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Opinion – Monitoring Children’s Reading

As a mom of four children, I have enjoyed many trips to the library. Our family loves the various programs available to the community. And I always encouraged my kids to read.

During one visit to the library, I was waiting for my children to pick out the books they wanted when another mom approached me.

“Don’t you help your kids pick out books?” she asked.

“Not usually. They know what they like,” I responded.

“But what if they choose something inappropriate or above their reading level?”

“Then they will either ask for help with the hard words or they won’t read it.”

She made it obvious that my answer displeased her, and left once she wrangled her children.

I thought about her reaction and mentioned it to my grandmother the next time I saw her. I figured if anyone could give me good advice about children choosing proper reading material, it would be her. She loved books and was constantly giving me things to read. Granted, they were mostly books on government or authored by political leaders, but she had a passion for the written word.

“Kids won’t read anything they think is too big for them,” my grandma said.

We talked about it for a few more minutes before the conversation shifted to other things.

On occasion, I would pick up and read a book that one of my children was reading. When my oldest daughter was obsessed with the Twilight series, I read them all. When my son fell in love with the Guardians of Ga’hoole books, I skimmed through a few. I felt confident allowing my kids to choose their own reading adventures.

Then it happened.

My oldest son is an avid reader. He always carries a book with him, sometimes two, and prefers reading to watching television or playing video games. He was about twelve or thirteen years old and went to the library weekly, so he could stay stocked on books. The library also offered a summer reading program for kids, complete with weekly activities and presentations.

The library summer reading program often rewarded kids with a free book if they read a certain number of books. Of course, my son qualified for the free book within a few weeks, and we stopped by the library. He picked out a book that sounded interesting to him. A few days later, he came to me and asked if we could go back because he didn’t like the book and wanted to return it.

I read the back cover. It seemed to be a similar genre to what he usually read, and I asked him what he didn’t like about it.

“It has two boys kissing in it,” he said. “I don’t want to read it anymore.”

We went back to the library, and the librarian graciously exchanged the book for another, and my son was happy.

My son did not finish the book because he came across a scene that made him uncomfortable. It didn’t shock him into reading more to find out what happened next, and he didn’t hide it from me. He just stopped reading and asked for a different book.

Monitoring what a kid reads limits them.

Some parents may decide this is a perfect example of why it’s important to monitor what their children read and choose reading material for them. Books are challenged in school and public libraries because parents despise the content and want those books removed from the shelves. I only have one question for those parents: What gives you the right to decide for every child?

If you have not taught your child proper moral values that align with your family, whatever those values may be, then you may have cause to worry about what they’re reading. However, parents should lead by example, and give their children the tools they need to make good choices in all aspects of their lives. If you do that, then you should also be able to trust your child. Trust that they will put down a book that has content they are not ready to explore.

I can already hear the naysayers and arguments now, so let me head you off.

No, we do not monitor what my kids watch. However, we don’t have satellite TV, only streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. Yes, there are some very adult shows available. But my kids will walk out of the room if my husband and I watch something that has mature content. They don’t want to see it. I am not concerned that they are secretly watching explicit material.

Yes, we pay attention — somewhat — to our children’s online presence. It’s lessened over the years, but when they first entered the world of online gaming and had access to things on their own, we had parental controls in place. This was more for blocking predators than it was for blocking content. We would read text/chat messages and randomly search their tablet browser histories. They were required to leave their tablets and phones in the dining room from 9 p.m. until the next morning. Now, at ages fifteen (almost sixteen) and seventeen, my youngest children police themselves.

Because I trust them.

My husband and I worked extremely hard to instill virtuous principles in our children. We taught them from a young age what is right and wrong and how to avoid peer pressure. Our kids may roll their eyes at us, forget to tell us when they get to a friend’s house, and argue with us, but they are also upstanding citizens. They will stand up for what’s right, work hard, and help others.

I feel that monitoring what a kid reads limits them. My oldest son was reading at a high-school level by the time he was in fifth grade. He is now in his last year of college as an engineering student. If I monitored what he read and only allowed him to read books in his recommended age range, I do not think he would have excelled in math and science enough to make it into his desired degree program.

My youngest daughter once purchased a high-school algebra book from a thrift store and perused it during a road trip. She was ten years old. While this isn’t fiction, it is still a book, and I could have told her no. Instead, I paid $1.50, and now she’s at the top of her class for math.

My five-year-old grandson wanted to learn about volcanoes and found a book in the middle-grade section of the library. We checked it out, and I read parts of it to him, but not all of it. He wouldn’t sit still long enough. But he remembers some names of the different formations of volcanoes. Who knows? Maybe he’ll grow up to be a geologist or a volcanologist. Perhaps it’s a phase, and he’ll decide to be a mechanic.

Reading is an exploration of different parts of the universe that we would not have access to otherwise. It allows the imagination to flourish and inspires creativity and learning. If parents refuse to let their children have some leniency with reading, they will stifle their children’s ability to learn.

Let them read.


Featured image by qiangxuer on Pixabay.

Make Memories This Holiday Season

Disclaimer: This article specifically mentions Christmas because that is what my family celebrates. But the ideas presented here can be used for other holidays such as (but not limited to): Yule, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, birthdays, or anniversaries.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw a post from a friend about her son’s upcoming birthday. She wasn’t sure how to “top” last year’s gift. The timing was interesting because I just finished reading an article about why there are so many shipping delays and product shortages. I was already mulling over how to make this year’s holiday season a little less about things and more about family. 

The winter holidays, regardless of what you celebrate, can be focused on spending time with family and friends and not on spending money. 

I only remember two gifts from my childhood. One was a doll set, complete with a cradle, from my grandma. The other was a Barbie camper bus. I remember the doll and cradle because my grandma gave my two cousins the same thing, only in different colors. I remember the Barbie bus because it was part of a traumatic Christmas morning for me as an eight-year-old. 

I woke up, excited to see what “Santa” brought me, only to find a mesh stocking full of real coal hanging on my door. I was devastated. What my parents thought would be a fun joke turned into tears; then they brought the bus out from behind the tree. 

The things I remember most during the winter holidays are events. We went caroling with my cousins (there are a lot of us!), and secretly left boxes full of food and little gifts on someone’s doorstep. We had sledding parties complete with snowball fights and snowman building contests. My parents were geniuses at making memories! 

Then I became an adult and, for a while, I was sucked into the commercialism of the season. Have you ever made a list of gifts to buy and added everyone from neighbors to coworkers? Did you ever feel slightly guilty when you received an invitation to a gift exchange but couldn’t afford it? Did you stop to ask yourself why? Why are we, as a society, so programmed to purchase a present for every single person we’re in contact with? 

It’s time to break the cycle and enjoy the holidays again.

At one point, my husband and I were raising four young children on a single income of approximately $25,000 a year. Birthday and Christmas gifts always included something they needed, because we couldn’t afford to just buy toys. One year, I came up with the brilliant yet ironic idea of putting socks in their stockings. “Socks in socks,” I called it. I always tried to find themed socks to make it fun, and the kids love it. Even now, fifteen-plus years later, they still want socks in their stockings. 

That same year, my husband and I decided to buy a single gift that the family could enjoy instead of buying a lot of individual gifts. When the new Nintendo Wii went on sale in a package deal with a new television, we jumped on it. We only had the game that came with the system, but it was enough for us. Over time, we purchased other games at the pawnshops. 

Now, we have a family tradition of getting a new board or card game and playing it on Christmas. There are so many games out there, and we can get more advanced ones as our family gets older. This gift allows us both to have fun and spend time together. 

Other family traditions for us include books and pajamas for Christmas Eve. And we always take a winter evening to go look at light displays. I pack cookies and a thermos of hot chocolate, and we drive around for hours. There’s a local Facebook group that lists all the really fancy displays, including ones that are set to music, so we use that to plan our outing.

My mom and I started exchanging our stockings for each other to fill many years ago. It’s usually all we do for each other, but it’s challenging and enjoyable finding lots of small items that are useful or fun. As my children got older, we started including them in the stocking exchange. We give each other the stockings at Thanksgiving and return them filled right before Christmas. 

We also have an advent calendar, created by my mom, made up of mini stockings strung together and numbered 1-25. In each stocking is a little slip of paper with an activity. Some we skip due to lack of interest or time, but it gives us a way to do things together as a family. 

Another year, we wanted to challenge ourselves and made the rule that every gift had to be handmade. I think this was my favorite Christmas of all since becoming an adult. My youngest son and husband got together to make me a jewelry stand with hooks for my rings, and my daughter made soap. Not only do I remember the gifts from that year, but I remember all the fun we had making them as well.

This year, our family is composed of adults, older teens, and two young children. The younger ones will each get a “Santa” gift of a special toy. For everyone else? We are capping the cost per gift at $25, and are not making gift-giving mandatory. Then we will spend the day playing games, doing puzzles, watching movies, and making cookies. 

A different idea we had was for each of us to buy one small gift for everyone’s stocking. The stocking gift cannot be money or a gift card unless attached to a physical item. The idea is to be creative, since the item has to fit in a stocking and be useful or fun for that individual. This idea got vetoed by the teens who are used to being able to dig into their stockings at 4 a.m. on Christmas morning.

“But wait!” I can hear the masses cry. “We’ve been buying gifts for everyone for years. They’re going to be so disappointed!” My response? Check your mindset. If you’re excited to do the holidays differently, then your family and friends will be too. But if you’re negative about it and bemoaning the shortages or wishing you could get more, you will be miserable. And misery loves company. 

Tips to make a “less is more” holiday work for you:

Buy a new puzzle or board game everyone can play.

Get a new video game, especially those that are multiplayer. Check pawnshops to get it for less than the original price. 

For about a month before Christmas, when you do your regular grocery shopping, add an ingredient or two for baking special cookies. This supports a healthy budget. My family’s favorite is Monster Cookies. It makes a LOT and we always have enough to eat, share with neighbors, and even freeze some for later. There are several recipes online for Monster Cookies but see below for the one I’ve used for over twenty years.

Before it gets too close to December, create a simple advent calendar and do one activity a day leading up to the holidays. 

Other fun and inexpensive holiday activities might include cutting your tree, making a new memory decoration, reading a book together (a chapter or section a night), or having a sledding party with hot chocolate and sugar cookies. You can also donate your time to the food bank/soup kitchen. This is a teachable moment for your children to learn that there are others who need more help and compassion. 

Create some new traditions this season. Time spent with family is more important than the items we buy. 


Monster Cookies

  • 12 eggs
  • 4 c. sugar
  • 2 lb. brown sugar
  • 1 lb. butter or margarine, softened
  • 3 lb. peanut butter
  • 8 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tbsp. vanilla
  • 18 c. oatmeal
  • 1 lb. plain M&M’S®
  • 12 oz. chocolate chips

Mix all ingredients in the order given. To make Monster size cookies, use an ice cream scoop to drop cookie dough onto cookie sheets, otherwise, a 1/2 inch size ball makes a nice size cookie. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes. Makes 20 dozen cookies. You can freeze baked cookies or freeze small 1/2 inch size balls of uncooked cookie dough on a cookie sheet. When frozen, store in a freezer bag or Tupperware until ready to bake. 


Advent Calendar List

  1. Write letters to Santa
  2. Learn a new Christmas song
  3. Make an ornament
  4. Drink hot drinks and talk about good family times
  5. Write a note to each family member 
  6. Make paper snowflakes
  7. Play a board game
  8. Decorate the tree
  9. Make a popcorn treat
  10. Read a favorite holiday story
  11. Bake cookies and take some to a neighbor
  12. Make reindeer food (this is for young kids to sprinkle outside for Santa’s reindeer)
  13. Eat oranges and read “Christmas Oranges” 
  14. Visit the library for books for holiday break
  15. Make a treat for the birds
  16. Bake dog treats
  17. Watch a holiday movie
  18. See Christmas lights
  19. Drink hot cocoa and eat buttered toast
  20. Be quiet and enjoy some holiday music
  21. Make a table centerpiece
  22. Make apple pretzels
  23. Relax
  24. Set out Santa’s treat
  25. Enjoy Christmas with your family 

Book Review: These Toxic Things

May Contain Spoilers

I recently read These Toxic Things by Rachel Howzell Hall. I want to start off by saying this is not my usual genre. It’s billed as a thriller. I typically read fantasy of all types and some historical fiction. Every once in a while, I’ll delve into the world of mysteries (think Agatha Christie type) or gothic paranormal books. A “thriller” is not something I would gravitate toward. 

So you may wonder why I read this one. It was part of Amazon’s First Reads for Prime Readers, and the only one that was intriguing to me on the day I read the email. I, like many of my friends, choose books based on my current mood. Nothing else stood out, and I thought it would be good to branch out of my comfort zone. 

Please take all of this into consideration when reading my review. I do not have a lot of previous experience to go on. 

First, the plot grabbed me from the start. The idea of a digital scrapbooking service made me wonder what items of mine I would choose. And the fact that Mickie is curious enough to dig deeper while being threatened indicated a strong female character, which I enjoy. 

As I read, I thought Mickie was a little too early-adult melodramatic. Boyfriend troubles, possible career changes, and some tense moments with her parents made the main character seem shallow. I pushed on. 

It didn’t take long for the real action to begin. Mickie went to her client’s store but before she could start work, Nadia was dead. Since Nadia paid in full for the digital scrapbook, Mickie was sure someone from Nadia’s life would want it and continued working on it. That’s when the threats started. 

As Mickie digs deeper into Nadia’s past, what she believes about her own past unravels as family secrets are revealed. Slowly, the reader builds their own theory about how Nadia really died and what Mickie’s parents are hiding. 

There’s also still the spectacle of Mickie’s romantic relationships, which were very superficial and could be left out of the book without really affecting the plot. Make her boss just a boss, not a lover. Make Nadia’s son just her son and Mickie’s friend, not a fling. If the relationships were deeper or more meaningful, they would have more sway over the plot. As you can tell, I despise fluff and nonsense in novels.

Interspersed throughout the book are mini-chapters from the stalker’s point of view. The way Hall wrote these insights reveals nothing about the stalker. Their sex, appearance, and reason for stalking are all slowly unveiled as Mickie performs amateur sleuth work. Interestingly, the stalker is not obvious, which makes the book worthwhile.

Honestly, I was not paying too much attention to some of the details in the story as someone who regularly reads thrillers might. There are sections about Nadia’s treasures that include details of the victims and hints of who the murderer is. I’m sure my oversight would exasperate thriller enthusiasts. But I was trying to figure out who really killed Nadia and who the stalker was, and didn’t see the memory box information as relevant. 

When the climax of the book revealed the killer and the stalker, I was pleased to be wrong on both counts. Mysteries that are too easy for me to figure out are not any fun to read, and I quickly get bored with the story. This book kept me interested until the final showdown.

I rolled my eyes at the nod to the beginning of the pandemic lockdown at the end of the book. We’re living it; we don’t need to be reminded that it happened. Any book that references the current pandemic is immediately put on my “do not read” list. Enough with that, already.

There is some lack of character development for the minor characters. I didn’t really care when Anna went missing, although I was pleased she wasn’t another murder victim. The emotional connection between reader and character is missing. The story definitely moved forward based on the reader’s curiosity of “who done it” instead of “what happens to Mickie.” I definitely prefer novels that have deeper and more vibrant characters.

Will I pick up another book by Ms. Hall? Unlikely. But I also don’t regret reading this one.


Featured Image by Luiz-Jorge-Artista on Pixabay.

Social Media Reset

Before FB and IG went down for six hours worldwide, I was already limiting my time spent on social media. Now I’m doing what I call a social media reset. 

When MySpace first started, followed by Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, it was simply a way to see what your friends were up to without using the telephone or your family’s gossip line. (Come on, everyone has that one family member who passes on all the news.) 

I remember sending letters through the mail. I still do this sometimes, but not as often. 

I remember emailing friends back and forth just to chat.

I remember picking up the phone regularly to talk to someone. My husband courted me by phone for a year before we got married. 

I remember visiting blogs and leaving comments that the author would reply to, which sometimes led to an entire conversation and a few times, even friendship. 

I remember not having apps for social media. 

I remember going to the Facebook website and seeing what my family and friends were doing. I looked at photos of their children as they grew up, read about their latest adventure in home remodeling, and connected with them even when they were across the country or the world. It wasn’t full of angry political opinions. In fact, we didn’t talk about politics on social media. It was literally and simply just to be social with each other. 

Over time, social media has morphed, as everything does. 

Stay-at-home moms who started selling products for companies like Avon, PartyLite, and Amway discovered they could reach more people by using social media. 

Retail businesses found social media to be an effective and inexpensive way to advertise. 

Celebrity figures realized social media was a new platform to increase their popularity. 

Political officials began utilizing social media to proclaim their objectives. 

Now, there is not a single minute that goes by where someone doesn’t post about politics. This isn’t even the politicians posting; it’s normal people. And it’s gotten ugly. 

About nine years ago, I took a thirty-day break from social media because there was so much anger over the election results. I did it again four years ago. My heart couldn’t handle how mean people were acting, people I knew and loved. 

At the end of February 2020, my family spent a few days in Puerto Rico, then went on a cruise to the Caribbean. It was fabulous! We chose not to have phone or internet access while on the cruise. When we disembarked and waited at the airport for our flight home, we started seeing insanity on social media. There were photos of empty store shelves and overflowing shopping carts. After some digging on the news sites, we finally figured out that people were panic-buying toilet paper due to a pandemic. 

Since we were out of touch for a full eight days, it took us some time to catch up on the news. The cruise that left after we returned — on the same boat — ended up stranded at sea for several weeks. We were thankful that the timing happened for us the way it did. 

But social media blew up. People were posting about shortages of food and general household items. They were talking about other people being sick and dying. Then came the rage, from every political stance and all sides. 

“Wear a mask, or else.” 

“Don’t wear a mask! It’s against your freedom.” 

“You can’t come in here without a mask or vaccine.”

“Boycott businesses who require masks or vaccines.”

“You can’t work here without a vaccine.”

“Quit your job if they want you to get the vaccine.”

It hasn’t stopped. For over eighteen months, social media has been bursting at the seams with rants. Now, it’s about the COVID-19 inoculation. 

And people are still angry. 

It’s damaging to my mental and emotional health. I felt myself spiraling into depression at the end of last year, and I was a little concerned for a couple of weeks that I would not make it out. That’s when I fully understood that having all of this anger and conflict constantly in my face was causing extreme harm. 

Since then, I have been slowly pulling back from social media. I set a time limit on my phone to help stop the mindless scrolling. I worked on building and maintaining more in-person friendships. 

Last month, I did a “Back To” challenge with motivational speaker and author Jon Acuff. He said a few comments that stuck with me. Basically, we watch people on social media who appear to have it all together and compare them to ourselves. We know we don’t have it all together, so this comparison causes us to feel less than others. We aren’t as good, strong, healthy, pretty; we don’t make enough money, have a nice enough house, or own the latest gadget. We must be less because we’re lacking. 

Most of social media is fake. Real beats fake.

Jon Acuff

The truth is people post primarily good things about their lives on social media because we don’t want to admit the hard stuff to a bunch of strangers. Wait, what? Why are the people we’re friends with on social media strangers? Huh. 

My biggest takeaway from the Back To challenge was the importance of removing from my social media who are not actually my friends. 

We all have them: friends of friends that we haven’t met, people we networked with and then barely talked to ever again, or even a stranger that seemed interesting at the time. Why? If we do not truly care for each other, why are we seeing snippets of each other’s lives? What’s the point of being friends?

My social media reset includes removing “friends” who are just acquaintances, friends of friends. I am keeping only those I’ve met in person or have had meaningful interactions with. I am unfollowing people I want to stay in touch with, but are also in the throes of numerous political rants. 

I’m wondering when I’m done if I’ll even have anyone left on my “friends list.” I wonder if I’ll even care.

I will attack my groups next. I’m in probably over one hundred Facebook groups, and some haven’t been active for over a year or more. Why am I still in them? Because there was information in there that I wanted to access later. Well, it’s not that hard to pull that information and save it to my computer if it’s something I feel strongly about. Some groups I joined when I had a network marketing business or to help friends with their network marketing businesses. Others are special interest groups. How many of them are still important and relevant to me? 

Finally, I am removing the apps from my phone. I can check in from the computer or even my phone’s browser. I don’t need the distractions from real life and the things that matter. I especially don’t need to see all the anger, grief, and madness in the world. I know it’s there, and I’m not putting my head in the sand. But I am choosing to see it on my terms. 

How am I going to connect with others if I’m not using social media as much? Simple. I am going to visit blogs and leave comments. I am actually going to talk to my neighbors and people in my community. I will *gasp!* call my friends and family. I might even go back to writing letters and sending cards regularly. I will build and nurture relationships that matter. These activities are healthier for my mind and spirit and will probably uplift others as well. 

What about those people I’ve only met online but have authentic connections? I will remain in contact with them, but the platform might be different. Instead of Facebook, maybe I’ll chat with them on Slack or by email. Or we’ll actually exchange phone numbers or email addresses. Perhaps they won’t be willing to visit outside of social media, and we’ll talk from time to time when I see those sites. But I think if we have a genuine relationship, they will meet me halfway across cyberspace. 

And if not, if those friends are so deeply mired in social media that they are resistant to email exchanges, I may have to count them among the lost friends. That will be sad, of course. However, I am no longer willing to compromise my mental health for others.

My social media reset has been months in the making. It’s time. 

Busy Night Meals

It’s autumn, and besides cooler days and crisp nights, it means school is back in session. A lot of families are busy with extracurricular activities. My children have always been active in sports, band, and various clubs, so I’ve become a pro at sticking to our grocery budget while providing healthy meals. Fast food is a treat for our family, especially as feeding hungry athletes gets expensive. 

Another mom commented on how organized and prepared I am for dinner at one of our soccer games. She teased, saying I have a little kitchen going on the bleachers. I responded with, “I have to be since I’m feeding eight people tonight!” Naturally, the conversation devolved into tailgate parties and grilling. Still, it made me think about other parents who might need some solid ideas on keeping the family fed without breaking the bank. 

Whether you’re eating at the game or need something quick for the short time at home before the concert, you’ll find inspiration here. 

Slow Cooker 

Do an internet search for “busy family meals” or similar phrasing, and I guarantee there will be slow cooker recipes on the first page. I typically avoid any slow cooker meals that require browning the meat before adding to the pot, but usually, that’s because I tend to run out of time in the morning, and I failed to prepare ahead. My go-to slow cooker meals are all “dump and go.” 

You can take any of these slow cooker meals on the go (see my tip below).

White Chicken Chili — I use thawed chicken breasts and shred them right before serving. Any leftovers taste delicious when transformed into enchiladas. Roll the chicken chili in tortillas, smother them in green enchilada sauce and cheese, then baked at 350 degrees until warm.

Hawaiian Chicken — I sometimes like to add green and red bell peppers. Serve over rice. If you have one, use a rice cooker with a delay-start option to save time.

Hamburger Lentil Soup — This is great after a chilly evening spent at the field! You can make this vegetarian by omitting the hamburger and using 2 cups of vegetable broth instead of the bullion. 

Instant Pot

For busy nights, don’t forget that the instant pot needs time to come up to pressure before cooking. However, being able to dump everything in a gadget and have it do the work means you’re free to help with homework or decompressing after a tough day. You can transform the slow cooker recipes into instant pot meals if you know how to do that sort of thing. For the rest of us, here are a few easy recipes. 

Spaghetti — Add a side salad, and dinner is done.

Pork Pot Roast — Roast is on our comfort food list, and this one is easy and flavorful. 

Mac & Cheese — This is another crowd favorite! Add pre-cooked bacon bits just before serving for extra flair. Serve with steamed vegetables or a salad to round out your meal.

Pre-Made or Assemble on Site

Sandwiches — This is an oldie, but goodie. My family never seems to tire of a well-built sandwich. Be sure to include small containers or individual packets of condiments, and don’t forget the pickles! Add sliced fruit and veggie sticks, and you have a satisfying meal. 

Wraps — A variation on the sandwich, but my daughter insists it’s totally different. 

Burritos — Simply spread refried beans on tortillas, top with cheese and taco sauce, roll, and heat in the oven for 15-20 minutes until warm. Then wrap the burritos in tin foil for traveling. 

Walking Tacos — Requiring a bit more time to prepare ahead, Walking Tacos are a favorite in my family. I make the meat mixture ahead of time and keep it warm. Then at half-time, I assemble everyone’s meal. 

Tips and Tricks

Everyone knows how to keep food cold until you’re ready to eat: bust out that trusty cooler. But how do you keep food hot while on the go? Bust out that trusty cooler! We have two small coolers we use for game nights: one for cold food, one for hot food. You can wrap hot food in tin foil or place it in containers. I line the bottom of the cooler with a dishtowel, put the food in, then place another dishtowel on top. It usually stays warm for at least two hours this way. 

Want to take the entire slow cooker or instant pot insert to the game? Simply wrap it in a towel and place it in a cardboard box. The extra insulation of the towel will keep the food hot.

Meal planning is key. Always look ahead to the next week, or even the next month, and make a note of which evenings are going to be hectic. Make a list of meals, add ingredients to your shopping list, and you’re ready!

Prepare ahead as much as possible, so you aren’t scrambling at the last minute while little Timmy needs help finding his cleats. Depending on the space and time you have available, prepping ahead might mean you chop vegetables and cook the meat. Or it might mean you grocery shop and organize the ingredients by meal. The point is to do whatever you can in advance to avoid adding more chaos.

Make a portable kitchen. Use a tote or a large bag, and fill it with disposable plates, bowls, cups, silverware, and napkins. Add in a couple of serving spoons and baby wipes, and you’re all set!

Almost anything that can be prepared ahead and easily assembled will work for these busy evenings. Think of the meals you take camping or on road trips. Make a list of recipes that your family loves so you can easily reference it when the season starts. 

Busy-night dinners do not have to be hard. Neither do they always need to be fast food or from the concession stands. Your family will appreciate the care you’re taking of them, and the teachers/coaches will appreciate that your kids are getting healthy nutrition so they can be at their best.

Editing Applications For Writers (and Editors)

My last article, Even Editors Need Editors, mentioned that I recommend some programs to my writers so they can self-edit. I received questions regarding these applications and wanted to share my thoughts on them. For details on each type of software, please click through to their website. Obviously, your word processor has a built-in spelling and grammar checker. That is helpful, but you will discover you need additional tools as you develop your writing skills.

Grammarly

If you’re a new writer, this is a good app to use. It’s free, but the paid version offers extra components which may be helpful. The free version offers spelling, punctuation, and grammar checks. The premium subscription gives you access to a plagiarism check (helpful if you’re writing a school paper), tone of voice, word choice, fluency, and more. Grammarly has add-ins for Google Docs and Microsoft Word, which means you don’t have to go to your browser to use it.

Pro: It’s easy to use and the premium subscription is fairly affordable.

Con: Sometimes it suggests things that make little sense or are incorrect.

WordCounter.net

This is strictly an online application. The main reason I recommend WordCounter.net to writers is for its Keyword Density feature. This handy box on the sidebar will show you the words used the most in a document. You can get rid of filler words or vary your word choice by utilizing the Keyword Density list. This will help keep your readers’ interest until the end.

Pro: It’s free and the Keyword Density report is useful.

Con: If you click the Grammar & Spell Check button, it will take you to Grammarly. So really, the Keyword Density report is the key characteristic of this site.

Hemingway

The Hemingway Editor is better for readability and sentence structure than grammar and spelling. It checks for readability, adverb use, passive voice, and hard-to-read sentences. It is available online for free, or you can pay a one-time fee of $20.00 and get a desktop app. What sets this app apart from the rest is that it checks HTML formatting for building web pages. You can use the “write” screen to have a blank space without editing highlights to get your words down. When you’re ready to edit, switch to the editing screen, and Hemingway will highlight the areas which need work.

Pro: It’s inexpensive and is extremely useful to craft concise prose.

Con: It doesn’t have any editing traits that most new writers prefer, such as grammar and spelling.

Slick Write

For a free program, Slick Write packs a punch! Like most writing software, it checks grammar, spelling, and punctuation. However, it also looks for vocabulary variety, flow, sentence structure, readability report, and style. This application is my top pick for those who can’t (or don’t want to) pay for a service but still need a detailed review. You can choose what you want Slick Write to check, and it will adjust the reports accordingly.

Pro: It’s a free software with comprehensive editing.

Con: It’s browser based, so if you prefer to work offline or do not have internet access, you won’t be able to use it.

ProWritingAid

ProWritingAid is a powerhouse editor, and I do not advise inexperienced writers to use it. PWA has so many features and reports that you may find yourself confused and frustrated. Spelling and grammar? Check. Readability report? Yep. But it also has overused words, cliche check, alliteration, pronoun usage, sticky sentences, transition review, consistency and pacing checks, dialogue tag review, and much, much more. PWA will almost take the place of a human editor if you know how to use it. It has a free version, but, like most programs, the paid option gives you access to additional properties. It has several integrations, so you can use it on the web, with Scrivener or your favorite word processor.

Pro: It is incredibly thorough.

Con: It can be confusing to use.

Remember, none of these applications will take the place of a human editor. A computer follows its programming, which limits it. While technology is amazing, only a human can fully adapt to individual compositions’ voice, style, and content. So why use a program at all? Because it will save you money if you hire a professional editor. And, if you choose not to, using at least one of these programs will ensure that your work is (mostly) error-free.

And, yes, before I submitted this article to my editor, I used Hemingway, WordCounter.net, Grammarly, and ProWritingAid. I guarantee she found other errors or edits that I missed.

Even Editors Need Editors

I have been an editor of small newsletters’ content since 2009, and in 2015, I expanded my knowledge and skill set. I have edited articles of all types, short stories, novel manuscripts, and poetry. My goal for obtaining a college degree in English was to become a professional editor. 

But even I need an editor. 

Because of my background and experience, my writing is clean and free from major errors. But that doesn’t mean I can publish it without having someone else review it first. All that means is my editor doesn’t have to work as hard. 

I frequently go back to previously published blog posts and find minor errors I missed. Why? Because I’m human. Because I stare at a piece for hours before publishing, and my brain fills in words, or my eyes skip missing punctuation. Even the fancy computer programs miss things. They don’t have a human’s perception of dialogue or nuances. 

Often, I recommend various programs to my writers as a way for them to self-edit. But I always remind them that the applications are not perfect, and they need to use their best judgment. Last week, one of my writers said she used Hemingway, and it marked several sentences as “hard to read” due to length. So she broke those sentences up in the middle with a period which created sentence fragments. The program was happy. Was it correct? Nope.

When I am editing my own articles, I use several programs. Sometimes, two of those programs will give conflicting recommendations. “Put a comma here.” So I do. Then I take to the next piece of software. “Remove this comma.” But that was the one I just added. This is where an editor comes in. 

Editors don’t just look at spelling and commas. They examine flow, sentence structure, clarity, word choice, and more. Editors should know the rules about writing numbers, time, and money. They can spot the misuse of dialogue tags at first glance. Editors also ensure consistency throughout the piece. 

Writing and reading are in my blood. I am passionate about both, and becoming an editor seemed a natural course of action. When I read for pleasure, I try to turn my “editor brain” off to enjoy the book, but sometimes that is extremely difficult if there are a lot of mistakes.

I can tell within a few pages if the book was professionally edited or not. Usually, I can ignore most of the errors. However, sometimes I get so irritated that a writer would send sub-par work out into the world, I stop reading and write my review. Those reviews always include some version of “needs editing.” I wish I could also send them a link to my website offering my services. Sadly, I’ve caught typos in newspaper articles from The New York Times. Obviously, it was a rush job, but an editor should have reviewed it before publishing.

Some of my friends think I want to edit these strangers’ books because I want the money or enjoy picking apart the writing. The truth is I want to help writers become better writers. I have many friends in the industry, and we always push each other to learn and do more. Why? Because seeing another author succeed is exciting. We all know how it feels to strive for creativity, ingenuity, and publication. When one of us wins, we all celebrate. 

Being a writer and an editor, I know my articles and stories will improve after my editor gets her eyes on them. She will always find something I missed or see a way to polish a phrase. There are times I have an area I am struggling with, and she will have a brilliant idea to fix it. Despite popular belief, writing for publication is not a solitary activity. Authors need editors; therefore, editors who are also authors need editors. 

Long-Term Passion

Recently, I was on a hike with some friends, and one of them asked me if there is still passion after being with the same person for almost twenty years. “You know, like it was at the beginning when you can’t keep your hands off each other,” she said. The answer is a resounding yes. But it takes work. 

Over the years, my husband and I have definitely had difficulties in our relationship. However, we both agree that we have an excellent marriage. We also agree we lack nothing in the bedroom because of our efforts outside of lovemaking. As a long-time couple, we have some tips for you. 

Communicate 

This may seem obvious, and there are a million articles on improving communication in marriage. Still, miscommunication is the number one reason we end up in arguments. My husband will be the first to admit that he’s not the best at conversation and relaying his thoughts while I speak my mind. We discovered that the best way for us to communicate is to ask questions and say, “I’m not sure I understand what you mean,” to get clarification.

We ask each other every day if there’s anything we can do to make the day easier. Most of the time, we’re going about our daily lives, and there isn’t anything, but every once in a while, he needs me to run an errand, or I need him to move furniture. Both of us are independent people and need the reminder that we have a partner who will help. 

When we first started dating, my husband would call me when he got off work (this was before cellphones were standard) just to say hi. Then later in the evening, we talked about our day. That habit continues, and I am incredibly grateful for it. Now, though, he sends me a text letting me know he’s off work and headed home and asks if I need him to stop anywhere on the way. He also tells me goodbye before he leaves for work at 5 a.m., and we both always tell each other, “I love you,” even if we’re arguing. Life holds too much risk for those words to get passed over when someone walks out the door. 

Key takeaway: Learn your partner’s communication style and start and end the day with love.

Service

I mentioned above that we ask what we can do for each other, but there are also hundreds of small ways we can serve each other without asking or being told. I cook the meal, and he clears the table after dinner. I leave the bathroom light on when he’s coming to bed after me, so he doesn’t trip over our black dog in the dark. He lets me have the bathroom to get ready for bed first, even though it usually takes me longer than him. 

We also work as partners when caring for our family and home. He works long hours in the summer, so most of the housekeeping falls to me during those months. But in the winter, when he’s off for the season, he takes on more, so I have a little breathing room as my responsibilities don’t change with the seasons. 

Random gifts also appear in our relationship. For example, he’ll bring me a bottle of wine or some flowers, and I’ll slip some snacks into his lunch box. Usually, our gifts are unrelated to a holiday or occasion and are simply because we were thinking of the other person when we were out. 

Key takeaway: Even if your “love language” isn’t service, you can still show love by helping your partner. 

Make Time For Each Other 

Today’s lifestyle is all about being busy and chasing dreams, and that’s okay. Still, it’s vital to spend quality time with your partner. Date each other, whether you’ve been together for a month or thirty years. Find intimacy in quiet moments together. My husband and I choose a television series on a streaming service to watch each evening during the winter months. We sit together and watch it and frequently have conversations about the topics the show touches on, such as politics, relationships, family, and even our individual pasts. 

We also find new things to do together. Once when life was getting in the way, we came up with a system of a biweekly date night, and we had to take turns choosing what we did. The agreement was that the other person would try it, no matter what. So we went to a comedy club (him), an art museum (me), the golf driving range (him), and hiking (me). It was fun to see what the other person would come up with, and we discovered some shared interests we didn’t know we had.

You do not have to spend a lot of money on a date, though! Years ago, when Pokemon Go first came out, we spent a summer evening walking around downtown, catching Pokemon before having a drink at a local brewery. It was the cheapest yet one of the most fun dates we’ve ever been on! We also go on a lot of drives, usually out of town and up a mountain. Lately, we’ve taken to riding the motorcycle together in the afternoon on the weekend. 

We also try to make running errands special. If you see us on those busy Saturdays spent going to Home Depot, Napa, and the grocery store, you will also see us holding hands and stopping for lunch. We pretend we’re on a date, even when our to-do list is a mile long. 

Key takeaway: Spend as much time together as a couple as you can. 

Laugh, Flirt, And Flatter

My husband has a quick wit, and he makes me laugh. Of course, I catch him laughing at me, too, but I’m not always sure why. I suppose it doesn’t matter as long as it’s in a good way. We laugh together, too, about all kinds of things: our kids, animals, home remodel blunders, the dinner I burned… pretty much anything. We decided a while ago that life’s too short to not laugh, and laughing is better than crying.

Not only do we make running errands look like a good time, but we also flirt with each other. We like to poke fun at our relationship and life, but we also know where to draw the line. Sometimes our teasing can sound mean to someone else. In fact, for a while, my mom would pull me aside and ask me if we were fighting. I finally had to explain to her it’s a type of foreplay! We say things that have double meanings, and frequently he has me blushing in the plumbing aisle. 

We also complement each other for looks, personality, and deeds. I’ll say I love hugging him; he’ll say he loves my hair. I’ll express my awe at his visual measurement skills (if he says something is about twelve feet, it will most likely be twelve feet), and he’ll remind me that my organization skills are why our family survives our teens’ soccer season. We tell each other that we’re grateful for the work done for our family. This might not happen every day, but I estimate we are praising the other person at least once a week. 

Key takeaway: Act like a love-sick teenager.

Physical Intimacy 

Honestly, physical intimacy is not always easy for us. We have very engaging lives with work, kids and their activities, hobbies, volunteer work, upkeep on our property… the list is endless. I’m sure you have a similar list. At the end of some days, we fall into bed completely exhausted, and sex is the last thing on our minds. But we try to have physical touches in other ways during the day: holding hands, hugging, kissing. Occasionally, that’s enough for us when things are busy. Other times, cuddling results in a nice romp.

We also recognize the importance of physical intimacy as part of our marriage. Sometimes one of us will decide that three days is too long, and we’ll text the other person in the middle of the day something like, “We’re going to bed early tonight.” Other times, we take time on the weekend or even while the casserole is in the oven to have sex. As an “older couple,” we have found that when we increase the frequency of sex, we want it more. Naturally, this leads to more intimacy. This is where the passion piece of my friend’s question comes in. 

We have passion because we create and nurture it. We do not allow things to get stale in the bedroom. How you want to accomplish spicing things up might differ from what we’ve done, but I will hint that it goes back to communication. Ask what your partner wants to do or what they like and don’t like. Explore in ways that feel comfortable. Even a minor change can be exciting.

Key takeaway: Do not underestimate the power of cuddling and make time for lovemaking. 

If you’ve been paying attention, you see that all five of the love languages are present in our relationship. Some are more prominent than others, and that’s because those are the ones we both “speak.” I think learning each other’s love languages and actively engaging in them will keep the passion in your long-term relationship.

The Train

I look out the window and stare at the dark, with city lights twinkling in the distance. I’m exhausted after a week of the general chaos of being a mother to four children and frantic last-minute packing. The train begins moving, the rocking motion and clickity-clack of the wheels on the tracks inviting me to close my eyes. This is my first time traveling by train, and I want to see everything. As tired as I am, I am also excited – excited for the journey, the adventure, and for the end of the trip as my husband of ten years is waiting for me. 

The towns I know float by outside. I pass the small city where my parents live, my children sleeping in their spare room. I pass the town where my boys go to school, almost without realizing it because things look different from the train. Slowly, I sink lower in the seat and eventually doze.

My sleep is fitful, and I stir at the odd sounds around me – the very sick woman in front of me coughing, the man behind me shifting in his seat. I am cold and slightly uncomfortable, and more than a few times, I wish I had taken my mom up on her offer to snag a small blanket from their linen closet before my dad drove me to the station. Eventually, light teases my senses, a subtle glowing that pulls me to full wakefulness.

Stretching a little, I gaze out the window at the snow-covered mountains, trees stark against the white. This must be Glacier National Park that my dad was telling me about. It almost looks like home; if my home had shorter mountains and taller trees. The trees look wrong to me, and for a few minutes, I ponder the reason as they appear healthy and proud. Then I realize that there are not any birch trees, or at least very few. All I see is the deep green of Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir, and other evergreen trees; no bare white branches glinting with frost and patiently waiting for spring.

A small herd of elk, only eight or so, rest on the rocky hillside next to the tracks and watch the train pass by. Obviously, it is a familiar sight to them as the racket does not disturb them. They remind me of the mountain goats lining the highway in Alaska, leaping from rocky outcropping to ledge with agility and grace. The similarity in the two species comes from their bored looks as humans travel beneath their domains.

There is a break in the trees by the track, and a swiftly moving river comes into view. Staring at the gray-green water flowing and tumbling over rocks between pebble-strewn banks lined with stunted willows, I notice that the color of the water is the exact color of my beloved glacier-fed streams and rivers in early spring. How can it be spring here in this wilderness with snow still blanketing the ground, several feet deep in some places? 

As the train slows into a small depot to obtain more passengers, I think back to my childhood home in Alaska. It has only been six years since I left it behind to find a new start for my family. How could I have already forgotten the idiosyncrasies of the seasons there? Summers are short but memorable, with almost constant daylight and very little night. Autumns are rainy days and frosty nights interspersed with days of warm sunlight and glorious colors on the trees. The winter comes barreling in with snow and wind, taking everyone by surprise with their ferocity every year. While springs arrive slowly, snow still melting even as the trees are budding and tulips are bravely pushing through the snow.

It could be spring here, already mid-April, and yet still snow-covered. This place could be my home if I overlook the taller trees and shorter mountains. It is wild, untamed, beautiful, and breathtaking. So I sit on the train and breathe in a piece of Alaska given to me as a wondrous gift from Glacier National Park, Montana. The view brings a calming peace to my soul that I haven’t felt since leaving home. 

Dragon Vet

Indigo

I yelped and ducked just as a burst of flame shot across the field. There was a loud snort, then quiet. I took a deep breath and peaked over the boulder. Blue scales glimmered in the morning sun while yellow eyes glared balefully at me. 

“Now, Indigo. I am only here to help. Gus said you have something stuck under one of your spines. Please be a darling and allow me to remove it.” 

My voice was calm, but I was ready to run at the first sign of the dragon readying her fire. There weren’t many signs before flames would shoot out of her mouth. Usually the first sign was a deep inhalation, followed by a long pause. I stood and waited behind the meager shelter of my boulder.

Indigo flicked her tail and watched me. The yellow eyes looked more curious now instead of irritated; the pupils had dilated just a little. I decided to risk it. I stepped away from the boulder, then inched forward. Indigo huffed and turned around, presenting her back to me. 

“Good girl. I see something under your third spine. Can you lower yourself so I can reach it? You are such a gorgeous gem, sparkling in the sun, and I am insignificant compared to you.”

Dragons loved flattery. They thought themselves the most amazing creatures in the universe and, while that was true, it made them extremely arrogant. The more I told her she was beautiful, the more she would cooperate. 

Indigo gave a small, throaty purr of pleasure and stretched her neck out on the ground. Her great yellow eyes rolled back to watch me. 

“Oh, intriguing Indigo, I am going to use these tweezers to pull out the splinter. It looks like a tree branch has lodged itself under your spike, that nasty thing.”

I held up the gleaming metal tweezers so she could see them. They were almost as long as my forearm with sharp, slanted tips. She nodded slightly, and I leaned in closer. The heat from her scales warmed my body, and the pungent animal smell was a cross of charred meat and something almost like fresh wheat. Spring was late coming to Antasia and, in case I needed to move quickly should my patient become irate, I only had on a light sweater over my tunic and leggings. Her body heat was welcome for the few moments it took me to pull the tree branch free.

“There, great one. I have a salve to use, to speed the healing process of your sensitive yet sensual skin. If I may?” 

I dropped the tree branch, placing the tweezers in my bag and drawing out a large jar.

Indigo twisted around and sniffed at the jar, so I removed the lid for her. She inhaled deeply, and I tensed, ready to run. But then she snuffed at my hair and turned away. Taking that as permission, I stood on tiptoes and dipped three fingers in the jar. Scooping out a large glob of calendula, lavender, and buckthorn mixed in shea butter, I smeared it over her scales and under the spine, ensuring the balm coated the area where the stick had rubbed raw. 

I felt Indigo sigh and patted her on neck, well away from the wound. 

“There you go, my beautiful blue star. That should heal well for you. If it doesn’t, just tell Gus and I’ll come back.” 

Slowly, I stepped back from her and waited until her enormous head turned towards me, then bowed. 

“Thank you for allowing me to serve you.” 

I swear at that moment Indigo rolled her eyes before suddenly stretching her wings and launching herself into the sky using her powerful hind legs. Clouds of dust rose from the sandy ground and covered me, making me cough. 

“Oh, sure. ‘Be a veterinarian for dragons’ they said. ‘It will be fun,’ they said. Dealing with overgrown lizards with overgrown egos who can spit flame at me is not fun.”

“Are you sure?” 

I spun around to see Gus standing a little way off, smiling at me. 

“Being coated in dust while I make my the rest of my rounds is decidedly not fun.”

I started walking towards the road, and Gus fell in step beside me. 

“Well, the dragons sure like you. Better than the last veterinarian we had. They flamed him the second day.”

I cringed at the thought of being roasted alive. It made me queasy, and I swallowed hard.

“Why didn’t you just take that tree branch out of Indigo’s spine? It was easy enough, and she likes you or she wouldn’t mind-talk to you.”

“Because she asked for you,” he shrugged.

I stopped walking and stared at him. “Why would she do that?”

“I told you, the dragons like you. You know how to talk to them. And you tell them what you’re going to do before you do it. That means they aren’t surprised or startled. Which means you don’t get fried.”

“Well, yes, but you are more than capable of taking care of minor injuries.”

“I know. Yet when one of those ‘overgrown lizards’ asks for a specific human, I obey. I prefer to stay raw, if you know what I mean.” He winked at me and then moved to the next clearing. 

“Now, Carmine here has a strange gunk running from his nose,” Gus said as the huge red dragon came into view.

“You mean he has a cold?” 

“Well, not exactly. Dragons shouldn’t get colds. At least from what they tell me.”

“Alright, I’ll see what I can do.” 

I rubbed some grit from my left eye and pushed my hair back before stepping into the clearing. 

“Hello, shining Carmine. I am Doctor Alisha. Gus tells me you have something bothering you. May I look at your nose?” 


Featured image by Kellepics on Pixabay.