Monday, December 31, 2012

Yearly Wrap-Up - By the Words and Numbers

I'm proud of how far Midwestern Girl has come since it began in April of 2011, and even prouder of the growth the site has experienced in the last six months. I'm fairly certain that when the site first went live, the only people reading my posts were my mom and sister. Recently, however, the site has received more than 100 hits each day and in the vicinity of 3,000 hits each month.

In case you missed them, here are the most popular posts according to the numbers:

And for your reading pleasure, here are my top 10 favorite posts - in no particular order - from the year:

Thank you for reading, for following (if you haven't already and would like to do so, just click on "Join this site" in the "Followers" box on the righthand side of the homepage), and for sharing Midwestern Girl with your friends and family. I am extraordinarily grateful.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Weekly Wrap-Up (12.28.12)

Today's Weekly Wrap-Up includes a few interesting photo slideshows and video compilations highlighting some of the year's best music, photos, and philanthropic efforts.  Happy 2012!

Pop Danthology 2012
You may have already seen this video - it's been circulating around Facebook and I saw it on The Today Show last week - but if you haven't, it's worth checking out. This mash-up of the music and videos from 50+ 2012 pop songs is really catchy and very well done. (Prior to this year, a mash-up of the year's pop songs would have meant very little to me. But now, thanks to two kids who like to listen to the radio and classes I take at the gym, I've become a fan of current pop music for the first time since I was in high school.) Have fun!

50 Best Animal Photos of 2012
According to BuzzFeed, these are the 50 best animal photos of 2012. I'm particularly partial to #9 (the goatobomb), #41 (the "racing" owl), #44 (the slothobomb), and #46 (the panda that was afraid of a toy dragon). I love me a good photo bomb, and they're even better when the bomber is an animal who has no idea what it's doing.

On the flip side, I was completely weirded out by #18 (the ducks crossing the road - I don't like birds) and #30 (the terrifying interaction between a diver and an anaconda) nearly made me vomit. Yuck.

The Year in Photos
Courtesy of the Atlantic, here are 135 images (broken into three parts) that truly summarize the eventful year that was 2012.  I find myself drawn to the pictures - of both victory and defeat - taken during the 2012 London Summer Olympics, as well as the pictures of brave men and women standing up for what they believe in.  They give me hope that the coming year will be more peaceful than the last.
Part 1Part 2Part 3

American Red Cross 2012 Year in Review
A quick glimpse into the outreach provided by the American Red Cross this year.  In between launching a new first aid app, collecting blood, and facilitating the Holiday Mail for Heroes program, the Red Cross has been on the ground responding to severe storms and tornadoes in Indiana and West Virginia, wildfires in Colorado, Hurricane Isaac, and Superstorm Sandy.

The Best Astronomy Images of 2012
These 21 pictures of our universe make me feel very, very insignificant, but simultaneously remind me that I am - that we all are - part of a world much more massive and powerful than I can fathom.

26 Moments That Restored Our Faith in Humanity
Last but not least, 26 photos that will remind you that all is not lost.  That there is good and hope and love all around us, visible when we stop - or even slow down - long enough to not just look, but to see.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Resolutions Review

It's hard to believe that 2012 is coming to a close...just last month I finally stopped accidentally writing "2011" (and then crossing it off and writing "2012") on my checks.

At the beginning of 2012 I made three sets of New Year's Resolutions: personal resolutions, Red Cross-related resolutions, and Texas-related resolutions. I've decided that my Red Cross and Texas resolutions should be considered ongoing to-do lists instead of resolutions, so I'll check back in on those another time. The personal resolutions remain resolutions, however, which means it's time to reflect on what I accomplished (and didn't accomplish) during the last 12 months. Here are a few highlights...

Stop giving in to Hallie's ridiculous bedtime demands and teach that girl to GO. TO. BED.
In July, we'd made very little progress since January. And now, in December, we've made very little progress since July. We don't give in to Hallie, but that doesn't mean she doesn't still make demands ("I NEED SOCKS ON MY HANDS!, YOU NEED TO CURL MY HAIR!, I NEED TO WEAR A LEOTARD!, MY PINK OCTOPUS IS LOOKING AT ME!, I FORGOT TO MAKE A SNOW ANGEL IN MY SWIMSUIT!"). Since Tom and I can't seem to figure out how to smooth out Hallie's bedtime routine, we've started making it interesting by placing bets on how many times she'll come out of her room and hiding as soon as we hear her door open. I'm not proud of our behavior, but it keeps us sane. Sort of.

Teach Will how to independently use his inhaler and epi-pen in preparation for kindergarten.
Success! Will isn't yet allowed to self-administer his inhaler and epi-pen at school, but he now knows when and how to use both and will be officially ready to go when he starts first grade next fall (there's quite a bit of paperwork involved and we're not going to tackle it until this summer).

Enter the doors to Target ONLY with a list. Stick to the list.
I always have a list. Once or twice I actually stuck to the list.

Meet Tom for a lunch date at least once each month. Choose restaurants where our meals cost less than $20 combined.
Ha. During the first six months of the year we went on one lunch date, on one double date with my sister and bro-in-law, and to one wedding. We did a little better during the second six months of the year, but that's only because College Station finally got a Panera and we're both willing to drop just about everything for a chance to enjoy their coffee (him) and pastries (me).

Finalize our will, set up a 529 plan for Hallie, and start contributing regularly to both kids' 529 plans.
I haven't finalized our will (argh), but I finally took care setting up and contributing to the kids' 529 plans. These college savings plans may be my greatest accomplishment this year.

Address the "Ferris Family Recliner Situation". More specifically, reupholster Tom's teal recliner so that it can move from the garage to our bedroom. OR...purchase a new recliner and convince Tom that the new recliner is in fact his old recliner reupholstered.
This task was accomplished during the first half of the year and was my first official success, which I think say something about how important addressing the recliner situation was to me. The chair remains Tom's absolute favorite seat in the house.

Read one book each month and figure out how to check out library books on my Nook.
During the first six months of the year I read one book each month. Exactly halfway through the year I discovered The Hunger Games, and since that day, I've been devouring books like my life depended on it. In addition to reading all three books in The Hunger Games series (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay) twice, I also read The Silver Linings Playbook, The Help, Moonpool, 11/22/63, The Next Best Thing, all four books in the Twilight Saga (Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn), and The Christmas Train. I'm so pleased that I made - and kept - this particular resolution, because along with discovering The Hunger Games trilogy and the Twilight Saga stories, it has reminded me how much I love to read and really invigorated my mind. Oh, and the library's e-reader system isn't compatible with Nooks. Just my luck.

Knit two scarves for friends/family members who live in climates where scarves are worn.
I finished two scarves but haven't gifted them yet. Want a new scarf? Let me know in the comments and I'll send one your way!

Climb into bed no later than 11pm with the goal of turning off the light by 11:30pm. Skip the late-night reruns of Grey's Anatomy - it's not like I haven't seen them all two or three times before.
The television networks made this one easy for me during the second half of the year - they replaced Grey's Anatomy reruns with reruns of some other crappy crime drama that I found considerably less interesting than every book I've read since June. I'm still tired on Monday mornings, but at least now it's because I stayed up late reading about Bella and Edward.

Stop complaining about the heat.
Ha. Never gonna happen.

How about you? How did you do on your New Year's Resolutions?

Wednesday, December 26, 2012


It's not easy to take good pictures of children.

Actually, it's really hard to take good pictures of children.

I have plenty of pictures of my kids running away from me, fighting with each other, and with their eyes closed, tongues out, or heads turned away from the camera. Those pictures were easy to take. I have far fewer pictures of both Will and Hallie smiling (real smiles) and looking at the camera, which - as much as I love candid pictures - are usually what I'm looking for when it comes to my annual Christmas card photo.

This year's photo shoot was one of our worst. Even though it was early November, it was hot outside, and because I wanted to the kids to wear clothes that looked more fall-ish than summer-ish, they were sweating buckets. Not to the mention the fact that I was also sweating buckets, and when my face sweats it makes holding my camera up to my eye much more difficult and uncomfortable. It was also entirely too bright outside, which meant lots of squinting if the kids were in the sunlight and poor lighting conditions if the kids were in the shade. And lastly, just minutes after we arrived at the park, Hallie fell into the marshy/swampy part of the pond and ended up covered in mud up to her ribcage.

If I lived within three hours of Chicago I wouldn't take pictures of Will and Hallie myself - I'd send them to my amazing photographer friend Carrie (she's an amazing friend and an amazing photographer) and let her work her magic. But since I don't live within three hours of Chicago, I continue to take these pictures myself. And thank goodness for digital photography, because I end up with A LOT of outtakes...

As you can see, Hallie is 97% of the problem.  Will cooperates as well as a six-year-old can, but Hallie...that girl.  She just doesn't seem to understand that the sooner I get my picture, the sooner the madness can end.

She's lucky she's cute.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas!

Christmas! The very word brings joy to our hearts. No matter how we may dread the rush, the long Christmas lists for gifts and cards to be bought and given – when Christmas Day comes there is still the same warm feeling we had as children, the same warmth that enfolds our hearts and our homes.

~ Joan Winmill Brown

Merry Christmas, Y'all!

Monday, December 24, 2012

If You Don't Believe...

"Even though she was a grown woman, she believed in elves and Santa Claus and flying reindeer and sacks with an endless capacity for toys.  Furthermore, she believed that believing in these things was the chief reason that she had more Fun in Life than others."

Now I'm not saying that I have more fun in life than others, but I certainly do believe in the magic of elves and Santa Claus and flying reindeer and sacks with an endless capacity for toys.  And for this, I give credit to my mom.

Growing up (and now that I think about it, in all my 30-some years), my mom NEVER once told or "admitted" to me or my little sister that Santa Claus was any less than 100% real.  No, she never ignored us.  And no, she never lied to us.  With a twinkle in her eye and love in her voice, she simply answered our questions with, "If you don't believe, he won't come."  I believed, and he came.  

As Christians, we will never lose sight of "the reason for the season".  Both Will and Hallie understand and keep ever in their hearts and minds - perhaps better than I do at times - the fact that Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus.  (Speaking of, Hallie suggested that she and I purchase Baby Jesus a pair of ice skates for his birthday this year.  Not yet sure how to address that one.)

But we will also never lose sight of the magic and love - the magic and love that come from giving to others - that Santa Claus brings to this special time of year.  Santa Claus teaches children how to believe in something they cannot see or touch, and is a reminder to children that they are special and loved.   I will never ignore my children's questions, nor will I ever answer their questions with lies.  But I will also never be the one to take Santa Claus away from them.

Following my mom's lead, when my children ask me if Santa is real, I will answer - with a twinkle in my eye and love in my voice - "If you don't believe, he won't come."

Friday, December 21, 2012

Flashback Friday: Santa's Lap

I haven't done a Flashback Friday in quite a while, but decided to fit in one more before the end of 2012, this time taking a look back at pictures of my kids posing with Santa.

Will was about two months old, and we visited Santa at the mall in Madison, Wisconsin.  That Santa was kind of creepy.

Will was just over a year old, and we visited the same Santa in Madison.  Santa was just as creepy as he'd been the previous year, and while Will wasn't scared of Santa, he was less-than-interested in sitting on his lap and/or smiling for the camera.

Will was two years old, and we visited Santa at the mall in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Ann Arbor Santa was significantly more pleasant than Madison Santa and Will was more cooperative than he'd been in previous years, so all in all, I consider 2008 a success.

Will was three years old and Hallie was eight month old, and we returned to our Ann Arbor Santa.  Hallie found Santa to be funny and cuddly, but Will pitched the mother of all hissy fits and refused to go anywhere near him (this was one of the only times in his life when Will didn't respond to bribes) which is why our 2009 picture is only of Hallie.  She looks pretty cute though, doesn't she?

We were selling our house, driving back and forth between Michigan and Nebraska for Thanksgiving, moving to Texas, and driving back and forth between Texas and Illinois for Christmas, so sadly, the kids didn't get to sit on Santa's lap in 2010.

Will was five years old and Hallie was two-and-a-half years old, and they sat on Santa's lap at their preschool's annual Dinner with Santa fundraising event.  No one cried, and both kids told Santa what they wanted for Christmas and smiled for the camera.  It was glorious.  (And kind of funny - for some reason they both thought they were supposed to do their "prayer hands" while they sat on Santa's lap.)

Will is six years old and Hallie is three-and-a-half years old, and their annual Santa picture was once again taken at their (now only Hallie's) preschool's Dinner with Santa fundraising event.  It seems they now have the hang of the process, as they both waiting their turn, introduced themselves to Santa, told him what they wanted for Christmas, climbed into his lap, smiled for the camera, and bid Santa farewell...all without prompting from me.  They seemed so grown up.

I hate that I missed 2010, and have resolved not to miss another year until they start arguing with me about sitting on Santa's lap.  (I certainly hope that circumstance is many years away, and if Will and Hallie are anything like me, it will be...I took pics with Santa through college, and if I looked hard enough I could probably find the picture Tom and I took with Santa just before we started dating in 2001.)

Ho, ho, ho!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

12 Days of Christmas

After a particularly challenging day in the world of parenting, I sat down and wrote new lyrics to the festive Christmas carol, The 12 Days of Christmas. Singing it to myself (while rocking back and forth and covering my ears with my hands) helped me feel slightly better.

On the first day of Christmas, my children gave to me: a gigantic apology.

On the second day of Christmas my children gave to me: two broken toes.

On the third day of Christmas my children gave to me: three orange juice spills.

On the fourth day of Christmas my children gave to me: four carpet stains.

On the fifth day of Christmas my children gave to me: five sleepless nights!

On the sixth day of Christmas my children gave to me: six loads of laundry.

On the seventh day of Christmas my children gave to me: seven runny noses.

On the eighth day of Christmas my children gave to me: eight migraine headaches.

On the ninth day of Christmas my children gave to me: nine sibling stand-offs.

On the tenth day of Christmas my children gave to me: ten public meltdowns.

On the eleventh day of Christmas my children gave to me: eleven screaming tantrums.

On the twelfth day of Christmas my children gave to me: enough fodder to fill a song twice this long.

But the next day – when my children awoke on the “right” side of the bed and as a result, the world looked a whole lot brighter to me – I wrote a second set of lyrics to the song.

On the first day of Christmas my children gave to me: enough love to last the whole year.

On the second day of Christmas my children gave to me: two hands to hold.

On the third day of Christmas my children gave to me: three homemade cards.

On the fourth day of Christmas my children gave to me: four great big hugs.

On the fifth day of Christmas my children gave to me: five "I love you"(s)!

On the sixth day of Christmas my children gave to me: six bouquets of flowers.

On the seventh day of Christmas my children gave to me: seven breakfasts in bed.

On the eighth day of Christmas my children gave to me: eight slobbery kisses.

On the ninth day of Christmas my children gave to me: nine ear-to-ear grins.

On the tenth day of Christmas my children gave to me: ten joyful giggles.

On the eleventh day of Christmas my children gave to me: eleven bedtime cuddles.

On the twelfth day of Christmas my children gave to me: twelve morning snuggles.

I REALLY hope I'm able to continue singing this version for the remainder of the holiday season...

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Christmas Ornament Memory Lane

In general, I'm not a huge fan of photo ornaments.  The exception, however, are the photo ornaments the kids make at school, because these lovingly handmade ornaments document the kids as they grow each year, from how big they were to what to their smiles looked like to how advanced (or not) their art skills and creativity.

This post should probably have been a Flashback Friday, but since there's only one more Friday between now and Christmas and I already have a different series of flashback photos planned for that day, I'm going to throw these photo ornament flashback photos up here today.  It's a lovely walk down memory lane for me.

The kids' photo ornaments start in 2008, when Will was two years old, as that was the first year we had him/them enrolled in a daycare/preschool during the holidays.  Unfortunately we don't have any photo ornaments from 2010; we were moving and the kids were "school-less" during the month of December.  
This photo is blurry because the photo in the frame
is blurry, and the frame is a piece of junk - completely tarnished
and scratched.  I keep it anyway though, as the photo is of
Tom and me on our first Christmas as a married couple.
Will, two years old in 2008.  (The ornament is a snowman.)
Will, three years old in 2009.  (The ornament is a Christmas tree,
and his face is in the gift box under the tree.)
Hallie, eight months old in 2009.  (The ornament
 is a reindeer.  A confused reindeer.)
Will, five years old in 2011.   (The ornament
is a Christmas tree.)
Hallie, two-and-a-half years old in 2011.
(The ornament is an elf.  An uncomfortable elf.)
In 2006 - the year Will was born - I started a tradition of giving Tom and Will (and then Hallie too) a new ornament when we decorated our Christmas tree.  My goal is always to capture in the ornament the character, experience, or activity that captured their hearts that year.  Here are a few of my favorites. 
As a three-year-old, Will was obsessed with pirates.
(Here and here.)
In 2011 - our first full year in Texas - pepper-loving
Tom received this Christmas tree made
of hot peppers and wearing a cowboy hat.
In 2011 and after our trip to Disney World, Hallie
couldn't get enough Minnie Mouse. (Here.)
This year, my little Tink received her own Tinkerbell ornament.
This year I FINALLY found Tom a disc golf ornament.
And this year, Will loves him some Tom & Jerry.
Tom always buys me an ornament as well (though he usually forgets and has to run out to quickly find one once I suggest that we decorate the Christmas tree that evening).  I didn't take any pictures of the ornaments he's given me, because - while he means well - they're often a little, well, different.  For example, I've been obsessed with The Hunger Games since June (here and here).  Just about everyone I encounter knows this, so there's no way that someone living with me couldn't know that.  I mean, the kids know, and they made sure Tom knew so that he'd buy/make me a Katniss cake for my birthday.  But when it came time to find me an ornament, Tom didn't purchase me a Hunger Games or a Katniss or a bow and arrow ornament...he bought me a Charles Woodson (who plays for the Green Bay Packers) ornament.  Don't get me wrong - I love football and I love the Packers (especially when they wear cowboy hats), but I don't even know what position Charles Woodson plays.  (Don't hate me, Packer fans.)

I'm not complaining.  At all.  I love that Tom scrambles at the last minute to find something I'll like.  But I'm going to just put it out there now - in 2013 I want a Twilight Christmas ornament for my tree.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

"Happy Holidays"

I come from, as my aunt so eloquently puts it, the "land of the perpetually offended". At some point I'll write more about this title, and provide you with examples proving its appropriateness, but for today I'll stick with how the title relates to religion and the holiday season.

In the plus column, the population of Madison is a gorgeous and colorful blend of ethnicities, religions, and political viewpoints. In the negative column, some Madisonians are so obsessed with the need to give EVERY SINGLE different group equal standing, or in extreme cases, simply erase the standing that ALL groups hold, that many traditions - holiday and otherwise - have been forced out.

There is such a fear of offending others (and rightfully so, because people get offended easily and are then unkind about it - I've seen it happen) that the well wishes usually accompanying this time of year have all but disappeared. "Happy Holidays" is acceptable, but heaven forbid you actually wish someone a "Merry Christmas".

While scanning Pinterest last week, I came across a photo of a hand-written note on this topic.

I don't understand what the big deal is.

If you are Jewish, tell me "Happy Hanukkah".
If you are Christian, tell me "Merry Christmas".
If you are African American, tell me "Happy Kwanza".
If you don't prefer those, tell me "Happy Holidays".

I will not be offended. I will be thankful that you took the time to say something nice to me.

I COMPLETELY agree.  I would be in no way offended if someone wished me a "Happy Kwanza".  I would in no way feel like someone was forcing their religion on me if they wished me a "Happy Hanukkah".  And I hope that if I wished someone who wasn't Christian a "Merry Christmas", they wouldn't be offended and wouldn't feel like I was forcing my religion on them.

Out of habit after spending the first 18 years of my life in Madison, I often still wish those with whom I cross paths "Happy Holidays".  But I LOVE to wish people "Merry Christmas" and love that it's "acceptable" - as in I won't receive eye rolls or scowls or even nasty words in response - to do so where we live now.

Note: For the record, I don't think that "Merry Christmas" is more acceptable here because there aren't any people who belong to other religions living here.  Yes, College Station is less diverse than Madison.  But I'd be willing to wager that half of the people with whom Tom works - faculty, staff, and students from around the world - don't celebrate Christmas, and the woman driving this fabulously car certainly doesn't.  I only wish I could have seen her two menorahs lit up at night!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Where Do We Go From Here?

As I write, I have on in the background a television news program on which the host and his guests are discussing gun violence, control, and safety. As these well-educated and well-spoken Americans converse about the massacre that took place in Connecticut on Friday as well as the larger issue(s) this kind of violence brings to light, I am only confused. I believe the conversation must include a discussion about the 2nd Amendment, but I am in no way prepared - emotionally, mentally, or intellectually - to participate in such a discussion at this time because I can't find my own footing.

I've also read quite a few opinion pieces about how mass violence in our country can be tied to the absence of faith, spirituality, and God in our schools and/or the "fame" we bestow upon those who commit these heinous crimes. As with the issue of gun control/safety, I am torn.

I do, however, know exactly where I stand on mental illness.

As someone who at one time suffered from a mental health condition (severe postpartum depression, lasting for close to 18 months after Will was born), I strongly believe that decreasing our country's violence epidemic must include - at least to some extent - a change in how we address mental health issues. We MUST raise awareness about mental health conditions and promote mental wellness. We MUST shine a spotlight on the advocacy, education, and services provided by our country's mental health agencies. We MUST make mental health services available to all citizens, and we MUST make it easier and more culturally acceptable to receive help than to spread hurt.

This blog post - composed by a mother of a 13-year-old son with an undiagnosed mental illness - is one of the most important pieces of writing to come across my computer screen in months. Please take a moment to read her story - she simply and clearly illustrates why addressing mental health issues and healing our country go hand in hand.

My heart is breaking for and my thoughts and prayers are with the families of those whose lives were cut short last Friday.  There are simply no words.

On a related note, my sincerest thanks goes out to the police officers and firefighters involved in both the immediate and long-term aftermath of this horrific event, and to the secondary responders - like American Red Cross volunteers - providing support to those on the front lines.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Weekly Wrap-Up (12.14.12)

There's No Place Like Home
Click here, enter your home address when prompted to do so, and watch your house turn into a festive snow globe!

Aggie War Hymn
This house in Frisco, Texas synchronized their 34,000 Christmas lights to the Aggie War Hymn, performed by the Fightin' Texas Aggie Band.  Impressive!

25 Ways NOT to Dress Your Family for Holiday Photos
I may not be very good at pulling together coordinating outfits for my family (I do alright when it's just Will and Hallie, or when it's just Tom and me, but when it comes to the four of us at once, I usually fail miserably), but I find comfort knowing that I generally do a better job than these folks.  Click here to check out some of the funniest Christmas card photos I've come across in quite a while!
Our outfits are horribly coordinated, and Hallie's reindeer ears make Tom look like
he's missing one of his front teeth.  In my defense, this was a spur of the moment family
photo so I didn't give our outfits at a lot of thought until after I saw the photo.
Keep Calm
Everyone has seen the "Keep Calm" sayings - they're available for sale all over the place, and I see at least two new versions every day on Pinterest.  Some of my favorites include "Keep Calm and Recycle", "Keep Calm and Carry a Lightsaber", and "Keep Calm and Write Something".  But yesterday I came across my favorite "Keep Calm" saying thus far:
I wish...

Red Cross: Holiday Season Safety
Last but not least, click here to read more about how to keep your family safe this holiday season.  We're talking weather, travel, and holiday decor - oh my! - over on the Red Cross blog.  Keep Calm and Be Red Cross Ready!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Destructo Preschooler: Christmas Edition

I've written a few times about Hallie's destructive tendencies, but I realized last week, when I was writing yet another post for our family blog (click on the "Destructo Preschooler, Part 2" link below) about things Hallie has destroyed, that Hallie started destroying things long before she became a preschooler.

I decided that all of these posts (those about Hallie's destruction) needed to be grouped together in one location so that when Hallie's older, I can easily refer back to them as proof of how "challenging" she was in her heyday.  Links to the post I've written thus far are below:

Destructo Baby (in which she destroys books and breaks my toe)
Destructo Preschooler, Part 1 (in which she destroys my house)
Destructo Preschooler, Part 2 (in which she destroys various toys and clothing items)

I wish I could tell you that the three posts above mark the beginning, middle, and end of the "Destructo" series, but sadly, that's not the case. Our Christmas decorations have been up for about a week, and in that short period of time Hallie has broken:

  • Her ballerina nutcracker (for the third time)
  • The Winnie-the-Pooh Christmas music box (for the third time)
  • Three different tree ornaments
  • One musical snow globe
  • One Christmas book

It's like she needs to live in a protective bubble, though not a traditional protective bubble as they're designed to protect the occupant from their surroundings.  Hallie's protective bubble would need to be designed to protect the surroundings from the occupant.  Anyone know where I can get one these?  I fear that the lives of our Christmas ornaments and decorations are hanging in the balance...

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Peter Piper's Pipe-ette

During a gardening unit at preschool and with the help of her teachers, Hallie planted two different kinds of beans in a little plastic cup full of dirt. I assume that she and her fellow preschoolers watered their beans and kept them in the sunlight, because at some point a few weeks later, the beans sprouted. And for reasons unknown to all of us - reasons that couldn't possibly include "Hallie is genetically predisposed to successfully grow food" - Hallie's beans grew taller than the beans belonging to everyone else in her class.

Hallie was terribly proud of her "work", and brought the cup of budding bean plants home so that all four of us could all enjoy her success. After a few days the plants were more than a foot tall, so Tom and Hallie moved them to our garden box. For a while it looked like the plants weren't going to take root, but when I checked on them this afternoon I was pleased to find both plants alive and well.  (And I found like 30 additional peppers, ready to be picked, on the pepper plants.)

Perhaps Peter Piper has raised himself up a little Pipe-ette.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Kitchen Challenge: Fall

This food-related tribute to fall will likely be the last post in my Kitchen Challenge series, not because I don't like trying new recipes (I definitely plan to continue both trying new recipes and sharing the tasty ones with you), but because after the Soup Challenge and the Dessert Challenge, I kind of lost interest in being bound to a particular category of food. (My Tomato Challenge ended up having basically nothing to do with tomatoes.)

Throughout September, October, and November I tried a number of new appetizers, soups, main dishes, and desserts, about half of which were worth sharing. Here are my favorite recipes, along with my adaptations (if there were any) and comments. Hopefully a few of these delicious treats will make it to your table this holiday season!

1. Pumpkin Snickerdoodles
Adaptations: I made these cookies last season, but because I was out of white sugar I substituted brown sugar. They were DELICIOUS the first time around, but I felt like I should try the recipe a second time using white sugar.
Comments: I actually liked these cookies better with brown sugar. Tom disagreed, and voted for the white sugar version. The kids couldn't tell a difference, and were just happy to be eating cookies. I will recommend, however, that you eat these cookies as soon as possible after they've baked and cooled, as they get a little sticky on day two.

2. Chocolate Chip Cookie Pie
Adaptations: None.
Comments: Amazing. Simply amazing. Make sure you enjoy a piece while the pie is still warm, and top your slice of deliciousness with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream.

3. Chicken Enchilada Soup
Adaptations: I doubled the onion, red pepper, and enchilada sauce, and I used sharp cheddar cheese instead of pepper jack cheese.
Comments: I made this soup on Thanksgiving Eve, and it turned out to be perfect for such an occasion. It was VERY easy, which I appreciated because we had company and I had already started working on my Thanksgiving Day desserts, and it wasn't too heavy.

4. Chocolate Sour Cream Bundt Cake
Adaptations: None.
Comments: A friend of mine saw this recipe on Pinterest, made it that evening, and posted a picture of her finished product on Facebook. I saw her picture at 11pm, visited the grocery store the following morning, and baked the cake that afternoon. It is to die for, especially if you're of the opinion that there's no such thing as too much chocolate. (Like I am.) Making the cake was a bit time-consuming, but totally worth it in the end. And a little goes a long way with this one - Tom and I only made it through about half of the cake over the course of a weekend, so on Monday I froze the second half in small sections and have been pulling them out whenever I need a chocolate fix.

5. Soft Pretzel Bites with Cheese Sauce
Adaptations: Because I was curious and because it seemed like an unnecessary (and messy) step, I divided my nuggets into two batches and skipped boiling the second batch in water before baking them. Don't follow my lead. I also didn't sprinkle salt on top of the nuggets, but that's just a personal preference.
Comments: I love soft pretzels. So much. I literally can't walk past Auntie Anne's Pretzels in the mall (or anywhere else, for that matter) without buying one. These pretzels aren't quite a good as Auntie Anne's (probably because they use a lot more butter than I did), but they're a really good substitute. The cheese sauce, on the other hand, was nothing to write home about. It tasted alright at first, but within minutes it was thick and kind of grainy. Skip the cheese sauce and go with a homemade honey mustard or even just plain cream cheese.

6. Butter Crumble Apple Pie
Adaptations: My pie plate is eight inches (instead of nine inches) so I only used five Granny Smith apples.
Comments: I've actually made this pie twice already, and both times it's disappeared in just a couple of days (even when it was just Tom and me eating it). It would make a perfect addition to a holiday spread.

7. Drunken Pork Chops
Adaptations: None.
Comments: I've been trying out a few extra pork recipes lately because, as it turns out, Hallie likes and will eat pork. She won't touch chicken with a 10-foot-pole, but inhales pork like it's secretly made of gummy bears and brownies. Go figure. Anyway, this is one of the best pork recipes I've come across - only one pan, less than five minutes of prep, and depending on the size of your chops, done in 40 minutes or less.

8. Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies
Adaptations: As is the norm in our house, I left the nuts out of this recipe. I'm not a fan of nuts in my baked goods (with the exception of pecan pie and the Chocolate Chip Cookie Pie above) and Will is allergic to nuts so we usually steer clear.
Comments: Another solid cookie recipe, especially by the kids' standards. But like the Pumpkin Snickerdoodles, these cookies are best if they're consumed within a few hours of coming out of the oven as they get a little sticky on day two.

So there you have them - fall's successful recipes. Enjoy!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Johnny Heisman

"Leadership, respect, and putting others first. It's what the 12th Man is all about. I believe that the 12th Man is one of the greatest traditions in all of college football. More than 40,000 students standing, not as fans, but as members of our team.

To the 12th Man, to Texas A&M, to Kerrville, TX, and to Aggies everywhere, this Heisman Trophy's for you. Gig 'em."

~ Johnny Manziel, 2012 Heisman Trophy Winner

It's a pretty incredible time to live in Aggieland.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Weekly Wrap-Up (12.7.12)

Heisman Hullabaloo
Tomorrow night we'll find out whether or not Johnny Manziel - better known as Johnny Football - will become the first-ever freshman to receive the Heisman Trophy.  He's already been named SEC Freshman of the Year and SEC Offensive Player of the Year, and there is no doubt in my (not-at-all-expert-but-reasonably-knowledgeable-about-football) mind that Johnny deserves this award.

I won't be watching the awards show live, however (though we'll be recording it to watch later in the evening), which I would consider a real bummer if I weren't instead going to be sitting in a movie theater watching The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 with Tom and some awesome friends of ours. I know, I know - I'm late to the game. Again. But I seriously can't wait to see this movie.

In the meantime, with the dual purpose of distracting myself from counting down the minutes until tomorrow night and paying tribute to Johnny Football, here are a couple of great pics of the hero of Aggieland and his fans.
He makes is look so easy.
Just another incredible play.
That's right.
Chuck Norris is usually wearing his Johnny Football
costume when I see him at gymnastics.
Not really possible, but it made me smile.

First Class
You know how when you board a plane, all of the first class passengers board before everyone else and are then already sitting in their seats, enjoying a beverage, when you enter the plane? What if, when you passed through first class, you had to walk by this fellow? Hmmm.
It seems to me that bears on planes should be required to sit in the window seat, just to keep the aisle a little safer for the human passengers.

It's good to have goals.  Especially if your Life Goals list includes "get a fat cat and make it be mine", like the list belonging to this 11-year-old does.  Excuse me while I go update my own Life Goals list.

Deck the Halls
I realize that we've kind of moved past the popularly of flash mobs, and I know that I posted this video last year.  But I love it, and so I'm going to share it again.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

How the American Red Cross Became a Part of Me

About a month or so ago I was asked to be the guest speaker for the Brazos Valley American Red Cross Volunteer Recognition. I was honored, of course, but also nervous. Public speaking doesn't usually bother me, especially when it's about something as familiar to me and close to my heart as the American Red Cross. But I do better when I have clear instructions, and in the case of this speech, my only directives were to "speak for 15 minutes" and to "say something inspirational". For me, that set-up = a boatload of pressure.

I spent quite a bit of my time (when I wasn't watching Twilight movies) and put a lot of my heart into this speech. Which is why I wanted to make sure I documented my story in a place where it would be safe and where I could come back to it if ever I needed a reminder as to why I give so much to the American Red Cross. This blog is my "safe place" (I realize that sounds strange, given that it's a public space), so this is where I'm choosing to keep the written version of my speech.

Side note #1: The speech is long - it took me 15 minutes to give - so I completely understand if you don't want to read it in its entirety.  But if I could ask a favor of you...please read the last four paragraphs.  They sum up what the speech is all about.  What my connection to the American Red Cross is all about.

Side note #2: Though I of course did not directly refer to The Twilight Saga during my speech, the Twilight stories were on my mind quite a bit while I was writing over the Thanksgiving weekend. In tribute, I threw in a little something at the end of the speech for the Twihards. (People often jokingly refer to the American Red Cross as vampires - because they "want your blood" - so I thought it was was appropriate.)

Thank you so much, Vickie.

Like most, if not all of you, I am a Red Cross volunteer. And also like most of you, I have a Red Cross story, one that I am honored to have been asked to tell tonight.

My first American Red Cross experience came when I was 11 years old. I was eager to earn a little extra spending money – probably to purchase a sparkly snap bracelet or the new Kokomo cassette tape to play in my Walkman – and my parents gave me the option of either painting the garage or babysitting for the neighborhood children. Not surprisingly, I chose babysitting for the neighborhood children. And because I wanted to be as prepared as possible to handle what the preschoolers living next door might literally and figuratively throw at me, I enrolled in a Red Cross Babysitting Class. (It should be noted that two summers later, my parents made my sister and me paint the garage anyway.)

I had no idea that my decision to become a babysitter, small as it seemed at the time, began me on my journey to a life-long partnership with this organization. My story is about how the Red Cross became a part of me, but in order to fully explain, I should elaborate how I became a part of the Red Cross.

I developed a deeper connection to the American Red Cross throughout my high school and college years. I became certified in CPR, First Aid, and Water Safety, and when I turned 17, I began donating blood on a regular basis. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the Red Cross was slowly becoming part of my social identity.

My interest in what I learned in my CPR and First Aid classes, as well as what I learned about blood donation, led me to believe – at least while in college – that I wanted a career in medicine. However on the first day of my super senior year (as in 5th year) of college, I had something of a panic attack. Suddenly the thought of going down a career path that would involve between three and 10 additional years of school was too much for me to handle. I marched on down to my guidance counselor’s office that afternoon and changed my major. For the fourth time. As I’m sure you can imagine, my parents were thrilled.

When I graduated nine months later with a degree in sociology, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go. I knew only that my direction needed to involve something that made me feel good about myself and allowed me to help those in need.

As my job search began, I came across a listing for a Financial Development Associate at the Grant Wood Area Chapter of the American Red Cross in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

My interview for the position was challenging. I was nervous, not because it was my first “real” interview, but because I was worried I wouldn’t be able to adequately convey how passionate I was about the mission of the American Red Cross. I desperately needed the Chapter’s ED and DFD to understand that I wasn’t just interested in a job. I was interested in a job serving the American Red Cross. And though I knew I’d done my very best, I certainly wasn’t holding my breath when the interview came to an end.

But the call came, and two weeks later I walked into the Real World, into my First Job, and into the American Red Cross, all at the same time.

It was an interesting time to join the American Red Cross, especially in a fundraising position. The September 11th terrorist attacks had taken place less than a year earlier, and many Americans were still confused about where and how their donations to the American Red Cross would be used. I had a solid education under my belt, but everything else in front of me was brand new and overwhelming. I felt lost and confused and wondered if joining the Red Cross team had been a mistake.

It became clear, however, that the people with whom I worked wanted me to succeed as badly as I wanted to be successful. The American Red Cross supports its people – employees and volunteers alike. My success was the organization’s success, and the organization’s success was mine. Throughout the years that followed I would come to understand this mentality more and more.

After two years working in fundraising for the Red Cross in Iowa, my husband was accepted to graduate school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. It was difficult to leave our friends behind, but it was far more difficult for me to leave behind the organization that in such a short period of time had become my professional home. I knew I had so much more to give to the Red Cross, and I was terrified to think that just as I’d gotten my toe in the door, there was a good chance that same door would now be slammed in my face.

I consider myself unbelievably blessed that after we’d been in Ann Arbor for a month, I was offered a position at the Washtenaw County Chapter. As the Blood Services Coordinator, I spent my days recruiting, training, and coordinating hundreds of Red Cross volunteers to staff between 40 and 75 blood drives a month.

I was working as the Blood Services Coordinator on August 29th, 2005, at 8:27am, when the phone began to ring. And ring. And ring. Suddenly community members were coming out of the woodwork, desperate to volunteer. It took us a few minutes to connect the dots, as we’d only just stepped into the office when the phone started ringing…August 29th, 2005 was the day Hurricane Katrina devastated our country.

My surprise at the volume of calls from community members makes it sound as though we weren’t prepared, but I assure you, we were, both as a national organization and as a chapter. It’s just that we were in Michigan – more than 1,000 miles from the worst-hit city, New Orleans. While we’d expected to ramp up our fundraising and blood collection efforts in the coming days, we hadn’t anticipated how almost frantic the community would be to help.

August 29th marked the beginning of three of the most difficult weeks of my professional life, in part because the American Red Cross made the difficult decision to do something they’d never done before. The organization decided to train community members as disaster volunteers DURING a disaster response so that these people would be available to deploy immediately.

Prior to Hurricane Katrina, when a disaster struck, only volunteers who were already trained and certified were available to deploy. Though community members would often inquire about volunteering for an underway disaster, they weren’t allowed to do so because of the extensive training required. These folks were of course pulled into the system and trained so that they would be available for the NEXT disaster, but could not be sent out on deployment until at least a few weeks after their first inquiry.

The need for volunteers in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina was so massive that the American Red Cross had to drastically alter the very foundation on which disaster volunteering had been built. The intake, orientation, and training that used to take two months now needed to take no more than 48 hours. And because the American Red Cross had never before gone this route, there were no manuals, no instructions, and no guidelines to steer us in the right direction.

In any other industry, or at any other time, being asked to do something so difficult in the workplace would have angered most employees. But that wasn’t the case at the Red Cross. Never before have I seen so many people – employees, seasoned volunteers, brand new volunteers, and community partners – come together so quickly. We transitioned from business-as-usual to disaster operation mode before our untouched cups of coffee had cooled.

In the upstairs workspace, we operated a phone bank, fielding calls from community members interested in joining our volunteer ranks and organizations interested in donating goods or services. In the multi-purpose room, we processed volunteer paperwork, ran volunteer background checks, and scheduled volunteers for training sessions. In the garage bay, vehicles were moved out, donated folding chairs and tables were moved in, and volunteers were oriented to the American Red Cross and briefed on the fast-paced, unpredictable, and difficult world of disaster deployment.

The days were extraordinarily long – sun-up until long after sun-down – but going home was worse. That first night I turned on the news as I crashed down into my bed. The photos, videos, and news reports covering the complete devastation and despair were overwhelming, and before I knew it, tears were streaming down my face.

But the following morning I awoke with a renewed spirit. Not because I knew everything would be alright – I actually felt the opposite, somehow knowing that things were going to get worse before they got better – but because my purpose was clear. The babysitting class when I was 11, the CPR and FA classes in high school, donating blood, fundraising for the Grant Wood Area Chapter in Iowa – each of these experiences kept me moving forward on my path and delivered me to where I was supposed to be, when I was supposed to be there. The American Red Cross needed my help. The people in the path of the storm needed my help.

For weeks we worked 12+ hour days, six days a week. We missed our families and friends, lost sleep, and struggled to maintain our composure in the face of such tragedy. Little things helped us keep going. Donated donuts for breakfast and pizza for dinner from local restaurants. Visits from therapy dogs, trained to provide comfort to those in emotional distress. Hugs from New Orleans residents who, after evacuating prior to the storm’s landfall, drove north until they felt safe and somehow found themselves 1,000 miles from home and at our front door.

I’d heard Red Cross employees and volunteers talk about what life inside the organization had been like in the days, weeks, and months following September 11th. Intellectually I understood what they had gone through, but there was no way I could ever emotionally understand their experience. At least until I’d been a part of a large-scale, national disaster response myself.

As human beings we are naturally united by shared struggle. By shared pain. By coming together in the face of what seem like insurmountable odds, holding hands through the darkness, and eventually emerging, still connected to one another, into the light.

So much of what we do as Red Cross employees and volunteers is hard. Not just physically hard, but emotionally and mentally hard. We struggle. We hurt. But we eventually emerge into the light.

There is always a moment in the “life” of a Red Cross volunteer when the Red Cross becomes not just something you do, but something you are. When you can say to yourself – and to those around you – that for the rest of your life, the mission of this incredible organization will be imprinted on your heart.

I became a part of the American Red Cross in 1990, more than 22 years ago. But the Red Cross became a part of me on Monday, August 29th, 2005. I hope that if your day has not yet arrived, you will stay with the organization until it does. I promise, you will never be the same.

Thank you.

ARC volunteer, Mikey, and five-month-old Will,
at Will's very first Volunteer Recognition.
Grandma bribes Will at his second Volunteer
Recognition. Clearly he was having a fantastic time.
My ARC model (seriously, doesn't she make you
want to buy that onesie?!), preparing for her
first Volunteer Recognition.