The #Day Challenge

I’ve picked up an odd habit this year: I have said Yes! to an assortment of (mostly) online challenges, all for a set number of days:

The 30 Day Power Purge
Soulful Spring Cleaning: A 30-Day Life Reboot
Lenten disciplines, an annual 40 day adventure
The Body Love Experiment 21 Day Challenge
40 Days of Prayer (for a season in our church life)
Clean Eating 30 Day Challenge

Hmm, now that I look at the list, I see that my challenges center on a theme: cleaning out and cleaning up, whether it’s the kitchen junk drawer, my attitudes or relationships, my eating and exercise habits, or my prayers. Sometimes I crack myself up!

With the arrival of summer vacation, I am reminded of the theme song to one of my favorite animated TV shows, Phineas and Ferb:

There’s a 104 days of summer vacation
And school comes along just to end it
So the annual problem of our generation
Is finding a good way to spend it

Phineas Ferb

Around here it’s 72 days of summer, unless you’re in middle school and then you have 73. In any case, a finite number of days with the challenge to fill them well.

Truth: my kids can get pretty sludgey. I can almost watch them melt into primordial ooze as they stare blankly into screens – phone, computer, or TV. They’ll get up eventually, to eat or use the facilities, but return to their well-worn cushions of thoughtlessness. They get less creative and more grouchy as the day wears on.

I can’t have it, and I know from years of experience that they lack the drive of Phineas and Ferb and I lack the skills to make a good summer cruise director. However, I make a pretty good chart and so, some years ago, I devised a summer activity chart for each child. They have to do 5 activities each day, each for at least 20 minutes, and all of them at least once between Monday and Friday. There is no screen time between 9am and 4pm unless both boys have completed their five activities. If they complete all activities at least once before the end of Thursday then Friday might contain even better activities and treats.

Each year I tweak each kid’s chart – new interests and strengths (and occasionally, new weaknesses) require different activity suggestions. I’ve intentionally made the activities general so the kids can apply their creativity to how they will complete the activities.

For example, this year Teen’s activities include: reading, exercising, Eagle Scout project, creativity, writing, Bible, act of kindness, chores, and extra chore.

Tween’s activities include: reading, physical play (exercise, but at 11yo it’s still “play”), creativity, Bible, trumpet, Khan Academy,, writing, act of kindness, chores, and extra chore.

Yesterday was the first Monday of summer. I reminded the kids Sunday evening that the charts were coming. All warning aside, when they saw the charts you might have thought I’d told them the world had cancelled summer. Teen threatened to leave the house, all day all summer. Tween, less mobile and just as determined, followed suit. I calmly explained that less than two hours of activity suggestions in 14+ hours of sunlight – and they have lots of choice in every regard – was not an unreasonable request, and yes, they’d still get plenty of screen time, fun- and friend-time. And then I left them to it while I walked the dog and walked off my frustration.

I do realize that at 11 and 16 years old it is less plausible that they will enjoy checking things off a chart. However, I also realize that they don’t transition well, that they benefit from lists and suggestions, and a chart has proven more effective than repetitive mom-reminders. And I need a) time to do what I need to do and b) time with them, and the chart helps them know what they should do with and without me.

Despite their initial loud and dramatic protests, they settled in. Among other things, Teen went for a bike ride that led to a hike that led to tree climbing; Tween played tether ball, cleaned the tortoise enclosure, and we read together.

As we read, Teen came in with a bottle of bubbles a friend gave him in honor of getting his driver’s license. He obviously thought it was funny to blow bubbles at us; we found it funny, too. The bubbles were captivating, iridescent in the sunlight, big and small and beautiful. He put the bubble wand in front of Tween’s bedroom fan, then went to fetch another bottle of bubbles so he had two wands to create a bubble wonderland. Tween bounced on the bed to catch bubbles with his hands, his feet, even his mouth.


We played and laughed and caught and popped bubbles for I don’t know how long. Eventually Teen was done. Tween and I finished reading our chapter, and then I made the craziest suggestion: push me on the swing? Tween couldn’t believe it.

We have a swing in the big pine tree in our front yard. It’s been on my mind for weeks, waiting for the ‘right’ moment, and this was it. I sat on the swing and, at first, Tween leaned against the tree, ridiculously smirking at me. He couldn’t believe Mom was doing such a kid-thing. But why not? So he pushed me, and I squealed, and we laughed some more.

The day started with battle cries and ended with hysterical laughter. Energized by day’s end (and not drained!), I’ve created my own activity chart. My sons’ mother, I also benefit from lists and suggestions, evidenced by the number of #Day Challenges I’ve undertaken this year. So I’ve joined my kids in the challenge of how to fill our summer days well. My chart includes: work (of course), exercise, reading, creativity, Bible, blog, “project” (a little something I need to get into gear), and purge (once begun, constantly in progress).

And on Day 2, I can already say with confidence: it’s working for all of us. I’ve completed at least five if not more of my activities each day, and so have the kids. Today they didn’t complain at all. I had to go to the office for a couple hours and Tween texted me a picture of his chart with check marks and the word, “Finished!”

Too soon we’ll have to say, “Finished!” to summer and “Hello” to a new school year. But I’m determined to fulfill this 72-day Summer Challenge and live the days well.

Books – The Recent Round-Up

Even though May might just be my favorite month – days slightly brighter and longer and birds and flowers singing and springing – the end of school year seems always to twist me up and set me spinning. Not enough time! Too much to do! You have a what project that requires what supplies and you left it to now? Yeesh!

So I’ve been reading but not posting about reading – one too many steps in a busy season. And I’ve picked up a few books and set them back down again, trying to maintain my year’s goal to put myself in the way of beauty; some books create worlds I can’t inhabit right now, though another time, perhaps.

Let’s start with the novels:

Never Let Me GoNever Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ishiguro’s voice reads like a graceful whisper, punctuated by the secrets his characters tell, overhear, and discern, dropped like bombs. The full-bodied characters are people you know: the energetic and sensitive boy with a big temper, the every-girl who knows how to calm the boy, the ring leader who manipulates them all. This book is simultaneously a beautiful homage to the human being and a cautionary tale against scientific progress that cares for some at the painful expense of others.

The Hobbit (Middle-Earth Universe)The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I first read this book when I was 9 or 10 years old. I’m not sure why I read it – it wasn’t assigned for school, but maybe it was in the classroom? Maybe a teacher or librarian recommended it? Fantasy/sci fi have never been my standard fair. Still, scenes and themes from this book have continued to resonate in my mind and heart throughout my lifetime: an honorable, hard-earned quest, companionship, Bilbo and Gollum and Precious, power and humility…

As an adult I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy – before the brilliant movies were released. The Hobbit movies are a great disappointment in comparison, but I enjoyed rereading the book with my own child, now just past the age I was when I first read it.

I relate to Bilbo’s reaction to Gandalf’s suggestion of an adventure: “We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them.” Though he reluctantly agrees to leave the comforts of home, he often longs to be back in his cozy hobbit hole; except that adventure as a whole changes him so that when he eventually returns, he doesn’t mind that the townspeople consider him odd.

My own adventures, however reluctantly undertaken, have changed me enough that I might somewhat-less-reluctantly venture forth again.

And now for non-fiction:

And It Was Good: Reflections on Beginnings (Genesis, #1)And It Was Good: Reflections on Beginnings by Madeleine L’Engle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At least my second reading of this book, I am taken by her descriptions of the world – the wild and beautiful and dangerous natural world; and the world occupied by humans so full of both good and evil and still image their Creator God. L’Engle reminds me to maintain wonder, in spite of the so prevalent brokenness that is our context, and to let wonder move me to prayer.

“When I look at the galaxies on a clear night—when I look at the incredible brilliance of creation, and think that this is what God is like, then, instead of feeling intimidated and diminished by it, I am enlarged—I rejoice that I am part of it, I, you, all of us—part of this glory” (82).

Late, Lost, and Unprepared: A Parents' Guide to Helping Children with Executive FunctioningLate, Lost, and Unprepared: A Parents’ Guide to Helping Children with Executive Functioning by Joyce Cooper-Kahn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked up this book after reading an article on twice-exceptional kids that referenced the book. Two twice-exceptional kids and no educator or doctor had mentioned the term “executive functioning”: “…a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation.” The executive functions include inhibition, mental/emotional flexibility, emotional control, initiation, working memory, planning/organization, and self-monitoring.

The book is clearly laid out, explaining challenges and providing real-life examples and practical how-to-help tips. Reading as a parent of two very different kids with different strengths and weaknesses, I have lots to digest; reading at the end of school year was not the best timing and I’ll need to review it all again in August as we begin a new year’s regimen.

The gift of this book lies in its practicality and hope: “…we believe that our children’s best hope for the future may lay in the discovery of some strength that blossoms into an island of competence, and perhaps even becomes a continent of possibilities for personal satisfaction and job success. After all, people thrive when they build a life around their strengths. There are many different paths to success, even though this is sometimes hard to keep in perspective during the school years” (202).

Meatless Monday – Pressed Tuscan Sandwich

I’m a sucker for a school book fair (truly, a sucker for books in general…). I will invent excuses to buy more books with the overarching excuse that we are supporting the kids’ school!

Usually my purchases are for the kids, birthday and Christmas gifts for family and friends, maybe a holiday/special occasion book for the family. Some years ago I found a book I wanted just for me: Entertaining Vegetarians. Guy laughed, “Well, of course we are entertaining vegetarians!” (meaning that the vegetarians living under our roof are entertaining, just in case you didn’t read his quote with the proper emphasis…)

I love cookbooks. They’re one of the most regular occupants of my library book basket. I pour over them. I study them and learn from them and get very hungry while I page through them.

The Pressed Tuscan Sandwich has me reaching for Entertaining Vegetarians a few times a year, and it’s always a hit. Brown includes this recipe under picnic fair, which would be perfect, but I’ve served it as an appetizer and as a bread-accompaniment to a meal. I made it as part of a Mediterranean dinner menu for a party we hosted last week, and both Guy and I ate leftover slices for breakfast the next day; if you knew Guy and his “Breakfast Nazi” alter-ego – no unapproved breakfast foods! – you’d be convinced already that this has to be good. And it is.

To boot, it’s easy! The filling comes together in a food processor or blender. Slice a loaf of bread down the center, add filling, and set heavy non-breakable items on top to get the filling to soak in to both sides of the bread. After an hour+, slice and serve with extra filling.

Tuscan ingredients

Because I expected a minimum of six adults for dinner (and up to twelve) + children who might nibble, I doubled the filling recipe and used one and a half ciabatta loaves; recipe amounts will depend on the size of your bread loaves. One more note: I always look for whole wheat ciabatta, but I don’t often find it. If you’re gonna splurge on white flour, this one’s worth the splurge.

Tuscan in process

Pressed Tuscan Sandwich
1 ciabatta loaf
1 garlic clove
1 vine tomato, chopped
10 black olives, stoned
2 tsp capers in vinegar, drained
5-6 sundried tomatoes in oil, drained
small handful of fresh basil leaves
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp red wine vinegar

Slice loaf in half lengthwise. Put remaining ingredients in food processor/blender and pulse. Spread filling on one half of bread and top with other half.

To press: I slide the loaf back into the bakery bag it came in, and then top it with a cutting board topped with something heavy, such as a large soup pot or saute pan + canned beans or peanut butter jars. Let sit for at least an hour, pressing down occasionally to make sure the sandwich is evenly pressed.

Note: press the sandwich within four hours of serving; the filling can be made in advance.

This recipe is my go-to from this cookbook, but every time I pull it out another recipe catches my eye. Yum!

Tuscan serve

The Final Fieldtrip

Tween’s amazing teacher asked me to chaperone the last field trip of the year. And of Tween’s elementary school career. I said yes.

Fortunately, Tween kicked to the curb his vomiting cycle just in time and awoke on field trip day feeling back to normal.

Destination: The County Courthouse and Detention Facility.

As field trips go, it was unfortunately one of the dullest. And yet… education and experience should not go to waste.

Interesting fact: our county courthouse was founded on the Sacramento River delta during the 1849 Gold Rush, when miners wanted legal documents to prove their right to mine on their land – to prove the gold was theirs – and to prevent others from trying to mine the veins on their property. I had no idea our county had such obvious ties to the Gold Rush (then again, I grew up in SoCal, and Gold Rush country felt so, so, so far away).


And so 23 students, Teacher, and 4 parent chaperones spent the day learning first-hand about the American judicial system.

First stop: Snack on the courthouse steps. Because a full tummy aids education.

Next stop: Security. How fun that the empty-handed kids go in first so they get a behind-the-scenes view of the security screens as the chaperones’ purses go through (no advance warning, but then again, the most disturbing thing in any of our purses might have been feminine hygiene products which no security guard would dare point out to a group of school kids).

And then the air pulsed – no kidding, something changed as the building hushed and the cameras zoomed in. The guards explained that a female juvenile prisoner was being escorted into a courtroom for trial. The screen showed a dark-haired young woman, hands cuffed behind her back. I glanced at the screen, to the kids, to the screen, and for a moment choked back tears.

Statistically speaking, out of 23 kids, it’s possible that she foreshadowed the future for some watching. Maybe not, as these kids have advantages so many American youth lack. And yet, having worked with kids and adolescents for much of my adult life, I have seen shifts in attitude and behavior, in circumstance and lifestyle, that could step-stone that path. Then again, accidents happen to the best of us, and even accidents have consequences. Sometimes, unimaginable consequences.

I’m not sure the kids got it. At day’s end, I was certain my own kid hadn’t understood most of the day – it was too long, too sit-still, too talk-at-them to take it all in. But my own heart broke just a little, for her, and for them. Lord, have mercy.

Continuing on: In-session criminal court room. As we arrived a defendant stood next to someone from the DA’s office. He had been arrested for a second DUI. The judge spoke to him with compassion, with kindness. She asked him about AA, and he responded that he’s finding it helpful so far. She leveled strong but fair penalties, and he accepted them with appropriate humility.

Case closed but we weren’t done; we remained in the courtroom for about an hour as the judge moved through at least 20 more cases, one right after the next. However, that first defendant was the only one free to stand in the courtroom. The rest had been escorted through the tunnel from the detention center next door and had to stand behind bars in a walled-in room; we could see only their faces and hands.

And that’s if the defendants even showed up, which several did not, forcing the judge to issue bench warrants along with hefty fees starting at $1,000. Maybe I’m naive, but I’m surprised that a) so many people do really stupid stuff, and b) once caught, they don’t take responsibility for their actions. I guess that’s human nature, and maybe they came from a background that lacked some of the (to me) basic operating instructions for human life (do what you’re supposed to do // don’t break the law // accept responsibility for your behavior), but seriously, people! One person who didn’t show had four open cases against her; another received a penalty of $30,000, which of course he won’t be able to pay.

Once she had cleared her docket, the judge gave the kids a few minutes of her lunch hour to talk about court. Several kids had questions about her gavel, but she doesn’t use one – her voice is her authority (awesome role modeling, especially for girls), although she did share a story of another judge who, when a defendant lost control and charged the bench, chucked his gavel and hit the defendant in the head to stop him.

They asked the most common reason someone comes to court, and she responded: Drugs. Almost all crime comes down to that one issue. People are doing drugs, buying drugs, selling drugs, stealing things to sell things to buy drugs, or fighting over drug-selling turf. Hey, kids: Don’t. Do. Drugs!

The judge enjoys her job and feels like she is giving back to the people. She smiled a lot and laughed at the sweet simplicity of the kids’ questions. She seemed to genuinely enjoy having them in her courtroom; she thanked them for coming.

Before we moved on, the court room Deputy showed the kids his “tool belt,” and explained that the gun comes last – he’s never had to fire it in court – and that mace and the tazer both inflict a whopping punishment should he be forced to use them. His most effective tool is his radio – as in all things, communication is a powerful tool.

Almost done: Dentention Facility lobby. Two women, each with children, quietly waiting; one, the docent explained, was putting money into what looked like an ATM machine so that her loved one in prison could have some money to spend on candy, or toothpaste, or whatever he needed from the prison store. Imagine, kids, not being able to earn your own money, not being able to so much as buy a pack of gum without someone’s help. Well, okay, that’s true for most children, but we’re talking about adults. Adults who can’t so much as walk out a door without permission, who occupy one small room – likely not much bigger than the full-sized beds some of kids sleep in – for 23 hours a day, until they get their one hour “out” to shower, or visit the store or library, or walk outside. Bleak.

The Finale: The kids got to do a mock trial in a real trial court room during the court’s lunch recess. They were assigned parts – judge, clerk, attorneys, bailiff, witnesses, and jury – and took their places. The case involved a woman accused of car theft. A police officer pulled over a woman driving a stolen car, and her finger prints were on the keys in the ignition. She, however, claims that someone else stole the car and invited her to take it for a drive; that he told her he stole it, and from where, and she was on her way to return it. [Going with the stupid people theme from the live court room, I’m not sure what’s worse: stealing the car, getting in a car with an admitted car thief, or actually trying to return the stolen car].

court room

And that was that. We ate a late lunch on the bus on our way back to school and arrived just as the end-of-day bell rang.

All three 5th grade classes took the same field trip on different days. I heard other parents questioning whether the trip had been age-appropriate, whether kids understood what they were seeing and hearing, or how it fit into the curriculum (American history).

I understand their concerns – so much did fly straight over kids’ heads – but I’m glad the kids got out of the classroom. Education involves a process of repeated exposure and experience. No one “gets it” the first time around, and I know for certain kids in this school district will hit it again in 8th and 12th grades at least. I hope they debriefed in the classroom the next day, and I’m glad I was there to be able to continue the conversation with Tween (one misunderstanding: he couldn’t understand why we were in court for an hour when we only saw one trial… He didn’t understand that those behind bars were also defendants, and that prisoners may not be allowed to stand in court).

A few quirky lessons I learned:
Eat a little something.
Keep a clean purse.
Be kind to everyone, child and prisoner and stupid person alike.
Don’t be stupid: take responsibility for your actions.
Live humbly.
Enjoy your job and you’ll do a good job.
Think fast! (You never know when you might have to use a gavel to defend yourself).
Take time for conversation.
Everyone needs someone – choose wisely.
Always keep learning, no matter where you are.