Monday, December 10, 2018

November Book Review

I've written before of how I always finish a book once I start reading it.  Several years ago, I picked up a nonfiction book with fantastic reviews but after a couple of pages, I knew it just wasn't the book for me.  So I put it down.  There was a little bit of guilt, but I got over it.

Last year, I read a couple of pages of a book in the fantasy genre and I just couldn't continue.  I struggle with fantasy.  It has to be written just right or it's very difficult for me to get into.  I dropped that book and last month, I dropped The Fifth Season, also in the fantasy category.  It's a shame because The Fifth Season has a 4.5 star rating on Amazon, but it's the first book of a trilogy and I couldn't invest my time when I was just not feeling it at all.

After I put that book down, I picked up The Vacationers.  I know - so 2015.  I read about 25 pages one night before bed and I don't think I've ever felt so uninvested in a book.  With the 3 books I described above, I didn't stop reading because of this feeling.  That was something different.  Honestly, I kept reading this one because it was a quick read, but, yeah, for the entire book, I was completely uninvested.  So much so that if it had, poof, disappeared from my kindle and I couldn't easily figure out how to get it back on, I would have moved on to another book and forgotten about it.
 


This novel takes place over two weeks during a family vacation, where we, the readers, learn of the characters' secrets.  These characters were so boring and the author did such a poor job with character development that there really is nothing for the reader to connect with.  I didn't care for any of the people in the book and it wasn't because they were bad people; it's because the author failed to bring them to life.  The only saving grace was the speed with which this book could be consumed.  Meh and bleh.

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Alice and Jake, newlyweds, are invited to join a private club, which focuses on strengthening marriages.  Members are required to purchase thoughtful gifts for their spouses every month and embark on special trips at least once a quarter, along with a slew of other "requirements."  Who wouldn't want to make their marriage stronger?  When one of the rules is broken, Jake and Alice learn how serious the consequences can be . . .

This is one where you have to sort of just go along with it.  You'll want to believe that this can't happen in real life and every time I had that thought, I also thought about cults.  This is a fairly fast-paced read and definitely suspenseful.  If you're into those type of books, check it out.

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A senior takes an inappropriate photo with his phone of a younger student and, by the end of the night, the photo has spread to what appears to be the entire population of the school.  What are the consequences?  Who should be punished and how?  While I thought this book focused on subject matter that is very real in society today (smart phones and social media) and issues that are not new (teen drinking), I wasn't a fan for many different reasons.  I didn't like all the stereotypes used by the author.  Of course a rich boy took the photo and the girl in the photo attends the school on a scholarship.  Of course all the rich kids drive expensive SUVs.  And then there's the mom (main character) who is rich but soooo different from all the other rich moms.  Of course.

Near the conclusion of the book, the author brought up much more serious issues than the ones being presented as the theme of the book and then just rushed through the ending.  It seems to me that the author threw these more serious concerns in at the end for a dramatic effect.  It's a shame because I feel that she failed to do what could have been done with this book.

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Okay, so this was my favorite book from November.  Warning:  You will feel incompetent and question your life's accomplishments when reading this because of all the author has done but it's such a good read.



Bill Browder, hedge fund manager turned human rights activist, made a fortune as one of the first investors in Russia.  Unfortunately, his life was endangered after he persisted in exposing corrupt practices.  One of his attorneys was jailed for his participation and eventually died at the hand of Russian authorities.  I've always been fascinated with Russia so I found that part of the book incredibly interesting.  There is also quite a bit of discussion surrounding stocks and investing.  Because I have a business background and have worked for two investment management firms, I enjoyed the investment discussions.  I thought the book was written in a way that any reader would easily be able to follow along.  Unlike some intellectuals, the author didn't feel the need to use big words for the sake of using big words.  Definitely 5 stars!!      


To see the books I've read so far this year, click HERE.

To see what I read in 2017, 2016 and 2015, click HERE.



Disclosure:  This post contains affiliate links.  TGUH is a participant in the Amazon Services Associates Program LLC, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Super short gift guide for tweens

Feeling inundated with gift guides?  I know.  Me too.  I just wanted to quickly share some general gift ideas for tweens.  I'm not going to list everything my girls are asking for this year or everything I've ever purchased for them as that would be overkill.  Plus, kids have such different likes and dislikes, especially 11 year old girls.

Chromebooks

For the girls' birthday last spring, we gave them each a Chromebook.  It was a gift decision Rich and I went back and forth on for many, many months, which is why we didn't gift them at Christmas last year.  We knew many of their friends and classmates were receiving Chromebooks as gifts but we didn't want to buy them for the sake of keeping up with everyone else.

So let me tell you this was probably the best gift decision we've ever made.  The girls use their Chromebooks all the time, especially for school.  Quite often, they have homework that needs to be completed online, and all of their projects are saved to their google school accounts and can be accessed at home on their Chromebooks.  All three of them sat in the family room a couple of weeks ago working on a project for their computer class.

The girls will be participating in a choreography showcase this winter and Allie used her Chromebook to tape herself dancing.  If you saw my IG stories last night, that was her reviewing the video.



This is definitely a big ticket item and not something I would casually purchase.  Our schools do not provide students with iPads, as some other school systems do so these Chromebooks are so very helpful for students who don't yet have their own laptops.


Amazon's Music Unlimited

One of the girls has asked for Amazon's Music Unlimited this Christmas.



Admittedly, I'm an old lady who still needs a CD player but my children listen to music in a different manner.  They frequently create play lists through Amazon and I'm told that new and/or popular songs are moved to Music Unlimited.


Amazon's Kindle Unlimited

Every year, I think about how awesome of a gift this would be for a bookworm.  My girls have access to sooooo many books though and I feel like this would be an unnecessary gift.  But if there was a bookworm who does not have access to free/discounted books, this would be fantastic.  (Our local library is only a five minute drive away and if they don't have a certain book, one of the libraries in the network most likely does.  All we need to do is request it and it will be delivered to our library for an easy pick-up.  There are also a billion e-books available to us through our library network.  The girls also have a well stocked library at school and their literacy teacher has a small library in her classroom.  And we can't forget the Scholastic book orders.)    

As always, I highly recommend a Kindle Paperwhite for anyone and everyone who reads.  


Dancers

If you're buying gifts this season for younger dancers, you can check out my gift guide from last year HERE.  


Disclosure:  This post contains affiliate links.  TGUH is a participant in the Amazon Services Associates Program LLC, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Stuffed Turkey 5K - The girls' first time running.

One of my running goals for 2018 was to complete a 5K in under 28 minutes, which is a time I was able to achieve many, many years ago.  Over the summer, I came to the realization that I am not and will never be a speedy runner and so I significantly cut back on speedwork and focused more on increasing my mileage.  I have also come to accept that I do not like organized road races and that's okay.  I don't really have a good explanation other than the beast of my ever-growing anxiety.  I find myself feeling jumpy and caged-in surrounded by crowds, waiting for races to begin.

Despite not fully enjoying road races, I still wanted to challenge myself and see how I would do in a 5K.  Over the summer, Rich ran a 5 mile race while the girls and I completed the walker course, which was 3 miles.  This Stuffed Turkey race was in the back of my mind as a last resort to running a 5K in 2018.  This particular race is not as anxiety inducing because it's on a course I run all the time (it goes right by my neighborhood) and it starts/ends at a school, which is open to runners/spectators.

After the summer race, Rich and I had an agreement that I could run this race solo while he walked with the girls.  But then two of the girls participated in the school's running club this fall and they expressed an interest in actually running the race, not just walking it.  They run at different paces so Rich and I discussed logistics and alternatives.  The only solution we could really come up with was to have him stay with the slowest runner(s).  This way, the girls would be sandwiched between us and once I finished, I could walk/run back to find them.

Unfortunately, I was not completely comfortable with this plan.  The roads are not closed for this race and more than two miles of it take place on traditional New England backroads.  If you live here, you know what I mean.  These are old, narrow cow paths with seemingly meaningless bends and curves.  And, oh yeah, there are zero sidewalks for a mile of the race.  This is also a very small race with only a couple of hundred runners and if you're not running less than a 10 minute mile, you're probably going to find yourself alone on the race course at some point.

Drivers from Massachusetts are often referred to as "massholes" with good reason.

Call me paranoid if you want, but I've lived through a stillbirth.  I know what can happen.

I needed to decide if I was going to run for myself or sacrifice my time and run with the girls.

On Veteran's Day, the girls danced and marched in a small, local parade.  Once the temperature drops below 70, I'm usually always cold but for some reason, even though it was only in the mid-40s, it didn't feel very cold outside to me that day.  I decided to take advantage of this rare internal warmth and run 3 miles of the 5K route.  We've had a rainy, cold fall and I haven't been running outside very much.  Because of this, I don't really know how fast I can run.

I completed the 3 miles in 28:31.  Could I have run it faster?  Maybe.    

I opted to run with the girls because I'm a mom, and that's what moms do.  Plus, it's not like I was going to finish with a PR.

It was only 12 degrees outside on Thanksgiving morning and thankfully this race wasn't on Thanksgiving itself or no one would have been running it.  By race day, the weather was much more cooperative and we all dressed in layers and headed off to the school.

Our game plan was for Rich to stick with Anna and I would run with Emily and Allie.  It's important to note that the girls did not train for this.  Anna and Emily participated in the running club at school this fall, but that only met once a week for 6 weeks.  I think the most they ran/walked on those days was 2 miles.  There was one week I took the girls and a friend over to the bike path for a run so they could get in 2 runs that week.  I had wanted to do that every week but, again, the weather was so gross and they all had homework and dance and blah, blah, time slips away.  About a month ago, the girls started asking if they could run on the treadmill.  They did that twice before this race.

Successful runners set goals and teaching kids to run allows them to set and successfully reach their goals.  Every time I go for a run, I have a goal in mind.  My goals are usually mile based.  So I'll say, "I'm going to run 4 miles today."  If I were to say, "Hey, I'm just going to go out and see how I feel," I probably would not get very far.  Obviously, there are days where I may have a goal but I can't reach that goal because of how I'm feeling (illness, extreme heat, etc.) and that's okay.                        

If you have a goal of completing a 5K and you complete that 5K, you have successfully reached your goal!

Goals:  For races, I usually have a certain finish time as a goal but because this was the girls' first race and they hadn't trained for it, we couldn't really set a time goal.  So we set the goal of running as much as possible.  We also set short term goals as we were running, such as "run until we reach that fire hydrant and then we can walk for 1 minute."

Mile 1:  All five of us started off together and after about a third of a mile, Anna needed to slow down.  A pack of kids ranging in age from 6-7 to 11ish sprinted past us shortly after the start.  I know the girls saw those kids and how much faster they were running and I told them to not try to catch up.  They are sprinting, which is not sustainable, and they will eventually have to walk and we will pass them.  And that's exactly what happened.

Rich stayed behind with Anna while I continued running with Allie and Emily.  There was a group of three older adults who were running near us at a nice, slow, consistent pace.  We kept passing them and then when we would slow down, they would pass us.  I told A and E that we should just run behind them and follow their pace but they didn't want to.

Time - 12:45

Mile 2: We ran/walked the second mile.  At the mile 1 mark, Allie began complaining of a stitch in her side, and then Emily had the same complaint.  We pushed on though.  I will say that I am not an easy coach.  Running sometimes is all about mind over matter and you need to push yourself.  Or you need someone to push you.  Right before the second mile marker, we came upon a water station so the girls took a little break.

Time - 25:11

Mile 3:  This last mile was the toughest one.  It's mostly a slight uphill battle and even though it's not a big hill, when you're tired. it can be tough.  Allie had recovered from the pain in her side and kept running ahead but then stopping and waiting for us to catch up.  At this point, there was a sidewalk and I knew there would be a cop at the end of the road who would help her cross the street back over to the school. I told her to go ahead, that she could finish with a time of 36:00, which would be awesome for her first (untrained) race.  She said she wanted to stay with us.  Later she told me she was afraid she wouldn't be able to find us at the finish.

The Finish: When we did reach the school, I encouraged Allie to run ahead.  She finished in 38 minutes, some seconds.  Emily and I crossed the finish line right over 39 minutes.  We walked back up to the main road to look for Anna and Rich.  About five minutes later, we spotted them.  I grabbed Anna's hand and ran down the school's driveway to the finish line with her.  Her time was 46 minutes and some change.

So here's the thing - these are all awesome times, especially for kids who have not trained!  I'm so proud of them for going out there and pushing themselves.  Anna was born with the most severe form of spina bifida and she finished a 5K with a fantastic time!

The girls are taking a bit of a running break right now, but Emily and Anna plan to join the spring running club, which meets only one day a week.  I've told them that if they can squeeze in another day of running, their next 5K will be easier.

Every time you go out there, it will get easier.    

Sunday, December 2, 2018

{Disney 2018] Day 5 - Dining in Cinderella's Castle

While our Disney trips are very much family vacations, I do admit to planning around the girls wishes.  In my opinion, the benefit of a Disney vacation is that it's fun for both children and adults.  Actually, that's not even my opinion; it's the truth.  Think about it.  There are plenty of adults without children who vacation at Disney.  There are even adults who leave their children at home!  We have visited several smaller theme parks, which cater to younger children, in New England, and while those trips have been tolerable because I love seeing my kids enjoy themselves, they just don't compare to Disney.

It's a running joke around here now that, for every Disney trip, I make a dining reservation for Cinderella's Royal Table and justify the cost with the statement that this will be the last year the girls will want to dine there so we have to do it.

Cinderella's Royal Table is a table service restaurant located inside Cinderella's castle.  If you are on a dining plan, a meal here will use up two of your credits.  When not using a dining plan, you are required to pay in full when you make your dining reservation.  (You will receive a full refund if you cancel within 24 hours of your reserved dining time.)

After being welcomed into the castle, you are greeted by Cinderella.  Disney used to give you a printed copy of your photo with Cinderella and then someone high up decided a good way to cut costs would be to eliminate that photo.  As always, you can take these photos with your own camera.  Do not be intimidated by the PhotoPass photographer, especially if you don't plan to purchase any photos from Disney.  I always step right up and take the photos I want.  The majority of the photographers will stay out of your way.  I have run into a few who are a bit pushy but I stand my ground.

While I do have a photo of the girls with Cinderella, I won't be sharing today because not everyone looks perfect.

So let's talk about the food served here.  Included in the cost are three courses:  appetizer, entree and dessert.

12.1f

I went with the salad and it was very tasty.  I hate to waste food but the serving size here was a bit too much for me to finish knowing I had an entree and dessert coming my way.  Since I've been at home and not in an office, I've mostly transitioned to eating smaller meals and snacks throughout the day.

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As we were eating our appetizers, Snow White stopped by.

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As you can see, the lighting at our table was not so great.  We were seated on the inside of the restaurant far away from the windows and while Allie and Anna have natural light on them, Emily and SW do not.

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For my entree, I always order the chicken.

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I thought this was tasty too.

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Next up was Aurora.  

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And then Ariel.

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And finally Jasmine.

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Checking wait times as we discuss what to do after dinner.

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Dessert was the only disappointment.  I like sweet, really sweet, and none of these jumped out at me as a dessert I would want to order.  I probably should have gone with The Clock Strikes Twelve but I'm not a fan of dark chocolate.  I ended up ordering the cheesecake and it was just okay.

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See the cupcake?

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When we checked into our resort, the cast member had noted that it was my birthday.  It wasn't and I told her that, but because it was in their system, cast members at every table service restaurant wished me a happy birthday.  Even though our waiter knew it wasn't really my birthday, he still brought out a birthday cupcake with my dessert.  (I thought the cupcake was better than the cheesecake.)

I attempted to photograph the decorate your cupcake dessert which the girls all requested.  I'm assuming two cupcakes are given in case the child dislikes chocolate or vanilla.  The out of focus portion of the plate holds frosting and sprinkles in which to decorate the cupcakes.

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I do want to comment on service at the table service restaurants.  We ate at four table service restaurants this trip and service was fantastic at all of them.  My drink was refilled at exactly the right time without me having to ask and, in my book, that is attentive service.  I can't stand when my drink starts to get low and our server has seeming disappeared and I have to ration out what I have remaining in my glass. (Restaurant pet peeve.)

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Happy girl!

Up next:  The end of our trip.

To read all entries from this trip report and previous trip reports, click here.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Spina bifida, 504 plans and middle school

I wanted to talk a little bit about Anna's transition to middle school and updates we've made with respect to her 504 plan.  My goal and hope is to provide assistance to others in the spina bifida/hydrocephalus community.  If you click here, it will bring you to a reference sheet for 504 plans for kids with spina bifida and hydrocephalus.  We have found this extremely helpful in describing how Anna functions to teachers and school administrators.  Bring copies to your IEP/504 meetings!    

When Anna started the 6th grade in September, we knew we would most likely have to update her 504 plan for middle school.  This year, she has 5 different core classes with 5 different teachers, in addition to 2 specials which change up every 30-60 days.  School is different and more complicated this year.

For a bit of background information, Anna began preschool under an IEP in order to receive PT and OT services.  That continued up until 3 years ago when the school deemed her capable of rolling off of OT and PT.  Rich and I were a bit surprised when that happened as we always assumed she would be on some sort of plan due to the fact that she was born with spina bifida and is required to receive nursing services.

At that point, someone with the school pulled us aside and recommended starting the process of securing a 504 plan for Anna.  While everyone at the elementary school was aware of Anna's needs and no one anticipated any issues, that could/would change when she moved up to the middle school and rolling a child from an IEP to a 504 could be easier than waiting two years to petition for a 504.

What's the difference between an IEP and a 504 plan?  There are many differences but a teacher friend best described it at dance the other night when someone asked that very same question.  Very basically, with an IEP, the curriculum is changed in some way in order to meet the student's needs.  With a 504, the curriculum is unchanged but accommodations are made for the student.

So Anna's had a 504 plan for the past three years and, honestly, there's never been an issue.  I've never had to remind anyone of any of her accommodations.  Everyone at the elementary school was very willing to help out.  We really didn't know what to expect for middle school though and decided the best approach would be to wait and see how the first few weeks of school played out.

One of the benefits to being at home full time now is hearing everything (and I mean everything) that happens at school firsthand.  The girls jump in the van after school and they start talking.  Based on what the girls were telling me, I began to make a list of potential concerns.  For example, arriving to class late.        

The first month of school passed by without incident and I continued to take notes based on what the girls were telling me.  I knew at some point the school would contact us about updating Anna's 504 but I feel it's better to be proactive versus reactive.  That being said, I didn't want to run up to the school without a plan and without knowing what Anna really needed.  I know I can contact the school at any time if we have concerns and accommodations included in 504 plans can be changed whenever needed, but everyone's busy and I want to limit the back and forth.

And then something happened that caused me to call the school and set up an appointment.  The incident ended up being a complete non-issue, but again, I wanted to be proactive rather than reactive.  The incident?  The girls have a math quiz/test at least once a week.  When the teacher hands back a quiz/test, their homework that night is to get the quiz/test signed and to correct any incorrect problems.  I think this is a really good idea as it forces students to (hopefully) learn from their mistakes.  Allie and Anna come home from school one Thursday afternoon with a math test.  I signed both, they made corrections, stapled it together and were good to go for the next day.

They had math first period that Friday.  The tests were handed in to their teacher and they thought they were all set.  During last period, Anna was in science and her science teacher handed out a paper telling the students that it was for math and she couldn't answer any questions because she was only told to hand out the sheet.  I didn't know any of this until we arrived home from school that afternoon.  At some point during the day, their math teacher had decided that instead of making corrections to the test on a separate sheet of paper, the students needed to fill in a sheet showing which problems were incorrect, why they were incorrect (math fact error, etc.) and then the corrections should be made on the back.

Anna hadn't even looked at the sheet.  She was in science class and no instructions or directions were given.  Allie had received the sheet during that last period as well but she looked at it and returned to the math classroom before leaving school to retrieve the test that she had already handed in.  I'm not sure why their teacher handed it out later in the day but I'm assuming it's because there must have been too many students who were not handing in corrections or were half-assing it.

Kids with hydrocephalus need clear instructions.  That's life with hydro and a shunt.  Because Allie had her copy of the test at home with her that weekend and I had assisted Anna with her incorrect problems on Thursday afternoon, we were able to redo the corrections on the new sheet.  I wrote a long note to their teacher explaining why and how Anna made the corrections over the weekend and that her original corrections had been handed in Friday morning.  I also noted how she has hydrocephalus and needs clear instructions and didn't receive any for this assignment.  It's important to note here that we had no idea when it was even due back to the teacher and homework, including following directions for homework, is a part of your class grade.

So this all ended up being a complete non-issue as the due date was Tuesday.  So on Monday during math, Anna took her turned-in test back and that afternoon, we pulled together the packet in the order the teacher wanted, which was explained on the new sheet.  This pushed me to contact the school though because what if it had been due on Monday?  The teacher could have very well taken off points because Anna wouldn't have had the original test stapled to the back.  (I know that sounds crazy, but we've seen it happen.)

This was actually a re-assessment year for Anna and she wasn't on their schedule until February but the school was fine with pushing up the date to October.  Rich and I met with school administrators at the end of the month.  The first thing they do is go through a chart in order to determine whether she qualifies for a 504.  It is my opinion that she will always automatically qualify given that she was born with a medical condition but we still go through the chart regardless.  After we confirmed continuation of her 504, and I want to note that there was absolutely no push back from the school, we discussed her academic status.

One of Anna's teachers was there as a representative but she had feedback from all the teachers and Anna is performing at or above grade expectations.  Here's the list of what we wanted to see added to her 504:
  1. Anna will receive CLEAR INSTRUCTIONS on all assignments.
  2. There will be no negative consequences if she's late for class (for whatever reason) or if work/supplies are forgotten in her locker.
  3. She will be given additional time (if needed) to complete quizzes and/or tests. 
  4. Her grade in gym will not be negatively impacted due to her physical limitations.  (Her 504 already included a clause allowing her to choose lower impact activities when she feels necessary.)
I asked for Anna's input on all of this before the meeting.  We discussed her concerns and what happens during the school day.  She even read through this list before the meeting.

What I learned at the meeting is that they are all there to help the kids.  Everyone is very understanding.  They want to teach all the kids responsibility but, at the same time, they recognize that we're all human.  We all make mistakes.  How many times have you, an adult, left the house without your keys, wallet, phone, etc?  I felt a sense of relief after the meeting, knowing that Anna is in good hands.  No one argued with our plan additions and it was a very stress-free meeting.

Anna's holding her own in middle school.  She's one tough cookie.  Term 1 is complete and I can proudly report that all three girls made the honor roll!