Showing posts with label Personal. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Personal. Show all posts

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

{business 101} 940 Saturdays.

My elbows were sore. I felt like someone smacked them both with a hammer. It's because I'd been on my computer all day long. On a Saturday. When I'm working, my elbows sit on the desk. It's not ergonomically correct, I know. It hurt.

And it was a reminder of how I'd spent my time that day. Not with my kids, but instead fixing website details and figuring out pricing for our new organic lawn care business, Whole Yards.

I knew going into this learning-on-the-fly-adventure that I'd make sacrifices in order to run a business. I knew that this time of year would be busy, especially this first year. Late winter is when the lawn care industry ramps up for spring. Add to that the fact that I'm slow. I'm overly-detail oriented. I check and double check and triple check. Math takes me a long time. I like things to work properly, like Sir James Dyson.

But ten hours on a Saturday? In front of a computer?

If there's anything I learned from our Advent Adventure this winter, it's that I love setting aside structured time to spend with my kids and husband.

You know the famous Ferris Bueller quote, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

That's not just for high-schoolers. That totally applies to raising kids. Maybe more to raising kids than to anything else.

I'm looking for balance. I'm ready to set some boundaries for myself. When my kids are around, I want to spend most of my time making eye contact with them. I want to know them deeply. I want to laugh with them and dance and hug and get into arguments about whose turn it is to clean out the cat's litter box and why there is trash all over the bathroom floor.

How does a person make that happen?  I'm not one for rules. I can't say, "No weekend work. Ever." Because there will be weekends. And there will be evenings.
But there shouldn't be hustle or ignoring each other or snapping at each other because we're tied up in work.

940 Saturdays from the time my kids are born until they're 18. I'm more than halfway done. I can make a business run 400 Saturdays from now. And maybe I can make it run now. I've got seven more months to figure that out. But my kids come first.

How do you balance your time? What's your strategy?

This post is part of a series called Business 101, where I share my experience taking over a business for 8 months while I figure out whether it's something I want to take on permanently.

Monday, January 27, 2014

{business 101} The beginning, fear of failure, and why passion is a good motivator.

Welcome to the Business 101 series at The Friendly Home! This is not where I teach you about business. Because I don't know anything. Yet. This is where I share my business journey with you. Maybe you teach me, maybe you learn something from me, or maybe we all just laugh and roll our eyes together.

You see, this is all new to me. I've never taken a business course, never read a book about business (until last week, that is), never tried to understand what makes small businesses work.

But as of Saturday, when we registered with the Colorado Secretary of State, we're officially running a business. (Re-reading that sentence makes me kind of want to slap myself.)

I've heard that running a small business comes with some struggles. Here's my first one, my first gripe: when you try to get an EIN (Employer Identification Number) on the IRS website at 10am on a Saturday morning, you'll end up on a "please come back during regular business hours" page.

Really? Isn't this what websites are for?

I'm sure that will be my first of many gripes.

Oh, wait, here's my second one. Small business owners work at 10am on Saturday mornings. And 10pm, too.

Okay, so that's something I already knew. And it was something that held us back a bit when deciding whether or not to take on this new challenge.

Here's how the whole thing went down. Our friend Andrew, who became our friend when we hired him to re-do our backyard, approached us in November about buying his organic lawn care business, Whole Yards. He is moving out of Colorado and had started this business just within the last couple of years. It's very small and he hadn't had time to grow it in the ways he'd planned, but it has a lot of potential and a decent foundation.

I was familiar with Whole Yards because after Andrew did our backyard, we hired him to take care of our lawn and plants last summer. Andrew knew that we were passionate about organic food and non-toxic living. Combined with the fact that I'd just spent two years staring a gigantic school and community garden, and believing that we are relatively tenacious, loyal, stick-to-it kind of people, he thought the business might be a good fit for us.

And if I step outside of myself for a second and try to see it from that perspective, it is a great fit for us. Or, at least for me. It's important to remember that Scott has a full time job working for a big company. So while I will always say "we" run a business, right now it's actually "me" running the business with Scott contributing when he can. Maybe someday it will really be the two of us working together. That's a possibility we tiptoe around a little. Like if we say it out loud too many times or think of it for more than a few seconds, we might jinx it. If we think about it, it becomes an actual goal. If we don't eventually achieve that goal, we'll have failed.


The possibility of failure is what really held me back from saying yes to this opportunity. It wasn't because our market is not very organics-friendly. It wasn't because for the first season I'll be driving a pickup truck with a tank full of compost tea on the back and I'll probably spend days smelling like seaweed. It wasn't because I have no background in lawn or landscape care. What held me back was the idea of failure.

I am afraid of failure. Always. I know it is ridiculous. I know we all fail. I know that failure is one way that we learn. But failure is uncomfortable and embarrassing. And failure as a small business owner is not like failing in your job at a big company. If Scott ever failed to do his job well (which he never does, by the way), his company probably wouldn't feel the effects. His company would adjust and other people would pick up the slack.

If I don't do my job well, it's over. I've failed. Our company has failed.

When I was giving birth to my two girls, the process of labor felt like a long, hard swim practice. I loved it. While I was growing up, I spent enough time on swim team to know how to get through a grueling workout. I know how to put my head down, ignore the pain, and keep counting laps or singing in my head until I get to the end. When I'd get out of the pool and head to class or go home, I'd feel exhausted but triumphant. Like I accomplished something great that day.

This is the lens through which I'm learning to understand what it will take to run a small business. I know how to live in discomfort, but it's been a long time since I chose to do so. It's been a long time since I challenged myself like this, since I purposely put myself in a difficult situation, one where I knew I would feel exhausted and frustrated and scared, but one where I might learn something about myself and about the world. About where I fit into the world and the role I play.

What makes me most scared about this particular business is that I think it is important work. I think that converting people's yards from toxic to healthy is important for us and for our kids. I think that if we don't do it, our kids will continue to grow up sick and our waterways will continue to be polluted. The immediacy and urgency of this task takes the business up a notch for me. Now it's not just, "I'm scared to fail because I'll look silly." It's, "I'm scared to fail because my community needs this change."

And that – the passion that Scott and I feel about this topic – will probably be what keeps us going.

If you're still with me, it's probably because you're looking for some nuts and bolts. Here's what this is going to look like:
  • I will try to continue blogging about home stuff, carpentry, etc. I don't think I'll have a lot of time, though, and so the hobby of blogging about home stuff will move down my priority list while I learn to run the business.
  • We don't officially own the business yet. Andrew was kind enough to give us a trial period. So, while we have transferred the business into our names and we are using all of Andrew's equipment, paying the business expenses, and keeping the profits this season, we have until September to decide whether we want to buy the business. It's nice to work with someone who trusts you and believes in you the way that Andrew trusts and believes in us. It's also nice to have a way out in case we discover that being small business owners is really not for us.
  • The lawn and yard care season in Colorado Springs goes from May or June through September or October, depending on the weather. Until the season ramps up, I'll be spending my time learning more about organic lawn care (here's the manual I'll be using), participating in webinars with BeeSafe Lawn Care, learning how to market a small business, updating our website, setting up systems for tracking customers, talking to past and potential customers on the phone, and visiting potential customers' homes to chat about organic lawn and yard care.
What about you? Are you a small-business owner? Do you have any resources I need to check out? Does failure freak you out as much as it does me?

Friday, January 10, 2014

Movin' on up: Adjusting our spaces to kids' changing needs

While all kids have different interests and enjoy different activities, one thing is true for every kid: as they grow up, the way they use their spaces is ever-changing. I've found that I can make my life easier (read: cleaner and less crazy) if I adjust their spaces to suit how they spend their time.

When we first moved into our house, a space behind our sofa in the family room was dedicated to the kids and their toys. It worked well because I could see and hear them playing while I was in the kitchen, which is where I spent most of my time back then. The kids' space wasn't immediately visible to visitors and it was an area that, if left messy, wouldn't disturb the adults in the house.

As the kids grew older, though, and they didn't need my eyes on them all the time, it was a relief to move their area upstairs to the loft. Our loft area, a 9'x12' space at the top of the stairs on the way to the kids' bedrooms, has been an invaluable area for our kids over the past six years. I have a partially obstructed view of it from my kitchen and I can hear activity in this area from any corner of my house.

Before: Little Kid Space

After: Big Kid Space

Until this Christmas, the loft was home to my kids' play kitchen. We built it when Brynn was three years old and even as a ten year old this summer, she and Callie were still playing in it. They used it as a restaurant, as a pretend classroom, and sometimes even as a kitchen. Even though the play kitchen was still usable for the girls, we sensed that they were starting to cross into an age where they would appreciate a more mature play space. They weren't as loud and boisterous anymore when they played in the kitchen. In fact, they were whispering – almost like they didn't want us to know that they were still using their little kitchen. But what really convinced me was their tendency to raid my craft closet and their inability to put anything away when they were finished.

One day I kind of exploded. No, I totally exploded. It was one of those mom moments you never forget even though you wish you could totally block it out. Callie had been in my craft closet, made a mess, and left it a total disaster. Glue stuck to the table, glitter and paper scraps all over the place. Cardboard scraps strewn on the table and floor. String and ribbon and stickers and sequins everywhere. I had wanted to do a specific task quickly but couldn't even get into the closet.

I took all of her craft supplies out of the closet and tossed them in her room and told her she could never come back. My closet was off limits to her.

Within seconds I realized how unfair it was. Crafting is what Callie does. Creating purses and houses and bracelets out of cardboard and tape and rubber bands and fabric is who she is. When she can't create, she starts to burst at the seams. It is who she is. A tinkerer. An artist. A creator.

So I took a deep breath and said, "Here's the deal. We cannot coexist in this space but you cannot exist without crafts. You need to choose: play kitchen or crafts." It took her a millisecond to respond, "Crafts!" Brynn agreed.

As much as it hurt to admit that they were growing up, I knew it had to happen. I took photos of their play kitchen and posted them on a local moms' Facebook page. The kitchen and its contents were gone within a day. We boxed up the little kid toys that we wanted to hang onto for visiting toddlers. We gave away everything else.

Starting with a clean slate, I built a simple divider to make the loft feel more separate from the hallway and to give me a wall to set a dresser against, so that we'd have plenty of storage. The divider is screwed into the floor, the adjacent wall, and the dresser it sits in front of. The dresser is a hand-me-down that I cleaned up and painted – it's perfect for holding fabric and craft supplies. I moved around some bookcases that were already in the space and I built a table out of bits and pieces in my garage (and a sheet of plywood I had to buy). I made curtains from fabric that I'd found in a pile of remnants a year or so ago. I had set the fabric aside for the next step in the evolution of this space and was glad to find it still sitting in my sewing closet. We stopped into Ikea for a few pieces to help us organize, and for a couple of stools to set at the table.

The divider is a 2x2 frame and 3/8" plywood leftover from other projects.

I scrubbed the brass pulls with Bar Keeper's Friend to make them shine!

Construction paper to roll over the table.

Buckets from the dollar aisle at Target and an Ikea BYGEL rail.

We also bought a new computer to put in this space. It wasn't something we'd planned to do right that very second, but our kids are using computers for more and more homework assignments, and the computer they'd been using was eight years old and running pretty slowly. (For the record, my four year old MacBook works fine...I just don't like to share it with my children.) We already had a computer cabinet in the loft – it was formerly a TV cabinet, that we converted to a computer cabinet – and it's been great for them to have an updated machine that I can see and hear from almost anywhere in the house. And I kind of love the giant 27" screen, even though it's hard for me to admit.

This TV cabinet was in my house as a kid. It's solid pine and really heavy! I painted it a few years ago and built the
platform for the computer. The keyboard sits on the pull-out tray that used to hold the TV. Our printer, printer paper,
ink, and camera accessories all fit into the bottom cabinet. And up top is our TV antenna for the whole house. Can
you see the beer cans on it? Classy.

If you don't count the new computer (ahem) changing this space cost us under $100. We already had almost all of the supplies and sold the old kitchen for $50. This has been, by far, the most impact-per-dollar change we've made in our house.

While it was sad to say goodbye to the little kitchen, watching the girls create in this space and knowing that it is a space we can use together has been a nice change for all four of us.

Here are some elements of this space that I think make it effective:
  • I can see and hear it from the kitchen. When the kids are using the computer, I can monitor it. 
  • I pass the loft while going to and from the girls' rooms at night, so I can stop in to clean up any supplies or scraps they leave behind. I'll never be surprised by a mess there because I have to pass it often.
  • The space may turn into a multi-use space for doing homework as well as crafting, but for now it's a place where they can leave an unfinished project to return to later, and in the meantime it doesn't bother anyone. It doesn't have to be moved out of the way for dinner or for guests.
  • The space is well-lit with lots of natural light and lamps as well as bright and cheery colors. It's an inspiring place to work.
  • Because the new computer is up there, the kids can turn a movie on Netflix or watch a how-to video on YouTube while they work.
  • The carpet is old, so I don't really care if they spill on it or screw it up in some other way, as I'm sure they will.
  • The table is finished with nearly bullet-proof PolyWhey floor finish, so it's easy to clean.
  • For super messy projects, I added a roll of construction paper to a dowel fastened under the table. Now we can roll paper over the table to make cleanup quick and easy.
  • There is plenty of storage. Storage in the hand-me-down dresser, storage in cans hanging from the walls, and storage in the two bookcases we've had in our house ever since we got married.
  • A whole wall is dedicated to inspiration and display. Right now a third of that wall is taken up by a Ugandan alphabet which was given to us by a friend who takes care of street kids in Uganda. I added some artwork with positive messages from The Handmade Home and we hung up the kids' favorite artwork to spur them on to more creativity.
Do you think you could carve out space in your house for a dedicated craft area? Or would a dedicated Lego space go over better in your house? How do you adjust your home to meet your kids' changing needs?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

ADVENTure part 2: Enjoying the excitement!

I wondered, as I built our Advent calendar and created a million extra activities for us to do (because our life isn't hectic enough as it is) whether I was over-doing it. And maybe in a normal December it would have been too much. But, thankfully (did I just say that?) our weather has been super cold for the past week and we haven't been able to do much besides fun Advent activities.

I kind of feel like I dodged a bullet, actually.

And sometimes I look at the activities we (as in my kids and I) picked out and wonder if they're not holy enough? Not serious enough for something as special and as important as Advent. Are we turning the wait for the best gift in the world into something too lighthearted and silly?

But then I remember that when you're waiting for the best gift in the world, the one that gives you hope for our broken world, you should be giddy with excitement. You should be overflowing with joy. Any activity I can do with my kids that makes them laugh and makes their eyes sparkle fits that bill.

Our first nine days of Advent have been (mostly) joyful and giddy. They have been fun, silly, messy, creative, and occasionally a little bit frustrating, too. That's what happens when you ask kids to string popcorn using needles that are too big. Sigh. Every activity can't be perfect, right?

With fifteen days left until Christmas, thinking about our Advent adventure thus far makes me smile and I'm feeling excited about the days to come. And that's exactly what I was hoping for.

Psst...for more on our Advent adventure, check out the intro post here and the first ADVENTure post here.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

ADVENTure: Reminding us of the excitement of the season

The Christmas season is upon us and with just hours to spare, Scott and I got our advent calendar finished. Thanks to the activities in our calendar, so far we've decorated the house, played a few games of Jenga, enjoyed some family time on the floor with Callie's two guinea pigs and Brynn's mouse, and had a broccoli night (I made this broccoli crunch salad and this broccoli soup). The broccoli night was Callie's idea (especially interesting since she doesn't like broccoli). I've been documenting of all of our Advent fun so far on Instagram, using the hashtag AdventAdventure2013. I'd love it if you'd join in – post a photo of something fun your doing to celebrate the season and hashtag it so we can all see!

Here is a link to the document I made with our advent activities – please feel free to use it for your family. The ideas were mostly mine but I also had the girls make a list of their ideas and added those ideas to our activities. We ended up with many more than we needed and are keeping the extras in an envelope as "wild cards," for when we have time to add an additional activity or for activities that are weather dependent (ie: building a snowman doesn't work every day around here, but it might work tomorrow).

Scott was assigned the task of figuring out what activities could go on what days, so with our family calendar in hand he laid out all of the activities (which I'd printed and cut into cards), and slipped them into the right envelopes. Somehow he left out "decorate gingerbread houses" because apparently the man doesn't appreciate the joy of building a home only to eat it a few days later. That activity is a wild card now, which probably works out better so I'll have more time to plan for it.

For the calendar itself, I used an old cabinet door that came from the ReStore (you can buy them for a buck). I painted it with some barn red paint that I already had on hand and added 25 of the smallest cup hooks I could find at Home Depot. The cup hooks were $4 for 100 hooks. I found little 3x3 envelopes at Archivers (25 envelopes for $5) and punched holes into the top corners. We didn't seal them when we added the activity cards, so hopefully we'll be able to use them for a few years to come.

Are you doing anything special to remind you of the excitement of the Christmas season? Instagram it and hashtag it #AdventAdventure2013 so we can all see!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

What are you up to for Advent?

Psst...for more on our Advent Adventure, check out this more recent post!

Ever since my kids were little, our Advent calendars have been the kind with chocolate behind the doors of a cardboard calendar. But this year I'm ready for something different. Something a little more challenging.

Don't get me wrong. My kids still want their daily chocolate, and that's okay with me.

As the kids get older, though, I've found myself spending less time wiping butts, checking teeth, and picking up clothes. Instead, I'm spending more time reading and discussing books with them (Black Beauty and Poppy were our two latest reads), cooking with them, crafting together, building, painting...

And like a sudden clap of thunder on a sunny summer day, I realized that I've left the age of needy children and been thrown into a time when my kids are able to contribute to the daily running of our household.

For me, that means more time for fun. For activities. For enjoying my kids and also being able to relax when they've gone to bed.

This is a fantastic stage of life.

Which leads me back to the point: for my first time as a mom, I've got the time and energy to think about Advent as 24 days of connecting with my family. It can be 24 days of preparing for Christmas and 24 days of enjoying the greatest gifts I've ever received, my husband and kids.

And even as I write this, I think that maybe I'm being a little pollyanna. It won't be all fun and games. There will be times when we're running too late and have to skip an Advent activity. Sometimes the kids will want to take our activities too far. But I'm okay with that. I want the challenge. I think the fun will outweigh the eye-rolling. I'm finally ready for this.

So I'm building an Advent calendar. I took an old cabinet door, painted it red, and screwed in 24 little cup hooks. I've got little envelopes to hang on each hook. When it's done, I'll show it to you. But right now I want some feedback. What goes in the envelopes?

I've come up with some ideas of my own. Here are a few of my favorites:
  • Watch a Christmas movie
  • Take a drive to see Christmas lights
  • Take an evening walk as a family
  • Make popcorn strings and hang them on a tree outside
  • Write a letter to one of your teachers teacher telling her why you like his or her class
  • Pick up litter
  • Make s'mores
  • Share three reasons why each person in your family is special
  • Make snowflakes to hang in the windows

One of the best parts of creating this calendar has been getting input from the kids. They're so creative and...unpredictable. Here are a few of their ideas:
  • Do everything by candlelight for the rest of the night
  • Make crazy hats
  • Make whipped cream
  • Have an eating contest (I wonder if those two are related?)
  • Have a broccoli night

Yep, the kids' ideas rock.

So my plan is to gather our ideas, print them out, and put them into envelopes that correspond with the days when we have the right amount of free time to enjoy those activities. We won't be making Christmas cookies on Thursday nights, our busiest night of the week. But we could play a game of Jenga.

What do you have planned for Advent? Or has it even crossed your mind?

Friday, November 8, 2013

The end of a lifelong struggle, continued

Last fall I wrote this post about how finally, after a lifetime of struggling with my weight and body image, I managed to lose weight and keep it off. It's been a little over a year since I wrote that and about 18 months since we changed our diet. I feel like I owe you an update.

Backpacking near Buena Vista.

Here it is: I'm still not fat. I weigh a few pounds less now than I did last fall, which is between 20-35 pounds less than I weighed during all the rest of my adult life. My weigh-ins consistently put me between 148-152 pounds. That's slightly less than I weighed in high school (even when I was swimming a few hours a day) and about five pounds under the wishful thinking weight that is on my driver's license. I could still lose another 10 or 15 pounds, I'm sure, but I'm happy where I am now. Happy with this lifestyle and this body. It's easy to find pants that fit – I'm firmly planted in a size medium, even on the bottom which is something I never imagined would happen. I feel good about my body. My kids are on board with our lifestyle and food choices. I don't feel deprived; in fact, I only feel deprived when the food I've grown to love isn't available.

Backpacking near Breckenridge with the kids.

What we're doing
  • We crave plants and eat them by the pound, not by the leaf. (Case in point: this veggie Pad Thai, which ended up with over 5 pounds of veggies, for a family of four.)
  • We cook with more water/veggie broth and almost no oil. (See a post about that here.)
  • We eat a bit of cheese occasionally (a little feta or goat cheese added to salad, a very light dusting of cheese on pizza).
  • We are inspired by plant-strong vegan bloggers like Angela at Oh She Glows (last night we had these Thai Sweet Potato Veggie Burgers and they absolutely rocked) and Lindsay Nixon at Happy Herbivore.
  • I go to the free Health Starts Here classes at Whole Foods – at our location they're usually once a month on Wednesdays.
  • On most Mondays we buy the Whole Foods Five for Five deal. The recipes they use are vegan, plant-strong, no oil, and no or low salt. It gives me a break from cooking and lets me feed the whole family for $20.
  • We adapt conventional recipes to fit our needs – I double the veggies, leave out the meat, cut the oil down to almost nothing, and don't add salt until the end. One of my favorite recipes to adapt is this kale and barley soup from The Little Red House. I make it a couple times a month when the weather is cold. 
  • We eat a lot of Indian, Thai, and Vietnamese-flavored dishes. Asian food is so easy to use in a plant-based lifestyle.
  • We drink water. Our kids drink water at every meal. Scott and I drink water, beer, wine, coffee, and tea.
  • We make smoothies from frozen berries, almond milk, and kale or spinach. Our kids make their own.
  • We use organic produce when it is available.
  • We allow our kids to eat some junk food (ie: Halloween candy, s'mores, ice cream, some processed snacks like cereal bars when they're running from school to an after-school activity).
  • We let our kids make their own lunches and we encourage them to help us with dinner prep.
  • We are active. I walk a lot. I build stuff. Scott runs, bikes, hula hoops (I'm not kidding), and does pull-ups, push-ups, and planks. The kids walk to school, they dance, they ride their bikes, and they run around outside.
Sending Callie off to summer camp.

What we're not doing
  • We don't eat a lot of tofu. 
  • We don't really eat fake meat. I mean, occasionally. But fake meat is expensive and has very little nutritional value when you compare it to beans or plants. 
  • We don't eat much fake cheese. Sometimes I'll grab some if a recipe specifically calls for it, but it's expensive and, again, has no real nutritional value. 
  • We almost never drink soda. Maybe once or twice a year and pretty much only for a special occasion like a big football game. 
  • We almost never drink fruit juice (including orange juice), although we are indulging in fresh apple cider this time of year.
  • We don't count calories. 
  • We never go hungry. 
  • We don't limit our portion sizes. 
  • We don't tell our kids what they can or cannot order when we go out to eat, but we do offer guidance when they are open to it. They make their own choices (and suffer the consequences, like an upset tummy from too much cheese or oil). 
  • We don't try to make food that feels like a replacement for meat. Instead, we enjoy plants for what they are – flavorful and full of the nutrients that our bodies need to be healthy. 
  • We don't fill up on pasta, but we do eat it occasionally. Maybe once a week. Lots of times, our pasta dishes have more veggies than pasta.
Scott and Brynn on Brynn's first 14er.

Highs and Lows
This change to a plant-based lifestyle has been great for us in almost every way and has been much easier to maintain than we ever thought it could be. We don't feel deprived when we see people eating meat and cheese. I don't even miss the half and half I used to put in my coffee every day (but I do still eat ice cream once in a while). We really enjoy the food we're eating and we feel good about feeding it to our kids. I love that I don't think of myself as a fat person anymore. I love the freedom that comes with being satisfied with my body. I love that I can shop without dreading the dressing room. I really love that I can talk about food or health and not feel like a hypocrite.

But it isn't always easy.

Especially in a super-conservative place like Colorado Springs, we are definitely an anomaly. Our eating-out choices here are improving quickly but they're still pretty limited when you compare our city to places like Berkeley or Portland or even Denver. We have very few friends who eat the way we do and we end up being the butt of a lot of jokes and sarcasm from the bolder members of our friends and family, which seems weird since we're obviously healthier now than we've ever been before.

Scott on top of Mt. Harvard.
Also, it is becoming more and more difficult for me to feel sympathetic when people talk about their risk for cancer or heart disease or their frustration with unsuccessful weight loss but don't see a plant-based lifestyle as an option for them. My lack of sympathy and understanding makes me feel callous and out of touch – when a solution that seems so obvious to me is not even a consideration for most people, I must be the one who is missing something, and so I have become very intentional and cautious about what I say about food and to whom. And I try to listen more and speak less.

Scott and Callie after the girls' dance recital.
I also worry about our kids. Not about their health – I know I'm doing the best for them that I can. I worry that in trying to impress upon them the importance of a plant-strong lifestyle, I will cause them to be judgmental of others. I hope that we emphasize grace as much as we talk about health. I hope that they will know that people are fighting all kinds of hidden battles and that stopping in the McDonald's drive through three times a week might actually be the best thing they do for themselves or their kids.

Brynn during her Irish dance class.
Even with all of those elements of concern or social anxiety, I still feel like I've got it figured out...for me and my family. I know that my body (and my husband's body and my kids' bodies) thrive with a plant-strong lifestyle. I know that I am healthy, my husband is healthy, my kids are healthy. I know that we still have a ways to go; we could cut out all refined sugar, we could juice every day, we could find new ways to get our kids to eat more leafy greens, I could start exercising harder. But I've made a lot of progress in the right direction and dealing with my body no longer feels like a daily struggle.

And so, for me, that is success. I'm about to turn 36 years old and for about 30 of those 36 years I hated my body. But for the last 18 months I've been thankful for it and satisfied with it. That, my friends, feels like victory to me.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

{How I DIY} Getting Started

This is the first post in the How I DIY series. Click here for the rest! 

A while back, a reader asked via Facebook if I would write a post about how I got started DIYing furniture and home projects, what tools I use, and how I acquired them. I'm going to split it into a couple of posts so that I don't overwhelm you with my answer.

First things first: the learning curve can be steep and slow
When I started DIYing, I couldn't hang a curtain rod without it falling down on my head. In fact, when Scott and I moved out of our first home, a brand new condo near Cincinnati, one of the curtain rods we'd "installed" actually fell off the wall on move-out day. It was about the fifth time in a year that it had fallen off the wall and at that point in our move we'd already taken our tools to our new home. Not that it mattered – we were totally baffled by drywall anchors and stud-finders and wouldn't have been able to fix it anyway. We lived in that condo for about two years and did manage to install two fans (the boxes were already there and wired) but we sucked at choosing paint colors, cutting in, choosing fabrics, and hanging anything that required more than a picture hook

After the condo, we lived in an apartment for about a year while we waited for a job transfer to Colorado. Living in an apartment didn't provide any new opportunities for DIY projects, so I spent that time improving my sewing and photography skills while our baby girl, Brynn, napped. Since she slept about 18 hours a day, I got to know my camera pretty well, and my sewing machine too.

Two years in a brand new condo + one year in an apartment = almost zero DIY experience.

When we got to Colorado, we bought a 1970s house that was structurally sound and got a great bill of health from our home inspector (whom I hand-picked after interviewing about ten different inspectors). Although the house was in good shape, everything inside the house (and out) looked like it was straight out of an old polaroid shot. It desperately needed updating. What I didn't know about DIY I made up for in confidence that I had the ability to DIY, however misguided that confidence may have been. I also had a lot of vision for what our spaces could be and I knew we'd be here for a long time, so I was willing to invest more money than probably makes sense for most people.

One of my first adventures in DIY was hanging some pre-fab cabinets over the washer and dryer in our laundry room. My brother happened to be in town for this project and neither one of us knew what the heck we were doing. I knew I needed to drill through the backs of the cabinets into the wall studs and then secure the cabinets with big screws. I managed to find the studs but when it came to drilling through the backs of the cabinets things didn't go so well. The cabinets were laminate and every time I'd start the drill, the bit would slide around on the laminate and I'd end up drilling a hole in the wrong spot. I tried to get the hole in the right spot several times before I held my arm a few feet away from the cabinet, started the drill and rammed the drill bit (which was running at full speed) into the spot where I wanted my hole.

No joke. And, no, it didn't work.

I vividly remember my brother saying, "Wow. That's a strategy I would not have thought of."

I guess I'm a creative thinker.

Since then, I've found that using a nail set (the tool you use to set a finish nail head below the surface of the wood) is great for creating an indentation that a drill bit won't slip out of when you're starting a hole. There are also some drill bits out there with sharper points than others, and they work great for keeping your hole where you want it to be.

All this to say that even competent DIYers have to start somewhere.

Eventually I learned to pick a drill bit that is slightly skinnier than the screw you're going to use, and I figured out how to use my stud finder accurately and which stud finder (out of our collection of three) I like best. Once you start using your tools regularly, using them well gets easier and easier.

Know what you can tackle and what to let the pro's do
While it's tough to find professionals who are willing to work with you, you will occasionally find one who will let you do prep work or finish work and who will dole out advice along the way.

Our hardwood floors (all 1300-ish square feet of them) went in after we'd lived here for about two years. We had two little kids – a four year old and an almost two year old – and Scott worked full time. Somehow, we thought we could install pre-finished wood floors ourselves.

Thankfully, an angel we met at Home Depot talked us out of it. He was an older man and a customer, not an employee. He asked us what we were working on and when we told him, he said, "You know, it's going to take you a loooong time to finish that and it might be tough on the kids." How very diplomatic of him. Then he gave us the name of a floor guy he liked. He urged us to talk with the floor guy and see if we couldn't figure out a way to split the work with him.

So we did. I did all of the prep work (pulling out the carpets, the carpet padding, the tack strips, the linoleum, the underlayment, the 2000 staples). Our flooring guy (Tim, from Second Generation Flooring, in case you're a Colorado Springs local) installed the floor. It took him nearly three weeks to do the install, working short days and taking some time off to celebrate his wedding anniversary. If we'd done it ourselves, I'm convinced it would have taken a year and probably cost us our marriage.

Once the flooring guy was finished, Scott and I replaced all of the door trim and baseboards. Those were pieces we could handle. We weren't experts with the miter saw (we still aren't), but our trim was white and we knew we could get close enough to perfect that, with the help of a little caulk and wood filler, things would turn out fine and we'd learn a lot along the way.

DIY is about confidence
Not confidence that you already know how to do something, but confidence that if you made it through 8th grade, you can probably figure out how to do it. When Scott and I first started learning to DIY, there were no blogs. The web-based help was pretty paltry. It was This Old House, Trading Spaces, and not much else to teach us the ropes. We borrowed books from the library, picked up books from the checkout at Home Depot, and used our little brains to figure out the rest.

Scott's dad is kind of a DIY genius, but he lives on the other side of the country. Scott would call him when we really got ourselves into a bind and the conversation, from my end, seemed to sound a bit like how it sounds when I try to help my kids with homework. Maybe a little helpful, but mostly frustrating because we were speaking different languages. Sometimes he'd be in town and would show up at just the right time to save the day, like the time when I drilled through an electrical wire in Brynn's closet.

I was just trying to put in a closet organizer, not work with electrical. I certainly didn't think I might burn down the house. As I was drilling away, something sparked and exploded. Since then I've figured out that our electrical panel is exactly one floor below where I was working and the wires travel up through Brynn's closet. I should have been more careful. I should have used a stud finder that also alerts you to wires in the wall.

That experience killed my confidence for a while, but it improved Scott's. It gave him an opportunity to work alongside his dad and learn how to fix the electrical nightmare that I'd created.

Be observant and ask questions
When we've had contractors working at our house, Scott and I have watched them. We've observed what they're doing and we've asked questions so that we could learn something. We actually schedule our electrician's appointments around Scott's work schedule. Scott follows him around and asks him what he's doing. Thankfully, our electrician (who is awesome, his name is Bob Hogan for you locals), has a teacher's heart and is willing to tell Scott what he's doing. A few weeks ago he even showed Scott how to replace the heat pump in our hot tub. Between what Scott has learned from Bob-the-electrician and what he could piece together from his dad and the internet, Scott was able to wire our whole basement to code. Yep, we pulled a permit and passed inspections. Those concepts he learned from Bob have been useful in wiring our house for sound and TV and internet as well as putting in lighting on our patio and in all three rooms upstairs. Scott even figured out how to work with solar and was able to wire the Bunkalow using solar landscape lighting (post upcoming).

The satisfaction of doing something nobody else could do
One of my favorite things about DIY, and something that drives me to continue DIYing, is that many times, projects I do are projects no contractor would want to do. Build sliding doors out of an old fence? Change a closet into a sewing nook with a recessed spot for a sewing machine? Install a cat-door leading into an old cabinet in the garage so that the cat can pee in a litter box in a cabinet in the garage? Ahhh...I haven't told you about that one yet. It's genius. These are projects that contractors and even handymen would roll their eyes at. And so, friends, we learn to do them ourselves. That's the most satisfying part of DIY, knowing that if it weren't for you doing the project, the project wouldn't happen.

That's the heart of why Scott and I DIY and how we got started. Next up, I'll tell you about the tools I started with and how I acquired them.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Five tricks I use to get last-minute dinners on my table.

This morning Callie asked me, "How do people plan what time they're going to have dinner ready?"

Oh, sweet Callie. Can you tell she's growing up in a home where dinner doesn't come at a predictable time each night? It comes...eventually. And it's always good (and good for her). But she never knows from night to night when she'll be eating.

And until yesterday, I don't think she realized that dinner time could be planned. And consistent. Last night she overheard us talking to Brynn about how "bed time" at our house is no more a set time than "dinner time." That those words just mean that it's the time to go to bed, or time to eat dinner and that we don't set a rigid time for those things because they tend to shift depending on our day.

So this morning when Callie asked me how people plan what time they're going to have dinner ready, I explained that most people start with a recipe, figure how long it will take to gather and prep the ingredients, how long those ingredients will take to cook, and they work backwards from what time they'd like to eat dinner.

Her response was classic: "Oh, that would never happen in our house." No, darling. No, it wouldn't.

Because it seems that at 5pm I'm usually still working on a project. Or doing something that, at that moment, seems like it (a) will be done quickly and (b) has a good stopping point in the near future at which time I can drop the project and move onto making dinner.

So our dinner time usually hits around 7:00 or 7:30. Yes, the kids are hungry. But eating dinner late gives them time to finish up their afternoon extra-curricular activities and do their homework before dinner. And it means that I don't get kids rifling through the pantry two hours after dinner.

I used to be a great planner of dinners. I would use my Everyday Food magazine each Sunday to plan out the dinners for the week, make a list of all the ingredients I needed to buy, and do my shopping for the week on Monday. That all went out the window when we joined our CSA six years ago. It got me into the use-what-you've-got mode and that has stuck with me, even in the winter when the CSA isn't running.

So here are my secrets for making a quick, last-minute plant-strong (and usually vegan) dinner.

  1. I use my pressure cooker. I couldn't do healthy last-minute dinners without it. If I think about it in time, I'll do a quick soak for my beans for an hour before I cook them, which cuts the pressure cooking time down to 11 minutes at high pressure. Usually that means boiling some water and pouring it over the beans before I run out to get the kids from school, and then letting them soak until I'm ready to make dinner. If I don't do that, I'll cook them starting from their dry state, which makes the cooking time a bit less predictable – it can take anywhere from 15 minutes to half an hour of cooking time, depending on how fresh the beans are and what kind they are. I learned the pressure cooking technique from this awesome cookbook by Madhur Jaffrey.
  2. I "approximate" recipes. Meaning, I find a few recipes I like (or a meal I like at a restaurant) and I use approximate amounts of similar ingredients (or the same ones, if I have them on hand) to create dinners that work. The downside of this is that we never eat the same thing twice. Which is also the upside, depending on whom you ask. Sticking to an exact recipe is too constraining for me, both in time and in planning. Once I've made a recipe a few times, I can get close to the original recipe (or sometimes even better) by using my memory, imagination, and whatever I have around the house. 
  3. I make huge salads. It's easy to keep the ingredients for salads on hand. They're predictable and with a few small changes, a salad can take on a whole different taste. The key (for me) is having a big enough bowl. I bought the biggest metal bowl that Ikea sells and we use it almost every night for our salads.
  4. I make extra. Always. Usually our dinner looks like enough to feed 10 people, and sometimes it is. Not only does this mean that Scott has something to eat for lunch every day, but it's also great when I am genuinely running behind and we have a "fend for yourself" night. Ahem. Those are the exception, not the rule. I also use leftovers (like plain leftover quinoa or leftover beans or lentils) as an ingredient in whatever I'm making the next night.
  5. I stock everything I need to make a variety of dinners. I (almost) always have potatoes, onions, carrots, celery, lettuce, spinach, kale, garlic, dry beans, lentils, quinoa, canned tomatoes, and veggie stock or Better than Boullon on hand, plus a handful of other produce items. Those depend on what is in the garden or what came in our CSA or Door to Door Organics box that week.
This is what works for me now. I imagine that in a few years, when we hit the middle school and high school years, I will have to adjust my strategy somewhat in order to get dinner ready at a time when we can all sit down together and eat. But for now, as harried as it may sound, this is working for me.

What do you do to get your family together at the dinner table?

Psst...for more on my personal journey to health, check out this post.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Back in the Backpack Again

I hope this post won't come off as preachy or soapbox-y. I wrote it on the plane as we were flying home from Costa Rica yesterday so it is full of the emotion of travel. Consider it a true window into my heart and mind. 

When we embarked on our big Asian Adventure last spring, we expected it to stand alone as our only international travel for at least nine months. But then some friends took a two and a half month trip to Costa Rica and our plans changed. How could we pass up an opportunity to visit them?

Costa Rica was not on our list of places to visit soon. Eventually we knew we'd get there, but after living in Mexico for ten months and visiting there regularly, we figured the world is a big place and we'll miss a lot if we don't get out of Latin America.

And that's true. But when you've got friends living someplace cool and they have space for you to stay with them and you can get an affordable (and direct) flight, you go.

Judging by the abundance of babies, toddlers, and elementary aged kids on our flight, Costa Rica has become a popular family destination. It's easy to see why. It is quick to get to, safe, exceedingly clean (maybe second only to Singapore and Disneyland, at least in my experience), the language barrier is easily overcome, the food is easy for American kids to adapt to, and kid-friendly activities abound.

It seems that Costa Rica is now the vacation spot that Hawaii was when I was a kid. And somehow, maybe because Mexico is our go-to spot, I had no idea.

The older I get, the harder travel is for me. As my awareness of global environmental and social justice issues increases, my ability to globe-trot in a carefree manner decreases. No longer can I visit a place like Costa Rica and simply enjoy the green hills around me. Now I visit and I see agriculture in a place where there should be rain forests, but for the global demand (or more precisely, American demand) for bananas, pineapple, coffee, and cheap beef. In fact, Lonely Planet nearly ruined my vacation when I read that 30% of Costa Rica's rain forests were cleared to make room for beef production to satisfy the demand of American fast food chains. Here's looking at you, Big Mac, the ultimate symbol of American culture and values.

Is it just me? Am I the only person who goes on vacation and can't really let her mind go? Was I ruined by Semester at Sea, the study abroad program that taught me to travel with a discerning eye, to desire to learn not only about the places I visit but also about their interrelatedness with the rest of the world? Or is my nature to be wracked with angst and frustration over the state of the world and our role in it?

Or maybe my reaction is normal. Maybe the more we travel, the more we see and smell and touch, the more eyes we search and smiles we share, the more we realize what a small planet we live on and the more we respect both the planet and the rights of all who live on it.

I cannot string together words that would do justice to the sound of the rainforest at night. The whoosh of bats flying by, the painfully loud and high pitched chirp of frogs no bigger than the end of your pinky, the hooting of a solitary owl, the rustle of an armadillo scurrying through the brush. Did you know that hours after a rainstorm ends, you still hear the echoes of the storm in the rainforest? It drips and drops and clinks and plops as the water makes its way down from the canopy to the forest floor, like a slow motion game of rainforest Plinko. The cool moisture on your skin, the moon obscured by thousands of plants towering above you, the sweet and dewy air that flows into your lungs with each breath...there is no place on earth like it. It induces awe. It forces an appreciation for nature, no matter how you believe the world came to be or where you think it's going.

But I know that it is impossible for any description I assign to the rainforest to do justice to it or to give you the feeling that you get when you're there. It's not something that can be reproduced in a museum, where you jump from the rainforest to the plains to the tundra all in the space of a few hours. It is an experience you can only get when you immerse yourself. You hear it during the day, you smell it at night, you eat the food from it, you meet the people who live in it, you are surprised by the animals who depend on it. And then you leave and you drive by hillsides now bare where you know that same cacophony of sounds and riot of umbrella sized leaves, cartoonish flowers, hanging vines, and hiding animals once existed. What happened to the frog who was as small as your pinky? To the sloth who moved no more than six or seven feet in a day? When the bulldozer came to knock down the trees, what happened to them? To the hummingbirds and the ocelots and the butterflies? And what about the stream that once ran clear, quenching the thirst of the people in the town below? The one that now carries the muddy and chemical-laden runoff of industrial agriculture?
Without going there, I think it is hard to care about these things, to really feel the weight of them in your soul, to adjust your behavior so that it reflects what is healthier for the world.

And so for the second time in six months I return from an adventure feeling grateful that I could go but also feeling burdened because I want more, want better for the world. I'm feeling hopeful that my kids will remember what it's like to be somewhere else, to know that life everywhere is not the same as life in Colorado Springs. And, most of all, I hope that my kids, my friends, my neighbors, my family, and my generation will be infected by the desire to see the world for themselves. I hope that they can make the sacrifices, work the extra hours, forgo the newest technology or bigger house or fancier car, and clear their schedules so that when the time is right for them they can experience the world too. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Traveling the world...with kids

I just returned home from an adventure. We decided our kids were ready to travel. And when you're ready to travel (again) and feel like you've been chomping at the bit for a decade while waiting for a chance to get back out into the world, why start small?

I mean, why go someplace easy?

We didn't.

For our first big adventure with our girls, we decided to take them to Asia. It was meant to be a test. We figured that if they could handle this trip, they could handle just about anything and maybe we'd have more trips in our future.

We started with a few days in and around San Francisco (clearly, San Francisco is not in Asia...but it was a great jumping off point), then flew to Hong Kong where we spent about five days, took a ferry to Macau for a day, and then flew to Vietnam where we spent another four days. All together, the trip was 18 days and our girls, ages 10 and 8, managed the trip like champs.

For just a second, I want to talk about why we decided to travel with our kids, and why we chose Asia for their first big trip. Scott and I both believe it is important for our children to grow up knowing that there is more to the world than the little community in which we live. We believe that in order to understand that most of the world is not like America, our kids should see the world for themselves. We want their view of the world to be not an us-and-them view, but a we-are-all-in-this-together view. I know that it's possible to achieve these goals without travel (neither Scott nor I traveled as kids and we came out okay) but travel seems like the best way to ensure that our kids will end up with the perspective we want them to have.

Also, we recently realized that we've only got 8 years left with our oldest kid before she might be out of the house. That's not much time and we wanted to be intentional about spending focused, concentrated time with both of our kids, creating memories and bonding as a family. To us, travel is the best way to do that.

Most of the people who heard about our trip asked the same thing, "Why Asia?" And some, the more bold of our friends and acquaintances, asked, "Why aren't you going to Europe?"

There were a few reasons. First, a good friend from my childhood lives in Hong Kong. We've wanted to visit her there and haven't had a chance, so this seemed like a great opportunity. But also, Asia is very different from America. If you haven't spent much time there, Asia shocks you. It's crowded and noisy and looks different and smells different and tastes different. The language is impossible for us to understand. The food is completely foreign. The customs are unfamiliar.

And also, Europe? I've not been to more of Europe than London (which I realize doesn't even count in some people's eyes), but my impression is that Europe is relatively comfortable. From my experience traveling, I've found that the times I learned the most about myself and the world were the times I was uncomfortable. And the more uncomfortable I was (both physically and mentally), the more I learned.

While traveling in Asia we felt stupid several times and uncomfortable most of the time. We were laughed at more than once. Not in a judgmental, "You stupid Americans," way, but in a, "How silly that they don't know how to ask for more tea," way.

And that was good. Being laughed at in that way keeps a person humble. It reminds us that the world does not belong to us and that we represent, in fact, but one small bit of humanity.

Philosophy aside, traveling with kids is intimidating. No matter how rewarding it might be, it's a little scary.

Because my kids having tantrums in my house? Where I can send them to their rooms? I can handle that.

My kids having tantrums on a train in the middle of a totally foreign place? Not so easy to handle.

So, here are a few things we learned along the way. Hopefully these are ideas you can use, ideas you will use as you drag your children around the globe.

1. Keep them fed. Duh, right? But it's harder than it sounds. As an adult, you want to get from one place to another and you can fight through an empty stomach, knowing that your next meal is not that far away. We tried this with our kids -- not that we were intentionally trying to stretch them, we were just trying to pack in as many activities and sights and experiences as we could. Brynn (our older one) can handle being a little hungry. Callie, our younger one, cannot. Much like I've heard her father was at 8 years old, Callie falls apart before her stomach even growls. Grunting, groaning, shaking her body, pissed off at the world. And if we let her get to that place where she is falling apart, she won't eat because nothing "sounds good." So once we figured this out, even when it wasn't convenient, we made sure to keep her fed. This meant frequent stops for snacks and it also meant keeping water on hand. Sometimes water was all she needed, but she didn't recognize it. We had to remember to offer it to her regularly.

2. Build in downtime. During our first couple of days in Hong Kong, we had a lot of ground to cover and not a lot of time. We were staying in an apartment in a great location in the middle of Hong Kong, but it wasn't a place we wanted to hang out during the day. It was small and a bit cramped (as are most places in Hong Kong), it smelled a little mildewy, and it was a little warm. Between not having an ideal place to come back to for a rest and not wanting to sleep during the day for fear of never adjusting to the time difference, plus wanting to see as much as possible in a short amount of time, we may have worked too hard. Callie fell asleep at dinner the first three nights. Head on the table, carried out of restaurants. Meals she normally would have loved she totally missed out on.

Looking back, what could we have done differently during those first few days? We could have found a place for the kids to chill. Some kind of park or open space (not easy to find in Hong Kong, but I'm certain if we looked hard enough we could have found it) would have been a great place for the kids to let their brains rest while their bodies played. That brings me to #3.

3. Find other kids to play with. Our kids are 8 and 10. They're not toddlers. They don't need a LOT of playtime. But they need some. And, frankly, Scott and I are not ideal play companions. During this trip it occurred to me that playtime is to kids what sitting back and drinking a beer (or a glass of wine) is to adults. It helps us unwind, helps us chill out, helps us relax so that we are prepared for the next big thing.

We were lucky that in San Francisco we stayed with friends who have three kids. All three are younger than my kids, but I don't think it mattered. They had a ball playing together and their playtime each evening was enough to unwind the kids for another full day the next day. During the second part of our time in Hong Kong we stayed with friends who have two year old twins. Again, much younger than my kids and, again, it didn't matter. My kids engaged with them and through play were able to chill. In Vietnam we were hoping to have kids around for our kids to play with during the second half of our stay there. That didn't work out as planned, but the girls played really well with each other during the afternoon when we had nothing else to do. In a hot, sweaty, difficult situation, their opportunity to play together is what kept all of us sane.

4. Have realistic expectations. Traveling with kids is not the same as traveling with adults. We didn't see and do everything with our kids that we might have seen and done had it been just the two of us. For instance, in Macau we planned to spend our first afternoon/evening seeing the Las Vegas-ish side of Macau. Exploring the hotels and arcades and wandering past the expensive restaurants. The next day, before catching an evening ferry to the airport, we planned to wander the old side of Macau which was colonized by the Portuguese. Unfortunately, it was raining. And it rained all day long. Scott had a whole walking tour planned for us, with cool facts about everything we were going to see. He had a list of food we wanted to try. If we'd been there alone, we probably would have sucked it up and done the walk in the rain. But with kids? Forget it. We tried sitting in a coffee shop, waiting for the rain to die down. We tried wandering through the Wynn, hoping that eventually the rain would stop. The rain never stopped, so we cut our losses and headed back to the ferry terminal to try to catch an earlier ferry to the airport. At least there we knew the kids could sit back and read or write in their journals and rest. Of course the sun came out as soon as we got on the ferry.

As it turned out, there was a problem at the ferry terminal with our Vietnamese visas, so the extra time came in handy. But even if things had gone smoothly, downtime in the airport would have been better than going with our original plans.

5. Guide them in their learning. Both of my kids were asked by their teachers to keep journals of their trip. You want to know what those journals looked like at first? "I just got on the plane. Now the plane is in the air. The flight attendant brought us drinks. We watched a movie." Yeah, pretty much a play-by-play of everything we did. I encouraged them to choose one thing that they noticed that day to write about. A smell? A sound? A sight? This worked for Brynn. At 10 years old, she's learned how to write essays and can write well from a prompt. Callie still needed extra guidance, though, and by the time we got to Vietnam, she was done writing. She wanted nothing to do with it. At that point, I actually had to write for her. We would talk about what she wanted to say and then she'd dictate to me. And I had to be flexible enough to be okay with that. We never did get through the second half of our time in Vietnam, but at least now she has experience journaling and I hope that next time will be easier.

Before Brynn went back to school on Monday, I asked her, "When your teacher asks you what you learned, what are you going to say?" Her answer? "Ummmm, I learned about rice." Seriously? We just spent how many thousands of dollars and how much time and you learned about rice? I know she learned more than that and I know Brynn's teacher. I know that he wants his students to think critically and expects a lot out of them. That answer wasn't going to cut it. So I stopped her and reminded her that her answer didn't have to be so literal. Her answer needed to be something she couldn't learn from watching a movie or reading a book. It needed to be something that required her being in a new place. That helped move her in the right direction. Then she was coming up with answers like, "I learned that Asia is really different from America," and, "there is a lot more of the world that I want to see." Those were answers we could work with and expand on.

When I think back to my first experiences being in new and different places, I'm not sure that I could have done much better than Brynn, and I was a young adult. I know that the answers are inside her, that she internalized all she saw, but it's hard to make sense out of it. It takes maturity and experience to put into words what you see and feel and learn when you travel.

6. Pack lighter than you think is reasonable. We tried to pack light, but we could have done better. We each had a backpack and nothing else which seemed pretty good when we left the house, but the girls' packs were too heavy for them (especially for Callie -- Brynn did well). Our trip included some significant changes in weather that made packing difficult. We went from the Bay Area (which Scott says is the coldest place he's ever been) to the Mekong Delta (which was in the high nineties and humid while we were there). I don't mind carrying a heavy pack, and neither does Scott, but next time we'll make sure the girls' packs are as light as possible to make transiting from one place to another even easier.

7. Don't avoid the hard stuff. For me, the hardest part of the trip was the two days we spent in the Mekong Delta. It was hot. Like 99 degrees plus super humid. It was a long (3 1/2 hour) bus ride getting out there. Brynn left a backpack in the bathroom of a bus station and we had to go through a pretty drawn out process with the police to get it back while our bus was about to pull out of the parking lot. The place where we were staying was supposed to be a "homestay" but turned out to be more of a guest house. There was no air conditioning and no shower. We were dirty, sweaty, and stinky. It was hard and sometimes it was frustrating. I almost suggested that we cut it short and run back to the comfort of our air conditioned hotel in Saigon.

But I didn't.

And you know what? The kids didn't think it was hard. Or at least they didn't say so. They had fun. They played. They learned. They met a sweet woman from Japan and a great couple from the Netherlands who were staying at the guest house with us. The girls engaged with these strangers from other parts of the world and caught glimpses of cultures that they'd never seen before. They smiled and laughed and answered questions and were really great representatives of America. They made us proud.

Old Vietnamese women grabbed Callie's arms and smacked her behind and pointed at her and smiled toothless grins. (We can't figure out why, but old women and animals all love Callie.) Kids waved at us and yelled, "Hello!" through huge smiles. The girls chased minnows in the muddy water outside our cabin. They adjusted well to the heat and humidity.

As adults, the hard stuff is what makes us physically uncomfortable and makes us nervous because we don't know what to expect. But not for the kids. They took it all in stride and pushed us to be cheerful (or at least pretend to be cheerful) despite our discomfort. For kids, the hard stuff is walking through museums, reading guidebooks, being forced to sit at a table for long stretches of time. For them that isn't fun. Playing in the mud is fun. Meeting new people is fun.

That last part of the trip, the hardest part, reminded me of why I believe in traveling to challenging places. Sometimes it doesn't feel great. It isn't relaxing or luxurious or simple. You don't return home feeling recharged or revived or ready to take on the world. As I get older I see myself wanting to go someplace simple, someplace where I don't feel so challenged. I want to go lie on a beach or sit in a nice restaurant and drink wine. And we will. We need balance. But the stuff that's hard for Scott and me is great for the kids and so I have to remind myself not to avoid it but rather to seek it out and be intentional about including it in our travel plans.

I'll probably write a few more posts about our trip, but I'll do it over on our family blog. If you're interested in following along, feel free to check up on The Friendly Home on Facebook or follow me on Twitter. I'll publicize any other travel posts there. Also, we finally joined the Instagram family while we traveled. You can see all of our pics on Scott's Instagram page, here.

Have you traveled with kids? What would you add? I'm sure there's more to know!

Monday, December 10, 2012

{backyard redo} Things always get worse before they get better

You know how it goes with any project -- even when you're just painting a room. That chaotic time after a project has started, when your stuff is strewn all over the place, the floors are dirty and you can't find your favorite (fill in the blank).

That's pretty much how every project goes, I think, but it's especially noticeable when the project requires digging up half your backyard.

A few days before work started on our backyard, our sweet Lab/Husky mix, Libbie, was run over by a car. She was on leash out for a walk when she bolted after a deer. The car ran over her belly, lacerated her diaphragm in two spots, and dislocated her hip. She was in a world of hurt (and put a pretty good dent in our bank account). When she got home from the hospital, Libbie was in a hip sling and couldn't walk well. Of course, she needs to be able to get out the sliding door in the photo to go to the bathroom. So a friend who's dealt with dogs for a lot longer than I have recommended setting up a ramp for her to get in and out of the house. Without the ramp we would have had to walk her out through the garage and through the sideyard every time she needed to go potty. I'm just going to guess that we would have seen a few potty accidents in the house.

Libbie in recovery mode.

Libbie wasn't really keen on the whole ramp idea but we managed to coax her out onto it so that she could get to the bathroom with relative ease. Yeah, she still had to go over and around piles of debris in the yard, but she fought through it.

All of this gravel came from behind the concrete block wall that was removed and pushed back to create space for the fire pit and fountain. Eventually most of the gravel went in as backfill behind the new wall, and all the dirt that was removed was hauled off. Watching the guys dig out the hillside made Scott's back hurt. I'm not kidding.

Here's a view from our back door -- the one that Libbie uses to go out to her potty spot. The grey concrete block panel in the photo above is the base for our new fountain. The lines dug to it are for water (to fill the fountain automatically, so that it doesn't run dry) and natural gas (for the fire pit). You can also see one of the little Blue Spruce trees that Andrew and his guys planted for us. As it grows, it should fill in that spot nicely and create a pretty good screen from our neighbors. There are three more of them scattered across the back hill.

Looking back at these photos, I'm pretty thrilled that this phase of construction is over. Even though I know going into every project that things always get worse before they get better, that doesn't really help lower my stress level over the mess, even when I'm only looking at it through a sliding glass door. It also helps that now (a) Libbie can walk and (b) she doesn't have to dodge concrete blocks, tubing, old deck wood, and tools when she goes to the bathroom. Funny how things that seem so simple, like a trip to the doggy outhouse, can be such a big deal!

psst...for more about our backyard redo, check out these posts.