Monday, May 29, 2023

Frugal Fun - Picnics and Free Museums!

I don't know about you but we are really feeling the pinch at the grocery store. I remember pre-pandemic, a Costco employee said in passing that you could guess your total at the register by multiplying the number of items by $12, because that was the average for groceries. These days I feel like the average is more like $17, and forget doing any serious grocery shopping anywhere else.  And of course, that translates to higher restaurant prices as well, which sucks because we have always supported a lot of local restaurants.

I know lots of families are in the same boat right now, especially with student loan repayments looming, so I thought I would start sharing some of our frugal weekends. Maybe this helps you pay the bills, maybe it helps you save for a vacation!

First, I said I would pick up baguettes at Costco, but they didn't have any. What they had was two loaves of "country french bread" for $6, and they looked nearly identical to the bread Francis learned to make during the pandemic baking craze. Lilly called it monorail bread, and it stuck. His monorail bread is a recipe that he found online that is similar to any "french bakery bread" type recipe you can Google. The ingredients are simply yeast, flour, honey, and salt. (Sidenote: I have been reading The Frugal Gourmet and we also bought a dredger this year to cut back on the amount of flour wasted for "dusting".) It's a perfect snack with butter, or toasted for crostini!

Second, we try to buy most of our meat from our local CSA, but that $5 Costco rotisserie chicken is just too good to pass up. What we do when we get one is strip it down and turn it into chicken salad, and then use the carcass to make chicken stock in the Instant Pot. You can add veggies and herbs for more flavor, but our stock is often just turned into "pupsicles" for Stella, who loves to be outside in all weather. We put the stock in a pyrex bowl with a cup up carrot (her favorite, and a 5lb bag of big carrots is about $5 at Costco) and freeze them. When it's completely frozen you can just tip it right out of the bowl into the yard. Dirt cheap dog treats!

What do you get when you combine the homemade bread and rotisserie chicken salad? Picnic lunch! We were going to take it to the Forest Park Naturescape playground, but that is next to the Zoo and the traffic was, well, a zoo on a holiday weekend. (Turns out the African Arts Festival was also in that corner if the park.) Instead, we went to the Forest Park visitors center, which has an awesome, accessible playground and a small water fountain. It may be intended for drinking, but of course kids had their hands all over it. Go to the visitors center for a bottle filling station!

After lunch, playground, bubbles, and playing catch, we walked over to Missouri History Museum. Sometimes they have a paid exhibit here, but at the moment everything is free! We spent some time reading books and playing Mississippian games in the History Clubhouse, coloring on the walls in Coloring STL, and playing soccer games in Soccer City. There are even more exhibits we didn't get to, so we have more to entertain us on another weekend!

We'd love to hear some of the things you're doing to save money this summer! 

Friday, May 26, 2023

Where in Orlando?

As theme park specialists, sometimes we forget that not everyone is as "dialed in" as we are. When you're always watching for the latest & greatest snacks, the most surprising Hidden Mickey's & park "easter eggs", you forget that some folks don't know that Marvel isn't at Walt Disney World in Florida, or that Hollywood Studios and Universal Studios aren't the same Park. Here's a guide to the very basics of Orlando theme parks!

WALT DISNEY WORLD - The House of the Mouse has 4 theme parks, 2 water parks, and more than 20 hotels/resorts!

Magic Kingdom - This is the park where you find the classics like Space Mountain, Haunted Mansion, Jungle Cruise, etc. Lots of family friendly rides. Also, Be Our Guest, Cinderella's Royal Table, and one of the Bibbidi Bobiddi Boutiques. 

Epcot - The park with the "big ball", Guardians of the Galaxy roller coaster, and the World Showcase, where you can drink around the world! Also a great educational opportunity for kids, as the country pavilions are staffed by young adults from that country.

Hollywood Studios - This is where you find Star Wars Galaxy's Edge and Toy Story Land. For the littles, you'll also find Disney Junior Play & Dance, meet & greets with Disney Junion pals in the Animation Courtyard, and Disney Junior Play n Dine breakfast at Hollywood & Vine. The characters change now and then (we miss you, Sophia the First!) so be sure to check before your trip!

Animal Kingdom Park - NOT JUST A ZOO. There are animals, and probably more and different animals than your local Zoo, but so many people skip this park because "we have a zoo at home". This is still a theme park with rides, including a great roller coaster called Expedition Everest! This is also where you find Pandora, the World of Avatar, and the incredibly popular Flight of Passage ride.
UNIVERSAL ORLANDO - owned by NBC/Comcast, not Disney, and it's about 8 miles away. Neither Universal nor Walt Disney World has shuttles that go between the two, though Universal does have some private transfer options. 

Universal Orlando Resort has 3 Parks, two "dry" parks and one "wet" park, as well as 7 on-site hotels. 

Universal Studios Florida - the park with Wizarding World of Harry Potter Diagon Alley, as well as the future Minion Land (opening this summer), and the Simpsons land. This is where the movies come to life!

Islands of Adventure - Surprise! This is where you will find Marvel in Florida, due to a licensing agreement that predates Disney's purchase of Marvel. Jurassic Park attractions are here,  as well as Wizarding World of Harry Potter Hogsmeade. You'll need a Park to Park ticket to ride the Hogwarts Express!

Volcano Bay - Universal considers their water park to be their 3rd park. There is something for everyone here, from lazy river and wave pool to the aforementioned aqua coaster, Krakatau.

Epic Universe - new park coming in 2025! We don't know much yet but it will have Super Mario Land.
SEAWORLD ORLANDO - home of the coolest new roller coaster I've ever seen, Pipeline! I feel almost certain it will take the Best Roller Coaster title from Jurassic World Velocicoaster this year. They still have animal shows and you can book special up close encounters. There is also a Sesame Place in SeaWorld, and it's worth noting that this park is very sensory friendly. Discovery Cove, Aquatica, and Busch Gardens Tampa are also part of the SeaWorld family. 

Legoland - they don't play nice with travel agents. I will grudgingly let you know they do have packages and are about an hour from Walt Disney World

ICON Park - when you're driving on the highway and see the big Ferris wheel, that's ICON. They have a Madame Tussauds, SeaLife Aquarium, and various other family attractions there. Next time I go to Orlando I'll try to get there to cover it!

Ready to visit? Castle & Wand Travel can help! Fill out my quote form and be sure to list your interests!

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Bug Friendly Container Garden

One of the best reasons to be a member of the Missouri Botanical Garden is for member pricing on all the classes they have! We have done so many, from Little Sprouts to Garden Buds to Great Green Adventures. Classes are not just at the Botanical Garden, they're also at Shaw Nature Preserve and the Sophia M Sachs Butterfly House.

We just got back from vacation, and if I hadn't opened my planner last night I would have completely forgotten we signed up for a family friendly container garden class at the Butterfly House today. This is our second container class, and they are always a great seasonal addition to our garden. 

Today we made a container with Lantana 'Landmark White', Zinnia 'Zydeco Fire', Fennel, and Dichondra 'Silver Falls'. My favorite part about this class is finally understanding the concept of "thriller, spiller, and filler" in container design, which makes me more confident picking out my own plants at a nursery!

Monday, May 8, 2023

Robert Wadlow Statue

I went back to find my Robert Wadlow post from Craves, Caves, and Graves, and it had been nearly 15 years since I last visited this statue! This was something Lilly wanted to see because she just recently learned about the Alton Giant. 

Robert Wadlow was 8'11.1" and 439 lbs when he died from a blood infection at age 22, and he was still growing! To this day he holds the record for World's Tallest Man, Worlds Largest Hands, and World's Largest Feet.  His condition was caused by an enlarged pituitary gland. Lilly was amazed that she was barely as tall as his leg, and his cane was even taller! 

One of my favorite stories we learned back in the day on the Haunted Alton tours was that Robert was taller than the transoms over doorways and when he walked down the hallways at hotels, people would call the front desk to report a peeping Tom!

Something I noticed on this trip that I hadn't noticed before is that this giant chair is actually a  replica of his seat at the Masonic lodge, where he was a Master Mason, and according to the plaque, and a 2008 St Louis public radio story, they still have the chair today.

Robert Wadlow was much beloved by the city of Alton, not just for being tall. He was known as an incredibly kind and good natured person and a voracious reader. He died in 1940, and the town closed down for his funeral. 40,000 people attended! and is buried in Alton's Oakwood Cemetery.

Saturday, April 29, 2023

Return to Alton

We've been tossing around the idea of moving to Illinois for the past 6 months or so. Missouri is just getting worse and worse, like it's trying to win the most hateful state in the union prize or something, and just across the river we have the Metro East. Whatever you may say about downstate Illinois, it is protected by Chicago and will probably be forever, and that's fine with me. We like our house a lot, and could live here many years, but if we wanted to get some things on our wish list - big front porch, bigger yard, less gunshots, etc - we may as well move to the suburbs that are in a sanctuary state. 

I've spent a lot of time on Google maps, picking various towns and mapping to our parents, dance studio, Costco, all the important places. We visited a couple areas but nothing really clicked. At some point, I mentioned Alton, where I spent a lot of my 20s and 30s, and Francis said something silly like, "I always figured Alton was your destiny." Hmm... Maybe it is?

Alton was truly love at first ghost hunt for me. I love the history, the historic preservation, the spooky weirdos it attracts, the fact that it's a small town but is so eclectic. It's about the size of Webster Groves, where I grew up, but so much more diverse, and with such a wide variety of businesses. Plus, I have wanted to live on the Great River Road since I first discovered it! Looking at water is one of the only things that gives my brain any peace. 

We drove up to Alton this weekend to see what is new, what has changed, and if we still feel like we vibe with it. I am happy to say, yes, if anything it has improved. There are great new businesses on Broadway like Brown Bag Bistro and Funky Planet Toys & Gifts. One of our favorite "haunts" from back in the day, the Mineral Springs, is under new management with several offbeat new businesses and an expanded museum called the Soul Asylum. Someday I hope Lilly finds a little spookiness so we can check it out, but she's not there yet. Maybe next time Francis and I will take turns. 

We're planning to visit once a month for the next year to see if we enjoy it year round, but I suspect we will. We're already talking about this as "when" and not "if". 

Sunday, April 23, 2023

Shop Update

We're trying to streamline and simplify this year, and one of our redundancies was having two online shops. Nearly all of my handmade sales actually happen in the What a Hell of a Way to Die shop, and it was silly to keep paying Wix for a Peppers Ghost Tales shop that only had a couple sales a year, and trying to keep separate inventory.

Now you'll find all my popular handmade items over at the Hell of a Way podcast shop, and the Shop link on my menu will take you straight to that section. If you found us at the St Louis Science Center First Friday event and are looking for a specific item, leave a comment and I'll get it added to the shop. We've also added a "notify me" option for restocks, and you'll always get an email 24 hours before we post anything about the restock on social media. Thanks for visiting!

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Disconnecting at Sea

Read to the end for my "one year later" update! This post was originally published March 1, 2022

I'm on the Disney Fantasy in the Caribbean, getting close to Sint Maarten. Two days at sea with limited internet (5-10 min a day), and I'm breaking up with my phone! I was close after our October cruise, and I started to make some changes when I got home, but by January I was starting to backslide with more and more late nights snoozing "bedtime mode". This one is a longer cruise with more time away from cell service, and I am already feeling the effects.

I'll tell you one thing the pandemic did for me: it has given me a whole new sense of joy (The Book of Joy also helped here) for watching people find themselves. So many times in the past two years I have watched people make a major change - a move, a job, a hobby - that was positively shocking, given what I thought I knew about them, and it was freakin' delightful every time. For some people, it was such a gift to have two years free of the scrutiny of their peers, free to pursue their passion project or realize that their true happiness lies in a different direction. Turns out, I can just let people enjoy things!

So here I am, on a balcony overlooking the ocean, free of the distractions of my phone and the saddle burrs of People's Opinions About Cruise Ships, thinking about where I want to go from here now that I've put my phone down. Number one is this right here, I miss blogging. Not 2022 blogging, where you can't even read a recipe without 3 popups, one of them an autoplay video, and an ad between each of the 40 pictures of the author making mashed potatoes. I miss 2005 blogging, when I was sharing roadside attractions and little weird, overlooked bits of St Louis and Missouri. Just in the past week, Francis and I have both had conversations where we told someone about something in Missouri they had never heard of, and realized that the void left by the end of Craves, Caves, & Graves has not been filled by one of those SEO optimized listicle sites with 800 ads.

There are still people who don't know about Uranus, MO and the Precious Moments Chapel, and we have a duty to bring that fun back. So I will bring back the Blog of Olde! I also miss my attention span for serious reading. In 2006, I read 128 books in a year. I got a smartphone in 2010, and I'm not sure I've read 128 books in the collective 12 years since. I did majorly improve last year, with 50, but a lot of them were fluff and middle grade books with Lil. I'm using this cruise to get my serious attention span back, so I can go home and read some nonfiction. I'm on my third book in 3 days, and it feels amazing.

My third goal is to keep learning French! I've been working on it on Duolingo for a while now, and have nearly finished one unit. I flip-flop between feeling like I am making great progress and feeling like I'll never be able to converse in it. Sometimes I feel like I just barely understand the phonics, but then I'll be reading something like A Cook's Tour (my current cruise read) and realize that I already know how to sound out more French food than I did a year ago when I reread Kitchen Confidential. Understanding French cooking terminology was a big motivator for learning the language, so I'm pretty excited about that.

If you're reading this and thinking "yes! I also need to break up with my phone! I want to have an attention span and hobbies again!" check out How to Break Up With Your Phone. The first half of the book teaches you what your phone is doing to your brain, why, and who is benefitting from it (hint: not you) and the second half is a 30 day plan to evaluate and improve your relationship with your phone. It's not about switching to a "dumb phone" or going off the grid entirely, it's just about setting healthier habits. It's a quick read, too. I'm not starting the 30 days while I'm physically separated from my real world demands, because that would be cheating, but even just reading the first half of the book started to show me when I am picking up my phone for no real reason, performing behaviors that leave me irritated, or endless scrolling in search of dopamine. More often than not, especially after the last few years of politics, my phone just feels like a slot machine of rage, and I'm not about that life anymore. April 2023 update: This has been a work in progress for the entire year. It's very much like quitting smoking, and takes a lot of self awareness for recognizing when and why I'm picking my phone up, how I feel about it, am I doing anything useful or just doomscrolling, etc. I do still strongly recommend How to Break Up With Your Phone to learn how to recognize all of these things! I still spend too much time on mobile gaming, but I have kept up with French, have already read 35 books in 2023, and drastically reduced the amount of time I spend on social media. And here I am also bringing back the Blog of Olde!

Frugal Fun - Picnics and Free Museums!

I don't know about you but we are really feeling the pinch at the grocery store. I remember pre-pandemic, a Costco employee said in pass...