less expensively) online (here and here if you’re in Canada; if in the U.S., this company sounds quite amazing).

Then there’s a whole world of soapmaking to discover.  Read and watch how much fun soapmakers are having and the gorgeous soaps they’re making. Learn about the oils you’re using, as they have unique cleansing and healing properties, especially if you have sensitive skin. Look into the controversy around palm oil (more sustainable options are readily available). Inquire into whether you would consider using animal fats in your soap, as this post by a vegetarian is making me do. Think of who you’ll gift it to (I’m doing this to distraction, I’m afraid.)  Making soap at home offers a lot of creative license, and you can make anything from shampoo bars to shaving bars with minor adjustments.

I’ve only made two batches (more on the way), but they turned out perfectly. I don’t know what kind of DIYer you are, but the one writing this post can’t often boast of perfect outcome on a first try.  Once informed, it’s really not that hard.

For the record, the soap I photographed for this post is Calendula Soap.  I already have several other recipes in line.  Not everyone gets excited about handmade soap, but I do!  I love this soap and have been using it exclusively for years, but it’s expensive (and I’ve got three boys to wash!).  Making it at home means I can use high quality and organic ingredients for a small fraction of the cost, and I have the pleasure of creating something I think is really nice, and which I hope will be received well as gifts.

Want to try?

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Making Your Own Lotion Bars – Easy DIY Salve for Winter

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It’s been the perfect winter, has it not, to make a good hand salve?  The truth is, if you use your hands much at all (any gardeners amongst us?), a good hand salve is a year-round affair.

But it takes on an even more prominent place this time of year, and especially this year, with this winter being so tenacious. Skin throughout the land is taking more of a hit than usual, and it strikes me as a perfect time for making lotion bars.

So I made lotions bars, using this recipe, delightful as it was in its simplicity:  equal parts beeswax, coconut oil, and almond oil.  I chose it because of this straightforwardness, and because all ingredients were in stock at home.

There’s a difference between easy, and easy for me, and I’m here to tell you I managed to encounter complication even in all this simplicity.  Although the instructions clearly feature the use of a silicone mold to pop out the lotion bars (and I have these molds), I thought it would be nice to have them into tins and jars, so that’s what I poured the mixture into.   They looked so pretty in them too.  But once they were cooled, the lotion was hard (ergo the lotion bars part), and were difficult to get out of the jars and use.  Essentially they are lotions bars, as mentioned in the instructions, and not a cream.

So I was back to the drawing board, and re-melted the lotion in my makeshift double boiler.  (I ruined my carefully saved tins in the process).  But I did find some silicone molds, and poured out my bars.  I forgot about the most appropriate shape I had, of hearts, and used instead the shapes of puzzle pieces and one meant create shot glasses made of ice (I only discovered this intended purpose after I made the lotion bars; I used the reverse to get little bullet-shaped bars).

In the end, we ended up with a decent lot of lotion bars.  (And I say “we” because I had some helpers.) They do moisturize both the hands and face well, the children have enjoyed them, and we gifted a few during a playdate.  As it turns out, puzzle-shaped lotion bars appeal to kids, and my adult friend said that she loved them and that her hands have never been so moisturized.  Also, if one of your kids decides to eat one, you’ll know he’ll be fine because there’s nothing in there that will hurt him.

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There’s something to be said for stumbling through the bumps of being a beginner.  It’s uncomfortable, but if you come out the other end, you’ve something to show for it, not least of which is a notch of perseverance on your belt.  Next up I’d like to try a recipe that really does produce a cream, or at least a softer salve, which probably means it would contain less beeswax.

I suspect doing this and other easy DIY projects gave me the confidence to venture into the world of cold-pressed soapmaking, which I’ll write about here next week.  Happy DIY-ing!

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Second-Hand Fashion Gems in Toronto

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There was a time when second-hand shopping meant sifting through piles of worn and stained clothing, but these days are long gone. Clothes are no longer passed on primarily because they’re worn out, but for lots of other reasons:  frequently changing tastes, impulse buys that didn’t pan out, ill-fitting clothes (as mothers know very well, our bodies change), and unused gifts (lots of items still have tags on them).

The result is that there are heaps of high quality, lovely pieces that are being recirculated, and it is a lot of fun to get in on the game. With so many options are available for scoring unique, good-looking clothing, the fashionistas peruse the second-hand offerings right next to the bargain hunters and the eco-minded (buying second-hand leaves a smaller footprint than buying new) and on as regular a basis.

So what exactly are these options?  For those who want a gentle approach to second-hand and love high fashion and the brands that bring it, you can’t get much better than Thrill of the Find (1172 Queen Street East).  Clothing in perfect condition is neatly hung in this boutique shop, and the staff helps you get the perfect high fashion find at a fraction of the cost you’d normally pay.  There are a lot of beautiful dresses in the shop, along with a slightly imperfect rack for those among us who know our way around a needle and thread.

A little farther east is Gadabout (1300 Queen Street East), an overflowing vintage shop selling all kinds of old things, including some very interesting clothes.  Vintage clothing is an important part of Toronto’s fashion scene, and though I don’t belong to this world, I encountered it once at Gadabout when I was shopping for my wedding dress.  When trying on a beautiful vintage baby blue knee-length dress with an empire waist and cream trim, I caught the attention of two designers who were shopping there also; they promptly offered their advice for how the dress could be adjusted to be just right.  Like Thrill of the Find, Gadabout is not necessarily inexpensive because of how specialized it is (and the designers pointed this out), but it is a good shop carrying a wide range of things, and if you find something you love, you can be quite sure you’ll not find it elsewhere.  (And I probably would have gotten married in that baby blue dress (which cost about $200) had my husband not finally confessed that he really would prefer I wear a white one.)

Hands down, my favourite local second-hand haunt is my neighbourhood Value Village (924 Queen Street East).  This is your trusty department thrift store – the rectangular shop is stocked with utilitarian shelves and hangers, but there are some treasures among the more mundane offerings, and the prices are cheap (although they are not as cheap as they used to be, due to its increased popularity).  Clothing is organized by type (sweater, long-sleeved shirt, skirt) and size, but you are much better off going to browse than looking for anything in particular.  I have bought many things that I really like and use here, and my niece bought her prom dress here, confident that she wouldn’t encounter another girl in the same dress.

Do you have any favourite second-hand neighbourhood stores or experiences?

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Local Fashion Finds in Toronto

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We hope you’ve been enjoying our month of fashion and beauty ruminations.  To round off, we’ll be telling you about our favourite local fashion finds this week.

High end, thrifting, making your own – what’s your style when it comes to looking great in Toronto?  Does big city living boast so many options that the overflowing choice leaves you unsure of where to start?  Or do you thrive on the ever-changing world of fashion that graces our city?

This week, catch a glimpse of 4 Mothers’ varied thoughts on this, as we tell you about our experiences and what exactly it is that we’ve found – you might be surprised!

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