Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Tasty Tuesday - Pumpkin Swirl Brownies

I'm currently on a "get it out of my house" kick. I am working on clearing out the clutter and getting rid of things, and the wee ones are helping me. We've gone through so many of their books and toys and games and decided that maybe we don't really need to keep them anymore - and boy does it feel good. When I had to bring a dessert to a potluck meeting at Mister Man's school, of course I opened the cabinets and hunted around for something I could use up and thus remove from the cabinet.

I realized I had four cans of pumpkin puree, so creating something with pumpkin became key. I wanted to make something unique and fun, but I wasn't feeling too inspired by recipes I was seeing. Finally I found something to inspire me. And then I tweaked it. The pumpkin swirl brownies I made were good. I did have to do a little moving around of batters and such, so it isn't the quickest recipe, but it's still fairly easy and oh so yummy. Mister Man already asked if I'll make it again! And my husband kept stealing "little" pieces from the pan. Did I mention that none of us like pumpkin pie?

Pumpkin Swirl Brownies

3/4 c butter, melted
1 c brown sugar
1/2 c granulated sugar
2 t vanilla
3 eggs
1/2 t baking powder
1/2 t salt
3/4 c flour
1/2 c pumpkin puree
3/4 t cinnamon
1/2 t ground nutmeg
3/4 c chocolate chips
1/4 c cocoa powder

Preheat your oven to 350, and grease an 8x8 baking dish.

Mix together the melted butter, sugar and vanilla until well beaten. You want this whipped together well. Then add the eggs one at a time, beating well between each addition. Add the baking powder and salt and mix well again. Add the flour and mix until just combined.

Separate the batter into two bowls, one that has about 2/3 of the batter and the other with 1/3. Add the cinnamon, nutmeg, and pumpkin puree to the bowl with 2/3 of the batter and mix until just combined. Take some of that batter and put it into the 1/3 batter bowl until the batters are about even again - this is all guesstimation, so don't worry about being exact here.

In the second bowl where you just added some of the pumpkin batter, add the cocoa and 1/2 of the chocolate chips and mix until just combined.

Place half the chocolate batter into your greased pan. Place half the pumpkin mixture atop it. Place the remaining chocolate atop that and then the final pumpkin on the very top. Using a spatula carefully swirl it up just a little bit. Place the remaining chocolate chips atop the batter, just for fun.

Place it in the oven and bake for 45 minutes - until your tester comes out clean. Let it cool fully in the pan, then cut into squares and serve. Yum.

You'll notice that my pan is a 9x13, if you're observant. I made just about double this posted recipe and baked it in a 9x13 pan. It took over an hour to bake, and the center was a little too thick to bake perfectly, so I had to take it out when the edges started getting crispy and hope it finished baking as it cooled. It worked out fine, but going forward I would bake it in an 8x8 pan (or 2 if I want more of this - which I certainly do because it was awesome) to make the baking easier.

The reason I start with 1/3 and 2/3 batters and move to 1/2 and 1/2 is that I want a real pumpkin flavor to come out, but if you start with half and half, the pumpkin batter is too thin and the cocoa batter is too thick. Putting some of the pumpkin batter in what would become the chocolate batter allowed me to put in more pumpkin puree while keeping the batters at a reasonable consistency.

Enjoy this and more with Blessed With Grace and Tempt My Tummy Tuesday. Also posting now with A Southern Fairytale and her Mouthwatering Monday.

Monday, January 30, 2012

When Our History Is His History

I love hearing stories about my parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles when they were younger. It's a sense of connection that creates an even strong bond amongst our family, and I know we aren't the only ones - the wee ones love hearing stories about "Mickey the Dickens" and other characters, too. My parents tend to be the major story tellers right now, but I know that will change and I will be the one someday.

For now, I enjoy listening to the stories of how my parents were once like me. They were young and silly and kids and had adventures and troubles and giggles and more. When we hear new stories, there's always something we learn about personalities that we hadn't known before - something that of course sets of the desire to know more and explore this little tidbit further.

My dad was once engaged before my mom. In fact, he was engaged when he met my mom. Or maybe when he started dating her. I don't really know because I heard those details once upon a time, and everyone's clammed up since. I don't know any of the details, and to me it sounds like it could be such a romantic story. Boy thought he was in love but realized Girl was the one for him, and nothing could stand in the way of their happy ever after. Maybe. But I don't know.

And of course the less anyone will speak the more I want to know. It isn't because I would be judging them, but instead because it provides a window into their personalities. How did they really meet? What was their dating relationship like? Why did he decide to marry her? What was it about my mom - and my dad - that was so special? I'll probably never know, and a part of me is sad about that.

At the same time, there are parts of my life that I'm just as happy if the wee ones were to never know. I'm ok not having them know about the night before my last college final first quarter my freshman year. Do they need to know my entire dating history? Do I want them to know about how my husband started drinking at the age of 12? Or that he drove his then girlfriend home from some party and she was so drunk he just rolled her onto the lawn? Ummm no.

That said, some of those stories would probably be great learning lessons for the wee ones. "What not to do when" type situations that could engender some really poignant conversations. Or maybe there are things we just want to keep to ourselves for other reasons. Family history is important to me, knowing who the people are - not just their names and where they were born and how they're related to me.

Where do you fall? Do you want to know all the little tidbits that make your relatives into real people, or do you fall into the camp of limiting what information you share about yourself?

In the interest of full disclosure, I received a copy of "The Joy of Hearing Heartbeats" by Jan-Philip Sendker as part of the From Left To Write book club where we write posts inspired by the book rather than traditional book reviews. I was not compensated for writing this post, and all opinions remain my own.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Dear Brother: Little Notes From Little Miss

I'm lucky, and I know I am. Little Miss and Mister Man love each other. They play well together. They voluntarily spend time together and rarely fight. I don't often see siblings get along as well as they do. I adore it, and I hope that it continues into adulthood, especially if I keep my nose out of their relationship.

Every once in awhile one will annoy the other one, sometimes to get attention, but usually unintentionally. Unintentionally as in "I'm thinking only of myself and not how you might feel about what I'm doing" - which really is rather normal, I think.

I noticed yesterday when I went to put laundry away that Little Miss had added a couple little notes to her door. I peered closer to take a look and started giggling. I really don't have to worry about anyone walking over her as she gets older. She knows what she wants, and she's going to make her opinions known, one way or the other.

"Rules for my room. No taking out my marcks"

Ok, so I have to be honest. I have no idea what "marcks" are, and I forgot to ask her. I'm not sure if this is a reference to toys, if she means trucks, or if maybe it's bookmarks. Regardless, she's setting the stage.

"No reading my books"

Why yes, yes this is an issue. As the wee ones play so well together, they have many similar interests. The books they get for gifts or check out from the library tend to be on the same subjects. They actually checked out the same book from their school libraries one week. And so Mister Man will pick up the book she's reading but has set down for the moment and start reading it himself, frequently losing her place. Apparently she's had enough.

"No more playing with my toys only your toys"

Apparently she's had it. Interestingly, to my knowledge, he has never broken any of her toys. I can only imagine that he wants to play with the toys that she's trying to play with or that he wants to play one game and she wants to play another - with the same toys. Yay imagination and made up games? This would explain why I've found them playing in Mister Man's room the past two mornings instead of playing in her room as they usually do.

So how many days before there are rebuttal notes with rules showing up on Mister Man's door?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

How To Make It All Fit In Your Suitcase

I wrote a couple weeks ago about what to pack when I go to a conference, including my list so that I don't forget anything critical. I'd mentioned then that I had everything I needed for three days (I left on a Sunday and came back on a Wednesday) in a single roll aboard and my, ahem, large purse. Seriously. It's doable.

Granted, if I'm going to a blogger conference, I'm going to generally bring a larger suitcase to check for a few reasons. I'm more likely there to want truly comfortable shoes to walk around in during the day and fun shoes for the parties at night. Plus, with all the brands represented, there are generally gifts to bring home from both them and from the sponsors of the conference via a bag when you check in the first day. While I am very careful to ensure that I'm only bringing home things that we are truly interested in and passing along to other attendees anything that we won't use. Who needs more "stuff" in their house anyway?

That said, I've got some secrets to ensure everything fits - especially on the way home. While I don't have vacuum sealing bags, I know people who swear by them. That doesn't work on gift-y items, however, just clothes. And I'm always concerned that packing that tightly with clothes means any checked bags will go over the 50 pound maximum and get a hefty excess weight fee.

I have other secrets, the first of which is wearing clothes in a single color palette so I don't have to bring as many shoes or sweaters to toss over my clothes or even pants, since I can reuse them from day to day. The other fun one I learned a long time ago is to roll my clothes. Yep, instead of folding them and laying them in the suitcase, I roll them tightly and place them in. If it's something that you worry about wrinkling, use a dry cleaner bag outside it, then roll it. It's amazing the reduction in wrinkles you'll see just from packing an item of clothing inside a dry cleaner's bag. Try it. It's amazing how much more will fit in a suitcase by rolling. This is my 20 inch roll aboard suitcase with three days' worth of clothing rolled up. And look at how much more room I have for everything else on my list!

When you leave the conference, it's a whole lot harder to get everything to fit because of the gifts you've received. You did remember to leave extra space in your suitcase, right? The other alternative is to ship your items home, but that's frequently more expensive than checking your bag, although not always. Once you've sorted through what you truly want and will use, remove as many items from the packaging as possible. Do you really want to take up valuable space (and weight!) with plastic and cardboard? That makes a huge difference, right there.

You want to ensure that you stack your suitcase effectively, so use soft items (clothing, generally) to fill in the uneven areas in the bottom of your suitcase so that you have a level surface if you don't already. Then put your larger items in first, packing smaller items around them to maximize space. And those smaller soft items - especially if they're dirty already because you've worn them - stuff them inside shoes and other items that have empty space inside them. You can do it. It sometimes just takes a little effort.

So have you started packing yet? Where will I see you this year?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Wordless Wednesday: The Pinewood Derby

Last night was the Pinewood Derby for Mister Man. He was so incredibly excited about the car he built. He decided to go for the Chevy Mi-Ray concept car that was unveiled last year at the Seoul Motor Show. The car is an electric hybrid sports car that reminds me of a cross between the Batmobile and a James Bond car. I love it.

And so did he.

Pretty cool, no? He's so proud. His car won third place in design. It also won the first race, although he didn't win the next one to move on. I can only imagine what he'll come up with for next year!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Tasty Tuesday - Decadent Hot Chocolate

It's starting to get nasty here. Winter is really setting in. In fact, this was me on Friday after shoveling snow.

Why yes, yes that is snow that actually managed to stick in my hair about a half inch thick from just the time I was out there shoveling. Winter, you are so not my friend. I felt literally like that snowman who comes inside and slowly melts into a child as he eats or drinks something warm. (I forget what the ad is for, sad, no?)

Fortunately, I had prepared ahead. I knew I was going to be cold. And tired. And quite possibly crabby. I know myself well, and I know my normal hot chocolate just wasn't going to cut it. I went all out with my favorite kind of hot chocolate that I only make on special occasions. It's that good.

Decadent Hot Chocolate

4 1/2 ounces dark chocolate
2 T butter
1/4 c heavy whipping cream
1 t coffee extract (or actual espresso)

In a double boiler or very heavy saucepan, add the butter, cream and chopped chocolate. (Double boiler = metal bowl that fits firmly into a pan that has a couple inches of water where the water doesn't touch the bowl, ta da!) You don't want this to burn!

Stir it together as it melts until it become an even mixture. You don't want to get it too hot, so just heat it until it is mostly melted, then stir until the residual heat melts it. If you're using a double boiler, have a towel handy to dry off the bottom of the pan as you lift it once this portion has melted.

I have found that rather than putting vanilla into my chocolate baked goods, coffee flavoring is much more powerful. It adds a great depth and dimension, so I use it in place of vanilla in most chocolate items - especially brownies and cakes. After you have the chocolate melted and it's off the heat, add the coffee flavoring and stir until that is combined.

At that point, the chocolate mixture is ready for use. Place it in a separate container. You can use the same double boiler or heavy saucepan to now scald your milk. You do know that hot chocolate should only be made with milk, right? Place as much milk as you want into the pan and heat it on medium until it's just starting to steam. Quickly pour it into your mug, and add about 1 T of the chocolate mixture per 12 ounces of milk. Or as much chocolate as you'd like. The scalded milk will remelt the chocolate as needed. I have a nice little Aerolatte that my aunt gave me one year that whips it up nicely, but that isn't necessary.

Place the leftover chocolate into a sealed container and store it in your fridge for up to two weeks. If it lasts that long. And yes, you may have noticed that this is very similar to a truffle recipe base... in fact, it's a half recipe for ganache. You people are smart!

Enjoy this and more with Blessed With Grace and Tempt My Tummy Tuesday. Also posting now with A Southern Fairytale and her Mouthwatering Monday.

Monday, January 23, 2012

He Doesn't See The Clues

Did you know that I'm really shy at heart? While I love hanging out with friends and talking to them and spending time around them, I always feel a little shiver run down my spine when I have to approach a large group of people I don't know - or don't know well. It's that reaction of a new girl walking into the high school cafeteria again.

I know what to do, though, and I generally do it well. I know what the situation calls for. I pull my shoulders back and lengthen my stride. I look directly at people, choosing when and where I'll make a good entrance into the conversation or group. And then I have fun. I turn on that extrovert portion of my personality and make it work for me. And I enjoy it.

Then I'll go home and just look for quiet. I'll enjoy sitting by myself and reading a good book. I need to take the time to recharge and gain the energy that I'd spent around all those people so I can go do it again. That doesn't mean that I don't love to entertain and spend time with people - I absolutely do. It just takes energy I need to replenish.

Fortunately, depending on the situation, there are different traits needed, and I adapt. So do most people. While we may tend to be either more introverted or extroverted, we can still pull out the qualities required from other personality traits to - for the most part - succeed in each of those situations.

Yesterday in church, we said the Our Father, as we do every week. At the end, everyone lifts their linked hands. We all lift them to about eye level, bending our elbows to keep it comfortable. As I looked down at Mister Man, He had his hands lifted as high as they go, his shoulder scrunched up. It's a little thing, but it's something that sets him apart.

I talk a lot to him about using the clues of people around him to help him in social situations. When he talks about something he's interested in, he walks. He doesn't pace or walk in circles or anything so regular. It's almost like rocking but not in place. It's really hard to talk to him when he's doing that, as he's frequently not facing the person he's talking to - and thus unintelligible. Or he's playing with children and as they approach that invisible line, all the kids back off, but he doesn't notice and continues until way after that line is crossed.

He misses the cues, sometimes the big ones and frequently the small ones. And my heart aches, not because I need or want him to be the same as everyone else around him, but because it separates him from his peers in a way that makes his path harder. He gets frustrated because situations don't work the way he wishes they would but doesn't understand that much of the reason for this is his inability to to adapt his personality to the situation at hand. He is oblivious to the cues around him, and that keeps him from being as happy as he deserves to be.

Is it better to be an introvert or an extrovert? No. And I mean that - it isn't better necessarily to be one or the other, but we all need to be able to take bits and pieces of other tendencies to get us through life. But how do you teach that?

In the interest of full disclosure, this post was inspired by the book "Quiet" by Susan Cain as part of the From Left To Write book club. I received a copy of this book as part of the book club where we write posts inspired by the books rather than reviews of the book. I received no compensation, and all opinions remain my own.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

This Is The Meaning Of Girl Scouts

I was a Girl Scout growing up. Or I was for a couple years anyway in middle grade school. My mom was my leader, and I remember singing a lot (and I do mean a lot of songs). It's where I first learned the word "repertoire" in fact. We did a little of the camping, but not much. And of course, we sold Girl Scout cookies.

Except that I don't really remember selling them. I don't recall going door to door, although perhaps I did. I'm guessing my dad sold many of them at his work, and the rest went to relatives. That said, I don't recall earning any great badges for my cookie selling or doing anything super great. This year, Little Miss is selling Girl Scout cookies for the first time.

Or at least, her troop was going to sell cookies if someone aside from the current leaders would step up to be cookie mom. There are twelve girls in our troop, and two leaders. With the explanation that being Cookie Mom would require simply taking the money from the girls and distributing cookies once they were delivered, I figured it wouldn't be too bad. Plus, by agreeing to be Cookie Mom, I could say I'd done my part for the troop. I waited a week, then sent an email saying I'd do it if no one else had signed up yet - fully expecting that someone else would have already stepped forward.

Nope, the other moms apparently didn't have the giant "sucker" attached to their foreheads the way I do. I am officially the Cookie Mom. Which meant I had to do a background check. And that I had to do a ton of online training. And that I had to attend a two hour in person training meeting. And that I was in charge of setting the goals. And that I was to set up our troop's online tracking since orders are now all done online. And that I had to organize and run our cookie booths. And that I had to determine and order the proper incentives. And that I had to chase down all the permission slips from the moms that are required for the girls to sell.


The work is actually not too bad, although I wish that I had known about it upfront. The Cookie Program - it's no longer selling cookies - is way different from when I was a Girl Scout! The intent, while still to make money, is to have the girls learn responsibility and entrepreneurship and sales skills and more. I have to say, they're actually doing a better job with Little Miss than I thought - she's figuring out in her head how much each order costs, calculating change, and the like.

Plus, I'm one who is actually making her go out and sell. My husband isn't taking the order form into work, and even the Cookie Club (where you can send emails for people to make online "cookie promises") is something I'm making her do. She had to dictate the email to me and tell me which of my friends I should send it to. Since she's only in first grade, I figured it was fair for me to help her with that part.

The door to door selling? That's all her though. I'll go with her and stand on the sidewalk, but she has to approach each house and do the selling. Surprisingly, she loves it. In fact, after about the tenth house, she turned to me and told me that she loved it even better than Halloween. Yes, my heart swelled. I'm happy to see her figure this out, especially when people turn her down and she has to manage her disappointment. That's a huge life lesson, too.

There is a new part of the Girl Scout cookie program that wasn't around when I was younger, too. They now do "gifts of caring" where people can purchase cookies to donate. The girls have the option to donate them virtually to troops both overseas and stationed in the States (meaning they never see the cookies but they get shipped directly from the warehouse) or to choose a local organization. Our girls - first graders, mind you - insisted that we find a local charity. They wanted to feel the cookies in their hands and actually drop them off.

The troop leaders and I worked with the girls to come up with four different ideas of local places we could donate. After hearing discussions for and against each of them - arguments proposed by the girls themselves - they decided their cookies are going to the Ronald McDonald House in Chicago. They love the idea of helping children like themselves and their families who are going through some tough times. Several of the girls know families who have stayed in the RMH previously, making it even more personal.

What really tipped the scales for the girls, however, was the opportunity to actually make a meal in the house for the families that are staying there. They are going to use some of the money they raise through the cookie program to purchase ingredients to cook there. I love the fact that the girls are wanting to go above and beyond the minimum of "just" sending cookies to troops - and let me clarify that I think that's a great program and a great way to do it - because they want to be able to do something else special for the charity benefiting from their boxes of cookies.

Yeah, I'm a little proud of these first graders. They've already figured out what it means to be a Girl Scout!

PS While no, this is not a solicitation for you to purchase cookies, if you would like to help the girls provide more cookies to the RMH in Chicago (ahem or for yourself), please let me know ASAP.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

BlogHer Book Club: The Underside of Joy

There are some books I love but still have a tiny part of myself that regrets reading it. The January BlogHer Book Club book The Underside of Joy by Sere Prince Halverson is one of those. It was a beautifully written book that absolutely pulls you in to a heartbreaking story. I wasn't even at the end of the book when I had tears rolling down my cheeks and the sniffles coming faster and faster.

I regret reading it only for the thinking it made me do about my own life. As Ella loses her husband Joe to a freak accident, she has to put her life back together. There is so much that she doesn't know about their life together - financial and otherwise - and they haven't done much of the preparation that any couple really should. Let me just put this out there: neither have I. And that's scary to me because I know I need to get my act together, but I feel like I'm courting fate if I do. Stupid, right?

The book explores the tragedy of Ella's new life, where her two step-children also have to face the future, in many ways uncertain for them just as it is for Ella. The writing evokes strong emotions, as they so clearly show the pain and the fear and confusion all the characters exhibit. And I won't say any more to avoid ruining the book for you - because I do recommend you read it. It was a good one, though admittedly not the type of book I usually pick up. This is why I love book clubs!

Come join the discussion over at the BlogHer Book Club, whether you've read it or not. There promise to be some great thought-provoking conversations.

In the interest of full disclosure, I received an advance copy of "The Underside of Joy" for review purposes. I was also compensated for my participation in this campaign. That said, all opinions remain my own.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Wordles Wednesday - Weird Cats

My cats are weird. I know this. I'm ok with this. They make me giggle most of the time. That said, I could be wrong. Maybe they're just extremely safety conscious. Maybe they just want to go with us when we leave the house? Maybe they want their own overpriced cat beds?

I dunno. What's your theory?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Tasty Tuesday - Honey Glazed Chicken

I know a meal is a success when my husband asks me to make it again ... the next night. I made something this week that fit into this category, and the wee ones loved it, too. Not only did they eat it at dinner, but they ate all of it that I sent for lunch the next day, as well. Best of all? This was a dish I made in desperation because I had nothing ready for dinner and raided my pantry. Best of all? It's a very forgiving recipe and works with different measurements depending on your personal preferences.

Honey Glazed Chicken

4 chicken breasts, cut into bite sized pieces (or other chicken - just change your cooking time and method to fit, but this is what I had on hand)
1/3 c soy sauce
1/2 c honey
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 T peanut butter
1 T lemon juice (optional - I put it in the second time, but not the first and it was good either way, although I liked the lemon to counteract some of the honey)
1 T corn starch
sesame seeds for garnish

Heat a pan. Once it's completely heated, add just enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Add the chicken breast after the oil has had a chance to heat. Saute the chicken on medium high heat until it has a nice crust on all sides. And yes, you can do this with frozen chicken. It's possible that I thawed my chicken just enough to be able to cut it into bite sized pieces with a very sharp knife, then sauteed it. Just sayin'.

Remove the chicken from the pan, and set it aside for later. Add the soy sauce, honey, peanut butter, lemon juice, and garlic into the pan and bring it to a boil. It will look ... icky at the start. Once it's heated enough for the peanut butter to fully melt, it will look better, I promise. Keep it at a low boil for five to ten minutes until it starts to thicken. Add a little cold water to a bowl, and place the corn starch in it. Use a fork to stir it until it's combined. Add a bit of the corn starch mix to the glaze, which will help it thicken further. Keep adding a little more until it gets to a good consistency for you. I want it to be thick enough that I can scrape the spatula through the glaze and it doesn't immediately flow back together.

Once the glaze has reached this point, add the chicken to the pan again and stir until the chicken is nicely coated in the glaze. Serve over brown rice or cous cous (I did one the first night and the other the second), sprinkling the chicken with sesame seeds just before serving.

Enjoy this and more with Blessed With Grace and Tempt My Tummy Tuesday. Also posting now with A Southern Fairytale and her Mouthwatering Monday.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Imparting Life Lessons

Part of being a good mom - in my humble opinion - is teaching your children right from wrong. I can talk about it all I want, but if I don't show the same values that I preach to them, I may as well save my breath. That and I'd like to think that I'm a halfway decent person.

On Sunday, Mister Man and I headed to Starbucks after dropping Little Miss at Sunday school (he goes to Catholic school, she doesn't) so that he could work on his book report. As we headed back to our car to pick her up, I saw a wallet lying in the street near my car. It was flipped open, and I could see that it contained a driver's license. I stopped and looked around, but there was no likely owner in sight. I picked up the wallet and looked through it quickly, hoping to see something with a phone number on it, all the while explaining to Mister Man what I was doing.

Inside were many credit cards and a driver's license, but no cash. My heart sank as I realized someone had probably had her wallet stolen, the cash grabbed, and the wallet then discarded. I found a business card for what looked like her husband, but the number wasn't valid. I had no way of knowing what store the woman had entered, nor could I call her. I took a deep breath and put the wallet in my car as we drove off to pick up Little Miss from Sunday school.

My phone has GPS. I had an address from the driver's license. Ergo, I could drop it off with the owner - assuming that I could verify it was still her house and that I wasn't now dropping off her wallet with strangers. I plugged the address into my GPS and discovered a beautiful part of town that I had never visited before. But I couldn't find 119 - the woman's address. I found 1, 6, 7, and up to 19, but there was nothing in the 100s. I drove all around the streets hoping to stumble upon her house but failing miserably. After ten minutes of aimlessly driving, with the wee ones worrying that I was going to get lost (ha! I have an excellent sense of direction, thank you), I gave up.

I pondered my next move and realized that I could drop the wallet with the police department. They have far more resources to return the wallet than I do. With a sigh of relief, I headed in that direction, mentally rehearsing the story so that I could explain clearly what had happened and try to make it clear why I was waiting over an hour before turning in the wallet I'd found. Interestingly, the police officer I spoke to was completely fine with what I'd done and impressed that I'd tried to drive to her house. I've lost my wallet before - remember? - I would hope that someone in the future would do the right thing just like my Good Samaritan did. At her request, I left my name and phone number.

A few hours later, I received a call from the woman whose wallet I'd found. She was beyond grateful. Her wallet hadn't been stolen; she had dropped it getting out of her car, and no money was missing. In fact, she hadn't even realized her wallet was missing until the police had called her. More than having her credit cards and the like returned, she was grateful to get her wallet back. The wallet had great sentimental value to her, and that was what had her nearly crying. As I missed the call because the wee ones and I were playing in the snow, she had left a voicemail with this information. As I played it back on speakerphone for the wee ones, their eyes grew round.

Little Miss turned to me and said, "Mommy, it feels good to do the right thing. I'm happy she has her wallet back." And though the woman asked for my address in the voicemail for what I assume was some sort of a thank you reward, Little Miss's reaction is all the reward I need.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Car Bingo - Chicago Version

When we were in St. Louis over Christmas, one of the wee ones' joys was to play car bingo as we drive in my in-laws' car. It's become the first thing they do when they climb into the car. The only issue is when they can't find items on their cards. Unfortunately, we don't often see a post office or a wheel barrow or a ladder. Fortunately, we can still generally manage to have someone get a bingo of five in a row before we get to our destination - but not always.

Of course, the wee ones want to know if they can play this when we get home and not just when we're with the in-laws. Somehow, I don't see the bingo going over too well. The landmarks we have just aren't the same as those that we see up in Chicago. I have a solution of course. I'm in the process of inventing my very own Car Bingo - Chicago version. And if this already exists, hush. I don't want to know!

Go ahead. Take a closer look.

So what do you think? Is this my million dollar idea? What would you put on your car bingo?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

BlogHer Book Club Review: Why Women Need Fat

It's the new year, and everyone's making resolutions, including many about losing weight or getting more fit. There are tons of diet and exercise books out there, some that I find downright scary and others that fascinate me. Why Women Need Fat: How "Healthy" Food Makes Us Gain Excess Weight and the Surprising Solution to Losing It Forever by William D. Lassek, M.D. and Steven J.C. Gaulin, Ph.D. falls into the fascinating category.

I am someone who believes in real food. We don't eat high fructose corn syrup around here, and I do my best to minimize processed foods. Tonight's dinner, for example was honey glazed chicken served over cous cous. It had six total ingredients, the most processed being soy sauce. When I cook, I'd much rather taste my food and have it be what I consider to be real food, which means that I'm not eating Splenda or margarine either. After reading this, I'm grateful for some of the formative years I spent in Europe that perhaps led me to eat this way (shhh, most of the time!).

The BlogHer Book Club book Why Women Need Fat validates this approach for me. That isn't to say that I'm anywhere near the weight I'd like to be or that I'm perfect, but it discusses intelligently why it is that we need to eat the real foods and why substituting low fat foods is counteracting the very thing we're trying to do. That and it talks about how we need to figure out what our weight should be and not just dream of a completely unreasonable six foot, eighty-five pound frame that fits dreamily into a size zero dress.

The first two sections of the book run to the statistical and are fairly evidence based. As someone who is somewhat of a stats and analytical geek, this appealed to me, and I really enjoyed reading some of the hows and whys behind the findings. It was right up my alley, but I know that isn't the case for everyone. The third section was the one that I'm guessing most people will gravitate to, as it's the one that talks about what we need to think about without laying down the law of each six cups of this, four cups of that and so on. It focuses on us educating ourselves and taking charge of our lives and being realistic about doing so.

So no, we can't and won't all be thin. Not all our bodies can be that way, but that's ok. We still need to take care of the bodies we have, and it's critical that we eat real food instead of the chemically altered ingredients designed to resemble food. What do you think about what and how Americans eat? Join in the BlogHer Book Club discussion.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am participating in the BlogHer Book Club, which is a compensated review program. I also received a copy of book to facilitate the review. As always, the opinions expressed remain my own.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

What To Pack For A Conference

I have to write this post today. Why? Because I've spent the past three days at the Detroit Auto Show, and I have three toes that are still numb because I was in a hurry and didn't use my checklist. Fortunately, I've spent enough time in and out of airports - and attending conferences - that I can back quickly and efficiently, but I forgot to pack shoes. I had only the shoes I was wearing when I got on the plane - the largest ones I was planning to wear, so that they wouldn't take up valuable space in my suitcase - and my feet are reminding me that I need to go back to using that checklist.

Yeah. Lesson number one when going to a conference? Make sure you pack the right shoes. You will be on your feet so much that wearing pretty shoes just isn't feasible. No one is judging you on your shoe choice, knowing that we're all walking and need to be able to walk again the next day (and I'm not joking about my toes being numb). Take this opportunity to show your personality with your shoes!

So what's on my packing list? I'm glad you asked.

Clothing for each day: Bring one outfit per day. You won't be changing as often as you think you will, and you won't wear half what you bring if you have options. Save the suitcase space for other things. Layers are good, so bring a sweater you can toss over what you're wearing for when it gets hot or cold, and it will get hot and cold over the course of the day and night. That said, choose outfits in coordinating colors so you can wear the same pants twice and minimize the shoes you need to bring to match. Having a single color palette also means you can cut down on the jewelry and accessories you need to pack. Don't forget any belts or scarves that you will wear with your outfits.

Shoes: Make sure you have shoes that will go with each outfit you're wearing. My trick is to wear my largest shoes on the plane so I can save suitcase space and then try to only bring one other pair of shoes if I can - and again that single color palette helps so I can bring just another pair of black shoes or the like. And if you can, bring gel inserts for your shoes. You'll thank me later.

Undergarments: Count out the days you'll be there and make sure you have socks and underwear for each day. For some reason, I don't do well with "1, 2, 3, 4" so instead count out items for "Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday" instead. If you need a flesh colored bra for an outfit, make sure you pack one. If you need something that is strapless, make sure you pack it. I lay out each outfit for each day with all the accouterments I will need for it, which includes...

Jewelry: I generally choose one pair of earrings that will go with everything and then change up my necklaces each day, sometimes with fun bracelets, too. This also includes what I'm going to do with my hair. Since it's short right now, this isn't an issue, but think headbands and ponytailers and the like. Again, this is a great way to express your personality, so don't forget to pack what goes with each outfit.

PJs: You don't want to know how many times I've forgotten to pack pajamas. Fortunately, this has been an issue only when I've been traveling for work and staying in my own hotel room. This isn't something you want to forget when you're going to a conference, especially if you're sharing a room with someone else.

Bathroom gear: There's a lot you want to bring here. I actually have a separate travel/gym bag that I keep constantly packed with a spare set of everything, so for me this is easy. I even keep all my liquids in a quart size bag so it's ready to pop into my suitcase since anything liquid needs to go through security separately (and must be under 3.4 ounces). You'll want your:
facial soap and routine
Any special shampoos or hair product you use
A straightening iron/curler if you use one
Any special hair dryers (though hotels always have them, they're frequently small and if you're sharing a room with someone, you may want your own)
Toothbrush and toothpaste, as well as mouthwash
Contact case and solution if you use them
Lotion (you'll need it - conferences are notorious for dry air)

Purses: I always bring two purses. One is my big purse that will hold my iPad and camera and everything I need and want for the day on the floor. This becomes my carry-on purse, as it holds more items and again saves space in my suitcase. I also bring a smaller purse for evenings and times when I'm not at the conference itself that is my day to day purse and will hold just those necessities. Again, by choosing outfits within a single color palette, I can bring just one extra purse and have it work.

Something to do on the plane: I read a lot, and generally now I read on my iPad. That said, there is that little prohibition about using electronic devices during takeoff and landing. I grab a magazine to read on the plane during those times, knowing that when I finish it, I can leave it behind and further reduce the weight of what I'm carrying.

Technological gear: This is where people differ in their opinions, and you need to choose what works best for you. I am one who takes great notes (in my humble opinion), so I want my iPad with me and the accompanying keyboard. I'll also sometimes bring my laptop if I'm planning to do any posting or other work at the conference because my iPad is somewhat lacking in that department. You need to figure out what you want to do there, and then bring the gear for it, knowing each additional item is something else to carry and take care of.
Keyboard for said tablet
Smart phone (don't tell me you don't have a smart phone!)
Camera and any spare lenses/flashes - I bring my DSLR because there are always awesome photo opportunities and learnings, and don't forget the USB to connect this to your laptop so you can download the images you've taken
mini-video camera - I bring my Sony Bloggie because it's tiny and will also take quick pictures and captures fun moments
A power strip - trust me, you'll make friends if you're the one who has this
A mi-fi - while I don't have one and deal with it, getting onto conference wi-fi is always an issue. If you want to be sure you're connected, bring yours
Your iPod/iTouch - music on the plane or when you just need to chill? You can't put a price on that... and don't forget the earbuds to go with it

Chargers: The last thing you want to have to worry about is running out of power while you're on the go. You want to bring your chargers for every item - your camera(s), your phone, your laptop/iPad, etc. I also bring my travel charger (I have an iGo) so that when I'm running out of power during the day, I can recharge my phone even when I'm somewhere that doesn't have a place to plug in.

Business cards: A conference is a place to meet people. It may be meeting with brands or industries, or it may be meeting with people who will become collaborators with you or simply new friends. You need some way for them to know who you are and how to contact you. I put my picture on my business cards to help people remember, and I've been told that makes a huge difference in sticking out from the crowd. You'll also want your name, site, email, Twitter, and other contact information included - you decide what you're comfortable sharing. There are great sites to get low cost or free cards from VistaPrint to Moo Cards that come in awesome shapes and more. If you buy 250, that's more than enough, but make sure you bring business cards regardless. And no, you don't need to attach all sorts of gee-gaw to them.

Other: There are always other things you need that don't really fit into a category, but that doesn't mean they aren't as critical.
Your smile and a good attitude!
Wallet with ID
Your itinerary, including any confirmation numbers for flights, hotels, conference registration, etc. It's always good to have backup, and yes, it's saved my bacon in the past.
Snacks - granola bars or dried fruit, something for the plane and between meals to get you through and keep your energy up
Paper and pen - I always bring a notebook to take notes or jot down ideas, key if I lose power unexpectedly!
Water - I bring a stainless steel water bottle everywhere. Have a plan to stay hydrated, as again, conferences are really dry
Cash - I know the commercial says "Don't leave home without it" about your credit car (and bring that, too), but some cash is key
Vitamins - you've got to keep your energy up
Earplugs - Shutting out the ambient noise so you can sleep at night in a hotel is huge. And yes, I'll even put mine in while on the plane to drown out some of that noise sometimes.

Next week? How to pack so everything fits in your suitcase. Yes, I did bring a carry on to Detroit for a three day conference, and it held my clothes, my DSLR camera bag with spare lenses and flash, my iPad, my laptop, and everything described above. It's totally doable.

Can you think of anything I forgot since I'm typing this from memory and don't have my list with me? Or better yet, what's the worst thing you've ever forgotten?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Tasty Tuesday - How To Cut An Avocado

Avocados are one of my favorite foods. They make such awesome ingredients in dishes from the best guacamole ever to the avocado tomato salad I shared last week, and more. Plus, they're pretty good on my own, as Little Miss can attest. They're one of her favorite vegetables.

A few weeks ago, I asked my husband to help with prep in the kitchen and watched in amazement as he cut up the avocado. It was somewhat entertaining to watch him start to peel it then change his mind and cut it across the short half of the avocado and try to dig out all the flesh. And then it dawned of me that perhaps a tutorial might be in order. Do you know how to quickly and effectively cut an avocado? You do now!

A couple of notes before we begin. First, you want a ripe avocado. How do you find a ripe avocado? You want to buy one in the store that isn't rock hard, but you don't want one with any soft spots in it. The soft spots will be brown inside and will taste icky. You want to find one that will just barely start to give as you gently squeeze it. And the real test of an avocado? You want to wiggle the stem on the top of the avocado - that little bit that's barely left there. If it's stuck firmly on there and won't move, the avocado isn't ripe. If it pops off and isn't bright green underneath, it's overripe. You don't want to try to remove it yourself, as it protects the freshness of your avocado and keeps it from overripening, but if you wiggle it and can feel that it's pretty loose and wants to come off? You're doing well.

How To Cut Up An Avocado

Step One: Cut the avocado in half lengthwise. This will give you the most room to maneuver. Once you've cut all the way around, twist the two halves in your hands and pull it apart. One half will be ready to go, and the other half will contain the pit.

Step 2: To remove the pit, use the knife that you just used to cut the skin around the avocado. Notice that it doesn't need to be super sharp. I wouldn't use a butter knife, but this is a table knife I have. Don't hold the avocado in your hand while you do this. Or at least be very careful of where all your fingers are - I have a scar and an emergency room bill for stitches that I can show you for proof of what happens when you don't. Slam your knife firmly into the pit. You want it to embed itself slightly into the avocado pit. Then you simply apply a little force and twist the knife sideways. The pit will pop right out. That said, if you're only using half your avocado, leave the pit in. The pit helps the avocado from turning brown as much as is possible. Another secret: if you're making guacamole and it will be out for awhile, leave the pit(s) in the guacamole, and it will help keep it fresher.

Step 3: Removing the flesh from the avocado is fairly easy at this point. You will change your tool now to a spoon. Simply slide the spoon between the flesh and the skin and gently work it all the way around the avocado. This is where a ripe avocado is important - an unripe one won't separate easily (ok, plus, it doesn't taste as good). Once you've gone all the way around, use the spoon to pop the flesh out and onto a cutting board.

Step 4: When you're ready to cut your avocado, simply use your same knife again to run the knife lightly through the sections first one way and then another. The key here is to not cut them too small. Avocado is fairly delicate and will start to fall apart as you mix it, so you want to start with pieces larger than those you want to end with. For this reason, I never cut them to make them shorter and instead leave them the full height of the avocado - just 2 cuts, not three.

From here, the avocado is clean and ready to use in nice even chunks. Now... go make some guacamole. I'm hungry!

Enjoy this and more with Blessed With Grace and Tempt My Tummy Tuesday. Also posting now with A Southern Fairytale and her Mouthwatering Monday.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Yes, He Really Is Autistic

Thursday was not a good day. It started off all well and good, but by the end of the day - for the first time in my parenting history - I was alone in my bedroom sobbing. Things just hit at the wrong time.

Mister Man is autistic. He's very high functioning, and he attends Catholic school with no support, but he's still autistic. That's why I pick him up to take him to twice weekly therapies. And yes, when he's playing or when you observe him long enough, it's obvious that he's "different" from the other kids. Most of the time, I can, unconsciously perhaps, pretend that all is well and that maybe he doesn't truly have autism. He does.

Thursday afternoon, I got an email from his teacher. His teacher doesn't like email and only sends email if there's something brewing. Apparently he's been "making decisions that are having a detrimental impact on his ability to do his work effectively" although there was no other specific information behind that. He also had disappeared on the way to Mass on Wednesday, then jumped out from behind a pillar to scare his teacher on Wednesday. The teacher had provided him with a life learning lesson (part of their discipline) to talk to me about, but he had failed to do so. And Thursday a boy at recess took a ball he was playing with, so he had started hitting the child. Repeatedly. He spent time with the assistant principal and was told he was staying in for recess on Friday and perhaps again today.

I had thought the new year was going well. On Tuesday, Mister Man came home so excited because he had earned four tickets (rewards for outstanding "something" - generally behavior) that day, something he had never done before. Wednesday, he hadn't earned any more tickets, but he told me it had been a great day and went into detail about what he'd done and who he'd played with. Apparently not. The email burst the bubble of my day. We have talked to him more times than I can count about how he is not allowed to hide and try to scare people because - as part of his autism - he doesn't get when it's ok to do that and when it isn't, so most of the time he tries it, it's an inappropriate time or place. And he isn't a hitter. He's never been a hitter, but this year, behaviors like this are coming out, and I don't know where they're coming from.

That afternoon was also to be Mister Man's first day trying out the "big kid" class at tae kwon do. His dojo has two programs - a little kid program where they start at five years old and learn a lot of the basic moves and the first form, but also start to learn to listen and follow directions well and begin to develop a sense of responsibility before moving to the big kid class at around age 7, once they've completed the "black belt" and all its stripes in the little kid class.

When Mister Man tested for his black belt in the little kid class early this summer, there were three kids testing with him - two moving to a red belt, the belt below him, and one moving to a black belt with him. At the end of the test, the instructor asked the other black belt if she wanted to move to the big kid class because she was ready. Mister Man wasn't even though he's eight. He's had all the stripes on his black belt since mid-October, and still the instructor waited. Her goal was to move him over with two or three other students at the start of the new year. Now.

And so he had his first class in the big kid room on Thursday. It was a standard class, plus him, a brand new student to tae kwon do who was obviously younger than him, and a child who is a purple belt (two below where Mister Man is) with only a couple stripes there. As I sat and watched the class, I could feel the tears gathering in my eyes. He didn't belong there. When the class did kibon - the first form that they learn, and one Mister Man has known for over a year now - he was moving in one direction by the end of it while the entire other class was moving in another. He didn't have the strength still to keep his knees bent while standing in various positions and awaiting instructions. Between punches, he would have his arm almost straight up in the air, looking around him - even after an instructor would walk to him and manually correct his arm position. His kicks were less kicks and more a foot swatting at something near his ankle, again even after an instructor demonstrated specifically for him and worked with him on them. And when they played the "belt game" at the end of class? That was the worst. Each child was given two very short white belts, which they were told to tuck into their existing belts - picture flag football. Every child did as instructed, except Mister Man. He removed his belt - the only one to do so - and tried tying the short belts, which didn't work. Then he tried wrapping the belts, both of them at once, around his waist and putting his original belt atop it. The instructor eventually had to come and fix all his belts for him. If he had the awareness to look around and see what the other kids were doing, he could have saved himself this. But looking around and seeing what others are doing is essentially his problem - he doesn't have that instinct or understanding, and my explaining it to him does nothing.

As the students exited the class at the end, the owner stopped the purple belt. She handed him the new uniform for the big kid class and told him he was going to those classes from now on. Mister Man wasn't handed a uniform. She told me that she would talk to the instructor of the big kid class to get his feedback. But really, I knew. By the end of the class, I knew what the response from the instructors would be. He doesn't belong in the big kid class yet. He needs to return to the little kid class - the only child there who has his black belt with all the stripes. He doesn't need to gain any more skills there, but he needs to continue maturing. And that breaks my heart.

As I climbed into the car, I was already fighting back tears. All I want for my children is for them to find what they're good at and to be happy. Mister Man adores tae kwon do, and he was so excited to move to the big kid class. Except that he isn't, but when I asked him, he had no idea that he'd done anything that didn't warrant him staying in the class. Instead, I had to prep him that maybe he would have to wait a little longer and tried to give him some examples of why.

What's so frustrating for me is that he is almost a completely neurotypical kid. He's so close to fitting in and getting it, but yet he doesn't. He's a smart little cookie and as sweet as pie, but there are things that he just can't do, but because he looks and acts so "normal" most of the time, everyone raises their expectations. Coupled with the issues at school, my expectations were fully dashed, and I was crushed.

As we drove home, he told me about what had happened at school, too. When the child took the ball, his first instinct was to hit. He didn't ask the child for the ball back. He didn't involve a teacher. He didn't walk away. All the social stories we work on about what to do in various situations flew out the window, and instead he hit the child. In my head, all I could hear was "What more can I do?" ringing over and over. And for that moment in time, I had no answer.

When we got home, my mom was just arriving with Little Miss. My mom blew off my concerns of the tae kwon do after a sentence with an essentially "oh well" type answer. And then there was a misunderstanding over her pronouncement that Little Miss's coat was dirty, and my mom refused to tell me the story of why it was dirty. And then she tossed out a catty, "When I make a commitment, I keep it" - something I knew was a dig directly at me.

And my day was done. Fortunately I'd prepared dinner for the wee ones - although it hadn't finished cooking when I had to leave for tae kwon do, so in desperation I had put it in the oven on a timed cook in the hopes that it would be done when we arrived home. Check it out. Another failure on the day on my part. I put the dinner on the table for the wee ones and excused myself, something I've never done before. I couldn't sit with them. I couldn't eat dinner. I was just done.

And for the first time in my life as a parent, I went upstairs and closed myself in my bedroom and sat on the floor to cry. I was absolutely and 100 percent feeling sorry for myself, but knowing this didn't change it. I was so frustrated and so ... done. It seemed that no matter my efforts, nothing I was doing was the right step or the right path. By the time the wee ones had finished dinner and started getting themselves ready for bed, I was able to face the world again. I wasn't happy by any stretch, but I could at least give them their requisite hugs and kisses and tell them I loved them before again retreating to my bedroom for some solitary - because my husband wasn't home yet, of course - self-pity time.

On Friday, the day dawned bright and sunny. And the good news is that it was a new day. A different day. Nothing had changed but me. I had a good discussion with Mister Man about what he needed to do when he stayed in for recess, and I braced myself for what the instructor would say on Saturday when we went in for our tae kwon do class. I talked with Mister Man with the understanding that Wednesday and Thursday had been really hard days in school and that might have led to some of his issues with the new tae kwon do class. I learned that he was really excited about trying the new class and that he was also very nervous. Put all that together with an autistic child, and of course you have a recipe for disaster. I prepped him that he might have to stay in the little kid class for a bit longer, but I also explained that he could show maturity in talking to the owner and telling her what he had told me, which might grant him the opportunity to try the big kid class again.

Thank goodness for sunny days. Thank goodness there's always the dawning of a new hope and another try. Thursday is not a pit that I want to live in, nor could I. Because yes, Mister Man does have autism. And I can't forget that. That was my problem - pretending in my head that everything was "normal" when it wasn't and can't ever be. And that's ok.

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