Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sunday Night Survey: Jan-You-Sharing Edition

Tonight we say goodbye to January and hello to February and all of its holidays: Groundhog's Day, Super Bowl Sunday, Chinese New Year, Fat Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, Valentine's Day, Presidents' Day, and Leap Day! I have a feeling that with all these celebrations, this month will go quickly. First, let's take some time to see what's been going on around here.

Watching: basically the entire first season of American Horror Story, plus the new X-Files.
Eating: out. A lot - birthdays will do that to you.
Eating: home-cooked meals. As much as I could, plus leftovers at work.
Rearranging: the living room. Dining room is next.
Walking: home from work on mild days, which we are having a lot of.
Reading: The Martian by Andy Weir.
Getting: a new phone...for free! Thanks T-Mobile/customer loyalty/Jesus for making me accept that my old phone was kaput.
Reuniting: with high school friends.
Enjoying: a relaxed Intersession at work before the craziness of the new semester comes.
Replacing: membership cards after someone took the coin purse I kept them in. (They missed my actual wallet, whew.)
Baking: cupcakes and cookies.
Sharing: the sweetness with Jesus's family and my coworkers.
Teaching: a mini-course on puzzles and games.
Drinking: tea.
Watering: my plants - radiator heat is drying them out!
Filming: my one second a day.
Writing: my one happy moment each day.
Taking: my students on a field trip to a local high school.
Giving: them a reminder that life goes beyond middle school.
Hanging: a few strands of pink and red lights in anticipation of Valentine's Day.
Welcoming: February.

Saturday, January 30, 2016


Fraud: EssaysFraud: Essays by David Rakoff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sum it up in a sentence (or two): Collected essays written by David Rakoff, all following the theme of being a fraud in different experiences.

First thoughts: I didn't read every essay in this collection. I skimmed a few, and read the ones that pulled me in. All in all, I enjoyed the theme. Everyone feels like a faker in different situations, so the essays were relatable in that way. Some essays were just more enjoyable, more interesting, and more suited to me.

Favorite quote: "Actually, I'm not really here as a legitimate journalist (what else is new?)." -p103, "The Best Medicine"

Favorite essays: "The Best Medicine," "Lather, Rinse, Repeat," "Extraordinary Alien," "Christmas Freud," "We Call it Australia."

Final thoughts: An easy, quick read. Good for dipping in and out of during my commutes or if I had a few spare moments.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Creative Outlets

In the dead of winter and before spring holidays arrive, I need a pick me up. I need things that make me feel alive when everything outside is dead. I need sights and smells and tastes. I need to feel at home in my home.

I need creative outlets.

This January, I've been spending a lot of time doing these three things (both as solo activities and with my #foreverroommate, Jesus). Paired with some new music (hello, Sia and Coldplay!), a glass of wine, and a candle or two, I'm celebrating this time of hibernation.

I recently picked up an adult coloring book. They've become popular, so you can find them almost anywhere. If I have a podcast playing, or if Jesus is home and wants to play video games, I can chill out and color. It requires the perfect amount of attention (enough to keep me occupied, not so much that can't focus) and it's strangely therapeutic to stay in the lines.

There's something about picking out a recipe and following it to create something to eat that makes me feel accomplished, productive, and human. These past few weeks I've made hummus, barbecues (sloppy joes), breaded fish filets, sugar cookies, falafel with a cucumber sauce, energy bars, cupcakes, and roasted root veggies along with my usual combos of rice/beans/eggs or pasta/veggies/sauce. Feeling creative and feeding myself? That's a win.

This "creative outlet" is a little less sexy than the other two, but just as effective. When I'm in the zone I can dust and sweep and de-clutter til the cows come home. After a week of letting laundry pile up or shoving my "stuff" into a pile on the table, it's refreshing to put things back in their place and relax on the couch in a tidied up room.

How do you stay sane until spring?

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Dinner

The DinnerThe Dinner by Herman Koch
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sum it up in a sentence (or two): Two families meet at an upscale restaurant for dinner, but secrets and lies hide just under the surface of their overpriced meals. The truth comes out in a series of flashbacks and through the course of the night.

First thoughts: What the what. This book drew me in and also repulsed me the entire way. It's quick to read and I wanted to know everything - the secrets, the motivations, the history, the lies - about the families. I simultaneously wanted to know more while feeling like I knew plenty.

A Disagreement: This book claims to be a "European Gone Girl," but I beg to differ. They are both thrillers, yes, but the subject matter and tone of each book is different.

Favorite Quote: "...happiness needs nothing but itself; it doesn't have to be validated." -p6

Final thoughts: (spoilerish) This book has no likable characters by the end. Paul is clearly unreliable and Claire is so cold. In that sense, it's amazing how engrossing the story is.

Editor's Note: I received a copy of The Dinner from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.

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Friday, January 22, 2016

Friday Night Links 25

Since I've been on the theme of literacy this week, a few articles/websites/interviews on books and reading:

When I was in high school, I was the only Rachel. In college, there were 5 Rachels just in the English major. Now I'm back to being one of only a few Rachels in my circles. Did our parents perhaps find inspiration from any of these Rachels?

I find time to read on my commute, and in the hours after getting home from work until Jesus joins me, and even then, some nights we just read together until I have to go to bed. What about you?

Reading is a habit that needs to be worked on. If you're not sure when you read, or how to find the time, learn from a few leaders in the field.

An interview with Elizabeth Gilbert on the books of her life. I'm always a sucker for hearing what my favorite authors are reading, but I have to be honest and say I don't think Gilbert and I have the same tastes.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

What I Know About...Literacy

I'm fresh off two literacy events this week - an MLK Day Literacy Fair with other AmeriCorps members and Family Literacy Night at my school - and thinking about what it means to me in my life. To sum it up: a lot.

I know...
  1. Reading with your kids is a super important thing a parent can do, and should be on the same level as providing basic necessities. Kids should be fed and clothed and housed, yes, but reading is a huge part of survival as well.
  2. It both does and doesn't matter what kids are reading. To a point, if a kid is reading, let him/her read. Eventually, though, kids will get bored if the material isn't challenging enough (or if it is out of their league) and then they may fall out of reading altogether. Many of my students tell me they "can't find anything to read" or "aren't interested in anything" when the real issue is they are reading books meant for kids half (or twice) their ages.
  3. How we read does matter. Again, if kids only reads via e-readers or tablets, let them go crazy. However, "the loss of print books and periodicals can have significant repercussions on children's intellectual development." According to this article from the New York Times, libraries weigh more heavily into a child's academics than familial wealth. Having print books around encourages kids to pick them up and  - yep - read!
  4. I'm very lucky to have had the reading experiences I did. Not only do I have parents who read to me and encouraged me to read on my own, my elementary/middle/high schools had vibrant library programs with reading challenges and plenty of librarians/teachers to champion reading as I grew up. Not all kids have that - not all schools have that - so I'm forever grateful and always looking for ways to pay it forward.
Whatever your experience with literacy, if you're on this blog, you're a reader of some sort. Be grateful for the people who made reading enjoyable for you, and help foster that joy in those you know - whether they're students or not.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Lowland

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sum it up in a sentence (or two): The Lowland follows the lives of two brothers born in India; one stays, the other moves to America. The story is interwoven with the viewpoints of all the people closest to the brothers as we learn of the effects of political unrest in India in contrast to being an immigrant in the States.

First thoughts: I loved it! I read The Lowland at home over break, so I don't have many notes on it. I enjoyed the reading experience from start to finish. At points I would find myself smiling or sighing while reading, or I'd stop to say "Oh, no!" out loud.

Final thoughts: I want more from Jhumpa Lahiri, as always. This story of the joys and heartbreaks experienced by a man, a family, and a country is sweeping, tender, and poignant.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Savory Bread Pudding

Fall was a whirlwind of lesson planning, paper grading, and reminding myself that it's okay to feel frustrated and confused at a job you know almost nothing about. Teaching (especially for classes where there are no grades, so no built-in way to keep students focused) is hard, y'all.

What's not so hard, for me, is feeding myself. If I learned anything in my first semester as a teacher, it's that even the worst of days in the classroom can be redeemed in the kitchen. And a positive day in the classroom is made even better with a celebratory meal. Basically, it doesn't matter if my kids go crazy during class or sit quietly and complete homework - I'm gonna want a hearty dinner.

Enter the savory bread pudding. It's like bread pudding, just not for dessert. Or a crustless quiche, except with some cut up bread thrown in. Or, to be very Midwestern about it, it's an eggbake. Baked eggs. What more description do you need?

I modified both of these recipes to create my own:

MyRecipes: Wild Mushroom and Butternut Squash Bread Pudding

Five and Spice: Strata with Mushrooms, Sweet Potato, and Bacon

bread (preferably dry/stale) - I used leftover dinner rolls (about 5), cut into cubes
1 sweet potato, cut into cubes
olive oil, enough to cover the sweet potato pieces
chopped mushrooms (I used about 1/2 cup)
onion (between 1/2 to a full, depending on size and preference), diced
2 cloves garlic
chopped broccoli (I used about 1 cup)
1/4 c dry white wine (I used chardonnay)
3 cups milk (I used almond)
4 eggs (when I make this again I'll up it to 5 or 6, so it's really an egg bake)
salt and pepper to taste
rosemary and thyme to taste

  1. Preheat oven to 400.
  2. Toss sweet potato pieces in olive oil and spread evenly on a baking dish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake 15-20 minutes, or until tender. Remove from oven and set aside.
  3. While the sweet potato is baking, heat 1 tbsp of oil in a large pan. Add onion and garlic. Saute for about 2 minutes. Add mushrooms and broccoli. Season with salt, pepper, rosemary, and thyme. Cook for several minutes, until broccoli is nearly tender and mushrooms have released their liquid. Add the wine and simmer until it has cooked off. Remove from heat and set aside.
  4. In a large bowl, whisk together milk and eggs. Season with salt and pepper.
  5. Liberally grease a 13x9 baking dish (I only lightly greased mine and paid for it in all the extra elbow grease I needed to wash off baked on egg). Layer dish with cubed bread, cooked vegetables, and egg mixture. Let sit until most of the liquid is soaked up by the bread.
  6. Bake at 375 for 50-60 minutes, checking halfway through. The pudding should be set and the top should be golden brown.
  7. Enjoy while warm and use the leftovers for lunch the next day!

Monday, January 11, 2016

5 Months in 121 Seconds

Late last July, I decided to try something new: I recorded one second of my day, (almost) every day. This app then combined all my seconds into a strange recap of the last five months of 2015. I'm doing this again in 2016, so by December I'll have twelve months' worth of seconds that will hopefully capture my year in some way.

I think this would be more meaningful if I could commit to a certain time of day to record - what if my video was all recorded between the hours of 7 and 9 am? Or what if I recorded the view from my window for the year? I'm toying with the idea of making several different month-long commitments to play around with things and see what seems best when I watch it all back.

[Note: while the watching is the best part, I'm having technical difficulties putting the actual video in this post. C'est la vie.]

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Under the Banner of Heaven

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent FaithUnder the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sum it up in a Sentence (or two): Jon Krakauer writes about Mormonism, starting with the violent murder of a woman and her baby in 1984 and tracing the motivations for that act all the way back to the beginnings of the Latter Day Saint movement in the early 19th century.

First Thoughts: I had a lot of thoughts. Some were more "Oh wow," while others were "Really?!" and yet others were "Hmmm. I didn't know that." I didn't realize the extent of the shadiness of Mormon Fundamentalism - its long history of abuse, racism, and misogyny.

Comparisons: I liked this better than In Cold Blood (which I never finished), perhaps one of the most famous true crime books. Maybe because it's more contemporary, or maybe because I enjoyed Krakauer's narrative style. It read like Serial - each chapter had its own topic or theme, and the story was told mostly chronological, but not at the expense of telling a good story.

Recommendations: I could have done without the footnotes. They took me out of the story, and I was more interested in the near past (1984, and the events surrounding Elizabeth Smart's kidnapping in 2002) than in the long history of Mormonism (which I realize was the point of the book - to tell the story of a violent faith).

Relation to Current Events: The case of Ron Lafferty - deciding that he may not have been in his right mind while murdering his sister-in-law and niece due to his religion - seems to have set a precedence for leniency with religious fanatics facing criminal prosecution.

Favorite Quote: "Some things in life are more important than being happy. Like being free to think for yourself." -p 334, DeLoy Bateman, a former Mormon Fundamentalist

Final Thoughts: A little creepy, very informative, and current, even 12 years later. Religious fundamentalists and acts of religious violence from radical groups of all religions are all over the news. Add in the sideshow-like draw to topics like polygamy (think Sister Wives), and this book isn't dated at all.

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Thursday, January 7, 2016

Binge Listening/Watching

Because I had a two week break for Christmas and New Year's (#teachingfellowlife privileges), I was able to start and finish several podcasts and TV shows. If you know me, you know I read a lot, but every now and then I need something visual or auditory. Here's what's been entertaining, enlightening, and challenging me:

Elise Gets Crafty (Season 2 - 2015) I dipped in and out of Elise's second season of her podcast on small business, motivation, goals, and blogging. I like that the topic of each of her conversations is made available so I can chose ones that speak more to my existence. I'm also a fan of whenever it's just Elise talking, because she talks much like she blogs, which is to say, she's easy to listen to and agree with.

Serial (Season 2) Bowe Bergdahl doesn't quite catch my attention like Adnan Syed did, but Sarah Koenig could narrate the phone book and I'd listen. I'm still wondering where Season 2 will end up, but I'm not as in to the story of a US soldier leaving his post and being captured by the Taliban.

Limetown (Season 1) A mysterious, X-Files-esque, fictional podcast styled after Serial, Limetown is what Jesus and I listen to while doing the dishes and cleaning the kitchen on nights when he's home for dinner. Each episode is a serious cliffhanger, and after six full episodes plus a few bonus ones, we're still in the dark about a lot of things. I think they could've released a few more episodes to keep us interested, because I'm probably going to forget a lot of things before the next season arrives.

Making a Murderer (Season 1) The ten episodes of Making a Murderer only felt like one lengthy documentary - that's how quickly watching it went. The history of Steven Avery's arrests and trials for a rape in 1985 and a murder in 2005 is heartbreaking, no matter what you come away believing. It also hit home in a lot of places for me - the accents, the use of "y'owe" for "you know," the shots of the Green Bay Correctional Institution (located only a few miles from St. Norbert, along the Fox River Trail) - so I was hooked from the get go.

Master of None (Season 1) On a much different note, I love Aziz Ansari's stand up, and I'm very excited about his new show Master of None as well. I liked that each episode followed a chronological timeline while still maintaining its own autonomy. It was great to see so many other fresh and talented actors in each episode, and even greater that they weren't all white men. Aziz hits so many hot topics of today - men and women, people of color, the dating scene, interacting with parents and grandparents, becoming adults and/or parents...each episode was basically a commentary on something true about our culture, without being too preachy or too jaded. I won't give it away, but the end scene made me so happy!

Extra: NPR has a new guide with over 200 podcast episodes to try out based on your interests - find a new podcast, or just check out individual episodes!

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

A Back Pain Timeline

File this post under TMI, but I'm here to break down my past week in relation to what I'll (for now) refer to as general back pain.

Tuesday Morning: I wake up and wonder why my tailbone is so sensitive. I assume it's a pulled muscle from helping my parents shovel their driveway, or maybe a bruise? But probably nothing.

Tuesday Afternoon: I spend 3 hours in a car and a few more hours sitting at a basketball game and at dinner.

Wednesday Morning: No surprises when it still hurts to put pressure on my tailbone. I use the heated seats in my dad's trucks during the next 3 hour leg of our trip back to Chicago.

Thursday: New Year's Eve! I take a few ibuprofen, then (over the course of the evening), imbibe several glasses of wine and champagne. I feel nothing! Happy New Year!

Friday: I feel everything. The pounding in my head takes my attention away from the fact that I can only lay down on my side or stomach.

Saturday Morning: Things start off feeling back to normal, though it takes me a while to get in and out of cars, and I'd prefer to stand or walk than sit...

Saturday Night: I can barely sit to use the bathroom, and the dull pain is now sharp and insistent. I start crying while Jesus and I are marathoning Making a Murderer and I try to convince Jesus I'm just really upset about Brendan Dassey's trial. When he doesn't fall for that (even though I am upset about the trial), I agree to let him take me to Urgent Care the next day.

Sunday Morning: The nurse takes one look at my 108 pulse and 190/40 blood pressure and declares, "Yep, you're nervous." The doctor gives me a lidocaine shot and proceeds to not wait for it to go into effect before he cuts open the cyst that has formed on the end of my tailbone (source still unknown - so maybe it was the shoveling!) and forces out whatever is inside of cysts. I cry like a baby and squeeze Jesus's hand within an inch of its life. They send me home padded with gauze and say they'll see me the next day to make sure I'm all drained.

Sunday Afternoon: I nap. Jesus brings me lunch and dinner and makes sure I shower before falling asleep for the night.

Monday: Per doctor orders, I take two painkillers before going to my return appointment. Doctor says, "Yep, she's drained," and calls Jesus a keeper for letting me hold his hand and get snot all over it. I spend the rest of the day practicing how to sit and stand so I'm ready for school on Tuesday.

Tuesday (today): I'm moving a little slower than usual, but I can sit! And I'm looking forward to falling asleep on my back again; my hips are getting sore from all this side sleeping. ;)

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Sunday Night Survey: 365(ish) Pieces of Happiness and Humility Edition

I completed my Humility Jar in starts and fits in 2015. I had some good stretches and some forgetful stretches. Still, with at least 200 colorful slips of happy moments, I can say I know a little bit about what small moments made me happy in 2015.

This was my top category. Granted, I counted things like "work from home Friday" or "laughs with coworkers" as work, so it wasn't always the actual work part of work. I also counted my interview wins in this category, so it makes sense that it would be a larger category - 2015 was a big year for me professionally.

I counted any slips about spending time alone or actively pursuing self-care as "Me." Also included: any time I cleaned or organized, took a long bath/shower, or took myself on a date.

Tying with "Me" for second, I enjoyed a lot of food and specific restaurants last year. In no particular order: fish fry, pizza, Madison Public House, coconut ice cream, orange chicken, D'Noche, brownies (x2), Wasabi, brunch, chimichangas, sushi, empanadas, tea, tacos, Happy Hour (x2), enchiladas, and Citrus Cafe, among other slips that just read "making food," or "food and laughs."

Similar to 2014, nature was a biggie. Sunshine, walks, and fresh air helped keep my 2015 happy. Biking also drew its fair share of happy.

Jesus, Family, Friends
No surprises here - my tribe makes me happy. (It should also be noted that all three of these categories added to the four previous ones.)

I had some great entertainment moments in 2015. From silly to serious and live to scripted, I enjoyed shows like Parks & Rec, SNL, Velvet, The Nutcracker, The X-Files, Transparent, UnREAL, The Martian, and most recently Making a Murderer and Master of None.

I was little surprised to not see very many memories about reading or writing. Sure, there were enough of each to warrant them getting their own categories, but my guess is that (for reading at least), I'm already thinking about it a lot all day, and writing about it as I do it, so maybe it's less a small special moment from the day and more my overall existence in general. At least, I hope.

Random & Getting Shit Done
The rest of my happy slips didn't fit conveniently into any categories, except "getting shit done," which included things like the slips that said "jumping in and doing it" and "getting shit done."

My Happy Jar 2016 has three slips in it so far; I'm excited to see how my happy triggers grow and change!

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Prodigal Summer

Prodigal SummerProdigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sum it up in a sentence (or two): Three loosely connected stories of love, family, self-discovery, and nature all set in the Appalachian Mountains weave in, out, and through each other.

First thoughts: I liked the "Moth Love" storyline right away. "Predators" took me some time to warm up to. "Old Chestnuts" took me the longest to get in to. Lusa seemed to be my favorite character throughout, or at least the one I related to most for some reason.

Favorite quotes:

"For several more minutes her hands lay motionless on her book while she considered a language that could carry nothing but love and simple truth." -p47

"The wrong words are impossible when there are no words." -p79

"We're only what we are: a woman cycling with the moon, and a tribe of men trying to have sex with the sky." -p244

"Living takes life." -p323

Final thoughts: I loved how all three stories brushed against one another, gently intersecting without all tying together in a neat bow or hitting the reader over the head with connections. They all kept their autonomy to the end. That epilogue though.

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