Monday, October 20, 2014

Easy Weeknight Chili (also works in the crockpot!)

Tonight I wanted to make this recipe, and went searching in the blog archives before realizing I've never posted it! Easy, comforting, warm, and delicious, this is the perfect traditional chili recipe that everyone needs in their repertoire. But as simple as it is, I always get asked for the recipe when I make it. Perfect for either the stovetop or the crockpot, this is the meal to add to your regular menu rotation as life starts to get busy heading into the holidays. 

Easy Weeknight Chili
adapted from

2 lbs. ground beef, cooked and drained
2 cans tomato sauce
2 cans kidney beans, undrained
2 cans pinto beans, undrained
1/2 of a medium onion, chopped
1 small can green chilis
1/4 cup diced celery
2 cans diced tomatoes
2 t. cumin
3 T. chili powder
1 1/2 t. pepper
2 t. salt
2 c. water

Combine all ingredients in large pot and simmer for at least an hour, stirring occasionally. This is also delicious in the crockpot - just set on high for a few hours, or low for the whole day.

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Saturday, October 4, 2014

Mealtime Simplification: An Update

Five years ago I wrote this post on Mealtime Simplification. In it, I wrote about how we deal with eating and dinners at our home, and I made the comment that I wasn't sure how this strategy would play out down the line with older kids, so I thought it was time for an update.

First, the quick rundown. We plan dinners we love. We serve them to our kids. Our kids can choose whether they want to eat it or not, and also how much they eat. If they are still hungry after dinner, they may have what we have come to call a "survival sandwich," which is a piece of bread with peanut butter on it.

We don't believe in forcing food. We don't believe in cleaning your plate. Our one dinnertime rule regarding food is: "Nothing rude about the food." I talked quite a bit about our reasons behind this in my original post, so today I'm just going to stick with an update.

Five years ago I had a 4-year-old, a 2-year-old, and a newborn. My 2-year-old was the one who vomited the first time he was fed a grain of rice, an omen of what was to come. My kids are now 9, 7, and 5, and I'll be honest, it's been a long road with that middle child. He wants to like foods, he really does. He is a sweet-natured, cooperative child, not given to power struggles or generally making life difficult. But he truly just prefers plain, bland food.

We have still not pushed him to try new foods. He does quite frequently try new things on his own accord, hoping that he will like them, and over the years we have gradually moved from many "thumbs down" foods to more and more "sideways thumbs" and also, surprisingly, more "thumbs up" foods than we would have ever thought.

He still avoids condiments, sauces, and anything spicy. He still gives a side-eye to most vegetables. But every month, every year he finds more things that he enjoys, and it's getting easier.

We talk a lot about different types of food and what's in them. Even my 5-year-old can carry on a conversation about protein and calcium, and all three of them understand the importance of filling your body with healthy foods.

There is no stress at our dinner table. There are no power struggles. We respect our kids' right to dislike certain types of food, and they respect us by keeping their "eeeeewwwww" comments to themselves, and making themselves a Survival Sandwich if they need one. No one goes to bed hungry, no one has their dinner put in the fridge and served to them for breakfast the next day, no one is reduced to tears over a plate of food. Our dinner table is a place for conversation, laughter, and closeness, and it's a happy one.

I'll finish up with a success story from this week. As I was dishing up dinner, I was putting some canned pears on Parker's plate. As I did, my youngest asked, "Why are you still giving him pears? He never eats those." I answered her, "You know, one day Parker is going to decide he wants to try pears again. And when he does, I think he'll find out that he likes them. And today might just be that day." We sat down to dinner - steak sandwiches with a creamy dill sauce. First he tried the steak sandwiches. Minor victory, he usually likes plain meat with bread, and he did. Then he tried pickles, for what I'm pretty sure is the first time ever. Then he tried the creamy dill sauce, loved it, and dipped every bite in it. MAJOR victory - this kid does not so condiments. And then, finally, the pears. I knew he would someday.

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Friday, September 19, 2014

Time and Space

So last year, though I never wrote about it here on the blog, I had a minor mental meltdown over the fact that I had literally nowhere in my house that was mine, for my own stuff. I became obsessed with having my own space. Someone hung their jacket on my hook? Dead meat. I couldn't rest until I purchased this apothecary table from Target to finally give me a teeny corner of my home to call my own. (Thank you, more talented design blogger with a cuter house, for a photo of what it looks like.)

This year, I'm obsessing over time. I participated in a fitness challenge and the trainer running it challenged us to meditate between one and sixty minutes per day. I was pumped. I was motivated. I couldn't wait to meditate.

And then I looked at my day. And I didn't have even one minute at home that I don't spend with my family. We wake up, we all get ready at the same time, my kids are with me both on my way to work and on my way home (since I work at their school). Then we're all at home together doing homework, sports, bedtime routine, etc., and then my husband and I hang out in the evenings and go to bed at the same time. There are so many things I'm grateful for in this scenario, don't get me wrong. I'm insanely grateful for my family. I love that my husband is able to be around so frequently. I love that I can work where my kids go to school, and I don't miss any of their important events. I'm glad my husband and I go to bed at the same time.

Buuuuuuut... not even one minute to myself that I could use to meditate? Of course I leave for Girls Nights and a good solo trip to Target now and then, but there was no consistent time each day that was me with my own time. It really started nagging at me. How can I even be me if I'm with my family every minute of every day?

Here's the part where I have a profound solution and a happy ending, but I don't. I never found that minute. One night I tried to meditate in my closet and before one minute was over, my husband came up and knocked on the door. "Uh, what are you doing in the closet?" Sigh. And it still bothers me that I don't have time to myself. So, no profound solution here. Just hoping, I guess, to commiserate.

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Sunday, May 18, 2014

Race Report - Gold Nugget Triathlon 2014

I know this isn't a fitness blog, but I had a great experience at a race today and wanted to share, in hopes that it might inspire someone else to try something out of their comfort zone!

Alaska has an awesome women's triathlon called the Gold Nugget, and it's well-known to be super friendly toward beginners. I'm used to running, and started kicking around the idea of a triathlon last year, but not until the race was already sold out. This year I was ready for registration and got in (before it sold out in 9 minutes)! I was nervous about the swimming and biking, since I hadn't really been swimming since I took a class in college 15 years ago, and I hadn't biked since I was a kid. But I love having a goal to work toward, so I took on the challenge and started working!

The distances were (in this order): 500 yd. swim, 12.1 mile bike, and a 4.1 mile run. I trained through the winter at the gym and the indoor pool, and got outside as soon as the snow cleared (April). It was hard to estimate what a good goal would be since I'd never done one before, and I originally shot for 2 hours, 30 minutes, knowing that it would be easily doable. As my training went on, and I looked at previous years' results, I started to wonder if I could actually go under two hours. While the biggest thing was just to finish and have a great time, I really started to have my heart set on that 2 hour mark. And, I'm proud to say, I beat it by quite a bit, with a time of 1:50! I almost had to let out a little scream in the race results tent when I saw it.

The Good
*Meeting my goal time, of course!
*I was really happy with my training leading up to the race. Between working full-time, and 3 kids in various sports and activities, it was really challenging to fit in enough workouts. I had to be really creative, getting up early in the morning, swimming laps while my kids had swim lessons, etc. Not to mention that there are NO triathlon training programs that take into account that the ground will be covered in snow until the month before the race. But I used what I knew about running training programs, and wrote myself something that I felt like worked really well for me.
*The race itself. Everything was organized so well, the volunteers and organizers were super friendly, the other racers were supportive - you couldn't ask for better energy in a race. It was amazing. The ages of the racers ranged from 9-76, and women of every size and shape.
*I also had a crazy awesome run. All this cross-training has really helped my run times, and I ran some of my best miles ever.
*Seeing my family there, cheering me on! I also had several friends and family members in the race throughout the day, and it was fun to see them and cheer them on.

The Bad
*Someone posted a picture of a black bear on the bike course the night before the race. Uh, can you say nerves?! And, reading the race reports coming in on the Facebook page, it seems that more than one person SAW black bears on the course today! Ack! Gotta love Alaska!
*I had shin splints in the two weeks leading up to the race, along with some crazy busy weeks at work. I knew I had to lay low and mostly stay off my feet for the shin splints, but it made me really anxious that my body would just forget all the training I had spent months on. It didn't, but it caused me a lot of anxiety in the days before the race.
*Okay, I know this sounds like I have turned into a true Alaskan, but it was actually a *touch* too hot for me out on the course today. We've been uncharacteristically warm here lately (over 70 degrees), and I was super hot on the run. Felt like California! Of course, it's better than the alternative, and I'm sure in future years I'll look back longingly on this 72 degree day!

The Ugly
*I forgot my sunglasses AND my racing belt/bib (my number) at my first transition!!!! The racing instructions said you HAD to have your racing bib for the run, so I spent a LONG hour on my bike having nightmares of what they would do when I got to the run and didn't have it (answer: nothing, but it was a lot of stress).

And that's it! I've had so many people say they could NEVER do a triathlon, but it was really encouraging to see women of all ages and fitness levels out there on the course today! Most people could do most beginner-level races with a few months of training, so start exploring what's in your area and try something new this summer!

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Monday, May 5, 2014

Meet the Mop That Changed My Life

I want to make clear from the beginning that this is NOT a sponsored post - just sharing something I love!

Sometime last year, I put a plea out to my readers to help me find the perfect steam mop. I HATE mopping with the passion of a thousand fiery suns, and I was willing to pay nearly any amount of money to make the job bearable. Here's some key words to start us out. Black dog. Three kids. Linoleum. Rental. Am I painting a lovely mental image here?

So one dear reader suggested the Hoover Floormate. I have the SpinScrub, but there is now a newer model. The Hoover Floormate is not actually a steam mop, but ended up being exactly what I was looking for. My main issues with mopping were:

1. I would spend all this time mopping, and then afterwards, if I would wipe the floor with a baby wipe, it would still come up brownish/gray.

2. The dog hair. Oh, the dog. How I wish.... never mind. Each time I would mop, it would simply push lines of dog hair into the corners of my floor, and I would have to go back through afterwards with baby wipes and clean all that up.

It was getting to the point where I would vacuum, use a Swiffer, then get on my hands and knees to spot-clean what the Swiffer hadn't gotten, and it STILL wasn't clean enough! Something had to change. Once my reader recommended the Floormate, I read the reviews and knew it was just what I needed.

Here's how it works:
*The Floormate has three functions: Vacuum, Wash, and Dry.
*Vacuum: Not intended to replace a regular vacuum, but nice if you're mopping and come across some crumbs or something. You can easily turn the switch to Vacuum, suction them right up, and then move along.
*Wash: You squeeze the trigger, and it sends out washing solution onto the floor, at which point some little rotating scrubbers under the head scrub the yuckyness, making your floors beautifully clean. At this point, the Floormate is also suctioning up the dirty water into a separate compartment.
*Dry: To decrease the drying time, there is also a Dry setting, which further suctions up the water. I don't use this because to me, the floors dry quickly enough without it.

The day it arrived from Amazon, I was giddy...

The first day I used it, I was converted. Here is my floor's side-by-side last two columns on the far right have not been mopped yet.)
Doesn't that look so nice and sparkling clean?

And then... this is unsettling. Here is some of the water the Floormate had sucked up during its first use. Beware... this is gross... See that bottom inch? Eeeeewwwww!
Thinking of buying one? Here are some Pros and Cons...

The Cons:
*Obviously more expensive than a regular mop.
*I always forget when I go into Dry mode, and I think I'm in Wash mode. I feel like it shouldn't squirt out the cleaning solution unless you're in Wash mode.
*About the same weight/size as a vacuum.

The Pros:
*No nasty water getting mixed into the water you are using for cleaning!
*The head is nice and low, so I can easily mop right against the edge of the floor, under the edges of my cabinets.
*You don't need to use their cleaner - you can use anything, even water and vinegar.
*It can clean lots of different surfaces - tile, grout, sealed hardwood, linoleum, etc.
*Cleans my floors so beautifully that if I take a baby wipe to it after I'm done, it comes up clean! I could NEVER make this happen before!

*And the biggest Pro of all.... now I LOVE mopping! I have gone from avoiding it at all costs, to actually being disappointed if my husband uses it without me. And, the more I love using it, the more frequently I use it, and the cleaner my floors are likely to stay! Can't beat that!

So that's that! Check it out! If you have any similarly wonderful products that have changed your mind about a household chore, I'd love to hear about them!

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Sunday, April 27, 2014

When to Get Off the Merry-Go-Round

Does anyone else go through this cycle? This is me, constantly. I was always a chubby kid growing up, and about 4 years ago, I was at an all-time high with my weight. I was unhappy, I lost about 30 pounds, and now... I'm here. I'm not overweight, I'm not thin. I'm just.... average, I guess.

But I am constantly going through the cycle above. I'll gain a little bit of weight, and commit myself to being healthy and fit, eating right. I'll be super super disciplined, and count calories, exercise, etc., and the scale doesn't budge. So then it all seems pointless. Or, I lose a pound or two, and then I reason that my weight is actually fine. I'm a mother, I like my curves, I like my body, I'm just going to maintain. But then maintenance quickly spirals into eating whatever I want, the pounds pack back on, my clothes don't fit, and then we start again.

I think a perfect world, for me, would consist of never weighing myself, and just focusing on reaching fitness goals, trying different classes, events, races, and routines, and just eating more cleanly and having a healthy lifestyle. Wouldn't that just be the ideal? It sounds so easy!

I want to just do one or the other. Decide I'm going to keep going, and be disciplined about getting there, or be honest with myself that this is an acceptable weight for me, and stop beating myself up about it. How do you decide when you're done?

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Monday, March 3, 2014

Easy Weekday Dinner - Fried Rice

Growing up, my mom was a working mom who always managed to get a delicious dinner on the table at the end of the day, something I certainly appreciate more now than I did at the time! One of the go-to meals around our house was fried rice. Now, this isn't meant to be an authentic recipe for fried rice, guys. Certainly you can find that elsewhere on the interwebz. But this is how I was taught to make it, and it turns out pretty tasty, if I do say so myself.

This will be more like a tutorial than a recipe, as I have never measured any of the ingredients and they're all going to be "to taste." But you will need cooked white rice (preferably leftover, or at least refrigerated), an egg, soy sauce, a variety of vegetables, and some meat. Vague, I know, but this is one of those super flexible meals that you can kind of make work with whatever you've got in the fridge.

So first, dice everything into similarly-sized pieces. I usually use what's pictured below: celery, carrots, and ham. We ALWAYS have those on hand, and all my kids like them (in theory).
 Next, take any veggies that need to be cooked, and cook them in a little bit of oil.
Cook your veggies until just tender. Here's where you have two choices. One, just add your rice and ham and move on to the next step. Or, a slightly less healthy, but very delicious option, is to actually fry your rice. First, you add a little more oil to the pan after you cook your veggies. Then pat your rice and meat down into a flat layer and let it fry up a bit on the bottom. I usually let it fry up a bit, then give it a stir, and repeat.
Your rice will start getting a little bit crispy. Don't overdo it though, you just want some crispy bites throughout, not an entire batch of rock-hard rice. Next, make a well in the center of the pan. Crack an egg into a separate bowl and whisk it, then pour it into the well.
Cook the egg in the center gently, as though you're making scrambled eggs.
When your eggs are pretty much cooked through, stir the egg in with the rest of the ingredients.
Add soy sauce to taste (start with a splash or two). If you're going to use green onions, stir them in right at the end here.
We pair this with the potstickers from Costco, for an easy weeknight meal that can be made with whatever you've got! This would be delicious with pork, shrimp, or chicken as well! Fried rice is also a good way for me to get some protein into my picky eater, as he's not much of a fan of meat, but he'll eat some scrambled eggs any day! Give it a try and let me know what your kids think!

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Fur Rondy

For a while now I've been meaning to do more posts on living in Alaska. It's truly such a unique experience that we are having here, and I'd love to share more of it with you.

Tonight we went to a celebration called the Fur Rendezvous (or Fur Rondy, as super cool kids call it). I just learned, courtesy of Google, that Fur Rondy started in 1935 as a 3-day sports festival to give the locals something to do in the winter. For reals. Now it has all sorts of events, from a Native Alaskan blanket toss, to the Running of the Reindeer (race against reindeer!), Outhouse Races (?), fireworks, and more!

We always love to see the snow sculptures made for the competition. This year, with Minecraft, Minions, and Dr. Who all in one competition, my kids almost wet their pants with excitement. It's amazing to see what people can make from an 8'x8' block of snow.
(This was half of a huge sculpture of a bear bowling at these little penguin bowling pins)

There is also a carnival that sets up downtown, and everyone comes and enjoys it, and we all pretend we're not going to the fair in the middle of an Alaskan winter.

As we look down the "midway," you'll note our large hotel off to the left, one of the dead giveaways that they just plopped this carnival right downtown.
Fair selfies.
Attempting to share cotton candy and a caramel apple in the cold, with no tables, pummeled by an 8-year-old, a 4-year-old, and a 6-year-old with two loose front teeth and a penchant for swallowing them.
We ended the night cold and content. It was one of those nights where the kids behaved, strangers gave us extra tickets, no one cried and begged for more than they got, and the fair treats tasted like the nectar of the gods. Love this Alaskan life.

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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

BBQ Sauce and Rub Review and Giveaway!

We've been going crazy with the BBQ sauce around here lately, since BBQ Pit Stop sent me some sauce and rub for a review and giveaway!
As many readers know, my husband is actually a former chef and the stay-at-home parent, so he is the one primarily making the meals in our family. I just sort of flit around and think up wonderful-sounding things for him to make. We were both excited for this product review, as we are always looking for something new to add to our recipe repertoire.

First up, we tried both the rub and the sauce on some plain ol' BBQ chicken.

Mmmmmmm..... The sweetness of the sauce was immediately noticeable. One of the ingredients is actually vanilla extract, and it gives it just a little touch of something different. My 8-year-old daughter noticed the sweetness immediately, and declared it "super yummy."

Next we tried the rub and the sauce on some shredded pulled pork sliders.
 Again, absolutely amazing. The sweetness of the sauce paired up so nicely with the pork.

And finally, we mixed the sauce with some mayonnaise to make a BBQ aioli as a dipping sauce for these homemade tater tots. Sooooooo delicious.

My kids LOVED this sauce, and so did my husband and I. The rub adds that extra bit of flavor, and would be excellent on its own, though we kept pairing it with the sauce! We'll definitely be picking up more of both in the future!

Currently, this sauce and the rub (along with a variety of others) are available at their storefront, which is located in Lehi, Utah, or you can give them a call at (801) 341-7171 and place an order. Their storefront also stocks a variety of different grills and smokers. So if you're local to Utah, definitely go check it out! Excellent stuff! We'll be heading over there in person the next time we're down that way!

Want to try some of the rub and sauce for yourself? Enter our Rafflecopter giveaway! To enter, "like" Simply Clean Living and BBQ Pit Stop on Facebook, and/or leave a comment below, letting me know your favorite way to use barbecue sauce! The winner will receive the Blues Hog Barbecue Sauce and Plowboys BBQ Yardbird Rub. Entries subject to verification. Giveaway closes next Tuesday, February 18th.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Monday, January 20, 2014

6 Reasons Why Parenthood is the Best Show You're Not Watching

If you don't already watch Parenthood on NBC, you're missing out on the best show on TV. It's about a family, led by Craig T. Nelson and Bonny Bedelia, their four adult children, and the assorted in-laws and grandkids. All around amazing characters, storylines, dialogue, all of it. Here's what sets it apart from the rest:

The women are not rail-thin fashion models
While the women who play the main characters are all gorgeous, they are not the stick-thin actresses you see on some other shows. None of them are overweight, but they do have bodies that at least resemble real life. They're dressed appropriately for their body type and age, and when the characters are at home with their kids, their wardrobes aren't magazine perfection - they're in cute, comfy, SAHM clothes. Or, sometimes frumpy SAHM clothes. So, pretty true to life.

Realistic Storylines
While of course there are storylines that make me roll my eyes (hello, long-suffering Kristina - can anymore sadness come your way?), I love that there are such realistic storylines. I laughed when Jasmine and Crosby had a new baby, and it wasn't all adorable coos and cuddles - they were fighting about getting up in the night, and Jasmine was angry and resentful when she always had to be the one to feed the baby. I wish that new parenthood was represented this way more often, because it's much more realistic.

Another storyline that I loved (and hated) was when Joel and Julia tried to adopt a baby, and at the last minute, the birth mother changed her mind. There was no happy ending, the birth mother didn't show up to swelling music in the last ten minutes saying never mind, they could adopt the baby. She just... changed her mind. Like women do. And they didn't get the baby they had been planning and hoping for. It was devastating, but wonderful to see represented on TV.

While there are storylines about issues common to many TV shows (infidelity, health problems, alcoholism, etc.), they also touch on other issues more rarely seen (Autism, PTSD from serving in the military, foster care, to name a few).

A Main Character With Asperger's
The first thing that made me fall in love with Parenthood as a show that stood out for the rest was the inclusion of a main character with Asperger's, which is on the Autism spectrum. Autism Spectrum Disorders and other disabilities affect so many families, yet I could count on one hand the number of family sitcoms I've seen where a main character has any sort of disorder or disability. Max's Asperger's isn't a very special episode, and it's not what the show is about. It's just a part of who he is, and a part of what makes their family what it is. Sometimes it's a focus of an episode, sometimes it isn't, but it's just part of Max's character. My heart aches with their family as they make decisions about how to help him navigate life, and while I don't have a child with Asperger's, as a Special Education teacher, it rings true to the issues and conversations I know some parents go through with their children.

Leaning On Family for Help
When I have problems, I don't go to a therapist, a hot neighbor, or even a friend - my first stop is my family. A sibling, a parent, an in-law... somebody who has known me for years and loves me anyway. And I think that most families are this way. What I love about Parenthood is that it shows the characters leaning on each other, going to their siblings, parents, grandparents, or extended family for advice and comfort, something I find sadly underrepresented on TV - and the way they do it here is beautiful.

There's Rarely a Good Guy or a Bad Guy
The show portrays conflicts between spouses, parents and their children, siblings - usually two people who love each other very much. They disagree - sometimes it's major, sometimes minor, but nearly always, there are two defensible sides to the argument. There is no villain of the family, and no angel - just people who love each other, disagreeing about real things, each of them with valid points.

It Gets Me Every Time
I challenge you to watch an entire season of Parenthood and not cry at least a couple of times. If you're like me, it'll be more like every episode. Maybe this shouldn't be on a list of good things about the show, as it sometimes reduces me to shuddering sobs and ugly cries - and I do not look like the lovely Monica Potter, pictured above.

If you haven't been watching it, jump right in. Or catch old episodes on Hulu, Netflix, or watch from the beginning of this season on

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Friday, January 10, 2014

9 Reasons Why Big Kids are the Bomb

When my kids were younger, I confess I pitied moms of older kids. It seemed to me that as friends' kids got to be about 7 or 8, the kids became louder, not quite so adorable, and frankly, kind of annoying. When my oldest started Kindergarten, I mourned. I knew we were entering a new stage in life, and that my daughter would change in some amazing ways, but I knew that she would soon be almost unrecognizable from the toddler/preschooler I cherished so much, and I dreaded it.

I knew I would love my kids as they grew older, but what I didn't know is that these years would bring their own magic that would sweep me up completely, leaving me to wonder how I ever could have thought that the preschool years would be my favorite. 

My older two kids are 8 and almost 7, and they have opened up a whole new world of parenting and family for me.

1. Sharing Hobbies
This picture was the absolute highlight of my two weeks of Christmas break. Last winter I fell in love with cross-country skiing, and this winter we bought stuff for the kids so that they could learn as well. Over the break, my husband and I took them to a local trail we love to ski, and I felt like my heart was going to explode with happiness. "Here I am, doing what I love! And my kids are loving it too!" I kept sneaking glances at them, their flushed and happy faces, their quiet concentration - surrounded by our beautiful Alaskan trails - and I truly couldn't imagine a happier place to be.

2. Watching Them Learn is Amazing
While of course I cherish the memories of those first shaky steps toward walking, watching and listening to the things they learn as older kids is so cool. The other day, my 6-year-old and 8-year-old, who are in a 1/2 combo class together, were having a conversation about supply and demand and I swear it was the cutest thing I've ever heard. Beginning with learning to read, and moving on up through multiplication and division (and supply and demand) I have been endlessly fascinated to watch them learn these big-kid skills. Just watching how their brains put information together, process it, and internalize it - both of them so different in their learning - it never gets old for me.

3. Playing Games
I love that the kids are old enough to play games that the whole family can legitimately enjoy. Our family just discovered Ticket to Ride and Apples to Apples Disney, and we've been having so much fun. The games don't end in tears, there's no careful calculations on the parenting pros and cons of "letting" them win Candyland - just fun. Together.

4. Long Conversations on the Beach
Not really on the beach. But I LOVE talking to my kids now that they're older. The other night at bedtime tuck-ins, my (always-stalling) 8-year-old and I had an in-depth conversation on teacher's unions, health insurance, and career choice. And then sometimes we're just silly and laughing, and sometimes I'm hearing about their day, down to the last detail. But I can get lost in conversations with them in a way that's brand new, and something I hope I have at least 50 more years to enjoy. 

5. Just this:
"I'll take the yellow cup. I don't care what color I have." I fall to the ground in worship.

6. Sharing Books & Music
My own kids aren't quite old enough for this year, but my 10-year-old cousin is a reader, like me. I love curling up on the couch with her and looking for new books on Goodreads, reading the same ones at the same time, and discussing them afterwards. My kids and I also like the same music, and rock out together to our favorite Pandora stations. Shhhhh.... I'm a terrible parent in what I let my kids listen to. I did feel vaguely ashamed last night when my kids and I were all dancing and singing to lyrics that included, "Says she won't, but I bet she will." Uh, whoops. And let's not discuss Blurred Lines.

7. They Get Funny
Sarcasm and teasing are some staples of our family dynamics, and as my kids get older, they're definitely learning! Listening to them play with language and come up with jokes that are actually funny, make a hilarious remark with perfect comedic timing, or lovingly tease me about all the naps I take - while both my big kids were funny as preschoolers, they are getting downright hilarious now.

8. They're Still Adorable

How could I have thought older kids weren't cute? They may be getting less cute to strangers and acquaintances, and I'd be lying if I said that my precocious 4-year-old doesn't captivate every crowd, but my older kids are at this beautiful stage where I can still see the little people they were, and I can catch a glimpse of the big people they are going to become. Which leads me to....

9. They Become People

I love watching my kids grow into themselves. What sports and activities do they choose? One is obsessed with sports and learning to play hockey, the other loves fashion and carefully plans out each accessory. Who do they hang out with at school? How do they handle challenges? What do they think about social issues? I feel now, more than ever, I am starting to glimpse my kids as tweens, as teenagers, as adults. I feel like I'm getting to know them as people. And pretty cool people, at that.

What a gift of parenting, yes? To think that every stage is the best? I anticipate some challenging years ahead, but I know that these guys will continue to grow and amaze me in ways I could never now imagine. But for today, I feel like I'm in parenting nirvana. Though I have probably just jinxed myself, and tomorrow will end with a foot-stomping, sobbing tantrum of epic proportions. Because those still happen.

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Friday, January 3, 2014

Favorite Books of 2013!

I set a goal again in 2013 to read 50 more books. I set this goal in 2012 and blogged about my 4- and 5-star books from that year. Now another year has gone by, and it's time to recommend my favorites from 2013! As always, you can find me on Goodreads if you want another friend to follow!

As I mentioned last year, to me, a 5-star review means that I loved it, couldn't stop thinking about it, and couldn't wait to get back to reading it. Also that I think most people would enjoy reading it. A 4-star review means that I really liked it, couldn't wait to finish it, and I think most people that like the same types of books that I do would enjoy reading it. And again I'll throw in a disclaimer that while I have a low threshold for gore and violence in books, I have a fairly high threshold for sex and language, so there are probably books on my list that would be R-rated in the movie world. Consider yourselves warned. :)

This year I'm going to rank them in order (roughly), starting with my favorite. I made sure to add a review for all my 5-star books if I hadn't already written one. But for my 4-star books, if I originally wrote a review, it's there. If not, it's not.

5-Star Books

WonderWonder by R.J. Palacio
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

By far my favorite book of 2013. I loved it so much that I bought it in hardcover, making it exactly the second book I have purchased in the past 5 years. This is the story of a 5th grader who was born with a facial deformity, and his experiences as he adjusts to going to school for the first time. I loved the characters, the dialogue, and the family dynamics of this book. As soon as I finished it, I was recommending it to everyone I knew!

View all my reviews The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom ThumbThe Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a historical fiction account of Mrs. Tom Thumb, who essentially spent her life on display at the circus, and how she tried to rise above it. While this is not fact-based enough to be considered a biography, I learned a lot about the era, and the historical figures in the book. I couldn't shut up about this book for like a week after I read it - I wanted to talk about it to everybody!

View all my reviews Okay for NowOkay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Usually for me, a 5-star review is one where I honestly think that ANYBODY would enjoy the book - it's that good. I can't say that's the case here, but here are the reasons I had to rate it 5 stars anyway:
1. On page 3, Gary Schmidt was already describing Doug and his life so perfectly, I had to log back onto Goodreads to see if this book was a memoir. That's how well he captured this character.
2. It's not unusual for me to read late into the night, feeling guilty about it and knowing I'll be tired but it'll be worth it, blah blah blah. The difference last night is that I realized with a jolt at 1:30am that I was a separate person apart from this book - I was so completely immersed in Marysville, New York, circa 1968, that I literally forgot that I was even reading.

It did meet my other 5-star requirement of "not being able to stop talking about it." I wanted to discuss this book with everyone I encountered tonight after finishing it.

Gary Schmidt writes amazing characters. They're unique, they're lovable, they're vulnerable. I was so invested in these characters, that I found myself gasping out loud or breaking into ridiculously huge grins - not normal for me. Anyway, loved this book. Great read.

View all my reviews Memoirs of an Imaginary FriendMemoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I literally could NOT put this book down. I devoured it in one sitting, and was left wanting more. Though some parts in the middle dragged, the originality of the storyline and the strength of the writing bumps this book up to 5-star territory for me. I was not surprised to read that the author is an elementary school teacher - he captures the elementary school experience so perfectly. In fact, the more I think about why I enjoyed it so much, I realize that he perfectly captured so many things I can relate to - working with students on the Autism spectrum, being a mother, the relationships between staff members at a school, the art of being a teacher, etc. Loved it.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly CloseExtremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I kind of wanted to rate this 4 stars, because the entire time I was reading this, I felt so sad, and it really wasn't a pleasant experience in that way. But I know this is a book that will stick with me, and some of the writing was just so amazing - so 4 stars just didn't really feel right. Poor little Oskar - he just got in my head. It was so heartbreaking to read about his guilt and regrets over the death of his dad. I loved his character. The only thing I didn't like about the book is that it changed narrators, and it was confusing to me at times who was speaking and when in the story they were narrating. I loved the extra story of his grandparents, and I'm glad it's in there, but maybe the audiobook would have been good for me so that I knew who was narrating. Anyway, this was a heavy book about loss and grief, but it was beautifully written and I think I loved it.

 4-Star Books

The Snow ChildThe Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

View all my reviews

  The Aviator's WifeThe Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 The Lions of Little RockThe Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 Hold StillHold Still by Nina LaCour
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 Me Before YouMe Before You by Jojo Moyes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was really torn between 4 and 5 stars for this book. I loved Lou and Will's love story, and I thought the author painted what I imagine to be a realistic picture of someone in Will's situation. It was a unique and interesting love story and plot. But.... was it amazing? Probably not. But I did really, really enjoy it.

 Looking for AlaskaLooking for Alaska by John Green
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

John Green was the author of my favorite book from last year, The Fault in Our Stars. I love him because he creates such realistic teenage characters and relationships. He really captures the dialogue, friendships, thoughts, and first loves of high schoolers, in a realistic and not-demeaning way. I didn't think this was as wonderful as The Fault in Our Stars, but it was WORLDS better than The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, another teenage/boarding school/feminist/teenage friendship/pranking book. They were so similar in many ways, but John Green just really nails the teenage experience in a way that no one else can. I think I would have been absolutely in love with this book had I read it as a teenager. His characters and their relationships remind me so much of my high school experience. Well, aside from all the drinking and smoking. ;)

 When You Reach MeWhen You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was an easy, quick Young Adult read - got through it in about two hours. I loved the characters and the plot, and never could have put it down.

 The Best Bad Luck I Ever HadThe Best Bad Luck I Ever Had by Kristin Levine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest TrailWild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Grown-Up Kind of PrettyA Grown-Up Kind of Pretty by Joshilyn Jackson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I fell in love with the three female characters in this book, and their relationships with each other. I'm such a sucker for books that involve a changing point-of-view, and the relationships between mothers and daughters. I thought the youngest of the three, Mosey, was written as a very true-to-life teenager, and I loved her exchanges with her mother and her grandmother. One of the characters narrating the story has had a stroke, and I found her chapters so interesting, to see how the author had her describe events and her life, even as she's had this "brain event." I was actually enjoying the book so much I toyed with giving it 5 stars, even though I feel stupid doing that for "chick lit" books, but then some of the events at the end got a little ridiculous, in my opinion. But a solid 4-stars. Not a life-changer, but I enjoyed every minute of reading it while snuggled up on the couch.

 GoldGold by Chris Cleave
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While this won't go down in history as one of my favorites, I did really enjoy it. The ending was so suspenseful to me, I was skipping half a page at a time just trying to see what happened. And while I know that some people found the ending a little too tidy and "Hollywood," I'll be honest - I like my books to end that way. :)

The VoiceThe Voice by Jennifer Anne Davis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Silver Linings PlaybookThe Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Divergent (Divergent, #1)Divergent by Veronica Roth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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