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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Summer Camp My Kids Can't Wait Do

What do my kids want out of summer camp?

Fun. Friends. Freedom.

What do I want my kids to get out of summer camp?

Yes, I want them to have fun. But I also want them to learn things about themselves and the world around them. Get to know new people and build relationships. Maybe learn a skill they can't acquire in school. And it wouldn't hurt if it was something that also inspired their future career.

Does such a magical camp exist?

You bet.

Enter Hi-Tech Learning.

"Hi-Tech Learning offers technology focused programs for ages 7-14 using the programs kids love, such as Minecraft. In our programs, kids have a blast using technology, and parents can feel confident their children are fully engaged in an authentic learning experience that will help them prepare for success in the 21st century."

This magical camp isn't about magic, it's about technology. And kids love technology. I know my kids dream of summer break as a chance for unlimited technology use. But at our house, tech time comes after a Brain Boost (reading), a Jam Session (instrument practice), and a Show the Love (chore).

I was a little worried about signing them up last summer for Hi-Tech Learning. Were they just going to be staring at computer screens all day while summer fun slipped away?

Turns out I had no need to worry.

As part of their Minecraft camp and Video Game Design my children came away with this modest list of SOCIAL skills:

  1. Cooperating on projects - all projects are done with a partner and campers have to check-in with their partners
  2. Problem solving - Instructors don't provide all of the answers.
  3. Peer to peer instruction - If someone can't figure out how to do something, instructors will often ask kids to help each other.
  4. Public speaking - Each camper shares their project with other campers and visiting parents
  5. How to give and take effective feedback - When campers share their games, other campers give two positives, two suggestions, and a helpful comment to solve a problem. 
  6. Considering the perspective of the audience

They also came away with more experience in

  1. Design
  2. Sketching
  3. Planning 
  4. Using logic
  5. Mathematics
  6. Story-telling

Sounds academic, right? I can tell you my kids didn't think they were in school.

And in many ways they weren't - because they were doing MORE than what they get to do in school. In school, so much of their instruction is focused on meeting the requirements of standardized testing. Their ELA experiences don't allow them to explore how to tell a story, they are asked to show how well they can follow storytelling instruction. And their math doesn't exactly encourage creative problem solving when points are taken off for not showing their work.

But Hi-Tech Learning is all about creative.

Shawn Walk, Hi-Tech Learning founder, is a former math teacher for fourth and fifth grade. We had coffee the other day and talked about what we didn't have as kids and why we do what we do now.

"I grew up in Indiana in a working class family. I was the first to go to college," Shawn said. "I loved to mess around on the computer but I didn’t have a creative outlet. I had to find ways to do things on my own. I created this business to help kids get creative."

In Video Game Design at Hi-Tech Learning, my boys created two different styles of games that revealed their personalities. My oldest focused on scoring high points while my middle developed more of a journey in his game. They didn't have to do the exact same thing but could experiment, make mistakes, try again.

Do your kids get computer instruction in school? Mine do, but it entails keyboarding. Just keyboarding. Yes, as in how to use a keyboard. AKA typing class.

I personally feel keyboarding comes along with usage. I never took a typing class in my life, but that didn't stop me from typing out my very first stories (what I did on my sick day home from school) on my grandfather's old typewriter. And do my kids really need to know how to type? Probably by the time they are adult professionals, everything will be voice commands and hand motions anyway.

My boys loved these camps. I will never forget how proud they were to welcome my husband and I into their summer camp and show off their amazing games. My middle son still talks about the game he created on Kodu.

As we got ready for camp this summer, I asked them what they remembered about last year. Here's what they had to say:

"Learning how to use Kodu made me feel like I was in a different world. Also, it was challenging but that made me work harder. Our instructors were really nice and fun. We played tag outside and the instructors played, too, and that was awesome. I felt like I was doing things my dad would do." - The middle guy.

"Playing Minecraft at camp was different than at home because we were all on survival, and everyone had to work together and start off building a home. We worked with partners and on the last day we worked on a giant project like sports stadiums or movie figures. It was sometimes frustrating because we had to switch off, but we had to think about what other people were doing, too. If we decided to work on something the same way, it worked out for both of us." - My oldest.

My boys did Hi-Tech Learning last summer, and unlike other summer camps, I did not have to work very hard to convince them to do it.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Never Compare One Race to Another

I know better than to compare different races to each other.

But I'm doing it anyway!

I'm comparing the Credit Union Cherry Blossom to my leg in the Pittsburgh Marathon relay, and last year's Pittsburgh Marathon Relay to this year's.

2015 PMR to 2016 PMR

2015 outfit

2016 Outfit

Exact same outfit! Yes, I wore the exact same outfit two years in a row. 
But I did wear different shoes. Probably different underwear (because yes, I wear underwear when I run) but the same shirt and shorts and sunglasses. Am I creature of habit or what.

I ran the same leg, leg 4.
But it was a different distance. This year was a good amount longer than last year! And the exchange point finished up a hill! Ouch!

Thankfully another difference was a faster time. I know one can't expect to improve forever, but this race was a happy spike in the gentle downward aging slope of my pace line. 

2015 Splits

In 2015, I averaged 9:12 a mile and in 2016, over a longer distance, I averaged 8:29 a mile. So that's cool! 

2016 Splits

CUCB to 2016 PMR

You might remember the weather at this year's CUCB 10 Mile was crazy. Thankfully the weather at the Marathon Relay was much better weather than the Cherry Blossom, a little rainy but cool. Warm enough I didn't have to bundle up and believe me, I did not take for granted running freely in my shorts and t-shirt. 

But if you compare my splits from Cherry Blossom and Marathon Relay, they aren't too far off. For this race, I averaged 8:48 a mile over ten miles. But those last two miles were awful.  

So either the clothes didn't hamper me or I was working WAY harder during the Cherry Blossom. I have no way of knowing though, because my Garmin was at zero percent on the day of the relay. Grr! That made me so mad. But I survived without my Garmin. I didn't quite run naked but less "teched up" than usual. And I even loved the run. 

Monday, May 9, 2016

She's Crafty

I love being creative. I create with words everyday and sometimes I need a break from creative writing. I want to be creative in other outlets, too.

I want to make things.
I want to craft.

But I am not the best at crafts. It's not that I lack skill, which I do for many activities. It's also that I'm not always the best at planning and implementing a project. I get started eagerly without all the equipment. Or I think I understand how to do something before I really do. Or I confront an obstacle and get a little frustrated and can't quite figure out how to get around it.

But I do love trying new things and making little projects here and there.

I decided to start simple and explore some projects and see what spoke to me.

Stage 1

This stage is all about being happy.

For Stage 1 I started simple with coloring. Is coloring a craft? I don't really think it is, but I do think it's a fun, creative activity. Here are some examples of coloring projects I did on paper and on the new iPad Pro. Very fun, very relaxing. It made me happy!

I actually played the Uno Reverse card on my kids and presented them with my artwork for a change and they really liked it. 

Stage 2

After the success of my coloring craft, I ramped up the challenge level. Here is a photo of three crafts I attempted in one weekend. It was a weekend where we had very little scheduled, a rarity in our house, so I went nuts.

I like to think of Stage 2 as learning to be satisfied, even happy, with imperfect results that are not complete disasters. 

First, I tackled opening a fresh coconut and toasting the flakes. You can see the result of my cooking efforts in the top left bowl. Yes, I burned them. That's why my kids love to remind me that my restaurant would be called "Burnt." I made that joke before Bradley Cooper's movie did. Anyway, I still enjoyed some of those burnt toasted coconut chips. 

(Side note: my husband stole some coconut meat to make an infused rum, one of his current hobbies. Can't wait to taste it!)

Second, my husband and I reclaimed some candle wax and made a new candle!

This took some planning (buy wicks!), effort, and innovation but I'm so pleased with the result. Yes, the wax sunk in a little bit because we didn't let each layer cool completely before pouring in the next layer. But we didn't have an endless amount of time and wanted to get this project done. We innovated ways to strain the wax of impurities and to hold the wicks in position. It was a fun project because of my crafting buddy. Thanks, honey!

Third, I did some loom weaving. This was fun! It was right at my skill level because it was a project for kids from our Kiwi Crate subscription. Again, imperfect because they aren't completely straight along the edges but it's not totally obvious. And I innovated again by adding some embroidery thread in with the bulky yarn that came in the kit.

I also learned how to knot paracord bracelets this weekend. This was easy and quick. As I was doing this with my middle son, we realized we had done a few knots wrong so we stopped, untied them, backed up, and tried again. Remember this for later.

Stage 3

This stage might be called "short and sweet."

Following on the success of stage 3, I took things to the next level and decided to tackle food again, but this time without putting anything in an actual oven. Maybe it's cheating, maybe it's just planning for success. 

Here we have two examples of my latest food adventures. I learned how to make my own chai masala years ago from some wonderful friends. I hadn't done it in quite some time, but when I spotted the spices at the store I decided it was time to refresh my skills. 

I made a batch for the family and they loved it, but it did take awhile to crush all the spices fresh. So this week I took about a half-hour to crush and mix the spices and now they are ready for me to mix up chai masala whenever we want. I didn't add in ginger to my spice blend because when you can use fresh ginger WHY NOT. I was also able to re-purpose my fresh ginger in a roasted carrot recipe that turned out tasty. (Not burnt!) 

My second cooking project is experimenting with making my own chia pods. This was easy. 

(Hmm. Chai? Chia? Chia? Chai?) 

I combined almond milk and chia seeds, no sweeteners. I plan to add blueberries to sweeten this tasty, healthy, high-protein snack. 

Stage 4

This stage is about honesty.

Knitting. Why is it so hard for me?

I have knitted before and had some success and some failures. I come back to it because I love the results but struggle so much with the process.

I have two knitting projects on my to-do list. I know I can't pick long projects. One is arm knitting a chunky scarf and one is making a little necklace for myself. Before I even started the arm knitting, I realized I had failed to read the directions carefully and didn't have all my supplies. Then I went ahead and started the arm knitting, anyway, just to learn the technique. A short way in, I realized I was messing up, and stopped. I took some deep breaths and unraveled the yarn. I wanted to do this the right away.

Stage 5: Acceptance

One thing I share with my middle son is that I often get frustrated if the project doesn't go smoothly from start to finish. I want it to be perfect right from the start! That learning curve is tough to ride sometimes. But I want this knitting project to go well, so I was willing to stop where I was and start over and chalk that first foray up to practice. Onward!

Actually, it's impatience. I want to get to the completed part where I feel good about the project and myself RIGHT AWAY. So when I make a mistake, that means slowing down and backing up. That makes me (and my middle son) impatient. But we did it with the paracords and I'm doing it with the knitting. 

Mistakes and lack of information: they are inevitable. I didn't realize for the arm knitting I needed more than one skein. No worries. I paused and thought about it for a few days and realized what I would do.

I also know I work better as part of a team. That's why the candle making went so well. I had my husband there to back me up when I faced a problem, to talk through my plans, and to get in the way of the hot wax that I splattered across the kitchen. He kept it from hitting the floor. I helped him out later with his "make perfectly clear ice" prototype. So, you're welcome, honey. 

Monday, May 2, 2016

From Mayhem to Magic: Handmade Pasta Class in Pittsburgh

It was a typical Tuesday night in our house: mayhem. One brother was yelling at another for not playing with him (because yelling always make people want to play with you), a second wanted to go over a friend's house. A third wanted to stay home and be by himself. I had just finished a run that I started too late and I was sweaty and had two articles due and wasn't making progress and my husband was going to be arriving home late.

In the midst of the chaos, I reminded everyone we had a family pasta class and received a chorus of complaining groans in response.

"We are going," I told everyone.

As we were walking out the door five minutes after the class was supposed to start, someone had to run back in and use the bathroom.

Yvonne, our teacher, called to ask if we were coming at all. I tried not to yell "WE ARE COMING" into the phone. I barely held it together.

On the drive there I told the kids I would stop booking family activities like this. It wasn't worth listening to their whines.

But when we showed up to the tiny storefront on Babcock and walked inside, everything changed. We were greeted with a classic red and white checked tablecloth, red plates, and a candle burning in a chianti bottle. Bowls of white flour waited for us on gleaming kitchen work tables.

"Put on your aprons," Yvonne told us. We did, and we got right to work.

Our family has made pasta before. In fact, my oldest and I once were part of making the longest pasta noodle in Pittsburgh. But we had never done anything quite like this. It was more than a pasta class. It was an evening of magical family memories.

When Yvonne told us to measure out our flour and eggs right on the table and mix them up, the boys crowed with delight.

"We get to mix it right on the table?" screeched the middle one. "Sensory overload!"

As the flour and eggs transformed into dough, our family relaxed and laughed and chatted. We also learned.

Pasta dough needs to rest and busy families need downtime. As we let our dough sit, Yvonne served up a classic Italian antipasti and showed us incredible pastas from her giant pasta book. We ate and laughed and the boys (and my husband and I) asked endless questions. Everyone was in an amazing mood and the behavior was so positive. Food had worked its magic once more.

We did both hand-rolled and machine-rolled noodles and tasted both kinds. We all agreed it was a tie for favorite.

Cooking the pasta was a real eye-opener for me. Turns out I've been neglecting to salt my water the way Italians do. 

After such delicious food, everyone felt completely satisfied, but Yvonne had more magic up her sleeve and surprised us with dessert. I also learned how to use a Bialetti. It's on my Mother's Day gift list.

We've been fans of Yvonne's pasta and the wonderful oils from the Olive Tap for quite some time, but this was our first class with her. I can't express how much this class changed our moods for the better and how patient she was with our children, even when one of them broke a bowl. She's a mom of three boys, too, and her experience with exuberance was obvious.

If you know what you're doing in the kitchen, take this class.
Get to this pasta class, even if you know what you're doing in the kitchen.

And tell Yvonne we sent you!

Monday, April 25, 2016

Bourbon, BBQ, Barf, and the NCAA Sweet Sixteen

It was a rough road trip, quite possibly the toughest vacation we've ever had.

Up until this point, our toughest vacation moments include:

  1. The potential Pinky Severing of 2015
  2. The missed-our-connecting-flight and arrive in shut-down-rural-airport with no transportation
  3. The vacation the youngest almost drowned 
  4. The time I lost all my cash at the start of a two week European vacation and had to mooch off of my boyfriend and his relatives
  5. The treehouse weekend with no hot water
  6. Lost in that Spanish airport looking for a rental car
After examining our top toughest vacation challenges, I believe we have a new top position: the Kentucky Experience. 

We never planned to go to Kentucky, in fact it is probably one of the least likely states for us to ever visit. I assumed we'd be in Arkansas before Kentucky, because I want to visit that national park with all the diamonds laying around. And South Dakota has Mount Rushmore.

It was Easter break, and anyway I wasn't looking forward to seven straight days at home with the kids. I suggested we head to the Omni Bedford Resorts in lovely Bedford, PA.

But when Maryland (Go Terps!) made it to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003, my husband said Lousivlle, Terps, NCAA and I said "Yay!" 

The drive there was uneventful except for a serious lack of good food along the way. We had a firm plan to stop at a huge liquor store on the way back. Louisville seemed so welcoming with our hotel being within walking distance of a delicious Brazilian restaurant - with bourbon flights! - and a fudgery. Those were halcyon days. 

Our second day also started well with a visit to the distillery where they make Bulleit and bourbon before noon.

Our guide Sylvia gave us great tips for places to visit. Our biggest problem so far was a grouchy kid who quickly flipped 180 degrees back to happy after inhaling two bison tacos. A little rain meant no waterfront playground, but all in all we were still cheerful. Then things went downhill. 

Downtown Louisville, almost back to our hotel. Rushing to avoid a bathroom accident in someone's pants - not mine - I open the van door and the wind catches it, swinging it wide open into traffic. A Cadillac rams into the door, wrenching it past the normal open angle. My husband screams because he thinks my arm has been hit.

I take kids into bathroom, he deals with other driver. 

We go to the pool. The pool is cold. Ugh.

My husband discovers several carbonated beverages I brought exploded in the hotel fridge.

We get dinner at Hard Rock Cafe and head to the MD game.

They lose.

Kids cry. I learn to hate Kansas fans. (Did you know the jayhawk isn't even a real bird?!? They should call it the jay-mock!!!)

Next day we head out to a recommended place for breakfast and our oldest barely eats. I get more bourbon at breakfast. But my oldest kept falling asleep on benches and sprawling on the floor as we dragged him around the Churchill Downs and the Kentucky derby museum and drove him through the cemetery to see Col. Sanders' grave.

His illness finally culminated with him vomiting on the bathroom floor of a really delicious BBQ place called Feast. (I highly recommend dining there but not visiting the men's room.) Needless to say he did not try the smoked tofu. 

Back at the hotel, everyone went to bed early and I went to the fitness room to run and deal with my frustration. I wasn't frustrated with my kids, I was frustrated with myself on how I had handled these stressors. 

Things improved. The kids showed us a silver lining and decided to refocus their interest on Villanova and insisted that they didn't want to sell the tickets, even though my husband and I did. They wanted to see the Elite 8 game.

"When will we get this chance again?" they said.

They were right.

Wildcats devour birds, even fake ones. And it felt so good to watch. 

Monday, April 18, 2016

April is the Cruelest Month

April Fools

Thank God for my kids. Without them, I'm sure life would be so dull. Here's an excerpt of the carried conversation I had recently with my middle son:

Kid: "I'm sure glad I have glasses."
Me: "I know. Imagine living in a time when they didn't have glasses.
Kid: "I have! Everyone would be like, 'watch out, wooly mammoth!' and I'd be like, 'where?' and they'd be like 'Keep looking, buddy!' as they ran away and I'd be like 'where, where?'"
Always the goofy faces

Word Play

I get a lot of writing ideas from my kids. Tons of them. And I'm not afraid to try and sell them. Back in September, I sent an idea from my oldest into one of our favorite kids' magazines and just this week I received the rejection. So I've decided to share this little puzzler with you, readers. 

Can you think of five words that have at least three consecutive letters in alphabetical order? Example: canopy. Post your answers here and good luck!

Family resemblance?


Not mine, this time we're talking about the youngest. Yes, he finally made it on to a soccer team. Last weekend, he was chomping at the bit with three shots during his first game which was held in a snowstorm. Like I mentioned on in the Ultimate Soccer Mom Guide, this isn't baseball.

But things heated up this weekend and the youngest was out there mixing it up and this time he found the back of the net. GOOOOOORAAAAAALLLLLLLLL!!!!!!!!!!

Remembering Boston

It's been three years since my husband and I were at the Boston Marathon. We felt so lucky to be there, him running and me cheering for him and meeting amazing women runners. We were even more lucky not to be near the finish line when the bombs went off. The feelings of fear and panic I felt are still present inside me, and I still feel nervous in crowded public spaces. But I haven't stopped running. 

At the 2013 finish line the day before the race

And now for a little update on my latest addiction.

Subscription Boxes I am Currently Resisting

Subscription Boxes I Have Failed to Resist

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Year of the Wind: 2016 Credit Union Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run

On Sunday, I stood once more at the starting line of the Credit Union Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run. This race has become a staple of my race calendar and in years past, I've been grateful just to be on the starting line. It symbolizes a return to running for me. This year, while I wish I had gone about two minutes faster, I'm trying to remember to feel gratitude for the day no matter what.

I was nervous about the race. The wind predictions were ominous. But I got out there and did it. And overall,  I'm glad I ran it even though my final time wasn't exactly what I hoped:

I had really hoped to go under 90 minutes but many people suggested I revise that goal because of the wind. I think the wind did make it harder to finish those last two miles, but I also wonder if I have only myself to blame. Probably both right?

I should be happy I ran faster than last year, which was a shorter distance by quite a lot. But I did want that 1:29:59 or faster time.

If you take a look at the splits from my app, I did run 10 miles under 90 minutes. And I ran one pretty fast split in mile 4 when the wind was at my back!

So this app claims I ran almost a half-mile over 10 miles. It's not totally accurate since it uses GPS, but I'm also sure I didn't run the shortest, most accurate path over the 10 mile course. And you can see I was slowing down because my cadence dropped below my normal rate of 88-89.

My first five miles were great, but I think I have to admit I didn't have the volume of mileage in February and March to carry me through the last five strong and steady. Something I will try to remember for next year!

Many times I forget to be grateful I am able to run. I focus so much on my goals (and falling short of them) I can lose sight of how lucky I am to have the luxury to set goals and work for them. I spend a lot of time worrying about what I should have done during training. The doubts creep on. Did I do the best I could? Was a lazy? Did I slack? But I can't go back and change the past. I can only go forward. 

I also want to remember to be grateful for people who helped me run. I first ran the CUCB with college friends and for a few years after I had friends with me in the race. Not this year. I had friends in the race, but not with me. I felt a little alone in the crowd of 16,000. But then this lady in the light blue hat appeared in front of me. I stayed with her for 6 miles, until a hamstring cramp slowed me down. 

I think of her as my secret mystery running partner. Secret because she didn't know I ran with her. Mystery because I only knew her from the back and was surprised to see I had caught her in this photo! I'm grateful to this mystery running partner for being there and pulling me forward.

I'm also grateful to my husband who brought the kids out to spectate even in the biting cold wind. I was excited the kids could join us this year. We explored the expo and saw famous runners and I got to see my family four times on the course and each time it was a real boost. I also have say how grateful I am for my sister-in-law who bought hand warmers for my boys!! It took away my worries about them.

Last but very far from least, I'm grateful for reaching my fundraising goal. It was not an easy run, and I think that's a good reminder that life isn't easy. Children and families getting treatment at Children's Miracle Network Hospitals probably feel like they are running headfirst, uphill, into a freezing wind, all alone. So I am happy to raise money for them and I grateful to every single person who donated.

While I was thrilled to finish as the top fundraiser for the race, I am sad the race didn't reach its runner goal. If each runner had only donated $10, we would have passed the goal. It seems so easy, doesn't it? But we didn't get there. We didn't even get to halfway! If you didn't get to donate before the race, there is still time. 

All in all, I'm grateful for the ability to run. (Yes I want to be faster. I'll work on it.) I'm even more grateful for the generosity of my friends and family who helped me reach my fundraising goal. Thank you!!