Saturday, August 12, 2017

Doubt and Saying Goodbye to Summer Break.

It's the end of summer. Like in just over a week, school is back in session. 

I feel overly emotional about that even though our school is a good place. I find myself wondering if it's the right choice to send them away at all. Having pulmonary hypertension comes with that countdown on being alive (okay, we can't see the numbers, but we know it's there) and you think hey, maybe I need to homeschool so I can get more time with them. Oak Meadow isn't THAT expensive...

And you think maybe it's better to have more quiet time with my significant other, and more time to rest, so school is a better choice. 

And then generally the entire thought process starts over until you cry a little bit. 

So, end of summer is definitely depressing me a little. 

But in keeping with tradition, it meant the end of the summer reading program rewards party.



I am ridiculously proud that all three of my kids read either sixty books in total or thirty hours. And you know what? I can tell a difference. My older two have become faster at reading, more confident. My youngest isn't reading, but we're seeing the emerging signs of her pretending to read books, and asking for a larger variety of stories-and longer ones. I've said (and written it) before and I'll say it again, summer reading programs are really wonderful things. Every library participating will have a different celebration, and this year it was face-painting, a petting zoo, and snow cones (probably so that nobody passed out from heat exhaustion) along with some prizes. It was fun, and they earned it. 

This summer also marks the first year where all three of our children can swim. 



I'm proud of them, but also it's a huge relief to have an activity all three of them love. Our toddler didn't want anything to do with pools until she could swim without someone holding her (she still wears her approved floaties). And it's x1000 easier to take everyone swimming when you don't have to hold a small child the entire time. You still have to eagle-eyes watch because even a water-confident kid can drown in seconds, but the new level of independence makes all of them happy. 

Going to miss you, summer break. 

Now we just need to plan one more awesome thing to do for the last week.

And try not to cry at the prospect of them returning to school. 

Also, if you have kids, please look into Jon Klassen's hat trilogy books. 



They are very easy for early readers, but magically and hilariously illustrated and worded enough that everyone in the room just HAS to come over and get a closer look at what you're reading. "We Found A Hat" gets the award for the funniest book we've read this summer. 





Friday, August 11, 2017

Betrayal at Iga: A Hiro Hattori Novel (A Shinobi Mystery) by Susan Spann Review



It's not a secret that I like detective stories. You can locate a lot of beat up Sherlock Holmes volumes on my bookshelf and find Agatha Christie adaptations and Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries in my Netflix queue. 

So, why don't I read it more? 

Honestly, some of that is once you've read the super classics, you feel like nothing can compare to those, so you stop picking up that genre. 

But this book changed my mind. I sat down after putting the kids to bed, intending to knock out just a few chapters...and read it in one evening.


The main characters are stellar. This is my first Hiro Hattori novel, but it is the fifth in the series, and it didn't bother me a bit. A shinobi, Hiro is tempered like steel; quick-witted, too. His companion, a Portuguese priest called Father Mateo, is exactly how I remember the priests I grew up with in church: thoughtful, often cheery, and warm if not a little headstrong. Their interactions are written so beautifully that through them you get to know these men. And, like all good detective novels, they'll feel like old familiar friends by the end of the story. Based on that, I wouldn't worry as to where you enter into this particular novel set. 

I've read mysteries, and I know those, but the setting here was entirely exotic and unfamiliar. And deadly. Taking place in Iga, in a village full of trained assassins and quiet warriors, it's impossible to point fingers without having them cut off. 

That level of danger is palpable on every page of this book, to the point where when a character ventures out into the dark with only a lantern, it will make you shiver. To make it worse (because in these books, you have to make it worse) this is Hiro's family village, and many implicated in the mysterious murder of a clan representative are his own loved ones. 


I was also really happy to see a female character who used sign language to communicate in the story. We don't see it as often as I think we should (my youngest used ASL to learn to communicate). I'd call that sketch-worthy. 

The details are everything, which is to be expected from a historical writer, but really the characterization here was just amazing, and it's that which will transport you across the world and across time into this beautiful, dangerous setting. 

I'll be looking for the rest of these books by Susan Spann, and I'd recommend "Betrayal At Iga: A Hiro Hattori Novel" to any mystery lover. 

And I'll remember to keep picking up books in this genre. 

For more information about the author, check out the website http://www.susanspann.com/




Saturday, August 5, 2017

Bullet Journals are Bull.



I'm not sure why I thought it would help me, but I tried it anyway. 

Bullet Journaling. It's like keeping a sketch-ish diary and planner and social calendar and sometimes even a business ledger and recipe book all in one. 

That sounds exhausting because it is. 

The pins for it are beautiful, there are a ton of really talented people making some gorgeous journal pages, and the accessories like artistic pens and stickers are fun. But, that doesn't mean it's not wasting your time. Actually, anything involving stickers with me is probably wasting time...

But after trying it for awhile, I knew this wasn't helping me. 

I'm scattered and distracted and busy, so keeping important information in a book that isn't in my face is a horrible, horrible idea. I've talked about before why my erasable wall calendar saves me so often, but most of it is that EVERYONE can always see it. Turns out there is no replacing that for me. 

Also, with needing it for so much, it was incredibly scattered. And it just makes no darn sense to have two or forty of these things to record each aspect of my life I need to be writing down. That starts out fun, it gets annoying. Quickly

And then, there is losing it. 

I'd love to show you pictures of my journal. But, I can't. Because I lost it. And at some point in time, I gave in and let the kids have my planning stickers.

I had similar issues with a yearly planner, so the truth is, I'm sure it's just how I work (or don't work) that makes this unhelpful and even just plain stressful. 

So, I'm back to what I do instead of journaling. 

I use my erasable calendar. Everyone's events go on it. Even if I have to write super tiny. That's our family planner.

For work ideas, I keep a sketch book. They drilled it into us in art school how important that is. I thought they were being jerks, but keeping one is paramount to working on art project ideas with any focus. And it can be an emotional thing, too. A bad day can turn into a great sketch for a later work. For people not keeping a sketch diary, I can see how bullet journaling might fulfill that. For an artist though, I'd just say get the sketchbook. 

For work and financial transactions, it's a folder for documents and a computer file. I still need to work on better budgeting, and I'll probably try to read up on that. I can see how keeping a written ledger would help with monthly budgeting, though, and I might try one just for that. 

The only other thing I could think that I need a journal like this for would be our family recipes. It's annoying to look up ingredients for something several times, and sad when you forgot to jot down that cool cake idea you saw in the library book you already returned. I'm going to look into getting a book just for the recipes we use on a daily basis. Hopefully, it's something the kids can have later on, too. 

As for writing? Well, the actual writing keeps track of my progress and ideas. Trying to log that and story plots into a daily journal just didn't help me. I've met authors who love it, and swear by the daily reminders as motivation. 

But for daily life? A complicated book I have to spend time logging everything into (usually while supervising or wrangling 1-3 children) and then it disappears, taking with it my schedule and ideas and notes until I reopen it?

Nahhhhhhhhhhhhhh. 

I'll try the next trend. 



How We Tackle School Uniform Costs.

Charter schools are public schools of choice, basically. We, just in the last five years I would say, have a lot of them here. Mostly because we really needed those options. 

I would never argue that they fix the entire system of schooling, but they are a super important piece of a well-operated one.

If you're considering going that route, you're most likely going to be buying some pretty costly uniforms this summer.

There are good reasons for that, which I have to remind myself of as I pay nearly fifty dollars for a shirt...

Uniforms create belonging. They say you are a part of something larger. 

And since real uniformity does mean an equal playing field, you can argue that it gives every child in attendance the chance to feel like they are included, which is awesome. 

Also, there are zero problems choosing what to wear. There are some problems finding the specific uniform pieces sometimes, but nobody is going to be upset that their dress doesn't match their socks. 

There's some evidence it improves scores, but I think there might be some confounding factors there. It didn't lower them, though, so there is that. 

In any case, all of our local charter and prep schools require their own brand of uniforms. I bet there are exceptions, but this seems to be the rule here. 

Those can get pricey, especially if you are enrolling more than one child. 

The sticker shock might scare you a bit, but don't let it put you off getting your child into a good educational fit. I'm going to share with you how we tackle back-to-school outfits charter style...

1. Remember, you basically need one entire outfit to start with along with the extras (your socks, shoes, belts can often be bought at cheaper places, always ask what must be supplier bought). It might be mean you need a very strict laundry schedule, but it's doable. These uniforms are guaranteed to last the year at least, some beyond that, and these are hardy outfits that can take the extra washing machine cycles. 

2. Add more uniform pieces as the year goes on. That's how we are building our closets. For example, each child needs school insignia blazers in the winter, and those run with a high price tag, but since you don't need them all at once, it can be spaced out. Treat all of it like that. Buy your extra shirt, pants, and skirts in intervals so you don't get hit all at once with a higher cost. 

3. Sign up for your school's uniform suppliers website notifications. You'll get notified of coupons and sales that way, and we've saved up to 20% off with site coupons. 

4. Buy the school spirit shirt. Most schools offer to let the kids wear it one designated day a week. There's another uniform spare for you right there. 

5. Keep in mind that the first year trying to get your children into uniforms is the toughest financially. Next year, you'll have extra clothing that can be carried over (I'm telling you, they are made really well-and I have some serious rough and tumble kids). It won't always have this high of a cost. 

6. Many schools have resales and donated uniforms. Ask the staff over the summer how that works for your local school. It's a way to get cheaper uniforms and you can resale the pieces your kids have outgrown to someone who needs them. 


Back-to-school shopping I think is always one of those times where you feel like money is flying out of your wallet whether your children attend a public, private, charter, or homeschool. And, it kind of is. 

But, as far as the uniforms go, I can tell you I feel like the expense is worth it. 

Happy Shopping! 


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Friday, August 4, 2017

"Writer To Writer: From Think to Ink" by Gail Carson Levine.

I've kind of mentioned before I have a love of writing books. Well, good ones, anyway. 



Last year in school my oldest daughter's class read Ella Enchanted, and I was surprised at how wonderful it was. My daughter loved it. It, and the author, probably never would have popped up on my radar without that school-required reading, and all I can tell you is that my children's school has excellent taste in literature. 

Looking for book gift ideas (one of those things we do, I can't seem to stick to the "something to wear, something we...care...whatever, but we plan enough that all of the kids get a book for the holidays and birthdays...) I found writing books by Gail Carson Levine. The one I read I would say pre teen and up, but she has a children's writing book as well, which is on my kids' book present list, called "Writing Magic". And, yeah, I'm sure I'll either read it after they open it, or read it aloud so I can get to enjoy it, too. 




The book I found was a different publication called "Writer to Writer: From think to Ink"


I've talked about before how important the tone of the advice is in writing books. It's what turns it into a journey instead of a lecture, and this is so lovely and lighthearted that it was a breath of fresh air. 
But none of the important stuff is skipped. 

It's based on questions she has received on her blog about writing, which is at http://gailcarsonlevine.com/blog/. That makes the content she deals with REALLY useful. It's all things we've struggled with or worried over. 


You'll find everything from coming up with ideas to poetry (and how to incorporate that into your larger work of fiction, if you want to). The selected work for examples is wonderful. 

My favorite had to be Levine talking about how she works all the time, writing in spare moments and uncomfortable spaces. 

That's an important lesson nobody has really addressed with me before. Many authors have quiet time in their days, and right now, that's not anything I even have time to dream of. So, I've started writing (mostly on my little portable Alphasmart) when the kids are loud, awake, when everyone is watching television, while I'm waiting for dinner to cook (assuming it's something simple and I won't burn it by being inattentive). 

Some of us won't get the perfect time for ourselves. 

And that's okay. We just have to be adaptable. 

I really did enjoy this book. I was happy to hear this author was teaching writing workshops to young writers because I think she is perfect for that, and perfect to write a book on how to help anyone work on their creative fiction. 





Saturday, July 29, 2017

Local Destinations: The Woodlands

I kind of hate driving. But not the way I hate being crammed in with people on large transit machines. I mean have you seen "Midnight" in the Doctor Who series? I always feel like that's about how it is going to go for me. 

We'll do the larger travel stuff if and when we can, but only for some select trips. Universal Studios Harry Potter attraction is on my bucket list. But even that takes some serious penny hoarding and planning with three kids.

And I'm probably still going to hate getting to and from Florida. 

So, if you don't have the means for larger trips or just hate being packed in for long amounts of time, you don't have to skip out on adventures. 

People miss so much that is right in front of them. Which is almost a tragedy, especially in a large city like Houston that houses so many unique things and is very close to other great destinations. 

You can find something to do every week here. A new place to eat, a new museum, a new trip to take to a nearby town...

This summer we packed up and went to the Woodlands in Texas for a few days. 

It's an incredibly family-friendly place, with a waterway that (on select days/hours) has a ferry to take you around and is generally running trolley cars to help you get around the large Market Street area. There's a mall with a ton of things to get into, but we passed on that, opting to take the kids walking the decorative paths. 


If you don't do anything else, go see the Waterway at night, I forgot my camera that evening but it is
gorgeous, I swear it. 


One of the things you have to take into account with the kids is what they need to keep from being bored or overwhelmed. Our first choice hotel, The Woodlands Resort, has a water park attached but it was booked. We opted to get a hotel that had a nice pool, a huge breakfast bar, and a splashpad; The SpringHill Suites Houston The Woodlands had a great deal on a room for all five of us and having the pool and splash pad kept everyone extremely happy. There were no boring moments-when we weren't out exploring, we were out swimming. The rooms were clean, the lobby was nice, the free breakfast puts the usual hotel continental breakfasts to absolute shame, and everyone was courteous. I'm still hoping to get to explore The Woodlands Resort in the future, but if you are looking for a great deal and a great place, SpringHill Suites will make you happy. It's also located strategically to stores and food joints to make everything fairly low stress. 

The pool is always stocked with swim toys, too, which is amazing. 

One of the biggest draws for us here is The Woodlands Children's Museum. We have a giant, award-winning one here in Houston. But, it's giant. So get ready to pay for parking, fight for a spot to park in, wade through people, and keep a hawk-like watch over your kids in the giant facility. This museum, on the other hand, is hidden away in a shopping center. 



You'll have to walk down a magic-looking alleyway with hanging colorful decorations to even find the front door. 

The place isn't tiny, but it's small in comparison. You can keep an eye on everyone at the same time. Even my ten-year-old was able to find enough things to do to have a great time, and my eight and three-year-old love the place. If you have children, definitely don't pass this place up. The reviews are right, it's nicer for smaller kids, but with so much to do, I'd say you could swing this until about eleven without a lot of sighing, and twelve before they'd probably stop enjoying everything. 

And, the best part is that it's very close to a TCBY. So you can stop for ice-cream on the way in or out to make it a memorable day for sure. 

The Woodlands has way more to do than what we have explored, and for a driveable distance, it is an awesome place to plan a getaway with your family. There are enough amenities to make you comfortable and enough to explore (including hiking trails, though we won't be hitting those in summer) to keep you excited. It's a balance hard to find in a trip, but one necessary for us with three kids. 


Travel doesn't have to mean leaving the country. Or even the state. 

There is something to be said for going out to explore with a backpack full of stuff for the family and uncovering places close to where you live. 

It's more economical, for us it is more enjoyable, too. 

It's about finding those moments where you're just enjoying being with the people you love and trying new things. 

I'm hoping to be able to save some to try this during our holiday season as well. The swimming might be missing (unless you can snag a place with a heated, indoor pool) but many cities in Texas change attractions during the winter, so there are new things to visit and do. 

Don't forget to go out and explore closer to your hometown, too. Check city websites for big events, ask around to find new places to eat, look out for travel guides for your town and those right around you. You never know what you'll discover right around the corner. 


  

Vegetarian Cookbooks Kind of Suck.

What? They do. 

It's either filled with things my kids will never, ever touch (I'm looking at you, Kale, you stemmy bastard of the greens) or with recipes we are already using in a rotation. 

That's the other thing, you get very conscious of how often you are eating the same thing once you cut out a food group. Which, even then, we haven't entirely cut out all white meat for blood iron and convenience reasons, but we have not bought any red meat at all for weeks (and honestly, I don't miss having to deal with it). 



Our grocery list consists a lot more of grains, beans (canned), and nuts than it ever did before, along with what we can get that is affordable as far as produce goes. I have purchased more stock and seasonings and purees, too. I wasn't noticing a price drop in shopping until recently, and it's modest, but still a plus. 

That said, we're still hunting down REALISTIC cookbooks for not eating meat. Pinterest does help. I mean, I had no idea until recently that you could just mix canned pumpkin with a cake or brownie boxed mix and end up with a viable, not super unhealthy desert. So, yeah, it's useful, but you run into a lot of the same stuff. 

What isn't inaccessible as far as $$ ingredients go is often super time-consuming. Which, for various reasons, I can not budge on. 

And with sensory-processing disorders and Asperger's Syndrome in my house, there are some recipes that are not going to even be attempted. I like to think all of my children are doing pretty well with variety, but some tastes and textures are out of bounds and I refuse to make them miserable for something as wonderful as food. 

So, we're mostly left with our regular rotations-pastas, beans, cheeses, rice, peanut butter and jelly, grilled cheese, eggs...which the kids all love. But we're still looking for more variety that works. And, as with all cooking I think, you try a lot of recipes and discover ones that work, and those get added into meal plans. 

We did snag two helpful books, though. One is very price conscious and you can download it in PDF form at no cost, but the recipe book itself is handy and not expensive. 


Not everything in here would work for us, but a lot of it did. It's not entirely vegetarian, but most of the recipes are or can be adjusted. With easy to find ingredients and easy to execute instructions, if I had to live off of one single cookbook forever, it would probably be this one. Plus, it's amazing what the author did as far as giving out copies, so this entire recipe book is just a big win in my eyes. You can find this and Leanne Brown's other works here.



My other score cracked everyone up with its profanity. Thug Kitchen 101: Fast as F*ck addresses the problems of timing pretty well. We still ran into a lot of omitting stuff that my family would cringe at, but the techniques and pantry recommendations are still worth it. That and the cussing. It's inspired me to try some new things, which is what makes a recipe book work I think. They have other books as well, and a neat website at http://www.thugkitchen.com/101

So those are the only two workable vegetarian cookbooks I've found so far, but I'll keep looking, and let me know of any recommendations that have worked for you.