Friday, July 31, 2015

Books I've Read Lately That I'd Recommend to Just About Anyone (& Some I Wouldn't)

One great thing about not being pregnant anymore (besides having skinny ankles again) is that reading no longer makes me sick, which means I've been doing quite a bit of it. Because I believe in spreading around the wealth of good books, here are a few books I've read this year that I'd recommend to literally anyone---


Wonder by R. J. Palacio

Often nowadays, the young adult genre disappoints me more than it thrills me because the older I get, the less I relate to the plot lines, characters, and conflicts. However, every now and then, I'll read a real winner that is not only entertaining and written well, but that also speaks to both youth and adults. That's what Wonder was for me--totally readable, great for all ages, and with a really powerful message at its core about learning to look beyond the outward appearance. Wonder is the story of a boy with a rare facial deformity who learns to rise above the judgmental stares and cruelty through the power of friendship and self-acceptance, and it's a message that deserves to be shared.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

Chances are pretty good you've heard of this book, as it seems to be making its rounds through the blogosphere and Internet in general. Being the sucker for minimalism and simple living that I am, I didn't want to put a hold on it at the local library (after learning that over 40 people had gotten there before me), so I snatched up my own copy and proceeded to meander my way through it over the course of about a month.  While many of the methods Kondo mentions for tidying up your home are not new, her quirky ideas about the relationship between objects and people are.

Basically, the two biggest takeaways I got from this book are that 1) I should only keep objects that bring me joy, and 2) once I've really tidied my home (aka, gotten rid of anything that doesn't bring me joy), I don't need to do it again. In other words, this book is mindset-changing: instead of suggesting that you conquer your clutter a little bit each day (as most people suggest), Kondo suggests that you do a massive "tidy" over the course of about 6 months and get rid of most of your stuff, then use her organizational system for the rest. Having taken a year to massively pare down our belongings back in 2013, I can say from personal experience that she has a point about the whole "only needing to really tidy once" idea. Anyway, if you're looking for motivation to overhaul your physical space, check this one out.

Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl

This book was a total surprise to me--I usually only read stuff that's on multiple recommended reading lists or being talked about by seemingly everyone in America, but I picked up this book after one mention of it on this blog, and I'm so glad I did. Garlic and Sapphires is a memoir written by famous food critic Ruth Reichl about her experiences "going undercover" to get the real food story at restaurants. Basically, one day Reichl realized that duh, restaurants were going to bend over backwards to try and please her and pull out all the stops because she was one of the top food critics in the nation. She decided that she wanted to get more of the "real" story of the restaurants she was critiquing, so she goes undercover in all these disguises under all these different identities to try and figure out which restaurants really are worth getting into (even as an average joe), and which aren't. Hilarious, thrilling, and with the most scrumptious descriptions of food imaginable, Garlic and Sapphires is a fun read that will make you want to eat every time you pick it up.


Honorable Mentions (books I've read this year that are worth reading but don't get me quite as excited as the 3 titles above):

- The Kitchen God's Wife by Amy Tan (I've always been a sucker for Chinese American writers)
- The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi (a young adult classic)
- The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (another YA read, and one of the most unusual books I've ever come across)
- The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (surprisingly accessible for a classic, even if the ending shocked me a bit with its abruptness)
- Living With Less by Joshua Becker (another simple living book, this one by one of my favorite bloggers)

In addition to the titles above, there are some other books I've read this year that I'd recommend to certain people, with caveats attached. Here are a few of those:


The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

This Pulitzer-Prize winner from last year has some of the most stunning writing I've ever come across, not to mention a pretty compelling plot line (a museum bombing kills the mother of a thirteen-year-old boy, who walks away from the bombing with one of his mother's favorite paintings from one of the exhibits--a 17th century masterpiece of a goldfinch--under his arm). This book has been all I can think about for weeks now, and I finally finished it last night. If we were just looking at the gorgeousness of the writing or the fascinating storyline, I would recommend this book to anyone I know who is not afraid of almost-800-page novels. However, based on the fact that this book liberally drops the F-bomb throughout (we're talking a few hundred times, probably), I can't shout about this book from the rooftops like I want to. But if you can look past the strong language used by certain characters, this book is a real masterpiece.

My Life in France by Julia Child

After the success that was Garlic and Sapphires, I eagerly searched out more foodie books to feed my newfound obsession with all things memoir and eating, and since this was recommended by the same blog that recommended the other, I figured I'd give it a shot. While I loved certain sections of this book (like Child's first cooking lessons in Paris and all the photographs taken by her husband), there were other parts that dragged by pretty slowly. My enjoyment of the book was heightened though by the fact that I love the movie Julie & Julia (although not the book by the same title, surprisingly enough), and it was fascinating for me to get a more in-depth look at Julia's Paris years. So, if you're a Julia aficionado or a lover of all things Paris or foodie-culture, this is probably a book you'll (mostly) enjoy. For everyone else, it's probably a little too slow to whet your appetite.

I Dare Me by Lu Ann Cahn

If you're looking for masterful writing or an un-put-down-able read, this book is not for you. However, I include it on the list because I found it greatly inspiring. I Dare Me is about Cahn's year-long journey to try a new thing every single day in order to pull herself out of a midlife crisis. While some of her experiences are much more interesting than others and while I did have to force myself to push through the last couple sections, I have thought about this book often since reading it. Reading about Cahn's experiences (and the research she included on the power of novelty in our lives) could be just the jumpstart you need if you're looking to take a new direction in life--I know it has prompted me a good number of times to try out the unknown instead of going with the tried-and-true.

Honorable Mentions (other books that were good but that I wouldn't recommend for everyone):
- Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson (great if you're into fantasy)
- Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You by Sam Gosling (promising premise for a nonfiction book, but it's pretty dense with psychological studies and doesn't include any pictures for reference)
- The View From Saturday by E. L. Konigsburg (although this YA read is well-written and has a makes-you-think ending, its slow pace is not for everyone)

And there you go! That covers pretty much every book I've read this year (except The Red Badge of Courage, which was sloooooooow and circular and not at all to my taste). Hope you found a title or two to interest you!

Now, if you have any recommendations on what I should read next, I'm all ears!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Blogging Back the Lost Weeks & Marveling Over the Length of My Hair

Having summers off has always been one of the greatest perks about being a teacher--it means sleeping in past the sunrise, reading a book while eating breakfast, and having all the time I want to experiment in the kitchen. Nowadays, it means glorious days spent at home with Raven, cheering her on as she is currently in the struggle to roll from back to tummy and planting kisses onto her chubby cheeks whenever possible.

Last summer--our last childless summer--I will probably always think of as the lost summer. Not because we didn't get in our fair share of novelty, fun, and adventure, but because I didn't blog about it much--and if I didn't blog about it, did it really even happen?

The truth was, last summer I was still reeling a bit over my decision to not try and turn the blog into a little side business, and because I was no longer seeking out more and more followers, I wondered if it was worth it to keep documenting our little adventures in this public sphere. Because I was trying to get more photography expertise under my belt so that I could finally start a little photography business, I let the blog slide.

Then I got pregnant, and felt terribly sick and fatigued almost from the word go. The blog fell almost completely by the wayside as I just tried to keep all the necessary balls in the air---going to my photography class, prepping myself for the upcoming school year, trying to get enough food down so the nausea wouldn't overwhelm me.

Now, when you look back into the archives, those really do seem to be the lost months, undocumented and forgotten.

But!

Before getting pregnant, Matt and I went on quite a few adventures---I was going a bit stir crazy from being home alone all the time, and I very well knew that it could be our last summer with just the two of us. We found ourselves going out on a lot of dates, everything from the farmer's market to antiques stores to new restaurants to challenging hikes. And I took pictures and then more pictures, eager to try and master the manual mode of my camera and employ all the new strategies I was learning in my photography class.

But I never blogged any of it.

Well, I came across these pictures last night, when my usual insomnia kicked in (one of the lovely side effects of the corticosteroids I'm on)--these were taken last July when my dad was in town and visiting us for the first time ever on our home turf (instead of us going down to see him where the rest of my family is located, about an hour south of here). We spent hours philosophizing in the kitchen, tried out the cola-glazed meatloaf at one of the new restaurants in town, and took my dad to the wind caves, which is what these pictures are from.


Three things stick out to me as I look through these pictures. Nope, make that four---

1. Check out how long my hair is! I'm anxiously growing it out again now, hoping I can muddle through this awkward phase where my hormones are doing all sorts of crazy things to it like changing its texture, making it frizzy, making it both fall out faster and grow in thicker simultaneously...(Seriously, when does your hair get back to normal after having a baby?!)

2. Even though I remember feeling a bit poochy in these pictures (because I gained ten pounds last summer right before getting pregnant, thanks again to hormones), I look back now and see a skinny-minny. Ah, it's funny how life experiences change our perceptions of ourselves.

3. Other people might not notice, but I can definitely see that my photography skills have improved a lot since taking these a year ago.

4. Now, seeing pictures of just Matt and me, I will always see the empty space around us that was meant to be filled by Raven. I look at these pictures and almost half-expect to see her in them because it feels like she's always been with us. I suppose that's how it is with each new child---you just know they belong with you, and that they always have.


These pics were taken July 22, 2014---just over a year ago.

Funny how much can change in just 53 weeks!


These pictures also serve to remind me that I only have one month left before returning to work--looks like we have a lot of adventure planning left to do! (Gotta get that baby in these hiking pictures where she belongs!)


Thanks for letting me do a bit of a Throwback Thursday---sometimes you just gotta blog about stuff in order to not forget it.

Plus I liked these pictures and wanted to share :)

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Celebrating Medium(ish) Victories--40 Lbs. Down!


It's not much of a secret that I'm a pretty driven person--generally when I set out to do something, I hit it pretty hard until I actually meet my goal or admit fair defeat. While my single-mindedness when it comes to reaching my goals can be (and often is) a great thing, it does sometimes mean that I get a little obsessive about the finish line--that rather than looking around and enjoying the spot I'm currently at, I have eyes only for the prize shimmering off in the distance.

I definitely am like that with this whole postpartum weight loss business--I see all these clothes I still can't fit into and all these pictures of myself from before I got pregnant, and it's all I can do to not rip my hair without frustration every time I step on the scale or every time I try on something else that doesn't fit. But I'm trying to be better about not being so hard on myself and appreciating my body for all it can do (especially since it's really been through a lot the last three and a half months), so I thought I'd celebrate the medium(ish) victories today---

1.  I have lost 40 pounds since April (!)

2. I finally caved and bought some new clothes the other week, and I only had to buy them one size up from where I was before getting pregnant

3. When I suck in my stomach, it actually kind of looks flat-ish, instead of it still looking about 4.5 months pregnant

4. Today I tried on these gray shorts that I used to wear all the time last summer but that I haven't been able to fit into since having the baby. Not only was I able to zip them up and button them this morning, but they weren't so tight that I had to take them right off again--in fact, I've been wearing them all day. I'll have you know that this is the first day I've worn a pair of shorts/pants that hasn't been maternity since having the baby. Woo hoo!

5. I can now wear about one-half of the clothes in my closet (not counting any maternity clothing, which I've put all away except for a few pairs of pants and leggings). Considering that a month and a half ago, I could maybe wear about six shirts comfortably, this is a pretty big feat. I can't imagine what it will feel like to know that everything in my closet fits again. How will that be?!

(Please admire the construction equipment in the back of these pictures--it really adds to the classiness of me)

I've still got about 15 pounds to go before I'm for sure the size I was before getting pregnant, but it sure is good to see I'm heading in the right direction!

Monday, July 27, 2015

Sunday Portraits with The Fuzz


Often, Sundays mean that Matt is away from the apartment from 9 a.m. until about 6 p.m. due to his church responsibilities, but let the record reflect that we had him all to ourselves yesterday until 11:25 in the morning, saw him all through church from 1-4, and then had him back in our kitchen with us helping to prepare paprika chicken stroganoff at 4:25.

It was a Sunday miracle.


So of course, to document the bliss that is having a daddy in the house with a little fuzz head in his arms, we took family pictures on our massive king-size bed that we are still in love with and just lapped up the giggles of the baby dressed in mint and coral, who has the most deliciously roly-poly baby thighs you ever did see. 


The messages in church for the last three weeks have been all about making the Sabbath a delight, and yesterday was--we made oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, snuggled our friends' new baby (and chatted about breastfeeding, baby poop, and burping techniques with them for almost two hours), stood around beaming like idiots as Raven charmed an entire row of visiting senior citizens behind us at church with her giggles and drool-smiles, watched two Toy Story movies, and were in bed by 10:30.


Could life get any better than this?

I submit that it could not.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Today


Today an old man at the grocery store was solidly convinced Raven was a boy "because she's dressed in blue" despite the woman he was with trying to point out the white hairbow and the fact that the blue outfit was actually a dress with polka dots. I still don't think he was fully convinced, but I sure got a good laugh out of it.

Today I made a potato salad to bring to my family's 24th of July barbecue going on tomorrow. Even though I've tried scads of potato salads, I'll always favor my mom's simple version--no vinegar (just Miracle Whip) mixed with Russet potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, celery, green onions, and a whole lot of salt, pepper, celery salt, onion powder, and paprika. Oh, and some radishes thrown in for color, when I can find them at the store (which today I could not).

Today Raven has been babbling almost nonstop. It started at 6:30 this morning and has continued pretty much every waking hour since, accompanied by lots and lots of bubble blowing. I think she's trying to tell me she's excited about all the laundry I finally got done today (which is now divvied out haphazardly in four separate baskets, calling out for us to fold them instead of leaving them by the front door, for goodness sake).

Today I will be going on my second postpartum run as soon as Raven goes down for the night. My body's been feeling good all day, so I'm hoping I'll be able to pump out at least two miles. Wish me luck.


Today I am on page 444 (out of 771) of The Goldfinch, and I'm telling you, man---this book gets in your HEAD. I thought it would take me several weeks to finish, but I am sailing through the pages like I don't have a baby who still likes to eat every 90 minutes and a whole front room full of laundry. I love it when I find books that do that.

Today I got no fewer than EIGHT free jars of baby food thanks to some coupons my sister sent me from the Sunday paper. It made me reminisce back to my hardcore couponing days and *almost* tempted me to want to pick up on the habit again. But for now, I'm happy enough taking advantage of the digital coupons offered by Smith's and the extra diaper and baby food coupons my sister and mom occasionally throw my way. (I will say this though---even though Raven is growing up alarmingly fast, I am excited to watch her eat baby food in a couple more months---it's going to be hilarious.)

Today I took a break from loading all our music onto iTunes, which I did for perhaps 8 hours yesterday. Can you believe I've never had an iTunes account before this? I was wanting to (finally) put some new music on the iPod I acquired from a friend for extra running motivation, so I figured I'd better get with the times. Welcome to the 21st century, me. 

Today was a pretty typical summer day for me, which makes me feel both happy and sad at the same time. I've genuinely grown to love these stay-at-home days of summer, and I'm kinda sorta dreading having to go back to teaching in just over a month. But it's just for another year, I tell myself...I can do just about anything for 9 months...(pregnancy taught me that!)...but it sure is going to be hard to say goodbye to days like

Today.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

On Egg Whites & Avocados & Breakfasts that Taste Like Dessert



While in Kansas City with my siblings a couple weeks back, it came to my attention that I am now The Least Healthy Sister. As my sisters gabbled in the kitchen about levels of protein found in their favorite energy bars and talked about the virtue of eating every two or three hours and did burpees down in the den, I'd slide in quips like, "Man, just watching you guys pump those out makes me want to eat like five and a half cookies Right. Now," and, "Eating six times a day? Sounds like a good idea to me!"

And it's not even that I'm really even far out into The Unhealthy Galaxy--in fact, I'd say I haven't even hit its stratosphere--I just happen to be a member of a family where all the other sisters are really, really fit. (Think home CrossFit gym, body building competitions, gluten-free only...)

The good thing about being around all that (instead of just around Matt and Raven, who are all too happy (or speechless) about my habit of baking cookies weekly) is that it got me thinking---

"Hey, I've got the same genes they do. What's stopping ME from owning more workout gear than real clothes and being able to actually do a legit chin-up?"

So I came home from the trip, determined to become the sister who is Not So Obviously the Most Unhealthy. You know? The one who runs half-marathons every year or two for kicks and giggles but still believes in putting the full fat in the muffin recipe?

(It also goes without saying that the longer I go into this postpartum weight loss thing, the more I actually have to try to get the weight off. I am finally---at almost 29 years old---coming to grips with the fact that I no longer have the metabolism of a 17-year-old.)


So--I started by buying a carton of liquid egg whites.

I'll have you know this accomplishment ranks right up there with the time I actually bought tofu (TOFU!) a couple years back when I half-heartedly tried a "detox" of sorts (which was really nothing more than an attempt to eat more vegetarian for about two weeks). It was like for $1.99, I was able to purchase proof that I was, indeed, Starting to Belong with the Healthy Sisters.

Of course, when I actually poured out the egg whites into my skillet and saw how, well, WHITE, they looked, I took to adding in a "real" egg just so my eyes wouldn't wig out too much at the sight of the slightly soggy, cream-colored mass congealing on the stove.

And it wasn't half-bad, really.

I even bought a second carton at the store last week, proof positive that I did, in fact, manage to put away the entirety of the first carton.

And as I've attempted to continue on the Sister Health Train, I've been eating a lot more grapes and a lot less cereal. I've been making a lot more of what I dub "Simple Meals," which hardly should even merit the pictures I took of them--a fresh vegetable or two, fruit on the side, some kind of protein.

But!

They do taste like summer, they don't require the use of the hot oven, and they almost all seem to involve avocados, which I may or may not be slightly obsessed with. (I have long since realized that many a trip to the grocery can be put off if I have avocados and tortillas in the house.)

To bring this all to some semblance of a point, I have two--nay, THREE--suggestions for ridiculously quick and easy meals that will help you to board the Healthy Sister Train (well, at least let you grab onto the siderails and peer in the boxcar windows).

 (this picture totally does not match the first recipe, but let's pretend it does)

1. Cheese & Avocado Tortillas

Take a few mini white corn tortillas, melt some cheddar cheese onto them, slice up some avocado onto the melted cheese, and squeeze some drops of hot sauce on the top. They are seriously easy, seriously delicious, and we are seriously guilty of eating them about 2-3 times a week in the summer.


2. Oatmeal That Might As Well Be Peach Cobbler

Because Matt is super finicky about how ripe his peaches and nectarines can be, it often falls to me to eat an inordinate amount of them in a short amount of time before they go bad. So, when you have a peach or a nectarine that's just on the verge of being *too* ripe, slice it up into some oatmeal and add a dash of vanilla extract, cinnamon, allspice, and a teaspoon or two of brown sugar.

Seriously, it's a sinfully delicious breakfast (or dinner) that makes you feel like you're cheating on every kind of diet known to man.


3. Upgraded Cheese & Avocado Tortillas

Feeling like I needed to get on the protein wagon my sisters have been riding, I decided my staple cheese & avocado tortillas could probably use an update. Enter these upgraded tostadas, which I found the recipe for here. Now that I've added the egg, I'm not sure I'll often be going back.


Oh, and a big shout-out to my sistahs for being awesome and healthy and inspiring and all the good stuff in life. They're basically the coolest.

(I'll even give you a picture of them, with two brothers thrown into the mix as a bonus.)


Oh, and if you have any other healthy-ish, non-oven-using, fast recipes, send 'em my way!


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

She Ain't Heavy . . . But I Can't Carry Her

Growing up, I often heard people say that one of the top things we take for granted as humans is our health. Being a person who is somewhat preoccupied with gratitude, I tried not to let that become my tendency growing up, especially because I fully realized that I was blessed with an abundance of energy that many other people had to work a lot harder than I did to have.

Since coming down with the symptoms of my autoimmune disease, I find that I really miss my old energy, and I miss having skin that doesn't look rashy and sunburned, and I miss knowing that all is well on my insides. But all that pales in comparison to how much I miss having the physical energy to hold my daughter as much as I want.

Before I knew what was going on with my body, I often felt guilty because I just felt I couldn't hold Raven one more second without my body collapsing--trips down to the car with her in her carseat would completely wipe me out, and I would be left gasping and kneeling over her in the backseat, unable to have the energy to pull myself back out again. It was when my arms and legs started shaking when I carried her from room to room (and I began to clutch her even more tightly because I feared that I might involuntarily drop her) that made me realize that my muscle fatigue was out of control and that it was something much more serious than me just being a tired new mom.


Since I'm still in the process of trying to figure out exactly what the trajectory of this disease will be and what my treatment options are and what I can do (if anything) in the midst of this challenge, my mind--ever searching for explanations and reasons--has tried to pinpoint what I should be learning from all this.

It's far too early to really nail anything down for sure since I am in a territory uncharted and unplanned, but I can think of two things right off the top of my head that I've learned from this experience, wanted or not---

1. It's good for me to learn how to ask for help.

My whole life I've been independent, self-sufficient, willing to do most things for myself, by myself. Marriage helped me to get over the extreme of that condition, but motherhood could have easily pushed me back into it with the mindset that I was the mom, that I was in charge of the nurture of my children, that the responsibility for their wellbeing was mine

Having unpredictable muscles that sometimes barely allow me to hold her long enough to feed her has forced me to learn to ask for help, which has been deeply humbling. It is humbling to ask for my brother to carry the carseat 30 feet to the car for me, it is humbling to beg Matt to come take the baby to burp her because my back can't handle another second. 

But it is beautiful, too.

It was beautiful to watch my daughter being carried by my sister on the family hike we took to Tony Grove the other week in the midst of our family campout. It was beautiful to watch my family rally around me with offers of solace and support as I divulged the diagnosis to them at the beginning of the trip. It was beautiful to realize that parenthood is not about being the Sole Provider of Everything for your kids--it's about learning to open the door so that others can help my daughter become who she was meant to be, too.



2. Even though I tried not to take my health for granted before, now I REALLY appreciate the good days.

And there are a lot of good days, especially now that I'm taking some corticosteroids for my condition.

There have been days when I can hold Raven high above my head and hear her squeal with delight as her legs flail into the open air above me. There have been days when my trip to the grocery store for cherries and milk and chicken hasn't left me so winded and tired that it's all I can do to keep my eyes open while my baby's eyes are open, much less try and interact with her---now I can come home and unload the groceries and play with the baby and make the dinner and even (sometimes!) do the dishes.

It is good that on some days, I even feel close to my old self again, dreaming of running marathons and taking dance classes and taking the baby on hikes---it's those days that give me hope that although this condition is permanent, it doesn't have to be limiting.


But for days when my body feels alien to me and my muscles cry out for relief and my energy allows me to do little more than try and stay awake, it is good to know that I have so many people in my life that I can rely on to help shoulder the load, even if it ain't that heavy. 


Today, I was tired when I started to write this, and my arms had started to feel the getting-all-too-familiar feeling of complete and utter burnout.

And now, finishing up my thoughts, I am still tired and (additionally) covered in drool and cottage cheese spit-up...

But it's because I was able to hold Raven while writing up the last half of this post.

And that's something to be pretty darn grateful for.


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