Monday, August 26, 2013

Maddie's First Day of School

Today was a hard day.  Today, I put my baby on a school bus and entrusted her to strangers.  Letting go was hard.  I wanted to take her to school this week, walk her inside, and help her put away her belongings until she becomes comfortable on her own. 

But she insisted that she ride the school bus.  She told me that she already knows where to go...and her friends will be there.  She couldn't wait to FINALLY ride a school bus and was the first one on the bus at her stop.  She didn't even look back and wave.

As I go about my business today, I am thinking about how lucky I am because I know that my little girl is in good hands.  That is the only thing that makes letting her grow up bearable.  She is attending an EXCELLENT school district and has been assigned to an outstanding teacher.  Not all kids are this privileged.  We are lucky to live in a high-performing school district focused on academic performance, that employs effective teachers who utilize high-yield instructional strategies and state-of-the art technology.  She will learn so much this year, and we parents will, too!

It will be a great school year for Maddie Lu.  I can't wait to hear about her first day adventures.  Dad and I will both be standing at the bus stop when the bus rolls to a stop this afternoon! But what I wouldn't give to be a fly on the wall in that classroom :)

Friday, August 16, 2013

Back to School. Again...

I'm calling this one, "Back to School.  Again."  Why? Because I've had more first days/weeks of school than you can shake a stick at.  After completing my own K-12 years, I spent another lifetime as a "career" college student and then taught public school and now teach at the university level.  I've seen my share of first days.

But, I still get excited this time of year.  Honestly, nothing turns me on like a good school supply list or a bright shiny classroom bulletin board.  Of course, at the college level, we don't require too many supplies and I don't have my own classroom or bulletin board, but I'm still pretty excited.

I've been back to work for almost three weeks now, and I've spent a lot of time preparing syllabi and working on the development of new course content (I adopted a new textbook).  I took Maddie school shopping and we bought new clothes, a nap mat, and a lunch box.  We still need a mesh backpack and some new sneakers. 

Overall, I'm ready.  On Monday of next week, Maddie has her Kindergarten screening and she will officially begin public school the following week.  On Tuesday, classes begin at the university and I get to meet this semester's group of students.  It is going to be a great school year - I can feel it!

8/26/2013 Addendum: Duh!  I failed to mention that I have already completed this educational process one time - all the way through - with Lauren Skyler. I have truly lived two separate lives and raised two kids who could be considered an "only child."  Time flies. It's a blur.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Euro Vacation...So Far, So Good

Well, we finally made it after numerous planes, trains, and automobiles.  We drove to Dallas on Saturday because it was cheaper to fly out of DFW than Little Rock, of course.  We spent the night at one of the airport hotels, a Marriot, which offered free parking during our trip and a shuttle service to and from the airport.  After a smooth departure flight and layover in Chicago, we boarded for an overnight flight to Fiumicino, the airport in Rome.

Maddie has been the BEST little traveler.  She hasn't complained one time, although she has wimpered with exhaustion a few times and was caught sleep walking yesterday.  She managed to sleep a few hours on the plane.  Don and I didn't get much rest, but we were too excited to notice the fatigue when we landed.

We took the bus to the Hotel Morgana, which is where we are staying for the first leg of the journey.  It is conveniently located across from Termini Station, the central station in the city for trains, buses, and the metro system.  The bus was only 10 euro, versus 40 for the train, so we decided to be frugal.  Buses are always adventures because drivers in Italy are adventurous souls and driving here is challenging to put it mildly.  I'm glad we took a bus because we were able to see a little of the countryside and outskirts of the city.  Don said it looked just like Arkansas.  We saw some hay bales and pine trees, so I guess it did a little.  As we drive through some rough areas, Maddie kept exclaiming, "This place is so beautiful."  She finds something pretty in all things.  

Our hotel is very nice and is air conditioned.  The wifi signal is strong, so the Bentons are all happy.

After showering, we set out to see four sites today, the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, and Piazza Navona.  We took the metro to the Spanish Steps and walked from there.  Rome is always very crowded, so keeping up with Maddie is a challenge.  We stopped around 3 p.m. for pizza and prosecco.  It was delicious.  Nothing compares to real Italian pizza!  Afterwards, Maddie had her frst gelato, Nutella flavored.  She was in heaven and a chocolatey mess when she finished.  

After seeing the sights on the agenda, tossing coins, etc., we decided to call it an early night and head back.  Maddie was too tired to walk, so we took a bus to the metro station and then took the subway back to Termini.  We crawled in bed to rest for awhile, but were all asleep entirely too early.  At the moment, it is a little after 3 a.m. and everyone is awake.  Maddie is watching an Italian cartoon and can explain the plot, so she is content.

Two additional events today: my converter tried to electrocute me and Don got shafted exchanging currency for the first time.  Traveling is a learning experience.  Tomorrow, we have "underground" tickets to the Colloseum.  The third tier and dungeons are now accessible, so this will be new for me.  They weren't open when I visited last year or in the past.  Afterwards, we will visit the Forum.  It is pretty warm here, 85 today, so we are going to take it slow with Maddie.  

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Lazy, Dog Days of Summer

I have never felt so lazy.  I haven't blogged in over two weeks because, well I was busy at first, and then I wasn't busy and I got lazy.  This is honestly the first summer since childhood that I can remember that I am not working or enrolled somewhere as a student.  The past three summers were hell as I worked on my Ph.D.  Last summer, in particular, was bad for a number of reasons, but primarily because I was writing my dissertation.  (I was only recently able to drop the ugly adjective that had historically preceded the D word.)

I told you guys that I set goals for myself this summer.  I don't remember exactly what they were, so if anyone remembers, please comment so I will be reminded.

I should be cleaning out a closet of something.  Instead, I am sitting on the deck with my MacBook Pro (new bestie) and researching information for my next big trip (Italy, France, and Spain) in a few weeks.

See, here I am on the deck.

I am, in effect, already there.  I have been to the end of the World Wide Web researching every facet of our trip, so when we actually get there, there won't be anything new to see.

I am also experimenting with the Big Green Egg. Pork butts were on sale at Kroger yesterday, so I thought I would try to cook one.  It looks like they are supposed to cook for a week or so (or so it seems), so I will be sitting out here for sometime.  

In the meantime, Maddie has the cavies out here and they apparently love willow leaves.  They are having a good time running around the deck, while she yells at them for their behavior.  It's amusing.

Don't expect any work out of me until August 1st.  I'm on vacation.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

I Did It!

Today, I completed the 60-day Ultimate Warrior training schedule for Les Mills Combat! I am proud of this accomplishment because when I first started this series, I had serious doubts about my physical ability to perform the moves and withstand the rigor that these workouts required.

It was grueling.  I wanted to box it up and send it back...and spend that money on ice cream and pizza.  But, I didn't.  I made myself get up everyday...boy, did I dread it...pushed play, and then gave it everything.  At the end of each hour, I was shaking like Jell-O and dripping with sweat.  I even cried a few times.

Today's final workout was just as hard.  It never got easier, but I could finally do all the moves and make it to the end without stopping!  I know that I am stronger today than I was 60 days ago.  I'm glad I didn't give up.

I highly recommend this series to anyone who wants to improve their fitness.  It was challenging, but low-impact.  It was fun and inspiring.  I enjoyed every workout and never regretted the pain and fatigue that followed.  You can order your copy from

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A Blog about Blogging...and More

I am scheduled to present a conference session on blogging a week from tomorrow at the Hot Springs Technology Institute, so I started working on my presentation today :) Go me!

This isn't a linked image, as I have not finished the presentation at pub time :)

Although I have been blogging - off and on - for a couple of years now, there is still a lot that I don't know and that I want to learn.  I set some goals for myself this summer and one of them is related to blogging:

  1. I want to make the move from Blogger to  Most people don't know that there are two different versions of WordPress.  The ".com" version is free, a little harder to set up than a Blogger account, and doesn't allow ads.  The ".org" version requires you to self-host (which requires that you purchase a domain name and server space) and install their free software on your computer.  Most professional bloggers are using this version because it provides the user with complete control and because so many plug-ins are available.  However, it is somewhat complicated.  So far, I've just been conducting research, but one day this summer, I am going to bite the bullet, pull out the Amex card, and make the switch.
  2. Another goal is to actually do something with my dissertation research.  It is so relevant right now and could be of value to many in education...yet it sits on my computer and will see become outdated if I don't pull some articles from it and submit them to a journal or two for publication.  The problem is, I am still sick of my dissertation and opening those files brings back all the memories of writing that thing...the hours and hours of writing that thing.
  3. A third goal was to improve ME...body, mind, and soul.  This is a hard one because I can usually only manage one thing well at a time.  I will finish Les Mills Combat, the mixed martial arts workout series I've been doing religiously for 60 days, tomorrow.  I am healthier and stronger, but maybe not "skinnier."  Working out like that makes a girl very hungry!  I have been reading a daily devotional that two dear friends gave me as a graduation present last fall.  It is helping me to focus on a specific "thing" each day.  My mind...well...I haven't been reading or writing much (you can tell that I'm behind on my blogging, but I am working on several presentations for next week.  I am teaching workshops on "iPads for K-12 Educators," "Tons of Apps You Never Knew You Needed," "Pinterest in the Classroom," and finally, "Jump on the Bandwagon: Start Blogging!"  Preparation for these has required some research on my part, so maybe my mind improved a little :) 
This week, I am going to be very productive, but also rest a little.  Next week is a big week for Don and I as we present, promote HSTI and SWOW, and play host to hundreds of awesome educators from around the State of Arkansas.  Can't wait!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Eggvice Needed

I talked Don into buying me a Big Green Egg.

I am away on business this week and it is at home in the box awaiting assembly, yet I can't stop thinking about it.  I have wanted an Egg for years, but they are expensive and I couldn't justify the cost to Don...until I developed a three-prong argument and presented it to him.  We need an Egg because...
  1. We have purchased two very nice and somewhat pricey grills in the past eight years and they just don't hold up.  Most grills only have a one year warranty and seldom function (or look pretty) after a couple of seasons of use.  The Big Green Egg is comprised of ceramic and has a lifetime warranty on the main structure.  They last forever if they are properly maintained and will never rust. 
  2. The Egg is small enough to fit on our upstairs deck.  We currently use a large charcoal smoker/grill - which is hard to regulate if you are cooking for a few people - and which has to be kept downstairs because of the space that is consumes.  We built a new deck and now have adequate room for a grill.  The Big Green Egg is the perfect fit.  I am going to position it right beside the kitchen door to provide easy access between these two areas. I will no longer have to run the stairs multiple times to monitor the grill and food being prepared or cooked in the kitchen.
  3. The egg can be used to prepare MORE than just meat.  We can use it to cook pizza!  This is probably the main reason that I wanted an Egg.  Everyone who has one talks about how awesome the pizzas are when prepared on the grill.  I can't wait to try this...and cobbler...and thousands of other recipes that I am currently pinning on Pinterest!
The next step, of course, is to help Don assemble and move the Egg this weekend.  It weighs about 150 pounds so this should be fun since he is still an invalid, for the most part.  After it is assembled, I want to try my hand at cooking a brisket.  I have looked at several recipes and so far, I am pretty intimidated by the process.  I learned that I need to back up and figure out how to use the thing before attempting to actually use it.  I found an article on the Egg Website that provided lots of good pointers for getting started.

If you have any Eggvice, I would appreciate it...and a good brisket recipe would also be appreciated.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Spring = Out With the Old

I know that the saying, "Out with the old, in with the new" is associated with the New Year, but for me, it resonates more when Spring arrives to Arkansas.  The warm weather (okay, it's 90 degrees right now, so hot weather) makes me want to make things new again.  Here is what I am working on improving right now:

  1. I am working on improving my fitness.  I am still doing Les Mills Combat and will start Week 6 tomorrow. I am feeling strong and healthy.  I ran a 5K this morning and actually finished second overall in the women's division.  The competition wasn't that steep, but still, I came in second.  AND I beat a bunch of dudes and teenagers.  
  2. We are doing "maintenance" on the exterior of our house.  This entails getting it repainted and some stucco repaired where a damned woodpecker did a number on the pillars and couple of other places.  Don keeps running out there with the gun when we hear if pecking, but it is too smart for him and always gets away. This is a good thing considering that it is illegal to kill a woodpecker.  We are also remodeling our deck.  We hired a contractor to tear out the old deck and build a new one (more on this later).  It should be finished on Tuesday - just in time for Memorial Day Weekend! I bought new patio furniture and a Big Green Egg (something I've wanted for two years; more on this later).  All of this crap has to be assembled before next weekend and I am leaving town on business tomorrow and won't be back for a I guess Don will have to find someone else to cuss at - err, I mean help him - with this project.
  3. I am also refinishing some adirondack chairs that I purchased on clearance at JC Penney two years ago.  I assembled them and put them outside.  Within three months, they were molded and disgusting.  Don wanted me to throw them out but I decided to sand them down and paint them.  They have three coats of paint and they still look like crap (more on this later).
Basically, I want my surroundings to look new again - spring should reflect freshness, including a fresh perspective on life and living - so out with the old!

Monday, May 13, 2013

Counting Calories...How Dreadful!

I hate counting calories!  But I have come to the conclusion that I probably need to start.  I stepped on the scales this morning and I had gained another couple of pounds.  Ugh!  I really don't understand this because I do eat right.  I eat large quantifies, but they are usually of healthy foods.  I guess that no matter what you eat, at the end of the day, it all adds up.

My Current BMI

This week, I decided to start counting calories.  I won't do this permanently, but I need to gauge just how many I am consuming on average.  Last Friday, I figured out my body mass index (BMI) and then what my daily caloric intake should be if I want to lose one pound a week.  You can check yours at WebMD.

I have a healthy BMI, but you can always be healthier and I could stand to shed a few inches around my tummy and thighs.  If you take a look at the graphic above, you will see that there are actually tabs across the top and one reads, "Your Calories."  If you complete the profile - it is FREE - then it will figure your BMI and tell you how many calories you should consume to lose weight.  It looks like I am going to be eating 1700 calories a day.  So far today, I've had 300, so I'm getting off to a good start :)

Have you checked your BMI lately?

Thursday, May 9, 2013

No More Teachers, No More Books!

This is the last day of final exams for my students...and for me, as their professor.  This semester flew by!  I think because the beginning of the semester was so chaotic, with Don's surgery, and Maddie and I combating one illness after another.  I didn't seem really prepared to roll out my courses and put on my sage-on-the-stage face, but I made it through.  In the end, I think it turned out to be a pretty good semester.  Almost all of my students did very well and I am proud of their hard work. Almost all...

Done for another semester!

What does the end of the semester entail for a professor?  Lots of begging, generally.  Begging for extensions, for opportunities to make up missed assignments from January and February, for opportunities to re-do work, and begging for just "a few extra points."  Yeah, it gets old. I used to feel sorry for them and offer to give them extensions and incompletes, but once you've been in the college classroom for a few years - and you've been burned a few times - your heart hardens a wee little bit.

My favorite quote of the semester came in the form of an email that arrived in my inbox last weekend: "Dr. Benton, I have an F in your class.  What can I do?"

I didn't even know how to respond, but I wanted to say, "Try building a time machine."

At this point, you have to have a good excuse for an extension or an incomplete. Ain't nobody got time for last ditch efforts to pass on the last day of finals!

What do you remember from your days in college and finals week?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Yummy New Combo :)

Okay, I invented something yummy out of boredom and curiosity...and because two of my favorite items just happened to be on my desk at the same time.

Kroger brand Vitamin Berry Pomegranate and Kroger brand Greek Yogurt
I was eating Greek yogurt (from Kroger, vanilla flavored) and noticed that my water enhancer (also from Kroger) was sitting on my desk.  I wondered what it would taste like to add a little squirt.  It was DELICIOUS!  I love water enhancers but never considered that they might be used in something other than water.  I always bring vanilla flavored Greek yogurt to work because I usually don't have time to add other stuff, but I prefer to eat it plain.  This was a zero calorie solution to adding flavor to plain yogurt and I get to add some more vitamins to the mix. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

Happy Seis de Mayo! Celebrate Tonight with Tacos Carne Asada

Carne Asada Tacos
At the present, carne asada tacos are at the top of my list when it comes to Mexican food. I crave these all the time and they are prepared very well at two of our local restaurants: Trejos and Mi Pueblito

I celebrated Cinco de Mayo on Saturday night - a day early - and indulged in my favorite dish.  They were divine, but not very healthy because they were a little greasy and encased in a homemade corn tortilla.  However, I've made them in the past and there is no reason why they can't be healthy.  Here's my recipe:

Carne Asada Tacos
  • Prep the meat: Spray both sides of a flat iron or flank steak (or cut of your choice) with olive or canola spray.  Sprinkle with sea salt and coarsely ground pepper.  Rub into the meat.  Place in a zipper bag and cover with 3-4 T of liquid from a jar of pickled jalapeno peppers.  Refrigerate for 2 or more hours.
  • Grill the meat: I prefer to grill over charcoal, but you can grill your steak over gas and it will taste fine.  When it is raining, I use the cast iron grill on my stone, but it makes for a messy clean-up.  Grill the meat until you are happy with it (I like my meat medium rare - so about 4-5 minutes per side over medium heat).  Remove the meat and cover it with foil.  Leave it alone for 10 minutes and then slice it thin.  Traditionally, the steak is cut into smaller pieces, but I am too lazy for that.
  • Prepare the condiments: Dice an onion (I use Vidalia onions because they are sweet) and chop up a big bunch of fresh cilantro.  Dried doesn't work in this dish.  Slice a fresh lime or two.  Open a jar of green salsa (sometimes these tacos are served with mojo sauce but the base is olive oil, so I don't use it). You can make your own green salsa but it takes a little time, and there are plenty of jarred sauces available that are as good as any homemade sauce.  Try this one: Mrs. Renfro's Green Salsa (all of their products are great!).  I also like to include pinto beans (from a can, rinsed well, if home-cooked aren't available).
  • I use Mission Carb Balance tortillas in all of my Mexican dishes.  Warm them up on the grill.  Fill them with the meat, beans, chopped raw onion, fresh cilantro, and some green salsa.  Squeeze a lime wedge across each one.  I sometimes add a few slices of avocado, as well.  Enjoy!
We love these at my house. I know they sound simple - and they are - but they are delicious and pretty healthy.  We grilled steaks last night so I know what we will be eating for dinner tonight - carne asada tacos made from leftovers!



    Thursday, May 2, 2013

    Traveling Europe...With a 5 year Old in Tow?

    So Don and I saved up a bunch of points so that we could vacation for a couple of weeks in Europe this summer and it is totally stressing me out!  Let me start by saying that I do ALL of our vacation planning.
    1. I pick the place.  Sometimes, I give him a couple of choices.
    2. I decide on the dates.  I run them past him so that he can confirm that they work with his crazy schedule.
    3. I book the tickets and hotel accommodations.  This part drives me nuts because I am determined to get the best price available, so I often book, cancel, book, and cancel.  Sometimes I have rooms reserved at multiple hotels as back-ups.  It is hard to keep up with all, but I keep each trip organized in a 3-ring binder (Of course, I do.  I'm Brandie!).
    These are probably the easiest steps in planning a family vacation.  For this trip, we decided to fly to Rome for a few days and then take a Mediterranean cruise for 7 nights (Why cruise?  I've said before that cruising is the best way to travel if you have kids.) and then follow up with another two days in Rome before flying back to the states.  This will be Maddie's first trip to Europe so we are pretty excited...and stressed.  I have spent hours reading and doing research on traveling Europe with kids.  Let's face it, most kids don't really like museums and ruins, so I am trying to find one kid-friendly activity for each day of vacation.
    Most recent vacation (Mexico, March 2013)

    Cruising usually takes a lot of the guess work out of planning a vacation because the ship offers excursions.  However, excursions from European ports are PRICEY, so I have been trying to weigh our options.  An added stressor is that many of the ports where the cruise ships dock are 1-2 hours from the actual cities on the cruise itinerary.  I am using Rick Steves' cheat sheet for guidance on the decision to book with the ship or do it on our own.  Normally, Don and I would just head out on our own adventure, but buses, trains, subways, and taxis in a strange, non-English speaking city with a child at your side complicates things a bit.

    The days are ticking away - and so are my nerves - as I try to figure out how to move our family of three around for two weeks in multiple countries and cities, while ensuring that everyone has a good time, that we see everything we want to see, and that we get back to the ship before it departs each day.

    Don isn't stressed at all.  I keep trying to show him my binder.  He hates my binder.  He thinks we can just "wing it."  It doesn't work like that.  I hate waste - especially wasted time...and food - and I don't want to spend all of my vacation time stressing out about what to do each day.  I gotta have a plan, so that's what I've been up to during my "downtime."  Planning a trip to Europe with a five year old and a disinterested husband in tow!

    Wednesday, May 1, 2013

    Kindergarten Registration - Happy Day! Happy Day!

    I know I should probably be all sappy and weepy about Maddie starting kindergarten in the fall, but I don't feel that way at all!  We were some of the first to arrive at registration this morning and I think she and I were the most excited people there :) I love public schools!  They do something for me that I can't explain...I love the way they smell and I love the people in them.  There is something so special about a good public school - and Maddie's school is great!

    Why wouldn't we be excited? We visited the cafeteria and saw the cafeteria ladies cooking up some delicious-smelling square pizza.  Yum! Then we met the assistant principal, the school counselor, and got to visit the administrative offices (hopefully Maddie won't have to spend much time with any of them again).  We checked out the playground area too.  Such cool equipment these days!  They gave us a goody bag that included (this was SO exciting) a "big kid pencil sharpener!"  We can't wait to start sharpening pencils this afternoon when we get home!

    We also found out that we don't have to purchase school supplies; they are provided at LH Primary.  This school rocks!  We only need to pick up a nap mat and a clear backpack.  Wow!  That was awesome because school supplies can break a parent - believe me I have purchased enough supplies as a classroom teacher for kids who couldn't afford them to know! By the way, kids don't use Big Chief Tablets anymore or big fat pencils...that is kind of sad.

    Most of all, I am not sad and sappy because I saw a mom's post on Facebook last week that put some things in perspective.  Her child, who is also in Maddie's district, has been fighting cancer for two years and is finally in remission.  Her daughter celebrated her birthday last week and the mom posted that she would never, ever again remark that she was sad because her baby was growing up.  Think about it.

    Oh, and one more thing!  We will feel RICH this fall because we won't have to shell out $400 a month in preschool tuition!  So excited about kindergarten :)

    Kindergarten is an awesome milestone for a kid and their parents and we made it!

    Tuesday, April 30, 2013

    Tech Tuesday: Getting Ready for HSTI

    So my husband, Don - who is SUPER techy - and I have our own little company called Schools Without Walls and we focus on providing educators with training to integrate technology in their classrooms.  We have our own little fall conference in Hot Springs, AR.  Small potatoes...

    ...but in the summer, Don directs a BIG tech conference that serves educators across the state and region.  It's called the Hot Springs Technology Institute (HSTI for short) and this is the 20th anniversary show.  This is our very favorite week of the year because we get to interact with people from around the nation who are experts on technology intergration and we always learn a ton from everyone who attends.


    This year, we have a big line up of keynote presenters (including School House Rock!), as well as fabulous presenters from around the State of Arkansas.  I am personally teaching a couple of one day workshops on iPad Basics.  I've taught the workshop a few times and it is one of my favorites to present on because I usually have an audience full of teachers who have limited experiences with the devices.  It is so much fun to see them interact with new technology for the first time and watch the wheels turn as they brainstorm and share ideas for implementation for the next school year. 

    Registration is still open on the HSTI Website so you can still sign up for my workshop...registration includes the device :)

    Monday, April 29, 2013

    Mexican Food CAN Be Healthy!

    I was craving Mexican food sooo bad this weekend, but I knew better than to go out to have some.  They always serve the all-you-can-eat chips and salsa while you wait and by the time you get your food, you've consumed 1000 plus calories...and that's not counting the beer and margaritas!  So you are MUCH better off making your own Mexican food at home.

    I had an 8 pound Boston butt (shoulder roast) in the freezer taking up space so I decided to try my hand at carnitas (pulled, seasoned pork).  I've made tamales (damn good ones), in the past, so I knew this would be easy.  I searched the Web and found several versions that I liked and then tossed them all out and made up my own recipe using what I had on hand.  It goes like this:

    Pork Carnitas

    1. Preheat your over to 400 degrees.  Spray a large Dutch oven with nonstick spray.  Peel and quarter two (2) medium onions and place in bottom of pot.  Wash and quarter two medium oranges and throw them in the bottom too.
    2. Wash your butt and pat it dry (you guys have dirty minds :)...your pork shoulder, that is.  Rub down with Kosher salt and black pepper.  Place in the dutch oven, fat side up, on top of the onions and oranges.
    3. Add one bottle of beer of your choice.  I used a Sam Adams porter left over from the Christmas variety case.  Add the following seasonings to the liquid around the butt:
      • 1/2 cup brown sugar
      • 3 bay leaves
      • 1 T garlic powder
      • 2 T lime juice
      • 2 T cumin
      • 2 T coriander
      • 2 T dried oregano
      • 2 T dried cilantro
      • 1 t cinnamon (trust me, it works in this recipe)
    4. Put the cover on the Dutch oven and set the timer for one hour.  After an hour, reduce the over temperature to 200 degrees.  Cook the butt for approximately 2 hours per pound OR until a meat thermometer indicates an internal temp of 205 degrees OR until the meat breaks apart when you poke it with a fork.
    5. When you are certain the butt is done, remove it from the Dutch oven with a slotted spoon or tongs (it should be falling apart) and place the meat in a large baking or Pirex dish.  Shred the meat with a fork.    Discard the excess fat (scrape that s**t off!), orange peel, bay leaves, and excess liquid. Turn off the oven, but returned the shredded meat to the "off" oven to allow it to dry out a bit before serving.
    6. Serve with Mission Carb Balance tortillas (only 3 net carbs & 3 grams of protein).  I have found that the best way to heat them is to throw them directly on a gas burner (turned to the lowest setting) and flip them with a fork after a few seconds. 

    Healthy Sides

    My side items for this meal included:

    • Homemade quacamole (three mashed avacados, 1/2 chopped red onion, 4 small diced tomatoes, lime juice, garlic sauce, black pepper, and dried cilantro).

    • Cilantro slaw (2 bags of pre-shredded coleslaw, 1/2 diced green pepper, 2 T Hellman's Canola Mayo, 3 T of Fage Greek Yogurt, 1/2 cup Splenda, salt, black pepper, ceyenne pepper, and dried cilantro to taste.
    • Black beans and fiesta corn (all from cans, that I seasoned to taste).

    This meal was far better than anything that I could have ordered at one of our local Mexican restaurants.  The best thing about this meal is that I controlled the fat and carbs during the cooking and eating phases and I wasn't tempted to order or eat anything that I would regret later.  Wait, the best thing is that I have a ton of leftovers waiting for me when I get home today :)
    Do you have any good Mexican recipes you'd like to share?  Maybe I can help you make a skinny version!  Post below.

    Monday, April 22, 2013

    I'm married to the "Technology Leader of the Year"

    Today, my husband was honored at the Arkansas Association of Instructional Media Conference for his contributions to technology in P-16 schools. This is amazing considering that he still hasn't mastered the washing machine or dishwasher :) I joke about him often, but I am proud of his work and accomplishments in our state and the region. He has worked hard to improve technology in schools and to educate educators on its value to our students. Kudos to Don Benton today :)

    Thursday, April 18, 2013

    Teaching Bike Riding 101 - My Reviews Suck


    The little one turned 5 on Sunday and received a bicycle for her birthday...a beautiful pink princess bike with a basket for dolls (and band-aids, as she suggested).  So, we've spent a lot of time outside trying to master riding the thing this week - amid tears and tantrums (on my part, not hers).  I admit, I am not very patient or good at teaching kids to ride bikes.
    I remember trying to teach Skyler to ride her bike.  She was content keeping her training wheels attached forever, but when she turned 10, I removed them and started working with her daily to ride without them.  She absolutely HATED practicing.  She screamed and cried and refused to pedal.  I screamed and cried and threatened to spank her.  This continued for approximately one month.  I finally surrendered. My sister-in-law (at the time) volunteered to work with Skyler and was successful the first day they tried. I felt like a complete failure, but I was relieved to have this stage behind us.

    The video posted above shows Maddie trying out her bike on her birthday – and doing a fine job. However, once she started pedaling, things began to get dicey. Maddie likes to look at her feet while she pedals. She also likes to lean on the pedal she is pushing, which results in a trip-over. She doesn’t “like to use the brakes” so we’ve had a couple of pretty good crashes, so she now insists on wearing her helmet. The neighbors have witnessed me chasing her down the hills in our neighborhood and have started sitting in their lawnchairs each evening for their entertainment. Apparently, they find my instruction amusing.

    Maddie's bike has training wheels so I think we are going to be okay...until it's time to take them off. When that time gets here, I think I am going to ask for a volunteer to teach Maddie, or make Don do it. However, he has about as much patience as I do, so we probably need to find a volunteer. Do you want to do it? I don't think my nerves can take it.

    Monday, April 15, 2013

    Roller Skating Momma - A Blast From the Past!

    So back in the day - like 20 something years ago - I could really rock a pair of roller skates.  My mom would drop us off at the local skating rink on Saturday night with $5.00 and that money would get us in, pay for skate rental, some nachos and Dr. Pepper, AND a couple of big-hair-band songs on the juke box.  Man!  Those were the good ol' days.

    Yesterday was Maddie's 5th birthday and she wanted to have her party at the roller rink, so I called and made the arrangements, never planning to lace up a pair on my own feet.  A friend-of-a-friend just fell skating and broke both arms.  This freaked me out so I decided that under no circumstances would I dare try skating after all these years...but then my own momma put on a pair and started making slow circles with the kids.  That tempted me.  However, when my sister-in-law Debbie hit the floor like an old pro, I had to join in!

    I was a little rusty at first, but like riding a bike, it came back to me.  I was skating like a 16 year old within ten minutes (all the other moms at the birthday party were jealous - I could tell :)  I never managed to skate at my old level going backwards, but I pulled off a few spins and other cool moves.

    At the end of the party, I was exhaused, but I had such a great time.  I forgot to ask Maddie if she had a good time because I was so busy having fun.  Now, I want a pair of skates (preferably with some cool socks and a pair of matching pom poms for my laces).  I am seriously considering having my own birthday party there this year...but wait, they don't serve alcohol so that won't work...

    Anyway, I highly recommend that you get out there and give skating a try if you were ever good at it...or biking...or swimming...or any other activity that you enjoyed as a kid.  I am still smiling today :)

    Have you revisited an old activity lately and had as much fun as I did?

    Thursday, April 11, 2013

    Protein Product Recommendations Needed!

    I am so worried.  For many years, I have been eating Premier Protein bars and drinking their shakes and I absolutely love them.  They have 30 grams of protein and are low sugar, low in calories, and low in carbs.  Even more importantly, they are yummy!  Well, in Arkansas, you can only buy them in one place, Sam's Club.  This is fine because I am usually in Sam's at least once a week.  However, during the past few months, I have not always been able to find them because they've been out-of-stock.  There can only be two reasons for this: (1) they are popular, or (2) Sam's is not keeping enough of them in stock or re-ordering on a regular schedule.

    They do fly off the shelves - I've watched it happen...but I think that the department manager is just not re-ordering.  I had a little talk with him two weeks ago after making three trips to Sam's and finding an empty spot where my bars should have been.  He assured me that they had been ordered.  I finally found them back in stock last week, but he had only ordered two cases (10 boxes each).  I bought two of them (they are around $16 for 14 bars).  Maddie said, "Mommy, why don't you just buy them all?"  Well, I thought about it, but I didn't want to be stingy. 

    If they continue to be so scarce, I am going to have to find a replacement or order them online.  The latter is not really an option because shipping is too expensive.  Does anyone have a suggestion for a high protein shake and/or bar?  This is important.  We're talking about the basic components of my breakfasts and lunches here! 

    Wednesday, April 10, 2013

    Growing My Own

    You really can't beat the taste of fresh herbs.  I have been growing my own for several years.  Most people don't realize that most herbs are perennials, so once you plant your herb garden, they come back year after year.  The only problem is that they die-down during the winter and you can't enjoy them anytime you'd like.

    My parents found a solution for me.  For Christmas two years ago, they gave me an AeroGarden - a dirt-free indoor garden.  For two years, it stayed in the box.  It was intimidating and I couldn't figure out where to put it in the house to keep the cats and kids away.  This spring, I decided to assemble it and plant a pack of the pods that came with it.  My parents gave me a variety of pod sets, but the one I wanted to try first was an herb kit.

    It took me about 10 minutes to assemble my garden, which I placed in a large jelly roll pan to prevent water damage to my dining room buffet.  I popped in the six pods in the set, added water and a nutrient plant, and then plugged it in.  It started gurgling and in less than a week, the small plants had already started growing.  When I peeked inside the water reservoir, I could see little roots growing, as well.

    Within one month, I had raised the light to its full height and had produced (with little effort) full grown herbs in my house.  I am growing three kinds of basil, oregano, thyme (which I struggle with in my outside garden), and a "holiday" hybrid herb with is similar to thyme.  Now, I have access to fresh herbs year round!

    I must say that this is one of the best gifts I've ever received.  Not only is the garden useful, it is pretty to look at.  I love my AeroGarden!

    By the way, the herbs were used in my Portabello Pizza recipe.  I used all three kinds of basil and some oregano.  Yum!

    Out-of-This World Portabello Pizzas

    I have been craving Italian food lately, but most of these dishes are so full of carbs and fat!  I've been resisting, but last night I had to find a way to get in some Italian flavors.  I came up with the recipe below, which uses portabello mushroom caps instead of crust.  Did you know that these mushrooms are low in calories and only have 1 net carb each?  These pizzas are also vegetarian and low fat.  The only fat added is the 5 grams in the cheese (which is low-carb and low-cal), and the pizza sauce, which has 6 net carbs per 1/4 cup.   There is nothing special about the ingredient list, but these little portabello mushroom pizzas turned out to be delicious.  I will be making them again, and again, and again!


    • 4 large portabello mushroom caps
    (Note: Remove the stems and gills with a knife, and then wipe clean with a damp paper towel - Do NOT rinse them!)
    1. Pizza sauce (use pesto instead, if you have it)
    2. Fresh tomatoes, thinly sliced
    3. Whole mozzarella, thinly sliced
    4. Fresh basil and oregano
    5. Olive oil spray
    6. Salt & pepper to taste

    1. Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees.
    2. After you have prepped the mushroom caps, spray both sides with olive oil spray and then sprinkle with salt and pepper.
    3. Bake mushroom caps for 20 minutes, flipping over half-way through.
    4. Remove caps from over and reduce heat to 375 degrees.
    5. Add 1 tablespoon or sauce or presto to each cap.
    6. Add tomatoes (or any topping of your choice - spinach would be good!)
    7. Add mozzarella cheese.
    8. Return to oven and bake until bubbly.  You can also broil them for a couple of minutes if you want them brown.
    9. Remove from oven and add fresh herbs.  Let the pizzas sit until the herbs have wilted.
    10. Enjoy!


    Monday, April 8, 2013

    Southern Reality

    I adore Southern Living magazine.  I eagerly await each issue and devour every article from cover to back over the course of several evenings.  Why?  Because I love everything about the South and about being Southern.  Those of us raised below the Mason-Dixon (or sweet tea) Line possess unique characteristics and skills, a shared dialect and vocabulary, and a well-understood set of manners and etiquette that elude most outsiders.  These traits are beautiful and not easily emulated by those trying to assimilate into southern society  (as intended) because we Southerners have collectively compiled a set of rigid rules (or "secrets" as an article in the Southern Living, March 2013 edition refers to these elusive behaviors) that are near impossible for most humans, including many of our own) to adhere.  I read each of the 35 secrets, which fall into several categories, and thought to myself, "good idea," "I never think to do that," and "I don't know anyone who does that."  Then, I began to think that I must have a little Yankee in me or I must be living in a different part of the South where charm has gone by the wayside.  But then I thought, "No, I know some very charming ladies - my grandmother, Billie Jean Harding, for one - who practices many of the secrets, but even she might be baffled by the senselessness of a few of these.  So this blog is inspired by this article and will evaluate some of the "secrets to Southern charm" revealed in the current edition of my favorite mag.

    The first section of the article describes/instructs (this is key, because it indicates to me that not everyone knows these things) on party etiquette.  Now, if there is one thing we southern women DO know how to do, it is entertain.  A big part of this section is dedicated to table etiquette. You know, how to set a proper table and set up a buffet meal.  In reality, many southern families are huge and these two ideas are contradictory.  First, if you must set up food on a buffet table, you can't be worried about setting a nice table because there will be too many people to sit at it.  During our parties and family gatherings, we have people crowded at the formal table, the kitchen table, the bar, in the living room watching football, and frequently open up the garage with long folding tables.  By the way, we can't afford too many monogrammed napkins so we substitute paper napkins and they work just fine.  By the way, by grandmother and friend Dr. Anne Gentry are the only two people I know who still consistently offer cloth napkins (I think they both originate from South Florida).

    There are a couple of secrets that I liked in this section and they both involved drinking - something most Southerners enjoy, albeit many do it in private.  One said that Southern ladies should always be ready with a toast.  I agree with this, and few things bring me more merriment than the clinking sound of a wine glasses or beer bottles accommanied by a clever salute.  Another piece of advice suggested that every Southerner should have a signature cocktail.  Agreed, but the signature cocktail should vary with the season.  For example, while boating or floating, one should sip 9-2-1s (also known as "f*%k or fight," cause you're going to want to do one or the other after having a few).  This delicious concoction is composed of 9 ounces of vodka, 2 beers of your choice, and 1 small frozen limeade concentrate.  A word of wisdom, drink in moderation if you decide to make them.  Everyone also needs a good holiday punch (a cranberry white wine spritzer works well) and Mardi Gras cocktail (my husband is famous for his Hurricane O'Donalds).  A good bottle of wine and bourbon will suffice for most other occasions. 

    The second section is entitled, "The Gracious Home."  Let me say, I have never been extended the hospitality expected on these pages, nor have I offered it.  If you visit me, you will not get beverage service.  You can walk downstairs and make yourself a cup of coffee or tea.  Our closets are already full, so expect to live out of your suitcase for the duration of your stay.  Don't expect a gift.  Afterall, I just saved you some cash by allowing you to stay in our guest bedroom instead of the Motel 6.  Thank you.  You're welcome.

    I could go on, but you get my point.  Read the article.  It is ROMANTIC and all Southern gals would like to live these rules...but reality dictates and most of these rules are outdated and unrealistic.  Maybe a better title for this article would have been the "35 Forgotten Secrets to Southern Charm."  Southern Living can keep it's secrets this month.

    It's About Time...

    It's about time.  Time to start spring running.  In Arkansas, running outside during winter is not always possible.  It rains a lot here (we live in a subtropical climate zone, believe it or not), and the winter can be just nasty.  That's my number one excuse for taking a running hiatus each winter.  Excuse number two is a good one. My doctor said I needed to cut back or risk stopping all together.  My knees and hips have seen better days.  I am an old mommy, after all.

    I usually start running again during the week we are out of school for Spring Break, so around mid-March.  This year, we were out of town so I didn't get to start.  I also got sick with the flu and then norovirus.  Additionally, the weather is unpredictable here and has not cooperated.  I planned to start this week, but Hubby is out of town and I can't very well leave the baby at home unattended.  Excuses!  Excuses!

    I am going to start running later this week.  I have a new stun gun that I am dying to try out on a very mean German shepherd.  Mace no longer deters him, but I think the stun gun might do the trick.  I will be the hero of the running community!  This week...I WILL find a way to run this week...

    Wednesday, April 3, 2013

    Taking a Virtual Vacation...Everyday

    I know this is going to sound INSANE, but I take a virtual vacation almost everyday.  What is a virtual vacation, you might be wondering?  Well, for me, it is taking a little trip to somewhere on this awesome planet via the World Wide Web or through some cool app I've just discovered, for just a few minutes.  It can also entail the simple act of checking out a cool travel app, checking flight deals, or reading travel reviews.  I know it sounds crazy, but this practice is very therapeutic and helps me make it through the day, week, month, or any span of time that needs to pass until my next trip.  Today, I want to share my (current) five favorite "travel portals" or iPad apps for my mini vacas.

    Viator - It's been around for awhile, but it is still my very favorite travel app because it gives me a little bit of background information on any city or site, and then it also provides tour information and allows me to book directly through them (which they also insure).  Users can contribute photos, videos, and write reviews.  You can plan an entire trip using the resources on this app or their Website (which is also awesome).  The app is free!  You can also download the Viator Ultimate Experience Guide app for free, which focuses on the world's top 100 cities.  These are beautiful, rich apps for those who love to travel, dream about travel, or plan a future trip.

    Triposo - This app lets you pick a destination, like Italy, and then drill down by city.  Once you make your desired travel selections, you can view Triposo's travel guides, which are really good.  They also include maps, so there is no need to buy a travel guide or map before you go.  Just carry your iPad along and you can access the same information on Triposo.  The app also includes a "travel log" that allows you to document your own trip to a destination, share your travel tips, add photos and check-ins.  Love it!

    Hipmunk - This must be THE cutest travel app out there.  I love the way the chipmonk moves his hips while he searchs for you!  This app allows you to check and book hotels and flights at the lowest advertised price.  How does it work?  You enter you destination and date range, and Hipmunk does the searching for you.  If you are searching for a hotel, a large map (a really good map that I often use for other purposes because I like the graphics that much) and a list of lodging options displays.  For flights, your options will load.  Select the hotel or flight that you like.  Unlike other aggregators, Hipmunk only displays ONE price - the cheapest one advertised!  Click the "book" link and you can book with the cheapest advertisor (Kayak, Getaroom, etc.)  The app also integrates with Trip Advisor to provide hotel reviews.
    TripAdvisor - This app functions in much the same way as the TripAdvisor website, but in my opinion, it is better organized and cleaner.  All of the ads have been removed so what you have left is an uncluttered app that is perfect for reading reviews on any place you wish to visit, restaurant in which you wish to dine, or tour that you'd like to take.  The app also offers suggestions on things to do while in a selected city and allows you to participate in discussion forums (or just read them) on any travel topic you desire.  Of course, you can also find flights and hotels - TripAdvisor needs to make money somehow!

    Google Earth - You can do so much with this app, but I love being able to "visit" a place before I get there and check out the surroundings.  For example, I always check out the neighborhood when I book a hotel in an unfamiliar city.  This was very helpful last month when a student shared with me the "deal" she got on a hotel near the airport in New Orleans.  The price was too good to be true so I Google Earth-ed it for her.  It was in the hood and was constructed directly in front of a housing project.  To the right, was a pretty scary trailer park.  The individuals in the satellite images were also pretty intimidating.  She cancelled her reservation.  Google Earth will let you snoop around before you get there and I like that.

    Monday, March 11, 2013

    Booking a Group Cruise

    Are you thinking about booking a group cruise?  If you don't do your homework, this can be a logistical nightmare.  So this blog, hopefully, will provide a little bit of guidance on this topic.

    I have been putting together group trips since 2006, but in the past, always worked with a tour company and simply served as the group coordinator.  Last spring, I took a group of 43 to Italy and Greece, but wanted to give my travelers a less expensive option because this year, so we decided to book a group cruise.  It took a little research.  I take that back, it took A LOT of research on my part to determine where, when, and how much it was going to cost us as a group.  Let me be clear, the monetary rewards are low.  So if you are thinking of booking a group cruise to save money, it is probably not going to be enough to worry about.

    You might be wondering what constitutes a group booking.  Most cruise lines defined a "group booking" as a reservation of eight (8) cabins and a minimum of sixteen (16) full price guests.  Take a minute to let this sink in.  That's a lot of cabins and a lot of people.  You will certainly want people to commit
    before you make this kind of reservation and put in this much effort.

    Decide when and where you want to go.  Decide on a departure port and the duration of the cruise line.  Compare prices by season and confer with your group.  Once you have these decisions settled, shop for a cruiseline that is offering a cruise that meets your group's travel needs and desires.

    Before deciding on a cruise line, visit the group sales link on each line's Website.  You will usually have to make a phone call, at which time you will be given a sales pitch (which will include jargen that is familiar only to travel agents).  Ask lots of questions because YOU will actually be treated like a travel agent throughout this process and will be serving as one for the rest of your group. 

    Choose your preferred cruiseline (I highly recommend that you call at least three lines).  After checking with three lines, my group decided on Norweigan Cruise Line for three reasons:
    1. We could drive to the Port of New Orleans in a few short hours.
    2. They offered a free "person" after each 8th cabin (16 people) were booked.  What does this mean?  This means that the 17th person in the 9th cabin only had to pay for his/her cruise (minus taxes, port fees, and gratuities).  The "free" person's fare was equal to the fare in the majority of the cabin types booked.  Huh?  In other words, if the majority of the cabins booked were inside cabins, then the "free" passage was also for an inside cabin.
    3. NCL is the least expensive cruiseline for families.  They offer reduced fares for additional occupants after the first two per cabin.  For example, each parent pays full fare, but two additional kids only pay $329.00 each.  Anyway you slice it, that is the best deal out there and that rate is the same for ANY cabin type that you book - including the suites!
    What next?  After you have made a decision about a cruise line, call the company and set up the group.  You will give your group a name and will be assigned a group number that you will use as a reference from this point forward.  You will also be assigned a group cruise consultant who will assist you from this point forward.  After the group is established, collect a "mini deposit" from each family who wants to join the group.  This will allow the company to "hold" cabins in the area that you desire (close in proximity to one another or per your specifications).  NCL requested $50.00 to hold each cabin.  I collected $50.00 from each family that wanted to join our group and it was deposited into the group's savings account.  I collected information on each person in each cabin which included their first and last legal names, birthdates, and preferred cabin types.  I then emailed the list to my assigned cruise consultant.  I then emailed everyone in my group with the instructions for booking that were provided by my cruise consultant.  Individual families in the group called in and finalized their reservation.  The $50.00 that they paid upfront to "hold" their cabin was applied to their accounts.

    Note: NCL will only hold the cabins for 30 days.  Afterwards, the $50.00 "hold" deposits are non-refundable and lost and the cabins are opened up for other passengers.  I will say that NCL worked with us on this.  We had people who changed their minds and although they lost their $50.00, NCL was willing to apply it to other families who joined the group later. 

    After each cabin reservation, you will receive a copy of the booking for your reference (because you are serving as the travel agent).  You will also receive period spreadsheets with all details for the group that you will need to look over and verify from time to time.

    Once your departure date grows close (around 90 days prior), someone from the ship will contact you and ask how you would like your "free" person applied.  In our case, we requested that the money be evenly distributed among all the cabins in the form of a cruise credit and NCL was happy to do so.  We ended up getting around $65.00 in cruise credit for each cabin, which was pretty good.  Please keep in mind that there are no discount for booking group cruises, this is the major incentive.

    One other advantage of booking a group cruise is that you earn "amenity points" that can be used in a number of ways.  Someone from group sales will email you and ask you to make a choice for your group.  If you have enough cabins in your group, then this could mean discounted or free excursions, bottles of wine, chocolate-dipped strawberries, or a private cocktail party (we took the cocktail party!).  You and your group can decide based on the number of points that you earned.

    This was a learning experience for me and I am not sure if I will do it again.  It was a lot of work and then the organizer feels responsible for everyone else's happiness.

    We depart for our cruise in 6 days.  Wish me luck.  We have 60 plus travelers and 21 cabins.  I did all the leg work, but they are going to have to pull their own happy wagons once we get to NOLA :)  It WILL be fun and worth it, I'm sure!