Category Archives: cool places

Free Reading Fridays: The Good Braider

The good braiderNovels in verse have become one of my latest joys. Before this year I’d only read a few of them and although I’d enjoyed them, I hadn’t thought too much about them.

However, in the last six months, I have read four of them and have thoroughly enjoyed each one. While my favorite of them was probably One by Sarah Crossan, they have all been beautiful and heartbreaking in their own rights.

My latest find, Farish’s The Good Braider, is definitely both lovely and heartbreaking. It amazes me the depth of character and plot Farish is able to accomplish when she strips away the extraneous adjectives and sentences and tells the story of Viola in poignant and striking verse. In many ways, the verse, which is stripped of the usual finery of a novel, is able to tell the story in an even more striking way. The harsh brutalities of Viola’s life in Southern Sudan as well as her flight to America are even more haunting and powerful because they make Viola seem stripped down and more vulnerable. The lack of flowery prose, makes the story seem more stark and naked, just as Viola is, both physically and emotionally throughout the story.

Farish weaves an excellent story through her lines of verse. Nothing is lost by the loss of sentences and paragraphs. If anything, Viola’s story is more powerful in verse.

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Wildcard Wednesday: Blaze Pizza

Blaze PizzaI’ve been pretty diligent about this whole diet and exercise thing. I actually started it in August. Between August and October I managed to lose about 10 pounds, which while far from my goal, was a nice start. Then, I went on vacation to see my best friend, which meant a lot of eating out at our favorite places. Then I got back to work and had a lot of work to day and got myself stressed, which meant a bit more eating and less working out. While I only gained two pounds back, I was not keeping track of my calories and was hardly making it to the gym.

When my husband got a new job and a free membership to Life Time Fitness, I decided to check it out. I really liked it, especially since it has two amazing pools and childcare included in the membership cost. So, by mid-December, I was back in the gym. Of the 24 days of December that I was trying out/a member of the gym, I made it in 12 times, which I thought was pretty good.

About a week before the end of the year, I decided that exercise alone was not going to cut it, so I also cut back on calories. I logged back into My Fitness Pal and started tracking. I was giving this thing my all.

So far in the 17 days of January, I’ve been to the gym 13 times and I’ve yet to go over my 1400 calorie limit. I’m down four pounds and feeling pretty good about life.

As part of this new routine, I’ve been cooking a lot more, which is really important since I have total control over ingredients and therefore calories. However, every now and then I need a break from the kitchen.

This past weekend we were out running a bunch of errands and found ourselves a bit far from our house at lunch time. Looking around, I noticed a Blaze Pizza and decided it would be a great option for lunch. We’ve been to Blaze several times and really like it. If you’ve never been, it’s sort of the Subway of pizza joints. My kids love being able to custom build their own pizzas, even if it sometimes means some questionable combinations. When given the chance at unlimited toppings, my son goes a bit mad with power. My daughter sticks more to the basics: cheese pizza.

Aside from liking the actual taste of Blaze Pizza, I really like that I can control what goes on it and make sensible choices. As much as I like ooey-gooey, super fatty cheesy pepperoni pizza, I can also appreciate a healthier option. I also really love that Blaze has a great nutrition calculator so I can see what my toppings will cost me.

For my most recent Blaze creation, I started with the standard, fairly thin crust, which has 420 calories for the entire pizza. I added the red sauce, which is another 30 calories for the entire pizza. I topped it with goat cheese instead of the standard mozzarella. This adds only 100 calories instead of 220. I skipped meat to avoid extra fat and calories and instead loaded it with veggies. I stacked on spinach, onions, garlic, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, artichokes and roasted squash. All together, each piece had about 95 calories, so 3 pieces was not only filling, but also under 300 calories (and only 6 grams of fat). Not at all bad for lunch, right?

Most importantly, it tasted fantastic and since each pizza has 6 slices, I have another healthy lunch for tomorrow. Everyone in the family was satisfied and I didn’t have to spend any extra time on the Arc trainer (although I did).

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Chocolate Monday: Vanilla Rooibos Tea

I first found Vosges while exploring Armitage Street in Chicago. I wasn’t looking for a chocolate shop. My mission was to visit the local LUSH store to stock up on much needed hair and skin care products. However, as my best friend and I strolled down the street, we found not one, but two fantastic chocolate shops. Sadly the first one, Ethel M’s closed down only a few years after we found it. The company itself is still in business, but the Chicago store closed and they also stopped selling the majority of the truffles and filled treats I love. When I found them again in Vegas years later, they had less than half the stock of the Chicago store.

Luckily Vosges not only stayed on Armitage for our yearly visit, but they spread their stocks wider and wider so that even my local Kroger now sells a variety of their chocolate bars. My only real issue with Vosges is that their stock tends to be overwhelmingly dark chocolate and try as I might, I just don’t like dark chocolate as much as its lovely milk cousin. However, I have found that their 45% dark milk chocolate is very tasty.

I especially enjoy it in their Vanilla Rooibos Tea bar. This bar is a wonderful combination of dark milk chocolate, rooibos tea and tart cherries. Just about anything with cherries, especially with dried tart cherries, has my heart. I love cherries in just about any form they take. I especially love them in this bar.

The chocolate definitely has a dark hint to it. It is not smooth and creamy exactly. It has a tiny bit of bitterness to it that could be off putting if not for the the lovely tartness of the cherries. The cherries not only add a bright burst of sweet to help temper the bitterness of the chocolate, but they also add a great texture to the bar. That texture is enhanced by the slightly crunchy bits of tea. Although tea can add bitterness to some candies, either the chocolate masks it in this case or it simply isn’t here. The only bitterness I find is in the actual chocolate.

This is a delightful bit of dark chocolate and I not only like it, but seek it out.

Overall:

Taste: 9/10
Appearance: 6/10
Value: 7/10 (at $8 a bar, it is pricey, so it’s definitely a treat)

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Wildcard Wednesday: Cycling classes

As part of my newish gym membership, I have not only been going fairly religiously, but I’ve branched out from my usual treadmill, elliptical, and Arc trainer routines. I’ve even added more than just my occasional weight machines. Unlike Planet Fitness, Life Time Fitness has lots of classes.

Last week, I decided to try my hand at my first class: EDG cycling. I’ve never been to any sort of cycling or spin class before. Aside from the Zumba class I go to once a week, which is taught by one of my co-workers in the foods lab at our school, I haven’t attended any type of exercise class since I was in my mid-20’s and I went to Curves gym.

When my husband and I first started dating, we spent a lot of time riding our bikes down the local bike trail. Sometimes we would ride for hours. It was a lot of fun and after I got a super comfy gel seat, it didn’t even hurt much. But that bike has gotten little use over the last few years. In fact it’s actually gotten more than a bit rusted and bent out of shape over the years. And it’s been almost three decades since I’ve ridden a stationary bike of any kind. And back then, the bike didn’t have fancy digital equipment.

This new fangled bike was fancy and a bit confusing. It didn’t help that I couldn’t find the studio at first so I came to the class right as it was starting. Luckily one of the class regulars was kind enough to help me set up my bike and get me started. Granted, I had no idea what the instructor was talking about when she said to turn the dial to take the resistance up. I still don’t quite get what she meant by working out in zones 1, 2, 3 or 4, but I rode that bike. I even added tons of resistance by actually hitting the lever that knocks the resistance up by rather large leaps rather than gradually dialing it up. Oops!

I was definitely sweating by the end of those 45 minutes. I was also exhausted. And man oh man, did my rear end hurt. Those seats are not even remotely padded or comfortable.

But, despite my cluelessness and my sore derriere, I went back for another cycling class a few days later. This time I figured out the knob to slowly add resistance. I was also able to make it through all the “out of the saddle” portions of the class, which I’ll admit I could not do the first go around.

By my third class, I felt a bit like an old pro. I could add more resistance, even using that little power lever when I didn’t have to. And not only did I make it through all the stand up parts, during the last song when we had the choice to focus on speed, strength or stamina, I took a turn at all three, spending about a third of the song off my rear and standing as I peddled when I didn’t even have to.

And yes, my butt is still a bit sore from those horrid seats, but I’m already looking at the schedule for my next cycling class.

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Wildcard Wednesday: Lifetime Fitness

As part of my husband’s new job, he got a membership to Lifetime Fitness. As long as he goes at least 7 times a month, his membership is free. Not long after he found out about this new benefit, he headed over to check it out.

In the 15 years I have known him, my husband has not had a gym membership. He did have a small workout room with some free weights and a few cardio machines at his old job, so he’d often go in on his lunch hour or right after work to sneak in a quick workout. He didn’t do this with any sort of regularity, but he’d get on streaks where he’d pop in 3 or 4 days a week and come home quite proud of himself.

I’ve been a member of Planet Fitness for five or six years now. Although there have been moments in my life where I have been more dedicated than others, for the most part I go at least once a week and often two or three times a week. For the money, PF is a pretty good deal. Sure, there are no classes, no pool, no childcare and it’s hard to get any sort of trainer to set up a routine for you, but considering that mostly I just wanted to do cardio or circuit training, that was fine with me.

However, when my husband got his membership to Lifetime, he also got me and our kids a trial membership. It was basically love at first sight. The gym is ENORMOUS! Seriously, it is huge. They have a rock wall, three pools (one outdoor for nice weather) with water slides, a full basketball court, tons of cardio and weight machines, a cafe, a spa, a sauna and all sorts of classes. What’s more, they have a childcare facility, so instead of waiting until my kids are in bed and then slipping out on my own to work out, we can take our kids to the gym with us and they can play while we work out. We can also take our kids to the pool or to the rock wall, which they love.

The only downside to this new gym is that it is a bit more expensive than PF. For myself and our kids, it’s actually about 7 times my current no frills basic PF membership. That gave me more than a few minutes of pause. Is a gym membership really worth that expense?

Well, as it turns out, my daughter’s swim lessons are even more than that. So, by canceling her lessons and signing up at the gym where we have constant access to the pool, we actually save about $14 a month. Sure, it means I have to work with my daughter to help her strengthen her swimming skills, but that just means I get to spend time in the pool. Plus, as great as her swim lessons have been for her, they are only 30 minutes once a week. We can replace that with gym time AND my son will get to practice his swimming as well. Plus, we’ll be able to add a whole other activity to our weekly schedule this summer. Unlike our current swim school where we can only take advantage of open swim M-Th from 12-1, this coming summer we’ll be able to swim all day, every day if we want to.

While I’ve only technically been a member of the gym for three days now, I did take advantage of that trial membership as well. I’ve gotten in four really solid workouts and it’s been great. My hope is that since it is a rather substantial expense compared to PF, I won’t feel like I can blow it off the same way I did working out at PF. I also hope having fun activities for the kid will help my entire family become more active.

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Chocolate Monday: Theo’s Gingerbread Spice chocolate bar

Theo's gingerbread close upOn Friday I was out running errands with my kids. We had to stop by Fresh Thyme Market in order to pick up some Albanese gummi bears to send to my best friend in Georgia. One of the most miraculous things about Fresh Thyme is the fact that they sell a wide array of Albanese products. Not only do they have five or six of varieties of their gummy products in bulk, but they also have several of their chocolate covered yummies, including my dearest loves: their double dipped chocolate peanuts and raisins. They are simply delicious. Since I can’t get up North to either of the Albanese stores that often, when I found out Fresh Thyme carries their goodies in bulk, and at great prices, I started stopping by more regularly.

As we made our way into the store, intent only on purchasing some gummies to send to my BFF, I noticed a display with lots of fun holiday goodies. Part of that display contained Theo’s Gingerbread Spice chocolate bar. I’d never tried any of Theo’s chocolate, even though I see it every week in my local Kroger, so I figured this had to be a sign.

I love gingerbread! One of my fondest childhood memories is of my mom making gingerbread at Christmas time. Now, I’m not talking about gingerbread cookies, although I do love those as well. I’m talking about spicy, delicious, moist gingerbread. If you’ve never had it, find yourself a recipe and make it now. It is one of the best cakes out there, especially with a beautiful dollop of Cool Whip on top. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.

One year as a tribute to my favorite Christmas classics, I made cake bite versions. While I thought my candy cane was pretty good, my egg nog even tastier and my chocolate fudge version darn near perfect, it was my gingerbread cake bite, dipped in sinful milk chocolate with a tiny white swirl on the top that made me smile the most.

So Theo’s combination of fair trade organic milk chocolate and the spices of gingerbread were a must have.

This is definitely a spicy bar! From the second the chocolate hit my tongue, my mouth was filled with the warmth of nutmeg and cinnamon. As the chocolate continued to melt, I got the tiniest hint of cloves. Thankfully they were not overpowering at all, just a subtle nod to the scent that often pervades the holidays. After my first bite was done, I felt like I still had cinnamon in the back of my throat and my tongue and cheeks tingled a little from the spices. It reminded me a bit of how I feel after I take a large gulp of a spiced chai tea latte.

The chocolate itself is not overly creamy. I think the spices temper it so that instead of getting a milky cocoa, it’s much more about the cinnamon and nutmeg. At one point I got a really clear after taste of nutmeg that was a bit overpowering, but thankfully it dissipated quickly. I like nutmeg, but it can very easily be too much.

This is a good bar, but not one that I can eat too much of at a time, which is definitely good for my waistline! The spice of it really does bring the holidays home for me. It tastes like Christmas.

Overall:

Taste: 7/10
Appearance: 9/10 for the wrapper and 6/10 for the actual chocolate
Value: 7/10

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Throwback Thursday: Black Friday shopping

When I was 14, my aunt took me Black Friday shopping for the first time. I had no idea what to expect, but I was excited. Back then, the deals were impressive and most of the stores opened early, but early was 7 am.

I stayed the night at my aunt’s house and we got up at 6 am so that we could be in front of our first store, which was Zayres. My cousin, who was 7 really wanted a Teddy Ruxpin doll for Christmas and Zayres had the best deal on it. Our aunt was bound and determined to get one. We stood outside the store, in the pitch black with about a hundred other people just waiting for the doors to open. Since I was smaller and quicker than a lot of the adults, my aunt told me where the toy aisles were and told me to sprint for one and that she’d catch up.

As we waited for the store to officially, open, I slowly started making my way closer to the front doors.

By the time they opened, I was one of the first people in the store and as soon as I was actually in the doors, I made a mad dash to the right and headed straight for the toys. I was one of the first people to lay my hands on a Teddy Ruxpin, and after I had it, I quickly moved out of the way, using a side aisle to avoid the chaos. My aunt, who took several minutes to find me, had a cart with her, so I deposited good ol’ Teddy and we went on our merry way, her pointing out items she wanted and me swooping in to get them.

When we finished at Zayres, we headed over to the mall. Our first stop there was L.S. Ayres, where they were giving out boxes of Cracker Jack with special shopping surprises. My aunt got a 25% discount on her entire order in her box. I got a $25 gift card in mine. Seeing as how I had limited funds, that gift card allowed me to buy two different Christmas presents: a stuffed sheep dog for one of my aunt’s (it looked just like the gianormous sheepdog named Muffin she’d had when I was a child) and toy for my cousin.

We spent a few hours at the mall scooping up deals at the big department stores, then we headed over to Burger King to have breakfast. It was about 10:30 am and we were done for the day.

Over the next decade and a half, my aunt and I made Black Friday shopping a tradition. We braved earlier start times, larger crowds, crazier deals and bitter, bitter cold, all for a few hours of togetherness and some pretty sweet deals. I never really bought that much as for the majority of our shopping trips I was either in high school, college, or just starting out as a teacher with a very, very small salary. But it wasn’t really about the shopping. It was about spending time with my aunt and sometimes my cousin or my step-mom. But mostly just me and my aunt.

The year I moved to Florida was the first time in 15 years I did not go Black Friday shopping with my aunt. Since the move only lasted for 6 months, I was right back at it the next year, but it felt like something had changed. The stores were opening on Thanksgiving day. The crowds were more hostile and the stuff on sale was either way too grandiose for me, or absolutely nothing I needed.

The following year I was pregnant with my son and there was no way I was getting up that early, getting jostled by crowds or standing in the cold while 6 months pregnant. I haven’t set foot in a store on Black Friday in 11 years.

I haven’t stopped Black Friday shopping though. I’ve just joined the thousands of people all across this country who have decided that o’dark thirty in 30 degree weather amidst angry hordes is not worth it. Instead, I jumped on my computer at 7 am and started ordering away. I still had a good portion of my shopping done by 10 am, but I got to do it in the comfort of my den while sipping my tea in my jammies.

Since it was never really about the shopping for me, I don’t really miss it. But I do get nostalgic for the talks my aunt and I used to have while standing in check out lines that stretched to the back of the store, during quick car rides between stores and over sausage croissants at Burger King.

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