Things To Make & Do For Valentine’s Day

Tomie de Paola Things to Make and Do for Valentine's DayI spent a few days with my parents last week and of course we went thrift shopping. I was in the store less than two minutes when this sweet book by Tomie dePaola jumped into my hands. It may be the best ten cents I’ve ever spent!

Tomie dePaola wrote Strega Nona and Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs, two of my favorite books from my days working with children. His illustrations are charming and his stories are sweet and timeless. Things to Make and Do for Valentine’s Day is a how-to book with crafts, jokes, tongue twisters, games and recipes to share for the holiday.

The book is designed for kids, but I think some of the projects are fun for adults, too. I’m going to try one out this weekend and I will report back next week. If it works out, I may use the idea for my Valentine envelopes this year.

Have you planned your Valentine’s Day cards yet? I have my prototype ready…now the real work begins.

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Coming Up: Letter Month 2015

postal rubber stamps for letter monthLetter Month* is right around the corner again! I’m dusting off my postal-themed rubber stamps, gathering my stash of postage, and sifting through my stationery. I will be all ready to reply to the stack of letters growing on my desk.

My goals this year are simple: write at least one letter a day for every day in February, respond to each letter I receive in a timely manner, spend out my stationery, sticker and vintage paper stashes, and to visit my neighborhood blue boxes as often as possible (inspired by my postal council work). For the actual goals of Letter Month, go here.

Are you participating in Letter Month?

*Also known as International Correspondence Writing Month or InCoWriMo

P.S. If you want to find the blue box in your neighborhood, go here. And, to see the other Letter Month posts from previous years, go here.

Stamps pictured above are from a variety of shops: Paper Source (all discontinued), Paper Pastries, Wit & Whistle, Kia Hing Fay (shop closed), Well-Appointed Desk and the Letter Writers Alliance. If you have a question about a particular stamp, let me know in the comments.

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USPS Consumer Advisory Council Meetings 3 + 4

vintage postal stamp, USPS 100th Anniversary of Mail Order stampOnce again, I am behind on my reporting for the USPS Consumer Advisory Council! I decided to combine the last two meetings of 2014 and I will recap our latest meeting next week. (To see the other Advisory Council notes, go here.)

During our November meeting, the Post Master went through line by line and addressed the committee’s concerns:

  • It was announced this month that Megan Brennan would be named the first female Postmaster General.
  • We asked for a suggestion box in all post offices so customers could anonymously leave complaints, suggestions or compliments for the Post Master.
  • We suggested that the Post Master’s office door be open when he is available so that customers know they can approach him. (But the Post Master also wants customers to know that they can always ask for a supervisor in each post office.)
  • We all agreed that more communication and enforcement needs to come from the villages in regards to keeping sidewalks clear of snow and ice. The Post Master is going to set up a meeting with the village to share these concerns and to discuss communication and enforcement strategies.
  • Even though it is something that every counter window associate should be doing, we all agreed that no one ever points out the customer satisfaction survey at the bottom of the receipt. The USPS feels the survey is important, even though the rate of return is low…all supervisors should be proactive with counter employees, reminding them it’s part of their jobs to mention and circle the survey information.
  • A council member shared a story of a friend who went to the Oak Park Main Post Office to renew her passport. Even though she went during the stated passport hours, no one at the counter would help her because “the passport person was not there yet.” The Post Master stated that everyone who works at the post office counter is trained and able to do passports. If this ever happens again, ask for a supervisor.
  • 1st Class mail is shrinking, but thanks to the new contract with Amazon, package delivery is way up. (But sadly, the eventual goal of Amazon is to have their own package delivery system.)
  • We brought up the USPS website and its problems. 1) You have to go very deep in the website to find out how much a regular first class stamp it worth and how much it costs to send a letter internationally. (I totally agreed with this complaint. When I can’t remember, I go to the Letter Writers Alliance website for this information because it’s so much easier!) 2) Getting from the shopping cart back to browsing the stamps is very tedious. Actually navigating the whole site can be tedious. 3) Vacation holds often don’t sync properly with the local post offices and holds are missed or messed up.
  • Mailbox placement: committee members would like to see more drive-up “snorkel boxes” around Oak Park. The USPS uses a density test to determine which boxes are necessary. Mailboxes are taken out of service if they don’t generate mail. (Tip: If you like your neighborhood blue box, use it!!)
  • Some blue boxes are looking shabby, will need to be overhauled in the spring.
  • Lack of parking around the Oak Park Main Post Office is an urban issue…sadly there is nothing the USPS can do about lack of convenient street parking.
  • Window clerk customer service issues are being dealt with.
  • Letter carrier cell phone usage issues are being dealt with.

In December, the Post Master was ill, so our regular meeting business was put on hold. A regional postal manager led the meeting.

  • Suggestion boxes were installed in River Forest and OP South Station. The OP Main was delayed because it is a historic building so finding a useful place for the suggestion box that didn’t involve hammering into marble has been a challenge.
  • The Oak Park Post Office was an Amazon hub for Oak Park, River Forest, Forest Park, Schiller Park, and Franklin Park Sunday deliveries.
  • The USPS is getting new scanners that will have GPS to help with package delivery and routing.
  • The mail trucks will also be replaced with a delivery vehicle that will be better for accommodating package delivery.
  • One of the biggest challenges of the post office right now is getting counter clerks to see themselves not as a government entity but as customer service associates.
  • One of the other business challenges of the USPS is the requirement from Congress that the USPS pre-fund their healthcare 75 years in advance.
  • Retail managers have been told to remind clerks to point out the surveys at the bottom of the receipts. Our homework for the month is to visit a local post office and to see if this is happening. The post office will share some survey results in January.
  • Relay boxes (the green ones that sit in our neighborhoods) are for mail carriers with foot routes (routes with no mail trucks) so they can pick up their next batch of mail.
  • Blue boxes can only be picked up after the posted time(s) and must be picked up every day. There are bar codes inside each box that must be scanned during pick up. If a box is missed, the regional supervisor gets a notification and someone has to go out and clear the box. (I’ve always wondered about this.)

I bolded a few things that were big takeaways for me. As I sit on this committee, I’m realizing how small things add up when it comes to customer satisfaction and how slowwwwwly things are going to change. I guess I just need to remember that even though the USPS survives without government money, it is still a government entity and therefore, is subject to a lot of red tape. And, our committee is here to help improve the Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park post offices, so focusing on that makes things feel a little more manageable.

How is your post office doing during these cold winter months? If you’re on the East Coast, have you gotten your mail during the big blizzard?

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Japanese Class, Take Two

japanese language workbooksI signed up for another session of Japanese classes and they begin tonight! Naoto even called to make sure the class wasn’t going to get cancelled and he got the book list in advance, so I am extra prepared with my shiny new workbooks. I think poor Naoto thinks I’m going to be some Japanese speaking whiz after classes, but I have very little hope for myself…I just want to be able to order coffee and talk about craft supplies. Anything else is just bonus.

Homemade Granola

trader joes, homemade granola, blueberry almondI hosted book club on Saturday morning. I knew, since we were going to get home late from the Blackhawks game Friday night, that I wouldn’t feel like getting up to bake muffins or something in the morning. So, I tried to think of something tasty that I could make a day in advance, that would still taste fresh and “homey” the next morning. Then the idea of a yogurt bar popped in my head and I decided that would be easy enough, even if I made homemade granola instead of serving store-bought.

This Martha Stewart recipe for Blueberry Almond Granola looked like a winner and -best part ever- I could buy all of the ingredients at Trader Joe’s!! (That’s always a bonus for me…I like my tiny Trader Joe’s and hate having to go to a second grocery store for one ingredient.)

On Friday afternoon, I whipped up a batch of granola and even though I followed the directions to the letter, the granola was over-toasted. It wasn’t really burnt. (I still liked it, but I also like my toast one step below blackened.) But the coconut was really toasty and it kind of affected the taste of everything else. I didn’t feel like I could serve it to guests. So, I gave it another go and so I’m sharing the recipe and method that worked best for me in hopes that no one else will burn their coconuts.

Blueberry Almond Granola

2 cups rolled old fashioned oats

1/2 cup sliced almonds

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 tablespoons honey

1/2 cup shredded coconut (sweetened or unsweetened)

1 cup dried blueberries

Pre-heat oven to 350°

Place the oats and the almonds in a large bowl. Mix oil and honey in a small bowl and drizzle over the oats and almonds. Stir to coat evenly. Spread the oats and almonds on a large baking sheet and place in the oven for 15-20 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes or so. (Mine was done at 15. Keep an eye on it.)

Place shredded coconut on baking sheet and put in oven to toast separately. I left my oven door open and stirred every minute or so for about 4 minutes. You can also toast the coconut on the stove using the method explained here.homemade granola, trader joes Once the coconut is toasted, add it to the oats and almonds and allow to cool. trader joes, homemade granolaStir in the dried blueberries and it’s ready to eat! I served mine with vanilla yogurt and fresh raspberries and blackberries. I think the book club enjoyed it, too…either that or they’re a bunch of good actors!

The granola is a lot less sticky sweet than store-bought granola but you don’t really miss the sugar because the toasty, oaty deliciousness is enough. And I have to say, even my coconut-hating husband liked it!

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A Simple Tool for Book Club Readers

notebook and book darts, book club toolsA long time ago, while reading Kathy’s blog, I learned about these neat little things called Book Darts. They are tiny, thin page markers made of metal that slide on and off the paper without leaving a mark. I know some people like to fold the edge of the page over or use little sticky note page flags. Those are fine options, too, but I usually get my books from the library so folding the edge is not an option and the sticky flags sometimes damage older paper. (Our book club reads so many old books that often, at least one of us is reading a crumbling copy from the library!) So far, I’ve never had a book dart hurt even the oldest books.

book dart, page point in actionThe most genius thing about them is that they can be used to point to the exact words on the page that you want. I often try to take notes while I am reading for book club so that I can remember what I want to talk about during our meetings. But sometimes, I’m so into a book that I don’t want to stop at take notes. Grabbing a dart and marking a passage is often enough for me to remember what I wanted to say.

(Of course, for longer notes or questions about the book, I keep a trusty notebook set aside for book club. This one was a gift from my pen pal, Cath.)

Do you have anything special you use for book club?

P.S. Sorry for the quiet this week. I am hosting book club tomorrow morning and I’ve been reading and rushing around cleaning up and finally putting Christmas away.

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Homemaker’s Challenge #5: Sushi

making sushi at homeNaoto and I made homemade sushi in December. (Naoto did all of the work, but someone had to be in charge of taking photos, right?) It’s something that’s been on our to-do list for awhile, and Naoto saw a holiday sale for sashimi-grade tuna so he brought some home on a whim. He also bought a sushi maki, the bamboo contraption that helps roll the sushi rolls. making sushi at home, seasoning riceWe made regular rice using our rice cooker and, once the rice was cooked, we seasoned it with sushi rice seasoning (sushinoko). All of the instructions were in Japanese but I think we used two tablespoons for two cups of rice. It gave the rice a little bit of a vinegar flavor, which apparently helps to highlight the fish. making sushi at home, slicing tunaWhen the rice was cool, Naoto worked on the tuna. To make sushi, you have to use sashimi-grade fish. You can’t just go to the grocery store and choose any piece of fish, leave it raw and call it sushi. (This article muddies the waters…it’s unclear what determines if fish is “sashimi-grade”. I think the bottom line is…only shop at trusted places and this is not the time to be shopping for day-old specials.) Naoto got our piece of tuna from Mitsuwa, where sashimi-grade tuna is about $32/pound (regular price). Thankfully, the small piece of fish (a little larger than a deck of cards) was the perfect size for our sushi appetizer.

Naoto sliced the tuna into 1/2 inch pieces. making sushi at homeHe cut the nori (seaweed sheets) into pieces just long enough to fit the tuna. Then he spread the rice, leaving two and a half inches at the top empty for rolling. (He also covered the sushi maki with plastic wrap. Apparently this is a restaurant tip to keep the sushi maki clean.) Keeping a bowl of warm water on hand to wash off the sticky rice was helpful, too. making sushi at home, adding wasabi and tunaAfter dabbing on a bit of wasabi, he laid down the fish about one inch up on the rice end of the nori. making sushi at home, rolling sushiNext, he rolled up the sushi tightly. making sushi at homeI don’t think it was a bad first attempt, but it was hard to get the right amount of rice. Next time, we need to work on using less rice or cut thicker pieces of tuna to make up for the rice. It’s definitely harder than it looks to get the perfect amount of rice and a nice, tight roll going on. Sushi chefs make it look too easy! making sushi at home, presley tries tunaEven Presley got into the sushi action with a taste of fresh tuna. She loved it, obviously.

All-in-all it was a lot of fun and a tasty experiment. I think we are going to devote a Hasegawa Happy Hour to sushi making soon, where we will add some more ingredients like avocado and cucumber and maybe another type of fish.

To see the other Homemaker’s Challenge posts, go here.

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New Year’s Cards 2015

New Years cards, nengajoOn January 1st, I spent the day catching up on all of my mail. I sent out a big stack of seventeen New Year’s cards and thank yous on the second.

For New Year cards, I sent three different versions–two different Japanese postcards and letterpressed greeting cards. We got the Japanese postcards at Mitsuwa again. Roughly translated, the fan one says “We humbly wish you a happy new year” and the bamboo one says “Thank you very much for all assistance rendered the previous year.  We ask for your continuous guidance this year as well.” The little bamboo drawing on the bottom is a classic Japanese New Year symbol called a kadomatsu.

The greeting cards are from Saturn Press, a letterpress printing company in Maine. (They don’t have a website, but I found some information about them here, which I think is quite interesting.) The card features two juncos sitting on a branch and the quote by Rainer Maria Rilke, “And now let us welcome the new year, full of things that have never been.” I love everything Saturn Press does, but these are my favorites–from the birds to the simple phrase and the gorgeous paper stock with its deckled edge…these cards are dreamy. Cavallini Japanese Woodblock calendar, mail artI put all of the cards in envelopes (even the postcards) and decorated them with washi tape, metallic stars, and old Japanese Woodblock Cavallini calendars. (I had several in my stash, so I picked out the wintry months to use. Cavallini uses artwork by Hasui Kawase, the same artist who was on our Christmas cards.)Letter Writers Alliance member number seal stampAnd to seal the deal, I got to use my shiny new Letter Writers Alliance member stamp. It feels good to start the year out with a stack of mail…let’s hope I can keep up the postal momentum!

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Japan Does It Better 21: Gum Papers

Black Black Japanese gumNaoto is a big fan of BlackBlack gum, a Japanese gum that is infused with caffeine*. The taste is strong and minty, and apparently, caffeine is absorbed into the body faster with gum than drinking coffee or pop. Naoto usually buys the little packs of five sticks, but the last time we went to Mitsuwa he could only find the large size of the tablet gum. Black Black gum, includes papers for throwing gum away, Japanese gumIt’s hard to see in my picture (it’s DARK here in Chicagoland!), but inside the container is a slot with a little stack of papers for wrapping up your used gum before it’s discarded. Isn’t that genius? When I have a stick of gum, I keep the paper to spit it out in, but when I have the canisters of gum, I’m at the mercy of finding a nearby trash can. This tiny pad of paper solves that problem.Black Black gum, includes papers for throwing gum away, Japanese gum I’m sure BlackBlack isn’t the only gum that has the handy paper option…I’ll have to keep my eyes open for more options on our next trip.

Tidy ways to dispose of your gum…another example of how Japan Does It Better!

To see all of the other JDIB posts, go here.

*I don’t get it…in a world with coffee, why would I want to get my caffeine any other way?

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Elvis Is 80

Well, he would be anyway…

Presley and I will be celebrating Elvis today. We will be watching the Comeback Special on DVD. (I swoon over Elvis in the Comeback Special…) There is also a parade of Elvis movies on TCM. And, maybe we could even create a few pieces of Elvis mail…I know I have some Elvis notecards in my stash…but sadly only one Elvis stamp.

All Elvis, all day…as it should be.

P.S. My favorite Elvis song. What’s yours?

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