With so many things cancelled, rescheduled, or changed in recent months, finding new things to do has been a key in our house for staying mentally healthy. In keeping with that goal, yesterday my daughter and I took an online cooking class called Anytime Gingerbread.
Admittedly, I’m a little over all things virtual and could do without ever attending another Google Meet or Zoom meeting. So initially, I wasn’t all that excited about doing a cooking class online. But, it was legitimately fun, something completely different than I’d ever done before, and a great opportunity to learn something new. Plus, it was a fun thing to do with my daughter, and my sister-in-law and niece also joined the class. All in all, It was a great way to connect with people and to disconnect from every day life for a while.
We did the class through Local Bites, an online community where you can get access to recipes and cooking classes. The cool thing about Local Bites is that it gives members of the community the opportunity to host or attend classes. The hosts are home chefs that get to share their unique experiences, backgrounds and family recipes.
This is something that I loved about the experience. Our host, Pam, has extensive experience cooking, teaching and catering. Yet, from her own home kitchen, she was sharing a favorite recipe that she learned from her background as Pennsylvania Dutch. It didn’t feel intimidating to cook “with” her, and I felt really comfortable asking her questions and enjoyed hearing extra details and context about her recipe. And not for nothing, the finished project was legitimately the best gingerbread I’ve ever eaten. (Having now eaten about 15 gingerbread cookies in 24 hours, my opinion has not changed.)
Logistically, we joined the class via Zoom. I was curious how that would work, but it all went smoothly. A couple of times I fell behind, but it was easy enough to just let her know, and she stopped and helped me get up to speed. Plus, she was able to move her camera around to show us what she was doing, how things should look, etc. I loved getting to hear her stories, learn from her experience, ask her questions and try something new.
Trying a class like this was definitely not something that was on my radar – I had never taken a cooking class before, and certainly not a virtual one, but I loved it and will definitely do it again. There are classes on just about anything you can think of, and you can sort through them with a ton of helpful filters like type of recipe, skill level, length, and number of participants. I really loved our instructor, so I’m planning to take another one of her classes – A Cuppa Cheescake, perhaps? I also have had my eye on Guampke’s Cabbage Rolls, which look delicious.
As the weather changes, I highly recommend checking out Local Bites. It’d be fun to do on your own, but also good to do with a couple of friends or even a group. I loved doing it with family from out of town and am thinking of trying a holiday class with my book club this year instead of our annual Christmas and Gingerbread house party.
Plus, the good people at Local Bites have shared a discount code for anyone that wants to check it out – just select the class of your choice and enter the coupon code EMILYBITES for a 5% discount. And perhaps most importantly, let me know if you’re interested in doing a class. I’m looking forward to doing it again and using this fall and winter at home to build some new cooking skills.
At the outset, it’s important for me to make sure that this title is not misleading. Let me be clear: we are not winning at this quarantine. Things are not going well by any pre-quarantine metrics. The wheels have long since fallen off and are nowhere to be found.
That said, we have had plenty of wins along the way. And in the spirit of leveraging some strengths, focusing on the positives, and sharing best practices, it seems like a productive exercise to share some of those wins.
So with that in mind, here are a few quarantine activities that have helped lift everyone’s spirits, given us something to look forward to, or simply broken up the one long day that has been March and April.
Finding New Places to Explore Outdoors
We’re fortunate to live in a neighborhood that’s walkable and has lots of green space. Even so, nearby parks, trails, and playgrounds have always been a good outlet for us – giving everyone a change of scenery and plenty of space to run and play. With the closure of those parks, we’ve often felt a little lost on Saturday morning at 9 am. And 10 am. And 1 pm….
But, we have had some wins finding new places to explore and to just get outdoors. One day this week we went to an Episcopal Camp near us that’s open for people to make a reservation to come enjoy the beautiful 143 acres. It was fun to have such a beautiful property to ourselves and a great change of pace being outdoors with no concerns about trying to keep kids 6 feet away from others (there were no others). We also have found some nearby neighborhoods to bike to – one has a nice lake with ducks to walk around, another has the street blocked off to allow more space for playing.
Since time isn’t an issue, no one minds spending some extra time biking or walking to new spaces that offer a different place to enjoy being outdoors. Getting creative about outdoor outings has helped us change things up a bit, get outdoors more, and stay active (while also following local and state regulations and being safe).
Chalk Obstacle Courses
Sidewalk chalk has been big for everyone during this period, but my kids have upped their chalk game recently by creating obstacle courses or bike tracks. We live across the street from a church, so they have a parking lot to play with, but there are lots of places to do this. It’s a total win because they spend a lot of time creating the course and then just as much time doing the course.
As some examples, the obstacle courses have spots to jump, instructions to spin on the line, a long jump, a sprint section, frog jumps. The bike tracks are just a long (often very curvy) course where they’re supposed to ride – think two parallel lines about 3 feet apart marking the course. Something about having that outlined track gives them a new focus when it comes to riding (for example, the entire time I’ve been writing this my son has just been riding the circle “track” that my daughter drew for him earlier.) Also, they like to personalize the courses and add themes, which adds to the chalking time and excitement. Note: sidewalk chalk goes quickly, keep plenty of buckets on hand.
My kids’ schools have both been GREAT about supplying lessons from their special classes (music, art, PE, dance, etc.). There are lots of fun activities, videos, and challenges to do. Yet, both of my kids have been unwavering (and passionate) about their desire to have nothing to do with these activities. In fact, for the most part they’ve led to the kids being some combination of sad and angry. My best amateur psychoanalysis of this is that it really highlights what they’re missing. After all, if you’re six, it’s one thing to miss reading and math, but it’s an entirely different thing to miss ballet, music, and PE.
All that to say, we don’t even attempt the specials anymore, but I did want them to continue some activities they love (plus there is a LOT of unstructured time every afternoon). So, we decided to start our own “extracurricular program.” Step 1 was buy-in, which has been hard to get for most everything of late, so I focused a little extra attention on the “launch.” I made a Google Slides presentation (in about 10 minutes), with potential activities and then played it (in a very ceremonious way) on the tv. The kids then got to select activities that they want to do for each “session.” For session one we’re doing soccer, karate, cooking, crafts and LEGOs.
At the beginning of the week, we have a calendar for extracurriculars, and Joe and I take turns “teaching” them. There’s a minimal amount of prep time, but it’s been worth it for the lift it’s given our afternoons. The kids daily look forward to their “after school activities.”
One thing we really need right now – when the calendar is almost completely blank – is something to look forward to. This weekend we have our second backyard campout on the books, and the kids are counting down the days. The first campout, last month, was a big success. Setting up the tent kept everyone occupied for a while, as did running in and out of the house to fill it with “essentials” for the night. Once it was set, kids happily played in the tent for hours. The actual camping went smoothly and was fun for all. Next time, I think we’ll plan to do a little campfire, eat dinner outside, and roast marshmallows to add to the experience.
While there are no shortages of chaotic, frustrated, or sad moments around here, there have also been plenty of sweet, fun, and special moments. Hopefully some of these can help to make this time a little easier for you and your family. And, please share any successes you’ve had!
On the Friday of Martin Luther King Weekend, we looked at our schedule and realized we had three clear days (all of which were going to be bad weather in Memphis). So, on a whim we decided to head to St. Louis. I’d recently read an article that it’s one of the best cities in the country for kids, and it’s only about a 4 hour drive from us, so seemed like an easy win.
The weather was cold, but it was a great weekend. We will decidedly be back this summer to hit some of the city’s great outdoor offerings and to see a Cardinal’s game. I highly recommend adding it to your list.
We Enjoyed Staying in the Central West End
We rented an AirBnb in the Central West End. It was perfect for us. It was just a block off of Forest Park and a very walkable, historic neighborhood. We didn’t spend much time in Forest Park – because the temperatures was in single digits – but during a milder time of year it’d be perfect to just stroll over. Forest Park is huge and home to the zoo, the Science Center, the Planetarium, and the St. Louis Art Museum.
The kids enjoyed feeling like they were living in a cool, urban apartment for a couple of days, as did we. It was convenient, historic, fun, and affordable. We might do a hotel downtown when we go back this summer, but for a relaxing winter weekend this was perfect. It was particularly nice to come back to and to have some space for everyone between activities.
Brave the City Museum
I walked blindly into the City Museum, which might have been for the best. It’s a 10-story warehouse in downtown St. Louis that was a shoe warehouse for many years. In the 1990s, artists Bob and Gail Cassilly acquired it and, with the help of other artists, sculptors, and welders, began transforming it.
The result is a beautiful and creative wonderland that begs visitors of all ages to wander and explore. The good news and the bad news is that everywhere you turn there’s something to climb over, under, or through. It’s worth noting, that in many places you go in a tunnel or tube that then comes out in a very different location than where it started – i.e., you can easily get separated. Both of my kids loved every second and would have gone back every day; however, if you’re less agile than a 5 year-old, it can be a little stressful to keep up in the small spaces.
Even so, it’s a great spot and well worth visiting. Allow plenty of time and mentally prepare yourself – especially if you don’t love small, confined spaces. Knee pads and headlamps wouldn’t be a bad idea either.
Explore the Science Center
We spent the better part of a day at the Science Center. It’s right on the edge of Forest Park and easy to get to. A helpful note we had from a local friend (Thanks, Jackie!) was to park on the Planetarium side – it’s all connected and parking is free at the Planetarium, as opposed to $10 at the Science Center. Like all of the museums in Forest Park, the Science Center is free. There are some add-ons you can do, but they’re not necessary or expensive.
We did the Discovery Room, which is a space geared towards kids 5 and under. You purchase tickets for a 45 minute time slot. It was great for my kids – 3 and 5 – and it was nice to be away from the crowds and in a contained room for a little while. In my opinion, it was well worth the $5 ticket – just make sure to buy tickets when you arrive as the spaces filled up quickly.
Beyond that, the museum had lots of hands on activities – cars to build, dinosaur bones to hunt for, rollercoasters to power – and plenty to keep everyone entertained. It was also different than any of the museums we have in Memphis, so it was nice to see some new things.
If you Need an Indoor Activity, Explore the Magic House
We also spent a day at the Magic House. It was fun and there was a lot for kids to explore. This was great on a cold weekend when we really couldn’t be outside, but in better weather it might not make the list. It’s a great Children’s Museum with lots of interactive activities and everyone had a really positive experience. That said, it’s not as unique as some of the other things we saw in the city. I’d put it on your list for a rainy, snowy, or 5 degree day, but otherwise I’d probably spend the extra time at one of the museums in Forest Park or exploring downtown.
I will say, the Art Studio and Make-It Workshop were nothing short of magical and something that differentiated the museum from many of the Children’s Museums I’ve frequented in the last few years. My 5 year-old spent multiple hours painting, beading, and generally creating things. It was definitely a space I’d like to go back to and/or try to recreate on a small scale at home.
Enjoy the Great Food
We did not spend as much time enjoying the food as we would’ve liked, but we still had some great things to eat. The Hill is full of amazing Italian food, I don’t think you can go wrong with any of them. One morning, we also braved the cold to visit Vincent Van Doughnut, which offers from scratch, artisinal doughnuts. They definitely had the largest doughnuts I’ve ever seen, and they offer some really unique toppings and flavors. The pictures really say it all! We felt that sugar for the better part of the day, yet, no regrets.
St. Louis did not disappoint. We still have much to do there and look forward to many more trips. If you have favorite places to visit, stay, or eat, please share them below and we’ll add them to the list for this summer.
We just got back from a long road trip – ten hours each way with a 20-month-old and a four-year-old. I love a good game of “I Spy” as much as the next person, but… Audio books and kids podcasts were life saving for this trip. Plus, they’ve become a staple in our house for carpool and quiet times. While there are many podcasts out there, there are some that make me a little (read: a lot) crazy (particularly when listened to over and over again, which is how my kids roll). Here’s a list of 5 podcasts that we’ve settled on as favorites because my kids love them and I do too!
An important caveat about this list: all of these have episodes that are at least 15 minutes long. There are some great podcasts out there ranging from 8-15 minutes per episode, but those drive me crazy because of the frequency of intervention (8-minute episodes make long road trips seem interminable, plus I need episodes that will at least cover one leg of daily carpool.)
1. Story Pirates
I love Story Pirates. It is hilarious, catchy, and engaging all while inspiring its listeners to be more creative. Story Pirates takes stories submitted by kids and then turns them into sketch comedy and songs. Episodes are released every Thursday and are around 20 minutes each. The actors are amazing, the writing is phenomenal, and the songs are forever in my head (in the good way – they just released an album, see link at bottom of post!). Besides being good entertainment, Story Pirates consistently encourages its listeners to submit stories. My daughter regularly is writing stories to submit or thinking through/telling stories to submit. All of us are more creative for listening to this. And, it’s SO funny.
2. Sparkle Stories
Sparkle Stories writes and produces original stories for kids. The stories are told by David Sewell McCann, a storyteller and teacher. I usually try to avoid podcasts with only one voice, as it’s harder for my kids to stay committed; however, David is such a masterful storyteller that he enthralls even the squirmiest of listeners. I like Sparkle Stories because of its simplicity – there’s nothing fancy about it, but it’s a perfect example of how powerful good writing and storytelling can be.
In its “about” section, Sparkle Stories says it strives to “enrich the story life in your home, bring delight to holidays and seasons, and offer a quality experience during everyday quiet times.” This is a spot on description of what they are doing for us. There are over 1000 stories available for listening, and each story lasts about 15-25 minutes. Grab a cup of tea (or milk), snuggle under a blanket, and enjoy!
3. Reading Bug Adventures
Reading Bug Adventure is produced by The Reading Bug, an independent, family owned bookstore. This is a relatively new podcast – only in its second season – and it gets better and better every episode. In each episode, the Reading Bug goes on an adventure, inspired by the topics of the books in her book bag. The episodes are around 30 minutes each, but each adventure takes two weeks to complete (i.e., my kids are anxiously waiting for the second part to be released so that they can see how the adventure ends). Also, after both parts are released, there is a bonus release where you can play parts 1 and 2 together (thank you, Reading Bug, this is very helpful on road trips!!!).
My kids love this podcast because the stories, which include songs, are really entertaining. I like it because it introduces kids to new topics, tells them about new books (which they often want to read after listening), encourages kids to really think about the story and draw what they’re seeing, and even tells kids when to take a break in the episode to color. It’s a great podcast to foster curiosity and a love of books. (Our favorite right now is the Dinosaur Adventure!)
*Reading Bug also offers a box subscription, where personalized books will be sent to your child once a month. It’s really cool!
4. Pants on Fire
Pants on Fire is a podcast that was inspired by our “era of fake news” and seeks to help kids understand the importance of listening, asking good questions, and even trusting their instincts when being presented with new information. With that goal in mind, each week they bring a kid on the show along with two “experts” on a particular topic. One of the adults is actually an expert, the other is lying. It’s the child guest’s job to ask each expert questions and then figure out who is telling the truth. The episodes – released weekly and all around 20 minutes – are entertaining and informative, so my kids are fully engaged. I like it because of the critical thinking it inspires in kids and the new topics we learn about each week (at the end they correct any incorrect information that the “liar” gave) – from horses, to illustration, to cryptocurrency. Also, the theme song is really catchy (my only critique here is that my youngest likes to listen to the one minute intro over and over and over…).
5. But Why: A Podcast for Curious Kids
But Why is a Vermont Public Radio podcast that encourages kids to be curious and helps to quench some of that constant question asking (I love how curious kids are, but some days I’m at top end of explaining a long string of “whys”). This podcast is focused on questions asked by kids – every week they start with a kid-submitted question and try to find the answer to the question. Because it’s centered on topics actually asked by kids, it’s really engaging for young listeners – they can relate to the topics and like hearing kids’ voices in the episodes.
While the topics and explanations are kid friendly, they are also interesting for adults. I, for one, don’t know why tape is sticky, why we laugh, how fish sleep or see, or why flamingos stand on one leg. But, I look forward to becoming more informed! The episodes are hosted by Jane Lindholm, are each about 20-35 minutes, and are released every two weeks. (Note: the most recent episodes are about cancer, how people get it and some experiences of people with cancer. They’re really well done and a helpful introduction to a heavy topic. However, depending on your child’s experiences/age, might be worth either a pre-listen or starting with a lighter topic).
Without looking at anything, take a guess on what year Bitcoin was created. My guess would have been 2015, maybe 2014. The answer: 2009!?!? For almost 10 years, Bitcoin has been floating around and, as far as I know, doing nothing but confusing people and testing the outer limits of my mental gymnastics/intellectual imagination. Today I am attempting to conquer my digital currency fears while risking running into a brick wall with my ability for abstract thinking. Nevertheless, the goal: understand enough about Bitcoin to write the most rudimentary explanation of it. (Quick editorial note – my education in this started at a very low level, capitalization: apparently the concept of Bitcoin is capitalized; when writing about the unit of currency, bitcoin, you do not capitalize it. An overly complicated answer to a simple question…starting to panic but forging ahead).
Google dictionary defines bitcoin as: a type of digital currency in which encryption techniques are used to regulate the generation of units of currency and verify the transfer of funds, operating independently of a central bank. The concept was first introduced in 2009 by Satoshi Nakamoto, whose true identity has never been identified, and was laid out in a paper, Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Cash System. Quick aside: I have lots of thoughts on the concept that we have no idea who actually came up with this other realm and want to dig into that more, but will move on because there is a lot of ground to cover.
I am a very visual person and my mind desperately wants to see a bitcoin and track its progress. While the image to the right seems to be the universal visual representation, there are no physical bitcoins (looks like the toothfairy is going to have to stick to the Sacagawea golden dollar for the forseeable future). Because there are no tangible bitcoins, there is a public ledger, housed in the cloud, that records all balances and transactions.
The Term Cryptocurrency
Deep breath. I am doing okay so far, but things are about to get cloudy on the issue of creation and circulation. Before free-falling into the mental abyss of bitcoin mining, a quick detour to look at the term “cryptocurrency.” I keep reading that Bitcoin is a type of cryptocurrency, yet before today I had never heard the word (and if I was forced to guess, I would have assumed that it was something Carmen Sandiego was globetrotting to find in an effort to locate her most recent villain). Wrong. According to google dictionary, cryptocurrency is “a digital currency in which encryption techniques are used to regulate the generation of units of currency and verify the transfer of funds, operating independently of a central bank.” While bitcoin is the most important type of cryptocurrency, investing.com’s current list has 1,904 different types of cryptocurrencies in existence. Understanding the concept of cryptocurrency – and its almost $300 billion dollar market – might be the most important take-away of today’s project, but for now I am going to mentally simplify to: digital currency; created and transferred via encryption; no central authority.
But back to my favorite cryptocurrency and how it comes into existence. This is where my linear brain starts to get snagged. There is no physical bitcoin and no central authority putting it into circulation, so…how…what…where…huh? It seems bitcoin is released into circulation through “bitcoin mining.” In the Bitcoin protocol – think the original white paper linked above from the never-identified “Satoshi” – 21 million bitcoins exist, but they have not all been mined yet. For the old souls amongst us, I am visualizing gold mining: there is a finite amount of it, it exists, but we are digging to find it. Similarly, bitcoin miners are “digging” to unearth all 21 million bitcoins (this should be accomplished by 2140). Okay, but what are bitcoin miners doing? Above we talked about the ledger that records all bitcoin transactions and balances. There is no one person in charge to ensure transactions are accurately monitored and recorded. Rather, bitcoin miners serve the purpose of securing the network and recording each transaction. They do this by solving computational problems which, when solved correctly, give the next line, or block, in the ledger, aka blockchain. As a reward for finding the next piece of blockchain, miners are paid in bitcoin. For the more tech savy reader, I imagine that was a painful oversimplication. However, I’m understanding some broad strokes: bitcoin is put into circulation via miners that are more or less regulators solving problems to accurately update the ledger; they are paid for their work with more bitcoin.
How do you Get Started with Bitcoin?
A lingering big question: if I wanted to start using bitcoin, how would I do that. Step 1: get a digital wallet – this is necessary for storing your bitcoin. There are a variety of options for this and you can get more details on the best bitcoin wallets here. Once you have a digital wallet, you can purchase bitcoin from a variety of places, but coinbase.com seems to be one of the most popular. You can also earn bitcoin by having people pay you for services in bitcoin. Finally, there are a number of exchanges where you can convert your bitcoin to cash. Currently, 1 bitcoin is worth $6,715.94.
This is the broadest of strokes, and while I am not ready to traffic in bitcoin, I do feel like I can converse about it. Plus, I am adding Banking on Bitcoin to my Netflix queue to hopefully get some more depth on this. Until then, I would welcome and encourage any comments from Bitcoin – or other cryptocurrency – users. Intrigued to get a better understanding of who is using this and how? Plus, best practices or clarifying details on this world would be much appreciated! I think this cryptocurrency stuff might be just the thing to purchase my first flying car, and I want to make sure I’m ready.
I remember well the first time someone said, “you can just venmo me.” I said “perfect” as I desperately tried to figure out what I had agreed to: first thought, it was an acronym, but that was a dead end (try it for a moment and see the best that you can come up with: “very early now mail over”; “voluntarily exit necessary money order”). I was quickly forced to contemplate the reality that something I had never heard of was so mainstream as to be a verb. Troubling. That was probably about 18 months ago and, once I figured out what it was, Venmo was an immediate and huge value add for me, making life simpler and more organized. With that success story (and awareness of major blind spots) in mind, this week I have searched for other apps – and potentially verbs – that should be part of every day life.
There are A LOT of apps in the world. Many of them not particularly necessary: want to race your friends to see who runs out of toilet paper first? Paper Racing is the app for you. Interested in just messaging someone “yo,”? You are in luck, download, you guessed it, “Yo.” Or my personal favorite – want to simulate the experience of stapling without actually doing it? Sim Stapler anticipated this need and has an app for it. Yet even in the world of useful apps, it’s hard to know how to best navigate the highly concentrated app market. I divided my search/results into three categories: (1) those that are better versions of something I’m doing; (2) those that solve a problem I didn’t know I had (or didn’t know I could fix); (3) those that are aspirational. (Quick note: all apps I selected are free; also, I have an iphone. While most of these apps are available for iphone and Android, a couple are more iphone-centric.)
The first category of apps that I landed on are those that don’t really do anything new, but are better versions of something that I am already using. This category is less about my mind being blown by technology and creativity and more about efficiency or better execution of what I’m already doing. The first one here I kept trying to avoid including because it seems like a boring addition, but it came up on every list I read and, when I downloaded it, I actually found it to be hugely beneficial.
1: Chrome. I already had the Google app and iphones default to Safari, so it seemed unnecessary. Yet, the Chrome app functions as a combination of the two: you can use it as a browser or as a google search. Plus, you can sync it with your google account so you have all bookmarks and recent history. It also makes it easier to have (and use) multiple tabs. I was resistant on this, but am now fully convinced: I have deleted the google app and disabled safari.
2: Overcast. Overcast is an app that lets you play and download podcasts. I thought that the fact that I listen to a bunch of podcasts in and of itself made me cutting edge. It never occurred to me that there were other ways, beyond the default Apple Podcasts app, to listen to and organize podcasts. I have had Overcast for less than 24 hours and have already deleted Apple Podcasts. The Overcast search feature seems faster and more effective; the organization of my library is easier to navigate; there is an easy to use playlist option; the sorting features are more user-friendly; and the “recommended” list, including lots of subcategories, is an easy way to access lots of new podcasts. (This app will feature heavily when I revisit podcasts in coming weeks!)
The next bucketed category is for apps that solve problems I didn’t realize I had. These are apps that add something new to the mix and, for me, had a little more of a “wow” moment than the category above.
3: Waze, a navigation app.
In gathering research this week, I asked as many people as possible for one or two apps that have really had an impact on day-to-day life. Waze consistently came up. I pushed back a little because Google Maps has seemed to meet all of my navigational needs. I was convinced to check it out and am sold. Waze provides up-to-date information on your route – users share information about traffic, construction, speed traps, etc in real time. It also provides really user-friendly options for stops along the way and places to park once you arrive. For example, need gas? It can tell you stations along the way – or slightly off your route – with current prices. Finally, it tracks traffic patterns and can tell you the best times to travel a route. I hate traffic and being in the car, so this is a huge value-add for me. Also, it’s really cool. Finding out that leaving home 5 minutes later every morning could actually take 7 minutes off of the drive? It’s basically a time machine.
4: Pocket, addresses a problem that I knew I had, but that I had just resigned myself to. I regularly come across an article that I want to read or a clip that I want to watch and then… I get an email response I was waiting for, the carpool line moves, the pasta boils, etc., etc. Pocket is basically your Trapper Keeper for the internet. When you come across something you want to look at later, just share it to Pocket and it is there waiting for you.
I haven’t lived with this one long enough to tell whether it belongs in the aspirational category or whether I will actually follow up and read pocketed articles. But, the ease of use and organization makes me think that this will be useful, particularly for those 5 minute pockets (no pun intended) of time that pop up here and there (less mindless putzing and more intentional consumption of content).
Speaking of aspirational, a few apps came up in my research that seem amazing, yet I fear that I will just download them, have them sit untouched for a few months before I delete them and wonder when/why I added them in the first place. My New Year’s resolutions of apps. That said, there are some really compelling ones, so I can’t help myself.
5: Kitchen Stories. Admittedly, most of my kitchen stories are facilitated by Uber Eats, but leaning heavily into my growth mindset here and adding it to the list. Kitchen Stories provides a place to access recipes of all types. More importantly, there is a whole “How-To” section which provides basic tutorials, most less than 2 minutes, of various kitchen skills – sections for Everyday Basics, Knife Skills, Baking How-To, and Homemade. While the fact that they considered “How to Shuck an Oyster” to be an Everyday Basic raises some concerns that this app might not be a good fit for my skills and life, there is also a video for “Crispy sheet pan bacon,” so I am going to give it a try. The other thing I really like is their “create your own cookbook” feature. You click to create a new cookbook, give it a name, and then add any recipes you like. For example, you can have a “Quick Dinners” folder that you add to any time you are browsing, creating a great resource bank for the Sunday meal-planning mental void. Final win is that there is an easy-to-use shopping list feature – just click to add a particular recipe to the list and all relevant ingredients will appear in your shopping list (and you can easily remove any ingredients that you don’t need). It’s a bit of a long shot for me, but the app is great and if any cooking app could become part of my every-day routine, this is the one.
6: 7 Minute Workout. It is highly reviewed as a workout app, and I know a couple of people that swear by it. It’s inspired by the recent research that just seven minutes of high-intensity working out a day can lead to substantial health benefits. Since having my first child (four and a half years ago), I have never found a way to re-incorporate working out into my daily routine. While I hit my 10,000 steps almost every day, I average about one high-intensity workout per week. There are a lot of reasons for this, some of them legitimate, but there is absolutely no reason why I cannot do seven minutes of working out per day. The app gives you options of plans to do. The quick starters are free, but more specific plans – get fit, lose weight, mobility, etc. – require purchasing a plan, ranging from $6 to 9/month. I’m definitely not purchasing a plan, but hoping to use the quick starters on any days that I don’t have another high intensity workout. It’s only 7 minutes, right?
Time will tell how much I implement these six new apps – and I think a follow-up post in about a month might be in order – but I am really excited and optimistic about the additions. Plus, there are a handful more I came across – Headspace, Acorns, Moments, Scanner – that I am intrigued with and adding to the review list. Any other “must have” apps that I am missing? Or perhaps equally important, do you have any systems to ensure that you’re staying updated in this ever-developing market? Please share!
Now that I read a number of blogs, I see a few topics that seem to come up regularly. One of those topics is face and skincare and the many things associated with it: what products to use, what routines to follow, what should you do and how often should you do it, etc., etc. Seeing so much of this, I was curious whether this buzz was solely focused on product promotion and sales or whether a good skincare routine can actually make a difference to the health and appearance of your skin.
My daily skincare routine has been the same for many years and it’s pretty simple (might want to grab a pen): splash cold water all over face in the morning; repeat in the evening. However, as I age, I’m beginning to note some things about my skin that don’t look as healthy as perhaps they could (i.e., bags/lines under eyes, pores that are large, and, most recently, the appearance of milia on my forehead). Plus, I’m increasingly concerned about protecting my skin from the sun and warding off skin cancer. With all of that combined with the prevalence of skincare talk, I was motivated to research and create a daily skincare routine. Even so, step one for me was determining how important a routine really is.
Daily Skincare Routine: How Important is It?
It seems universally accepted, from WebMD to The New York Times, that there are a few things that we should all be doing on a daily basis to care for our skin. There are tangible benefits and important preventative care that can come from the right routine. The benefits of a good routine include: keeping your skin looking and feeling healthy, keeping your skin balanced, preventing acne and blemishes, preventing wrinkles, and protecting your skin from the sun and elements (note: full list of articles referenced is listed at the end so you can go directly to the experts for more details).
To be fair, these sources broadly define caring for skin – i.e, drinking water, eating right, getting plenty of sleep, minimizing stress – in addition to things like cleansing, toning, and exfoliating. Even so, it seems like this is a debate that has long since been decided: daily skincare matters, and the right daily routine can help protect your skin, make you feel better, and make you look better, both in the short and long-term.
What to Include in Your Daily Routine
While it seems that everyone is in agreement that a daily routine is necessary, there’s much less consensus on what should be included in that routine. I’ve read “must-include” lists that have 10 or more steps, and others that include a multitude of words that I know nothing about – antioxidant serums, masks, eye creams, boosters, exfoliating rubs, etc. Given that I’m starting at the most basic of levels and that I don’t want a time-consuming routine, one that will require a hefty investment, or one that will send my skin into shock, I put together a routine with nothing but the bare essentials.
Before getting into the steps I included, it’s worth briefly noting some of the broader skincare steps that the experts consistently included as really important in maintaining healthy skin. First, it seems that staying hydrated is one of, if not the, most important steps you can take to ensure that your skin is healthy. Second, eating well – especially omega-3 foods, fruits, vegetables, and grains – plays a major role in keeping your skin in balance and healthy. Finally – and we’ve all got the life experience to support this one – sleep is a major factor in keeping your skin healthy.
Those three things – hydration, nutrition, and sleep – are major categories in and of themselves, so I’m not really tackling them with this project. Yet, I’d be missing a major component of this article to not acknowledge how important they are in caring for your skin. Hopefully, I can tackle those in the future, but for now, baby steps.
The Daily Routine
Wow. There are a lot of potential things to include in your daily routine, and depending on the source, every last one is essential. Being a very low-level beginner at this, I pulled out the steps that appear on all lists and seem to be pretty unanimously in the category of “you should do this every day.” Here’s the routine I landed with:
Once per day:
Wash face with warm water and a cleanser
Use a toner
Use moisturizer with SPF
Once a week:
Use an exfoliating cleanser
A couple notes about this: – per WebMD, a good wash once a day is all that you need (although there’s plenty of debate about this). I do the full routine in the morning so that I get the sun protection for the day. In the evening, I rinse my face with warm water and leave it at that. – The weekly exfoliation doesn’t seem as essential as the daily routine above, but I decided to go a little crazy and add that one on. – There was a strong emphasis on warm water in most every article that I read. Apparently, cold water won’t tighten your pores and hot water will dry your face out. Lukewarm it is! – There also seems to be an emphasis on how to dry your face after washing it: “pat” and “dab” come up a lot. At this point, I’m so focused on gently dabbing my face dry that I can’t even remember how I used to dry it. – There’s lots of talk about finding the right products for you. I haven’t gotten into any of that – I went with the mildest versions of everything for a normal skin type and have been happy so far. I’ll share below what I’m using, but this is far from a full product review. I’m happy with what I have, but haven’t done any experimenting with products.
So, I’m on day nine of implementing the above routine. First, I really enjoy it. It only adds about 2-3 minutes to my morning routine, but it makes me feel a little more together in the morning and my skin definitely feels better. I *think* that my pores are already looking better and my overall tone looks healthier, although it’s a little early for all of that. Regardless, I enjoy the routine, I feel better, and my skin is decidedly healthier.
If you don’t already have a routine in place, I highly recommend adding it, and I hope that some piece of this can help you create one. If you have any additional steps that you consider to be “must haves” or that you really enjoy, please share them!
After I did a series of fitness posts a few weeks back, a good friend suggested that I check out meditation. She argued that the health benefits of meditation rivaled those of working out and that I would be making a mistake to focus solely on a running or fitness routine without integrating meditation. Her case was compelling, so I did some research. Obviously, people have been meditating for thousands of years, but I associated it more with a spiritual quest and seeking spiritual understanding than with tangible emotional and physical benefits. With a little bit of research, I quickly released that I was wrong about this – and that millions of people had already reached this conclusion. I’m late to this party, as usual, but it seems meditation is hugely popular right now and for good reason.
Benefits of Meditation
Broadly speaking, the goal of meditation is to clear your mind, find a deep state of relaxation, and achieve a tranquil mind and state of being. Meditation can clear out the information overload of daily life and give a sense of calm, peace, and balance. Moreover, doing this on a regular basis can actually change the way that your brain functions, leading to a myriad of emotional and physical benefits. Per the Mayo Clinic (seems like a reliable source), meditation can provide the emotional benefits of:
increased ability to manage stress
increased self awareness
greater emotional balance
increased imagination and creativity
increased patience and tolerance
increased connection with people and things in life
The emotional benefits of meditation make sense to be, but what I was really surprised by were the physical benefits of meditation. You can find lots of different research here – for example, check out the 40 Benefits of Meditation, which links various benefits to studies – but given the abundance of information and the introductory nature of my explorations, I stuck with the Mayo Clinic’s page. While they noted that there are researchers out there that don’t believe it’s possible to draw conclusions based on meditation, the site noted that there is increased research showing direct medical benefits from meditation. (As I’m not a researcher and just trying to go with the best bet for overall health, that’s good enough for me.) There is reputable research supporting the argument that meditation helps with the management of symptoms caused by:
The arguments supporting the benefits of meditation are compelling. I’m convinced that it can lead to an increase in my overall emotional and physical health. (Quick note: I’d encourage you to click on some of the sources cited above and read about the benefits from the experts. I had a loose association of the benefits of meditation, but reading about them in more detail added an urgency for me to get this into my daily routine.) Now to the trickier issue, what do I do now? How does a list-making, outcome-focused person tackle meditation?
The first thing I learned is that there are many types of meditation – it’s a umbrella term for seeking that desired state of relaxation and a tranquil mind. I nearly lost the thread once I started digging into this piece as I was overwhelmed by different types – guided meditation, mantra meditation, mindfulness meditation, tai chi, transcendental meditation, etc., etc. There are lots of options. The good news: there’s something for everyone. The bad news: where do you start?
Mindfulness meditation seems really hot right now – it popped up the most in my searches. Plus, after some limited research it seemed like one of the easiest to tackle (can’t have my meditation practice stressing me out). So, after a very unscientific process, I decided to start with mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness is pretty much what it sounds like – the ability to be fully present and fully aware of where you are and what you’re doing. The more difficult part of it, though, is not letting this increased awareness lead to being overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around you. Mind Valley gives an overview of mindfulness as: “re-training your mind to stay present and calm in the moment.”
One of the reasons I latched onto mindfulness was because of the ease of implementing it into daily life – you don’t need to have any additional resources and all you really need is about 10-30 minutes per day. Easy enough, surely.
It seems clear that no resources are necessary to implement mindfulness and that there are plenty of easy checklists that give you all you need to start on your own. That said, having never meditated before and not being a personality type that is naturally drawn to meditation, reading through one of those lists and then diving into meditation on my own seemed overwhelming. As luck would have it, there are a number of resources available that guide users through meditation. I checked out a few and settled on Headspace.
Headspace is a free app that walks users through daily meditation. (Note: there are in-app purchases, but I haven’t gotten advanced enough to need those; not sure if they will be necessary after a certain period of time). I like it because it starts at a very low level – when you sign up, you select your experience level and your goals. Headspace then creates a daily plan based on that information. (My first day was 3 minutes, which was about what I was ready for.) I also like that it had me select a daily time for meditation and now sends me a little reminder at that time every day. Finally, I appreciate that it approaches meditation as a skill that users are developing, which keeps me from feeling like a failure when my mind takes a break from focusing on the present to focus on the first thing I’ll do once I’m finished. For the most beginning beginners amongst us (me), Headspace is perfect.
If you don’t want to go the app route, here are a few other guided meditations that are popular:
The Honest Guys 10-minute meditation is one of the top-rated, guided meditations.
Mindful.org also has a good list of guided meditations. You can select from a number of options – 10 minute meditations, meditations for stress, walking meditations, etc.
While meditation is not results focused – the journey is the destination and what not – I was curious to know how soon I would start seeing results (maybe I’ll have the answer when I stop asking the question…?). The official answer seems to be that you can feel some of the benefits immediately; however, the results will be more pervasive over time and once it becomes a daily practice. My unofficial answer is that I felt increased focus, an increased ability to find calm in stressful situations, and increased productivity almost immediately. I’m also noting that I’m increasingly applying the skills outside of the meditation time – i.e., a few moments ago my computer kept shutting down. Rather than cursing it, I actually enjoyed the extra two minutes to take some calming breaths and focus on the sounds around me. Sounds a little crazy to me, but it was really pleasant and relaxing.
All in all, I agree that meditation is an important piece of any plans to improve overall health and well being, and I’m thankful for the great suggestion to explore it. I encourage you to check it out as well and to reap its many benefits!
I’ve had the privilege of being in the same book club for the last eight years. A lot has changed in that time – people have moved away, new members have joined, babies have been born, weddings have been celebrated. But at the same time, much has stayed the same. We meet once a month at someone’s house to discuss a monthly read and, perhaps more importantly, to do life together. No matter how chaotic the schedule is or how little of the book I have read, monthly book club has a sacred spot in my calendar and is very rarely missed.
I can’t say enough about the benefits that come from having this unique and consistent community in my life. Plus, and no accident that I note this second, it keeps me reading. Not only am I reading a book every month, I’m exposed to different books and authors than I would be if I were reading on my own (we all help pick books and have very different styles and interests). In theory, we’ve read 88 books (8 years, 11 books a year – no selection for the month of December), some of which have been crowd pleasers, others universally disliked. Eight years and 88 books in, here’s our list of all-time favorites (as voted on by the book club):
1. All the Light We Cannot See
While the rest of this list is in no particular order, All the Light We Cannot See is our highest rated selection of all time. Written by American author Anthony Doerr, it won the 2015 Pulitzer Price for fiction and the 2015 Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. Set in Paris during World War II, All the Light We Cannot See follows the lives of a young, blind French girl, Marie-Laure, and an orphaned German boy, who becomes an expert in short-wave radios. Their experience are vastly different, yet their lives come together in an unlikely yet beautiful way. While there are a plethora of books about World War II, this story is unlike any other that I’ve read. The characters and story make it hard to put down, but the vivid descriptions and attention to the most minute of details make the book a true masterpiece that you’ll want to read more than once.
2. Let the Great World Spin
Let the Great World Spin is a novel by Colum McCann and was the winner of the 2009 National Book Award for Fiction. Set in New York City in the 1970s, it’s centered around two main events: Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the twin towers, and the criminal trial (fictional) of a prostitute. The book features over a dozen different protagonists, and the chapters jump from character to character. The vastly different voices of each chapter at first feel a little haphazard, but are increasingly intriguing as you work to figure out how all the characters are connected. You’ll want to see how the story plays out, all while being slowed down as you take in the many layers of each character and chapter. Like All the Light We Cannot See, this needs to be read more than once!
3. Little Bee
Little Bee was the first book that we read as a book club, but still ranks at the top of the list for many of us (perhaps some nostalgia there, but a great read regardless). Written by British author Chris Cleave and published in 2008, Little Bee tells the story of Little Bee, a Nigerian Refugee, and Sarah, a magazine editor from Surrey. A couple of years after meeting in the Nigerian Delta, Little Bee and Sarah are reunited when Little Bee escapes illegally to England. The novel follows their story and Little Bee’s experience as an asylum-seeker in England. Obviously, the topics are heavy and it’s not a light read. Yet, it’s not overwhelmingly dark, and there are pieces of hope throughout. Cleave raises a number of thought-provoking issues about refugees, systems of asylum, morality, and personal responsibility that add value to the book beyond its engaging storytelling. Perhaps not the perfect beach read, but an excellent book club read that is ripe for discussion.
4. Dark Matter
Now for a very drastic pivot to Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. Dark Matter is a science-fiction thriller that requires some extreme mental gymnastics. (NOTE: if you’re like me and saw science fiction and immediately lost interest, don’t. I don’t like sci-fi. Ever. Yet somehow I loved this book – despite being initially very reluctant.) Dark Matter is centered around Jason Dressen, a quantum physicist living an unremarkable but happy life with his girlfriend and son in Chicago. When he goes out one night for ice cream, he is abducted and somehow finds himself in a new version of his life (stay with me). It seems he has figured out how to access an infinite number of universes, and the reader travels with him as he tries to get back to his world and his family. My mind exploded a number of times in this book, and the overly rational and linear part of me had to check out a bit (there are pieces that just don’t work). That said, one of the great benefits of a book club is reading different types and styles of books. This one was well out of my comfort zone, but such an intriguing and entertaining read. While I wouldn’t rank this at the top of my list, like some of the club did, I would definitely keep it on my must-reads and “get out of my box” list.
5. The Imperfectionists
The Imperfectionists, published in 2010, is Tom Rachman’s first novel. Rachman, a London-based journalist, had a stunning debut with this unconventional story of a English newspaper in Rome. The book is centered around the paper and its steady decline, as it follows the lives of the paper’s writers, editors, and executives. While all are working to keep the paper afloat, they each are dealing with their own, tumultuous personal lives. The Imperfectionists is first a funny, quirky, and insightful character study. However, amidst the myriad of characters, is an underlying story of a dying art and those affected by this loss. Rachman’s background as a journalist gives him the perfect lens to write this ode-like story to old-school journalism. While the story of the paper is charming, the real beauty of The Imperfectionists is the cast of characters that emerge from and become part of the paper’s history and life. If you like a good character study and/or long for the days of print journalism, you’ll connect with and enjoy The Imperfectionists.
6. We Were Liars
We love to throw some good YA (young adult) literature into our lineup. Not only does it make the month’s read a little quicker and easier, there are some great choices in this genre that should not be overlooked! We Were Liars is a young-adult novel by Emily Jenkins (pen name E. Lockhart) that follows the wealthy Sinclair family. The largely dysfunctional family comes together every summer on their private island (near Martha’s Vineyard). The story focuses on Summer Fifteen, when protagonist, Cadence Sinclair, was fifteen and spent most of the summer with her two cousins and a friend. Something happened to the four teenagers, known by the rest of the family as The Liars, that summer, but all Cadence can remember is a head injury, which caused her to lose all other memories of the summer. When Cadence returns to the island in Summer Seventeen, she and The Liars try to bring back the memories of Summer Fifteen. There are some GREAT twists and turns in this book, a few of which caught me completely by surprise. This is a quick read, but a YA book that is worth your time!
7. The Hunger Games
Speaking of YA, The Hunger Games made the list. Say what you will, but it was a fun group read. You probably know the storyline well by now – set in dystopian Panem, teenagers from twelve outlying districts are brought to the controlling and wealthy capitol to compete in the televised hunger games, where the teens fight to the death. If you’ve written it off as too teen-focused or too cliche or if you’ve only seen the movie, think about working it into the lineup. It’s a fun (despite the killing) and easy read. Think about putting it in your book club’s rotation during a busy month (and then follow up with a group movie night).
8. The History of Love
The History of Love, published in 2005, is American Nicole Krauss’s second novel. It’s sweet, sad, heart-wrenching, and complicated. The story begins with Leo, a young boy in Poland who falls deeply in love with Alma. Alma and Leo are torn apart when Germany invades Poland, and when they are reunited in America, Alma is married and has two children (one that is Leo’s and one that is her husbands). Leo’s life is lonely and sad, as he watches his son and true love from afar. However, when he connects with a young woman named Alma, both he and Alma find some peace and meaning in their difficult and pain-stricken seasons of life. This story is a complicated one, but it’s worth working through the many layers and characters. Part heart-breaking, part hope-filled, you’ll hit all the emotions as you experience this book and its seventy years of love, heartbreak, and joy.
There you have it, our favorites after eight years of reading. If you’re not in a book club, think about joining one ASAP. If you are in a book club, we’d love it if you’d comment with your favorite reads so we can add them to our list. Happy reading!
We love books in our house, and our shelves are overflowing with children’s books of all kinds. Yet, we often fall into a rut of reading some of the same books over and over again. While these are great, there’s a lot to be said for throwing some new material in the mix!
With that goal in mind, my kids and I took on the challenge of exploring new books and finding some new favorites. We combed the shelves of our library and local independent bookstore. Our only objective requirement was that the books we picked had to be published in 2018 or 2019. In putting together the final list, I threw in a few subjective requirements, only selecting books with sweet stories/meaningful messages; with engaging pictures; that my kids have asked to read again (and again); and that I enjoyed reading on repeat.
Using those fairly subjective categories, here’s the list of 10 new books that we love and have happily added to our own reading lineup and our 2019 gift list:
Blue is beautiful and simple. The pictures are stunning and engaging and tell the story of a boy and his dog. Each page only has two words (one of which is blue), yet the story of the bond between the boy and his dog is vividly portrayed. This book is great for younger kids, early readers, and dog lovers!
Giraffe Problems is the story of a giraffe and turtle that are unhappy with their necks. However, once they meet and talk, they help each other to see the benefits that their respective necks have. It’s silly and fun, but also has a powerful message about being comfortable in your own skin and finding beauty in being unique.
3. Don’t Blinkby Amy Krouse Rosenthal and David Roberts
Don’t Blink has become our official last book of the night. The premise of the book is that the reader can stay awake as long as the book doesn’t end; however, every time you blink, you have to turn the page. It’s fun and interactive and has some optical illusion-like pictures that make your eyes spin a bit. It’s a great way to end the day.
One of my children got The Rabbit Listened for Christmas, and it immediately became a favorite. The main character, Taylor, builds a stunning tower of blocks, only to see it topple to the ground. A number of animal friends try to comfort Taylor in the way that they would want to be comforted, but nothing works until rabbit just comes and listens. My son likes it because he is marginally terrified of the bear that responds with angry roars, and I love the beautiful picture of empathy that it paints. I have filed away some lessons from this book, and hopefully I can be more rabbit like the next time my kids have a similar crisis.
Kids and adults could stand to read The Book of Mistakes a few times every year. It’s a beautifully and creatively illustrated book showing readers how mistakes can lead to some of the best ideas. The pictures blend together in a wonderful way that makes you want to read and re-read this. Plus, I love that rather than telling kids mistakes can lead to good things, Luyken shows them tangible ways that this is true. The Book of Mistakes is definitely one to own and pull out regularly.
Jon Agee’s books are consistently funny and entertaining, and his newest one is no exception. The Wall in the Middle of the Book is full of his signature illustrations and wit, but also shares a powerful message with readers. The young knight is thankful for the giant wall that protects him from supposed dangers of the other side. When waters begin to rise on his side of the book, however, the knight is surprised to find that he is saved by one of the very creatures he believed the wall was protecting him from. This book is fun and exciting for readers, but also is anchored in powerful imagery – combination bound to make this a go-to favorite.
This is a rhyming book about a family’s unconditional and immeasurable love. The pictures and words are fun and a little silly, but the message is serious and beautiful. Plus, rhyming verse is always fun to read, particularly if you have emerging readers in the house. This is a great bedtime story – and perhaps a perfect Valentine’s Day gift!
8. Twinkle by Katharine Holabird and Sarah Warburton
By the author of Angelina Ballerina (still one of my all-time favorites), Twinkle tells the story of a young girl struggling through her first days at fairy school. She experiences many failures, frustrations, and setbacks, yet she perseveres and the book ends on a high note as she successfully masters a new spell. The story is a relevant one for young readers that are constantly trying new things, but I particularly love how detailed and captivating the pictures are. With so much going on in each picture, it’s a book that lends itself well to being read many, many times. (Also, this would be a great birthday book for girls – purchase and wrap a stack of 10 and you’ll be skipping to birthday parties on time this spring!)
Who doesn’t dream of going to ninja camp and becoming a nimble, stealthy, and lightening-quick warrior? Those dreams are realized in Ninja Camp, where through rhyming-verse the ninja master instructs young campers and helps prepare them to be “Ninjas of the Night.” It’s light, fun, engaging, and great for young readers that are always ready for action. (This, too, would be a great birthday book!)
The obvious sequel to Triangle, Square tells the story of Square as he pushes blocks up a hill all day. Circle sees Square’s work and thinks he’s an artistic genius. Square tries to let Circle know that he’s not, but Circle won’t hear it and only sees more genius after Square attempts to shape one of his square blocks into a circle for her. This book is sweet, funny, and simple, with uniquely Klassen illustrations. Plus, stay tuned for the release of the third book in the trilogy, Circle.
Good children’s books are a great way to instill a love of reading in all members of your house. Plus, keeping your shelves updated helps add some excitement and variety to daily story times. These ten new books are already becoming favorites in our house, and I hope that they’ll become favorites in yours too! Also, if there are other 2018 or 2019 books that your family loves, please share them in the comments below so we can all check them out. Happy reading!