When he was small, my youngest son had a habit of filling his pockets with treasures he encountered in his daily adventures. I didn't always understand the value he saw in his chosen objects -- really, how many rocks and sticks could one boy keep? In his eyes, though, each one was beautiful and important. Life is just like that on a larger scale, isn't it? We gather up the precious bits of our experiences and save them all to learn from and enjoy later. Perhaps you'll find a little something here that you'd like to keep in your own pockets. Thanks for visiting.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Winter Boredom Busters for Tween/Teen Boys

It is darn cold outside, people.  Where we live, we're on track for having the coldest month ever recorded in the region, and the first February since 1978 that the temperature doesn't rise above the freezing mark. Schools here were even closed last Friday due to the painfully frigid air, and there have been many days this winter where the kids have had to spend their recess time indoors. What this means for a lot of families by this point in the season is a full-blown case of cabin fever, and a lot of kids with pent up energy that needs to be directed towards fun, interesting, and active endeavors.

For many tween and teenaged boys, the default activity on cold winter days is crashing on a couch and playing video games. Noah and Will are both drawn to the engaging world of Minecraft and the colourful lure of Candy Crush, for sure.  While I believe there are valuable skills they can learn from certain types of video games, we do limit the amount of time the boys spend in front of screens so that they will explore other interests and develop other parts of themselves as well.  Today I thought I'd share a collection of cool, non-video game pastimes that Noah and/or Will like to turn to when winter boredom strikes.  (Click on the coloured text to find out more about each of the items below.)

Spooner board (for the skateboarding/snowboarding/surfing enthusiast, for indoor or outdoor use):

Yomega yo yo (for mastering new tricks and impressing friends and family with their skills):  

Tenzi dice game (fast-paced, noisy fun for two to four players): 

Arduino open-source electronics (for creating interactive objects):

Magnetic dart board (all the fun of a real dart board without the sharp weaponry):

Ukulele (an accessible and highly entertaining way to play around with music):

Tabletop ping pong (for instant lively ping pong matches anywhere there is a table):

Kanoodle Genius (brain bending puzzles for those who like a challenge)

Good books (to get them thinking and laughing) :

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe

Danger is Everywhere by David O'Doherty

These entertaining pursuits keep the boys' minds and bodies moving on days when biting winter winds won't allow much time outdoors.  What are your tween and teenaged boys' favourite ways to beat winter boredom while they dream of warmer weather?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Homemade Chocolate Hazelnut Spread + A Nutritious Breakfast Idea (dairy-free, gluten-free)

Last Friday, CBC's Marketplace aired an interesting episode dedicated to food labelling, and the ways in which food companies try to persuade shoppers that their products are healthy choices by making deceiving nutritional claims.  This practice probably doesn't come as a surprise to many of us; we've heard plenty of stories in the media in recent years that have revealed the plain truth about what exactly is inside the packages of food that line our grocery store shelves.  One product that has received quite a lot of attention of late is a certain chocolate hazelnut spread.  While it definitely tastes delicious, the spread is far from a nutritious breakfast food as the manufacturer would like us to believe. (If you're interested in seeing exactly what is inside a tablespoon of nutella, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff gives an eye-opening demonstration in this Marketplace clip.)

Knowledge is power, and when we take the time to really read and understand the labels on packaged foods, we gain the wisdom to make healthier choices for ourselves and our families.  If you're a fan of chocolate hazelnut spread, you can choose a nutritious homemade version like the one I made this weekend that stars hazelnuts rather than sugar as its main ingredient.  There's no need to hide this easy-to-make and richly flavourful spread behind misleading claims; it really can be part of a nutritious breakfast.

Homemade Chocolate Hazelnut Spread

1 1/2 cups natural hazelnuts
3/4 cup full fat coconut milk
1/4 cup cocoa powder
2 tbsp raw honey
1 tsp vanilla
a pinch of sea salt

Preheat the oven to 300 F.  Spread the hazelnuts out on a rimmed baking sheet and lightly toast them in the oven for about 8 minutes.  Place the toasted hazelnuts in a tea towel and rub them with the towel to remove as much of their skins as possible.  

Place the hazelnuts in the bowl of a food processor and process on high, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed, until the hazelnuts are finely ground.  (This could take several minutes to get them ground finely enough.)

In a saucepan over medium low heat, warm the coconut milk and add the cocoa powder, stirring until a smooth mixture forms.  Remove the mixture from the heat and stir in the honey and vanilla.

Add the coconut milk and cocoa mixture to the ground hazelnuts in the food processor bowl and sprinkle with a pinch of sea salt.  Process on high speed for another several minutes, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed, until a smooth spread forms.

Spoon the chocolate hazelnut spread into a glass jar with a tight fitting lid and store it in the refrigerator.

We like to stir a spoonful of this nutty, chocolatey spread into a bowl of oatmeal topped with bananas, hazelnuts, and cinnamon in the morning -- it's a happy way to start the day.  

Chocolate Hazelnut and Banana Oatmeal

1 serving of hot oatmeal, prepared according to package directions 
  (*use certified pure oats, or quinoa flakes, or a hot brown rice cereal for gluten-free options)
1 small banana, half of it coarsely chopped and half of it sliced into rounds
1 tbsp homemade chocolate hazelnut spread
chopped hazelnuts and cinnamon, for sprinkling on top
a splash of unsweetened almond milk

Spoon the hot prepared oatmeal into a bowl and stir in the chopped bananas.  Swirl in the chocolate hazelnut spread with a spoon, then top the oatmeal with the sliced bananas, chopped hazelnuts, and a bit of cinnamon.  Add a splash of almond milk and serve.  Delicious!

It's a good feeling to be able to make healthier, homemade alternatives to packaged foods that aren't all they claim to be.  I'd love to hear about your kitchen successes in recreating store-bought favourites at home -- please share your ideas!

This recipe is linked to Gluten-Free Wednesdays.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Best Laid Plans

Yesterday I thought the universe was trying to tell me something.  For the second year in row on the Saturday of Family Day weekend, I dolefully unpacked the clothes and food and outdoor gear I had spent the day before organizing for a winter weekend away, and ended up going absolutely nowhere at all. Last year it was poor Will having suffered a concussion that kept the whole family from travelling as we had planned to; this year we had a kitten with a sudden case of digestive upset that we didn't feel right leaving for pet sitters to look after, and so I watched with tear-filled eyes as Matt and the boys drove off towards his parents' house up north while I stayed behind to make sure everything here was okay.  (It would appear now that the kittens are both just fine, in case you were wondering.)

I had a pity party for one for much of the day; it was Valentine's Day, after all, and instead of spending it skating and sledding and enjoying a nice meal with family, I was home alone, with only two (albeit very sweet) felines for company, one of whom kept trying to steal my food and drink the water out of my glass.  I sulked and muttered to myself that I had nothing to do now this weekend, and I wondered pettily, in the awfully foul mood I was in, why it seems pretty much nothing has been going my way this winter.

This morning, though, while I was cleaning the house from top to bottom (aside: why is it that when I think I have nothing to do, I default to cleaning everything in sight?), I realized that my negative thinking the day before had sunk me into an unnecessarily deep wallowing hole.  I couldn't see it earlier because the meticulous planner in me wasn't handling the sudden change in scenario well, but the epiphany came this morning: since when is a weekend all to oneself at home a bad thing?  I recalled the helpful advice of a therapist who recently suggested to me that just because I think things should be a certain way doesn't mean that's the only way they can be, that it's possible to have an alternative outcome and still be okay. It was up to me here to find a happier place from which to view the weekend landscape that now stretched before me.

Today I realize that if the universe is trying to tell me something, it is only that life is an unpredictable maze of potential outcomes, and that in any given situation, it is likely that more than one of these outcomes can be good.  Believing that I can always control everything with carefully laid out plans is simply setting myself up for disappointment.  Would I rather have gone to my inlaws' house with the rest of my family to celebrate Family Day weekend?  Of course I would have.  But I'm realizing today, as I relax in my delightfully clean house, with no real commitments or schedules or responsibilities I have to tend to for the next little while, that staying home alone just might be a nice opportunity, too.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Poppy and Iris

There was an empty space left behind in our hearts and our home following the loss of our cat Maggie back in November. After seventeen years of her comforting presence, I found myself still expecting her to greet me at the front door sometimes when I swung it open, and hearing ghost echoes of her meow at random times of the day when I was home alone. Noah and Will felt it too; they had never known a life without a cat's companionship.  We all talked about this and knew that when the time felt right, we would welcome a new furry family member or two into our lives.

The time felt right a few weeks ago, and I began checking our local humane society's website to find a pair of kittens to adopt, thinking that would be an easy thing to do.  Apparently it is not so easy to find a pair of kittens to adopt in February.  The first day I saw kittens come up on the adoptions webpage, I waited for Matt and the boys to come home, showed them the photos, and we decided excitedly we would go after dinner and meet the sweet little creatures and hopefully bring two of them home.  But by the time we arrived at the pet store where they were temporarily living, all of the kittens had already been adopted in the few short hours since their profiles had appeared online.  (The last one, our favourite in the photos, was just being spoken for as we walked into the store.)

We were all really disappointed, but I reassured the boys that I would keep looking and that surely soon we would bring some kittens home.  Then I did what any Type A personality who has set her mind to accomplishing something would do:  I dedicated (too) many of my waking hours over the following week and a half to succeeding at Mission: Kittens.  I kept checking back with my laptop time and time again from morning until evening each day, refreshing the page on each of the many tabs I had open for all of the humane societies and animal rescue organizations within a reasonable driving distance, watching for photos of  new kittens to pop up (which they did very sparsely).  When a litter came up several days after our first failed attempt to adopt, I headed way across town to a different pet store, only to find that once again, the kittens were already spoken for by the time I got there.

This went on for another week.  (I know, it must seem that my fervour for this project was bit much, but what else is there to do in February?)  It got to the point where I knew every one of the many cats at the humane society by name, and Will and Noah and I would cheer for the older kitties day by day as some of them found new homes.  Still, there were no kittens, and it was getting hard to watch the boys' hopeful faces fall when I told them each afternoon after school that I still hadn't had any luck. Finally, on a recent Friday P.A. Day, a photo of an adorable little black kitten popped up online in the morning, and the boys and I went wild with excitement.  We jumped immediately into the car, drove all the way across town, and burst hopefully through the doors of the pet store... only to find that the kitten was not there.  It seemed impossible that she could have been adopted already when we had acted so quickly, and when we asked the store employee about it, he said that they hadn't received any kittens from the humane society that day.  We left our phone number with him and asked him to please call if the kitten arrived, but we were all feeling pretty discouraged as we left empty-handed once again.

The kitten's picture disappeared from the website shortly after we got home, so we didn't have much hope. The day dragged on as we waited... and waited... and waited for the phone to maybe ring. Finally, in the late afternoon I got a phone call saying that the kitten had just arrived at the store and was still available to be adopted! We trekked back across town with held breath during the time when I was supposed to be making dinner (while Noah was texting me frantically from the pool saying he had forgotten his swim suit), had Matt meet us at the store from work (because the humane society wants all family members to meet the animal before filling out an adoption agreement), and in the end we (finally!) very happily came home with a lovable little black kitten.  We named her Poppy.

Because it was our original plan to adopt two kittens so they could enjoy each other's company, we continued to check the humane society website every now and then over the next week as we were having fun getting to know our new furry family member.  This past Saturday, we decided that lovely little Iris should come and join us at home as well.  Mission: Kittens is now complete, and we're all so very happy.

These two tiny soft-furred girls have brought a new kind of love and laughter into our home.  It is such a joy to hold their warm, purring bodies in our arms and laps, to watch their playful, silly antics and to see the delight on Noah and Will's faces as they discover just how much fun kittens are.  Our hearts will always hold dear the many fond memories we have of Maggie from our long life with her; now as they follow us around the house with their happy little chirps and complete trust, Poppy and Iris are quickly and sweetly filling the remaining empty space.

Thursday, February 5, 2015


We've hit mid-winter, that time of year when it seems that it's been cold forever already and that it's still going to be cold for a long while yet.  It's easy to complain about the less pleasant aspects of the season: scraping ice off the car in the frigid air, bundling up in boots and coats and hats and gloves and scarves again and again and still never feeling quite warm, waking up in the dark every morning and wishing quite seriously that hibernation was an option.  But because complaining doesn't change anything as far as the weather goes, this time of year I'm trying instead to find warmth in the simple comforts of life that are best enjoyed in the winter.  There are many of these if we take a moment to look for them:

Donning skates and catching the sunbeams glistening over a frozen backyard pond while zipping around with friends and family on a crisp, clear Sunday afternoon.  Gladly accepting my husband's sweet offer to tie my skates for me so my already chapped hands don't need to be exposed to the winter winds.

Tucking into a warm bowl of not-too-spicy chili that's been bubbling gently on the stove all day, filling the house with its inviting aroma.  Sharing stories and ideas with family around the dinner table, so that hearts are nourished as well as bodies.

Squishing the whole family together on the couch to watch Master Chef Junior in pjs on dark evenings, a Tuesday ritual that we all look forward to not just for its entertainment value as a show, but for the creativity and lively conversation the talented young chefs inspire in us.

Catching a glimpse of the beautiful pair of cardinals who faithfully visit the tree outside our kitchen window each day, a vivid splash of red and a joyful burst of song in an otherwise white and quiet landscape.

Waking up to news of a snow day.  Slipping notes under the boys' doors in the dark early morning hours to tell them this news, and then waiting giddily for their exuberant reactions as they stumble out of bed and find them.  Enjoying banana chocolate chip pancakes together on a Monday morning, followed by shovelling and sledding amidst the piles of sparkling fresh snow.

Spending an hour or two curled up by the fireplace with a blanket, a steaming mug of tea, and a really good book, and not feeling guilty about the other things I "should" have been doing with that time.

Watching from the front window as my two boys leave to walk to school together, their colourful toques bobbing side by side at uneven heights as their feet crunch in tandem down the icy driveway. This was a sight I didn't even realize I was missing this year but was touched to see once again when Noah had last week off from his high school courses during exams and was headed to the same school as Will first thing in the morning.  These little, everyday rituals that I've taken for granted for so long seem precious suddenly, with the realization that soon they will simply disappear.

I think I'm able to appreciate these small winter pleasures so much more lately because I've gained some new perspective.  The early months of this season did not go at all the way I wanted them to, and while I struggled quite a lot with that at the time, now that I'm feeling better I recognize those circumstances allowed me to take a necessary pause and to do some important reflecting (and, quite honestly, some hard work on myself).  I guess it seems I was hibernating, but only by external appearances; my mind has been anything but asleep in these weeks that I've been quiet.

Among other things, I've thought a great deal about this blog recently.  After leaving its pages blank for such a long time, I've wondered if maybe this was one of the things I should let go of, whether writing these stories and sharing them is still a worthwhile pursuit and something that makes me happy.  I've decided that it still is. I've missed the creative processes involved in crafting new posts on a regular basis, and just as importantly, I've missed the connection to others that comes from sharing my ideas and feelings here. It's been really nice to receive kind messages from friends and readers in recent weeks who were wondering where I've been and why I haven't written anything in awhile.

If you're still here, I'm so glad -- thank you for sticking around.  Let's brave together whatever the rest of this winter brings, and continue to find happiness in this season's uniquely wonderful moments.