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Friday, November 28, 2008

Calories? Who's counting?

How was your Thanksgiving? Did you slave over a hot oven or enjoy the work of someone else's culinary toil? Did you skip the big meal because of your economic situation?

Typically, I am not into the Thanksgiving meal. My coworkers will vouch that my foodie days are long over (a trend I went through from about 18-22 years old, which has never returned), so the idea of spending an entire day, or several days, worrying over and working on one meal never appealed much. My mother truly detests cooking and all the heavy clean-up that surrounds it, so we've celebrated family Thanksgivings in restaurants for many years. In fact, we spend Easter and Christmas in restaurants, too. While there's much to enjoy about that scenario, restaurants are often very crowded on holidays, the staff is cranky because they'd rather be home, and the food often seems like it was prepared back in the Puritan times and then left under a warming lamp...

This year we had a wonderful meal. We chose a simpler, less expensive, neighborhood restaurant, and clearly that was the right choice (Chessie's 11 Grille in Barrington, IL, if you are wondering). Everything tasted fresh, like it was made just for us, and there was enough variety that one could easily avoid that marshmallow-yam casserole. Ahem.

But now it's "Black Friday," which reminds me of a Steely Dan song while it reminds everyone else of Christmas shopping. The Library is open today, Black Friday or not, so I'm working and thinking about this amazing coconut cake that's sitting in the lunchroom (right next to my office), courtesy of Veronica Schwartz, Head of our Youth Services Department. I'm realizing that I ate several helpings of turkey yesterday, delicious cornbread stuffing, chicken piccata, two pieces of light-as-a-feather cornbread, carrots in a yummy walnut sauce, and...any number of desserts. Whew. Thank God I was eating my Thanksgiving dinner in Illinois and not in New York City, where many restaurants (those with 15 or more locations nationwide) have to post the calorie count for every food item. If I knew there were - what? - 7 or 8 zillion calories in that slice of Italian cream cake, would I have eaten it?

The New York City Department of Health's initiative has generated much discussion, especially in the online world, where pretty much everything is dissected and chewed over many, many times. How do you feel about it? On the one hand, I think it's a great idea. In this article from the New York Post, I discovered that the average onion has 35 calories: the Bloomin' Onion at Outback Steakhouse has 2,275 calories. Ouch. A Chipotle Grilled Chicken Burrito - which sounds like a low-cal number, right? - weighs in at 1,179 calories. And who's going to eat a burrito without some chips? and salsa? and maybe some refried beans and rice...Ouch!

Of course, a lot of calorie and nutritional information is freely available on the Internet, if you're brave enough to look. I'm a big fan of Caesar salads. I'm a big fan of not cooking at lunchtime, but I recently discovered the yummy Caesar salad at a nearby takeout place has almost 1,000 calories, and that's not including the side of flatbread and the oatmeal raisin cookie I feel obligated to buy. If you want to open that Pandora's box for yourself, check out The Daily Plate, which offers calorie counters plus the ability to create a food diary for yourself, a great way to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. I also suffer from serious acid reflux problems. Looking up my diet soft drink of choice, I found out it has 50% more caffeine in it than other "versions" of the same soda! Curious? Go to Energy Fiend and look up your beverage.

Want to really spoil your holiday cheer? Type in the phrase "ten worst foods" in your favorite search engine, and be prepared to read 'em and weep. Or, follow this link to read a list of the 20 worst foods in America, courtesy of the Today Show.

Better yet - want to watch your waistline without the scare tactics? Come to the Library and fill up on diet, nutrition and exercise books and DVDs! Use the one-click searches to get started. After all, if you watch what you eat and drink most of the time, you'll never notice that little splurge on some Italian cream cake...right?

Fitness/exercise DVDs
Nutrition - books, audiobooks and DVDs
Low-fat diets
Food habits - books on portion control, better eating habits, etc.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Click Your Way to Savings

For the last few weeks, I've been writing about holiday shopping and all the angst it can bring, especially in these troubled economic times. I've also been taking a survey here on PlainTalk about your holiday shopping plans and it appears that most people will be buying gifts this year, although perhaps for a reduced number of people or with a smaller overall budget. So for those of you who are making your list and checking it twice, here's a Web site that can help you save big.

Maybe you've never tried online shopping. More and more Americans are shopping from the comfort of desk or couch. Why not? You save on gas and time, and looking for the right online stores can mean saving on sales tax and shipping, too. Watch for so-called "sales" that offer meager discounts, however, since the shipping often adds 10-15% onto your total. One possible drawback - online shopping isn't as "green" as it might seem, because items need to be shipped which widens your carbon footprint, and many retailers still use tons of very non-green packaging, like styrofoam. However, you can purchase inexpensive carbon offsets from sites like Carbonfund or focus on local retailers, so the shipping won't cause much more damage than your daily mail.

With online retailers, a very smart thing you can do is sign up for email alerts from your favorite sellers. This will clue you in to special deals, so if you can, hold off on shopping until they give you a good reason to click "Purchase." Before you make that click, check your In Box, too -- sometimes you've forgotten that 25% off email or free shipping offer, and then you'll be kicking yourself for ordering too soon.

Want to give your online shopping a boost this year? Visit Hoffman Estates, IL-based Coupon Cabin. gathers online deals from well-known retailers all into one, easy-to-browse place. Just looking at the site a few days ago, I saw deals from The Home Depot, Target, Zappos, Macy's, Kohl's and many other famous names. The coupons are only good for ONLINE purchases, but of course you can browse a brick-and-mortar store, then go home and place your order. By the way, did you know some stores will do the online ordering for you, if you come in for an item and they don't have it in stock? Also, many retailers will allow you to make free returns, even if you bought the items online - save on those shipping costs!

Coupon Cabin also offers access to, where you can purchase $25 restaurant gift cards for only $10 - and sometimes even less!! One interesting thing to note about is that they feature local restaurants - I assumed it would contain mostly chains, but the focus is local, including Des Plaines stand-bys like the Black Ram and Cafe La Cave. Do read the fine print, as certain rules apply, like minimum purchases or gratuity included, and sometimes gift cards for certain restaurants are out of stock. If you think this might make gift-giving awkward ("Hi, I bought you this discounted gift card, and you have to spend a minimum of $50 for it to work.") use it to treat yourself or help pay for a night out with friends. A tip -- more gift certificates are added on the first of the month, so wait until December 1st and start shopping on

Many people avoid online shopping because they fear their credit card information will be compromised, maybe even their entire identity! While this is certainly a terrible experience, the fact is: it also happens in retail stores. So, if that's been your reason to avoid shopping on your computer, you may want to reconsider. I remember a friend who refused to send her credit card number over the Internet for many years - she would place her order, and then fax in her credit information. As if sending a fax to a roomful of strangers in another state was safe!

That's a little bit about saving money online this holiday season. For more online suggestions, check out this feature from CNN:

Later this week, I'll introduce you to some places where your shopping can provide delightful gifts for friends and family, but also make a vital difference in the larger world. Wow - can you believe it's almost Thanksgiving!?!?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Cold Hands = Warm Heart?

Is it just me, or does that commonly used expression sorta drive you crazy? I know it's usually meant out of kindness - you reach out for a handshake or go to hold a loved one's hand, and your fingers feel like icicles. So they say, "Cold hands, warm heart" to let you know they love you despite your frozen paws.

I suspect that people who have no shelter, or who struggle to pay heating bills every winter, don't find much warmth in their cold hands. The good news is, those of us who are blessed with a little (or a lot) more financial comfort can help warm those cold hands - stop by the Mitten Tree on the second floor of the Library.

You can't miss it - follow the path of candy canes and you'll find a Christmas tree with barrels waiting for your goodies. Since it is the Mitten Tree, there is a barrel for mittens, gloves, hats and scarves . There's another barrel where we're collecting NEW, unopened toys for tikes. The third barrel is for our local Self-Help Closet and Food Pantry. They have a special need for canned foods, dry soups, cereals, pasta, sugar, any other non-perishable food items plus paper goods and diapers in sizes 3, 4 and 5.

Think about it. Almost all of us are experiencing financial strain right now, but sometimes it's an eye-opener to remember: there's always someone worse off than you. Can you spare $5-10 for a new winter cap or gloves, or $10 worth of canned goods? I bet if you went without an expensive cup of coffee or breakfast pastry for a few days, you could do it easily. Please bring what you are able to our Mitten Tree donation area. Mitten Tree and toy donations are being accepted through December 12, 2008. The Self-Help Pantry needs your help year 'round, so when the barrel is moved from the second floor you'll find it in our atrium.

Help someone have warm hands and a warm heart this winter.

The cute (if cold!) doggie picture is from the Web site, "LOLdogs, Dogs n' Puppy Dog Pictures: I Has A Hot Dog." What are LOL dogs? Followers send in digital snaps of their dogs, cats, and other pets doing hilarious things, and readers write their own "dialogue" for the scene. That makes you "LOL" - or, laugh out loud. If you love dogs and need a smile, check it out. (Yes, there's a cat version, too.)

Monday, November 17, 2008

It's in the cards

Last week, I started a conversation with you about Christmas shopping, shopping in general, gift giving and the economy. In the poll about Christmas shopping that I'm running here in PlainTalk, 16 of you have responded, and the results are mixed. Some aren't changing their Christmas shopping habits, while some are going without gifts altogether. (And of course, some readers don't celebrate Christmas, and as I continue this "series" of posts about shopping, I'll try to include other holidays and just everyday shopping as well.) But there's little doubt that the economy, here in the U.S. and all over the world, is on everyone's mind. How can a person celebrate the season without going broke, while helping resuscitate an economy that's gasping for air?

Let's start with a tradition that often arrives early -
holiday cards. I'm always stunned when I receive a Christmas card before Thanksgiving - now that's a dedicated card sender! But, let's talk greenly: "The 2.65 billion Christmas cards sold each year in the United States could fill a football field 10 stories high." (

While I love a beautiful or funny holiday card as much as anyone, that number is startling because of the underlying truth: all or most of those cards end up in the garbage - some may be recycled. Often, the more attractive the card (think glitter, foil, mylar, fancy envelopes), the less likely it can be recycled. So consider ways to trim down your mailing list. Save the paper cards for those who will truly be touched that you remembered them - I know, for example, that sending a card means a lot to some of the senior ladies at my church who do not have the wide circle of friends they once enjoyed.

When you've got the list whittled down, considering buying cards that are made from recycled materials and/or cards that can be easily recycled. Better yet, skip the boxed cards at the discount store and buy cards that can make a difference. How? Well, chances are you, like me, receive packages of greeting cards in the mail from charities asking for a financial donation in return. They may not be the prettiest, stylish cards, but send in your check and use them. You'll feel better, you will have skipped the mall entirely, and the people who receive them will get the message - you care enough to send a card and care enough to make the world a better place.

If that doesn't work for you, consider buying cards that benefit charitable organizations. Some are right here in the Chicago community, like Little City in Palatine, IL. Little City sells holiday cards every year that are designed by and that benefit its developmentally disabled residents. Check them out here -- fun designs that send an important message about the dignity of the disabled and your desire to help. The picture at the top of this post is a Little City card, designed by Brian Kaplan - it's my favorite of their designs this year. Another option is UNICEF. They have cards for every season, and special occasions like birthdays. Buy several boxes and you'll be set for the year. See the cards here.

These are just two examples - if you know of another organization that sells holiday cards to benefit its good works, please post the information here and share it with us. Thanks to reader Sara who informed us about Misericordia's cards - see them here. (I like the mixture of religious and non-religious cards, plus some cool Chicago-themed choices.) Yes, buying cards that benefit a charity is more expensive, but it's also a way of giving back, so that your efforts to spread the joy aren't simply spreading a trail of paper. It's particularly perfect if you aren't exchanging gifts with people this year - a card that is also a donation is an ideal way to share the true meaning of the holidays with your community, with the whole world.

If you haven't taken our Christmas shopping poll, there's still time -- just click your answer into the box at the top of this page.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

To Shop - Or Not To Shop?

Yesterday, I got an email from an old friend. We've stayed close through 28 years of friendship, even though she and her family now live on the West Coast in sunny San Jose. The subject of her message was "Christmas," and I expected it would contain their travel plans for visiting back home in Illinois over the holidays.

Instead, it was the kind of message I think many of us are pondering: "I was wondering if we could not exchange Christmas gifts this year." On one hand, it surprised me. I've always admired her and her husband for their successful professional careers and beautiful home. If they are worried about On the other hand, it came as a relief! I'm paying off a big school loan and with the price of gas and groceries, my earnings just don't go as far as they once did. My credit cards are already bulging with debt, so not having to charge a few more Christmas gifts seems wiser than gold, frankincense or myrrh.

Not everyone feels this way. The newspapers are full of stories predicting the demise of many familiar retailers if people don't get out and shop 'til they drop. In the latest edition of Town & Country magazine, a writer bemoans the trend of replacing gift-giving with charitable donations. In her mind, it takes all the fun out of the holidays. Now, that trend is different from not exchanging gifts at all, but I think both ideas stem from the same issue: What is the wisest way to celebrate Christmas, or, any other special occasion (because I know not everyone celebrates Christmas)? If I'm worried about the economy, my mortgage, my retirement savings, is it okay to say "No gifts," at least for a year or two? If I don't feel like I can make a dramatic show of gift-giving or I'm fed up with excessive spending, is it okay to say, "I'll make a donation in your name this year?"

PlainTalk will feature, in the weeks to come, various ways in which you can get more out of your holiday gift-giving: suggestions for local organizations that need your donations; places where you can buy relatively inexpensive, "fair trade" gifts, so you can give and give more; "green" and charitable suggestions for holiday cards, wrappings, and other necessities; and, opinions, my own and yours, on the ins and outs of gift-giving.

At the top of this page, to your right, you'll see a poll - let us know what your plans are for Christmas shopping this year. You can also let us know if you have no Christmas plans! Want to add your Comments on this topic? Type them in below - you can list your name, or even post anonymously.
Want to learn more about Savvy Shopping?
Use our "Savvy Shopping" guide!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Newbie's Guide to Des Plaines

I've been working in Des Plaines for just over 17 months now, and writing this PlainTalk blog for about 15 months. Another one of my responsibilities at the Library is maintaining a page on our Web site about the Des Plaines community - which is difficult to do when you don't know every nook and cranny of a city.

To be sure, I've found a lot of things I love about this town. It's fun to work in what feels like a living, breathing city. I live in a very quiet "bedroom community," which is great for sleeping but not very energizing and inspiring for one's creative sense! I love that I can take a short walk and pick up a burrito at Mexico restaurant, or a dozen kolacky
from Shop And Save to bring to Mom (the kolacky are almost as good as Mom's, without the need to knead, if you know what I mean!). I like that friends can take the train to come and visit me here, but I'm also so close to major expressways. (Granted, an "expressway" in Chicago is something of a misnomer - they're never moving too quickly!) I can drop those last-minute bills in the mail at the little post office on Lee Street, and try whenever I can to patronize other local businesses, like Walgreen's, Panera, Jewel, etc. I figure Des Plaines is working hard to employ me, so I ought to give back to the local economy.

From time to time, pretty darn cool things happen in Des Plaines. Yesterday, there was a good, old-fashioned circus parade, with elephants and horses taking a stroll through town on their way to the Allstate Arena in neighboring Rosemont. (My coworker Linda Knorr took in the parade and got some photos.) Did you see it? We've got a great 4th of July parade that people come from far and wide to enjoy. There are big events like Taste of Des Plaines and the New Year's Eve celebration, but also small, everyday treasures, like the train at The Choo Choo
and the pretty drive past Lake Opeka on a sunny day.

So, can you help me add to our page of resources on the Des Plaines community? You can find the current page here. What else should be listed here? Should we create a community photo gallery? A list of "hidden gems?" A place to review local restaurants and businesses? What do you love most about DP? Tell me what would be most useful to you - use the "Comments" space here to make your suggestions. Thanks! Also, you can always send me your suggestions about the entire Library Web site. To do that: On the Library Web site, look for the "How Do I" pull-down menu in the top right-hand corner. Choose "Contact the Library" and find the link to mail the Web Services Librarian.

Monday, November 3, 2008

"The only way to not think about money..."

" to have a great deal of it." A painfully true statement from novelist Edith Wharton, in House of Mirth.

That means most of us, right now, are thinking about money - being careful with what we have and, yes, wondering about sensible ways to earn more.

I thought about money yesterday when I noticed a large "bed and bath" store plastered with "Going Out of Business" signs. I wandered into the store and felt a tinge of sadness, seeing rows and rows of new Christmas decorations - the store opened a year ago and had obviously planned on being around a lot longer. The current state of the economy can stir other emotions as well. A few weeks ago, I bought a simple beauty tool online. It came highly rated by other purchasers and was featured on a blog I like,
Truth In Aging. At $22 plus shipping, it seemed overpriced, but heck, if it works, right? Wrong. This weekend I accompanied a family member to one of those dollar stores, where, lo and behold, I found not only the same tool but a higher quality version! For a dollar plus sales tax. Talk about feeling like a fool.

What are you doing to save money right now? Are you a coupon-clipping fiend? Do you scour the Sunday ads for the best deals? Are you using public transportation instead of driving? Are you just "going without" at times? Share your tips here and help out your neighbors in the community. To get you started, I'll share some of mine and some ideas from the Library, too.
  1. First one's easy -- check out books, magazines, DVDs and CDs from the Library instead of buying! I love getting some new songs on my iPod without adding another charge to my credit card, and buying magazines often seems truly frivolous. Use our BookChecker tool if you often browse the online booksellers -- with one click, you will know if we have access to the same book, saving you the anxiety of an "impulse" buy.

  2. Use the Library's Consumer resources & "Savvy Shopping" guide, found on the page, "Research Databases by Topic."

  3. Do the math (and that's tough for me, being an English major!). Don't let big, bold "SALE" signs fool you into getting less for more. For example, most supermarkets now post a "price per ounce" or similar information on the shelf. I was recently buying Parmesan cheese, and discovered the sale price of the smaller package was still more per ounce than the larger package. A sad fact - many of the world's poor not only lack the ability to read and write but also this kind of "consumer literacy," which allows a person to calculate if the larger package is a better value than the small. Two-for-one sales are a great value if the product has a long enough shelf life and you use it on a regular basis - I look for these on my favorite hair and bath products all the time.

  4. Also for those items you use all the time -- buy when the sale is hot, and don't wait until you run out! I make this (dumb) mistake all the time with items like contact lens cleaner and solution. I pick up the bottle and it's empty, and my only option at 10:30 PM is the local grocery, where those items cost $2-4 more than they would at, well, you know - the store with the big red bullseye. (I want to avoid recommending any specific stores here, as I don't think that's appropriate for the Library.) As long as the product won't spoil and has a practical use, it's often smart to shop ahead.

  5. Don't forget to think about the long-term cost of your purchases, too. You might be offered a great deal on a gas guzzling SUV -- but add in the cost of filling the tank and the cost to the environment and it's no deal at all. Some big box discounters fill their shelves with inexpensive items -- made overseas in factories with no labor standards and unhealthy work conditions. Purchasing one of those "bargains" can have a lasting, negative effect on the economy and the lives of ordinary workers. The urge to buy, buy, buy can leave your home cluttered and unwelcoming, and then your next step might be to throw away that unwanted stuff, clogging up a landfill.
So -- what are you doing to save money and be a wiser consumer? Write in your tips and comments below and share your wisdom with the community!