Wednesday, September 30, 2015

About Last Month • September 2015

We are in our seventh year of homeschooling now, and, by George, I think we're finally starting to get the hang of it (though I realize that by saying that, I am opening myself up to a thousand little brand new snags).  This month, for the very first time, I was able to institute a Reading Day, something I have been meaning to do for so long that it's kind of embarrassing.  Math, spelling, and grammar were cancelled for the day, and the hooligans' work lists were filled with reading assignments: history, science, literature, and pleasure reading.   We all piled into my bed with a big stack of books and had the most glorious relaxed and cozy day while it rained outside.

September was an unusual month for us, in which most weekends were filled to the brim, and though I typically require a little more downtime in order to keep my sanity, we had so much fun that it was relatively easy to roll with it.  We finally had the chance to meet our newest family member, tiny Ansley Grace, early in the month, and she effortlessly stole our hearts.  Then, we took a long-anticipated camping trip to the Mammoth Caves in Kentucky, and while I do not necessarily recommend tent-camping when the temperatures are dipping below 60 degrees, we had our minds so thoroughly blown by tours inside the longest cave system in the world that it was totally worth the time shivering and bundling up around the campfire.

My daily yoga practice, which has lately been a solitary home activity, ventured back out into the world again with the semiannual yoga festival at UGA's Botanical Gardens and then later with a workshop at the Southeast Yoga Conference in Atlanta.  The festival had me practicing on stage again and the conference workshop reawakened a desire to dig more deeply into Ayurveda, so my morning journaling for the past week has focused squarely on where I want to go next with my yoga practice and nutrition education.

This past weekend, Princess Hazelnut turned eight and my father breezed into town for the shortest visit ever, so we reveled in some family and friend celebrations and we all did our level best to make the princess feel like a queen.  Cupcakes were eaten.  So. Many. Cupcakes.

October is shaping up to be a little bit more subdued (with the exception of a little anniversary getaway) and I, for one, am looking forward to some cozy time at home with my favorite people.

What I'm Watching

I just started streaming Justified after hearing people rave about it for years, and I think I love it.  The banter is intelligent and hilarious, and the characters are pretty tightly drawn.  As per my usual, I wince constantly at the way the South is portrayed, but since I swear I recognize some of the characters as people with whom I attended grade school, well...

What I'm Listening To

The Story of the World, Volume I.  With an over-full calendar, I have been doing everything I can to simplify our daily schedule and to use our time as efficiently as possible.  While we are running client errands and heading to the library is a great time to listen to our history lessons in the car, and we are all enamored with the voice of Jim Weiss.  This is our second time through the Story of the World series of books, but this is the first time we have purchased the audio CDs.  I feel like an idiot for not having purchased it years ago.

What I'm Reading

The Country of Ice Cream Star, a post-apocalyptic novel told with very odd twists of language.  I waited for months for this to come in at the library, and though I am hooked on the story, the dialect makes it fairly difficult to read. The rave reviews on the book jacket were written by a couple of my favorite authors, so I'm holding out hope that it will all come together soon.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Meal Plan • 9/28/15

(recipes linked below)

I think it's safe to admit that I'm in love with the framework I've been using for our weekly meal plans.  Having themes for each day, and a list of possible recipes for each theme, has helped me whittle meal-planning down to a weekly 15-minute task.  Easy peasy.

I sit down each week with my calendar to see which days will be particularly rushed, and then I plug in recipes according to the loose framework (Mondays are Mexican, Tuesdays are rice bowls, etc...).  And since many of my recipes use normal pantry ingredients, I only have to throw the fresh ingredients onto the grocery list and I'm all set.

Like I said, easy peasy.  

As for truth in blogging though, I think it's only fair that I report back on how the previous week's plan worked out.  Last week, I forgot to pick up egg rolls and vegetable gyoza from Trader Joe's, so {ahem} I grabbed a couple of $5 pizzas from Little Caesar's between picking up the kids from one activity and dropping them off at the next one.  Then, on Friday, The Musician decided to take the kids to the discount movie theater while I was in Atlanta, so they ate theater popcorn for dinner.  Saturday evening, my father was in town for a last-minute super-short visit, so we celebrated Princess Hazelnut's birthday at Piccolo's, our favorite local Italian restaurant, where I devoured the super decadent gnocchi with greens and beans.  The other four days went according to plan (that's a mind-blowing 57% success rate for those of you keeping score).

The past month has been overly busy, so I'm working steadily and conscientiously to keep the calendar under control for this week.  We will be home a lot more than usual, and the weather is acting suspiciously like autumn is on the way, so comfort foods are showing up all over the menu.  Wednesday, as usual, involves dinner eaten on the run, so I have planned for leftovers for that evening.

As always, Sunday will be Every Man for Himself because of the long-standing labor laws in our household.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Meal Plan • 9/21/15

(recipes linked below)

The past few weeks have been an introvert's challenge, and this week looks like more of the same.  As always, there are events I am looking forward to (yoga workshop in Atlanta for the win), events that are blowing my mind (my baby's eighth birthday), and events that will require meditation/prayer/herbal tinctures to survive (a court date with a non-paying tenant).

In honor of the calendar and in an attempt to roll with the punches, this week's meal plan is heavy on convenience and lighter than I would prefer on nutrition.

We're all just doing the best we can here.

Taco night on Monday is one of my favorite ways to please everyone.  The Musician will happily brown a little meat for himself and The Boy Wonder, while I will roast some seasoned garbanzos for a vegetarian filling for Princess Hazelnut and myself.  Then we can each pile on toppings according to our individual whims: shredded cheese, chopped romaine, salsa, fresh peppers from my mother's garden, sour cream, tomatoes, various hot sauces, etc.

Tuesday will be a quiet day at home (happy dance), so there will be time for one of my favorite vegan meals.  Wednesday is madness, hence the prepackaged foods that require nothing more than a little re-heating on my part while I bust out a quick yoga practice in a corner of the kitchen during the brief time we will be at home.

Thursday will require a later dinnertime than usual, so an easy pasta meal is on tap.  Because I will be in Atlanta on Friday, The Musician will have a chance to make one of the kids' favorite meals.

I bet you can't guess which evening we are celebrating Princess Hazelnut's birthday.

As always, Sunday will be Every Man for Himself because of the long-standing labor laws in our household.

Monday: Taco Night (garbanzo filling recipe)
Tuesday: Roasted Buddha Bowl
Wednesday: Thai Vegetable Gyoza & Vegetable Egg Rolls (Trader Joe's freezer products)
Thursday: Linguine with Hot Chile, Caramelized Onions & Gremolata
Friday: French Toast & Cheese Grits
Saturday: Pizza & Vegan Red Velvet Cupcakes

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Quick Lit • September 2015

Sometimes I read a book so overwhelmingly fabulous that it overshadows all others, and I find myself unsure what to read next.  I tiptoe around my to-be-read stack, worrying that whatever subsequent book I choose will pale in comparison to what I have just finished.  I ran into such a glorious problem a few weeks ago when I devoured 800-something pages of 11/22/63 and was left wishing it had never ended.  It was simply a phenomenal book - the kind of story that grabs a hold of you and doesn't let go.  

Stephen King, I think, is too often discounted by serious readers because of his horror novels and the pulp-like tendencies of some of his books, but did you know he has written over 50 books?  And all of them were bestsellers?  Not just bestsellers, but worldwide bestsellers?  The man should be handed a few honorary doctorates and hailed as one of this country's great writers.  Also, he makes me want to visit Maine.  

His nonfiction book, On Writing, was the kind of nonfiction that is so engrossing I read it in one sitting, staying up into the wee hours of the morning so that I wouldn't have to put it down.

Today, I am linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy to share short & casual snippet-like reviews of the books I have read over the past month.

Small Victories: Spotting Improbably Moments of Grace is a collection of essays written in typical Anne Lamott fashion, filled with irreverence and wit and copious George W. Bush bashing. Each of the essays stands alone, though the concept of grace is the binding thread between them, so it might not be something that you sit down with and expect to read cover-to-cover in one sitting. She's a hot mess in all of these stories, and that is what makes her so relatable (and, dare I say, lovable).

Still Life is a lovely debut detective novel, refined and graceful and just suspenseful enough. The characters were quirky and eccentric and mostly loveable, escaping the tiresome hard-boiled cliches of most contemporary detective series. The mystery itself was almost background for what became a character study more than an edge-of-the-seat thriller. My only complaint was the heavy-handed, hurried manner in which the mystery was solved In the final few pages. Regardless, I will be putting the next book on hold at the library right away. I can't wait to see where the author goes with this series.

Landline was a bummer. Maybe I expected too much from this book (I *loved* Eleanor & Park, after all), but I ended up feeling pretty let down by this one. The dialogue is great and the characters are interesting, but the storyline read like just another chick lit book to me. I just don't love angst in books about adults. It isn't a bad book, by any stretch, and if chick lit is your thing, this is one of the better ones. I'm torn between two and three stars, so I'm giving this novel the benefit of the doubt and giving it three because it is very well-written for the genre.

11/22/63 blew me away, and was almost impossible to put down (despite it topping out at close to 900 pages). The narrator travels back in time to attempt to prevent JFK's assassination, and while that part left me breathless for around 100 pages, the breadth of the story is spent exploring the narrator's years biding his time as he waits between 1958 and 1963. The characters he meets, the towns he lives in, the experiences of this modern-day schoolteacher in a time gone by are gripping and even a little haunting. Storytelling as its finest. I only wish it had been twice as long.

Attachments is a little fluffy, but highly entertaining. There is a geeky, D&D-playing male narrator and a slew of likeable and mostly hilarious characters. My only complaint is the cheese factor of the last two chapters, but the cheese was redeemed by the intelligent wit and some truly laugh-out-loud moments. Great vacation read.

Descent is suspenseful and atmospheric, with flawed characters (my favorite kind) and a dark but not overwhelmingly bleak tone.  The novel traces the story of a family in the wake of the disappearance of their daughter while the family is on vacation in the Rocky Mountains. The story is told over a number of years and follows each of the characters in turn.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Meal Plan • 9/14/15

(recipes linked below)

We just returned from a glorious 4-day camping & learning adventure at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, so interstate food had to tide us over for this evening's dinner; and after a few days of tofu dogs (with fresh spinach, jalapeƱos, & sauerkraut) around the campfire at night, I'm craving a little bit of variety in our diet.

I planned the lentils, rice, & cornbread for tomorrow night, knowing that we wouldn't have anything in the fridge when we returned, and would need to cook from the freezer and the pantry.  Wednesday will be a long day out of the house and I won't have time to cook before we head out again for our evening activities, so I will make sure to cook enough lentils on Tuesday to reheat for Wednesday's on-the-run dinner.

Thursday and Friday will be easy enough days, but I have plans on Saturday evening, so pasta salad will be an easy win since I can make it in the afternoon and the rest of the family can eat it whenever they're ready.

As always, Sunday will be Every Man for Himself because of the long-standing labor laws in our household.
** Hot tip: When I make the cornbread batter on Tuesday, I will cook half of it in our tiny little black cast-iron skillet.  The other half of the batter will be stashed in the fridge to be cooked on Wednesday so that we will have fresh cornbread each night.  Alternatively, you could double the batter on the first night (if you need more than a half-batch) and then cook half of it each night in a regular-sized skillet.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

A Sanity-Saving, Flexible Meal Plan

An over-scheduled calendar is not built in a day.  I mean, no one in their right mind would start with a peaceful blank slate and all at once add in a career, a couple children, some hobbies, a few labor-intensive long-term goals, a little volunteer work, and also think, "Oh, wouldn't it also be a lark to homeschool the kids as well?"

No.  This sort of madness happens slowly and insidiously, as one commitment at a time is added to the schedule, until you wake up one day and think, "Oh-my-everloving-goodness.  This is ridiculous, I can't keep this up anymore, and I'm about to lose my mind."

Last winter, I hit that wall.  In the midst of my busiest work season of the year, I was asked to do one more little tiny thing for an organization with which I volunteer, and the whole house of cards began to topple down around me.

I didn't even know how I got to that point.

Well, that's not entirely true.  I do know.  I got there by saying yes to a host of wonderful and fulfilling activities.  I got there by taking on a lot of very interesting work for people that I genuinely like.  I got there by loving life so much that I didn't want to miss a thing.  I got there by thinking I was Super Woman.  I got there by willfully choosing to forget that there is a limit to the number of different things one person can successfully juggle.

Admitting I couldn't do everything was painful, but it was also liberating.  By saying no to some things, and by pulling back my involvement in some other activities, I found that I could do a better job at the tasks that remained in my daily schedule.

At the same time, I began working on idiot-proofing the menial tasks in my day.  Time spent deciding what to wear, for instance, is mental energy that could be better spent identifying new rental properties.  Deciding each morning what errands need to be run that day is more wasted energy, and it takes me away from my desk when I could be making money.  Waiting until 5:00 in the afternoon to think about what to cook for dinner means my mental energy will be too depleted by the financial reports I just completed to think of doing anything more difficult than boiling some noodles and hoping for the best.  Decision fatigue is a thing, friends.

So I began paring down my closet even more than I already had, and I ended up with a handful of uniforms that mean I can get dressed in three minutes or less for any activity on my calendar.  I picked one day a week to get all my client errands done so that I wouldn't have to make multiple trips into town each week.  And I sat down to set up a flexible meal plan so that hearing someone ask "What's For Dinner?" would no longer send me into a panic.

First, I looked at our schedule to see which days of the week were mad rushes and which days were more conducive to recipes that required a little chopping and simmering, and I organized my ideas accordingly.  I'm not the sort of person that operates well with either rigid schedules or having to plan 30 days in advance, so I decided to create a loose framework by which to narrow down the options for each day.

The meal plan framework ended up looking like this:
Mondays - Mexican
Tuesdays - Rice bowls
Wednesdays - Emergency Night: Leftovers or Pizza
Thursdays - Pasta
Fridays - Soups or Uncategorizable Oddities
Saturdays - Vegetable Plates
Sundays - Every Man For Himself (because I only cook six nights a week)

Then I took my recipe binder and organized my recipes behind tabs labeled with the categories listed above.  For good measure (additional idiot-proofing), I used a binder that has clear pockets on the outside, and I created a title page that lists the four to six options under each category.  Having a handful of options for each category means we can go at least a month before repeating any of the recipes.

Wednesdays are booked to the gills, so I try to make sure there are leftovers of either Mondays or Tuesdays meals, but since things don't always go according to plan, we keep the idea of $5 take-out pizzas in our back pocket for emergencies.

Here is what our menu looked like last week:
Monday - Black Bean Chili
Tuesday - Cauliflower & Tofu Curry
Wednesday - chili or curry leftovers
Thursday - Spinach & Ricotta Manicotti
Friday - Frittata & Mediterranean Butter Bean Salad
Saturday - Braised Green Cabbage, Spicy Corn on the Cob, & leftover butter bean salad
Sunday - leftovers for some of us, popcorn for another, nachos for another

I resisted making a meal plan for years because I was put off by the whole idea.  Meal plans often seemed overly complicated or too restrictive, and the whole idea was just overwhelming to me.  The idea of using a theme-based framework works very well for the way I operate though (I need some choices, but for heaven's sake, not too many), and now it takes about 15 minutes to come up with a menu and a grocery list each week.  I'm currently toying with planning two weeks at a time so that I can further reduce the number of trips to the store each month, but the jury's still out on that idea.