Monday, July 28, 2014

African Lion Safari: Go Wild!

If you live in Ontario, it's likely that you have heard the jingle for African Lion Safari. If you have a child who likes to parrot everything he hears, it's even more likely that the mere mention of African Lion Safari puts that jingle ear worm in your head for the rest of the day (sorry, not sorry!).

After months of jingle singing and begging to visit, however, my five year old got his wish- we finally visited African Lion Safari. Celebrating its 45th year (FOURTY-FIVE!), African Lion Safari is Canada's original safari adventure and I can personally say that it is a BLAST for the entire family!

Our boat awaits!
Upon arrival (you pay at the gates, while still in your car, which is so smart!), park your car in the free(!) parking lot and head out to the "African Queen" boat cruise. I suggest fitting in the boat cruise (and train ride) early if you have younger children, as the line ups become longer as the day progresses and wee ones have trouble waiting.
The African Queen boat will take you on a 15 minute leisurely cruise of the Water Safari Lake, where you'll see the cutest ring-tailed lemurs, spider monkeys and marabou storks, amongst other animals. My boys loved the boat in and of itself, but were especially thrilled to see so many animals on their own islands and (luckily) the animals were very active and spent a lot of time showing off for us!

Some nosey zebras going right up to a car
So close!
From there, I highly suggest taking the Safari Tour Bus into the Games Reserve for the highlight of this day trip- an up close and personal encounter with some of the most beautiful and majestic creatures nature has to offer. I would highly suggest the bus trip, in lieu of driving your own car (which is an option), as the driver is incredibly knowledgable and provides fantastic background information during the approximately 45 minute ride. We were incredibly lucky to see a plethora of babies on our trip and had the chance to get extremely close to one of my favourite animals, a beautiful giraffe. The highlight for my boys was the baboons- we watched them climbing on cars and hitching rides as some brave souls drove along. This was by far our favourite part of the day and a definite must-do that my boys are still talking about!
My favourite site of the day- I couldn't snap enough pictures

Lastly, I cannot recommend the Elephant Round-Up show enough. There are three shows at African Lion Safari (Parrot Paradise and Birds of Prey, and Elephant Round-Up) that are all excellent, but the Elephant Round-Up was by far our favourite. The elephants, along with their trainers, play soccer, basketball and do some painting, along with a few, fun high jinx thrown in for added entertainment. Unfortunately, it started pouring rain during our show, which made getting pictures impossible, but that didn't stop us from waiting around to touch an elephant after the show was done- such an amazing experience!

To top off the day, I would suggest a visit (or in our case multiple visits!) to the kids playground- full of fun things to climb and a ball pit that made my 3 year old squeal with delight- and the AMAZING water park (sadly, it was raining so my kids didn't get to partake but on a warm day I think it would be difficult to pull them away). Make sure you partake in some delicious food offerings (we had Pizza Pizza-yum!- but there were hot dog and fries stands near the water park that I would have loved to try out) and ice cream (!), and make a quick visit to the petting zoo before you leave.
Crazy baboons hitching a ride!

All in all, despite the rainy weather we encountered, our day at African Lion Safari was so much fun! If you're going, plan to spend the entire day- pack some snacks (the parking lot is very close and we were able to make a few trips back and forth so that we didn't have to drag a backpack around) and your swimsuit and have some fun!! There is so much to see and do and children (and adults!) of all ages will take something away from what proved to be an educational and fun day!
African Lion Safari is a fantastic place to spend the day with your family and make some memories to last a lifetime!

*Disclaimer: I was provided with free entry to African Lion Safari for my family of four but opinions are, as always, my own!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Arbitrary Rules

I realized last week I have a whole bunch of rules for my kids that have no real rhyme or reason to them- they were likely created in a lack of coffee haze or I will lose it if you ask for X one more time  rage and somehow managed to stick.

Honestly, I always thought I'd be a bit cooler as a parent. 

Pre-kids, I was positive I'd be relaxed with the "rules"- I always felt I had too many rules as a kid, although looking back I think my parents were pretty fair and not nearly the crazily strict monsters I made them out to be in my head. Post-kids? I think I'm actually more strict than I ever imagined I would be - fair, for the most part, but strict. 

And yet, as I was taking stock of our household recently, I wondered if I really needed all the rules I've imposed on my kids for no reason at all... or if it's those rules that have actually allowed me to maintain my sanity as I juggle a work-at-home job with having two (very strong willed) boys at home with me

Here's just a small peek into the window of my arbitrary rule making:

  • no television before 8:30am (no clue why I made this rule- it would be so much easier for sleepy Sarah to just let them watch some cartoons in the morning)...and then, just to make it even harder on me...
  • everyone must be dressed before the television goes on
  • no juice before 11am (again, no rhyme or reason...just seemed like an ok time to have juice)
  • no dessert after dinner (I think I made this rule after we had some ice cream one night and no one slept until 9:30pm. Now, if we are going to have dessert, we have it before dinner. I know, makes no sense!)
  • no games on mommy's phone (I'm a real stickler about this one, and I'm not sure why- they'd probably be better behaved if I let them play on my phone occasionally)
  • everyone must hug after an argument (they hate this, I think it actually causes more arguments in the end, and yet I still make them hug it out)
  • maximum one piece of gum each day (this is super hard for the 3 year old who is known to swallow his -aspartame free, don't worry- gum...but I can't for the life of me remember why I made up this rule because my kids hardly ever have gum as it is)
  • no flip flops (again, no clue why I made up this rule but I recently loosened my reigns on this one and bought the kids flip flops for the summer...providing they don't run in them)
  • only ONE episode of Sheriff Callie each day (my 3 year old is obsessed with this show and wants to watch the same episodes over and over and over and over and over and over and over- this is one arbitrary rule I'm sticking with!)

Of course, there are a lot of "normal" rules that I'm pretty lax on (clean rooms? meh. your room, your mess, as long as there are no living creatures or fungal growths I'm ok) and some arbitrary rules that I take away pretty much right after I make them because I realize how ridiculous/irritating they are (I had a rule about not eating in the living room that I gave up on after a day because it made my life infinitely harder than it needed to be). There have been rules my kids have talked me out of (yes, fine, you can pick up the cats if you promise to be gentle) and rules I won't give up on no matter how difficult they make my life (learning enough self control and patience to sit still for at least 5 minutes without devices to distract is something I'm big on).

I don't have any plans to remove my arbitrary rules for the time being- they work, generally speaking, for our family- but it's interesting how and why we make the rules we do. 

So tell me, what are some arbitrary (silly) rules you have made up for your kids in the interest of saving your sanity?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

2014 Smut Soiree

Know about Lainey Gossip?

While her "day jobs"as a host on ETalk and The Social may have moved her further into the mainstream spotlight, Elaine Lui- also known as Lainey- has been my go-to for celeb gossip for years.

For the past nine years, Lainey has been hosting the premiere gossip girl event in Canada, the Smut Soiree. And since her knowledge of all things celeb is worship-worthy, I couldn't resist attending this year.

The Venue
The Smut Soiree was held at the Evergreen BrickWorks in Toronto, which is a gorgeous event venue. Unfortunately, it rained. And while the event is held in a covered area, the Brick Works cannot really be fully enjoyed while it's raining, as part of the venue is outdoors. Even more unfortunately for me, you can only access the washrooms by walking outside. Good thing I brought a jacket to throw over my head!

The Party
Tickets to the Smut Soiree were $54. A little steep for some, but once you realize that the bar is open and the food is delicious and there's some swag to be had- let alone getting a good, long smut talk from the queen- the price really isn't that crazy.

My personal favourite vendor was Grey Goose (shocker). They served three signature drinks (made with their Cherry Noir, L'Orange, and Le Citron flavoured vodkas) and the drinks flowed and flowed. Sadly, I was driving so only one flowed for me:)

However, the party had something for everyone. Manicures with Rimmel, hair touch-ups with Tresemme, a Silk smoothie bar, Skinny Cow snacks, passed h'ordeuvres (my favs were the mini salmon burgers), beers, ciders, H&M giveaway, and a vapor lounge.

Be Seen
Now, truth be told, it felt like some people were there ONLY to be seen. And that is a big part of the party. There is a "red carpet" experience (which we skipped because...the line!) and only a million places to get your photo taken.

My date, Kate from This Mom Loves, and I spent a good portion of the night simply walking around, picking up some swag, and people watching. We were probably there more to see and less to be seen if you know what I mean.

What I loved is that there was a huge range of ages, backgrounds, and styles represented at the event. Some people were dressed to impress, some threw on a blazer and grabbed a cab right after work with their hair still in a ponytail.

I chose to go with my standard event outfit (also known as what I wear when I have no idea what others will be wearing) of tight white pants, a loose black top (which, note to Sarah, does not photograph well!!!) and my favourite Tissh by Gloria Lee jewellery and Michael Kors watch.  I was probably slightly underdressed for the event. If was to go again, I'd dress to impress a bit more (a romper or tight dress with a black blazer was a popular choice).

The Swag
I read that in past years people went home from the Smut Soiree with shoes!!! Sadly, that wasn't an option this year:( But I think we picked up some decent swag (which was not really why we went but it's always a nice bonus).
Our haul included a bag full of travel sized products (vaseline, Q-tips, shampoo, hairspray, lotions)- which is perfect for me as I'm heading off to NYC in a few weeks; an H&M bag with Vitamin Water, Tresemme hair products, gum, lip gloss, Skinny Cow bars, a small makeup pouch and some coupons for Silk and H&M; and a gift box from Blow Vapor which included an e-cigarette and an e-hookah (and a cookie and a lollipop). I've never smoked vapor before but it was a fun way to be introduced to the product that, FYI, Lainey actually uses.

Smutty Tingles

So, the dirt? Well, Teri Hart (who did a great job hosting the night) and Lainey gave us a lot of good dirt- some I guessed, some I had no idea about. Highlights? There's a lot (I mean A LOT) of bi-sexuality going on in Hollywood, a lot of addictions (someone's wife isn't bringing sexy back but she's bringing pain killer addiction back, if you catch my drift), a lot of personal demons and sadness for one particular hunky male star that may not end well, and some diva action (especially shocking was a sweet little star who is allegedly on a Whitney Houston track).
The smut was dished and dished well. Although I would have liked this part of the evening to be longer (it was about an hour of celeb talk) Lainey and Teri were pros and really treated us to a good chat on the machine that is celebrity.

So if you're planning to go next year (I know I am):
  • Go to have fun! It's a party, not just a talk! If possible take a cab or (as some fun ladies I met at the bar suggested) get a hotel room for the night and make it a girls night out:)
  • Go EARLY! Get there for the start time. I know that's not cool, but it means you can skip the massive lineups and just enjoy.
  • Skip the red carpet pics (unless you really want to be seen).
  • Save seats near the front- Kate and I both brought jackets and saved seats in the 9th row. Even that close, it was VERY hard to hear. The Brick Works is a cool event venue but the acoustics leave a lot to be desired.
  • Come prepared with a question- the event is essentially a Q&A so if you want to know something, be ready to ask about it:)
  • Don't bother asking about the Kardashians. Lainey doesn't care.

Friday, May 23, 2014

When to write for free (and when to say no!)

My friend Kate over at This Mom Loves has written an awesome series on freelance writing.
Take some time and read her thoughts, suggestions, experiences (good and bad) and expertise here.

I have very little to add to what Kate said- we have had very similar experiences in our freelancing adventures with Kate and I both getting pretty steady freelance writing gigs (hers at a national magazine, mine at a newspaper) around the same time.

However, I want to tackle one question surrounding freelance writing that I get asked over and over again by new writers: When should I write for free? (or sometimes it's phrased as When should I ask for payment?)

A lot of freelancers will tell you "never ever write for free"- and that is a true answer.  Writers need to be valued and paid for their work; however, I think saying an unequivocal NEVER is a bit short-sighted.

Writing for free is not something I would do at this point in my writing "career" but it was something I did to help me get started. I understand that once you have been paid for a few articles writing for free is almost unthinkable- as it should be. But when you are just beginning to dip your toe into the freelance writing pool, writing for free may be something you entertain.

So when do I think you should think about writing for free?

1) When you have no experience
If you are just starting out and you do not have a single clip to show an editor, you may need to write for free. Look at a website that you love (UrbanMoms, YummyMummyClub, ElephantJournal, etc.) and submit a piece. You likely won't be paid for it, but you will be able to say you have been published and you have something to show an editor- that helps a lot when you're pitching!
Another option is to write an opinion piece for a newspaper. They will not pay you, but if they print it-especially if it is a national newspaper- you will be more likely to catch another editor's eye.
Truth: I wrote this opinion piece for the National Post for free. Three weeks later, I was asked to write this column for the Sun (for free). A month later I had a regular, paying columnist job. I would not have been offered that column if I hadn't written (2 columns total) for free.

2) When you need the exposure
Again, seasoned writers would likely never write for free even for the largest magazines, websites and newspapers across the globe (and they shouldn't). But sometimes exposure is what a freelancer needs to take the next step in their writing career- I am thinking especially of writers that didn't go to journalism school and do not have the credibility of a school to back up their abilities OR"experts" (teachers, psychologists, nutritionists) looking to up their clout and "expertise" through writing.
I have seen writers benefit greatly from writing one or two pieces for the HuffingtonPost, for example, simply because it gives them national exposure and (in some eyes) credibility.
Every once in a while "exposure" or name recognition is worth writing for free.

3) On your blog
Yes, I said it. I really believe that writers need a blog- at the very least a viable online presence- when they are starting out. Although I have written before about how I often don't edit my blog (I SHOULD but, time!) any blog writing should be treated like a portfolio or an audition.
Write as often or as little as you choose but use your blog as a way to suss out ideas, share, make connections and practice your writing craft.
I received my first paid writing gig 3 months after I began Sleeping Is For Losers- the only clip I had to show that editor was my blog. She told me that reading through my posts gave her a good sense of my writing style and abilities,  and she took a chance on me! Four years later, I still write for that editor every single month!

So, yes you should write for free at times if you are just starting out- but I do have some rules:

Set a limit
If you are writing for free for a publication on a regular basis, set a limit as to how often you will do it before requesting payment. This will be different for everyone but I would not write more than a handful of times for the same publication before requesting compensation. If they say they cannot pay you or they're not sure- WALK. Value yourself and your writing and refuse to write more than one to three pieces for free, no matter what the publication is!

Always pitch"paid" first
I feel like I should BOLD and UNDERLINE this entire section because it's the most important piece of advice I can give!
Who cares if you're new to freelance writing? If you have a good story idea, do not give it away for free if there is the possibility of payment! PITCH, PITCH, PITCH! If, after exhausting paid publications (and following up with editors!), you still want to write the story and have it published, offer it to unpaid publications. But ALWAYS pitch paying outlets first. Writers (that's you!) deserve to get paid!

When you feel irritated about it
If you are frustrated that you are writing for free, then don't do it!!!!!!!
Trust your gut- if you have a few clips under your best (at least 2-3 to show an editor when you pitch) then don't write for free. Have enough courage to say no. As I see it, you only have so much time, creativity, imagination, etc. and you don't want to waste awesome story ideas on publications that refuse to pay you.

And to answer the question when should I ask for payment?  Always. Always. Always.

Before you write, ask what the renumeration is. If the outlet does not provide you with a contract (something paying publications- including online- should always do), ask the editor what they pay. Don't say do you pay your writers? Instead ask WHAT do you pay your writers? or WHAT is the renumeration for this piece?

If you want to be paid, then ask for it. If they say that they do not pay, walk away.

It's tough out there for freelancers. There are a lot of good writers and there is a lot of competition. But one thing I am learning is that you have to believe in your ability, and part of that means being able to say no to unpaid (or, even, underpaid) writing gigs. Freelance writing is a business and, well, you can't expect to stay in business long if you're not making any money!

Long and short: writing for free is not good- I don't recommend it- but occasionally it is worth it as it allows you to show off or "audition" your skills. Just do not get caught in the trap of undervaluing your worth as a writer and put very strict limits on yourself if you do, indeed, choose to write for free!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

How To Throw an AWESOME Art Party (for under $100)

My son turned 5 a few weeks ago. FIVE.

Originally, we had planned to rent an indoor play place, let the kids run wild, fill them up with pizza and send them on their way.


I couldn't find a single play place to rent for under $300, once taxes, "necessary extras" and food were factored in.  In fact, the place I wanted to rent the most would have cost us $360 once all was said and done.

As you'll find out in the coming months, my husband and I are trying to be better with our money- not spending money just because we have it or going all out simply because we can. We know that a 5 year old does not need a $300 birthday party (however, if you want to spend that, and it fits in your budget, by all means do it- and invite us!!!) and I couldn't bring myself to spend half a freelance cheque on a birthday party.

So, after a few hours of googling and pintresting, I decided to throw my 5 year old an ART PARTY (wait for it...) AT HOME.

And here's what happened:
1) It was awesome!
2) I spent LESS than $100 to throw a 2 hour party for 11 kids! (the dollar store=awesome)
3) My son was incredibly happy (and that's the point of a party, right?)

Want to throw an amazing art party for you child? Here's what I did (with a few pro-tips and actual costs thrown in for good measure):

For our party, I decided we would tackle two art projects. Keeping in mind that these were FIVE year old kids, I kept the projects simple and manageable (I might have been a teacher for 8 years, but my husband isn't/wasn't and I needed him to stay sane during the party!).
First, I found these awesome loot bags, that came with a package of markers, for kids to colour.

 I laid them out on our kitchen table and, as the kids arrived, had them choose a bag and sit down to colour.  This was really smart (if I do say so myself) because it took away the hectic, "go crazy we just arrived at a party sans-parents" atmosphere and got the kids busy with a project they could do independently.

It took about 15-20 minutes to colour, some lasting longer than others depending on their love of art:) We had already set up toys in the living room and, as kids finished, they wandered over to play.
Cost: $11 (each bag was $1- found at the dollar store!)
Pro-Tip: Have each kid write their name on their own bag AND put their markers into their bag once they're done.

About 1/2 hour after all our party guests arrived, my husband played a bean bag toss game with the kids (pro-tip: keep the party moving quickly- move from one activity to the next with as little downtime as possible!) while I cleaned up the loot bag colouring (not much work as they had put their own markers away) and I set up for painting bird houses.

The birthday boy's creation! (remember, he's 5...)

I found small wooden bird houses at the dollar store (SCORE!) for $2.50 each. I purchased a few packages of acrylic paint- with about 10 colours in each package- paint palettes for each guest, and a few packages of paint brushes. I covered the table with a cheap plastic, disposable table cloth, squeezed some paint into each palette, and set up a plastic cup with water for EACH child (limits spilling because they don't have to reach!).

the paint was super puffy to the touch- this is my younger son's apron
All he did was touch it:)
The night before the party, my husband and I used some puffy paint and wrote the name of each party guest on some huge smocks I found at (you guessed it) the dollar store. The kids were really excited to have their own smock- actually they were more excited by the puffy paint, but whatever works!- and it kept their clothes relatively clean!

We aproned up the kids and let them paint away, with my husband watching over the kids at the table (he's much more artsy than I), while I refilled dirty water cups, washed off brushes, washed hands, put pizza in the oven, etc. Again, if kids were done early they went into our living room and played with toys- it worked really well for the kids who painted fast and left time for the "artistes" to really work on their bird house.

Cost: $40 (bird houses, paint, brushes, smocks, puffy paint, palettes)
Pro-Tip: Make sure any painting is done at least an hour before parents are scheduled to pick their kids up! You need time for their creation to dry:)

We left the bird houses on the table to dry (acrylic paint dries fast, thankfully!) and moved to the dining table for pizza (straight from the box...and my oven!), chips, fruit and juice boxes. The kids chatted and made poop jokes (they're five, what else would they do?).

Cost: $6 for pizza, $8 for fruit tray, $2 for juice boxes, $3 for chips (total: $19, feeding 11 kids)

Following lunch, we opened gifts (they were so good), played around - some kids went back to the bean bag toss, some destroyed enjoyed our toys (just kidding, they were all really good), and then we went back to the table for CUPCAKES!

In the spirit of saving money, my husband made the most amazing, colourful, artist cupcakes for my son's party. My son LOVED these, my husband enjoyed making them and the kids devoured them!

Cost: $15 (cupcake mix, two containers of icing, neon food colouring)

And while our sweet party guests mowed down on sugary goodness, I filled their loot bags. I wanted to send them home with items that fit our art theme and were usable!
Each loot bag (coloured by their own hand, of course) included their personalized smock, a package of paint brushes, markers, paint, a pencil, a jar of goo, a bouncy ball, a lollipop and a gummy candy ring. Of course, they also took home their birdhouse.

Cost: $10 (for the paint/pencil/goo/ball/candy/noise maker)- most of these items came in bulk and were quite inexpensive

And two hours after they arrived, they were gone. The kids were excellent, the party moved along well, new friendships were made and (most importantly!) my son had a fantastic day!

Total Cost: $95 (for 11 kids and two hours of fun!)

I am really proud of how this party turned out, so much so that I am considering throwing an at-my-house cooking party next year...we shall see how brave I get!

another shot of our awesome artist cupcakes

a super happy birthday boy! his dad created a palette out of cardboard (wrapped in tinfoil) to display the cupcakes on. 

a bit dark, but we set the house up with balloons and a Happy Birthday sign (all of which I had stashed away from previous parties!)

opening gifts!