Friday, April 29, 2016

The Good (The Bad, The Ugly)

Happy Friday, faithful readers.

We're in the most hectic part of the semester: we have one week left of classes before finals. So, from this point, I write to you about what's going on with my life: The Good (The Bad, The Ugly). I prefer to mostly focus on the good, but what kind of blogger would I be if I didn't tell it like it is? We'll start with the ugly and work our way up to the good stuff.

The Ugly

Mimi fell at the beginning of the week and broke her ankle. The news is a tough pill to swallow because her injury means that she won't be able to live at home where she is comfortable and will have to be in rehab, maybe for as long as three months. The fortunate thing is that she was able to contact help right away and her children are taking good care of her. My aunt Annette was able to be with her immediately and is now returning home, while my dad is on his way to stay with Mimi and oversee the remodeling of her bathroom to make it wheelchair accessible. Mimi is so important to everyone in the family. I have a group text with my cousins where we keep each other updated on what we hear about her status. Mimi is beloved by all that meet her, so please keep her in your thoughts and prayers as she works hard in rehab to make a recovery. At 98, Mimi often reminds me that she won't live forever, but we want her to be here with us as long as she is enjoying it. And Mimi, I really think you're going to enjoy this remodeled bathroom, so just hang in there ;)

The Bad

We've entered "survival mode" and are both experiencing all the physical symptoms of stress that go with it. Read: we're working too much and sleeping too little. We've had a lot of night events at work lately, a lot of additions to our already overloaded schedules, and not very much quality time together. When students become stressed, we are sometimes on the receiving end of "that's not fair!" comments and less than pleasant emails, etc. I know we'll get through it like we do every semester, so it hasn't put a big damper on my spirits; even though I'm tired, I'm trying to stay both upbeat and patient. All teachers and students can relate to the fact that, at this point in the semester, we're all just doing the best we can.

The Good

  • I'll start out by saying that my students have done some awesome work this week. Towards the end of the semester, I sometimes feel like I've given them too much work, and I worry they won't succeed. But, then, they rise to expectations and prove my doubts were wrong, and it's an amazing thing to see that reminds me (again and again) why I do this crazy/awesome/tough/exhilarating thing called teaching. 

  • Brendan worked so hard to organize the final creative writing awards ceremony of the year. This one honored student poets and was judged by Loretta Diane Walker. It was an amazing evening, and I was so proud of all involved. 

  • April is almost over, and with it will end my working out everyday this month challenge. This is good news because as I woke up to rain at 4:45AM, already sore from past workouts, and on a few hours of sleep, it was tough to get up and go workout again. I'm really proud of myself, but boy am I glad that only one more day remains in this challenge! 
  • A co-worker gifted me with a brand new beautiful copy of this book today. I can't wait to read more about the KonMarie way...summer is coming, and I feel a summer project coming on! 
  • This lady still lives in my backyard. I feel so lucky because the only thing cuter than hummingbirds is baby hummingbirds! 
  • The weekend is here. I already celebrated by eating macaroni, and soon, we'll celebrate with movie night with our honor society students (and the arrival of this year's club t-shirts!). I'm SO ready to put aside my stress tonight. 
  • Now that Game of Thrones is back, my weekends are even more exciting. 

Happy weekend friends. We're off to get ready for movie night!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

No Guilt Relaxation

Greetings faithful, readers.

This week passed by in a flash, and I realized I haven't updated the blog. Today, I want to write about a topic that people with 24/7 jobs may relate to: the guilt that comes with relaxation. For many of us with careers that never allow us to feel "off the clock," the weekends can be difficult as you try to balance your own life with your work life. I've finally found a solution that has done wonders for my health and wellbeing, and I wanted to share a little about my strategy.

These days, I rarely work on the weekends, and when I do, I schedule it ahead of time and make a very conscious decision, before starting a work project, on when I will finish it. This actually allows me to be more productive since I don't waste time procrastinating. I now use my weekends (with the exception of the weekend before finals week) to fully relax and recharge, which makes me a happy teacher come Monday morning.

The first step is to manage other people's expectations. For me, this included being honest with my students about two things: when I will check emails and how long I will take to grade their work. My email policy is now a part of my syllabus and lets my students know that I will check email Monday-Friday from 8AM-5PM, excluding college observed holidays. I am very careful to always do a 5PM email check and keep my word about responding to anything sent before 5PM. If a student writes me at 5:40PM with questions about an assignment due that night, I write back the next morning: "I missed your question, please remember to write to me before 5PM if you need a same day answer." It's important to keep your boundaries. For feedback, I return major assignments within two calendar weeks for a 16 week class and one calendar week for an 8 week class. All of my assignments are due at 11:59PM, so this gives me some wiggle room to work at night, but usually, I exceed my own grading deadlines.

The second step is to manage your own expectations. In my planner, I make a note of when I need to have each assignment returned, so I can work towards that goal. I make the most of my weekdays, but if grading or something else work related must happen on the weekend, I set deadlines for myself such as "I am going to grade lit essays from 12-2 on Sunday" or "I am taking one hour Sunday evening to make handouts and update assignment sheets." I plan out when I will work ahead of time, just like I think ahead of time about when grocery shopping, making dinner, or doing laundry will happen. By doing this, it allows me to fully enjoy the time I'm not working instead of spending large chucks of time in a state where I "should be" working but am instead procrastinating.

I think the most important step in all of the process is to nix the guilt you associate with relaxation. I truly believe that I am an engaging teacher that goes above and beyond for my students. In order to do this, I need to rest, so I can feel healthy and have energy to bring to the classroom. This same concept can be applied to many work situations. When people (patients, clients, students, etc) need the best of you, you have to take care of yourself first to be able to give that. Stop feeling guilty about taking time to relax and make sure your life is in order before the week starts. Instead, think of relaxation as a necessary part of performing well (because it absolutely is!)

Here's what my weekend looked like (so far):

A long nap on Friday afternoon. I was exhausted from 6AM barre class and a full day at work. When I woke up, we decided to eat dinner out rather than hassling with making something. I called my mom, watched TV, and was in bed for good by 10:15PM. We bought this TemperPedic mattress topper a few weeks ago, and it is making all the difference in quality of sleep.

Saturday morning, we went out for breakfast and then did our grocery shopping. We spent some time appreciating our backyard, and we are both more than excited about the hummingbird that has decided to build a nest in our maple:

Photo by Brendan Egan 
I spent the afternoon getting a manicure and pedicure, and we enjoyed a stuffed peppers crockpot dinner that we had prepped together earlier in the day.

Saturday night, we joined the world in watching Beyonce's Lemonade. While the plot seemed more like afterthought, the project was visually beautiful and the music was undeniably powerful. I haven't seen anything like this, and it was exciting to witness. Afterwards, I did yoga in my living room and caught up on the new season of Girls before heading to bed.

And today? Plans with friends galore! Catching up with friends and their baby, doing yoga with a friend, and Game of Thrones with more friends.

It's been a relaxing and wonderful weekend. And you know what? I don't feel an ounce of guilt.

Here's to guilt free relaxation!

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Building a Backyard From Scratch: Grass in the Desert Oasis

Greetings faithful readers!

Brendan and I have had a busy week chock-full of good news. One thing that kept us busy was finally planting grass plugs in our desert oasis of a backyard. What are grass plugs? Well, a company in Nebraska grew some buffalo grass, a grass native to the great plains, and cut the grass into "plugs" for us to plant one foot apart. The idea is that the plugs will grow into each other, eventually covering this space with beautiful, low maintenance, and desert adapted grass. Brendan researched this method and choose it both because the results of buffalo grass (unavailable in sod) are supposed to be better than the results you get with Bermuda or St. Augustine sod and because it was a much more affordable option than sod (totaling $200).

The process of planting the plugs took us several hours, and we both had very sore backs after it was done; however, we are excited to watch our "lawn" grow.

This morning, we went to the plant show that we have been anticipating for a month now. It did not disappoint. We bought many desert friendly plants to add to our "desert oasis." Our goal is to attract butterflies and hummingbirds galore, and we saw many beautiful butterflies while working in the yard today (white, blue, yellow, and orange). 

We bought a new ocotillo to replace ours that died (we over watered, sadly. Lesson learned). Later in the summer, this one will hopefully bloom and attract hummingbirds and bees. 

We bought red and white Autumn Sage to put in the corner behind our Chinese Pistache. I love the delicious smell of these plants! We also planted "butterfly weed" here and along the side fence. 

Some new succulents found their way into one of our river rock beds: 

This photo shows some of our progress along the back fence. We recently planted two more Russian Sages and separated pups of aloes and yuccas to create more greenery. I can't wait until we see blooms from the Russian Sage and the Bird of Paradise.  

So many varieties of cacti. The cactus garden makes me happy. 

I recently saw a hummingbird enjoying this beautiful bloom from a Zebra Aloe (we planted another along the back fence today). 

Though we had to start over with basil, many of our herbs survived winter and are thriving in the herb garden. Among our herbs we have rosemary, oregano, three kinds of mint, thyme, parsley, sage, dill, and even some onion! 

Our other bed, though not nearly as green yet has fennel, Mexican Sage, Licorice Marigold, Lantana (just planted today), Chives, Turks Cap, and Mexican Honeysuckle. Give this bed a month and things will be more interesting. 

Desert oasis at large. 

We even cleaned up the patio (again). We constantly battle against red dirt that blows onto the patio, so we have to sweep and shake out rugs and cushions (it's a glamorous life). 

As I showered after another day of working outside, I smiled to myself remembering the time when I thought the backyard would be "a weekend project." Oh how wrong I was, and oh how lovely it is to be wrong sometimes! Building our backyard has brought us closer together. I wouldn't trade all of these days in the sun for anything. 

Here's to your days in the sun. Don't forget to wear sunscreen! 

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Finding and Maintaining My Happy Weight

Greetings faithful readers!

Last Friday, I mentioned that I was in a new place with my views on fitness and health, and I talked about how I was finally having more success than ever before because I started approaching working out regularly as a lifestyle, not a means to an end. Today, I'm sharing more about what I call my happy weight: specifically, how I found it, how I maintain it, and why I currently do not make losing weight part of my fitness goals.

Before diving in, let me remind everyone here that I'm not a nutritionist nor do I have any certification in personal training. I believe people should work with their doctors to find the approach to health that works best for them; here on my blog, I'm happy to share what's working for me.

I am 5'2," and over the last half of my life, my weight has been at different ranges within a 25 pound range. My heaviest weight was when I was a sophomore in high school and sustained many injuries in a snowmobile accident that left me unable to be active for a time. This incident quickly motivated me to turn to Weight Watchers and working out. I lost 25 pounds over the course of a year or so, but at my lowest weight, my attitudes about eating and exercising were rigid, and, I think, unhealthy. I regained some of the weight in senior year of high school and college and moved to a less obsessive approach to eating and fitness. I have always been in the healthy BMI range (BMI of 19.8 at my lowest and 24.3 at my highest weight); however, I haven't always felt healthy (for example, at both extremes of my weight range). I would often set goals of losing X number of pounds and turn to logging calories before special events. For instance, after 9 months of strength training, I went on Weight Watchers and also lost 7 pounds or so before my wedding, only to gain it back a few months later. While my methods to lose weight have always been gradual, I've recently had a revelation that there is no need to approach life as a series of events to "get in shape for." Instead, I've found a lifestyle approach that is (for me) maintainable.

Discovery of My Happy Weight 
The truth is, my happy weight found me, not vice versa. In August, I began working out 5X a week, and I have kept up that routine for 8.5 months now (yes, including over the holidays). Slowly, a few pounds (we're talking like 4 pounds) dropped despite no changes to my diet, but my body changed more than the scale was showing. I lost inches, my stomach flattened, I lost my "muffin top," my back become smoother, and yes, even my breasts became smaller. This was the second time I've had the revelation that what the scale says really only shows one part of a person's health. Increasing muscle mass changes your body in big ways, and of course, muscle replacing fat adds weight, but still gives a leaner look. Before my wedding, when I completed The New Rules of Weightlifting for Women, I had a similar experience. Even though I looked much thinner, I had lost only 7 pounds. The increase in my muscle mass and decrease in fat was what made a visual difference.

I record my weight each week (and make it a point to only step on the scale once a week), and in the last 2.5 months, my weight has stayed consistently the same. In my Weight Watcher days, I would have spent half an hour googling "ways to overcome plateau." Plateaus are a real thing for those trying to lose weight, but I've realized that with my BMI currently at 22.6 (normal is between 18.5 and 24.9), I'm not experiencing a plateau: my body is just happy where it is.

So, what is a happy weight? In my opinion, it's a weight that results in a healthy BMI and is achieved by eating well and exercising (in some way) on a daily basis. Due to my personality, I really don't struggle with moderation when it comes to my diet (for example, a chocolate bar shared can last a week in our house), but I have recently read more about the concept of moderators vs. abstainers, and I think finding your own style may be key.

In other words, the happy weight doesn't feel hard to maintain. You don't find yourself stressed out about what to eat when going out to a restaurant. You don't find yourself gaining weight after a week's vacation away from your routine and regular diet. You generally feel good about your body and don't frequently engage in thoughts about how it should change or compare yourself to other people. These are all signs that you've found your happy weight.

Maintaining the Happy Weight 
I'm a person that loves habits. For me, the key to maintaining has been finding an exercise that I enjoy and sticking with it. In my life, that means barre and yoga, and you can find me practicing one of those things, in some capacity, most everyday of the week. If I'm not in an actual class, I'm moving to a video in the living room. On vacation, I enjoyed hikes and walks with Brendan. Recently, I tried a spin class and loved it. I think moving everyday is key. Whether you walk, bike, run, take a class, lift weights, what matters is that you make moving a daily part of your life.

When it comes to diet, I am a moderator and cannot stand the idea of NEVER having something again. It's the reason why my diet is mostly vegetarian, but I won't stick to that 100% because, for me, I'd rather have a little meat if it's going to be really exceptional or allow me to experience a culture in a new way (like when we're traveling). I'm not going to eat a hot dog ever again because I don't care about hot dogs, but the thought of giving up sushi forever is an absolute no. Following this same principle, I don't cut anything out of my diet, but my diet is generally healthy. I generally eat throughout the day. For instance, yesterday, I had yogurt for breakfast, a cheese stick 3 hours later, a hard boiled egg 1 hour later, a lean cuisine 2 hours later, another hard boiled egg 2 hours later, a fruit smoothie an 1.5 hours later, and dinner 3 hours later. My family has a joke that I'm ALWAYS eating, and it's true, but this is what is normal for me, and I think it's good to listen to your body rather than try and condition it to function in a way that's more convenient.

So I don't say anything is "off limits," but I do try to make smart choices. When two friends had birthday parties at the same Mexican restaurant a day apart for instance, I had a salad and a frozen margarita one night, and I shared a spinach mushroom quesadilla with Brendan and had a skinny margarita the next night. Both nights, I ate chips because I love them. I left both times feeling satisfied but not stuffed.

The New Fitness Goals 
I'm a very goal oriented person, so I suspect setting small weight loss goals in the past was a way to indulge that side of my personality and give me something to work towards. But now? My goals are about fitness. My goals are to do X number of push-ups on my toes or make it to class X number of times per week. My goal is to wake up at 5AM Friday morning, so I can squeeze in a morning workout. My goal is to get stronger, so I can enjoy white water rafting, hiking, and kayaking this summer. My goal is to plank longer than I did yesterday. These goals are more satisfying to me than any goal to lose five pounds ever was. And maybe it's unsurprising, but I am also a lot more likely to reach these goals. Unlike the number on the scale, which is apt to fluctuate, strength is pretty linear, so the more I workout, the stronger I get. It's strength that allows me to do cool stuff, like hike to the top of a canyon at Big Bend, not a number on a scale.

Ultimately, you do you. If losing five pounds for that special event is what makes your heart sing, go for it. For me, planking for two minutes is the new joy, and I'm happy my new strength leads me to look and feel better as well. Finding what makes you happy is key, so I recommend accessing your goals and finding out if meeting them is bringing you joy. If not, change the goals. 

Here's to your goals, whatever they look like; may they bring you happiness!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Third Fabletics Review + Easy Cheesy Protein Bake

Greetings from a rainy day here in Midland. 

Today, I received the perfect thing in the mail: my third Fabletics outfit. My post on my first experience with the company has all the details if this is your first time reading about Fabletics. 

If you read my review and decide to sign up, you can get 1/2 off your first outfit by using this referral link.  I am not being paid or offered freebies to write this review, but I would get a $10 referral credit if you use my personal link to sign up.

This month, I went with the Azalea outfit, and I couldn't be happier. I sprung for an outfit that was 59.95 instead of the normal 49.95, and I think the difference in the quality of the top (which is more moisture wicking than the normal cotton tops) made that a good choice. 

I decided to order both pants and top in Medium, and for me, it feels like a good fit. Though I own some capris from Fabletics in small, I've learned that I don't like my pants super tight. It's all about personal comfort. 

This outfit performed perfectly in tonight's barre class. Everything stayed put and was comfortable. I ended up being the only one to show up to class, perhaps due to the weather, but it was a great workout, and, as always, I was glad that I showed up. 

Now, the real reason (probably) that you showed up. Tonight, Brendan made us this delicious Easy Cheesy Protein Bake. As I began to eat it, I knew I should photograph it before it was gone, since this was definitely a blog worthy recipe. 

Here's what you need: 
1/2 red bell pepper 
1/2 medium summer squash 
1 shallot 
1 cup of baby carrots 
1 cup uncooked quinoa/bulgar wheat blend (or all quinoa if you desire) 
4 eggs 
1/2 cup of shredded parmesan 
2 cups vegetable broth 
Sriracha, salt, and pepper to taste 

Here's what you do:
1.) Dice all vegetables. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
2.) In a rice cooker, cook the quinoa/bulgar wheat in 2 cups of vegetable broth (we used the steaming basket on the rice cooker to steam the vegetables, but you could do this on the stove top as well).
3.) Turn on the oven broiler. Mix together quinoa/bulgar wheat and vegetables and divide into two medium ramekins. Top with 2 eggs each and 1/4 cup of shredded parmesan each.
4.) Broil for 4-5 minutes or until eggs set to desired consistency (rotate ramekins if needed halfway through).
5.) Remove from oven, allow ramekin to cool for a couple of minutes, top with Sriracha to taste if desired.

Total Prep and Cook Time: 45 minutes
Deliciousness Factor: 5 out of 5 stars. This one is a winner because it's healthy, fast, and delicious. You feel like you are eating comfort food, only without the high calories. It was the perfect thing for a cold and rainy day. You can mix up the vegetables, grains, and cheese to create a new dish every time. Steaming the vegetables brings out their flavors and adds a crunchy texture to the meal. Anything with an egg on top always tastes like a treat!

As you can see, I couldn't even wait to take the first bite.

Happy workouts & happy eating, everyone! We hope this quick and delicious meal makes its way into your dinner repertoire!

Monday, April 11, 2016

Five, Four, Three, Two, One

Greetings faithful readers.

Today's blog post format is from Peanut Butter Fingers, a blog I love to read. I needed some inspiration on what to write about, and this quick survey fits the bill.

FIVE Things We Did This Weekend:
1.) Inducted thirty new members into the English honor society at the induction ceremony on Friday night. I ordered way too much food, so I think the entire division will be eating leftover fruit, veggies, cheese, and cookies all week. Induction is always a special night, and we are very proud of our forty active members and the 178 hours of community service they did, all related to reading, writing, and literature, this school year!

2.) We watched a lot of movies. Brendan had a lot of work to get done this weekend, including readying and sending all the poetry contest entries to this year's judge. We wanted to be social, but deadlines meant things had to get done this weekend. I put on lots of movies while work was being accomplished: Spy, Pitch Perfect 2, and Trainwreck (all on HBO Now by the way). I absolutely loved every single movie, and they definitely had me laughing, which is something I wanted and needed. 
3.) Since our cleaning service canceled, I dedicated a good two and half hours to cleaning on Saturday afternoon. I love the help our cleaning service provides, but since we owe a lot in taxes next week, it was probably a good thing to save the money this time. Cleaning was therapeutic in a way. 
4.) I went to barre class on Saturday morning and a workshop with 30 minutes of barre, 30 minutes of spinning, and 30 minutes of stretching on Sunday. My goal is to workout everyday in April, and so far, it's happening (even though "workout" meant a 35 minute gentle yoga video online on Friday night after induction). I took photos this weekend and compared them to photos from the end of June 2015. I saw some pretty significant changes simply from upping my exercise frequency (no change in diet), and I am motivated to keep going. 
5.) I had phone dates with my cousin Amanda and my best friend Corley on Sunday. It was great to catch up and make plans for seeing my cousin and my bestie this summer. Speaking of summer, I guess it's fitting to say here that we have FIVE more weeks of the Spring semester. I'm trying not to be in countdown mode, but it's hard not to countdown because summer is the best. 

FOUR things I ate: 
1.) I made a macaroni and cheese this weekend with just a fraction of the leftover cheese from induction ceremony. That was a great choice because it made for an awesome dinner, and we still have leftovers. 
2.) I picked up breakfast (breakfast tacos for me!) on Saturday morning at Neme's Food Truck. This place is quickly becoming a weekend staple.  
3.) Brendan bought my favorite kind of chocolate. It's the raspberry/pomegranate flavor made by Central Market. I am savoring our current bar. (PS-Remember when pomegranate was a new thing? I remember buying pomegranate juice for the first time in high school, and it was so novel). 
4.) I found some Sour Patch Kids in the pantry and ate 2/3 of the box this weekend. I can't believe I didn't eat the whole box...points for self discipline! 

THREE things I'm looking forward to this week: 
1.) Eating at my favorite restaurant with Brendan on Friday night and watching my Friday night line up of Shark Tank and 20/20 (I'm so cool). 
2.) The plant show on Saturday morning. Last year, we got so many beautiful plants to put in the backyard, and our efforts have really paid off. Yesterday, I saw a hummingbird enjoying our flowers. 
3.) Two things, so I'm cheating: Sushi with my friends Wednesday night and yoga and beer at the beer garden with my friend on Sunday.

TWO Meals I plan to make this week: 
Honestly, this week won't be a big cooking week for us. 
1.) We are planning Mac & Cheese leftovers one night/hummus and veggies for another night (neither of these things really require cooking) 
2.) BBQ Tofu with baked beans and purple potatoes another night (this is probably as complicated as things will get this week). 

ONE Book I am Reading 
All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. I read some every night before bed. It's quirky and the characters are absolutely great, but it has a bit of a slow take off. Some of the individual scenes are wonderful, but the plot hasn't pulled me in to the point where I'm reading obsessively yet. I hope it does soon though. 

Feel free to answer one or any of these questions for yourself in the comments. I'd love to hear from you! 

Friday, April 8, 2016

Laughing More

Greetings faithful readers!

I can sum up the stress of the week in the following sentence: Brendan is taking a nap right now. For those of you that know him, you know that is very atypical.

Honestly, this week wasn't the best. We were very overloaded at work, we had to manage some problems, and we're just having one of those weeks where nothing is easy or going our way (think internet outages at work, overpaying for plane tickets, cleaning service canceling--nothing "life or death," just little annoyances sprinkled into the already chaotic week).

After work today, we checked out the new location of Lori's Cafe. The new menu is great, and the service was wonderful, but it wasn't as cozy as the old Lori's, which used to be our go to breakfast spot. I think Lori's moving is definitely the end of an era.

At lunch, we talked about how we've both taken on so many new responsibilities at work, and how we need to find ways to be less consumed with our jobs 24/7. Brendan said "we need to laugh more," and I know he's right. We both have trouble just "letting it go," and sometimes, we hold ourselves to really unreasonable standards of what it is possible to do in one day. In the overwhelming parts of the semester, we often find ourselves talking about work non-stop. We agreed today that for the sake of our marriage and our sanity, we've got to make our evenings relaxing again (think: more music, less rehashing of the day's issues, more laughter, less anxiety and worry, more "I did the best I could" and less "I can't believe I didn't do X, Y, or Z yet.") I'll be updating you guys on how we are consciously seeking out joy in the coming weeks.

Until then, I will share with you that this blog post made me laugh so hard I couldn't breathe, and it was a bright spot in a less than great week.

I gave myself a break this morning and did not attempt 6:00AM barre, since I was woken up by my phone around 3:00AM. That means, I'm off to do an at home yoga video for workout number eight of the month before leading the honor society induction ceremony with Brendan tonight. And I sincerely hope that once we leave school tonight, we can have a restful and fun weekend with some laughter. I know we certainly need it.

"April is the cruelest month" certainly rings true in academia, but everyone could use a reminder to laugh more, and I hope that, whatever it is you do, you give yourself permission to do just that.


Monday, April 4, 2016

A Review of That Dragon, Cancer

Hi faithful readers, and thanks for checking in. For your information, this post is sad.

I wanted to check in with a review that's out of the ordinary for my blog. On Friday, I was listening to NPR, and there was an interview with Ryan and Amy Green, creators of a "video game" called That Dragon, Cancer, which tells the story of their four year old son, Joel, who died from cancer after battling brain tumors for the majority of his young life. I used the word "video game" in quotation marks because the "game" is more like a story. There is nothing the player can do to change the outcome of the story. When the Greens were asked why they choose this medium instead of writing a book or making a film to tell the story of Joel's life, they said that this medium was particularly unique in helping them communicate what happened. Like other forms of art, their purpose was to shed light on this experience; also, they wanted to create something that would be a forever memorial of their son, Joel. I have never played any kind of computer game since playing Oregon Trail as a child. I was interested in the idea that this medium could be used in ways that bring out profound emotions in the player. Still, I thought it sounded emotionally difficult, maybe too much so to handle.

When I returned home, I had a devastating email in my inbox from a family I have been following for more than a year now whose son, Radley, has leukemia. You can read that update here. When I got the email, I was very upset. I decided I would download the game.

Before reading further, I would like to say that I read a blog entry in which Ryan Green discusses how many people watched uploaded videos of the game on YouTube instead of buying it, which makes it impossible to pay the designers that spent several years on this project. If you decide this is something you are going to do, please be considerate and purchase it through the creators.  The cost is $15.00

I am not going to say that this experience is for everyone, but I am going to say the experience changed me. I had no idea that this medium could make me emotional like this or broaden my depth of human understanding. For two and a half hours, I laughed, cried, and felt frustrated, terrified, and panicked. I often did not know what to do, and in that, I experienced helplessness and confusion.

The game is surreal, with settings that are sometimes realistic (a playground, a hospital) and sometimes metaphoric (the ocean or inside of a dream). The creators made some very powerful choices like blurring all of the faces (which enables players to imagine themselves in these circumstances) and using the voices of the real family. Inside the game, voicemails, letters, and dialogue come together to create a kind of documentary. Music by Jon Hillman is haunting and immersive. The illustrations are sometimes beautiful and sometimes terrifying. The experience is painful.

That Dragon, Cancer impacted me more deeply than I even expected it would.  I didn't feel like myself for the next 36 hours because I felt so devastated. That said, I still do not regret having the experience. For me (again, not for everyone), I find fulfillment in feeling a connection to and deep empathy for other people. This game helped me move from having compassion and sympathy to having more understanding and ability to empathize than I did before. The game also showed me something that I didn't realize. It showed me that even in the most terrifying, tragic, and horrible circumstances, there is still much love and joy. I also thought the game was extremely honest. The writing does not hide anything. It was one of the bravest most human pieces of art that I have ever experienced.

I think one thing that all of us have in common is the need to feel understood. I would encourage those who find this outside of their normal range of experience to not dismiss it because it seems unusual. The Greens have created something that all generations can learn from. It took bravery to make this, and it takes bravery to experience it. I'm glad I had this experience, even though it hurt. I am approaching this week with a lot of gratitude. That Dragon, Cancer has reminded me not to take a moment for granted.

Have you ever had an unexpected experience that made you see the world in a different way or profoundly impacted you? If so, I'd like to hear about it.


Friday, April 1, 2016

More Productive Than Ever Before

It's no April fools joke: 2016 is 25% over.

I'm really happy with how this year has gone so far. I think this year (really the 2015-2016 school year), I have started making better use of my time. This has helped me reach more goals. Honestly, in large part, I really believe this is due to using my Life Planner.

If you too are looking to have a most productive year, these are some things I'm doing differently:

Committing to Dates: In the past, I sometimes had lofty ideas about things I wanted to do like "oh, it'd be good to do more programs at the writing center," but this year, I just put firm dates on the calendar, got people to promote the events, and this forced me to plan the programs. Instead of waiting around for myself to do the work, I just set a firm deadline, which forced me to get the work done. The programs turned out great because I already knew I had an audience signed up to attend, so I was incentivized to do my best.

NO Excuses: For the last eight months, I have worked out an average of five times a week, every week. If you would have told me this would be me nine months ago, I would have said "no way!" In the first three months of 2016, I logged 63 workouts in 91 days (that's working out 7 out of every 10 days). I don't have any secret other than NO excuses. For instance, I normally attend barre until 6:45PM Thursdays, but when my friend's birthday party was at 5:00PM yesterday, I worked out at 8:15AM instead. On Fridays, I can only go to class at 6:00AM, so guess who wakes up at 5:00AM? When yoga got canceled this Wednesday, and it was already too late for barre class, I found a free advanced yoga class and enjoyed 50 minutes of yoga in my living room. With fitness in particular, I also stopped worrying about my weight or what I look like. I'll write more about that soon, but essentially, I just decided working out is important to me for the sake of staying healthy and that's it!

No Excuses doesn't just apply to fitness. I had a goal of submitting to a conference and submissions were due yesterday. I wanted to write a short story, so I worked on it for hours and hours leading up to the deadline. I would work, go work out, eat dinner, and spend several hours writing. I would send the draft to Brendan or my friend Allie, get notes, and repeat the process the next few days, making corrections. This brings me to my next point...

Only Set Goals You CARE About: My experiences these past three months have proven to me that if you want to do something, you just do it. The goals I set but didn't meet (for instance, organizing my papers and books after starting on The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up process), I now realize are goals that I honestly didn't care so much about (I did organize my closet, and I stuck with Kon Mari's methods). Sure, maybe I want the result (the cleaner house), but I don't care about the process or the journey. So, I realized, if I want to write more for instance, I have to care about the process of doing the work (not just having the outcome of a new story). Also, I have to ask myself WHY I want something now. When I approached fitness a means to be X size or weigh X pounds, I never committed to it for that long. Likewise, if I approach writing as a means to being published, I'll probably lose focus. For me, I have to find some larger reason (for instance, I want to write because it makes me feel excited, brings me personal satisfaction, and gives me an outlet to express all the crazy things I'm thinking of). Please note that for a different person, writing as a means of getting published may be a wonderfully incentivizing reason; I'm using my feelings as examples, not arguing these should be everyone's motivations.

Stop Wasting Time on The Computer/Netflix: Have you ever considered just how much time you waste online and watching television and felt really negative about it? Me too. That's why I started being more careful about how much time I'm spending on the computer and whether not what I'm doing is really important. Here are the following activities I actually enjoy online: checking to see if I have any non spam emails, checking Facebook about twice a day, reading interesting/inspiring articles and stories, writing my blog, and reading other blogs. Here are the things I have to do online: check email, grade, manage my online course. My new rule is, I constantly question myself and say "does this matter?" Sometimes, I find I'm wasting time on something silly like a quiz I found on Facebook, and I'll close the quiz right in the middle and sometimes even say out loud "this doesn't matter." When I tried to watch Fuller House on Netflix and realized it really wasn't that good (once the nostalgia wore off), I just stopped watching. We started House of Cards, but we're savoring it, not binging on it. In general, I'm trading screen time for reading, working in the yard, relaxing in the bath, and writing, and these things bring me more pleasure and also tie to my next point...

Go to Bed Earlier: Monday and Tuesday nights, I was so wound up from writing that I didn't take my own advice here, and the result was that I didn't feel good. Lately, I'm really trying to establish an earlier bedtime. If I need to wake up at 6:15, I try to be asleep by 11:15, which means ideally, I'd be in bed and reading by 10:45PM (which means I have to start getting ready for bed at 10:30PM). When you're watching Netflix, and an episode ends at 10:00PM, it's so tempting to watch "just one more;" yet, for me at least, that episode really causes me to be tired the next day, so it's not worth it. On Monday and Tuesday, I ended up staying up so late because I was on the computer. I couldn't fall asleep for the longest time. We've all read about how the light from computers and TVs causes your brain to not start shut down mode. My new thing has been starting a sleep routine 45 minutes in advance of when I want to actually be asleep. It takes me about 15 minutes to get ready, and then I read in bed for 30 minutes. The reading is very soothing, and I find myself drifting off faster. I wrote this post on ditching the snooze button. Daylight savings was terrible for me, but now I'm readjusted and back to not snoozing.

I hope these tips help you to have a most productive second quarter of 2016 (second quarter, what am I, a business student? Whatever). I am very much looking forward to and excited for the weekend because the following things are happening: birthday celebrations, the re-opening of the farmer's market, a crawfish boil, bend and beer (yoga in the beer garden), our final cheese shipment came today and, of course, Shark Tank and 20/20 (do you people know me at all by now?!)

Plus, we still have half of this leftover (but not for long!):

I also need to tell you guys that this taco recipe in the current issue of Shape magazine is like WORTH IT. It made enough for dinner for the two of us on both Monday and Wednesday nights. If you are looking for a great vegetarian taco recipe, this is IT!

Happy Weekend!

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