Thursday, December 18, 2014

Books, Books, Books! Oyster (for brains, not bellies)

This post is sponsored by Oyster. Not the seafood. The cool brain food. 

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We prepare for holidays like hurricanes--not so much the panicky board up the windows thing, but definitely a stock up of our favorite foods and anything we might need because we intend to lay low, veg out and completely recharge our batteries. In the old days, we used to head to Blockbuster Video a few days before Christmas and stock up on all the favorites. Now we "add them to our watch list"--a new-fangled term of our modern age.

If you're a book lover, you may have great intentions in the coming weeks to similarly tackle your reading list. While this has been a really good reading year for me, it still seems that my reading list grows like the mess in my house--one step forward and two steps back. Still, I plug away and make as much time as I can for reading and, like exercising, always feel completely satisfied for doing it.

When it comes to reading, I fought technology for a long time, swearing that I needed to hold a book, smell its pages, underline passages and feel the paper in my hand. I still love to do all that and continue to buy real books that I want sitting on my coffee table or that need to be held--some just do. But, as with many other things, I've accepted that you don't have to forsake one way to adopt another. You can have both. I started reading some books on my phone last year for convenience and loved having them accessible when, say, I was stuck in school car line, waiting for Lainey. This also works great for my ADD style of reading. I go from book to book to book and am frequently reading three books at a time.

So, fellow book lovers. Here's where I get to use another new-fangled term of the modern age: There's an app for that! Enter Oyster, a subscription based app that gives you access to unlimited ebooks for $9.95 a month. Think Netflix for books. Oyster features over half a million books in every genre from classics to new releases and everything from New York Time's Bestsellers and Oprah's picks to children's titles and more. New titles are added every day, and Oyster is accessible at any time on iOS, Android, Kindle Fire, Nook HD and on the web.

Not now,'s a good part.
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Oyster has a fantastic children's chapter book selection --great for required reading lists at school, road trips (pack 10 books with no suitcase!), bedtime and homework.

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You can also share and receive book recommendations from friends on the app,

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Here's my recommendation.

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I added a few Mary Oliver poetry books to my reading list (West Wind and Winter Hours) this morning as well as The Glass Castle (rereading), Brain on Fire and This Is Happening, a beautiful book of Instagram photos. That makes my current reading list about 32 books deep. Yikes.

And if you're looking for great last-minute gift ideas, you can give the gift of an Oyster subscription--anywhere from one month to a year.

Readers who sign up for Oyster using this link will receive their first 30 days free.

Read your little hearts out this holiday.

Thanks, Oyster, for supporting this blog and thank you readers for checking out the sponsors that help make maintaining this blog a little easier.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Enjoying: December

It's my favorite kind of Florida December right now--cold enough that I sat down to write this post and had to first run and fetch a pair of socks and a blanket. Translation: sweaters.

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Happily counting down the days for holidays, time off for Brett and a nice slowdown.

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In the meantime, enjoying...

An accidental sunset
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This picture is so representative of what life often feels like during the week. We're late for ballet because we couldn't find one of the shoes. And the good tights that don't have that funky toe seam are in the dirty clothes hamper. And the black required leotard is nowhere to be found. So we scramble and get creative so that we can at least show up--because that's the most important part. Here we are, showing up, in an old recital outfit with a broken safety-pinned strap. With Dash contorting to get off my hip and Nella pulling at my purse for her Barbie, I hustle Lainey through the parking lot until I notice that showing up a little late means we get to see this gorgeous light we've been missing all these months. It spills into the grass lot next to the parking lot, dances across Lainey's milky skin, and it all comes together--the light, the old leotard, the broken strap, the tights with the wonky seam, the smile, being at the right place at the right time and letting go.

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Poop Companion
Nella takes Poop the Barbie everywhere. We forget that her name is funny until someone turns when Lainey says something like, "Mom, Nella won't share Poop with me" or "Poop's hair needs to be brushed."

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Shake It Off
I don't know that a song has ever been played more in our home. I'm well past the usual can't-take-it-anymore point, but for some reason I can tolerate this one. I like the "Mmmm-hhhmmm."

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Nella likes to dance to it. All day, err day.

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Post Preschool Pick-up Ice Cream Dates
...where, surprisingly, Nella and Dash will share a cone without a fight.

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Skipping sizes
The fact that Dash wore his first little Christmas jammies last year and can fit into his sister's, three sizes bigger, this year. He grows like a chia pet.

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Hair Tossing

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Twinkly Lights
...and how they sneak their way into the pictures

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Doll Conversations
...and the very energetic way she makes them interact with each other

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One on Each Hip

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A Good Open Mouth Run

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Trips to the Pet Store

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An Early Christmas Present from Grandparents
...and the makeover papers we keep finding around the house.

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Plans for much more of this in the coming weeks

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This kind of happy.

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...and this week on eHow:

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Making Cooking Fun: Fake Cooking Shows and Blue Apron Meals

This post is sponsored by Blue Apron.

Confession: Occasionally when I cook, I talk to an imaginary camera in my cooking show host voice which is sometimes a British accent, sometimes a sweet southern lady and sometimes a warbly Julia Childs impersonation. Whatever the case, it's fun. And funny. Especially when you actually videotape your fake segment and send it to your sister and cousins. Also, where are the real life cooking shows? The ones where the cook is scooting open bags of pretzels and crusty bottles out of the way to make room on her counter to chop. The ones where she's madly stashing lids into random cupboards before the camera starts rolling. "Hang on, let me clean this up. So sorry. Kids had soccer today." The ones where she opens a drawer to get a spoon and instead pulls out the naked Barbie her two-year-old shoved in there. Or reaches into her vegetable drawer to fetch an onion only to find some slimey grapes and a wrinkled tomato because someone needs to go grocery shopping.

Guess what happened this week? I had the best imaginary cooking show ever. So much, I forgot about the imaginary camera man because I was chopping and simmering and marveling at the beauty of the food and the fact that I had everything I needed! Even fun ingredients like bagoong and bird's eye chili.

My fake cooking show savior? Our Blue Apron Meal.

For me, Blue Apron is to motherhood and busy family life as luxurious baths are or Saturday mornings at a coffee shop, a babysitter and movie date night or a call to a housekeeping company to come deep clean your home. These aren't every day spending habits for us, but they are certainly valued gifts that we invest in for our family when things get crazy, we need a break or convenience becomes a higher priority.

What is Blue Apron?  Blue Apron is a meal delivery service that gives you the joy of cooking in your home with all the hard work done for you. You get farm-fresh ingredients delivered to your doorstep in a refrigerated box, and in exactly the right proportions--no trips to the grocery store and no waste from unused ingredients. Recipes are included as well as everything you need to make chef-designed meals.

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My cousin's here from out of town, and we spent the day at one of my dad's rental properties (hint hint: this service is great for cooking meals in vacation rentals!). We took a Blue Apron meal and had so much fun cooking away from home--sipping wine, listening to Christmas carols, chopping, stirring and enjoying our meal on the patio.

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Look at those multi-hued potatoes! Their produce is so fresh and beautiful, and I make it a point to use fancy words to describe their beauty when I'm talking on my fake cooking show.

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This photo also works well for another fake show we're filming, Kitchen Killers. Put the knife down.

We made Beef on Weck Sandwiches with a potato & arugala salad, and they were quick and easy to make and so delicious (more free Blue Apron recipes).

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Other favorites--last week's Shrimp and Mustard Green Laing, a dish inspired by Philippines cuisine. I love anything with chilis and coconut milk, and Brett loved the addition of the greens. We'll definitely be making this one again.

Blue Apron sends you three meals per week--for two or four people--at $9.99 a person with free shipping, and you can skip or cancel the service at any time. Ingredients are sourced from quality local suppliers and artisans and delivered fresh to your door.

I just introduced Blue Apron to a friend who's having a cooking date night New Year's Eve, and she's ordering Blue Apron for it. Another friend who was looking for a baby gift just ordered a week of Blue Apron meals for a new mom. Point being? Blue Apron makes a great gift for couples, new moms or anyone who loves to cook. (Psssst. Christmas is two weeks away!)

Blue Apron is offering the first 100 readers two free meals with their first Blue Apron order when you sign up here.

Thank you Blue Apron for sponsoring this blog, and thank you readers for checking out some of the companies we love that help make maintaining this blog a little easier.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Christmas Favorites

I took the girls to see the Nutcracker this past weekend which can also be read as I saw God this past weekend, I had a mom geekout this past weekend and/or I did that imaginary swing from Christmas chandeliers celebration thing this weekend.

I am learning to accept the fact that I am deeply sentimental. As a writer, it is my Achille's heel, and I often feel like I'm shoving gum into holes in a dam to keep the leaks from spreading into a giant crack that breaks the whole damn dam.

I catch myself sometimes, afraid I'm falling into the trap of my dad's soft and weepy heart. The older he gets, the more he can't keep himself from crying during a prayer or a recounted love story from one of his patients. I, the thirty-five-year-old much more in control of her feelings, roll my eyes and will him to pull it together. Jesus, Dad. The tears again. Get yer shit together, Carol

Brett's stepmom recently told me that she loved following my dad on Facebook.

"He's pretty sentimental. Sometimes he gets a little sappy," I said.

She smiled and answered in her wise, calm way, "It's beautiful. There aren't enough people in the world who are comfortable with embracing who they are. I love it."

*Note: As I write this, I call my dad:
Me: "Dad, are you okay with me ripping on your sappiness in a blog post?" 
Dad: "Yes, I'm fine with it." 
Me: "I mean, I'm going to come back around and conclude that I love that you know who you are and you're cool with it."
Dad: "I know. I'm fine. Write what you want."
Me: "Cool. Love you. Bye."

So, where were we?  The Nutcracker.

Want a hit of holiday spirit? Take your girls to the Nutcracker. Take your boys too but perhaps wait until they are out of the climb curtains/scale balcony/fling crackers on dancers stage. Dress up, wear pearls, bring binoculars, Tell them all about the story of Clara and the land of the Sugarplum Fairy. When the music starts, pull them close. Close your eyes and feel every second of it. Point out every beautiful thing, and tell them why you love it. They might roll their eyes and will you to pull it together, annoyed by your sappiness. But don't ever stop embracing who you are. Because your kids, more than anything, need you to be who you are.

The last dance of the Nutcracker kills me. I can keep it together until the Sugar Plum Fairy dances with her cavalier in the Pas de Deux dance. That song. In the dark auditorium, I sat with one girl in my lap and the other next to me, both of their eyes glued to the dancers and their faces barely lit from the stage lights. There's this incredible crescendo in that song, and I cry every time the strings build and the brass takes over with this summit of emotions that sounds like it's playing just for me. I leaned over to Lainey this year, tears streaming, and whispered, "Feel that music? That's Christmas. It's beautiful, isn't it?" Damn you, Dad! Damn you and your weepy genes that can't be controlled!

We took the kids to the Ritz Carlton afterwards for fondue in the lobby. It was super Christmas-y and special and I thought, "You're going to remember this day your whole life." And then the next morning I realized I left my wallet there, so I had to go pick it up in our minivan that smells like cheese. I parked it illegally so I didn't have to valet at a fancy place, and when I met the security guard to get it back, I had to laugh when the guy handed my wallet to me and it was covered in gum. "Just write your room number here," the guy pointed out on the form. I laughed again. "Dude. The wallet you just handed me is covered in gum and my minivan is parked behind the valet so you guys wouldn't see the pile of shoes and last week's lunchbox on the floor. I don't have a room number. We just came to eat in your lobby and pretend we're fancy." Except I didn't say that. I smiled, signed my name in the prettiest cursive, thanked him in a British accent and exited stage left with such graceful steps out the door.

Fancy Ritz bathroom selfie with Barbie photo bomb:

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Before they told us to turn off all electronics. I quite love the gentleman behind us, checking out his program:
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The girls, ignoring their fondue to check out a wedding outside:

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Post Nutcracker dancing at home:

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And so now that sentimental stuff and Christmas freak flag are already a flappin', let's just keep right on that path with some Christmas favorites.  The best of the best for December. Lainey loves to play the favorite game (what's your favorite color? food? game?...), so a holiday edition is quite appropriate.

Prefaced with childhood photo of our family and my mom in a pink polyester robe, the epitome of an 80's Christmas morning.

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Favorite Christmas Movie: 

The Family Stone: the dysfunctional, realistic but beautifully in-love family dynamics.
So many details and moments and quotes stand out: "Just stop. Stop trying. It's exhausting. To keep the lid screwed on so tight. Just relax. Try it..."

If you haven't seen it yet, promise me you'll watch it.

Runners up: Elf, White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street

Favorite Christmas Carol:

Lo How Arose E'er Blooming, Mormon Tabernacle Choir 
As far as faithy stuff, I have dumped so much of what I thought I knew and have hung on to only the simplest truth that feels okay to hang on to. This time of year brings a lot of that stuff up. But this song?  If I close my eyes and listen to it, I am thirteen years old again, sitting in an old run-down church in Flint, Michigan. It's a cold December Sunday night, and my mom is leading the choir to this song. Though the congregation is small and made up of people with completely jacked up beliefs and faith practices, they are singing this song, and their voices come together in perfect harmony to sound much like this. My family is broken, and I am lost deep in a mess of confusion and guilt, but this song--its beauty, its harmony. its haunting melody wraps me up like the hug I've been waiting for, and it feels like how Christmas should be. Hopeful and beautiful and full of wonder, among the mess and all the cold of winter.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Judy Garland
Because, I mean, Judy Garland.

The Christmas Song, Nat King Cole
Iconic. This is the one. Family around the fireplace, kids ripping into presents, coffee in hand, this song, and tears welling up while it all happens because Damn you, Dad! Damn you again!

Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree, Brenda Lee
Best dance-in-your-pajamas-with-your-kids-on-Christmas-Eve song.

Favorite Christmas Tradition:

Going to See Santa
It's become this imperfect, laid back tradition that starts with Santa, follows with dinner at Outback and always ends with our family having cart races in Costco while they're closing.

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Candles and Songs
We started making our own Christmas Eve service at home several years back. We turn off all the lights, light candles and sing carols we don't know the words to, and we're all hilariously off tune--so much that sometimes I'm shaking with laughter. It's funny and sweet and awesome to watch the kids who think that candles held in your hands are the coolest and most dangerous thing ever. They are.

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Reindeer Food in the Driveway and Setting up the Lights for the Sleigh Runway
The last thing we do before going to bed Christmas Eve. The excitement and magic are palpable.

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And a New Tradition...
Ugly Christmas Sweater Cookies. A blast to decorate.

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Christmas favorites...songs, movies, traditions. What are yours? Share in the comment section, if you wish.

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