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Maybe if this guy worked on my corner I would feel better about my kids walking to school?
Maybe if this guy worked on my corner I would feel better about my kids walking to school?

Do Milwaukee kids still walk alone to school?

Recently, someone asked me when my kids would walk to school alone. We only live three blocks from our elementary school, but the answer is still never.

One reason is because we don’t have crossing guards in my neck of the ‘hood, I mean woods, and I also have general safety concerns.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not complaining about this. I recognize where I live is a choice. However, it got me thinking about Milwaukee school kids in general.

I grew up in the Downer Avenue neighborhood, and my sister and I walked to and from school from the time we were in first or second grade. It’s a cliche to say it’s a different world today than it was 25 years ago, even though it’s true.

So it's almost 2010 and I’m wondering if there are any neighborhoods left in Milwaukee where parents feel comfortable letting their elementary-school-aged kids walk to and from school? I really hope there are.

The Color Me House is easy to erect and folds flat for storage.
The Color Me House is easy to erect and folds flat for storage.

A gift a day: Color Me House

This is one of those "why didn’t I think of this?" products. Seriously, it’s a sure-to-please gift for kids and a no brainer for anyone shopping for a youngster who likes to color and / or make forts. (Which they all do, right?)

The Color Me House is an easy-to-assemble cardboard house -- there’s also a rocket model available -- that kids can decorate with any medium that mom and dad agree to. There are no sharp corners and it has doors and windows that open and close.

The house is 35 inches long by 27.5 inches wide by 48 inches high. The rocket is 65 inches high by 51 inches wide by 32 inches across. Basically, it fits two or three kids, depending on their size.

We set up our Color Me House on Thanksgiving Day, and the kids were so enthralled by it that I got a couple of hours to prepare the big meal. Over the weekend, they spent hours playing in this thing. I even served them lunch inside of it and later let them watch a DVD inside the playhouse on the portable player we usually save for long car trips.

Plus, this product is made from 100 percent recycled cardboard and won numerous "green toy" awards.

Chips and salsa are free at most Mexican restaurants ... for now.
Chips and salsa are free at most Mexican restaurants ... for now.

The end of free chips and salsa at Mexican restaurants

Like many Milwaukeeans, I love taking advantage of the fantastic local Mexican dining scene. I enjoy ‘em all, from the gritty paper plate experience at Conejito’s, 539 W. Virginia St., to slightly more upscale Latin eateries like Riviera Maya, 2258 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.

This weekend, I met friends at a popular near South Side Mexican restaurant and while there, engaged in an interesting conversation with the owner. I mentioned that I was a big fan of the house chips and salsa, and he thanked me graciously but went on to lament the recent spike in the price of tomatoes. He said the pressure to keep prices affordable and the rising cost of all ingredients -- particularly tomatoes -- was forcing him to consider charging his customers for chips and salsa.

He asked me if I thought free chips and salsa were integral to the Mexican dining experience and if he would lose customers if he charged a small fee. That’s a tough one, and I told him so.

On the one hand, Conejito’s does not offer free chips and salsa, and yet on most nights, the place is packed. However, most diners are conditioned to feasting on bottomless baskets of chips and salsa at the majority of other Mexican restaurants in Milwaukee.

My dinner mates and I discussed this topic at great length (which is a tribute to the potency of the margaritas), and basically, we decided that free chips and salsa add a lot of value to the Mexican dining experience.

On our way out, we recommended in lieu of charging for chips and salsa to increase menu prices just a little bit. This way, diners will feel like we’re still getting something for free in this bare-bones economy.

I’m no Ray Kroc, but this seemed like a reasonable business solution. However, I am still thinking about this today and wondering if free chips and salsa are really that important?

What say you, Gary?
What say you, Gary?

Quotable quotes for the kiddos

Over the years, I have enjoyed teaching my kids to say pop culture quips from my childhood / young adulthood that are completely irrelevant in their world.

Although many parents protect their kids from pop culture, I love pop culture -- especially references from my childhood -- because it bonds people together. Nothing like the memory of brushing My Pretty Pony's tail to bring together two 20-something or 30-something ladies.

I do, however, teach my kids to be an outsider of pop culture. I don't recommend jumping on the bandwagon, but instead to watch it, reflect on it and appreciate the folly and absurdity of it.

Regarding the pop culture quotes they know, it's humorous to hear them say some of these expressions and, I admit, back in the day when I was stranded at home with two droolers for hours on end, I got a little bored at times. Consequently, teaching them little expressions like this would jazz up my afternoon more than any Muppet was capable of doing.

Here are a few pop culture sayings I taught my kids  -- or expressions that they just picked from hearing me say them:

1. "What you talking about, Willis?" (Gary Coleman's character, Arnold, was famous for saying this in the TV show "Diff'rent Strokes.")
2. "De plane, de plane!" (Herve Villechaize's character Tattoo often said this in "Fantasy Island.")
3. "Wonder twin powers, activate!" (From the "Super Friends" cartoon. Some believe the Wonder Twins invented the fist bump.)
4. "It tastes like burning!" (Ralph Wiggum from "The Simpsons." This one works any time food is too hot.)
5. "Screws fall out all the time, the world is an imperfect place." (From "The Breakfast Club." My kids don't say this one yet, but they will, because I use this line quite frequently.)