Climbing the family tree with kids

February 28th, 2014

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The other night, my fourth grader got out his homework, and handed me a worksheet.  “Can you help me with this?”

I looked. “Discover Your Roots” was printed above a family tree chart. He had already filled in his immediate family, but the upper branches were still blank. This was it, my moment. I was being called up from the bench.

Could I help with this? Oh, I DON’T KNOW, how much extra paper do we have?

Except I didn’t say that, because I didn’t want to scare him with my enthusiasm. His older brothers had already sensed the intensity, and were keeping their heads down.


I opened up the computer and went to our family tree, so he could copy the names of his grandparents and great-grandparents onto his worksheet. As we looked, he was able to see the photographs I’ve saved to their profiles. Like these ones of my grandmothers:

mary and ferne

As he copied their names, I told him how much his great-grandmother Mary loved fly fishing, how good she was at it, and how delicious those trout were. I told him about his great-grandmother Ferne’s gift with animals—what a great horsewoman she was, and how I saw her coax a trapped bee out of our car one time, cupping it in her hand without it stinging her.

After he had all the grands and the first set of greats copied over to his sheet, I zoomed out on the tree, with his name and birth date at the base. We counted exponents. Two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and all sixteen of his great-great grandparents had names and dates. Then some branches stopped, while others scrolled on and on.

I was able to show him things like an obituary for his 5th X great-grandmother, who was born in Germany, and died in South Carolina, “a friend to all mankind.” A few months ago, we didn’t know her name, much less her reputation. But Patrick’s Ancestry DNA matches turned up a distant cousin who was able to extend his branch back many more generations. She, and several other Ancestry members with whom my boys share roots, have been so generous and helpful. Community is one of the greatest resources in online genealogy. Nobody walks the ancestral trail alone for very long.


Photo Jan 26, 6 42 30 PM

One of the homework questions was to find out if anyone in the family tree fought in the Civil War, and on which side. I told my son what I learned from a telephone interview with family historian Lisa Elzey: if your tree has an American male born in the 1830s, chances are good that he fought in the Civil War (and that one great place to look is the National Park Service database of soldiers). We went across the American side of his tree laterally, looking at candidates. I had already located records for three soldiers – two for the Confederacy, and one for the Union.

“What about him?” my son asked, pointing to a 3rd X great-grandfather who was born in 1845.

I clicked “search records,” and found a pension application by his widow, which told us he enlisted from Missouri, but not which side. We had the name of his regiment, though, so we started googling. By this time, my older boys were fully engaged, looking over my shoulder and scanning through wikipedia entries to see if we could find a mention. I confess I was hoping we would turn up another Union man to even things out, but it turned out that great-great-great grandpappy PJ wore gray.


Photo taken and kindly shared by another of PJ’s great-great-great grandsons, Guy Choate, who I met on, and who, like his fourth cousins, is a pretty cool fellow.*

“But look,” I pointed out on the next row. “His daughter married a man whose dad fought on the other side.” In just one generation, enemies had become a family.

I printed out the longest branches of his tree to bring to class –one of Patrick’s that goes back to 1666, and one of mine that goes back to 1614. “I know one fourth grade teacher who is going to deeply regret sending home a family tree worksheet,” I quipped to my Facebook friends, who are probably so tired of my genealogy updates, they’ve all got me on mute.

He brought the appended branches home in his backpack the next day. “She only wanted the first sheet,” he reported.

Considering all the history we covered in one night, I think I should have at least gotten a happy face stamp.

“That’s alright,” I told him. “it’s for you to have, anyway.” Which sums up one of the most satisfying things about researching our family tree – the sense of assembling something for the ages, a record that our kids and future generations can look back to, and build on. So that when my 5th X great grandchild comes to his mother with the same damn worksheet that teachers have been xeroxing for 500 years, they can have as much fun climbing the family tree as we did.


*And a writer, whose lovely memoir of his grandparents is published here. is kindly sponsoring a series of posts on my incredible Ancestry journey. Leave a comment below to win a free 1-year World Explorer membership, valued at $299 (international entries welcome). Winner will be randomly selected on Friday, March 7 at noon CST (and congratulations to Brad, who won the DNA test from in January’s giveaway)!

Snow Taffy (tire sur la neige)

February 8th, 2014


It began snowing yesterday evening, and we woke up to three inches of powder this morning—a real snowfall! The Littlest Who was out in it before the coffee was done brewing. He, his big brothers, and the dog went romping around the empty streets in our neighborhood last night, and he’d gone to sleep scheming and dreaming of what to do with all that snow.

“Remember that syrup we had in that snowy place?” he asked me. “Can we make that?”

“You mean the maple taffy they made in Quebec, where we went skiing? No, honey, we can’t make that here.”

“Why not?”

Well, why not, I thought. So we don’t have maple trees to tap, or even a bottle of maple syrup on hand. It’s basically a simple sugar that’s heated up and then cooled. Science, right?

A little research backed up my hypothesis. Tire sur la neige can be made with and without real maple syrup. After comparing a bunch of recipes, I came up with a hybridized formula, using dark brown sugar. Unfortunately, my sous chef had taken all his snow clothes off, and the syrup cooked too long while he was suiting back up for the pouring. It turned to brittle in the snow, and he didn’t care for the dark molasses flavor.

 Photo Feb 08, 9 47 42 AM

Photo Feb 08, 9 24 54 AM


But I believe in science and evolution, so I tried again, this time using a blend of brown and white sugar to lighten the flavor, and making sure my sous chef was ready to hit the snow the second the candy thermometer registered 240 degrees.

Photo Feb 08, 10 48 31 AM

The second time was a charm. The golden strips of syrup were as pliable in the snow as we remembered the real thing being.


And it tasted amazing. Not maple flavored at all, but a mild, smooth butterscotch.

 Photo Feb 08, 10 56 24 AM

We love science.

Photo Feb 08, 10 56 06 AM

Below, you’ll find my snow taffy recipe for your next snow day. Because once the kids are tired of playing in the cold, and everyone’s cooped up indoors, what you really want to give them is sugar on a stick.

Photo Feb 08, 11 07 44 AM (HDR)

And lots of it.

Here you go:

Photo Feb 08, 11 37 34 AM

Snow Taffy
  1. 1/2 cup dark brown sugar, packed
  2. 1/2 cup white granulated sugar
  3. 4 T water
  4. 2 T butter
  5. 1 t white vinegar
  6. 1/2 t vanilla extract (or maple)
  1. Pack clean, freshly fallen snow into a baking sheet, and keep it ready outside, or in the freezer. Have popsicle sticks or chopsticks ready for winding the taffy.
  2. Mix all ingredients together in a heavy bottom saucepan tall enough to allow for foaming, small enough so the syrup is at least one inch deep. Boil mixture over medium heat until candy thermometer is at 240 degrees F (soft ball stage), then immediately pour onto snow in strips about an inch wide, 6-12" long. Wind each strip around a stick by rolling the stick along the strip of taffy. Eat right away.
Planting Dandelions

Let the Sunshine In: Mason Jar Sangria

February 2nd, 2014


Would you believe that the most popular post on this site is my recipe for Mason Jar Spiked Lemonade? Pinterest people love some booze in Mason Jars. Which perhaps explains a lot of the things we see on Pinterest.

I love a fun cocktail, too–all the better if it can be made ahead, and better still if it can be transported to a party. The genius thing about drinks in mason jars is that they have lids. So you can pre-mix them, store them, tote them, and cover them when you need to go tend to the burgers or jump in the lake. They’re also great for home entertaining, since they can be made ahead of time.

Sangria is perfect for mason jar cocktails, because it benefits from sitting around while the alcohol picks up the citrus flavors, and the fruit gets good and boozy. I’ve been making this recipe for Classic Spanish Sangria for years. You can make it by the batch, and decant it into wide-mouth mason jars, or you can use my adaptation to make it by the pair.

For two pint-size jars, mix 1 cup of red wine (I go with cheap and fruity, like a grenache, or a zinfandel), 1/2 cup spiced rum (I prefer Sailor Jerry’s), 1/3 cup orange juice, and 1-2 Tablespoons of granulated sugar, depending on how dry the wine is, and how sweet you like your drinks.

Photo Feb 01, 5 57 08 PM

Stir to dissolve the sugar, and pour into two wide-mouth, pint-size mason jars over two half-moon slices each of a lime, orange, and lemon (scrubbed well before slicing).

Photo Feb 01, 6 03 36 PM

The jars will be just over half full, which is how you want them, because for those of you keeping track, that’s a pretty stiff drink. You’ll be diluting it with seltzer or mineral water at serving time.

Photo Feb 01, 6 07 45 PM

Screw the lid on, give it a shake for good measure, and put it in the freezer. If serving these at home, you want to thaw them in time for your guests, so they are icy cold, maybe even slushy. If taking them to go, just pop them in an insulated bag along with a bottle of mineral water and let them thaw en route. If they have a long journey, put them on ice.

To serve, top with mineral water and stir.

Photo Feb 01, 6 13 14 PM (HDR) 

Pro-tip: when the sangria’s all gone, and you’re staring forlornly at the fruit at the bottom of your jar, fill it up with mineral water and ice, and enjoy a light cooler.


Show Me Family: The Cloud of Ancestors

January 31st, 2014

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So show me family, all the blood that I will bleed…

I belong to you, you belong to me. You’re my sweetheart.

Ho Hey’ by The Lumineers

The first time I saw my husband’s face was in a black and white photograph he sent me in the mail. He didn’t look like anybody I had ever known. He was very blonde then, and his hair was straight and long. He was just 32 in 1995, but his face already had deep lines around the mouth and  his eyes looked like they gazed out from an old soul. I thought if I ran into him on the street, I would know he was from the American South, or at least my romantic idea of it.

I showed my mom the photo of my new penpal. “He looks very Scandanavian,” she said, but what she thought was, that’s the father of my grandchildren. If she had spoken the words aloud, I’d have insisted  we were just friends, but I was already deeply preoccupied by our strange and sudden friendship, and it showed.

 ”What’s your background?” I asked him in my next email. Where have you come from? Where is this going? He responded that he didn’t know–his family had been in the United States for so long, he guessed they were just “American mutts.” That was so foreign to me. In Newfoundland, almost everybody’s ancestors came from the same southwest corners of Ireland and England. They came to the island to fish cod, and they pretty much stayed put for the next few hundred years. Even the accents stayed the same. They hadn’t melted into a new culture, so much as preserved an old one.

When my mother’s prophecy came true, and I had three children with my “just friend,” I became even more curious to know about Patrick’s ancestry. Sadly, his parents both died within a few short years of starting our family. Our link to the past consisted of a few old photographs, a couple of antiques, and an assortment of cherished family anecdotes that I learned to be grateful were told over and over again at Patrick’s family table. 

Enter the magical time travelling machine that is online genealogy. When I started building our combined family tree on several years ago, one of the most gratifying experiences was how quickly I was able to extend Patrick’s branch through the research of others. I started with so little information, but a little was plenty. Hints started popping up, pointing me to other family trees and historical records that concerned a common ancestor. Not only could I suddenly fill in dates and names, but I found photographs of people we thought were lost to history. Images of gravestones we wouldn’t have known where to find. 

It’s hard to restrain myself from going over the top when I discuss digital genealogy, because it’s a very emotional experience to be on the receiving end of the generosity and labor of people who have chosen not just to trace their family history, but to share it. 

The smiling little girl in the top right hand corner of this photo is Patrick’s grandmother, whose chicken cornbread dressing recipe we make at Thanksgiving. Patrick had never seen a childhood photo of her before I found this on, posted on the public member tree of someone who is descended from one of her sisters. 


It wasn’t that long ago that these kinds of keepsakes would be jealously hoarded or accidentally lost, but now they can be shared across families. There’s plenty of pixels to go around (and in case you’re wondering about privacy, does protect the identity of living people, even in publicly shared trees).

Patrick was right when he answered my question about his background. His family has been in America a long, long time. My boys’ seventh great grandfather, from whom they get their last name, was born in North Carolina in 1666. Another seventh great grandfather was born in Pennsylvania in 1720. Their fifth great-grandparents came to South Carolina from Europe a generation before the War of Independence. They have ancestors who were colonists, revolutionaries, Confederate rebels, Union soldiers, plantation owners, poor farmers, and pioneers. 

I know many of their names, where they were born, where they lived, who their neighbors were, where they are buried. I’ve traveled across time with them, learning the history of my adopted country along the way. Mornings after a late night research session, I’ll joke to Patrick that his dead relatives kept me up all night, but they are alive to me now. A cloud of ancestors, the communion of saints. I knock on the door with the census takers and I visit them in their homes. I see how their lives change and the land changes beneath them. I meet the children who are born, I mourn the ones who die, and I follow the ones who live, all the way to a young man in Arkansas who puts a photograph of himself into an envelope one day, and mails it to a girl, who studies it like a map. Where are we going?

I belong to you, you belong to me. You’re my sweetheart. is kindly sponsoring a series of posts on my incredible Ancestry journey. Leave a comment below to win an Ancestry DNA test (available to U.S. residents only at this time). Winner will be randomly selected on Friday, February 7 at noon CST (and congratulations to Meg, who won the one-year world explorer subscription to in December’s giveaway)!

Steno Pad Recipes: Millie’s Chocolate Oatmeal Drop Cookies

January 29th, 2014

My mother-in-law, Millie, raised her family on classic Southern cooking. When she died in 1998, I inherited her wedding dress, her cast iron skillet and a steno pad of recipes my husband grew up with. Some of these have become our own children’s favorites. Others, I’ve never gotten around to making, so I’ve decided to blog my way through them all, building a digital record of her recipe pad. A printable recipe link can be found at the bottom of this post, with her ingredients and directions transcribed exactly as written. My adaptations are in brackets. Feel free to repin, test, tweak, and share. Millie would be pleased. 

chocolate oatmeal drop cookies

A lot of people know these chocolate oatmeal drop cookies as “no bake-ums.” I’ve been making Millie’s recipe for years, and everyone in the house gets excited when they see the cocoa box and oatmeal canister out on the counter together. They’ve got a ton of sugar, so I won’t go so far as to call them healthy, but they’re healthier than lots of other sweets, and they have raw oats and peanut butter to cushion some of the impact of all that white sugar. We love them for after-school snacks and lunchbox treats.

Also, they dirty exactly one pan (if you line the cookie sheet). What’s not to love?

making cookies


Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies
  1. 2 cups sugar
  2. 1 stick butter
  3. 1.2 cup milk
  4. 1 T corn syrup
  5. 3 cups oats (rolled, old-fashioned)
  6. 1/2 cup peanut butter
  7. 4 T cocoa
  8. 1 tsp vanilla
Boil 1 minute
  1. 2 C sugar
  2. 1 stick butter
  3. 1/2 C milk
  4. 1 T corn syrup
  5. 3 C oats
  6. 1/2 C peanut butter
  7. 4 T cocoa
  8. 1 tsp vanilla
  9. Stir well and drop by spoonsful on waxed paper.
Adapted from Millie's Steno Pad
Planting Dandelions

Hakuna Matata at Animal Kingdom

January 24th, 2014

The laid-back fun of Disney’s Animal Kingdom1458

It was nine degrees Fahrenheit when I woke up this morning, the first time in all my 18 years of living in Little Rock that the temperature has been a single digit. Spring, and spring break, can’t get here soon enough. In the meantime, I thought I’d share some more memories of last year’s Orlando theme park vacation, to keep me warm, and to help anyone who might be planning their own visit to the parks.

To recap, we spent the first day at the Magic Kingdom—the first visit by any of us to Walt Disney World. We spent the next day at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, and went back the day after that for even more time at Harry Potter’s World of Wizarding. We sent Patrick home to get back to work, and the rest of us took a day off from the parks to visit Cocoa Beach. Our last day was spent at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

It looks like such a light itinerary now, but if you’ve never been on an Orlando theme park vacation, you can’t imagine how exhausting it is. Not to say we weren’t having the time of our lives, but by Day Five, we were all fading.   


Animal Kingdom was just our speed, with a pace that was way laid back compared to the carnival atmosphere of the other parks. Also, it’s beautiful. You don’t want to rush through this place.

We arrived a little past opening, and went straight to the Kilamanjaro Safari, in case the lines got long. Getting to popular attractions early in the day was a great piece of advice from my friend Natalie that served us well, but didn’t much matter at Animal Kingdom that day. We were able to take the Safari twice without a long wait either time. Basically, you board a tram, and enjoy a leisurely tour of the savannah.


It’s a bit of a bumpy ride, and I only had my iphone for a camera, so I didn’t get a lot of great pictures of the animals, but we had a great view of all of them. The enclosures are built into the landscape as to be practically invisible. In fact, the boys made it a game to figure out where the barriers were.


Of all three parks we visited, Animal Kingdom seemed like the most ideal for the very young. I found it hard to imagine why anyone would bring a toddler to the Magic Kingdom, but the Animal Kingdom has lots for little ones to look at without overwhelming them. The safari lets you sit back and relax.

The Safari is in the Africa section of the park, which has most of the live animal exhibits, including an African forest trail. We had a snack from a food cart at the African marketplace, Harambe. The food in Animal Kingdom was much more interesting and healthier than what we’d seen at the other parks that week, with more international flavors.


Then we were off to Asia, to walk the Maharajah Jungle Trek.


It was exquisitely serene.



But the Asia section of the park is also where the big thrill is: the Expedition Everest rollercoaster, ranked in one of my guidebooks among most extreme theme park rides.


I already recounted the trauma of my first-ever rollercoaster ride on Space Mountain on Day One, which I was pushed into by my mother. And I haven’t gotten around to the story of being goaded by my cousin Shelley into riding the Hulk at Universal, which I may one day turn into a Ted talk on finding the power of the present moment, even when you are upside down.

Especially when you are upside down.

At the Animal Kingdom, I decided to take destiny in my own hands, and voluntarily got on Expedition Everest. And that, my friends, is the day I fell in love with a roller coaster. I rode it at least three more times. I loved it so much, I broke down and bought one of those ridiculously expensive and cheesy souvenir photos.


I will never know who those people in front of me are, but our life stories are now entwined forever.

There are other fun rides in Animal Kingdom. The boys enjoyed the Kali River Rapids. I enjoyed pushing the button to spray them from the bridge.




Asia was my favorite part of the park. It was so beautiful, and as friend who has been to India many times said, the faith to detail is amazing. We also enjoyed a great meal of curry there, at the Yak and Yeti restaurant. This was our only table service experience at a Disney park that week, and it was fantastic.


This was taken in the lobby of the restaurant. I think it says everything there is to say about the mood of the setting and the day.

We did get around to DinoLand, USA, which seemed like a bit of an odd fit within the rest of Animal Kingdom. It’s much more in line with traditional amusement parks, and the big featured ride there, DINOSAUR, was okay, but not as fun as Jurassic Park at Universal. In my opinion, DinoLand was entirely skip-able, even for dinosaur buffs. There was some neat stuff on Discovery Island, including a fun 3-D show called, It’s a Bug’s Life (not for very little kids—one toddler was freaking out). We also had our one and only up-close character encounter there, with the backpacking kid and talking dog from “UP.”

Our curtain call at Animal Kingdom was one of the highlights of the vacation, and something I might not have done if I hadn’t been encouraged by other guides to take in the live shows. I’m not a big fan of musical theater, and you have to make a point to catch those events at certain times, often in out of the way corners of the parks. The Festival of the Lion King was playing just as we were ready to call it a day, and though I think everyone would have gladly skipped it at that stage of the game, I’m so glad we didn’t. It was spectacular.


Our time at both Magic and Animal Kingdoms was so special, I hope we’ll get back to visit the other two Disney World parks (Hollywood Studios and Epcot). And make a return trip to Universal to see the newly expanded World of Wizarding! More on that, and our first two visits to Hogwarts, very soon.

Florida dreaming on such a winter’s day.

January 23rd, 2014

It seems like we’ve been having an unusually cold and dreary winter (for Little Rock, anyway). I don’t like it one bit. It makes me wonder how I survived living in the far northeast as long as I did. My mind and body feel slow and sleepy. I wish I could curl up in a cozy hollow and doze until spring.

Specifically, until spring break, when we’re going back to Florida with my snowbird Mom. That’s right, two spring break vacations in a row! If you didn’t know our Christmas tree was still up, you’d think we were just like regular people who do regular things, like put the Christmas things away before Valentine’s Day and take their kids on spring break vacations.

This trip won’t be nearly as action-packed as last year’s Orlando theme park vacation. We’re renting a teensy little place on the quiet end of a quiet beach on the Florida panhandle (away from the spring breakers) where the surf is the thrilling attraction.

I’m really looking forward to it. We took a day out from our theme park itinerary last year to make a day trip to Cocoa Beach on the Atlantic coast. It was a cool and cloudy day, but the boys couldn’t get enough of the sand and waves.




Have you spent time on the gulf coast beaches? Any advice for what to bring/do/avoid? Our rental doesn’t have a pool, so I’m hoping the gulf water is at least warm enough for boogie boarding and splashing around. My 15-year-old is hoping to take a surfing lesson or two. And we’ll be steps away from a fishing pier. Other than that, we have no agenda. Which sounds gorgeous.


Wake me up when it’s March.

Supermarket hell. A story about surrender.

January 10th, 2014


“This  is not my happy place,” I’ll deadpan across checkout lanes when I see someone I know at the grocery store in the five o’clock rush. “Fine, except that I seem to always be here,” I’ll say wryly, to a neighbor’s rhetorical “How are you?” when we recognize one another over the dairy case on a Sunday afternoon.  ”I’ve got to get out of this place,” I’ll groan to a girlfriend as we pass each other coming and going down the cereal aisle, our expressions pantomiming mock desperation because we’re stuck in supermarket hell. 

I repeat these running gags out of habit. They save me from having to make conversation in the middle of my errand, without being unfriendly. I suppose I’m going for comic solidarity. To acknowledge that we are all in supermarket hell together.

With a husband and three sons to feed–two of them in their teens–it does feel like I am always there. Depending on my level of organization any given week, I’m in my neighborhood grocery store every day, every other day, or if I’m really on the ball, several times a week. It’s been years since I’ve been able to go five consecutive days without having to run in there for something. 

Today I was there at noon to pick up dog food and ingredients for a spontaneous Friday night dinner with friends. I didn’t see anyone I knew, but it was unusually busy for early on a weekday, and few checkout lanes were open. I got what I needed, and got in line. 

Ahead of me, a senior citizen was handing over a wad of coupons. It was taking some time for the cashier to process them, and the woman’s husband looked anxiously down the line to see who might be inconvenienced. I smiled reassuringly, and then averted my gaze to the candy bar display, as if I needed the extra time to study it anyway. I unfurled the lone coupon in my hand and held it like a little flag, to show that I was one of them. 

There’s a theory called the 10,000 hour rule, which suggests that the 10,000-hour mark is the point at which the regular practice of a discipline crosses over to mastery. At a conservative average of three hours a week for the past fifteen years, plus maybe 500 hours for the ten years before I had a family, I’ve got about 3,000 hours logged in at grocery shopping. That’s a long way from 10K, but in the last year or so, something changed. I stopped trying to escape supermarket hell.

I surrendered.

Instead of resenting every second I am doomed to spend grocery shopping, I started using the time as an exercise. When there are traffic jams in the aisles, I work on  patience. When the lanes are long, and the cashiers are slammed, I work on acceptance. When customers ahead of me are slow and unorganized, I work on humility. When customers behind me are huffy and cranky, I work on my prayers. Sometimes I’ve stepped up to the check out with a wallet that is close to empty, a mind that is worn with worry, and I’ve had to dig deep to find faith. Other times I have to remind myself to give thanks as the belt rolls by with everything we need and more.

The check out lanes are aptly named. I check out everyone. I wonder who they are, what their stories are. The elderly women who buy groceries for one. The moms who use food stamp cards. The men who buy cellophane-wrapped roses. The ladies who wear designer handbags and walk smartly down the aisles in beautiful shoes. The guys in suits making bombastic small talk in the self-check-out line. The baggers, several of whom have apparent disabilities. The woman who bagged my groceries today was someone I’ve seen walking around my neighborhood, shouting and gesturing wildly at nobody. Someone I’d have hesitated to engage on the street, not knowing what her situation is. It was a delight to chat with her at last. “Enjoy!” she exhorted, as I wheeled away with my cart, heading out into the rain. “Don’t let yourself get wet! Enjoy!”

I can’t think of anywhere else in my life where I get to routinely encounter such a variety of humans. Not on my quiet suburban street. Not in my comfortable circle of friends. Not in my chosen church. At the grocery store, I meet all kinds.

I meet myself there, too. I see a mom trying to steer toddlers around in a giant ride-on cart, and it takes me back to when my big boys were little, and how hard those things were to maneuver. I was constantly having to apologize to people for near-collisions. “I’m so sorry,” I’d say. “This thing is awful, but these kids running around is much worse.” I remember how difficult it was to do so many simple things then. Then I get stuck behind a frail senior, and see that the simplest things may one day become difficult again. 

Through the drizzle, I pushed the cart to my car, the bagger’s benediction and commandment fresh in my ears. “Enjoy! Enjoy!”

Then the irony broke over me, and I finally got the joke. Supermarket hell may be my clearest window into heaven.

And it is my happy place.


Illustration from “Let’s Go to a Supermarket,” 1958 (out of copyright)

The Daily Dozen printable.

January 7th, 2014

A daily checklist for being present and making progress.


Happy New Year! Are in you goal-setting mode like I am? Or wondering where to begin? Well, I’ve got a present for you: as promised a while ago, I’ve created a printable pdf version of my “Daily Dozen” checklist. Or you can print the .jpg to tuck in your journal, frame for your desk, stick to your fridge, or pin it to your Pinterest board. You may use and share the Daily Dozen printable freely as long as it’s for personal, non-commercial purposes, and you credit this blog as the source. Here’s a recap of how I use the Daily Dozen to help me stay present and make progress each day.

  1. Listen for purpose. Be still. Get quiet. What am I called to do with this life, this day?
  2. Plan for progress. Commit to the day in writing. Map the hours. Revisit and revise as needed.
  3. Nourish and exercise your body. Eat well. Limit toxins. Stretch. Move. Breathe fresh air.
  4. Work on something big. Lay down a legacy. Move closer to the dream, by strides or inches.
  5. Finish something small. Harness the power of done as often as possible. Break the big things into small things.
  6. Improve your space. Toss clutter. Take the cup to the sink. Play music. Light a candle. Paint the door.
  7. Nourish and exercise your mind. Read books. Strengthen focus. Limit junk. 
  8. Help someone. Look for the first and easiest opportunity to be of assistance. If it’s a struggle, it’s probably not that helpful.
  9. Thank someone. Also usually obvious and easy.  
  10. Show and Tell “I love you.” Hug and kiss. Connect, a little or a lot. Everyday.
  11. Rejoice. Revel. Make joy and play a priority. Have adventures.
  12. Rest. Recharge my brain and body as needed.

I hope you find these small, daily goals helpful in keeping you on track towards your dreams, while staying connected to the present. What’s one big thing you want to move closer to accomplishing this year? What’s one small thing you can finish this month?

Redrawing the homework battle lines

December 31st, 2013

Sponsored by TestRocker


I used to be a hands-off homework parent, unless asked for help. And although this approach is being championed in the media lately, in my instance, it was born less of philosophy, and more of happenstance. My kids are blessed with high intelligence, and are without major learning impediments. The grade school years have been a blissful, battle-free zone, as far as homework goes. We’ve all enjoyed coasting.

As my older boys have risen through the secondary grades, this lofty ground has become quite a bit rockier. My high school freshman and I frequently battle over homework, and I was a bit worried about expanding the war to a new front when we were offered the chance for him to use TestRocker, an online study aid for college entrance exams.

So it’s a considerable endorsement of the program to say that he has progressed over a month into the study plan without me nagging, threatening, or having to utter dire predictions for his future. It doesn’t hurt that I have subcontracted him for this series of reports, and there’s a paycheck dangling ahead, but nobody’s paying him not to complain when I remind him to put the time in.

As with his regular homework, time management is the biggest challenge. TestRocker helps by providing visuals that show progress and how much time is left to prepare. This is the screen that greets him on logging in (taken a week ago):



When he started the study plan, I showed him that he would need to put in an hour a day, five days a week, to avoid studying on weekends and over the holidays. When he logged in last week, it was apparent that he’s got some catching up to do.


We can place a chunk of the blame on the kids’ laptop being out for repair for several weeks. Mine is a jalopy, and doing anything on it is a hassle. But it’s also due to a strong inherited resistance to routine. We’re hares, not tortoises. A lot of the heat that comes from our homework flare-ups is fueled by my own painful experience.

Anyway, we recalculated, and agreed that he could make up lost ground with a couple of extended sessions over the holidays. Then he showed me around the site. This is an example of the math module. I can’t tell you what any of it means, but he likes the format a lot. He especially appreciates the instant feedback when he makes an error, and the quick access to concept teaching. Everything is immediate and to the point.




Watching him interact with the program is illuminating, and makes me wonder how far his regular curriculum still has to go to catch up with the way kids of this generation have grown up processing information. There’s no substitute in this world for the personal instruction of a charismatic teacher, in my opinion, but maybe homework could be made more dynamic with creative digital interfaces like this one.

I’m also revisiting some of my homework rules based on our TestRocker experience. Because it’s “extra” study, I’ve been very laid back about letting him do it with music or the TV on. As skeptical as I am about the neutral  impact he claims  that “How I Met Your Mother” reruns have on his attention, the impact on his willingness to spend time studying is a positive. Maybe we can find a compromise between doing homework my way or no way. Who knows? If he aces this ACT, maybe I’ll even reconsider my horror of paying for grades.

I’d love to know your approach to kids’ study habits and homework time. What are some of the lessons you’ve carried into adulthood from your own school days, for better or for worse?

I’m very happy to disclose that TestRocker is providing my son with six months of access to a customized ACT study plan, and sponsoring a series of posts about the experience. All opinions are mine and his. Get a sneak peak of TestRocker’s SAT & ACT programs by taking a free Diagnostic Test, previewing your study plan, and attempting some of the free questions (no credit card required).