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Monday, July 28, 2014

Try It! Venture Outdoors Tyke Hikes

We love hiking around Pittsburgh with our kids. It's really easy to find great hiking spots on trails in city parks and in the numerous parks outside of the city. The hard part is finding trails and hikes that work for the youngest in our family who is only four years old. That's why Tyke Hikes, offered Venture Outdoors, is such a great idea! 

I'm excited to announce I have two free passes to any upcoming Tyke Hike, so don't forget to enter the Rafflecopter giveaway at the end of the post!

Here's more info about Venture Outdoors:

"Venture Outdoors is a nonprofit organization dedicated to reconnecting the people of Pittsburgh to nature.  We have a wonderful program called Tyke Hikes that strives to build a strong relationship between young children and the great outdoors.  
Tyke Hikes are created specifically for young children under the age of 5 and their caregivers. These easy hikes take place in stroller-friendly parks around the Greater Pittsburgh area. The program’s interactive and educational curriculum encourages kids to touch trees, look for bugs, and discover the world around them. However, kids aren't the only ones having fun on a Tyke Hike! While the kids are busy exploring, moms and dads will have the opportunity to meet and connect with like-minded parents. The hike ends with a gluten-free/dairy-free snack and a craft, and Pittsburgh’s littlest adventurers will go home with a newfound appreciation and excitement for nature. 
Venture Outdoors’ mission is to make the outdoors accessible to all members of the Pittsburgh community. In the past, Venture Outdoors has been able to hand out free Tyke Hike passes to inner-city families who have limited access to outdoor recreation opportunities. Tyke Hikes’ proceeds go towards the continuation and growth of this practice, helping us to get all “Kids on the Right Path.”
You can visit Tyke Hikes for a list of upcoming public Tyke Hikes. Venture Outdoors also books private Tyke Hikes for birthday parties, child-care centers, summer camps, and more."

I bet you can't wait to go on a Tyke Hike! Get started with two free passes to any upcoming Tyke Hike. These passes expire on Oct 31, 2014, so don't wait - enter now!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Friday, July 25, 2014

Travel to Spain with Kids - Food

Our family recently returned from a trip to Spain and I have to say it was one of the best family vacations we've had. We experienced a lot, but instead of cramming all of the highlights into one huge post I am going to focus on one topic per post. This post is all about FOOD. 

We traveled in June and our visit started in Malaga, in Andalucia and toured the south of Spain for about a week and then took a train to Barcelona for another week. 

Our hotel in Malaga, the Tryp Guadalmar, was right on the beach. This area of Spain is also known as Costa del Sol. It was sunny, but also quite dry so not unbearably hot. 

Being right on the beach gave us ample opportunity to enjoy the fresh seafood at our local chiringuito, or beach cafe. The staff didn't speak much English, but the menu did have English translations, and I was not afraid to put my six years of Spanish classes to work…even though I took those classes almost two decades ago. We ate several meals at the Chiringuito Servando and enjoyed each one. We had our first sardines (sardinas) and anchovies (boquerones) here, and enjoyed tasty tomatoes and olives, too. 

Sardinas de espeto
The drink of this region was the tanto de verano, or summer wine. I also enjoyed a glass of sweet wine, but found it a little too sweet for the warm weather. Each person dining received a rather large bread roll, which I eventually declined because some in our party were only eating bread and then whining they were hungry thirty minutes later. 

While we didn't get any pulpo (octopus) at this chiringuito, we did enjoy clams and of course lots of helado. A few blocks away from our hotel were three little restaurants we also enjoyed. Tick Tack served up an amazing paella and excellent Copa del Mundial viewing. Next to Tick Tack was El Rincon, where we dove into yet another helping of paella and more boquerones. My youngest loved the little fried fishes with a generous squeeze of lemon on top.
Easier than peeling crabs. 

We had a rental car and that made it easy to visit various places around the Andalucia (pronounced "Andaluthia") and enjoy even more food! I'm not sure if it was the altitude or the brass band playing in the bull fighting ring, but we enjoyed some of the best olives (aceitunas) at the small cafe in the Castillo in Malaga. Don't get me wrong, the olives all over Spain were incredible, but for some reason these stood out in terms of tangy flavor. Also in Malaga we enjoyed a nice Moroccan meal at a tea house called La Teteria right by the Museo de Picasso, but unfortunately the amazing tea that I ordered never arrived! So I can't say if the tea was any good.

Outside of Malaga, there is one little town I recommend you visit to find one little tapas place. Go to Antequerra and eat at Arte de Tapas. Here is a photo of us toasting our arrival at the highly satisfying dining establishment. My boys were happy to start with water after a hot day, but their go-to beverage was Fanta Limon. Now when it comes to food at Arte de Tapas, you can order the tangy almendras soup I couldn't quite finish, or you can order the tuna salad my oldest son adored, but you must, must, must get the lomo. In fact, get it twice like we did. And you can say gracias (or "grathia") later. 

On to Barcelona! After such delicious food in the south, we wondered what Barcelona would serve up. It did not disappoint. Our hotel, the Princesa Sofia, located conveniently close to Camp Nou FC Barcelona's home stadium, served a typical Spanish buffet breakfast. Their coffee offerings were a bit fancier than I was used to, but I adjusted quickly. I didn't get a photo of the xuxos, a creamy sweet croissant style pastry, but I adjusted to eating those, too!

In the Gothic Quarter, we indulged in chocolate from Fargas where you must get a bag of catanies, and caramels from Papa Bubble. The large orange with a swirl of chocolate on it in the photo is from Fargas and was so sweet everyone in my family took one bite each and said they were overwhelmed. Barcelona doesn't skimp on anything, including flavor.

Also in the Gothic Quarter, we had a delightful lunch at a place called Gabriels that served a fantastic selection of monteditos. Monteditos are little sandwiches and places like Gabriels offer a mouth-watering variety. You can order a set of 5 or 10 and take your pick of their whole selection! Wash it down with some dry cava (sparking wine) and you're ready to tackle the next tourist destination.

If you get a bit peckish while you're exploring, or perhaps you need a protein boost while viewing the city from the heights of Tibidabo, then you must find the nearest Enrique Tomas store or stall and get yourself some ham in a cone. Yes, even picky eaters love this ham in a cone.

My son described it as "bacon mixed with ham." He was happy to enjoy it in his Neymar Jr. jersey before the back injury when all still seemed right with the world.

The whole family fell in love with Creps Barcelona, and it turned out to be the only place we ate at twice in Barcelona, if you don't count the hotel. The chips and cheese we ordered was crisp and delicious, the cheese came in a little honey-sweetened oil, and my four-year-old asked delightedly if we were eating bark.

Each boy found something they really loved to eat while we were in Spain, and for my oldest son it was all about patates bravas. At first he took them plain and only dipped them in mayo, but then he started to enjoy them with the various versions of the bravas sauce served at each restaurant.

After a long day of hiking, shopping, eating, and snapping photos, Mom and Dad needed to relax with a classic cocktail. Thankfully Barcelona has developed a delicious habit with gin and I was able to experiment with some delightful varieties of gin and tonic. And thanks to duty-free we were able to bring home some of my favorite gins! Alas, the ham we tried to bring home suffered a terrible fate. I get sad just thinking about it. Farewell, delicious ham. And thanks for the food memories, Spain.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Not Killing Plants

I love gardens, but I kill plants. I wish I didn't! I wish I had more time to focus on my garden. Let's be honest, it's not just about having time to focus on the garden. It's also about having the mental energy to focus on the garden and not forgetting. Every year I start some seeds, and then I forget about them, I don't put them in a sunny place and they get all leggy, I put them outside and they get eaten or frozen…basically I have a black thumb. 

But that doesn't stop me from trying again! 

Potatoes in a Pot!
This year I was determined to grow potatoes in a container. I felt I was really letting my husband's ancestors down by not growing this simple root plant. And I found a bunch of potatoes in my pantry that had already sprouted, so why not try growing them? I read directions online and got the supplies I needed, cut the potatoes into cubes and let them dry a little, and put them in a pot with good drainage. Then after a few days I glanced in the pot and realized squirrels had probably unearthed all my potato cubes and eaten them. Failure. Then we went on vacation, and when we returned I saw leaves peeking out of the pot. Assuming they were weeds, I took a closer look and thought, "they resemble the tobacco leaf." (I lived on the Eastern Shore of MD for four years. I know those plants.) I dug a little and found potatoes! I hadn't failed after all!

Green tomatoes
In an attempt to reduce my failures, I scaled back my expectations for this year.

I stuck with tried and true tomato plants, and then my friend gave me two more tomato plants - even though she was fully aware I had already killed two broccoli sprouts we got from Phipps. I managed to get her tomato seedlings into the ground and they are busy producing fruit. I've also started pruning these plants back sooner to prevent them from getting all jungly.

We've already enjoyed one delicious, ripe red tomato this summer and I imagine we'll have lots more to come.

The spinach we planted as seeds didn't make it, and neither did the chamomile. We started purple basil…and we ended it. Luckily two green basil plants made it past seedling stage alive. We tried cantaloupe and I am sure a seedling or two sprouted but then they died, too. The pumpkins are flourishing, and I think the kids will be pretty excited to decorate pumpkins from our very own garden. If they make it to October.

The pepper plant managed to cling to life, even after I pulled it from the garden when I mistook it for a weed. But the beans I planted near the adorable bean trellis was eaten by some hungry critter. I'm not sure that's my fault.

But the squash, zucchini and pumpkin seeds we started survived! The squash and zucchini have wonderfully large blossoms on them. I do like to cook some squash blossoms, but I'm leaving them on the plant. I'm not worried about them now, they usually produce excellent fruits in the spot where I grow these hardy plants.

What I'm worried about now is pollinators. I've heard that we're losing pollinators and it worries me. Bees are essential not just to little gardens like mine, but our major food production orchards.

So in addition to the vegetables and fruits we're growing in the back garden, I went a little nuts buying native plants that attract pollinators, like bee balm, rudbeckia, zinnia, mallow, larkspur and lavender. I'm really hoping butterflies, hummingbirds, bumblebees and honeybees find some delicious places to hang out and do their jobs in my garden. Because I owe those little pollinators a lot of gratitude for helping produce the fruit we love in this house.

I'm still working on a fiction-based-in-non-fiction story about bees. I read some incredibly interesting books about bees, how they dance to communicate, how they carry pollen, how they change jobs in the hive and basically work and fly until their wings literally fall apart and they die. I gained an incredible appreciation for the little ladies and I'm hoping to get to a honey farm with my friend this summer.  

Some come on little bees, bring your girlfriends and visit my garden. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Summer Recycling Fun

I do love recycling, and by that I don't mean just tossing things into a recycling bin. I also mean re-using and upcycling, or turning old things into something new. I wish I were a super-skilled crafter, but I'm really only a Basic-level. That doesn't stop me from having fun and giving projects a try! And thanks to a recent email from the folks at Elmer's Glue, I've learned that crafting with kids, even for only a short time every week, can have great benefits. But more on that later.

For now, here's an easy craft that transforms those tiny plastic connectors from glow-sticks into custom beads. 


  • Glow sticks with connectors
  • Colorful, patterned duct tape
  • Scissors
  • Cord

Choose your favorite pattern of duct tape. Peel away just enough to place the connector on the stick side of the tape. Cut the tape and roll that connector in tape. There's your bead. Repeat! 

You can make necklaces, bracelets, anklets, bookmarks - anything that uses cool custom beads. 

easy beads glow sticks

What are your ideas for re-using plastic glow-stick connectors? What upcycling projects have you created?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Sweet Sprint 3K 2014

I have a sweet tooth, it's one of my most delicious flaws. So when I heard about a race called The Sweet Sprint in Pittsburgh, and that they serve cupcakes at the finish line, I had to sign up. On July 6, 2014 my husband drove me, the boys, my friend and her daughter downtown to the race.

The race begins at the Swinburne parking lot, travels 1.86 miles (3K) down the Eliza Furnace Trail and finishes at the Second Ave Plaza parking lot. It was a little tricky figuring everything out this year because the website really doesn't give enough detail.

The race organizer, Run Intended, puts race registration and packet pick-up at the finish in the Second Ave Parking plaza and runs buses up Second Ave to the start line. But if you have someone driving you, don't forget to stop into the Second Ave Parking plaza to get your bag, which was very nice. A good Lululemon mini-tote, a water bottle, some cool postcards featuring Pittsburgh parks from the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and a t-shirt.

Mom on the RunOnce the race begins, it's a straight shot down the trail. The course looks flat and feels flat, but nothing in Pittsburgh is really truly flat. According to my Garmin and my coach's opinion, the end of the race is a false flat. You have a pretty good view of your competitors the whole course, which is great in my opinion. I like to latch on to people visually and use them to pull me along.

The mile markers were right on with my GPS announcements. I also liked the little signs towards the end mentioning the cupcakes waiting at the finish!

I ran the Riverview 5K back in June (still didn't go un 25:00) without headphones but for this race I wanted some music to pump me up. I focused on my cadence when my pace started to suffer. Before the race, without much speed work under my belt, I planned to run under 18:00, with a stretch goal of 16:00. I finished in 14:24.9! Woo!

My first mile was a 7:22,  and the pace was faster than my second almost-mile, a 7:04.  If I had to run the last 300m, it would probably add another :90 to my second mile making it a 8:34 or so. My heart rate and cadence were pretty steady. But my pace was slowing, so I definitely need to do more speed work. But this really was a fun quick run!

My husband was supposed to do this race, too, but he injured his calf a few days earlier, so he ended up leading the cheering section.

It was cool seeing the boys near the finish and they enjoyed running a little on the trail, too! This photo shows my youngest dashing down toward the finish. My oldest expressed some desire to run this race, but my husband and I still feel he's too young. Right now he can just run for fun, no need to get too competitive yet.

The Sweet Sprint Finish Line CupcakesHe was also complaining of heel pain while we were on vacation so we took him to get checked out but the x-rays showed no problems. But on a doctor visit to check a skin irritation, the doctor thought he could have Sever's disease, or pain related to growing heel plates.

The cupcakes and cookies after the race were very tempting. I had a portion of a cookie and I let the boys have one mini-cupcake each at first. But when I saw there were lots leftover, I let them each have another. It was their reward for getting up early and cheering.

I was 20th overall out of 76 finishers. I was third in my age group but medals only went to first in age group, but there were plenty of cupcakes for everyone. And another great part was running with my friend who also beat her goal time! So, I'd do the race again next year, but I'd eat a cupcake instead of a cookie.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Butler YMCA Sprint Triathlon 2014

I'm chilling out after a fun morning at the Butler YMCA Sprint Triathlon. It was truly a perfect day for this event, and I have to say I really enjoyed myself. If you're in Western Pennsylvania (or eastern Ohio) and want a low-key, friendly event this is one to try. (Get it?)

This is my second year doing this race and a lot of things went easier. 
1. I didn't get lost on the way there!
2. I wasn't nervous at all getting in the water!
3. I conquered the hills without any problems. 

Quick course review: The race is based at Lakeview Beach. Transition is in a parking lot with gravelly edges, so I bring a yoga mat to make it easier on my bare feet before and after the swim. There are enough racks and enough space for competitors, I wouldn't say it's too crowded. The swim is in Lake Arthur and for two years it's been warm enough to swim without a wetsuit, but the wetsuit has been legal and I've worn it for extra buoyancy. The race organizers say the lake is rocky, but I never had any problems walking into or out of the water. Each leg starts five min apart, waist-deep in the water, when they sound the air horn but there's no officially marked starting line. After the swim, the bike takes you on park roads towards the "old marina." There is a long shallow hill right at the start, then some nice flats and downhills, lots of curves. You hit the big hills around mile 3. The hills aren't crazy steep, but they are long. I do see people walking their bikes, but many people manage these hills even on hybrid bikes. There are two big hills, then some smaller challengers closer to the end of the bike course, then you whip back downhill into transition. The run is on a mostly shaded bike trail but it is very twisty and windy. There's a little hill up and down at the beginning, so there is another one up and down at the end of the run! (Read more about the course in my 2013 report.)

My overall time wasn't any faster…in fact none of my legs were faster than last year's event, but I can't really complain because the difference in time was about 4%. Is that a huge decrease? No. Was I disappointed for awhile? Yes. But I've had a different focus this summer (look for a blog post on submitting a novel manuscript to agents for the first time and posts about our vacation to Spain!) so I can't really expect to be in the same shape as I was last year. 

I felt strong during the entire event. See that arm muscle? Strong! I never felt dead tired, or woozy, or worn out. I didn't use chews or food during this event, but I did drink water and water with Nuun. Maybe that means I wasn't pushing hard enough. But my heart rate was up there! Speaking of heart rate, I have questions for my coach about heart rate monitor training, because my Zone 2 training runs are still so, so slow. Like 11-12 min/mile slow. Aren't I in better shape than that? If you do heart rate monitor based training, I'd love to hear your input.
I also wonder how much my foot injury last summer is still impacting my performance. I did stop running from August to December, and when I came back I tried to adjust my cadence and foot strike. That made my right foot start buzzing…and my right foot was buzzing during the run again. 

BUT. My husband and the kids drove over an hour and got lost on the way to come and cheer for me. And my middle son even tried to give me flowers during the race! So how can I be sad about being a little slower than last year? We even got to enjoy the rest of the morning swimming in Lake Arthur and checking out fish and then had a fantastic lunch at Burgh'ers in Zelienople. If you've never had one of their burgers with a side of rosemary fries, I insist you get some quick!
I medaled last year and was pretty excited because other people 'in the know' said this was a very competitive event. This year I was 8th in my age group. No medal. One lady in my age group from last year took 4:00 off her time! I added about 3:00. But my transitions were faster! <—Silver lining.

Swim 9:23 112 place
T1 2:48 96 place
Bike 33:32 133 place
T2 1:27  103 place
Run 26:56 72 place
Overall 1:14:04 108 place

Swim 8:12 117 place
T1 2:51 97 place
Bike 31:56 137 place
T2 1:51 118 place
Run 26:31 65 place
Overall 1:11:01 91 place

Takeaways: 1. I have cut back on my training in many ways, but all in all my performance was very close to last year. But am I doing heart rate monitor training "right?" Do I need to do it at all? 

2.Triathlons are fun. I love the variety. Triathlons are even more fun with friends and family. If you want to do one, coerce a friend to join you! I tackled this event basically solo this year, but I loved that my guys were there to cheer me on. 

3.And I enjoyed a delicious lunch totally guilt-free. Win, win, win! 

Starting the next generation of swimmers!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Why the new math works

The "new math" works. I have undeniable proof in the form of a personal anecdote, which we all know is the most irrefutable kind of evidence.

On the first day of summer vacation, when the slide begins and kids lose all the knowledge they gained in the academic year, I realized I was almost out of gas. Again. My Honda Odyssey never beeps to tell me so I'm always surprised to realize I only have 7 miles left.

I rushed to a local gas station and my nine-year old watched the gallon tally climb. It stopped at 18 gallons.

"How many miles does that mean?" he asked.

"Well, my engine gets about 20 miles per gallon," I replied. "So how would we figure that out?"

When I asked that question, I expected him to name the process, not give me an answer. I thought he would say, "We'd multiply 20 by 18." I certainly can't do that math problem in my head and can't use my iPhone calculator while driving.

But then New Math happened.

"We could do 18 times five, then take that answer and either add four of those or multiply that by 4," my son answered. "So, let's see. 18 times 5 is 90. And that four times is 360."

I glanced at my van dash, which now read that I had 356 miles in my tank. I blinked. He nailed it. I was stunned.

"You're right!" I exclaimed. "The van computer estimated 356 miles."

He beamed.

His approach was elegant. Simple. If only someone had helped me learn to tackle math that way. Wait- someone is! My nine-year old.

Thanks math teachers. Thanks new math.

Third Grade Multiplication Master