Friday, May 19, 2017

Summer Reading 2017

I will go ahead and admit I was that nerdy kid who loved summer reading, and I still do.  I thought I'd share a few suggestions of books I've read lately in case you're one of those cool kids too.

Ryan's Hand by Leila Meacham

A romance on a cattle ranch . . . don't mind if I do.  I thought this was a new release, but it is actually Meacham's first novel, one she wrote when she was an English teacher back in the '80s.  She gives me hope that I'll be able to retire on the sales of my best seller one day.

If you've read any of her other books- Roses, Somerset, Tumbleweeds, or, Titans- all highly recommended themselves- it's not quite the same sweeping Texas saga you may be used to.  However, it's still an enjoyable read, perfect for your beach bag, especially if you like Mary Kay Andrews, Dorothea Benton Frank, or Elin Hilderbrand.  While it is a little predictable, if you're like me and listened to Toby Keith's "Should've Been a Cowboy" one too many times, it will satisfy your desire for wild stallions, chuck wagons, and love on the range.

The Coincidence of Coconut Cake by Amy E. Reichert

Never has a book made me as hungry as this one did!  It is a lighthearted and touching story of a chef set on reaching her dreams and trying to find love along the way.  Oddly enough, this book also made me want to take a trip to Milwaukee, a city I've never even considered visiting.  But after reading about the art museum, the baseball tailgates, the cultural festivals, the craft brews, and all of the fried cheese, I'm ready to pack up and head out.  Sadly, I may have to settle for a Fireflies game and a trip to Flying Saucer.

I loved the characters in this book and the idea that our friends, both old and young, help bring out the best in us.

Overall, the story reminded me of the movie Burn, which is really good if you haven't seen it.  It stars Bradley Cooper- need I say more?

How to Raise and Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success by Julie Lythcott-Haims

I like to throw in a little non-fiction every now and then, and this one was recommended by a friend and fellow teacher, so I thought I would give it a try.  This is an interesting read for parents and teachers.  Really, it would be a good read for anyone who works with young people.

The book starts by explaining how our culture created the "helicopter parent" phenomenon and then goes on to explain how we can combat the situation.  It also tries to answer the question What can we do to counterbalance the prevalence of participation trophies to help kids develop grit?  If you are a fan of John Rosemond, Lythcott-Haims' advice reminds me a lot of his work.

For me, the book made me think about how I define satisfaction and how I can help both my children and my students think on their own and learn from failure.  While I do want my kids to succeed, I also want them to stay grounded.  Lythcott-Haims presents practical advice, along with well-researched commentary, to help parents find the right balance.

One Perfect Lie by Lisa Scottoline

This is an intriguing mystery about a high school social studies teacher and coach who isn't quite what he seems.  Seeing that I share a classroom with a high school social studies teacher and coach, by page 10, I was freaking out that Matt might actually be some kind of psycho killer.  When Jackson asked me what the book is about, I told him hidden identities  He looked really confused, so I explained it's like PJ Masks.  You know, going undercover into the night to save the day.  I'm sure Scottoline would be thrilled to know I just compared her thriller to a children's cartoon.

Anyway, this is a suspenseful page turner with a few twists, turns, and murders along the way.  I can definitely see it being turned into a movie, hopefully starring a cute Chris- Pratt, Hemsworth, Pine, or Evans, I'm not picky.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

Best.Book.Ever. No, really, I'm kinda worried that now that I've read this, I'll never find another book as good.  I laughed, I cried, and sometimes I did both at the same time . . . which may or may not have caused me to snort.

This book tells the story of Ove, a rather ornery gentleman, and his neighbors, who all live in what seems like a cool collection of row houses in Sweden.  All of Ove's quirks made me feel like I was getting a glimpse of what Sheldon Cooper's life will be like when he's 60.  I'll admit, the book was a little hard to get into, and I didn't even like Ove at first, but by the end of the book, I wanted my very own Ove to live next door.

I loved the way this story intertwined the lives of all of the neighbors, reminding me that we never know the impact we can have on people or how our paths will cross.  I read this book on my iPad, but now I want to buy a hard copy just so I can easily reread the best parts.  My friend Jonelle recommended this and Coconut Cake, and I sure am glad she did.

The Magnolia Story by Chip and Joanna Gaines

So, three of my best friends live in Texas: Melanie Shankle, Jen Hatmaker, and Joanna Gaines, or as I like to call them when we go out for girls' night, Mel, Jen, and JoJo.  Now, while that statement may be a tad fabricated, the truth is I recommend all of their books, but since I read The Magnolia Story most recently, I'm going to write about it.

I fell in love with Chip and Jo when I was on maternity leave with Reeves.  (I also fell in love with the Property Brothers during this time, so much so that one day I referred to my boys as Jonathan and Drew instead of Jackson and Reeves!)  Since then, Alex and I have watched their show every Tuesday night, and we have contemplated moving to Waco more than once.

This book will make you feel like you are having a personal conversation with Chip and Jo.  They share stories about how they met and fell in love and how their faith helped them build their business.  They also offer up a few hilarious examples of Chip's questionable parenting moments.  I think even if you've never seen Fixer Upper, you will still enjoy their story.

Well, that's it, just a few of my favorites from this year.  If you have any suggestions for my summer reading list, just drop them in the comments below.  I believe in the power of a good recommendation.  Happy reading!

Friday, May 12, 2017

It Takes a Village

A guy typically dreads asking his girlfriend's dad for her hand in marriage.  In the South, this process can often include a shotgun, a background check, and a lot of intense questioning.

Alex, on the other hand, really dodged a bullet when he decided to propose to me.  Since I grew up with just my mom, he only had to ask for her blessing, and she would have said yes to any guy with a college degree, a job, and a good head of hair just to get me off her payroll.

Very quickly, though, Alex realized something unique about my situation.  After one of our wedding parties in Rock Hill, he looked at me and said,

"You have a lot of moms."

"Yep, I do."

"It kinda scares me."

"Yep, it should."

And Alex was right to be a little nervous.  See, I have been blessed throughout my life to be surrounded by a pack of protective moms.  These weren't your ordinary moms.  These women ran restaurants, held political offices, led government programs, chaired church and civic boards, and loved me like one of their own.

They taught me how to ride a bike without training wheels, how to get my ducks in a row, and how to pop the heads off of shrimp like a champ.

I continue to be amazed and inspired by the women around me

Over the years, I have watched women bravely fight cancer with courage and grace.  I have watched women lose their husbands and their children too soon, yet somehow maintain their faith through it all.  I have watched women fight for the families they have and fight for the children they long for with determination and fearlessness.

Over the years, I have watched friends lose moms before they could celebrate milestones together and have then watched these same friends honor their moms every day by the way they live, the causes they champion, and the way they raise their own children.

Biological or not, all of these women have molded me into the woman I am today.

One of my favorite movies is War Room.  If you haven't seen it, stop finish reading this blog right now and see if you can find it on Netflix.  In the movie, Miss Clara has been a mentor for Elizabeth, guiding her through a rough time in her marriage.  At the end of the movie, Elizabeth asks if they can still meet, and Miss Clara provides her with a challenge, saying, "You need to find a young woman to invest in, and I'll do the same.  We all need help now and then."

I am lucky to have so many strong women as role models.  My hope is that I will take all of their love and support and pay it forward, just like Miss Clara encourages Elizabeth to do.  Navigating relationships, building careers, raising kids . . . it's hard work.  The key is to remember we're all in this together.  Some days, the struggle is real, but we can strive to make the journey a little easier for one another.  We all make an impact on other people, whether we mean to or not.  Personally, I want my impact to be positive, building others up the way my moms did for me.

I hope one day my boys will look back and think I was a good mom, but I won't be able to take all of the credit.  If I'm a good mom, it's only because I learned from some of the best.

These are just a few of my Rock Hill moms.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Lessons from Draft Day

Two big things happened in my life last week: I finished my M.Ed. in Elementary Literacy and Deshaun Watson got drafted by the Houston Texans.  Now, I know you're probably thinking there's no way those two events can possibly be related, but let's take a closer look, shall we?

First, my Masters . . .

I had always toyed with the idea of a M.Ed. in Literacy, so last March, I decided to make it happen.  I really felt like it was what I was supposed to do.  As I got started, I was so excited that this would lead to new opportunities.  This March, however, all of these new doors I thought would open kept closing in my face, and I began to wonder why I had taken so much time away from my family, my students, and even myself to get a degree that seemed to serve no real purpose.

Ultimately, I started to feel like I was doing all this work just to end up with a very expensive piece of paper I was never going to use.  I was beyond frustrated.

And then Draft Day came . . .

For the past few years, I have been a Texans fan, largely because they have J.J. Watt, whose defensive prowess is unsurpassed. He's been the Defensive Player of the Year three times, led the league in sacks twice, been to the Pro Bowl four times . . . Oh please, who am I kidding, I like J.J. Watt because he's the cutest guy in the NFL!  They also have one of my favorite receivers, DeAndre "Nuk" Hopkins.  I like the Texans so much, I chose them as my fantasy football team defense last season, and they did not disappoint.

As a Clemson fan, I was pumped to watch the NFL Draft because I just knew, without a doubt, Deshaun Watson was going to be the first pick.  Evidently, there's a reason I don't work for ESPN.  Not only was he not the first pick, he wasn't even the first quarterback drafted.  In fact, he wasn't even the second quarterback taken.  Picks came and went, and Watson was still on the board, so by around pick 10, I was done and ready for bed.  That's when Alex pointed out the Texans were coming up, and they needed a quarterback.

Wait, what?

Are you telling me Deshaun, Nuk, J.J., and even Jadeveon Clowney, could all end up on the same team?  That would be better than I could ever imagine.

Well, the Texans did pick Watson, and the disappointment I felt with the first pick was completely replaced with excitement and relief.  Watson is going to an established team that has a history of making it to the playoffs, instead of to a team where, apologies to Browns fans everywhere, quarterbacks often go to die. On Friday, it was funny to be able to look back at the night and see that instead of getting all worked up (and possibly throwing things at my TV), I should have just relaxed and trusted that Watson would go where he was meant to go.

And that's what I've come to realize about my life too.  Sometimes, the first pick isn't always the best pick.  Sometimes what we think we want isn't always the right thing for us.  Sometimes, it takes 11 tries before we hit the jackpot on the twelfth.  The key is to have faith, to do what we can, and then to trust that it will work out, often better than we could ever imagine.  I may not put what I learned in my Masters program to work right away, but I have to believe there is a purpose for getting it, even though I may not be able to see that purpose right now.

When you really think about it, Guns N' Roses said it best years ago: All we need is just a little patience.

And Go Texans!

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Nacho Mama's Taco Salad

Cinco de Mayo is right around the corner, so I thought I'd share one of my family's favorite dishes: Mexican Chef's Salad.

My mom got this recipe from a friend when she was living in Colorado and pregnant with me.  As she tells it, she went over to the Hankins' house every Sunday in the summer for this salad and a strawberry daiquiri.  She claims the daiquiri was virgin, but this was back in 1978 when moms smoked and kids rolled around the backseat without any sort of restraint system, so who knows!  Anyway, the frequency of the meal does explain my obsession with both avocados and fruity beverages.

Mexican Chef's Salad

1 1/2 lbs. ground beef
1 can dark red kidney beans
Taco Seasoning (Old El Paso or homemade)
Avocado, cubed
Tomato, chopped
Small onion, chopped
8-10 oz. Sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded
Iceberg lettuce, shredded
Bag of Doritos*, crushed

*Right now, I need you to put your right hand over your heart, raise your left hand, and repeat after me, "I, (state your name), do solemnly vow, never to use Baked Doritos in this salad."  I know what you're thinking, "Now, Katherine, does it really make a difference?"  In one word- YES!  Don't get me wrong, I love Baked Doritos, but for some reason, when they mix with the dressing, they end up tasting like stale cardboard.

Combine in blender-

1 C mayonnaise
1/4 C chili sauce
2 T sweet relish
2 T chopped green olives
1 little jar pimentos
1/2 lemon, juiced
Dash Tabasco
Dash Worcestershire Sauce

Getting Started

Brown beef and drain.  Then add beef, beans, and taco seasoning back to pan and simmer for 10 minutes.  Cool.

My mom's recipe doesn't call for taco seasoning, but I think it really elevates the flavor profile of the whole dish.  (PS- I have no idea what that means, but they say it on Master Chef all the time, so I thought it would add to my credibility.)

Just before serving

Combine salad ingredients in a BIG bowl and pour dressing on top.  Then, making sure you've washed your hands (because we all know you snuck a few Doritos and licked off the orange yumminess), toss the salad . . . yes, with your hands.  My mom and I have both tried other utensils, including a fantastic pair of acrylic salad "fingers," but none of them quite did the job the way your own two hands will.  Sadly, once you've tossed the salad, it will no longer look as lovely as this beautiful sunflower Alex designed, but it will leave people begging for more.

This salad serves 6-8 people easily, so if you don't plan on eating it all in one night, I suggest only tossing half of it with the dressing and Doritos.  They are much better crisp and crunchy.  I love to serve this with margaritas, Mexican cornbread, and key lime pie.  I'm a big fan of the pie recipe on the back of Nellie & Joe's Famous Key West Lime Juice.  It is quick, easy, and delicious.  Sadly, neither Nellie nor Joe paid me for that endorsement.

My boys love the salad, although they do sometimes eat a deconstructed version with the chips; beans & meat; and lettuce, cheese, & dressing all in different compartments on a divided plate.  They get that quirky little habit from me, so I can't really judge.  This meal is also a good one to take to families when they have had a baby, mainly because it is different from chicken casserole, and it can be prepped in advance.

I hope you enjoy the salad as much as we do.  Happy Cinco de Mayo!  Buen provecho!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

5 Wishes for My Birthday Boy

Dear Jackson,

I can't believe today is your 5th birthday! I know you're excited to blow out the candles on your cake and make a wish, but first, I'd like to make a few wishes of my own.

My first wish is that you'll always love to laugh.  You laugh with your whole body, and the pure joy you exude is contagious.  I love when your tickle box gets turned over and you can hardly breathe because you're laughing so hard.  Life will be a whole lot easier if you have the ability to laugh at yourself, and you definitely crack yourself up, as evidenced by the way you die laughing at your made up "Why did the chicken cross the road?" jokes.  Take it from someone who's been there- that laugh of yours will probably get you into trouble once or twice.  That's okay.  It's like my man Jimmy Buffett says, "If we couldn't laugh, we would all go insane."

My second wish is that you will always be passionate about what you love.  From the time you could talk, everyone knew your favorite color was BLUE.  Over the years, your sweet teachers have tried to help you branch out, especially during art, but much like Picasso, you seem determined to have your own Blue Period.  Your love of everything blue has only been surpassed by your love of (or obsession with!) giraffes.  I don't think anybody else would ever think of asking Santa for a blue giraffe, but even at two, you knew exactly what you liked.  I hope you will always stay true to who you are and be proud of what makes you you.

My third wish is that you will always stay curious and enjoy learning.  As a baby, you literally ate the spine of Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear?, which led your dad to say you hungered for knowledge.  As corny as that joke was, it is true you are constantly thinking and questioning the world around you.  We never know what question you're going to ask next.  It could be anything from How do earthworms poop? to Why is A'ja Wilson so tall?  Some days you ask so many questions, we think you're destined to be an interrogator for the CIA.  Having been in your hot seat on more than one occasion, I feel sure you would get any criminal to confess in a matter of minutes!  The best part of your curiosity is that you make me think about things I would never even consider, so I hope you will stay full of wonder and appreciate details other people may overlook.

My fourth wish is that you will always have a strong faith.  It's no secret you love going to church.  Even though right now you go more to see your friends and eat Mr. Tim's sausage biscuits and chicken fingers than you go to hear the sermon, I hope church will continue to be a place where you find support and happiness.  I never will forget the day you came home asking if we could play David and Goliath.  You wanted to be David and volunteered Reeves to be Goliath.  While I had to veto that idea--I didn't really want to explain to DSS why I let a three year old throw rocks at his brother's head--I hope you will always love the story of David and Goliath.  Throughout life, when you face your own giants, may you remember God is constantly with you, giving you strength.

My fifth wish is for you to always have a close relationship with your little brother.  I know you weren't too sure about him when he first arrived on the scene, but it's obvious you were meant to be a big brother.  I know you get tired of the way he follows you everywhere- I get it, I'd like to go to the bathroom by myself once in awhile too- but he only stalks you because he thinks you're the coolest.  My favorite sound is hearing the two of you laughing and playing when I'm in another room.  I love to stop and just listen to the giggles.  Granted, I know the laughter will eventually lead to, "Mom, Reeves sat on me," but that's just how he shows his love.  He'll grow out of it . . . we hope.  And while we can all look forward to the day he finds another way to show his affection, I hope you'll never grow out of your friendship with one another.

Happy birthday, Jack Jack.  May all your wishes come true.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Rockin' Spring Break Like 1987

I don't remember much about my Spring Breaks as a child.  I'm guessing they involved playing Barbies, choreographing music videos to every Debbie Gibson song on the radio, and riding bikes all over my neighborhood.

The only thing I remember for sure is that my grandmother spent Spring Break at our house.  Now I loved my Mimi, but bless her heart, she was a bit of a nervous Nelly . . . so much so that when I went out riding bikes, she wanted me to come back and ring the doorbell every five minutes so she would know I was still alive.  The main problem with this plan was that I lived on a hill.  I had very short legs back then (you know, as opposed to now when I have legs like Gisele), so once I rode down to meet my friends, it literally took me five minutes for my little legs to pedal my bike back to the top of the hill and confirm my safety.  Get In Shape Girl ain't got nothin' on Mimi's hill workouts!

Fast forward to Spring Break 2017.  As this year's Spring Break approached, I started planning all the fun and exciting things the boys and I could do during the week.  I wanted this week to be jam-packed with magic and memories, the kind the boys would always remember.

It only took me until Tuesday to realize I wasn't having any fun.

We were in the middle of dying Easter eggs when I figured out why.  I was so busy trying to dye the perfect eggs for the perfect Easter centerpiece to make the perfect memory, I was missing out on the pure joy Jackson found mixing all of the colors together into a "potion" that fizzed when he added vinegar.

Then, when I realized three of the eggs we were going to dye had cracked, I was so disappointed because the day just wasn't going like I had planned.  That's when a four year old, who is way smarter than I am, came up with the idea for us to use those "ruined" eggs to make egg salad and then have a picnic in the back yard.  From the mouths of babes . . .

Right then and there, I decided I would let Jackson lead the way and tell me how to make the egg salad like he did at school, and I didn't even stop him when I thought he was adding a little too much mustard.  In other words, I stopped trying to control every little detail.  Watching those chubby little hands peel the eggs- a task I didn't even know he could do- will be one of those memories forever etched in my mind.

When we finished making the egg salad, Jackson tasted it and declared, "Oh yeah, it's perfect."  And it really was.  Once I let go of all of the pressure I had put on myself to create the "perfect" Spring Break, I actually relaxed and had a perfect Spring Break.

I didn't end up changing any of my plans for Spring Break- we still tried out a new park, ate at the boys' favorite Mexican restaurant, picked strawberries, and spent time with friends and family.  What I did change was my attitude toward Spring Break.  Instead of trying to orchestrate all of these magical experiences, I started appreciating the little moments.  Once I got out of my own way, I was able to let the week unfold the way it was supposed to and truly enjoy my time with the boys.

Turns out, my girl Debbie Gibson was right way back in 1987 . . . sometimes the most memorable experiences really do come Out of the Blue.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Little People, Big Lessons

A few weeks ago, a friend and I were talking about, and stressing about, all of the options that exist in education these days.  For our preschoolers, we have to decide between private, public, and parochial schools.  Should we choose Montessori or language immersion?  Should we choose half-day or full-day kindergarten?  Or, should we forget those choices altogether and opt for home schooling?  It seems like such an important decision, one that will impact them for the rest of their lives.  I mean, where we send our kids to kindergarten determines whether or not they'll attend an Ivy League university and run a Fortune 500 company, right?

I may have a tendency to get carried away.

In the middle of our conversation, a thought hit me.  As a high school teacher, I have seen a lot of students over the past 17 years, and when I think back, the best kids to work with weren't necessarily the smartest ones.  The best kids to work with have always been the nice ones.  The ones who are kind to their classmates.  The ones who keep trying even when the content gets challenging. Sure, being smart can make school easier for the student, but being nice can make school easier for everybody.

As a student, I made good grades in high school and was lucky enough to receive several scholarships to Furman.  When I got there, I discovered that when it came to knowing how to study and manage my time, I wasn't quite as smart as I thought I was.  The good people in Furman's financial aid department discovered this too and quickly took back those scholarships and gave them to students who knew how to turn off VH-1's Behind the Music and actually study for a test.  Being "smart" can change in the blink of an eye with one low test score, one bad grade, or one horrible semester in Earth Science 101.

Being nice lasts a lifetime.

But how do I teach my boys to be nice?  I feel fairly confident in my ability to teach them about analyzing figurative language and writing argumentative essays.  Teaching them to be nice, on the other hand, is a whole different ballgame.  How do I teach kindness?  Empathy?  It's not like I can show them a PowerPoint about those qualities and then give them a quiz to check for understanding . . . can I?

Then I remembered a strategy good teachers all over the world use every day. . . modeling.  If I want my boys to be nice, I have to show them how.  They need to see me thank the bagger at Publix who pushes our buggy to the car.  They need to see me take meals to families with new babies.  Ultimately, they need to see me treat other people the way I want to be treated.  Goodness knows, I don't get it right all the time, and some days I need serious extra help, but I have to keep trying.

Now, I'm not going to lie, I'll still pin educational activities on Pinterest.  And I'll definitely keep reading to the boys every night.  I want them to have multiple opportunities to learn and grow.  But I'm also going to try to give them even more opportunities to see me loving others.  That's the most important lesson I can teach them.