Alena’s Favorite Things – Fall Edition

In true Oprah style, I return with “My Favorite Things” for fall. Before you get too excited, there’s no giveaway attached, but I do hope you discover some of your favorites too. (And, yes, I know I wrote about my love of fall a few short weeks ago, but I can’t help it — it’s my favorite time of year.)

Favorite Flowers

Bushel baskets full of mums are the visible sign of fall in my neighborhood. They mark the entries to many homes and businesses. I love their richness and complimentary hues, plus their strength, standing up to the highs and lows of Chicago fall temperatures. I wish they lasted longer, but I’m thankful for the time I have them. (This particular basket in front of our house comes compliments of my sister-in-law Liz. Thanks for the smiles.)

Favorite Sport

Truth be told, I’m a big fan of American football, especially the Chicago Bears, but soccer (aka futbol) has grown on me. It’s hard not to get excited by the enthusiasm my husband and youngest son feel for the sport. I caught the Olympic Women’s Soccer fever and enjoy the skill that even the youngest players show on the pitch. Of course youth soccer is year-round, but fall soccer is when I really started to see that I could have many years of “soccer mom” ahead of me. My little guy loves it and “he’s got skills” if I do say so myself.

Favorite Fall Nail Color

Tired of the nude-pink I’d been wearing for 6 weeks, I went to Walgreens in search of something deeper for fall. I discovered “Over the Knee,” which is definitely in the brown family (on trend) but not so deep or dark that it draws too much attention to my stubby little fingers. It’s hard to tell in the picture, but, trust me, it’s a terrific fall color — fingers or toes.

Favorite Fall Activity

It’s gotta be carving jack-o-lanterns. Truly a family get-together, last year we welcomed my brother-in-law and [future] sister-in-law for a family carving night. We designed faces, scooped pumpkin guts, carved and roasted seeds, all while spooky music and movies kept us company.  From simple pointy-toothed smiles to intricately designed spooks, our pumpkins each reflect our personalities (and carving skills.) While my NY in-laws can’t join the fun this year, we will bravely carry on the rest of the creative tradition.

Favorite home decor

I love decorating our mantle come fall. Beginning October 1st, the top of our place remains decorated in some holiday theme all the way through New Years. My sons (and I) look forward to the day when we bring up the decorations from our basement and unpack each one, placing it in its proper place. There are stories to accompany each, books to be re-read and something new to add every year. There’s nothing better than a crisp fall evening with a fire roaring and all our candles lit. It puts me in a great mood every time.

Favorite Fall Beverage

OK, so I’m still a white wine girl, it’s true. But I do like the release of fall beers each year. For the past few weeks we’ve been enjoying Goose Island Harvest Ale, but I’m usually game to try a couple of others each year. Just keep me away from those German Weiss beers — I know Oktoberfest lovers would argue with me, but, Yuck!

Harold and the Purple Crayon at Chicago Children’s Theatre

It’s been a while since I’ve had a story published in Chicago Parent Magazine, but when the editor asked me to write about Chicago Children’s Theatre’s move to it first permanent home, I jumped at the chance. My experiences with this company have been overwhelmingly positive.

You can find the story in the October issue of Chicago Parent.

When Chicago Children’s Theatre opens its newest production “Harold and the Purple Crayon,” it will be the premiere show in its first permanent home. After operating on an itinerant basis for its first six seasons, the company recently announced its designation as Artist-in-Residence at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts.

“We are so glad to be in residence at such an iconic Chicago theater,” says CCT Artistic Director Jacqueline Russell, who hopes to continue the streak of successful companies such as Lookingglass and Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, both of which called Ruth Page home. Ruth Page is not completely new to CCT’s audiences. In fact, the 2010 production of “Jackie and Me,” an outstanding look at the life and achievements of Jackie Robinson, was produced at Ruth Page.

The location at 1016 N. Dearborn offers a neighborhood feel, plus convenient parking. “For families, an evening of theater is much more than the actual show. It’s a complete experience. Parents need to know where to eat and where to park. Having one location for all of our shows will allow us to build our audience base,” she says.

Russell also admits that having a single spot will mean the company can spend more time focusing on producing instead of securing a venue for each show. This is great news for local families, as CCT has already established itself as one of the city’s best children’s theaters.

The Ruth Page theater space lends itself well to the kind of intimate work for which the company is known. In keeping with the “complete experience” theme, on Thursday evenings families can arrive early (5:30 p.m.) for a pre-show pizza party, compliments of Pete’s Pizza and Izze. Friday evenings are pajama parties where guests wear their PJs and take part in pre-show activities, plus a chance to meet the cast after the show.

As for the upcoming production, families can expect “Harold and the Purple Crayon” to engage all of their senses with music, puppetry and animation to tell the story of a boy who uses his imagination to create his own world.

“One of our challenges in designing this show was to be true to Harold’s world. Everything created for this production has to look like it came from a purple crayon. I think audiences will be amazed at what they see,” says Russell.

Russell expects Harold to inspire children and parents to use their imaginations not only to create something new, but to solve problems.

Now that she has secured a good home for her company, she can focus on continuing to hire the best actors, designers and directors for every show.

“We are the gateway for children to experience live theater before they’re ready for places like Goodman. I will continue to hire Chicago artists who are the top of their craft because the children in our audience deserve nothing but the best.”

This article appeared in the October 2012 edition of Chicago Parent.
Alena Murguia lives in Berwyn, Illinois along with her husband and three growing sons.See more of Alena’s stories here.

Alena’s favorite things

I know I’m no Oprah, but that’s no reason I can’t borrow one of her best known gimmicks. Welcome, everyone, to my first ever, Alena’s Favorite Things — Summer edition.

Here are the products and places I simply cannot live without each summer. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

City spot

Milennium Park for evening concerts is my happy place. Whether we go with the boys or make it a date night, this spot offers the best views of downtown Chicago, the greatest music, and fabulous people watching. We pack a picnic, some wine and a couple of chairs. Even with paying for parking (so convenient under the park), it’s an inexpensive, classy night on the town. I always come away feeling lucky to live in such a great city.

Sweet Snack

I’m tempted to go with ice cream given the season, but, honestly, Walkers Shortbread cookies are simply luxurious. We always pack a box to go with our concert picnics. I wisely managed to keep these treats out of my sons’ hands for years (they’re not cheap), but they too have discovered the rich, buttery goodness of Walkers. Then my youngest saw the “red box cookies” shaped like little Scotty dogs and now there’s no turning back. We now have the doggies, snack sized bag of cookies and the traditional shortbread “fingers” at the ready.

Nail Color

I pretty much wear nothing but flip-flops from April 1 – October 1, so I have to keep my toes in looking nice. For years I wore nothing but OPI, partly because I loved the way the company names colors. But recently, I’ve made the switch to essie. I heard from a friend that their colors don’t stain your nails (true). Also, Walgreens started carrying the brand, which makes it super convenient for me. And, the salon I use started carrying more of Essie’s colors. So, good-bye Cajun Shrimp; hello, Olé Caliente! (By the way, I could write a whole post about how much I love my monthly pedi dates with my girlfriend. Everyone should be so lucky.)



Outdoor dining

Nothing beats the outdoor patio at Oak Park‘s Maya del Sol for great food, sinfully delicious cocktails and superb service. I’ve spent many an evening with friends sampling appetizers and enjoying one of their amazing cocktails. (Tequila, muddled grapefruit and a chipotle pepper garnish — man I could go for one of those right now.) My husband and I also love it for a date night. Seriously, if you are anywhere near Oak Park, check this place out.



Let’s call her Kimmy. That’s how this bottle is affectionately known by my sisters-in-law and me. And you can generally find at least one bottle of this particular Sauvignon Blanc at any family gathering. I don’t know any of the correct terminology to talk about wine, but I know it always tastes fresh, with a little bit of citrus. It’s a crisp, clean flavor without feeling heavy. Affordable and readily available. I admit it — there is always a bottle of Kim Crawford chilling in my fridge. Kimmy is my friend.

I wish I could tell you to look under your seat to find a Favorite Things baskets to take home. But I’m no Oprah.

My love-hate relationship with Joe Meno

photo from Goodreads

I have a literary crush on Joe Meno. “Who’s Joe Meno?” you ask. Well, he’s a Chicago author and playwright. My crush began when I read his thought-provoking novel, The Great Perhaps, perhaps one of the finest deconstructions of the modern family I’ve ever read.

Beneath all of her thoughts and worries, beneath the complication of conflicting identities and needs, maybe it’s as simple as loving the way some other person looks when they’re sleeping.”

I couldn’t believe I’d never read any of his work. I mean – he’s a CHICAGOAN for goodness sake. And his books have terrific titles.

I headed to the library to find the wonderfully named, Hairstyles of the Damned. Uh-oh. This slip of a novel was nothing like the American masterpiece I had just read.  Although I enjoyed the familiar references to coming-of-age in Chicago in the late 80s, I couldn’t relate to the whiny protagonist Brian Oswald.

Determined not to be wrong in my first impression, I went back for more Joe Meno. Tender as Hellfire confirmed the crush. How could I not love a book about two trailer park brothers named Pill and Dough? Their world is ugly and damaged and filled with the most bizarre losers, but Meno makes it all beautiful.

After school the very next day, El Rey’s mobile home was gone. I laid in bed and wondered what happens to people when they go, if they become like shadows, if they fade away when they disappear from your life. The only thing I could see was the broken picket fence. The only sound I could hear was the cry of birds being killed in the night.”

I love these boys in all their broken-ness.

So, as if I didn’t like this guy enough, I discover that he used my brother-in-law’s artwork on the cover of his short story collection, Demons in the Spring. Unlike any of the novels I had read by Meno, these are 20 quirky stories filled with magical realism, each accompanied by an original art illustration. How cool is this guy?

Well, based on his latest novel, Office Girl, Joe Meno is seemingly too cool for me.

He is quite obviously outside my reach in the hipster, Wicker Park world of artists and authors. The plot revolves around a hopeless love affair and, once again, incorporates illustrations, but not as effectively as with his short stories.

His characters, Odile and Jack, are members of that certain generation of aimless, hipster, dreamers. I recognize them without knowing them. I’m fairly certain they each have at least one politically significant tattoo. Jack is likely in need of a haircut and they wear deliberately ironic graphic t-shirts. They’re not exactly unlikable, but they are too self-aware to be my friends (even my imaginary fictionalized ones.)

So, apparently, my crush is a little more of a love-hate relationship. I have a few more Meno books to tackle. I think I’ll go with How the Hula Girl Sings, based on title alone.

A Tale as Old as Time in a Brand New Production

I was thrilled to return to Chicago Shakespeare Theater last weekend for the press opening of their Family Series production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. My review will be published in the August issue of Chicago Parent as well as

Chicago Shakespeare Theater has built its reputation on excellent quality productions reflecting Shakespeare’s love of storytelling, language and human emotion.

That has carried that through to its Family Series as well. When I learned that CST chose to premiere the 70-minute version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast for the summer children’s show, I was unsure how it fit the mission. However, after seeing this beautiful production, I’m more convinced than ever that CST is a best bet for families.

With a cast of only 16 people, they managed to provide the feel of a full-scale Broadway musical. Outstanding voices and swift choreography set the mood. Dynamic costumes and an ever-changing set complete with computer-animated graphics bring the enchanted world of Belle and Beast to life.

In fact, the scenes in the forest with wolves attacking and fog rolling through were so realistic that some young audience members cried out to leave. That’s certainly testament to human emotion.

Emily Rohm is perfect as the inquisitive, feisty and beautiful Belle. She brings something fresh to the well-known character, captivating the young girls in the audience. William Travis Taylor (Beast) and Jake Klinkhammer (Gaston) provide the perfect counterparts in the quest for her love. Klinkhammer makes Gaston’s smarmy and conceited villain the show’s comic relief. Taylor has the challenge of conveying Beast’s emotional journey through an intricate mask and mass of beastly hair. Using his voice and body language, he succeeds.

Once again, director Rachel Rockwell keeps the pace of the show and its ensemble members moving quickly. She milks the comedy, but doesn’t shy away from the romance inherent in the story. My 10-year-old son thought there were “too many slow songs” but, judging by the reaction of the audience, he was in the minority.

Girls and boys alike were lined up in the lobby after the show for their chance to get an autograph from, and picture with, some of the actors.

You can read more of my stories at Chicago Parent.

A perfect Chicago evening

I still find myself constantly surprised by the quality and variety of free activities I find in my home city, but never more so than during the Grant Park Music Festival.

Last Friday, we took the boys to Millennium Park for a night of classical music . We packed a picnic for us, picked up some Freddie’s Pizza for the boys and settled in for a perfect evening. I realized as soon as I sat down, that I had arrived at my “happy place.” The architecture, the environment, the music — all combine for a couple of hours of city bliss.

So thanks to the Festival artists, sponsors, park district and City of Chicago for making it all possible. Enjoy the pictures.

my view facing northeast

beautiful boy

my oldest

happy for the pre-concert pizza


Three smiling faces.


No surprise, they even managed to get in on a little baseball game before the concert started.

Palmer House – Old School Elegance with Modern Convenience


I never pass up the chance to visit great hotels. It’s most certainly the best perk I’ve experienced as a writer. My sons have had the opportunity to be pampered at some of Chicago’s best locations. But I have to admit, one of the city’s oldest hotels holds a special spot in my heart.

I originally wrote this story for the June 2012 issue of Chicago Parent. I have added more personal stories and pictures for this post.

Stepping into Chicago’s Palmer House Hilton is like stepping back in time. This hotel’s walls have seen the city’s booms and recessions, its glamour and its vice. Just walking the halls, looking at photos and reading plaques can give visitors a sense of Chicago’s last 100 years. But actually staying as a guest envelops you in another era, a time when Chicago’s Loop was THE spot for dignitaries and Hollywood elite.

Palmer House treated my family to an elegant overnight this spring. While my husband and I are big fans of Potter’s Lounge, neither of us had ever stayed over as guests. While we checked in, our sons marveled at the ornate decor and the hotel’s grand scale. They immediately climbed the stairs to watch us from the balcony-which is how they spotted the lobby’s iPads. This juxtaposition of old and new allowed me to sit back and imagine myself as Jane Russell while they sat back comforted by Internet access.

The same was true once we entered our gorgeous suite. The furnishings have a very Art Deco feel (a chaise lounge in the living room), but all the latest technology. They were docking iPods before I had unzipped the suitcase. The hotel had booked us in a gorgeous suite with an adjoining room for the boys so we all had plenty of space. Palmer House has, in fact, modernized and renovated much of the hotel for guests’ comfort. We truly could have hosted a cocktail party for 40 people in our suite with the enormous table and wet bar. Instead, we spread out and enjoyed the view.

in the executive elevator

We were excited to use our “Executive Privileges” (well worth the additional nightly cost) so we headed toward the special executive elevator. My older sons were over the moon with excitement about the keyed elevator with its etched mirrors and folding bench. Who doesn’t like to feel special? $60 is a small price to pay for the privilege of a private elevator and access to the fully stocked Executive Lounge. On Saturday we arrived in time for the cocktail hour with hot and cold appetizers as well as unlimited sodas & waters. After exploring the Lounge’s nooks & crannies, the boys settled in at the computers while my husband & I settled in with drinks and gorgeous views.

In the Lounge and in the halls, my husband and I kept stopping at the dramatic photos of the superstars who had stayed or entertained at the Palmer House back in the day, from Rat Packers to Benny Goodman and Jack Benny. I had no trouble imagining us back in the day, dressed in our finest attire, out for a swanky evening in the city.

With all the hotel’s amenities (including the intimate pool and state-of-the-art gym/spa), I would have been content to never leave.  After a delicious and satisfying complimentary breakfast buffet in the Executive Lounge, we spent the morning at the pool. The hotel’s late check-out time gave us more time to explore the hotel’s ground floor, its famous peacock doors and the lobby’s ceiling mural.

poolside in January. Palmer House Hilton.

In fact, a month or so after our visit I sent a message to Palmer House that my nine year-old had been asking me to return to the “peacock door hotel.” The management responded with a kind note and a small stuffed peacock. He was, of course, thrilled with the special present. I was thrilled that he remembered such a lovely detail from our visit. Not every mom gets to offer those kinds of memories as a part of her job.

We definitely return to Palmer House for a night in the City.

Disclosure: My family was not charged for our stay at Palmer House and I was paid by Chicago Parent to write the article. I sometimes receive complimentary services and gifts, but I choose to write only about places I believe will be good for my readers. All opinions expressed are 100% my own.

To see the original version of this story plus more of my adventures with my sons, please visit Chicago Parent.

Interior of Palmer House Hilton in Chicago, USA

Interior of Palmer House Hilton in Chicago, USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Giddyap! Little Boots Rodeo is this weekend!

My city boys are not exactly horse wranglers or bull riders by nature, so, last summer, when I heard about Little Boots Rodeo in Elk Grove Village, I was skeptical. How would my kids compete in barrel racing and cow milking? Well, as it turned out, quite well.

Cow “milking”

This Saturday and Sunday, June 23rd & 24th, little buckaroos age 3-12 can register to “compete” in 12 rodeo-themed events. Participants who complete all events receive an award certificate.

The events are all adapted for kids so the “lasso” is actually a ring toss and the “horse race” takes place on a hobby horse. My older sons were drawn to the mechanical bull “bull riding” and plastic “bow and arrow” competitions. It’s a great mix of activities, appealing to families with kids of different ages. Since this is a feel-good festival, all children walk away winners, no matter what their skill level.

bull riding — two different sized bulls for different ages.

Even if you don’t want to participate in the rodeo events, Little Boots offers a day’s worth of entertainment. Magic shows, costumed characters and professional cowboys all add to the rodeo atmosphere. Kids can take a chance on both duck and pig races, or pet a variety of farm animals in the Petting Zoo.

Many children dressed in full cowboy gear and throughout the day received “Best-Dressed” awards.

“One of the main goals of the festival is for children to experience something that they have never done or seen before,” according to Little Boots’ Director Jack Groat.

Toward that goal, they are adding more events: watch a man being shot from a cannon, take a camel ride, or visit “The Lion King.” Last year we met Svengoolie, who’s scheduled to return again this weekend. We missed the duck races, but I hear Groat and Elk Grove Village’s mayor have a friendly wager going.

With Berwyn’s own, Svengoolie

Admission to Little Boots is free, although Groat asks that everyone bring a nonperishable food pantry donation. Participants pay $10 each to do all 12 rodeo events and some attractions do have minimal charges.

All proceeds from the rodeo benefit local charities. Last year, Little Boots donated $12,000 to charities in the north and northwest Chicago suburbs.

All children who complete the events have their names announced and receive certificates.

This original version of this article appeared in the Summer 2012 edition of Going Places. I have added copy and photos for this blog post.

You can find more of my adventures with my sons at Chicago Parent.

Freshii for fast, healthy & fun

My sons and I try to spend as much time as possible exploring the city, especially in the summer. Lunch can be a problem, though. If I don’t want to spend obscene amounts of money, it seems like we end up eating the worst kinds of fast food. But recently I discovered a much better option at Freshii.

I have never experienced fresher food on the go. With wraps, salads and soups all made to order, it’s a perfect spot to pick up items for a picnic or bench lunch. While Freshii has some standard menu items, it also uses a “build your own” format so you can choose a soup bowl, noodle bowl or wrap and personalize it with your three favorite toppings. The focus is on ingredients low in fat but high in fiber and vitamins. Portion sizes are kept moderate, but so is the price.

Since Freshii recently unveiled a low-price kids’ menu, my sons and I took advantage of the Water Tower Place location to sample the offerings.

Starting with the basic teriyaki noodle bowl, my 11-year-old dressed it up with cilantro, tofu and even some red pepper flakes. I’d love to say I tried it, but he ate every bit. My other boys stuck with the standard chicken soup and quesadilla lunches and found them both delicious. These meals cost under $6. Though I’m not even a vegetarian, I decided to try the vegan wrap (in the spirit of healthy lunch). It was really delicious, filled with enough flavor and texture to make a satisfying lunch.

Freshii has also taken a stand to eliminate much of the paper and plastic waste associated with take-out food. Packaging is trimmed down, and you’ll have to remember to grab utensils and napkins if you need them, because they won’t automatically be thrown in with your order.

This article originally appeared in the June 2012 edition of Chicago Parent. You can find more of my restaurant reviews there. I have added photos  from Freshii’s website for this blog post.
Disclosure: My family was not charged for our meal at Freshii and I was paid by Chicago Parent to write the article. I sometimes receive complimentary services and gifts, but I choose to write only about places I believe will be good for my readers. All opinions expressed are 100% my own.