Our Menards in Melrose Park is in full Christmas mode these days.  They've set up the entire Enchanted Forest and now have their Lemax Christmas Village set up.  It *is* the most wonderful time of the year, isn't it?

There's a bunch of new structures up this year and we'll start with this one above: CJ's Piano Bar.  From the product listing on the Lemax site, this is a new building for 2016.  It has a nice 'inside scene' and would be a nice addition to anyone's mainstreet.  But, what about Mantleburg, you're probably asking yourself?  Welp, the Mayor has decided to keep the moratorium on new buildings and annexations until the entire town of Mantleburg gets settled into their new home, which is currently slated for Christmas of 2017.  The last addition was made official in January of 2016, but I'm pretty sure that the saw mill was sitting in my trunk for an entire year, so it was likely annexed in the fall of 2014 - two years ago.

I'll post about some of the other structures from Lemax later this week, but for now, it appears that they Mayor and the Town Council can't get their act together ever since they added the Haypenny Tavern to the town back in 2012.  Bunch of drunks.

It has been almost a full year since the Elmhurst Olive Oil Company closed it's doors in the spot just north of the York Threatre in the Elmhurst City Centre.  But, if you walk past the store today, you'll see these new signs hanging up in the window that herald a new beginning:  The Gaming Goat store is coming to the City Centre.

Going back in the archives, I have this post from January of 2011 when this location hosted a recently-closed business called "Let's Have a Party".  Remember that?

But, what *is* the Gaming Goat?  I can't get to their site for some reason, but the Oak Park Store has a Facebook page and from the looks of things this isn't a video game store.  It is more of a Settlers of Catan-type of store.  Or Magic The Gathering-type of store.  Board and dice games.  The Geeks shall inherit the City Centre, it seems.

I am assuming that they're going to hustle to get the store open before the holiday shopping season and I'm glad to see more retail in the City Centre.  But, don't we have a few places that deal in this type of stuff already in the City Centre?  At Gem Comics?  Or, It's good to be King?  Maybe the audiences don't cross over that much?

No, I'm not talking about New York City.  I'm talking about "Big Apple".  As in..."big pharma" or "big tobacco" or even the recently-coined "Big Uni" by the guys at Uni-Watch.

That's the best way to describe Apple Holler in Sturtevant, Wisconsin.

We've been to a bunch of these apple orchards and pumpkin patches.  Apple Holler is a combination of those two experiences and it is - based on how crowded it was when we went - quite popular.

So, why is it, exactly, "Big Apple"?

Well, let's start with the parking.  It costs you $5 to park your car.

Then, if you want to go pick apples, they charge each person $20 to go in the orchard.  Yep....$20.  Sure, they give you a little tiny bag that can hold like a dozen apples.  But, every person that goes in, it is $20.  Kids, too!  That means, for us it was going to be $80 just to pick some apples.  No thanks.

We went up there with some friends, so it was great to see them and spend time together.  Add that to the fact that it is just 30 or 35 minutes from a homebase up at Twin Lakes, it was an easy trip.

The head cheerleader for the Pink Pig at the pig races!
Apple Holler also has a farm park that includes a bunch of activities.  That costs just $4/head including kids to get into the park.  Once inside, it appears that you can participate in as many of the activities as you'd like.  This seems to be a pretty common move amongst some of these pumpkin farms/apple orchards.  There's either an 'entrance fee' or there's a menu/ala carte approach to going on the rides/doing things.  At Apple Holler, there are animals to feed, slides to ride down, a corn maze to wander through and even pig races!  Yeah...pig races.  I have to admit, that was pretty fun and unique to see.  See that photo above of the Bird with a pink flag?

And I really don't mind the entrance fee to go into the Farm Park.  Seems like a fine way to go.  It was the $20/person just to go out in the orchard that irked me.

We've been all over the place for pumpkins and apples.  From Jollay's and Crane's in Michigan to Sonny Acres on North Avenue to Bengston's down in Homer Glen.  That's where I went as a kid and what started as a fairly small-town operation as, too, become "Big Pumpkin".

For the past two years, we've gone down to a place in Minooka named Heap's Pumpkin farm that is just a simple, small, quaint pumpkin farm.  We really like it.  There isn't any pretense there, it isn't very crowded and the prices are super cheap.

Apple Holler is a fine place with lots to do and plenty of people joining you on your fall adventures.  If you're into "Big Apple" or "Big Pumpkin", then this place is for you.

My office door not only includes a 'Flat Ronnie' (see the post from the archives about #FlatRonnie here), but now a "Hit 'em With The Hein!".  I'm still awaiting the day when a secret Superfan at Edelman walks by and strikes up a conversation.

I love how quickly this whole "Hit 'em with the Hein!" thing has taken off including Jason Sudeikis shouting one out on Son of Zorn this week.

It was back in May that we lost our dear girl Maisy just shy of her 11th birthday.  I still miss her dearly.  And we kinda tried to fill the void by bringing home a goldfish from RibFest.  BTW...that fish is still alive and well!  And the whole burden of cleaning the bowl has been pretty easy thus far.  Installed a filter, change out like 1/4 to 1/3rd of the water about once every ten days and the thing stays clean.

Anyway...back to dogs.  Our dear Maisy was a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.  And she was.the.best.dog.ever.  First dogs often are, aren't they?   I've talked with a few people and they all say the same thing:  that first dog that couples often get BEFORE they have kids has a special relationship and bond with the family.  They're just different.  Sure, second dogs are great and they're also special.  But just about everybody that I've talked to has said the same thing:  it just isn't the same.

And with Maisy being pretty awesome?  I'm guessing that's going to be an awfully high bar to get over for any future dogs in my life.

Well, after a few months, our Nat and the kids were talking about getting another dog to add to our family.  And we went around-and-around talking about what kind, how we get him/her, should it be a her? a him?, let alone what color, if the timing was right with us living in Equation Boy/Man and Vic's house for another year (yeah! seriously!)  and if it is feasible with all the chaos in our life right now with the kids.  And, I certainly wasn't looking for a 'replacement'.  But, I think both Nat and I were open to the right situation.  I was, however, pretty strongly anchored on getting another Cavalier.  Even with their known health problems, I figured that we had such good luck with the Mais-a-roo in terms of her demeanor and how she loved being around us, that we should stick to the same gameplan.

Off we went looking to find a new family member.  And, we found one.  From a really great place.  More on that at some point, because it really was a special experience.

After a few months of back-and-forths and a couple of visits, we ended up with a little blenheim Cavaalier King Charles Spaniel puppy.

Maisy was named after one of the top women in British history:  Margaret Thatcher.  Maisy for short.

So, our new girl had to have a good name.  Between Nat and the girls, they narrowed it down to two names:  Jane Austen and Elizabeth Bennet.  There were a few things working in Elizabeth's favor (lake name in Wisconsin where she spent her first night, the Queen's name, etc), so we settled there.

And now we call her Lizzie.  Actually, since she's a member of the family now, I suppose it should be Lizzie Parrillo.

She's a total spaz.  All puppy.  We've had her for more than a month and it took that long for me to be able to take this photo you see above.  She just wouldn't sit still.  Seriously.  Here's some of my other attempts below.  Even in 'burst mode', they were all blurry!

We're still getting to know each other, but it seems that I'm falling for her pretty hard.  Here's looking forward to a long, healthy, loving life with plenty of naps on the couch together - just like her big sister/aunt/whatever Maisy is to her - and plenty of joy she's going to bring to my kids and our family.

Early in 2015, I signed up for a Digit.co savings account, but it wasn't until last fall that I really paid it any attention.  It was then that I configured/turned back on/confirmed and linked all the right account pipes to actually make the thing work properly.  I'm 102 transactions in at this point and the app has saved over $800.

If you're not familiar with Digit Savings, here's a bit more that explains how things work:

I won't go into the minutia of how Nat and I work our banking/checking/savings accounts, but for the purpose of Digit, I isolated the app away from certain accounts and had it focus on a checking account that has just one debit card that I carry in my wallet.  Isn't always the card I use nor is it the account that has the most action in it.  So...just stating that because if you watched the video above, you now know that the Digit Savings App is *supposed* to be 'smart' and monitor your account and studies spending history.  Thus, since this particular account may not behave like your accounts.

Anyway....after about a year, you can see the totals above.  Digit 'saved' more than $800 for me in a pretty painless way.  By basically stealing little bits of money from the account every few days.  The average withdrawal to savings was eight bucks.  Not bad.  That's like what I spend on soda, right?

There's an app, but it really is an app-less experience.  It all happens via text message.  Which was weird at first.  There's some technical details behind how you grant Digit access to your bank accounts (They call it kind of a 'valet key' kind of arrangement vs the 'full keys' to the account), but it is painless and the texts show up everyday telling you what your checking balance is, what your Digit balance is and what the transactions were both ways.  Kinda nice.    They also claim to have a no-overdraft guarantee.  They won't take dough from you if it sends you to a negative balance.

Now, I'm not nuts, right?  Eight hundred bucks isn't big dollars here.  But, it isn't peanuts, either.  It is *real* money.  As in...buying Christmas presents without thinking about it money.  Or this could pay for part of our Disney trip coming up.  And it accumulated there painlessly.  Without me even thinking about it.  Saving is hard.  This was easy.

And to be clear here, this shouldn't be the primary way you go about saving your money.  I'm no expert and aren't here trying to give financial advice, but trust me...if you're relying on Digit to accumulate all of your savings in life, you're doing it wrong.

What's the downside?  Welp, you can go out and read plenty of reviews and find out that your money isn't going to be earning interest at Digit.  Nope.  It is FDIC insured, but no interest.  The account is free, so it seems that Digit is using the interest you're making them to run the operation.  There are, however, something called savings bonuses.  They give you 5 cents per 100 dollars saved each month.  What banks are giving in your savings account ain't great either, right?

Bottom line: I like the app (or app-less experience) of Digit Savings.  If you don't have an account, you can sign up for one using this link.  Full disclosure:  if a few of you click that link and create your own Digit Savings account, they give me a $5 bonus.

After reading about how the folks at Metra - in between all of their non-stop fare increases and delays - were refurbishing some of their cars with updates like new seats and cupholders back in January, I had been wondering when I'd come across one of them.

Welp, the wait is over.  Last week, on one of my morning commutes on the Union Pacific West line, I boarded and climbed upstairs like I always do.  Only to realize that I was in a refurbished car.

Preetay, preetay, preetay nice.  Or at least it is more like what you expect a train car in 2016 to actually look like.

Check out the sleek blue seats:

There's more, including cupholders!  But, in the seats I was sitting, there weren't any cupholders.  From ABC7's story in January:
Most of Metra's passenger cars are feeling the wear and tear of age. A select group of them are being refurbished with a new look and a most-definite new feel.

New seats are being installed on 30 Metra passenger cars, giving them something of an airline look. It's part of a pilot program to gauge rider reaction to something Metra says its passengers have asked for. 
"We went out to the industry and looked at it. A lot of railroads have gone to this - migrated to this, so I can't claim we're the pioneers, but we don't want to miss the boat on it either," said Don Orseno, Metra CEO. 
The new seats have a higher back and better lumbar support. They have moveable arm rests and coffee cup holders. What's not to like?

Walk through City Hall these days and you'll see that Northside guy Rahm has wrapped himself in the "W" flag and there's dozens of them hung up in the lobby.  There's no way that Da Mare would would have allowed this, right?  I don't like this.  Not one bit.

I feel a little bit like Sarah Palin when I stand on the dock at Lake Elizabeth in Wisconsin and look to the right to see the great state of Illinois.  Just a little bit. 

Those of you that follow the technology world like I do likely heard about/read about the new Pixel and Pixel XL phones that Google announced last week along with other things like Google Home and Google Wifi.  Being an Android guy and owner of every Nexus phone (and a few tablets!) that have come out, I couldn't wait to get in line to buy a phone.  But, as part of the marketing for these new phones, Google has been doing a lot of talk about the camera.  And how it is, by at least one regard, the *best* camera to ever be put in a phone.  That's nice, right?  They also talked about a feature called Smartburst.  From their post:
Pixel’s camera lets you take stunning photos in low light, bright light or any light. Catch action shots as they happen with Smartburst, which takes a rapid-fire sequence of shots and automatically selects the best one. Use Lens Blur to achieve shallow depth of field and bokeh effects, making your subject pop. You can capture dramatic landscapes or make faces glow with new exposure controls.
Sounded neat.  Smartburst.  So...I went poking around and turns out that Google released SmartBurst for the Nexus 6P last year.  Yeah....I've been carrying a phone around for a year with this feature and never used it.  

So, in the past week, I've made up for not using it and took dozens of bursts in the past couple of weeks.  Google Photos turns them into neat little animations automatically like the one you see above from the carnival at the Highwood Pumpkin Festival from last weekend.  

But, they also let you dig into the individual photos that make up the burst.  And, hidden in there, in plain sight were these little snaps of pure joy.  I wouldn't have been able to capture these moments of my two girls if I didn't use SmartBurst.  Thanks, Google!

Look at those girls.  The Babe has one arm raised and mouth wide open.  The Bird is laughing and hanging on for dear life.  Love these.