Tuesday, December 02, 2014

How to Make a Gingerbread House Without Losing Your Mind (part 1)

Gingerbread

For years, gingerbread houses were my nemesis. After the trauma of the gingerbread incident, I decided that kits were the way to go and that anyone who made gingerbread creations from scratch was crazy. What I neglected to tell you is that the very next day after gingerbread went airborne in my house, I went to work and was asked to help a class construct a village from gingerbread.

For a week straight, I surrounded by children and gingerbread and went home covered in icing sugar. I was in gingerbread hell.

A few years after that, I worked in a high school Foods class where I finally got over my fear of gingerbread house building when we built mini gingerbread houses from scratch. Finally, I learned a bunch of tips and tricks that made gingerbread house building easy, which I want to share with you!

Before we get started, I want you to let go of expectations that you are going to end up with something that looks like it belongs on Pinterest. Forget perfection and embrace the process of doing this project with your kids for maximum fun factor; THAT is the secret to successful gingerbread house constructing, and exactly what I had forgotten one Christmas when Kevin was little.

This recipe makes one small gingerbread house that goes with this pattern. (that link should take you to Google Docs, where my pattern is in a shared folder. You should be able to download and print it!)  If doubled, the recipe will make 3-4 houses depending on how thick you roll the dough. Don't make them too thin, they'll break easily! These houses are small, but I find small is the key to manageable. Make a bunch and the kids can each decorate their own for a village! Don't get stressed out over this project, you can do it over a period of days so it's not so daunting. The dough can be mixed and then frozen or left in the fridge overnight, and you can bake it one day and construct another. Or, put the houses together one day and let the kids decorate another.

Mini Gingerbread House (pattern here!)

1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp cloves or allspice
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup margarine or butter
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1/4 cup molasses
1 tsp water

Directions: 

1. In a medium sized bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and salt.

2. In another bowl with an electric mixer, cream the butter and the brown sugar until fluffy. Add the egg, molasses, and water and continue to beat until smooth.

3. Beat half of the flour mixture into the butter mixture until well blended, and then stir in the remaining flour mixture. If the dough is really sticky, stir in a bit more flour until a little more manageable but be careful, you don't want it dry. The dough should be soft and easy to work with, but not so sticky it's all over the place.

4. Turn out onto a counter and knead 2 or 3 times for it to all come together. Shape into a disc, wrap in plastic wrap, and put in the fridge for about 2 hours. You can also freeze the dough at this point for another day. Thaw the dough before you are going to use it.

5. When you are ready to bake, pre heat oven to 350 F. Take your dough out of the fridge and allow to warm slightly. Then divide the disc in half.

IMG_7653

6. Roll out 1/2 disc on parchment paper (important!) until it's about 1/4 of an inch thick. Brush lightly with flour to keep the pattern pieces from sticking. Lay your pattern pieces on the dough and cut them out using a sharp knife. Do not put the pieces flush with each other, they need at least 1/2 inch between them. (also important!)

IMG_7654

7. When you have cut as many pieces as you can, remove the excess dough. Then, using scissors, cut the wax paper around the gingerbread pieces, leaving a slight border around each one. Do NOT remove the gingerbread pieces from the parchment paper. This ensures that your pieces will remain perfectly straight, and not warp, which means the house will be easier to construct. (and you will preserve your sanity)

IMG_7657

8. Put pieces on a cookie sheet. Continue until you've used all your dough. If you have leftovers, you can make some gingerbread cookies, or ginger snaps by rolling the dough into walnut sized balls, rolling them again in granulated sugar, set them on a cookie sheet and press them down slightly.

9. Bake your gingerbread pieces about 10-12 minutes, until they are set and slightly browned.

IMG_7659

10. Remove the pan from the oven and allow the cookie pieces to cool on the sheets for about 5 minutes before removing to the counter or a cooling rack to cool completely. Once they are cooled, set the pieces aside in a sealed container until you are ready to build!

Need to watch me do this? I have a handy dandy video for you, even!



In my next post, we'll move on to different kinds of icing, construction, and decorating tips!



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Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Simple Christmas: Make a Strategy

Christmas hike
Every Christmas Day, if weather permits we go for a hike


I have found that the secret to keeping your Christmas simple is to figure out a strategy before December. This may seem like a bit of a killjoy to some who like to just go with the flow, but hear me out on this one.

1. Decide what's important

First, sit down with your family. It's their holiday season too, right? You may need a calendar and/or some paper if you have a lot of events happening. Ask each person what is important to them. Do the kids love your annual drive to look at Christmas lights? Is dinner at Grandma's house high on your list? Write them down. This is your chance to be a little selfish and state what makes Christmas special for you. Our favourite things have changed through the years and as we moved to different communities, but here's a taste of some:

1. Annual drive to look at Christmas lights: we would load up the car with hot chocolate and treats, then drive around and marvel at the pretty houses, with Christmas music playing in the car.
2. Dinner out at a local hotel on Christmas Day (when Kevin was really small). We called it our gift to ourselves because there was only 3 of us. Kevin still remembers it.
3. Movies and a huge appetizer spread on Christmas Eve
4. Trip to the city for a big day of Christmas shopping
5. Movie 'date' for me and John (Lord of the Rings Movies) which evolved into Kevin coming and it being a birthday evening out for Kevin.
6. The Santa Claus parade!
7. Reading a special story on Christmas Eve

As I wrote this I've noticed something. Each and every thing has to do with time spent together, not things. Nobody cares about the perfect tree, whether Christmas crackers are homemade or store bought (or there at all), if the Christmas cake was bought or handmade at midnight. (for the record, I buy the stuff). We've had a few Christmases where things were less than ideal; friends were dying; family members were seriously ill, money was tight, etc. It taught all of us that Christmas is all about loving each other and being together, not the trappings that seem to invade.

2. Identify what stresses you out

Next, look at the things that you could do without. This can be a bit trickier, because it involves things that you may feel obligated to do and you have to steel yourself into saying no. You CAN say no to things, you know. You don't have to do Christmas cards if you ultimately don't enjoy it. The kids don't HAVE to go to the Christmas concert. You don't HAVE to go to your office party. You don't HAVE to buy a gift for every extended family member and overspend your budget. The key is to identify what causes you the greatest amount of stress.

For us, the biggest stressors were:

1. Travel (tried it, hated it, vowed not to do it again)
2. Obligation to do loads of little things; gifts for co-workers, cards, parties, etc.
3. Not setting a budget and then overspending
4. Too many events
5. My own perceived notion that I had to do everything by hand and from scratch (making loads of homemade gifts)

Once you've identified what stresses you out, give yourself permission to either cease doing them altogether, pare them back, or find a way to do them that works for you. I used to make all sorts of things by hand, and then wouldn't finish them in time and be up late desperately trying to get them done. I understand that sometimes family obligations such as the 3 Christmas dinners in various houses aren't things you can always get out of, but maybe there are other areas that can be tweaked. Remember, holidays also change over time as your kids grow so maybe you can't change things now, but in years to come the stress will lessen.

The biggest lesson here is that if you have small kids, they are small only for a handful of Christmases. It's your only opportunity to make them very special family times, so guard them fiercely.

3. Set a budget and stick to it

Now that you've figured out what is important, set a budget for gifts and things. We tend to save some money throughout the year specifically for Christmas so that we can pay things outright and don't put extra on credit or mess up our monthly budget. Keep it reasonable. Children don't need to have the very latest or most expensive item, nor do they need a gigantic pile of presents under the tree. Commercials and media will tell you that you NEED TO BUY THIS TO MAKE YOUR CHILD HAPPY, but you don't need to succumb to the messaging. How do you avoid the overwhelming Christmas hype? Well, you strategize your shopping as well.

4. Plan your shopping and gift giving

Once you have your budget, figure out what you want to buy for gifts. John and I used to sit down and plan what we were getting for Kevin, and then set a budget for what we were going to spend on each other. Our approach to Christmas shopping is unusual; we would make a plan, then spend a day together shopping and enjoy lunch together. We also shopped for our gifts together, mostly because I couldn't figure out what kind of tools he wanted and he couldn't find clothes that fit me properly. We then wrapped the gifts and they went under the tree.

Most people gasp when they hear this. What about the surprise? Well, stockings were still fair game to fill with all kinds of small things, but there were never any returns when it came to bigger gifts.

To keep the shopping stress down, try these strategies:

-shop during the week early in the day. Avoid the mall on weekends at all costs, especially closer to the date.
-make a list!
-shop online
-get things like tape, wrapping paper, ribbon, etc early.
-pick up stocking stuffers as you go. I get mine on days when I'm grocery shopping or out and about
-watch the sales. If something is important for you to get, you may want or need to brave the crowds to get it.
-wrap items when you bring them home and label them so that if they are found, you're still safe. This also saves you from the hours of wrapping on Christmas Eve.

Lastly, there's one more thing to plan....

5. Plan the food

This can depend on your family. Is food important? Do you bake a lot? Are you planning to bake as gifts, for friends and family? If the answer to these questions is yes, then planning will help keep you from being stressed in the kitchen. About a month before the holidays, I sit down and have a conversation with my family; what would you love to have for Christmas dinner? What cookies and treats do you love best? Do we need to bake for teachers, friends, or family?

A word, here. DO NOT think that you must make everything from scratch. Shortcuts are okay. Eating at a hotel for Christmas dinner is okay (you saw that we once did that, right?). Buying your Christmas baking is okay. Whatever works for you and your family IS OKAY.

Once you have this information, it's a good idea to pull together the recipes you need and take a look in your pantry. I like to make a list of the things I'm going to need; cocoa, flour, sugar, butter, etc and head out to Costco to stock up. Costco is by far my go-to place for getting baking supplies, since I've found them cheaper than anywhere else. If you don't have the funds to buy everything at once, you could take the strategy of buying a few things here and there as you do your grocery shopping and just tuck it away. This saves you last minute trips to the store and the stress of getting everything done at once.

If you're baking for friends and family, it's a good idea to pick up containers or bags to tuck treats into early. I love to go to the Dollar store for this; clear plastic goodie bags are great for cookies, and you can find inexpensive boxes or tins to make gift giving easy. I love the clear goodie bags because they can be used for other holidays too, if I have leftovers. If you have time, you can get kids to decorate brown paper lunch bags instead. This might make a fun afternoon project.

Holiday baking really deserves it's own post, so we're going to end here. Next week I'm going to show you how I organize all my holiday baking and get it done so that it's actually fun! There are ways, my friends. First I just need to run to Costco....








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Sunday, November 02, 2014

A Simple Christmas Series

First Ornament

Writing about Christmas this soon after Halloween seems really strange to me; we normally don't talk about the holidays until after Dec 1st in our house. The thing is, people are already talking about the holidays; stores are pulling out decorations, media is slowly moving in that direction, so I decided that I'm going to do a series here on having a simple Christmas. I've talked about it often, but I don't think I've ever broken down for readers how we do it, and how they can too.

Really, how you celebrate the holidays (or if you celebrate them at all) is up to you and what works for your family. When Kevin was small, it was so easy to be caught up in the world of doing it all; the scratch baked cookies, the perfect gifts for everyone, the events and parties. As the years passed and we found our own traditions, I realized that Christmas wasn't about the shiny paper and what was under the tree, but rather that we were together. Five towns and nearly 19 years later, our traditions evolved and changed to what they are today. I think the point was driven home to me the very last Christmas I spent with Anne; sitting in her living room by a crackling fire, we enjoyed homemade cookies and squealed with laughter. Nothing, not one THING, could have made that moment better.

It can be hard to shut out the commercialism and pressure that is the holidays. The draw of "you should" though Pinterest, magazines, and what other people are doing can make you feel like maybe you're missing out on something. That you should be up until 1 am making those cutsie little crafts that looked good on Pinterest for your child's entire class because they would love them, right? The key is, you don't have to do it all. Keep what you love to do and get rid of the rest. I don't like writing Christmas cards, so I stopped. Instead I really love to bake, and so that is where my focus is. You don't have to go to every party, either. It's really okay to say no.

How do we do a simple, non commercial Christmas? I'll be posting about what WE do, from decorations to food and more, once a week. You don't have to spend a ton of money, and the whole point is being with family, not the STUFF. I'll share my hacks for being festive without being over the top or having to buy a bunch of stuff that is just going to sit in a box for a year again.  I wouldn't call it a frugal Christmas, but the reality is it doesn't cost a whole lot and you aren't depriving yourself, either. The point is to find what is important to you, what makes the holiday special to you and your family, and focusing on THAT. Discard the unnecessary obligation that stresses you out. Place the emphasis on what makes you all happy, rather than what you SHOULD do.

When you look at things that way, it makes holiday prep sound a lot more like fun than a stress inducing exercise in  "oh my God, AGAIN?!" Follow along on twitter as I tweet what we're up to with #simpleChristmas and share your own ideas!



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Saturday, November 01, 2014

Stream Into 2015 With the Cookie Jar

 This post is sponsored by Staples

Years ago when Kevin was three, we took him to see Tarzan as his first movie ever. Perched in his little booster seat with popcorn in hand, I was the proud Mama-first movie experience! First Disney! How cute!

All was fantastic until the scene where baboons stream from the trees and chase Jane. At that point he emited a horrified scream, launched himself from the booster seat, and wrapped his little body around my head. See, Kevin has always had sensory sensitivities to noise and lights, so movies were always overwhelming. He cried during Winnie the Pooh, was hysterical in Toy Story 2, and finally I gave up on movies altogether until he was a lot older. Now that he's 19, we still joke about "trauma by Disney" and the fact that I unknowingly scared the bejeebes out of him when he was little.

Still, with two people in my house who aren't fans of the theater, we don't get out much-but we still love to watch some good movies. What's our solution? Every year during the Christmas holidays we'd load ourselves up with about 10 videos and spend Christmas Eve through Boxing Day watching old favourites or catching up on the great ones we hadn't seen yet. I put out a big spread of nibbly appetizers, and we snuggle under warm blankets in the light of our tree with a good movie.

roku3

Technology has changed over the years and when we moved to Chilliwack we signed up with Optik TV, but then we had no VCR and didn't always like the movies offered by Telus. $5 per movie seemed a bit expensive, too. Everyone streams movies now, we were told, but we never did really get on board until I signed up to join #streaminto2015 with Staples. We were given the Roku 3 streaming box and finally hooked ourselves up to Netflix.

roku3-1

It feels like we were the last people on the planet, really.

Setting up the box was actually pretty easy and while I first I admit we were tempted to solicit our in house tech support (aka the nearly 19 year old) to get it going, I decided to do it myself. A few minutes later we were up and running, and before you know it we were sitting and watching "Star Trek: Into Darkness." Yes, We're Star Trek fans!

The more I talk about #streaminto2015 this month, you're going to see that we love adventure, sci-fi, fantasy movies and the occasional romantic comedy. Over the holidays our movies choices are always fun, light fare; Pirates of the Caribbean, The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, and Harry Potter have been many of our favourites. We'll be exploring all kinds of movies this month, catching up on what we've missed, and on Nov 28th we'll announce our Ultimate Holiday Movie as well as giving away a Roku 3 for a lucky reader to enjoy over the holidays too! Get ready for some movie snack recipes over at Chasing Tomatoes as I share what my family often nibbles when we have a movie night in.

So, help me out movie lovers-what's YOUR favourite holiday movie? I'm a little out of the loop. Comment or tweet me at @scatteredmom with your suggestions!

Disclosure: I was given a Roku streaming box (valued at $100) with a bunch of snacks (popcorn, Cadbury chocolate coated cookies, hot chocolate) to write about our experience with the product. Since my family watches films every holiday anyway, this worked well for us. We signed up for Netflix and paid for it ourselves. I also be giving away a Roku. I haven't received, nor will I receive, any other compensation.

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Monday, September 15, 2014

Shift Work Cooking and 3 Menus to Get You Started

This summer has been one of crazy change and growth, where I've done things I never thought I'd ever do again. Nothing glamorous mind you, but I went back to a place where I once worked long ago and am, if you can believe it, starting over. It's both exhilarating to be out of the confines of the job I've been in for 20 years, along with slightly scary and utterly exhausting, but I'm so, so happy.

So happy.

Along with this increased pace in my life, as well as getting used to shifts being all over the map, the family dinner is changing. Our family has changed, too. I don't think anyone talks about that when they speak of the family dinner-kids grow, circumstances and budgets change, and what may have worked for you at one time isn't feasible or practical during another. Kevin is now more than capable to take on cooking duties and John is also more than able to re-heat, or start something and they both can assist with clean up.

This is something I've never done before; delegate cooking or clean up duties because I'm working or tired, but in conversation with fellow moms on Twitter, it's a matter of survival when you are working shifts. Everyone needs to eat, and it becomes a team effort rather than one person shouldering all the responsibility. Previously, I didn't mind and even enjoyed it-now I just can't do it all nor do I even want to try.

A particular issue that came up is getting dinner on the table when you work the evening shift and want to get dinner prepped ahead of time, ready for kids and/or your spouse to finish when dinner time rolls around. I've had to deal with this over the summer since sometimes my shifts start in the late afternoon and run through dinner into the evening. What have I been doing to combat this? Well, a few things, and since I had three evening shifts last week I'll show you how we managed.

The important thing is, give your family members a job. Leave behind written instructions stating what the menu is, and put their name beside a job that needs to be done. If they need a recipe, leave that out as well. 

When I've talked about kids cooking, Moms often respond that it takes more work. Well yes, initially-but look at that work as an investment. By making your kids responsible for helping to put dinner on the table it teaches them life skills that they will carry into adulthood, make them feel like part of a team, and eventually, they may take on an evening's cooking by themselves.

Kevin cooking dinner
Kevin frying up some meatballs
The trick is, I think, to start small. Teach them how to make rice. Write down the instructions in a book for them to refer to when you aren't around. Then, how to make salad. If you're worried about them using your big scary knives, direct them to something smaller and show them how to use it, as well as where the band aids are if they accidentally cut themselves. In all the years I've worked with kids and food, I've never once had a kid cut themselves. Show them how to cut various vegetables, wash them, etc. Starting with basic skill will give them the practice they need and build confidence.

More good skills to learn:

-boiling pasta
-hard boiled or scrambled eggs
-heating things up, such as pasta sauce or soup and following basic directions
-steaming vegetables
-oven fries

..and much more. You know your kids best, just get them to take on something when you think they are ready. Even if it means you chop the veggies for something and have them assemble, it gives them practice following directions, which is really what a recipe is all about. Just make sure to keep your directions short, to the point, and even include doodles if you want. How about some sample menus?

Dinner #1: Tacos

Tacos, or any "top it yourself" dinner is perfect for everyone to pitch in.

Jobs to delegate:
-brown and season meat
-chop/slice toppings (peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, onions)
-grate cheese
-make guacamole

To prep ahead, take on the job that you feel you do best, which in my case, was making tortillas. Then the family can do the rest depending on age or ability-there's no reason an 11 year old can't make guacamole, shred cheese, or chop up some peppers.

Dinner #2: Pulled BBQ Chicken Sandwiches

Things for you to prep ahead: the chicken filling for the sandwiches

Jobs to delegate:
-toast buns
-make a salad
-oven fries (optional)

This recipe is made in the slow cooker, which makes things easier. I prepped it ahead and turned it on before I went to wok so that it would be finished by dinnertime. Sometimes, I make particular side dishes optional. If my family REALLY wants the oven fries, they'll make them, but there's a chance they won't-and that's okay. If they don't want the salad, they can substitute raw veggies with some dip. Kids like it when they are given a choice, so delegating but allowing the cook to decide what they want to make gives them some ownership over it as well.

Dinner #3: Soy sesame steak, rice, steamed peas

Things for you to prep ahead: marinate the steak

Jobs to delegate:
-cook the steak
- make rice
-steam peas

This dish is super easy and a great one for teenagers to practice their cooking skills with. The steak is sliced so thinly that you barely have to cook it, and then only thing they have to remember is to keep the pan hot and not crowd it. If they do, it's not the end of the world.  An 11 year old can easily make rice and heat up some peas in the microwave, and there you go! Dinner! You can, if you wish, add in other side dishes, but we try to keep things as simple as possible.

If steak isn't your thing, try making drumsticks, or homemade chicken fingers. All are very easy and an older child should have no trouble. Make sure there is some discussion around handling raw meat so that kids know they have to wash their hands well.

Then just sit back and let them play. Sure, the rice may be a little crunchy. The lettuce could be ripped into pieces a bit large, or your meat a little overcooked but praise them for trying. It's all a learning experience, after all. For some of us, it's learning to hand the spatula over to someone else and let them have a go.

Go on, you can do it!
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Friday, September 12, 2014

20 Things

So if I'm to go back to blogging old school, and I've been away for all this time, we have some catching up to do. Things have changed-even I've changed a little. Want to know what's up in the Cookie Jar? How about an old fashioned list?

1. Kevin was 10 when I started blogging. He turns 19 in December. This is slightly strange for me, adjusting to the fact that my kid isn't really a kid anymore. He's nearly 6' tall and eats non stop. The thing with having a kid this age is I found myself no longer doing all the kid friendly things I pulled together when he was young. For instance, Halloween now consists of me shutting off the outdoor lights, buying a box of candy for us to consume, and we watch a movie together.
 
I admit, it was fun while it lasted but I'm enjoying being finished, too. Did I mention we were thrilled that he was finally done with school?

family

2. We live in the eastern Fraser Valley, which is about 1 1/2 hrs out of Vancouver. There's a lot of farms out here. I can drive down the road and buy cheese or pork right at the farm gate, or even apples and hazelnuts. There's a duck farm not far from my house where I can pick up duck eggs. This place is a food lover's dream. Fresh and local takes on a whole new meaning when it's grown just down the road-or an elementary school has a corn field right across the street.

Cows in Yarrow

3. The trade off for all that great local food is that Chilliwack sometimes smells like manure. I'm okay with this, but people who don't live here complain.  I figure it's better than sniffing fumes from a pulp mill.

4. My kitchen is awesome, and I don't cook nearly as much. Weird, huh? There's a few reasons, the largest being that I don't have a job creating 5 recipes a week anymore. I absolutely burned myself out there for quite a long time. These days I take it easy; I don't even bake much, but then my family whines that they are missing some tasty treat and I whip it up for them. Even then I haven't delved into anything too complicated, and have gone back and re-made old favourites.

bridge

5.  We still do family walks, just maybe a little less often and Kevin doesn't always come with us. There's lots of outdoor spaces around here to walk; the big challenge is having us all home at once! We're busier than ever, and sometimes I barely even see John for a few days.

6. Our favourite coffee spot in Chilliwack is Starbucks. John likes True North Blend, I love Verona and Pike Place, Kevin adores Komodo Dragon. We spend more time there than I should really admit.

smile
Is is me, or do we look highly caffeinated here?

7. My favourite fancy coffee drink is a toss up between the cinnamon dolce latte and caramel macchiato. I love them both.

raspberries 3
Raspberries fresh picked from Mann Farms

8. Grocery shopping here has so many options compared to the Sunshine Coast that there are stores I've never set foot in. Between farms, country markets and big box stores, our options are endless. The first time Kevin and I walked into Superstore we just wandered around in awe at the sheer size of the place. 

9.  In the fall, huge flocks of Canadian geese fly over our house at dusk on their way to Cultus Lake. You can hear them honking inside, even with the doors closed.

10. I'm not used to the traffic here yet, but I think I've accepted that it's part of being here. There's also the people who ride a skateboard in the middle of the night down the middle of the road, or their scooters in weird places, and those who text and drive. The very best time to get anywhere in Chilliwack is before 5:30 am, strangely enough.

11. I ate an A&W hamburger this summer and I actually liked it so much I saved the coupons in our newspaper. Who am I?

12. I miss Stewart's lime soda and have searched all over Chilliwack for it with no luck.

13.  I haven't actually wandered around Cultus Lake yet and we've lived about 10 minutes away from it for 2 years. In the summer it's crazy busy for parking, so we just haven't gone. Perhaps I should, I hear it's nice.

Powerhouse at Stave Lake
The powerhouse at Stave Lake was interesting

14.  When we're looking for something to do, we get on the bike and take the back roads into Fort Langley past farms and country-like spaces. The BC Hydro powerhouse at Stave Lake is a great place for a walk and we enjoyed a fun tour. We also have gone to the fort a few times, and then walk around the village. There's loads of great places to ride around on the motorcycle, but we love wandering around the backroads in the valley, heading up the Fraser Canyon, or going to Manning Park.
highway
Taken from the back of our motorcycle!

15. I can go to Costco and still buy under $60 worth of stuff. Mostly I buy baking stuff there like flour, cocoa, sugar, and butter. I go with a list and rarely leave with anything extra.

16. When we first moved here I almost convinced John that I needed a cat, but he held out until I changed my mind and decided that I didn't want to clean up after a pet after all.

17. I'm going to be a mother in law next June when John's daughter gets married. Her fiance is the same age as me!

18. Our house has 3 bathrooms. If you know how much I loathe cleaning bathrooms, you'll understand how this makes me feel. I make Kevin clean some now so it's okay.

19. After we moved to a place with a kick ass movie theater, both my guys announced they don't like going to movies. We've been there once. I'm going to have to find friends to go with from now on.

20. There's so many new things to do and places to go here, we've barely scratched the surface. I'm so lucky to have great friends to hang out with and explore-we have a grand time checking out places here and there, be it food or just fun. Everyone is happy, healthy, and we're doing awesome.

Which is the whole point, right? I think we've found our groove again and that, more than anything, makes me happiest.





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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Home

Sometimes, writing takes you by surprise-the thoughts are rolling around in your head, you type them out or scratch them onto paper, publish, and walk away. As they sink in, enveloping your heart with all the emotion and resolve that went into that piece, things become really clear and you can't ignore them any longer.

Usually that happens to me late at night when I'm either drifting off to sleep or about to-and last night, that's exactly what happened.

I miss this place. Scatteredmom.com is all shiny but it's not home. Even the name scatteredmom seems like it doesn't fit anymore. I'm a mom, yes. I'm not a mom blogger. My kid is practically an adult. I don't fit in the world of school days and extra curricular activities, packing lunches and finding the right gear for my kids. I love the Fraser Valley, but I don't have time to always seek places out. I want to write about what I love, not be stuck in a niche that holds me in. While it was a great attempt, I'm not sure Scatteredmom.com is really me.

We've dealt with a lot of changes over the years. There's been a lot of moves to new towns, big houses and little, places by the ocean and in the city. There's been foster kids, one kid, and now soon there will be no kids. There has been one thing, through it all, that has been a constant which is what has pulled me back to this blog.

My cookie jar. For me, It symbolizes my family and home more than anything.

Well, truthfully it's not a jar. It's a tupperware. I've tried for years to find the perfect cookie jar and haven't been successful yet. The point is, throughout all these changes, my kitchen has always been the central theme of our family; no matter how big or small, there has always been cookies. The recipes may have evolved over the years, but they are still churned out, once a week. When I visit people, I often bring cookies-just ask some of the ladies at Telus when I met them downtown this summer!

This place is me. It's my family. For awhile there, I lost myself and some will say that closing this place down, half starting another blog, and then not really working on that has killed my traffic and future as a blogger. You know what? I don't care. I started here years ago for me, writing because it made my soul sing, and everything else was gravy. What followed was more than my wildest dreams, and if that's all that ever happens to me again in the world of blogging, I'm good with that.

Where am I going now? Well, I'm going back to old school writing. Sure, some say blogging is dead and that's fine. I'm not doing it to be published or have recognition from anyone. I've done that. I'm writing because this place is home, and you're invited to follow along.  There will be food, yes. Snippets of where we go and the Fraser Valley. Things I love. Bits of family life while John and I figure out empty nesting, and the adjustment to when your kid is an adult.

So. Let's dust this place off, shall we? Here's to cookies, family, and being home again.

(ps: please let me know if anything isn't working, I haven't looked around here for a long time and may not catch all the bugs if there are any. I'm going to be going through posts, cleaning stuff up and dusting it off, but you can expect this place to be back in action.)

chocolate meringue cookies
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Monday, November 11, 2013

Teaching Kids How to Use Dragon Naturally Speaking (Part 2)


So you've done all the work to get Dragon, you've researched equipment, you are all ready to hit the ground running, and you aren't sure where to start. Want to learn from my mistakes? Yep. I've made them. Between teaching my own kid to high schoolers and elementary aged kids, I've spent a lot of hours with Dragon and trying to make it fun for kids. The truth is, it's work. Once you have them trained and a voice profile built, the only way to really make Dragon work for them is to get them to use it and get comfortable with the program. I start off with the easy stuff, teach them the ins and outs of the program, and then wean them off my prompting so that they are completely independent. How long it takes them to get there really depends on the child-some will learn faster than others, and that's entirely okay.

1. Get them used to dictating.

A lot of kids aren't used to hearing their own voice, or saying their thoughts out loud to someone. To get them used to dictating, I start by scribing for them. When I do that, I also ask them to say punctuation, such as "period", "comma" and "question mark" so they are used to doing this for Dragon.  Getting used to hearing their voice and being conscious of how they are talking (speed, volume, etc) is a skill that some catch on to faster than others.

Trouble shooting: Dragon's accuracy declines if kids talk too fast, tend to slur words together, are too quiet, or aren't speaking clearly. Now is the time to point that out and encourage them to be conscious of how they speak.

2. Teach them some computer basics.

Knowing how to turn on the machine, save a file, format text, copy/paste, print and move things around is really helpful. Having a comfort level using a computer will make them more comfortable using Dragon.


3.  Run them through activities in the curriculum, and stick close by

This curriculum that I recently found is amazing.  I print it out and give it to each student in their own folder. Step by step, it takes kids through the functions of Dragon by starting small and working it's way up to more difficult and technical stuff. I recommend that you work through it yourself and become familiar with the program before you teach it. My students particularly loved the part where they are asked to cough, sneeze, or hum and see what happens. Much giggling ensued as they saw all the mumbo jumbo hitting the screen.

It's really important that you stick close by. To start, I talk to the student about what we are going to do, and I sit right beside them as they go through the activity. One of the first things I teach them is that whatever they say into the mike will be picked up and put on the screen, so they need to know how to make the mike go to sleep or turn it off. Sitting close by is also helpful if they are easily distracted and lose their place in the activity. I quietly point where they are, or if they forget to turn off the mike and begin talking,  I can reach over and click it off.

Once they are finished the activity, we talk about what they just did. I ask what they learned and may go over it again, showing them exactly what happened. It helps me to have my own laptop with my own Dragon voice profile on it, but you don't need to do this.  I ask if anything surprised them. I then may write notes for them right in their workbook.

3. Once they are comfortable, start dictating actual school work

Once the kids are comfortable dictating and know how to correct things, move things around, etc they can start dictating some school work. The pace at which the student picks up Dragon varies-some kids just run with it, while others take more practise.  Depending on their comfort level I may do the following:

a) hand them the laptop and let them run with it on their own but be close by for help

b) have them dictate to me, and I will scribe onto an index card. Then I  have them dictate from the card so they don't lose their train of thought or forget their answers. This helps with kids who have memory issues. I slowly wean them off dictating to me, and get them to try dictating more and more without the cards.

c) sit close by and have them dictate directly into Dragon

Whatever you do teach them how to save as they go, because as we all know with computer programs, sometimes things don't go as planned and you can lose work. This has happened to us a few times-especially when we were using Microsoft Word with Dragon, and not just Dragonpad.

4. Get them comfortable managing their own voice profiles

As the kids get more proficient, teach them how to back up their voice profiles to a memory stick. It's always good to keep a separate back up of those files so that if anything happens to the computer, you have it. This also teaches them to be responsible for themselves and will be helpful for school.

Once the kids are proficient, I like to get them to use the accuracy training section of  Dragon about once a week. Sometimes the reading can be a really long process, but often they enjoy it and it can pay off in the long run. Some of the readings are really long so I always tell them to just stop when they are tired.


Do you use Dragon? What about your kids? Let me know in the comments how it's worked for you.
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Sunday, November 10, 2013

Dragon Naturally Speaking With Children: What You Need To Know

About ten years ago, my husband went back to university. Already with a Master's degree in Psychology that wasn't getting him anywhere, he returned to get his Bachelor's degree in Social Work, hoping to land a job. The thing is, John is dyslexic. Writing papers was a long, hard process where he'd write things by hand and I would valiantly attempt to decipher his script onto a computer screen. Often, it took many hours.

Somewhere along the way, we discovered Dragon Naturally Speaking, and it changed his life. No longer relying on me to scribe his words, John could simply speak into a computer and have the words appear on the screen. The independence, and resulting improvement in his writing skills, was incredible. Today, he uses Dragon at work every day, writing emails and paper work with ease. In fact I haven't scribed for him in many years, and even when he does occasionally ask me to proofread something there are very little changes that need to be made.

Which is great, you say, for adults. what about children? Can children and youth who are learning disabled, or who have trouble with writing, benefit by using Dragon? As someone who works with youth and trains them to use Dragon, I say yes-but there is much you should know.

1. Dragon is a technical program that doesn't work for everyone

Too often, people think that they can just hand a youth a laptop with Dragon on it, train them, and it should work seamlessly. They get frustrated when it doesn't, then say that it's not really the greatest program, and set it aside.  This is just wrong. Dragon is built for professionals; doctors, lawyers, and the like and not really for kids. Youth can learn to use it, but they must be directly taught how. The kind of youth who succeed with Dragon can tolerate frustration and understand that by working now and teaching the program, it will pay off in the long run. They must be motivated and determined. It also helps if they are into computers and understand the basics of how they work such as how to save a file, basic formatting (underlining, bold, copy, paste), printing, moving files around, etc. They must be able to understand the commands that make Dragon work, and that by using them, it will be more accurate. A requirement that I have while training them is that they must follow my directions. If they don't, the program won't do what they want.

If the child is easily frustrated and cannot understand that hard work now will pay off later, they won't be successful with Dragon.

A note re: kids with autism: in my experience, I haven't had success with autistic kids using Dragon. Their level of frustration is high, they have difficulty not making extra sounds (which interferes with accuracy), and they often can't see that the end will justify the means. I'm not saying that it will never work, but I haven't had success here. It may be worth a try but there are many, many other programs out there that may be a better fit.

2. Be sure you have the right equipment

First of all, the computer that you have installed Dragon on has to have enough memory and a sufficient sound card to handle the program. If it doesn't, the program will not work. Dragon isn't a "well let's just try it and see" program, it's one where things have to be exactly right. There is no half way, with Dragon it's pretty much all or nothing. To see if your equipment is compatible, check this list.

From personal experience, I suggest that you have the optimal amount of memory required. Also, note that different operating systems require different kinds of memory and may affect how Dragon operates. Our experience has been that when new operating systems come out, they sometimes don't work well with Dragon and it takes a bit for the people at Nuance to catch up by releasing a patch.

Your microphone is important-the one that comes with Dragon is sufficient, but a better quality one will increase your accuracy.

3. Location, location, location is important

First of all, let me impart a really crucial piece of info on you: Dragon MUST be installed on a computer's hard drive for optimal performance, AND the youth needs to use the SAME computer each time. What you are doing is building a file. Each time one uses Dragon, the program learns your voice and adjusts itself-so logically you want to be building on that profile every time you use it. If you have Dragon on a server and multiple machines, using it here and there, you will only end up with multiple voice files that never accumulate into one really accurate file. The very point is to build your file, so this completely defeats the purpose. Having Dragon on a server, as my husband discovered at work, isn't the best because as you talk and Dragon deciphers what you are saying, the info must pass through the server and often becomes corrupt-which greatly decreases your accuracy. Dragon will become ridiculously slow, crash, it won't recognize commands, and behave erratically.

Once you have Dragon trained and you are using it, you should be able to use the program in environments with some background noise as long as you:

a) re-calibrate the microphone
b) have a really good noise cancelling microphone

Without these things, your accuracy will be impacted. With kids, I have found that sometimes it depends on the student. I have some students who speak clearly and with enough volume that they are successful even in a moderately noisy room, and others who do not and the program just can't pick up their voice well enough.

So, now you have the equipment and a motivated student, what do you do? Watch for part 2 this week when I point you to a great Dragon curriculum that I'm using, and give you tips and tricks on how to actually get kids in there and dictating.

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Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Say No to the Selfie

summer hike


It's Labour day weekend, and we've decided to go on a family hike. This doesn't happen very often these days, since Kevin is older and now has things to do and places to go. John and I usually end up walking by ourselves, reminicing about the times when Kevin, young and full of energy, was easily tricked into running ahead and back. He never did figure out that we encouraged him to do this in order to wear him out, but after a few runs he'd be sufficiently tired to fall asleep when we got back to the car.

On this hike, I brought my Blackberry Z10 and decided I was going to take photos. Although somehow in the snapping of pictures, I had hit a button that is more useful for taking photos of myself rather than the usual point and shoot.

"Kev! Ack! What do I do?!" I squealed, holding the phone out to him. He takes it from me calmly, smiles, presses a few buttons, and hands it back. Gratefully, I accept it, until I realize the possibilities of taking my own photos-namely, I can use them as avatars for twitter.

"Wait! How do you get it back to that?" I run after him and thrust the phone back in his hands. Amused, he presses the buttons and watches as I begin taking photo after photo. He walks away but again, I'm stuck. Honestly, I'm not that great with smart phones. Again, I run after him.

"Wait! How do I do this? Show me." 

I make him stand while I take photos of us together, changing the light, the way we are standing, waving my arms in weird directions because he's so much taller and my arms are obviously not long enough to get us in the frame. He obliges for a few minutes, before wryly commenting,

"Mom. You are not going to turn into one of those girls who posts all kinds of bathroom selfies on Facebook, are you?" He looks at me with slight horror, I'm sure imagining his middle aged mother doing duck face portraits in the bathroom mirror. 

"Maybe." I snap a few more.

"Put it away," he commands before drawing himself up to full height in front of me and taking the phone. "Because if you do, I'll just have to unfriend you on Facebook."

"Please?" I jump after the phone, trying to get it back. "Just a photo of us? Just because I'm your Mom and I love you, and I have few photos?"

He holds it out of reach, but eventually relents and hands it back before giving me a stern warning.

"Say no to the selfie, Mom. Or I may need to hack your account."
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Monday, November 04, 2013

How to Get Your Teen to Clean Their Room

Our house has this downstairs room that really was the deciding factor when we bought it (besides the kitchen, of course) which Kevin has turned into his own personal little tech office, or 'man cave', as we've come to call it. In the last year he has turned it into a little business of his own and spends a lot of time down there doing site design, web security, and more.  Filled with all kinds of computer equipment, it's often not quite in the state I'd like it to be and after months of nagging, I decided to speak in a language that I thought he'd understand better. He is, after all, nearly an adult and was asking if he could turn that space into a full on office for a business he's launching. So, if you want to be treated like the CEO of a company, here's what you get when you are lacking in your housekeeping skills.

Dear Tenant:

Re: inspection on October 26, 2013

The state of the space I am allowing your business to occupy rent free was unacceptable. To be clear, my expectations for how said space will be kept is as follows: 

-all garbage will be placed in a garbage can and emptied weekly. No food garbage

-there will be no garbage and items loose on the floor.

-there will be no dirty clothes or dishes

-the bathroom will be cleaned on a weekly basis: toilet scrubbed, floor swiffered, mirror  and sink cleaned

-surfaces, including baseboards, space heaters, and windowsills will be wiped occasionally so they are free of dust and dirt

-carpet will be vacuumed weekly. 

You appear to be having difficulty keeping this space in a state that is acceptable. As a result, I have decided to conduct weekly inspections as opposed to bi-monthly. There has been some improvement, but not enough. My inspections will occur each Saturday at 3pm. If the room has not been cleaned, your business will be shut down as I call in a cleaning lady, at the charge of $30 an hour. (payable by you, of course)

If you continually fail to keep the space in a state as per the above requirements, I will have to consider eviction. However, if you have questions regarding how to clean anything in your space, the cleaning lady will be happy to help you free of charge. She will give you a tutorial, and after that you are responsible for the space yourself. 

Have a good weekend, 

Your landlord (otherwise known as YOUR MOM)

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Sunday, November 03, 2013

Sunday Awesome List

What better thing to start off November with that an awesome list? These will possibly make you think I'm kind of evil, but that's okay. Nobody was injured in the making of this awesome list.

1. Buying yourself Halloween candy.

Forget standing in a cold doorway, unable to go watch TV or relax for the evening because you are stuck handing out candy to all the people coming to your door. We've adopted a new tradition in our family; buy a few boxes of our favorite candies, turn off the lights and consume them all ourselves.

Sounds terrible, yes. On the plus side, it's really delicious. Plus you only get the good stuff, AND there's no stealing involved. Win-win, I say.

2.  Watching your husband sitting on the couch, dozing off. 

His head drops back, little by little with his mouth wide open, and you realize that he has gum in his mouth. You begin to panic that he could actually choke on said piece of gum, so you throw something at him to wake him up.

Possibly not the smartest idea. He didn't choke on the gum, but the ensuing "WHAT THE HELL?!" may have caused some ruckus. Oops. The next time you just sit and watch, wondering how on Earth he can fall asleep like that without it being really uncomfortable because seriously? That's just weird.


3.  The teenager, upon hearing you vent that you've had the worst day ever, announces he's taking you to Starbucks to get whatever drink you want because he thinks you just need one. 

When you finally have latte in hand and tell him how grateful you are, he admits that he really just wanted a coffee and figured the only way to get there was to buy you one too. He's so learned my ways.


4. When your husband senses impending doom for stealing your car keys.

My husband didn't live with me for 10 months. In that time, I developed a routine to NOT lose my car keys; I keep them in a bowl on the counter. One morning last month or so, I go to get them, and they aren't there. I check every single pocket, every purse, every jacket, and eventually give up and run for the spares, only I don't really know where THEY are so I tear apart the entire house.

Later I realize that John took my keys to work in Abbotsford, and likely has been freaking out all day once he realized that he has them. I don't call him to let him know everything is okay, but instead let this sense of impending doom hang over him for the entire day.  He comes home, quietly lets himself in, and immediately apologizes while I laugh at him.

He looked really bewildered, and relieved. I thought it was hilarious!


5. Finally abandoning the teenager.

After months of nagging the teenager that you WILL leave his ass behind at school if he isn't ready, you finally arrive one day at the school doors and can't find him. After 20 minutes of searching you finally go and get groceries, completely guilt free, while he waits and then realizing you aren't coming, walks home.

Thereafter, he's always at the doors and you take GREAT delight in pretending that you don't see him so he runs for the car while you laugh hysterically, watching his panic in your rear view mirror.


Now I'm just waiting to do it in the morning, when he's still half asleep and not ready when I need to leave.   *evil grin*
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Saturday, November 02, 2013

Back For National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo)


highway


On my way to work every morning, I pass a large farm. The field was once waving with stalks of corn back in the late summer, but those have long since been cut and plowed under. You can see a barn, silo, and the mountains in the distance. In the mornings, often fog is hanging low to the ground, giving the scene an ethereal look, especially if the sun is hitting things at the right angle. It's quite beautiful, really.

Every morning when I pass that farm, I think of stopping and taking a picture, and every morning, I've reminded myself I don't have a blog. Or at least, one that I have really written on. The same thing happened all summer on every motorcycle ride we took out to the mountains, winding our way up to Cache Creek or over to Manning Park. The photo above is along the highway in Agassiz, BC.  I'd see beautiful things that I'd want to share, but none of it ever seemed to fit where I was actually writing. I'm not all about food, you see. There's a lot more to me than recipes and what I ate for dinner, and yet I felt like that's the only thing I confined myself to.

summer days
Summer days were all about the motorcycle and Starbucks

The last few months after I closed this space I've tried to find where I fit, and the truth is, I don't feel like I fit anywhere. I've been untethered, floating between this space and that, at times hating social media and never quite finding it the same as I used to. I love writing about food, yes-but there is so much more to me than that, and the entire reason why I began blogging in the first place really had nothing to do with food.

The truth is, I have missed writing. Not writing recipes or how to do something in the kitchen, pitching products or marketing, but real, soulful writing, which is what always gave me joy and for awhile there, I thought I had completely lost. Lately I've had piece after piece rolling in my head with no place to put them down and they've been like little thorns in my shoe-pricking and niggling, leaving me restless and irritable. I need to write-and about more than how to bake cookies, mind you.

When I first began blogging I tried to do NaBloPoMo, but the universe intervened and ruined my plans. Twice the power went out, another year something else happened, and I swore off of it ever after. Novembers would come and go, and I'd stubbornly declare that I do NOT participate because dammit, the universe didn't like me. Why tempt fate?

Until this year, of course. To rid myself of those niggling little thorns, or perhaps I just miss writing for me (and nobody else), Notes From the Cookie Jar is back for the month of November.

Life is finally normal again. I am really, truly, happy once more. For the next 30 days, I plan to share it with you. I want to flex those writing muscles again.

Will it continue after that? I'm not sure. Let's just get through November and see, shall we?

on the bike
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Thursday, July 11, 2013

Change

Years ago, I started Notes from the Cookie Jar because I wanted to see what blogging was and found myself hooked. The community, the creativity, all of it immediately drew me in. Before long I was teaching myself html and jumping in, feet first, to all things blogging had to offer.

It's been a crazy ride. If anyone told me that I'd have all the opportunities that have been offered me in the past 5 yrs would come along, I would've said they were crazy. Life has been amazing, but in the past year, things have changed.

Where I was when this blog started has changed. When I began blogging, I wanted to tell our story about Kevin and what it was like raising a child with dyspraxia. Partly because it was therapeutic for me to write about it, and also because I wanted people to know they weren't alone. I wanted to write about what it was like living in a small town on the west coast, just minutes from the ocean. I was writing to find myself after important relationships in my life seemed to just disintegrate.

Blogging gave me so much; a community, friends, self confidence. I have learned to do things that I never would've done otherwise. At one time I thought blogging could be a new career, but since then I've learned that leaving a job that provides a steady paycheck with benefits and a pension were not practical to give up. Writing can still be a passion but a hobby as well.

Then in the last few years life completely turned everything upside down, fell apart, and re-arranged itself.

I tried to come back here and write but somehow, nothing would come. I really had nothing to say. I didn't want this to become a 'my husband is sick and my best friend is dying' blog. I didn't want to be a train wreck on display as I struggled through the hardest few years of my life and had some moments so deep and dark I wondered if I needed to check into the psych ward at the local hospital. It felt fake to come here and chirp about how wonderful life was when it really wasn't.  I also found that my son, now almost 18 and who is practically a man, needs to tell his own stories. We don't live by the ocean anymore. I don't have to advocate for Kevin with his school. John is no longer sick. Anne is no longer here to have coffee with by the ocean or create beauty in her garden.

The life that I blogged about here for so long is gone. In some ways I feel like it died last August with Anne and when we moved 10 days later, because things have never been the same.

There's nowhere else to go from here. This chapter of my life is finished, and here I am; in a new town, with a life that is completely different stretched before me. The only constant in all of this is my love for the kitchen and helping to teach other people how to cook real, wholesome food. For months I have felt, deeply, that it's time to let go of what once was and turn the page to a whole new chapter.

So, this is goodbye from Notes From the Cookie Jar. Thank you so much for reading. I just don't think it's fair to give you only a half hearted attempt anymore, writing about things that are no longer here or relavant. I had said to friends that I was going to wait until December to make this decision but the truth is, I didn't think it was fair to wait. I know in my heart that this is the right thing to do.

Shutting down Notes doesn't mean I will quit blogging altogether; you are going to find me taking up the reins more over at Chasing Tomatoes. No longer just a recipe blog, it's going to be my space to talk all about our new life here in the Fraser Valley, with the focus on all the things I have grown so much to love. I want to explore the Fraser Valley and show you all the wonderful farms and things I find. I'll talk about things that have become my passions-school gardens, teaching kids how to cook, and more. You'll still find me over at Yummy Mummy Club and on Twitter. So this isn't really goodbye, just a bit of a change. I plan to spend my summer working on Chasing Tomatoes to make it the best it's ever been. It's time to focus on what I'm passionate about, instead of doing what feels too much like work and obligation.

Thank you so much for the comments and love and support. You have been amazing. I couldn't ask for better readers and friends.

Ready for the next step? I sure am.

Love Karen

xoxo

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Tuesday, July 02, 2013

The Delta Bessborough, Saskatoon (A Review!)


delta bessburough


Recently I had the wonderful opportunity to stay in the Delta Bessborough hotel in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. In the interest of true disclosure I want to let you know that I was a guest of the Saskatchewan Pulse Farmers there for three nights, but I enjoyed the hotel so much that I wanted to share more about the property with readers in case anyone was traveling to Saskatoon this summer. I was not asked to write about the Bessborough, nor compensated to do so. I am writing because I loved the hotel, and I think you would too.

The Delta Bessborough is located in downtown Saskatoon, nestled among 5 acres of gardens along the Saskatchewan river. Built in the 1930s, this spectacular Four Diamond hotel has recently undergone a 6.5 million dollar renovation to upgrade the rooms. The beautiful architecture, service and location makes it a fantastic spot to stay when you are in Saskatoon.

First of all, here's what my room looked like. I was on the 2nd floor, looking out over the gardens where the Saskatoon Jazz Festival stage was directly below.

Room at the Delta Bessborough

What I really loved was the full sized pillows. I hate teeny pillows. The bed was very comfortable!  Everything was absolutely spotless. What you can't see what a nicely sized desk with a power bar complete with all sorts of usb ports and charging spots to plug in everything from my smart phone to my ipod, a laptop or more.

The room was efficient. A little on the smaller size, compared to some, but clever touches such as having the fridge tucked away and the coffeemaker in the closet were good space saving ideas.

One thing that I almost never do when I'm away is order room service, but the first morning I was in Saskatoon it was raining so hard, and I didn't want to walk around in a strange city trying to find breakfast, so I ordered breakfast. The first morning I had eggs benedict, and the second morning my choice was yogurt, granola, and fruit.

breakfast
Yogurt, fruit, granola, toast, and coffee. What a great way to start the day!


The food was tasty, and the coffee some of the best hotel coffee I've ever drank. It helped that the coffee was Starbucks and came in a good sized carafe. Service was cheerful and efficient. I was really grateful for room service those two mornings, and was delighted that even when I tweeted the Bessborough about how much I enjoyed the breakfast, they answered!

bathroom


The bathroom in my room was fairly tiny but had nice fixtures and did the job. I especially liked the Philosophy amenities. The hair dryer worked well, and the towels were fluffy. It was spotlessly clean, too!

I walked the grounds around the Bessborough, taking in the gazebos and fountains, views of the river and paddle boats going by. There is a mall and a few Starbucks locations nearby, as well as a movie theatre and restaurants. Probably the most major draw during the time I was there was the Saskatoon Jazz festival, which had Colin James, Metric, and Ziggy Marley playing. If you were there for the Jazz festival the Bessborough was the place to be, but if you were looking for a quiet space to re-charge, I think the noise from the festival may have been a little much. I literally could look out my window and watch the shows I didn't have tickets to. There was no sleeping early the first night because it was so loud, but by the last night, I was so tired that I literally dozed off right through Ziggy Marley reverberating off the hotel walls.

promphoto

A gazebo on the grounds was a perfect spot for a young girl to get her prom photos taken.

bridge

The weather was a little unsettled while I was in Saskatoon, but it cleared up enough for me to walk along the river.

Overall, I'd highly recommend the Bessborough as a place to stay while you are in Saskatoon. I really enjoyed my stay and I can tell you, if I'm ever back in Saskatoon it will be the first place I look into.

Thank you so much to both the Bessborough for making my stay such a great one, and the Saskatchewan Pulse Farmers for inviting me! 

Why was I in Saskatoon? That's coming very, very soon! Let's just say it involves lentils, Chef Michael Smith, a farmer's market, and some lucky bastards. Stay tuned!



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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

McDonalds, Advertising, and A 9 Year Old Using Her Voice

When Kevin was about six years old, we went to Blockbuster video to rent a movie. At the cash register was the movie poster for the horror film, Thirteen Ghosts. When Kevin first saw it, he was startled.

Imagine you're six, and this is a poster is almost the same size as you.

"Mommy, that poster is scary. Why do they have it here, where kids have to look at it?" I asked him to explain what he thought to me in more detail. He cocked his little head to one side thoughtfully, his big blue eyes full of questions.

"Well, it would be okay over with the scary movies, because that's where the adults go anyway. It's a grown up movie. But here where we pay, all kinds of little kids are with their parents and have to look at it. It's not fair to them. It's not fair to ME. I don't want to see that. What if it gives kids nightmares? Can't they put something that's not so scary here?"

His logic was completely undeniable.

"Honey, you are right. Absolutely. And you know what? I think you should tell the manager of the store this. There is nothing wrong with having an opinion, or saying how you feel, if you do it respectfully. You do have a voice. I think you need to use it."

Kevin then very politely asked to speak to the manager and when he came, told him exactly what he had told me. The manager looked at me, expecting that this speech was coming from me, channeled through my child.

"It's all him," I replied. "I didn't even notice the poster."

A few days later when we returned the movie back to Blockbuster, the poster had been moved. I pointed this out to Kevin and told him that because he stated how he felt respectfully and made a very good point, someone listened to him and he helped them to think a little more about other kids going through the cash register.

Kids see things we adults don't even think about sometimes. We're so accustomed to how things are, or have been for years, that we don't even notice anymore. Kids notice, and they listen. They have opinions, and it's important that we grown ups listen to them. This is why I was so thrilled to hear about my friend Kia's daughter Hannah taking the CEO of McDonald's to task. What disappoints me though is how it's being reported, because news outlets are completely missing the mark-as are the comments of people reading them.

What Hannah asked the CEO of McDonalds was NOT to stop serving fries or make their food healthier. We all know that fast food companies do that, it's how they make their money, and they can serve whatever they want. What she said was that she didn't like was McDonalds marketing that was directed at kids. 

Huh. Totally different. Sure, serve all the fries and burgers you want, but when you dress it up in cartoon characters and put toys with it and then put it in front of a child who can't even cross the street by themselves, that's not fair.

Hannah is in their target market. Her Mom doesn't even have to take her McDonalds for her to be affected by their advertising, because McDonalds also sponsors reading programs in some schools (Happy Meals for all if you read x amount of books!), and children's programming is rife with commercials. At nine years old, she's already seen 25,000 commercials PER YEAR. That is insane.

Turn the TV off, some argue. Don't eat there. It's a free country. Take some personal responsibility.

Which I agree with to a point, but in all honesty, you can't get away from it. Advertising is everywhere-creeping into every aspect of our lives, and why should people have to pretty much live under a rock to escape it, especially children who don't even understand the ramifications of what they are watching?

Hannah used her voice, respectfully, to voice her opinion about something that she felt was damaging to all kids, especially those younger than her who can't speak for themselves. The response has been, according to her Mom Kia, 60% positive and 40% negative. The comments that I have read have been, at times, downright vicious.  I find it interesting that Hannah Alper, a 9 year old eco blogger has also taken on issues, but nobody accuses her parents of feeding her what to say or calling them bad parents because she questions things. Instead they praise her for her intelligence and say how inspiring she is. How is there really any difference? Is fast food really so sacred and engrained in our culture that it's okay to attack a child who politely asks a company to stop advertising directly at kids?

Huh. Maybe McDonalds has done a better job of marketing than we thought.


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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

I Love My Yaris


I love my car. A bright lagoon blue, it's easy to pick out in parking lots amongst the sea of boring grey and white cars. Being an automatic, zippy little thing, it's fun and easy to drive too-I always have driven a stick shift, although I've never really been that good at it. The compact size means my car fits perfectly in my garage and is just the right size for city driving. When we bought the Yaris in September last year it was actually the first car I had ever picked out on my own, without my husband's intervention. He's the car guy-the one who knows about engines and what's good or not, whereas I usually go for color and the look of the car. He  had lobbied for a larger vehicle for me to drive, but I saw this car all shiny and cute on the lot and after a test drive, knew it was what I wanted.

John has always been particular about his cars. When we met he had a Bonneville SSE, completely loaded with everything you could ever want. He made me take my shoes off when I got in it. With our Corolla, he's similarly protective. In fact, he has specific rules:

1. park as far away from other cars in the parking lot as possible, usually by a curb
2. don't park near trucks, clunkers, or cars with an N or L on them
3. stand beside the car on the ferry to make sure nobody slams their door into the side of the car (sadly, this has happened to us before)
4. don't ever leave any garbage in it. Ever.

Any scratch would be met with, "What did you do?" even if the offender was a rouge shopping cart on Boxing Day in an empty parking lot. In the past twenty years, I've taken a lot of heat for little things happening to our cars so when I got the keys for the Yaris, I figured what was good for him was good for me, too.

"Be nice to my car! Don't you dare put a scratch in it or I'm going to be REALLY UPSET. And take your garbage, mister!"

Once he drove it on a gravel road and I voiced my displeasure, loudly, every time we could hear a pebble hit the paint.

"You wouldn't have taken YOUR car on this road, yet you take MINE and now the paint will all be chipped and it's dirty after I just washed it. I don't want paint chips. They rust."

Hey, if he can, so can I, right? It's my baby. I wash it carefully. Vacuum it often. Clean it out all the time, and park it in the farthest spot of a parking lot every single time. Don't call me obssessed. I just really, genuinely, love my car. We go everywhere in the Lower Mainland in it, and I love how easy it is to drive.

For some reason, car rides have always resulted in some really great conversations. On Saturday as we drove through Surrey to catch the skytrain to go to Eat Vancouver, Kevin began telling me about a friend of his who had bought a really fancy car, and commented that he would love to get a really nice car one day.

"Kev, I understand the draw but you have to understand something. Nice cars are here today and gone tomorrow. Your Dad had a $42,000 car back in 1990 that he loved and kept in mint condition, and all it took was 5 seconds and someone else not paying attention for it to be completely totalled. Being rear ended on the Oak Street bridge at 80 km/hr was awful, and it's even more frustrating when it's completely not your fault. So while they may seem appealing, I've never had a need for a fancy car. You may drive carefully and park it far away in the lots so it doesn't get dinged, but all it takes is one person not paying attention and it's toast."

Um, those words? Totally prophetic.

Three minutes later, as we stopped in a dedicated turning lane to go right onto Fraser Highway to allow oncoming traffic to pass, another car plowed right into us.

Being rear ended is weird; at first there's the initial bump and for a brief second you wonder what is going on, and then the impact really hits, sending you flying and seat belts snapping back. Kevin was taking a sip of coffee and almost ended up wearing the whole thing, while I had been leaning over the steering wheel looking for a break in the traffic before proceeding.

Later, we were grateful for a lot of things; the mug was plastic and not Kevin's usual metal mug, which may have broken his teeth or a paper Starbucks one, which would've showered us both with hot coffee. The airbags didn't go off, which was lucky because since I was leaning over,  I was very close to the steering wheel and would've been seriously injured. There was nothing in the backseat to go flying because just before we left I had cleaned out the entire car of extra stuff. I had also tucked some Tylenol into my purse, which is unusual, but for some reason I had a feeling we might need it.

Through jangled nerves information was exchanged, pictures taken, and before long we were on our way again. I'll admit that my lower lip settled into a pout and I shook my head (now with a sore neck muscles), slightly.

"My poor, poor car. What CRAPPY LUCK." Despite the minimal looking damage, I wasn't fooled; being hit at that speed likely means there's more damage than meets the eye.

Kevin nodded sadly in support.

"Oh well. Cars can be fixed. The important lesson here? You buy one that is well made. One that's reliable. One that keeps US safe, and this baby?"  My hand reached over to lovingly stroke the dashboard as I continued,

"She is AWESOME."

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Saturday, May 18, 2013

I Called Her Anne

She's the first real best friend I ever had; the one who, even though she moved only a few years after we became close, letters kept us in touch. Summer visits, letter scrawled on lined 3 ring paper, swatches of prom dress material were pieces of our friendship in the days before Facebook and Twitter.

I squealed for joy when we became roommates for about six months in the big city after graduation and sobbed because my heart was broken when she had to move back home, hundreds of miles away.

She supported me when I married John, even though nobody else would and was the maid of honour at my wedding.

Kids, weddings, births, deaths, jobs, and life happened, and somehow, our communication waned. There was no fight or falling out at all, we just somehow got caught up in our own stuff and time to send letters became shorter and shorter. Visits were fewer and farther between.

Today we sat over steaming cups of coffee after ten years of not seeing each other, and it was like not a single day had passed. We picked up right where we left off, reminiscing about first loves, teenage drama and our city escapades. The best friends are those with whom you have a familiar rhythm. There is no question about your love or loyalty, and even though you both know you've been bad about keeping in touch, you wish each other well and know that no matter what happens, you ARE still friends.  The conversation flowed effortlessly, just like when we were little kids..

..and then  I called her Anne.

Long ago Anne had mentioned to me that she wanted me to move on once she passed, and I had explained that while I knew intellectually I would have more friends, nobody could take her place. She was special. There would be a giant, gaping hole to fill. That hole has, at times been almost physically painful as I've tried to wade through grief and loss the last seven months. While now not quite so raw, every now and then it creeps up on me and catches me by surprise.

When I called her Anne, we were laughing over coffee and she didn't even flinch. Her brown eyes just smiled back at me, and I knew. Whether 12 or 42, friendships like this are rare and special, never to be taken for granted. Anne taught me that. Why didn't I see it before? Why did I let life get in the way?

She has been there all along, for 30 amazing years.

All I needed was a reminder.







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Thursday, May 16, 2013

It's Never Just a Lockdown

I was sitting in a classroom, my work day almost finished, marking math papers. She quietly stepped in the room and whispered about an 'emergency' call, and after I dropped my pen and immediately followed she turned to me and asked,

"You have an older son, right?"

Catch your breath, Karen. Don't panic. It's probably nothing. Still, I practically ran to the phone.

Kevin's voice on the other end sounded relaxed, and somewhat annoyed.

"There was a bomb threat, Mom. We've been in lockdown for a few hours. Just waiting for the police to give us the all clear. Don't pick me up, I'll walk home."

"No..wait, you're in lockdown? Let's meet down the road, then. I'm off in ten minutes. I'll come get you. And seriously, it's not really an emergency. You scared me to death. I thought you were at the hospital or something. You're fine-but thanks for calling me."

I find him at a fast food joint near his school and he spills the story once in the car. After lunch today, some message was apparently scrawled in the school about a bomb. They had been in lockdown since just after lunch, sitting in their classrooms, and just waiting for the police to check the school and give the all clear. Once the news sunk in, I could't believe my reaction. Not an emergency? What the hell was I thinking?

Kevin doesn't remember Columbine, but I do. I work in schools. The few days after seeing students run for their lives on TV, or Patrick Ireland pushing himself out a window and being caught by a SWAT team left me wondering; what do I do if there's a gunman at my workplace? How do I protect that defenseless child in a wheelchair? Do I haul them out of the chair under a table & throw myself on top? Do we run? Would we have time?

I spent the next few months scouting out every exit I could find. in fact, all these years later, I still look for the exits.

He doesn't know what it's like to try to hide twenty six year olds in a dark room during lock down practise and imagine what it's like to throw yourself in front of a gunman to protect other people's babies-not because it's your job, but because you really could not allow anything to happen to those precious little souls entrusted to your care. Their tiny wide eyes. Their innocence, and how hard it is to try to explain what we are doing without shattering it.

"I can't believe I'm going to say this to you. I can't even believe that we're having this conversation. I have never wanted to, but I'm going to tell you something. If you are in the hall, or the lunchroom, or a place near a door and there is an actual shooter in the building, you get the hell out. You don't hide in the library under a table unless there's nowhere to go. Go out a window if you must. When you get back there on Tuesday, I want you to scout out all the exits so you know where they are if you ever need to use them. Leave the laptop behind and just get the hell out of the building."

This is crazy. Why are we even having to discuss this? We should be talking about girls and parties and summer jobs, and instead we're discussing best survival strategies if a gunman invades the school. What the hell has become of our society? 

"You know, I have an idea," I continue, "We need a code word. If a real disaster happened you may not be able to call. Let's have a code word. It will mean, "I'm safe & meet me at our designated place. All you have to do is text that word to my phone. I'll use it too."

Kevin nods. We talk about past school shootings, and he tells me only then that the supposed bomb was alleged to be right under his classroom.

"If it was real, we'd all be dead," he continued.

I don't even want to go there. It's too much.

There are lots of errands to run tonight-things that I need to get done. Important things only this morning, but now they seem ridiculous. Instead, once home I pull out M&M cookies and ice cream, smooshing them together into delicious sandwiches that we nibble at and then lick sweet melty ice cream off our fingers.

Errands can wait.

Today, I am enjoying being home with my son.


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