Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Frugality

We are, by choice, primarily a one-income family. While I have always done *something* on the side (Google researching, Google ratings job, online counseling, working in our clinic, teaching summer camps, running groups, etc.), Mark is the main person bringing home the proverbial bacon and I am the main person home with the kids and sort of managing our lives in general.

When we are feeling connected and in a good rhythm, Mark and I are an incredible team. Doesn't matter what we're working on together, I feel *super* happy (almost weepy even) when we're working on it together - projects, planning, cooking, you name it. This teamwork also means we pick up slack for one another - when one is busy/stressed, the other tries to do more, and vice-versa.



When it comes to finances, it's about the earning as well as the spending/saving. I'm pretty conscious of the fact that anytime we spend money, it basically means work for Mark, so I don't take decisions about money, small or large, lightly (though he'd like to see me relax more and not stress so much). We view my being home with the kids as an investment not only in them but in our sanity for a little balance in our lives. We are fortunate to have this option, but while that means we do okay, it does not mean we roll around in money all day. It means we have to be even more careful about our choices.

So, here are 10 things we do to try to save money:

1. We don't waste food. And when I say we don't waste food, I mean we don't waste ANY food. We don't eat out a lot (I mean we love to eat out, but again, it's a way to save money, so while this is one of our favorite treats and we do indulge, we cook and eat home most of the time). When we do eat out, we bring home leftovers. One of my superpowers is that I can make leftovers of all kinds stretch and I can reinvent entire meals of leftovers.

I recently looked in the fridge and saw leftover fried rice, leftover white rice, spinach that was getting older, and shredded cheese that was also getting older. I pulled out all of those ingredients, started stir frying with the right seasonings and sauces, grabbed some tortillas, and voila . . . I made delicious cheesy, spinach enchiladas! The kids devoured them and have been raving about them and asking for more. I made it up so I wouldn't have to throw out old rice, spinach, and cheese. (For the record, by "old," I don't mean bad-for-you old; I just mean older.) I seriously turned Chinese into Mexican.

2. I only treat myself to a really nice cut and color at a salon (and a chain salon at that) once a year around my birthday. AND I use coupons. There are women who go to fancy salons every 3-6 weeks and spend hundreds of dollars each time. No judgment from me - everyone spends money on that which they value. Well, as much as I like to look nice, I personally don't value spending thousands of dollars a year at a hair salon. The thought of it stresses me out. I get one really nice cut/color treat a year and the rest of the time, I cut my own bangs and color my own hair using an $8 kit. It always looks nice and saves us hundreds, nay, thousands of dollars a year.

3. I hate clothes shopping. Hate it. The stereotype of girls who go shopping for fun? Does not compute. Again, to each their own, but shopping isn't a pastime for me; it's something you do out of necessity because your old clothes have worn out. I'm not saying this is ideal. This is not an area where I make myself do this. It's easy because I tend to naturally put off clothes shopping because I think it's such a bore and a chore. I don't look like a vagabond or anything, but yeah, I have a pair of shoes right now that are completely split on the bottom and the stitching has come out around the sides (so you can see my socks from underneath the shoe and from the side, too). At this point, I'm riding it out, because spring will be here soon and I won't have to worry about winter shoes for at least 8 months. Whenever I do need to get some new clothes, I tend to resist by saying, "But I swear I just bought new clothes," to which Mark responds, "You bought that shirt in 2004." And he's right.

A picture of us from 1992. I think I just donated that sweater a few weeks ago, in 2017.


4. We've been together for 25 years this fall and we just bought our 3rd used car (and even then, Jim was kind enough to help us out significantly). Now, full disclosure, we're car shopping to replace the old van now. We knew that both of our cars needed replacing and, like clothes shopping, we have put it off. Well, we put it off so long with our Saturn that it just went kaput. We're trying to get ahead of that with our old van so that we can at least get some trade-in value on it toward the purchase of its replacement. The timing has just worked so that both cars have needed replacing at around the same time. We're trying to stretch it out a little just because that's a lot of expense at once. (Also, we hate car shopping.)

We got this car in 1998. It went kaput in 2016. That's 18 years of reliability!

5. We do a lot of things ourselves. We do a lot of home projects ourselves - electric, plumbing, repairing, etc. We research how to do it and then we do it. We do hire professionals when necessary, but we have always done a lot ourselves. Same with cleaning. We have never had a cleaning person (though we've talked about it many times and it often sounds like a huge help). We just can't stomach paying someone to do something we can do ourselves. It's good for the kids to know how to clean (which is why when we DO talk about getting one, we figure he or she can come once a month and we'll clean once a month, so every two weeks the house gets clean but we do it half the time) and we're capable, so we do it. This does mean that sometimes there are longer stretches than we'd like when we don't get to cleaning it the way we'd like it, but such is life. Priorities. It's neat and clean and sanitary and we don't live in a museum. It works for us.

6. We use our library. A lot. We always have and we continue to do so. It is our first place to check when we need or want a book. We all love books and yes, we buy them, too, but it adds up, so the library is a wonderful resource. There's not a doubt in my mind that, especially as homeschoolers, we've saved tens of thousands of dollars by using our library. We do purchase a lot of our own supplies and curricula for our kids' education, but we try to use resources like the library whenever we can. They know us there. We all have library cards. We request items online. We write dates on the calendar. We get email reminders. We have a special basket in our house for library items (so they don't get mixed up with our items). It takes a little more effort, but it is totally worth it and saves us a bundle! This is also how we watch a lot of movies and TV shows - the library has an extensive library of DVDs that we can borrow. Such a great resource!




7. Simple pleasures. Our family thrives on these, somewhat by necessity but also by choice. We talk about this a lot. We do a lot of running around sometimes due to the nature of homeschooling and teenagers, but it's balanced by lots of down time at home. Some of our very favorite things are meals together (this has always been a big priority for us), watching TV shows together, adventures together, playing games together, listening to podcasts and audiobooks together, getting ice cream, working on projects together, celebrating birthdays together . . . you name it. We can make an event out of anything and we love to simply ENJOY ourselves. We have nights where we spontaneously get appetizers and have a bunch of midnight snacks while binge watching Netflix or some political humor shows like The Daily Show. We have lazy days where it's hours before we're out of our pajamas and we're talking, eating, and playing games for a while. We have Sunday morning cuddles in our bed, playing with Scout and relaxing before we get up and ready and do our weekly planning along with a fun breakfast. This past week, we celebrated the first day of Spring with an annual tradition of getting free Rita's Italian Ice (it's not Dell's) and I learned that Dairy Queen does free ice cream, too. Score!


 









We enjoy one another's company and value our relationships. We invest in them and put effort into them, because it's important to us. We talk a lot about both friendships and family relationships - they are a two-way street, both giving and receiving. I've been making a conscious effort these past couple of years especially to not keep chasing down affection or attention from others. If they're not interested, I'm not interested. It's not complicated. Relationships take effort on everyone's part - it's important to be present, to be interested in one another, to support one another. It's obvious when someone is interested and when they are not - just look over years of evidence and you know.

Many of our friends here are busy with their extended families and visits from grandparents for birthdays, recitals, and what not. That's not really a thing for us super often. Our friends go on big and small outings and annual vacations organized and funded by their kids' grandparents. That's also not regularly a thing for us (though we did do a big Florida trip in 2009, thanks to Jim, and a big family reunion in CA a year and a half ago, thanks to Gary and Vivian, and both were lovely). Our vacations and trips tend to be smaller most of the time (though we hope to do some bigger trips one day) - we do a lot of day trips to neighboring states and local exploring adventures. We do little getaways and road trips. We've done some pretty cool things, to be honest. It's nice living close to DC, NYC, and New England. Plus, we live in a gorgeous state and in a lovely small town. Every thing we do can be special with a little effort and thoughtfulness and creativity. Just this past week, we did a college visit in MD and took some time to explore Annapolis, MD, and we had such a good time. We did a fun progressive dinner, got Kate a pencil from the college she visited, and Max got some comics at a comic book store. Little things, but fun and special things.

Taking NOH8 pictures in DC
8. Annual off-season beach trip. This is probably one of our favorite times of year. We go to the beach in Delaware on the off-season and take Scout daily to hang out on the beach with us. We rent a beach house, eat food, take books, collect sea shells, play frisbee, listen to music, eat good seafood, play games. It's lovely. And we go to the same place every fall. Because we go off-season, we're able to go on the cheap. We love that we have a regular place to visit that is familiar and a fun tradition for us. It lends a nice rhythm to our lives. We've recently started adding a shorter spring trip as well where we explore some new beach-y place somewhere else. The past two years, we explored Cape May, NJ, and Lavalette, NJ. Both were so much fun!! These trips are an inexpensive way to have some nice mini-vacations and some great family time.
 


 



 



9. We live close to a lot of what we do. We've always been anti-long commutes and business trips. While we do drive a ways now and then for these trips and various homeschool opportunities, we generally don't do a lot of day to day driving if we can help it. We like living in a small town where we're close to most everything we do - work, groceries, kids' lessons, etc. We homeschool and run our own business. That may come with some challenges, like anything does, but it does afford us a lot of flexibility and freedom, too. And we take advantage of that as often as we can!

10. We are open about our finances with our kids. We talk openly about money and costs and budgeting and saving and investing and all of that stuff. We try to strike a balance teaching them to be wise and also to enjoy. I have a tendency to stress about finances quite a bit (honestly, not a day goes by that I don't think about finances - every single time we spend money on anything, I'm doing math in my head about what that means for us), but I don't want to pass on an unhealthy emotional approach with regard to money, so I tend to work on that and work on having a balance. Mark is good at helping me with that. It's hard not to stress about finances sometimes just because life is expensive! But life is also about enjoyment. Balance.

We're coming up on paying for college for these two kids (technically, we're already paying for college!) and we're open about explaining what we can and can't do. We want to give them everything, but the reality is that we can't do that very easily. We want them to go wherever they want and I hate that sometimes that's limited by cost, but such is life. I feel for them. This is a pretty lousy time historically to be dealing with college costs. They're higher than ever. So we talk a lot about options. Unfortunately even the state schools in PA are super expensive and other parents have told us you're better off going to a more expensive, private university that awards more financial aid than going to a state school that offers none. We're just starting to scratch the surface on all of this. We've always saved at least a little bit so there's some money put away for college, but not enough to pay for it all. Both kids have always worked in the family business and both have gotten regular jobs at the age of 14. We work. We save. And we learn to balance that with some spending, too. It's a process and a balancing act.

Guess who just got hired for his first real job!!
 So, there are 10 ways we save money given our living situation. I'm sure there are more, but those are the first 10 that came to mind. We love our life. We say that a lot because it's true. We love our family and home life and feel lucky to have the situation we do. We are fortunate that I get to stay home and we also work hard to make that a reality. You know, people talk a lot about moms being home with little kids, but I've heard it suggested (and agree) that while that is important for early bonding especially (and it is), teenagers also need their parents and I love that I'm home with them and that they can talk with me whenever they want. They can sit and cuddle with me and share their thoughts and excitements and struggles with me. I love that we value our relationships with one another so  much that when we say "Family First," it really is the guiding principle in our life decisions as much as possible. I don't think having a stay-at-home mom is a deficit. I think it's a surplus. There's so  much good that comes of it, even if it means looking for ways to save to make it happen.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Happy International Women's Day!

It's March 8th. International Women's Day. I thought I'd come up with a list of qualities I admire in women and maybe even the people I know who embody them.


1. Builds others up - I've come to appreciate women who take the time and energy to build each other up instead of tearing each other down or being critical. I think I took for granted the idea that all women are catty or petty, or that gossip was just the norm, but it's not. I've had friends for over 10 years who personify this kind of empowering thinking and I notice that I feel different around them than I do around those who are always tearing others down. Being around women who don't participate in gossip and who can call a spade a spade without tearing others down unnecessarily makes me want to be a better person myself, too. Some of my favorite conversations with others are those that are about anything BUT gossip. It feeds the soul and the mind and I like that.

2. Is a good listener - Women who pay attention to what's going on in the lives of others and take time to check in . . . that's pretty great. When those in my life take the time to be present, know our lives, and help where they can, even with a text saying, "Hey, I remembered that today is the first day of classes - how is that going for Kate?" or "I know Max entered that X-wing competition. How did it go?" or simply, "How are you holding up?" It's greatly appreciated. Women who say, "I know you're tired and spent. How about I take you out for coffee and some good conversation?" That. That is immensely appreciated. Be here. Be present. Listen.



3. Lightens the load - I've said this before and I'll say it again, these child-raising years are, hands down, the *busiest* years I've ever experienced in my life. It is far more mentally and emotionally and physically involved than childhood, adolescence, college, grad school, working, etc. That is not to say that all those other things aren't involved or don't present their own challenges, but being a parent is not a job for the weary. I've read countless articles about gentle parenting and conscientious parenting. Bringing a child into the world means so much more than feeding and clothing and educating them. That is the *bare minimum* expectation (you know, keep them alive and healthy - duh). While the pendulum could easily swing the other way where parents are enmeshed or over-involved, avoiding that extreme does not excuse one from thoughtfully considering their children's individual needs, sensitivities, and what makes them who they are. It's talking to them, listening to them, building them up. It's coordinating the activities and experiences that feed their souls and minds. It's making sure they are considered in decision making, that they are spoken with respectfully, that they know they matter and are a priority. This takes time and energy. A lot of it. Whenever anyone has done *something* to lighten the load a bit, I'm ready to cry. I think it's times like that I realize how spread thin I often am. I've had times where a friend has helped us get ready for birthday parties or friends who have offered a ride or even a day for my kids to go play at their house so I can have a breather. I've had friends show up to the kids' recitals and plays and ceremonies and games and book signings. I've been lucky enough to have women in my life who have sat at my bedside when I couldn't muster the energy to get out of it due to depression. Women who have made a meal or helped us move. Again, be here. Be present. I don't take that for granted. Most of the women I know have constant hands-on help from their parents with this sort of thing, but for those of us who don't, friends become like family, filling in those roles and helping be "the village." All of us, especially as women, have a delicate balance here - taking care of ourselves and our own sanity while also helping those around us. I've been out of balance on this for many years - taking care of everyone else's needs ahead of my own - but I've been working hard to get a better grasp on this balance and I think I'm making progress.

4. Celebrates others - Oh man, I admire the hell out of women who do this, especially those who do this with their own children. What examples they are to me! Respecting others' own choices and decisions; recognizing that everyone is different and not everyone is on the same life path; seeing that what feeds one's soul isn't necessarily the same thing for everyone - these are ways to celebrate one another. I know so many good women who speak highly of their children and can say they're tired or worn out or losing themselves at times even, but never, ever, ever with an unkind or untoward word about their children. And definitely never blaming their children. They recognize who their children are - the ones who need to wiggle; the ones who need to talk more; the ones who need more hugs; the ones who need more space; the ones who are more sensitive. None of this is stated negatively or mockingly or in a criticizing manner. These things are seen, embraced, and fed. They are celebrated, building up the child instead of tearing them down. Man oh man, I hope I do this with my kids. I give this a lot of thought and I know, even if I'm not always perfect, I certainly try.


5. Shows their vulnerability as well as their strength - I admire strong women, but I especially admire a strong woman who isn't afraid to say, "It's hard sometimes." That's not weakness. Showing vulnerability is a risk and is, therefore, an act of bravery, I suppose. You risk being discarded. But when you connect? Oh, it's worth every bit of risk, because those connections can often be so pure and profound. In fact, being "discarded" helps, too - it's like the trash taking out itself when you see that someone judges you like that and wants nothing to do with you. I have cried in front of my family and in front of some close friends. I've shared my emotional health struggles pretty openly with people, because I hate that mental health stigma exists and I want to help combat it and connect with those who also struggle to let them know they're not alone.


So there are 5 qualities off the top of my head. I'm grateful for the good women in my life who exemplify these traits and help me be a better person. What qualities would you add?

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

What makes a house a home?

This morning, I got up and showered, took Kate to her college classes, came home and cuddled with the dog, had some breakfast, and then got ready to sit down and take care of emails (which is a catch-all phrase for family stuff/scheduling/schooling/appointments/correspondence/errands/to-do lists, etc.). It was chilly, so before I sat down, I flipped on the fireplace and grabbed a blanket to cover my lap.

As I was reaching for a fuzzy blanket out of our basket of many fuzzy blankets in our living room, I had the immediate thought that these blankets are part of what make our home "homey." In the winter, we're all always grabbing blankets for our laps or to cuddle with. When we watch TV, we're often all on the couch with fuzzy blankets covering our legs. Sometimes we each have our own. Sometimes we share. But there are always blankets. Scout loves them, too.

That thought gave me the idea for this blog post. I thought it could be fun to challenge myself to come up with a list of 10 things (tangible and intangible) that makes our house a home. My mind is racing today and I'm struggling to focus and concentrate, so I'm going to stop right now and write this blog post. Here we go - just posting what comes to mind off the top of my head:

1. Our basket of fuzzy blankets. I've already talked about these, but let's officially list it as #1.


2. Emotional safety. Everyone is safe, in our home, to speak their minds, share their feelings, have their feelings, have their opinions, and talk about anything. No restrictions. If someone is sad or angry or happy or excitable, we try to be understanding of one another. Sure, we all have our times when we're a little irritable or short on patience, but by and large, this is a safe place to be. No one gets angry at anyone else for having an opinion that's different or for having whatever feelings they're feeling. I like that our kids can come to us with anything - excitement, frustration, and questions - and know they're not going to get yelled at or mocked. We are sarcastic and snarky sometimes, but we are not mean and do not make fun of each other.

3. Talking. So much talking. We talk all the time. We talk at mealtimes. We talk before bed. We pause what we're watching and talk during shows. We talk in the car. We talk in the middle of the afternoon. It doesn't much matter. We enjoy talking and sharing with one another and I love it. We know each other and share and listen and it's lively and comfortable and wonderful.

4. Games. We have so many board games. We play games a lot. Sometimes we go on streaks where we play a game (or lots of games) repeatedly for days in a row. Sometimes we have weeks of lots of game playing. Sometimes we have stretches where we don't easily get to play, but we always come back to games (and yes, we talk during game play, too). We also have a ping pong/pool/air hockey table and that's often a room we go to in order to take a break from the grind and challenge one another to a quick game or a quick tournament. I love it. Again, I've always wanted that kind of home - one where being playful and creative and happy is the basis for not only how we furnish and decorate our home, but also how we live in it.



5. Music. We often have music playing as we prepare meals together, set the table, and sometimes just for fun. We play music when we get together with friends and play games. We play music when we celebrate New Year's. We listen to all kinds and lately it's been a lot of Broadway. When I put mine on, it's either that or lots of 80's pop. At Christmastime, we play so much holiday music. We watch the Grammys together. We geek out reading articles about songs and musical artists we like. It's happy. I love to dance and can't seem to help myself when the music is on. I also love to sing along and everyone knows if they ask me something while I'm singing, I have to finish singing before I answer them. I almost can't even concentrate if music with lyrics is playing. Sometimes Mark and I dance in the kitchen. And when I'm dancing and singing, I don't even care how silly I might look or whether or not I'm getting the words perfectly. I'm just happy and having fun. And we're all enjoying one another.

6. Scout. Neither Mark nor I grew up with a dog. We had no idea what we were in for when we got Scout. She brings SO MUCH LOVE, JOY, and ENERGY to our home. So much. I have never in my life felt so loved like this. She is a lot of work but oh so worth it. She is, at turns, cuddly and playful and sweet and demanding and feisty and mischievous and energetic and mellow and hilarious and and and . . . well, you get the idea. She definitely makes our house more homey. We love her excited pants, her pitter-patter walk, her hops, her licks, her wet nose kisses, her pawing us, her snuggles. We love our Scout!!


7. TV shows. It's funny. I kind of hate the sound of a TV that's on, but  more specifically the sound of a TV that's on mindlessly. Like just on for noise. It's like nails on a chalkboard. But for us, the TV isn't something that someone flips on and then clicks through for hours on end. It's something we turn on to watch stuff together. It's deliberate. We flip it on sometimes at lunch and eat around the coffee table while we watch yesterday's Trevor Noah. We all get excited on Tuesday nights to sit down (with blankets and sometimes snacks) and watch "This is Us." We laugh as we watch episodes of "Clarence." We binge watch shows like Friends, The Office, New Girl, Glee, Frasier, Malcolm in the Middle, and more. We have our Gilmore Girls tradition that we've all shared. We sometimes watch a news special about Lin-Manuel Miranda or Taylor Swift or something else we're interested in. But whatever it is, we're interested and if we don't all watch it, we take the time to know, "Hey, Max really likes Invader Zim" or "Kate really likes Castle." Mark hardly ever watches baseball, but when he does, we ask him questions and he teaches us. Kate binge watched Castle and I got inadvertently sucked in and loved getting interested and sharing that with her. Mark now watches Supernatural with her. Max wanted to watch The Office, so Mark is watching that with the kids (and I get sucked in now and then, too). I recently watched the entirety of Frasier with Kate and now am starting up Glee with Max (I had gotten to about season 2 or 3 with Kate, but it's been a while so we're casually starting over). It's funny - a few weeks ago, I was thinking of writing a blog post all about TV shows and how much we learn from them due to the conversations that come from watching them together and maybe I still will, but I guess I'm alluding to that a little bit here, too. We love sharing hobbies and this is one of them - a love of good television and pop culture.

8. Food. All kinds of foods, but especially savories and meals from all over the world - Japanese, Indian, Mexican . . . we love it all. We love to try new things. We love to eat out and get take out. We love to cook. When we watch something special like the Gilmore Girls revival or an Awards show, we often make themed foods or appetizers. When Obama was inaugurated in 2009, we made Obama cookies and cooked Kenyan food. When Prince William and Princess Kate got married, we got up early and watched while eating tea and crumpets. When we watch awards shows, we sometimes make a bunch of little savory appetizers like pigs-in-a-blanket or salami pickles or mini egg rolls. We're not opposed to ordering in at 10pm or spontaneously suggesting a fun food outing. New restaurant? Let's check it out! And cooking. So much cooking. Our house often has the smells of such good cooking. We enjoy food as a hobby. We eat pretty healthy overall, but boy do we have fun with it.

This picture is a just because candid - Mark recently got me flowers to bring some light and cheer to these gloomy winter days and you can see the lived-in nature of our home (calendar, pencil, book on the table), books in the background, fandom art on the walls, etc.


9. Books. Shelves and shelves of books. Books in nearly every room. A basket of books from the library. Piles of books we're reading. Boxes of books from overflowing shelves. Books we read ourselves. Books we read together. We share stories. We read books. We listen to podcasts. Right now, the whole family is listening to Trevor Noah's "Born a Crime" and it is excellent! We're enjoying it so much. We listen in the car and at home while we eat our meals. I've read the Harry Potter series 3 times so far - once myself, once with Kate, and once with Max. It's so special. There are quotes on our walls from the Harry Potter books. Fandom stuff all over. Another book that is special for me to read with the kids is "To Kill a Mockingbird." I've read it with Kate and will read it with Max soon. We all like all kinds of books. I'm so glad books are a big part of our home.

10. Pictures. We have pictures all over the place. In frames on the mantel. In frames on the wall. We have a digital frame that goes through old pictures. We take family pictures every couple of years. We have scrapbooks. We have home videos. It all contributes to a hominess. I've never wanted a stuffy home. I've always wanted a place where people can feel comfortable and relaxed and welcome. This isn't a museum. It's our home. I like things clean and sanitary. Neat even. But it's also lived in. Because we live here. And I like it that way.




So, here's something funny - know how I wrote this post because I was feeling so distracted? Well, writing certainly helped. Then, I got distracted again and it wasn't until I was climbing into bed that I remembered I didn't post it. :P See? So yeah, I wrote this yesterday, but am posting it now.

So, I'm curious to hear your thoughts - what are 10 things (tangible and intangible) that make your house a home?

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Valentine's Day

This hasn't ever been a big deal kind of holiday for us. Sometimes we celebrate it. Sometimes we don't. Sometimes we do something like a kids' party or daily love notes and sometimes we're super low-key about it. We usually do something, but what's nice is that we tend to be on the same page.

This past year, I put up daily hearts on the kids' bedroom doors as well as on ours (for Mark) telling them things I love about them. This year, Mark and I both weren't really feeling it and kept things easy.

Mark went into work early yesterday and went out of his way to pick Kate up from her classes just so I could rest longer (I've been dealing with chronic neck pain and the cold tends to exacerbate it). In his text to me he said to consider it his Valentine to me. Now that is a great Valentine! I put a cheesy Waitress-themed (Broadway) Valentine on his Facebook wall. That's how we rolled this year.

The kids got valentines from a woman here who always does something sweet for them on these kinds of holidays. She puts together special things for her grandkids and always makes two more for our kids. We're so grateful for her thoughtfulness with that. They always get valentines in the mail from their great grandma as well. They opted out of going to the homeschool group's party - they're outgrowing it, I think.

It was a full day of work, classes, a dentist appointment for me, Max's book club, Kate's critique group, etc., but we managed to sneak in a few Valentines treats.

We got Valentines for our kids - flowers and chocolates:


And Kate made heart-shaped chocolate chip cookies for us to eat while watching "This is Us" as a family. Perfect!


How was your Valentine's Day?

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Grammys Are Coming--Part 4 (2017)

The category I saved for last is Album of the Year. Mostly, I was trying to buy myself some time since I wasn't familiar with four of the albums, and one is old enough that I had to completely remind myself of it. I think there is a clear winner in this group, but there have been surprises before. Overall, I'm sort of underwhelmed by the choices this year, and I'm not sure if that's just my personal taste, if the Grammy committee missed something way better out there, or if the field just isn't that strong this year.

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25, Adele

Adele is great. Her voice is magic and you always feel like you're hearing someone at her best. I do think a lot of her music starts to blend together. With that said, her songwriting is fantastic, her recordings are always impressive, and her passion is unmistakable. So, the album is a great listen and worthy of attention. It definitely holds its own and then some among this group.

Instead of posting the same song again, here's another track from her album, albeit performed somewhat live.



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Lemonade, Beyoncé

This album is something pretty unique. Beyoncé covers a lot of styles and hits a lot of important topics. It's a manifesto about black power, feminism, Southern stereotypes, and more. The fact that it was actually released as part of a one-hour video presentation should say something about the work itself. It's a concept that can't even be fully appreciated without the visuals. After listening to the album, I can see why the questions about her and Jay-Z came flying fast and furious. There are several lyrics that hint at problems. I will say that rumors about celebrity couples don't faze me anymore.

Here is another single from her album. Trigger warning: there is a lot of underwater imagery in the beginning that may make some people feel short of breath.



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Purpose, Justin Bieber

I will probably never be a Bieber fan. We have too much history and there are things about his singing style that I find unlikable. His voice is still too nasally for me, and after all of the Kate McKinnon impressions on SNL, I find it very hard to even look at him without laughing. Leaving all prejudice behind, I will give him credit. This is a very mature album that is constructed very effectively. The title is a bit presumptuous, and some of the lyrics are a bit on the nose for me, but I will admit that I was wrong when my first inclination was to dismiss it.

This is the title track, and it's a good one. I still find something about Justin Bieber very irritating whenever I see him, but I recognize this is probably rooted in a lot of my earlier judgments of him. I'll give him props where props are due.



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Views, Drake

Drake has never been an artist I cared much about, and even after this listen, nothing has changed. I still don't get what all the fuss is about him. When I've seen him be interviewed he seems perfectly likable--probably because he's Canadian--but I just don't get it. This album is supposed to be unique for him because of the variety of styles he uses. Most of it is in the dancehall vein, and that may be why I don't really like it that much. Also, this is one of the albums that makes me feel like it was a weak year for music. Hey, it may just be my personal taste, so if he takes home the Grammy, I will applaud an artist that put out good music this year. I'm just not buying it.

I wanted to embed a shortened video to cut out the nearly two-minute intro to this video, but it wouldn't embed. Here's the link to "One Dance," which was one of the best tracks from the album. It gives you an idea of the style Drake's going for.

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A Sailor's Guide To Earth, Sturgill Simpson

Sturgill Simpson was a complete unknown to me when this nomination came in. I hadn't heard any buzz. I'd never heard of this album. Part of it is because it's not the genre I keep up on, but normally I've heard of the big releases from the previous year. He comes off as older than he is, but that's probably because he is squarely in the middle of the outlaw country world. His sound is most definitely a throwback to classic artists like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. The album was not my cup of tea, but not hard to listen to. It was a good concept album, and that's probably what thrust it to the front of the Grammy committee's minds.

"In Bloom" is a Nirvana cover, which took me by surprise.



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My Choice: Honestly, take your pick. I'm down on Drake and Sturgill Simpson, but that's probably just because my personal tastes don't line up. If I had to pick one, I'd choose Lemondade. Purpose is a surprising second choice for me.

My Prediction: Lemonade. I think that this concept album is the strongest top to bottom, and barring some sort of political bias that I'm unaware of, the Grammys are going to reward Beyoncé for her timely message.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Grammys Are Coming--Part 3 (2017)

So now we come to the Record of the Year. This is probably the hardest one for me to predict because defining the difference between it and the Song of the Year is not very easy for me. I tend to judge them all very similarly. It's kind of easy when a bunch of the songs appear in both categories, but let's not kid ourselves. I'm going with my gut on this one.

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"Hello"
Adele
Track from: 25

I could just copy my earlier comments on this song and they would stand, but I'll add a few more words. The recording is classic Adele. It's powerful, soulful, well produced, etc., etc., etc. It almost feels weird to be so blase about such a talented artist in today's day and age of hacks and wannabes, but it is what it is. This is a great song and deserves attention. I'm just not sure that it deserves a Grammy.



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"Formation"
Beyoncé
Track from: Lemonade

Again, another set of comments I could just enter here and it would suffice. Great track. Great production. The whole thing works for me, even if it's not my favorite of the group. What else can I say? Plus, I have to write more about Beyoncé in the last category.



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"7 Years"
Lukas Graham
Track from: Lukas Graham (Blue Album)

Yep. More of the same. This is a year where it makes sense to me that songs are appearing in both the Record and Song categories. This is obviously one of my favorites, and the recording is the same way. I like the way it sounds, and the overall production matches the songwriting.



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"Work"
Rihanna featuring Drake
Track from: Anti

When I consider the overall recording separate from the songwriting, I suppose this song can go here. I'm not impressed, though. From Rihanna's sloppy enunciation to Drake's tired raps, this club song just doesn't do it for me. I can probably come up with half a dozen recordings that I think deserve a spot over "Work." I half wonder if it's Rihanna returning to her island roots getting the Grammy voters excited. Look, I'm not a big fan of either of these artists by themselves. I actually am more impressed by the work Rihanna does when she's featured on other recordings.



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"Stressed Out"
Twenty-One Pilots
Track from: Blurryface

I think Twenty-One Pilots has a really unique sound, so I'm cool with this recording being nominated. It's fun, different, and very catchy. I like how they're blending genres and trying a lot of new sounds. I heard a lot about them before I really heard much of what they are doing. We saw them on SNL a while ago and they were really good. I enjoyed watching them. This track is firmly in the middle for me, but I could be OK with them winning.



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My Choice: "7 Years" is still my favorite. I think the entire track from writing to production is great. It's the one entry here that makes me want to listen to more by the artist.

My Prediction: "Formation" is part of Beyoncé's biggest work to date, so I have a feeling it will be rewarded with this Grammy as well. It will be very hard for Grammy voters to separate this track from the overall work, despite how the category works. It's not undeserving.


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Grammys Are Coming--Part 2 (2017)

Part 1, Song of the Year is done. On to Part 2.

So, last year, I knew 4 of the 5 artists nominated for the Best New Artist Catgory. I had opinions on several, so it was really easy to take a listen and decide what I thought. This year, I have heard of two, and wasn't very familiar with anyone's work. This was challenging for me.

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Kelsea Ballerini

We've found a new country-pop singer-songwriter with a flare for writing catchy tunes about love and heartbreak in Middle America. If I'm being honest, after a certain point I have a hard time deciding how one is different from the next. Ballerini is talented, and she has a knack for writing songs that put her squarely in the middle of what will sell, but she pales in comparison to country artists like Kasey Musgraves. Kasey's songs are harder on the ears for someone who isn't a fan of more traditional country music, but her songwriting is more interesting.

"Peter Pan charted at Number 1 on the U.S. Country charts so I thought I'd include it here. It was probably the best of what I listened to from Ballerini.



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The Chainsmokers

This is a group that I had actually heard of since Max is really into electronic dance music (EDM) and I know he's got a song or two that he likes by The Chainsmokers. They have put out a couple of EPs in the past 2 years, and they do a lot of collaboration, like a lot of the DJs out there do. They are easy to listen to since most of their music is in the house genre rather than some of the more specialized electronic sub-genres.

Here's one of the tracks I listened to. It was one of the songs I enjoyed the most.



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Chance The Rapper

This is one of those artists whose name kept popping up, and I had no clue who he was. In fact, the first time I'd heard anything by Chance, it was a track from the Hamilton Mixtape, and it's not really representative of his style. I listened to his recent album, Coloring Book, and it was last of all the new artists for me to listen to. I wasn't expecting much. From track number 1 I was hooked. He's more than a rapper--he reminds me of a throwback R&B artist from my childhood. He's been bouncing around the industry for a long time, popping up in a lot of recordings as the "featured" artist, but his solo work is really strong. And props to him for doing an entirely streaming release on iTunes, which only recently is allowed to be awarded a Grammy.

So, this track is one of my favorites on the album. From the top I was hooked with a bass line and vocals that could have come straight out of a classic Jackson 5 cut.



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Maren Morris

The first song I heard made me think of Pat Benatar. I easily figured out she was a country artist before getting too far in, but her voice was a bit out of the ordinary for the "typical" Nashville sound. I enjoyed a lot of what she has recorded, and it is a bit more sophisticated than what I usually associate with newcomers in the Country world. There's an edge I appreciate that stops short of the blatantly ridiculous attitude that artists like Carrie Underwood display in an attempt to erase the saccharine image they usually bring initially. I'm not about to run out and buy all her recordings, but I could leave a tune or two on the playlist.

From what I can tell, "My Church" is Morris's biggest hit to date.



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Anderson .Paak

Here is another artist who has been "around" for a long time, writing and producing and collaborating, who is finally breaking out on his own. He is also nominated in the urban category, so I wasn't thinking I'd love what he's done recently. I'm not going to lie and say I like everything I heard. I will say that so much of what .Paak is doing hearkens back to earlier days of hip-hop and R&B, so I'm impressed. As far as I'm concerned, the closer your roots are to Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, and the like, the better for me.

Here is the first track I listened to. I thought to myself, "OK. I can get on board with this guy."



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My Choice: I was going to say Anderson .Paak, and then I heard Chance the Rapper's most recent album. So, yeah, Chance is my choice. I think his recent work is really strong and deserving of attention. I'm just not sure if it will be enough to nab this Grammy. He is nominated for a total of 7 Grammys in a variety of categories.

My Prediction: Maren Morris has already won a CMA for the best new artist, so a Grammy seems a likely fit for me. Her diverse style and a bit more advanced songwriting give her the edge in my opinion.

Next Up, Record of the Year.

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Grammy's Are Coming--Part 1 (2017)

I was hoping to get to this a while ago, but life has kept me from being able to listen to a lot of new music. Plus, this year the top four categories are filled with selections that were under my radar. It's been interesting to review these for sure. There were a few "oh, that song" moments, as well as "really?" moments as well. Last year I was 3 for 4 in the big four categories--Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist. I'm not so sure about beating that this year, but we'll see.

The first category I reviewed was Song of the Year. As a reminder, this is an award to the songwriters, and it is based on the lyrics themselves, not necessarily the recording and production of the song. I'm skeptical that the overall production doesn't factor into the judging, but on the surface, the nominations suggest that these songs are considered independent from the recordings. Not all of them appear in both categories.

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"Formation," recorded by Beyoncé
Songwriters: Khalif Brown, Asheton Hogan, Beyoncé Knowles, and Michael L. Williams II
Album: Lemonade

This song is the lead single on a pretty powerful album. The message is powerful, calling women together "in formation" to stand strong and fight the patriarchy. She completely and without apology embraces her "blackness," the complicated heritage of blacks in America, black culture, and the controversial imagery to come out of post-Katrina New Orleans. I admit that I am not familiar with the "deeper cuts" on Beyoncé's previous albums, but this track stands out to me as something with more depth. I'm not sure how it will all play out with the voters, especially considering how this is a song that has been embraced by social movements such as Black Lives Matter. The Grammy's haven't been shy in the past about rewarding activism, though.



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"Hello," recorded by Adele.
Songwriters: Adele Adkins and Greg Kurstin
Album: 25

This song was released so long ago that I had to shake out the cobwebs to remember it. Although, the endless spoofs of the song and the nature to overplay hits on the radio make it impossible to completely forget. Honestly, this is not my favorite Adele song, and I'm not sure if that's because her music tends to be very similar or if I just really didn't like it as much. There is no doubt that she is a great songwriter, and her lyrics are very well-suited to whatever message she is trying to convey.



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"I Took A Pill In Ibiza," performed by Mike Posner.
Songwriter: Mike Posner
Album: The Truth

It's interesting that this song was released a couple of years ago, but then it was remixed by a Swedish house band, SeeB, and got a bunch of attention. The song is the same lyrically, but I guess radio play matters. It's a remarkably honest song from a musician that has definitely struggled. Posner's written a lot of hits for other people, but this is one of his first big hits for himself. I was a fan of the song earlier in the summer when it was getting a lot of play, and I'm still a fan now.



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"Love Yourself," recorded by Justin Bieber.
Songwriters:  Justin Bieber, Benjamin Levin, and Ed Sheeran
Album: Purpose

I don't remember when, but Justin Bieber performed this at some awards show, and I was amused, but not impressed. Part of it is the difficulty I have taking him seriously at all, but I will give him credit for maturing and trying to reinvent himself. It's not half-bad, but does come off as a sort of mediocre break-up song. It's petty and lacks much depth. I'm a little surprised Ed Sheeran wrote it since it's not as deep as his usual fare, but I'm not surprised it got scrapped from Sheeran's third studio album before being picked up by Bieber.



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"7 Years," recorded by Lukas Graham
Songwriters: Lukas Forchhammer, Stefan Forrest, Morten Pilegaard, Morten Ristorp
Album: Lukas Graham (Blue Album)

Lukas Graham is a Danish pop band, who before I started listening to do these reviews, I would have assumed was a solo artist. Anyway, this song has some serious depth. I was pretty amazed overall. The message was consistent and progresses nicely through the entire track, which makes the overal lyricism of the song pretty great. When I get a chance, I will definitely need to see what else they've done.



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My choice: This one is tough this year. There are several songs here that I like, but not one that jumps out as the best in my mind. If I had to pick one, I guess I'd go with "7 Years," but that could change in the next five minutes if I were to hear a different song on the radio.

My prediction: With all that's going on in the world right now, coupled with how many hip-hop and R&B artists are being recognized in the big categories this year, I think this may be a Beyoncé kind of year. And it would definitely be deserving--no Kanye campaigning necessary.

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Next Up, Best New Artist

Monday, January 30, 2017

There's a madman at the helm!

The past 10 days have been hard. Trump/Bannon . . . what a nightmare. This isn't the America we all know and love. I can't believe that all the protests we're seeing in the streets aren't images of some foreign country but of right here in the USA. If there is one good thing to come from a Trump presidency (that's hard to say), it's that people are awake and involved.

I'm sleeping poorly. Too much news. I'm involved locally helping to head up a group of over 200 people who are all resisting hate, running for local office, energizing the base, organizing events, fundraising, protesting, you name it. There's a lot of work to be done. Seems like more and more every day.

Kate and I were going to go to the march in DC. We had friends who were going to stay the night and drive down the next day. I was really nervous about it but also wanting to go and support Kate's desire to go and get involved, too. She got sick and we stayed home. It ended up a good thing that we didn't go, though I do feel like we missed out on something amazing.

So we marched in solidarity in our own way from home. We came up with a family "resistance" plan, watched feminist and activist movies, and donated to organizations that help women. I'm proud of my kids and their desire to be informed and involved.




I can tell I'm stretched thin, because the other day I went to cut a slice of homemade blueberry bread to toast and when I reached in to grab the loaf, there was already a cut slice there and I felt like that was a major win as well as a big relief. When an already-sliced piece of bread can make you feel that way, you may be doing too much. :P

Everything is in full-swing with a return to a more normal schedule for us, which was a weirder adjustment than most years because going into the holidays and coming out of them, we've had house guests.

Mark's parents came for a 10-day visit that included Thanksgiving and we loved it. We had such a great time! We played games and ate a lot of good food. It was so nice to spend the holiday together. It was pretty low-key overall, except that we did go to New York City and they took us all to see a Broadway play ("Something Rotten"). It's extra special that it was Max's first play on Broadway as well as Vivian's, so they got to experience that together. We had so much fun! They also helped us decorate for Christmas and took us out for Mexican and Sushi. We celebrated their birthdays. And did I mention we played a lot of games? Well, we did. And it was lovely.

And then Mark's brother, Michael, came to visit after Christmas and was also here for 10 days. Guess what we did. Yep, food and games and food and games and politics and games and food and politics and games. It was great. It was especially nice for Mark and Michael to get good brother time together - they went out to eat, caught a movie together, hung out at Mark's work, visited Wilbur's Chocolates, stopped at our local bookstore/gamestore.





I loved seeing my kids enjoy time with an uncle like that, too. They played so many games, talked about stuff, joked around. It was really fun. Seeing them in the role of niece and nephew like that makes me so happy. Every year at Christmas, the kids get a gift from an uncle's family (we rotate) and we got to see them all at the reunion in California. The uncles keep in touch on various social media. Since the reunion, 2 different uncles have come to visit, as well as grandparents. I'm grateful for this. It means a lot to us.


Kate is taking a fairly full load of classes at the local community college - 13.5 credits, including a science class with a lab. She's loving it. She is also preparing for the SATs and practicing driving. With all this, she's taking a well-deserved break from working this semester and will go back after that. We're looking at doing college visits, too. And she's busy preparing for various writers' groups and camps. She volunteers at the local theater to help usher people to their seats for plays and shows. It's neat, because she gets to stay and see shows when she wants, too. She just got asked to yet another school dance, so we're getting ready for that as well. Always neat stuff going on! Oh, and she's recently won more contests and awards! Her writing blows my mind. Sometimes I have to sit and catch my breath while I try to absorb her immense talent and depth. I'm so lucky I get to be her mom!


Max is taller than I am now. I swear, I can SEE him growing before my eyes. Yesterday, for the first time, I thought I could hear his voice getting deeper, too. He's also transforming from little boy to young man. I remember seeing Kate make that transition from little girl to young woman. It's a very poignant and distinct transition that you can see, observe, and embrace. It's bittersweet, but more sweet than bitter. I love seeing who they are and what they love and hearing their thoughts on things. I love seeing them mature into adulthood like this. They're amazing people.



I see Max getting even more responsible - doing things without being asked, staying on top of responsibilities, etc. He loves to play outside with the neighbor kids and he's often online with any number of different friends playing any number of different games. He's a social, happy kid. We've been having fun celebrating his birthday and enjoying his birthday party. He loves learning and especially enjoys math and science. Both kids know their stuff when it comes to politics, government, and current events. He is loving piano and taekwondo. He designs games, plays games, draws, takes pictures, and writes music. He can talk about anything. He and Kate are getting involved with a local, teen theater group and both are excited about that. He volunteers and helps teach kids at the taekwondo studio as well as the library when they need help. He loves the show "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" and we all enjoy listening to that podcast. He enjoys political satire, as we all do. He's doing great with school stuff and also gearing up for getting a job. And it's coming up on comic-con season and checking out summer camp opportunities, so that's all exciting. And in all this, he loves to snuggle with me, hug me, and put his arm around me. I love this kid!




Scout gives us so much joy and so many snuggles. She is, at turns, feisty and demanding and sweet and cuddly. She constantly makes us smile and laugh. We adore her. She is the best!



Mark is busy with work and family. There's always stuff going on here. He's reading a lot about race relations and listening to lots of audio books. We've been working on various projects and goals. Always learning. He does a good deal of the driving around to evening activities for the kids, too, as well as participating in taekwondo with Max and seeing action movies with Kate. And we're both busy homeschooling our kids and generally keeping up on all the things! We're in the middle of so many things and yet are trying to do less for sanity's sake. The old van is on its way out, so there's car shopping to do soon, too. It feels like it's always something - oil changes, dentist appointments, dress shopping, errands, work, activities, meetings, projects, etc.







In summary: thank goodness for finding that someone has already sliced the bread. Every little thing, right?