Wednesday, August 28

Why I'm Switching To The BlackBerry Q5

Ever since I got my first BlackBerry (a Torch, over two years ago) I've been hooked. Sure, I was a little bit behind the original CrackBerry crowd, but being able to access email and internet on my phone? Awesome.

The time was approaching for me to look at an upgrade (as most of us do, whether we "need" it or not), and when I was contacted about testing out a brand-new BlackBerry Q5, I jumped at the chance. Some of my friends were surprised by my brand loyalty, but I think people can be a bit too focused on company stocks, trades and sales and lose perspective of the fact that what you really want is the best possible tool to last you for a few years, max. I'm not buying the company, I'm buying a smartphone. And as you'll read, BlackBerry certainly continues to suit my purposes nicely.

The appearance of the Q5 would put you slightly in mind of the Curve, with a screen and Qwerty keyboard both on the front of the single piece, only this screen is touch, and twice the size. (I actually quite like the look of it.) The touch screen and Qwerty are both must-haves for me now, after using them on the Torch, which automatically rules out many other brands.

BlackBerry calls the Q5 "gesture based", but in my own layperson's terms I think of it more as "swipey". Swipe your finger up to wake up the phone, and down for settings, etc. To the right: your message hub, to the left: all of your programs and apps. It's very comfortable to hold, and while I didn't exactly weigh them both, it feels lighter than my current Torch. Getting set up was an absolute breeze (especially the email accounts - just enter your username and password and you're hooked up). I found in the beginning that my Yahoo email notifications were delayed, but tech support helped me adjust a setting and now it's much better - almost real-time.

Some of my favourite features of the Q5: the "Remember" app - it replaces the Memo Pad and Tasks, and is also where I can record my voice notes (I use that feature quite a lot for Momterviews, or when interviewing sources for magazine articles - quite an upgrade from the old Califone cassette player that I brought home from work to use in the past!)

Storymaker is another cool feature that I plan to explore more. You can select any pictures, videos and music from your phone that you wish, and combine them into a video that can be edited with titles and effects like filters to polish it off.

Another amazing upgrade is the Time Shift feature that comes with the camera. You know how some cameras now will take a few rapid shots in a row, just in case someone blinks? Well, this goes one step farther. You can actually look at the shots that were taken with the Time Shift feature, and choose each person's best "face" to combine (e.g. Frannie looks best in shot one, Maggie looks best in shot two) and combine the faces together to create a photo that did not even exist before. Is that cool or what? There are also tons of editing tools, including the one I use the most, which is filtering pics (to sepia, etc.) Plus, this phone has both front and rear look forward to a lot more selfies from This Mom! (You can relax: there will be no selfies.)

I also plan to check out the new BlackBerry Travel app, which can keep trip information all in one place - it might come in quite handy for an exciting fall trip I have planned!

I can honestly say that there is only one thing that I don't like about the Q5, and it's pretty minor: the free Twitter app doesn't currently include a "Lists" feature...and you know how important my Twitter lists are to me! Now, I could easily download a cheap app (like Blaq, which I believe is only a couple of bucks) but I'm all about the free apps, especially when just reviewing. (Speaking of free, the games that my 5 and 7 year old girls are loving: Bubble Buster, Jeweled, Word Search Blitz and...wait for it...Angry Birds Star Wars, of course!)

Music is something else I'll be figuring out shortly, but it's good to know that there is a way to put your iTunes music - or other music files from your computer - onto your BlackBerry as well, just in case you didn't realize that.

Something I learned from the experience of reviewing the phone is that actually reading the user guide is fairly helpful. I always figured that I just need my BB for basic functions, which I can pretty much figure out on my own, but in the blogging world it's good to know random tidbits, like the fact that I can capture and save a screenshot by pressing both volume keys simultaneously. Who knew?

I would highly recommend the BlackBerry Q5 for anyone looking to use a smartphone for the same functions as me (a mom, teacher, writer, blogger): phone, texting, email, web browsing, Twitter/Facebook, camera/video, keeping track of information, games (for the kids, of course)....what else do you need? In fact, I like it so much that I'm going to head to Bell asap to make the switch. If there's anyone out there who wants a two year old BlackBerry Torch, in excellent used condition, make me an offer!

Disclosure: I was provided with a BlackBerry Q5 for review purposes. Opinions are, as always, my own.

Monday, August 26

My 500th Post - $100 Amazon Gift Card Giveaway

{In honour of this special occasion, Grammarly is giving one lucky winner - Canada or US - a $100 Amazon gift card! Read to the end for details!}

Uh, hello, where's the confetti? After three and a half years of blood, sweat and tears (at least two of those literally, I'll keep you guessing which), this is my 500th post here at This Mom Loves!

Despite my occasional phases of being completely overwhelmed (usually at the end of June I want to quit the blog, my freelance writing career, my teaching job, and possibly even run away from my family) once I've had a couple of weeks to decompress, I find my energy and motivation again. (My classroom was set up days ago for September, I've published, written, pitched and been assigned several magazine articles, and I've managed to post here at least a couple of times a week, which is always my goal.)

While this blog really began as an outlet for me, it wouldn't still be going if it weren't for you, whether you've been a regular reader from the start, drop by occasionally, or even if you're a random page view who landed here for some reason from a completely irrelevant web search...since you're still helping me with my stats!

It seems like my loyal readers are a shy bunch, as I get many more emails expressing thoughts/questions about my posts than I do actual comments on the site, and that's fine by me.

Thank you all for keeping me going, and if you feel so moved as to celebrate this milestone in some way, please feel free to follow me by one of the methods below, or just send this link to a friend, family member or coworker who might enjoy This Mom Loves as well!

Click to find me on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or to subscribe through email (and get every new, complete post sent directly to your inbox. If you do this, keep an eye out for a Feedburner verification email, which you have to click on, and which may go to your spam folder.)

Now it's time to go partay! (Translation: soak in the hot tub with a good magazine, and hit the couch with some chocolate for a PVR'd episode of Big Brother. Should I rename the blog This Wild Mom Loves? No, no, then the search engine traffic would be really disappointed....)

Thanks to Grammarly, (an automated grammar check/online proofreader that finds and explains those pesky grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes that are bound to find their way into your first draft), one lucky reader will win a $100 Amazon gift card, and as an early bird bonus, the first five people to comment will win a free 3 month premium Grammarly account!

I'm going old-school with this giveaway and just asking you to leave a comment below letting me know what your favourite topic is to read about on blogs (mine, or any other). Maybe it's decorating, entertainment, recipes (sorry!), fashion, current events, crafts, tell me! Make sure there is enough info in your comment so that I can contact you somehow if and when you are a winner!

This giveaway will run until Monday, September 9th at midnight, after which time a winner will be chosen through random number generation. Good luck!

Friday, August 23

Our Back To School Shopping Challenge: #WalmartFrugalHeroes

I never go crazy with back-to-school shopping. Maybe a few new outfits for myself, of course, since I also go back to school, but I don't go nuts for the kids. This year, I was determined to be very practical, and buy only what the girls really need. I was excited to be again part of Walmart's Frugal Heroes challenge, where I could set a goal (mine was back to school outfits, "etc") and see what I could accomplish with $100.

My first step was assessing the closets and dressers, putting away anything Frannie had outgrown to save for her younger sister, and donating anything Maggie was finished with. Next, I wrote out a list of what would be required for both girls for the Fall.

Frannie: a first day of school outfit (this is usually the picture day outfit as well), some long sleeved shirts, fall pj's, socks, underwear, indoor shoes, and a few school supplies.

Maggie: absolutely nothing. I know, my husband (the 8th of 9 kids) always reminds me that the youngest one shouldn't get ripped off all the time just because the hand-me-downs are available, but the child (five years old, may I remind you) has 20 pairs of jeans! No, that is not a typo! Between her sister's castoffs and items that have been handed down from other friends and relatives, she needs absolutely nothing. Plus, she's going into SK and doesn't exactly require a lot of supplies. If this new kindergarten program is so great, why aren't they using scientific calculators and protractors yet? Just kidding.

So, I headed to my nearest Walmart (with Grandma in tow, to keep Maggie occupied) and got started. Here's how I made out:

Frannie's back to school outfit:

Some cozy pj's:

Long-sleeved tops ($4 each!)

Socks and underwear: (This was a great teaching moment, as we compared which would be the better buy - 7 pairs for $6, or 5 pairs for $6.)

A few school items (as a teacher, I know it's smart to wait until the list comes home the first day, so we aren't buying anything unnecessary. Also, we will be shopping our house first - sorry, Walmart! - because I know there are lots of erasers, scissors, etc. kicking around that will suit the purpose just fine).

Indoor shoes (Me: Are you sure you're fine with lace-ups now? Daughter: Yes. I think they look more mature.) On a related note - please don't send your child with party shoes or flip flops for indoors. Especially if your child goes to my school and gets to use the gym every day. 

And I caved...I had to buy a first day/picture day outfit for Maggie too! I mean, 20 bucks for this? How could I resist?

Here's a shot of the complete haul, all for $100 (plus tax...but I was pretty darn close!) Now we're all set for back to school! 

While I am certainly not sharing any photos, I challenged myself to stock up on my own back to school items (deodorant, contact lens solution, shampoo, conditioner, a new lunch bag, vitamins, a broom...and some unmentionables - okay, hair colour) for under $100, and managed to do that as well. (Husband: So they gave you $200 to spend? Me: Uh, not exactly...)

Thanks, Walmart...time to go put everything away now!

Disclosure: I was provided with a $100 Walmart gift card to complete the Walmart Frugal Heroes challenge. Opinions are, as always, my own.

Tuesday, August 20

Nashville Day 4: Ryman Auditorium, Waterfront and General Tourist Tips

Disclosure: I received some free/discounted accommodations and attractions while in Nashville for review purposes here on the blog. Opinions are, as always, my own.

When booking our Nashville vacay, we had the option of flying home fairly early Sunday morning, but since I hate losing sleep as well as being rushed, I booked a 6:50 pm flight home, which was very strange for us, as we had all day Sunday to kill without any set plans.

Our fantastic hotel (Hotel Indigo) gladly put our carry-on luggage in a storage room for us to retrieve before our flight, and we headed for a delicious buffet breakfast at Puckett's. From there, it was a short walk to the historic Ryman Auditorium, the "Mother Church of Country Music", former home to the Grand Ole Opry.

Visitors begin with a quick video before embarking on a self-guided tour throughout the auditorium. Other perks are available for an additional cost: you can stand centre stage at the Ryman for a photo op, go for a backstage tour, or even record your own CD in their recording studio! The gift shop is where we picked up another souvenir for our girls: Taylor Swift's "Journey To Fearless" DVD - a live recording of her first headlining concert, intermixed with all sorts of home videos and interviews that show Taylor's musical progression from a very early age. (They loved it!)

Since we still had time to kill, we decided to take a stroll up 1st avenue (the North/South streets downtown are all numbered, which makes for very easy navigation) and check out the waterfront, which is a beautiful area. Now, the water itself is a bit murky, but Riverfront Park is lovely, and we continued up to the Public Square which also gave us a lot to see, before returning to Hotel Indigo to collect our belongings and head to the airport (which is SO much smaller than Pearson in Toronto...we whipped through security in minutes and were at our gate with tons of time to spare. I couldn't get on WiFi, so instead I sat down to start drafting all of these travel posts!)

Some additional notes about our trip to Nashville: 

Transportation: We decided in advance that we would splurge for cabs when leaving the downtown area, figuring it would still be cheaper than renting a car and paying to park. In retrospect, it might not have cost us much more money – if any – to rent the car, since so many of the main attractions are outside of the downtown (for us, Belle Meade Mansion, Bluebird Café, etc. were all cab rides). There is a flat rate fee of $25 for any cab trip within the triangle of airport/downtown/Opryland, so it also depends where you’re staying and where you plan to spend most of your time. It’s also important to chunk your days by area (we went to the Opry Mills mall the afternoon before our Grand Ole Opry concert, for example, rather than taking two separate trips to the same area). There were always a couple of cabs waiting outside our hotel and some of the attractions, but we did have to phone and wait after a couple of outings.

Tipping: We eat out a fair bit (okay, a lot) and I know what the going rate is for tipping restaurant servers, but I'm lost with other providers. With the cab drivers, I rounded $25 rides up to $30 most of the time which I hope was adequate, but then there were all of our tour guides/tour bus drivers, and the people at the hotel (housecleaning, etc.) What’s appropriate? (I'm really asking, if anyone has thoughts to share I would appreciate it!)

Weather: The early August weather was lovely and warm, and felt pretty much like our nice summer days at home (high twenties/low thirties).

Oh, and one last thing (actually two last things), the maps that really helped us:

Map of Downtown Nashville
Map of Music Valley/Opryland Area

If anyone has any questions about our trip I would be glad to answer them! Now I promise to move on to other topics here at This Mom Loves!

Friday, August 16

Nashville Day 3: Country Music Stars Tour of Homes, Opry Mills Mall and Grand Ole Opry

Disclosure: I received some free/discounted attractions and accommodations while in Nashville, for review purposes here on the blog. Opinions are, as always, my own.

After NYC’s Sex and the City Bus Tour of 2010, I knew I needed to wait several years before expecting my husband to hop on another tour bus, but I couldn’t pass up the Nashville's Homes of the Stars bus tour. Officially, I’m not sure how I feel about celebrities’ addresses being revealed to the public, but since I know I am not a threat to anyone’s safety or security I allowed my curiosity to overtake my morals and signed up for this tour.

The driver/tour guide picked us up right at our hotel, which is very convenient, and we were on the road. The country stars live outside of downtown Nashville, mostly in the Brentwood and Belle Meade areas, so we had a bit of a drive before we actually saw a celebrity residence. You should also be aware, if planning a trip of your own or just feeling utterly and painfully jealous of all of the cool things I got to do, that you don't actually get a great look at most of these homes. Some are better fenced than others, some are completely treed, and some actually in gated communities that you just drive by.

I managed to get some decent shots of Martina McBride and Dolly Parton’s homes (which I decided not to post, just to boost my perception of my own morality) and if we had gone more slowly past Taylor Swift’s I could have taken a great picture there too. (“She’s not home today,” our driver/guide informed us. “When she’s home, there are security guards pacing up and down the fenceline.”) He was able to tell us if most of the stars were home or not, as he was also aware of what they (and their partners) drive. Again, I’m not going to do anything with that information, but not sure if it should really be out there for the less stable members of the general population. We also saw the homes of Dierks Bentley, Charles Kelley from Lady Antebellum, Trisha Yearwood (though she and Garth reside in Oklahoma most of the time), and various other celebs.

When the tour was almost over and we were getting ready to head back downtown for hotel dropoffs (we had just gone by the Belle Meade residence of Big Kenny from Big and Rich) we stopped at the corner of a residential street, waiting to make a right turn...when we were struck by a turning truck. Right under my window. Did I make that sound dramatic enough? Actually, the truck barely clipped the bus but scraped off a chunk of bumper and it required a call to police and us waiting for another bus. Turned out it was a 17 year old boy who just got his permanent licence. His mom came to check things out, followed by his dad who, in a very classy gesture, boarded the bus and said “Well, since my son’s the reason you’re sitting here, I figured I’d hop on and share some more information with you!” He proceeded to share some tidbits about celeb homes in Nashville, including the fact that Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen had just purchased the house behind his, as she is pursuing a songwriting career. When one (bold, or perhaps just desperate) woman requested, he even took a small group back to his home to use the facilities!

To top things off, the mom came back with warm, gooey, delicious just-out-of-the-oven homemade cookies. If that kind mother ever happens to read this, I totally want that recipe. And I think you and your husband handled this situation in an admirable way (when you could have said "That's what you get for snooping around residential areas!"), which certainly solidified the positive reputation of the city with a bus full of tourists.

So, sure, we wasted some time waiting for a replacement bus to come and return us downtown, but it made for a good story, right?

Next on the day's agenda: a cab ride to the amazing Opry Mills Mall. After just a few moments inside, I was wishing that I hadn't just flown with carry-on luggage...especially since the first weekend of August is Tennessee’s no tax weekend (also their back-to-school weekend, believe it or not!)

My first purchase: I finally found myself  a pair of cowboy boots. I had looked downtown (there are several boot shops) but either the selections were too pricey (I wasn’t paying $300 for boots, and some ran as high as $1000) and my other problem -- be ready to sympathize here -- is crazy skinny ankles. Yes, I know it is a blessing not to struggle with weight issues, but when you put skeleton legs in size ten boots with wide tops, it’s hard not too look like a kid playing dress up. At "50 East Shoes" at Opry Mills Mall, a helpful saleslady told me to go with Dan Post boots, as they are designed with narrower tops -- and I found my ideal pair. (Look for them in the Grand Ole Opry picture below, since I wore them right out of the store!) Now, perhaps I could have found the same pair at a local store back home, but I like being able to say my boots came from Nashville. (Note to self: I think we need to have a cowboy/girl themed day for Spirit Week at school this year...)

I limited my other purchases to a Ralph Lauren polo sweater (30% off plus no tax...which is why I waited behind literally - and yes, I know how to use that word correctly - over a hundred people), as well as a cute Lego Friends set for the girls -- I figured it was appropriate based on not only their interests but also where we were, since it was a rehearsal studio.

Okay, enough with the mall. On to...the Grand Ole Opry! Probably the highlight of our trip, right?

Deep breath.

I pride myself on being honest with my posts/reviews, but it's a bit difficult for me to actually come out and say that I was disappointed with the Opry. Let me explain.

Obviously the Grand Ole Opry is a classic, renowned venue/stage/radio show, and a must-see for visitors to Nashville. When I started planning our trip, I made frequent visits to the website to see who would be performing this summer, but the problem is that they only confirm the artists for each show a couple of weeks in advance (in our case, the performers weren't finalized until three days before the show!) I didn't want to book a whole trip without knowing who we would be seeing, but with all of the other details I needed to confirm (flights, hotel, etc.) I couldn't wait until the lineup was announced, so we picked a night and hoped for the best. We kept watching to see who might be performing, and as each name was added, it was another name that we did not recognize. There were 13 artists/groups the Saturday night we attended, and I didn't know any of them...several were older performers and some were up-and-comers, but there was no big name that I knew...mind you, Carrie Underwood was scheduled to perform the next weekend, so this isn't always the case!

My advice would be that if you are a fan of very old country, or don't mind some "new" (to you) faces, then by all means book tickets in advance and enjoy. However, if you're hoping to see a current star, you really might want to play it by ear as much as your plans will allow, though you should also keep in mind that each artist only performs a couple of songs, so it's not like attending an actual concert. I also wish I had booked a daytime tour of the Opry in advance, since when we arrived that afternoon we were told that the rest of the tours for the day were all booked up. (That's what I get for trying to fly by the seat of my pants for once!)

And don't get me wrong, the show was excellent, if that's the sort of thing you're looking for. It still really is a radio broadcast, so there's an "On Air" sign, with an announcer who reads very old-fashioned messages from the show's felt like a bit of a time warp!

Speaking of time...ours in Nashville was quickly winding down...stay tuned for the final installment:

Nashville Day 4: Ryman Auditorium, Waterfront and General Tourist Tips

Wednesday, August 14

Back To School Organization!

You know how excited I get about organization, and today I'm thrilled to welcome Jessica Johnson from, here to offer her back-to-school organizational tips!


Shift Your Organizational Gears for Back-to-School Time

With summer's end on the horizon, it's time to start thinking about ramping back up for school. But instead of groaning, approach this school year with a renewed determination to do things "right" this time!
Of course that means different things for different people, but there are some general guidelines and best practices that apply across the board. Basically, it's all about getting in sync with the various gears you and your kids will need to shift now that days will be spent in the school yard instead of the backyard.
Here are a few "smart syncing" ideas to get your neurons firing and help your kids skip to the head of the class.

Start with a Clean Slate
In the same way that "Spring Cleaning" applies to adults, kids should observe "Back-to-School Cleaning." If they haven't already cleaned out their backpacks from last year (something to keep in mind for the end of this year!), a good flush is in order first.

Create a System
Once you're back to the beginning, set up a system to keep you on track for the rest of the school year. This includes organizing items for school, setting up a designated working area for homework and school supplies, and planning ahead to avoid last minute scrambling that only piles on unnecessary stress.
  • Files and folders are great for separating items as they come in from the classroom. Consider color-coding files and labeling folders to find what you need in a flash.
  • Toss trash at the end of the day – whether it's afterschool snack wrappers or scratch paper from math homework, place trash in the recycling bin or trash can at the end of every day to avoid it piling up and becoming unmanageable.
  • Become a fan of lists. Adults have a hard enough time keeping everything in order without the aid of a "to do" list, so help your kids understand the value of writing things down – you won't forget them and you won't have to use precious brain power trying to keep it all straight. After all, they'll need it for geometry or algebra or whatever else the kids are learning these days!

Establish an "End of the Day" Routine
In an ideal situation, everything is ready to go in the morning when your kids wake up. Fortunately, with a bit of day-before prep, this perfect scenario can be a reality! So before bedtime, make sure your kids take care of these tasks:
  • Complete all homework. Few things are as frustrating for a kid than having to rush in the morning to finish assignments and get ready at the same time. Plus, isn't the point of homework to actually learn something? This is made much more difficult when done during the mad dash to get out the door.
  • Pack up backpacks and book bags. One of the things that is worse for a kid is spending the time to do assignments in a thoughtful way, completing them with plenty of time to spare the day before and then forgetting something at home.
  • Place all bags near the door. If backpacks are waiting with the shoes by the front door, there's no need to run around frantically at the last minute when the bus is pulling in, or worse, pulling away from the curb.
  • Pre-make lunch (as much as possible). If you need to wait until the morning to put together sandwiches so they don't get soggy, that's much easier to handle in a pinch if you have already compiled the other components of the meal. All you need to do is add the sandwich to the sack with the pre-bagged snacks and drink and send them on their way!
  • Lay out all clothes and accessories. No more sending your daughter back upstairs to change when she comes down in the morning with mismatched clothes. Forget facing the shame of sending your son to school with the same smelly socks he wore yesterday because he didn't tell you last night that he needed a clean pair when you could have done something about it. Nope – if school clothes are assembled the night before, you retain final approval over outfit selections and the ability to run a load of laundry if necessary.
  • Stick to a routine. Consistency is key: in addition to applying to all of the tips above, maintaining a regular schedule with sleeping and waking up will help the transition go more smoothly until the point that your new lifestyle becomes automatic.
What are some of the ways you and your kids have successfully streamlined your day to facilitate victory in the classroom?

Jessica Johnson works for and contributes to the Extra Space Storage blog, exploring various aspects of organizing and storing possessions.

Monday, August 12

Nashville Day 2: Belle Meade Plantation, Bluebird Cafe and Honky Tonk Central

Nashville Day 2: Belle Meade Plantation, Bluebird Café and Honky Tonk Central

Disclosure: I received some free/discounted accommodations and attractions while in Nashville for review purposes here on the blog. Opinions are, as always, my own.

On Day 2, we were up and at ‘em and took a taxi from Hotel Indigo (there was always at least one waiting out front) to another popular Nashville tourist destination, Belle Meade Plantation.

We signed up for the guided tour, and were lucky to land another amazing tour guide who was funny and knowledgeable. She took us around the inside of the mansion (where no photography was allowed), and then we were free to explore the property and outbuildings on our own. 

I was surprised to learn that this “plantation” wasn’t for crops (my limited knowledge of American history led me to believe that plantations were mostly for cotton) but this one was in fact very renowned for horse breeding/racehorses.

We had the chance to touch bullet holes in the limestone columns at the front of the mansion, remnants of the Civil War’s Battle of Nashville (again, I’m more of a Plains of Abraham girl here, so my apologies if I make an historical error).

Of course the children of Belle Meade needed a cool play house (I try to take at least a few travel pics to interest my girls): 

Just doing some southern back-porch sittin’… you know, on the back porch of a mansion!

What’s a mansion without its own mausoleum? (The “residents” have since been relocated to cemeteries)

The evening found us at the famous Bluebird Café, where such stars as Garth Brooks, Faith Hill and Taylor Swift were first discovered!

How many of you had heard of this place before the TV show Nashville? I may have read about it in passing somewhere, but it really wasn’t on the radar for me until I started watching the show, and I knew it was a must-see for this trip. But believe me, it's not easy to get in!

Here’s how it works: they do have minimal walk-in bar/chair seating at the back of the café, but that involves getting there early, waiting in line and taking the chance that you’re going to be turned away. The better way to do it, if you’re quick on the internet and available at precisely the right time: get a reservation!

Reservations are available at 8 am Central (9 am Eastern) each Monday for the coming week. You click on the calendar, click on the show you want, and see a note that reservations will be available Monday at 8. So Monday at 7:55 you get on the computer and constantly refresh the page until the “Click here to reserve” button appears. You pick a table, and proceed with your reservation. Early shows are only a $2 processing fee (with a $7 food/drink minimum order per seat). The later shows have a $12 cover, and the same food/drink minimum (alcohol is served and the food is very pubby and yummy).

I was thrilled when I was quick enough at the keyboard to get reservations, and we took yet another cab ride out to the nondescript strip mall where the Bluebird is located. And I have to admit I did feel kind of important walking right in past the line of those desperately hoping to get a last-minute seat.

Here I am at our table, mere feet from the stage. Okay, all of the tables are mere feet from the stage. (Hubby says I’m doing my weird “big eye” thing in this shot, but it's not like I’m going to be vain about the photos I use on my blog. Besides, I already eliminated seventeen shots of me on Day 1's General Jackson showboat post because either my eyes, hair, or chest looked weird.)

We were there for an "In the Row" performance, which is four singers/songwriters literally sitting in a row, and taking turns sharing their original songs. A few tunes were only good, but most were excellent. Like, "Why has no one put this on the radio yet?" excellent. It actually makes me feel sorry for people struggling to make it in a market that’s so oversaturated that such incredible music is being turned away.

Lance Carpenter in particular reminded us of Toby Keith, especially with his novelty songs like the Jack Daniel’s ode “I Know Jack”. A.J. Bryant had us in stitches with "I Like Big Women", as did Craig Winquist with his voyeuristic “She’s Cutting Her Grass”, but there were some sweet and meaningful tunes thrown in there as well. Usually I like listening to music I know, but this original stuff had me drawn in for a full two hours (the policy is that everyone is quiet and listening to the artists, so it’s not like you can just chat with your companion if you’re not impressed)

Just like the General Jackson, cabs aren't exactly lined up waiting after the show, so we had to phone, and ended up sharing a ride downtown with two other couples, who of course asked us the most common question in Nashville: “Where y’all from?” Because no one in Nashville is from Nashville.

We wanted to check out some live entertainment downtown on Broadway, and landed in Honky Tonk Central, where we nabbed bar stools and hung out for another couple of hours, watching the place pack so tight that no one could move, and listening to some amazing live music. Unlike at the Bluebird, the performers here were totally doing cover music, so I sang along to every song that the Luke Bryan/Eric Church hybrid threw out at us, before finally heading back to Hotel Indigo for a good night's sleep.

Yes, it seems like we’ve already accomplished a lot in Nashville by this point, but we’re only half done. Stay tuned for:

Day 3: Country Music Stars Tour of Homes, Opry Mills Mall and Grand Ole Opry
Day 4: Ryman Auditorium, Waterfront and General Tourist Tips

Thursday, August 8

Nashville Day 1: Country Music Hall of Fame/Museum and General Jackson Showboat

Disclosure: I received some free/discounted attractions and accommodations while in Nashville, for review purposes here on the blog. Opinions are, as always, my own.

So, my dream vacation to Nashville was supposed to be a girls’ trip, but when one of the girls backed out -- not naming any names, but you know who you are! – I enlisted my hubby to join me instead. When telling others about my summer holiday plans, responses ranged from “Wow! Awesome!” to “Nashville…huh...” all the way to “Why NASHVILLE???”

I’ve been a country girl all my life (well, except for the three years I spent in a downtown Peterborough highrise) so it seems natural that I enjoy country music. But I will also readily admit that I am very into celebrities and entertainment in general, and due to the rise in popularity of country stars, as well as the amazing new tv show Nashville, my interest in visiting Tennessee has definitely been boosted over the past couple of years by its trendiness.

The Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau hooked me up with all the information I needed, and with some extra firsthand info from a friend who travelled to the city last summer (the exact same weekend actually) I planned our getaway.

After leaving the girls with my wonderful, loving, supportive parents (thanks, Mom and Dad!), we spent Wednesday night at a Toronto airport hotel where we could leave our vehicle during our trip. Thursday morning, the hotel shuttle took us to the airport where we boarded our two hour flight (though Nashville is an hour behind us, so technically we only lost an hour of our morning on the plane).

We took a cab to our downtown hotel (Hotel Indigo), where we had requested an early check-in, and thankfully they were able to accommodate us. (If not, we would have just left our bags and started exploring, but it’s always nice to unpack and freshen up before venturing out. Or at least I think so.)

The hotel was great - and the room was much more spacious than I expected, having read that Hotel Indigo is a “boutique hotel”. (I think the bathroom was about the same size as our entire New York City “boutique hotel” room!) The staff was very helpful, whether with getting me on the free wireless internet, calling cabs, or answering questions.

Most downtown attractions are within walking distance, and our first destination was the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. We started with a nice lunch in their Two Twenty Two Grill, and then began our self-guided tour of the museum (which is currently being expanded to twice its size, for anyone planning a trip next year).

A sign advertising an upcoming exhibit on Reba McEntire welcomed us as we entered the museum, and I was disappointed to learn that we were a few days too early to take it in…but there was still lots to be seen! 

Artifacts are arranged in chronological order, and I’m going to be honest with you: I skipped over the early years quickly. I did enjoy learning about the roots of country music, but I didn’t grow up listening to it the same way my husband did, and a lot of the original stars and songs aren’t as familiar to me as the more current ones are. I was pleased to see that there is lots to appeal to both types of fans…and even reluctant or non-fans have to be impressed by items such as Elvis’ gold-plated and diamond-painted vehicle (ahead of its time with entertainment devices in the back seat):

Other “vintage” items that caught my eye were original handwritten lyrics, such the ones to “Jolene” written by Dolly Parton and pictured here:

I had to take this shot of a Taylor Swift display, which includes the laptop she used to record and produce two of her music videos (as Taylor says, “the only video CMT has probably ever played that cost like $5.00 to make"). Since my girls are totally into music (both listening/watching and performing themselves) I consider Taylor an excellent role model (knock on wood – some mothers once said that about Amanda Bynes) and I like to foster their interest in her.

Other highlights for me included stage costumes and items from Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, The Dixie Chicks and the TV show Nashville:

I was also impressed by the artifacts from Carrie Underwood’s “Blown Away” tour, organized based on the concert’s various acts (I really felt like I needed a wind machine for this photograph, but no luck).

This vignette is from the Meet and Greet room on the “Blown Away” tour. Someday I will have reached the rank of journalist where I get to meet and greet in such a room.

The actual Hall of Fame area features information on the various inductees, with my favourite shown here: (I still rank his Las Vegas one-man-concert as the best I’ve ever attended.)

For an extra fee, museum visitors can take a shuttle bus to the historic Studio B on Music Row. We hopped on board the shuttle, and were blessed with a fantastic tour guide who really made the tour for us, sharing jokes and anecdotes about the stars and the music en route and at the destination in addition to factual notes about the Studio itself. (Nearby: Reba McEntire’s recording studio, which she supposedly had built with a flat roof so she could come in via helicopter, an idea which was disputed by other area studio owners. She has never yet arrived by air.)

One of the rooms at Studio B is decorated with photos of artists who recorded there (I recognized a few of the names, but like I said, I’m more a new country girl) but one particular story caught my attention, regarding Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner. Even if you’re not a country fan, I’m pretty sure you’re familiar with the song “I Will Always Love You”, which, while famously recorded my Whitney Houston for the soundtrack for “The Bodyguard”, was actually written and first recorded by Dolly Parton. Our tour guide told us that most of the world thinks it was penned as a love song, but in fact in was about a professional split, written for Porter Wagoner when Dolly decided to leave his television show, where she got her start, and set out on her own.

If you look carefully at this photo of the piano used in the Studio (which has never been removed from the room) you can also see where Elvis broke a panel from a cupboard door, angry that his record player wouldn’t work one night.

The Museum (and Studio B, with the hopes that all tour guides are as good as ours) are must-sees for anyone planning to visit Nashville.

Next on our agenda for Thursday was the General Jackson Showboat (another cab ride from the hotel, located right near Opry Mills Mall and the Grand Ole Opry). While boarding, staff members took the required souvenir photo (okay, fine, I paid $20 for it because I thought we both looked pretty good):

We explored the boat for a bit, then we were seated in the dining room (the tables seat 8, so we were placed with others, which isn’t always my cup of tea, but we dined with a family of four from New Orleans and an older couple from Oklahoma who were interesting – but not overbearing- conversationalists, which was perfect for me). I expected the show to run during the meal, but it didn’t, so we ate our salad, prime rib/potatoes/vegetables and strawberry shortcake before the “Heart of Tennessee: A Musical Journey” began. (Loyal readers: which parts of that sentence do you think were untrue for me?) Appetizers and alcohol cost extra in addition to the price of the dinner/show.

The meal itself was fine, but I think if I did it again I would take the option of having something to eat on my own beforehand and then just seeing the show (those patrons spend time on deck having drinks and enjoying the cruise while the others are eating, and get invited in to take their seats on a second level before the show begins). This also would have allowed more time to actually enjoy the scenery, as the diners are pretty much below deck most of the time the boat is moving.

The live show was very fun, with seven performers presenting a history of country music (did you know we Irish can actually take some credit for it? You’ll have to watch the show to find out what I mean) with medleys of all sorts of toe-tapping tunes that I easily recognized.

One caveat: don’t be expecting a lineup of cabs after the boaters disembark. If you do, you will be waiting a while. And if you can’t use your cell phone because you’re out of the country and don’t have a plan, you’ll have to ask an employee to call a cab for you, and you might be waiting for an hour. Just sayin’.

Whew – can you believe that was only Day 1? Stay tuned for:

Day 2: Belle Meade Plantation, Bluebird Café and Honky Tonk Central
Day 3: Country Music Stars Tour of Homes, Opry Mills Mall and Grand Ole Opry
Day 4: Ryman Auditorium, Waterfront and General Tourist Tips

Please let me know if you have any questions at all about our trip!

Monday, August 5

My Top 10 Momterviews Of All Time

Recently I shared My Top 10 Posts Of All Time...but I didn't include my Momterviews, which are by far the most read posts on my blog.

In case you missed any, here are My Top 10 Momterviews Of All Time, in order of page views (keep in mind that some of the more recent ones haven't had time to rack up the hits...which isn't a reflection on the quality of the woman - or the interview!) Click on the name to see the post, and you can check my blog sidebar for a complete list of Momterviews.

Which one was/is your favourite? What other well-known Canadian moms would you like to see me interview?