Play your way to foreign language learning with puzzles and games

Even the most dedicated autodidact has an off day when she doesn’t feel like cracking a book or applying herself to her chosen course of study. These are days for a more creative approach. Consider it stealth education; it’s the scholarly equivalent of hiding puréed vegetables in the kids’ pasta sauce.

Equate it those school days when your teacher played a film instead of giving a lecture. You probably enjoyed the change of pace as much as he did.

To this day, when I hear the word superlative, my mind snaps right to The Superlative Horse. My class watched this movie in elementary school. I think it was based upon this book. I can’t recall the storyline, or whether we even read the book, but my memory clings fast to this particular title. I’ve relished the artful deployment of the vocabulary word ever since!

On a grumpy day—maybe due to too little sleep, aching joints, or a general case of the blahs—I could skip my scheduled 30 minutes of language practice. Sometimes, to be honest, I do. But, like most good habits, the trick is commitment, and the solution to malaise can be a lightening of the load without a free pass.

I’ve already posted about adding foreign language pop songs to my study routine. Typically, I read along with the lyrics while I listen to the songs. I sing along, too.

Is it a hardcore intellectual workout? No!

Is this a task I can fit into the busiest day, or prod myself into undertaking at my laziest? Yes!

Along similar lines, consider adding puzzles and games to your own self-guided study routine. It matters less what kind of material you introduce and more that you are tempted by the format.

I’m a fan of jigsaw puzzles. The trick is to find one that has legible text in your target language. A world map puzzle was a good choice to meet this condition, and also provided an introduction to vocabulary (country names) I might otherwise not see in German.

German world puzzle deutsch

I found this Schmidt Spiele jigsaw puzzle for $10 on Amazon

It helps that, culturally speaking, Germany is a country known for high quality games and puzzles. They are exported worldwide, and brands like Ravensburger are readily available in many countries and languages, including English for the US market.

The trickiest part, when choosing games, is finding one that uses enough of the target language to be a challenge, but not so much that there’s no fun in the playing. The difficulty of picking a suitable game increases exponentially when you introduce more players with differing levels of language acquisition.

For example, German Scrabble requires significantly more language skill than German Monopoly. In the former, you’re forced to dredge up and correctly spell words from memory. Allowing free access to a target language dictionary can bring the level of difficulty back to manageable for beginners.

As a parent educating my child at home, I go out of my way to provide varied learning resources for my son. Enjoyable activities that complement or duplicate subject matter increase the odds that knowledge will be retained. It seems obvious that, by reinforcing a subject through different media, the learning will also be deeper as we experience it through more of our senses and engage different parts of the brain.

Why not provide myself with the same advantages?

It’s easy for geographically isolated Americans to forget that there’s more to learning a foreign language than books and instructional CDs, videos and lessons. The reality of language acquisition is that it must reflect multiplicities of experience to be meaningful.

What else is our language ability for, if not for use as a tool in living a full life?

Have you used any less-conventional tools for learning a language? Please share in the comments.

Mother’s Day is the gift: one perspective to consider when shopping for Mom

Speaking for myself, and my kids have heard some of this before…

I don’t need a Hallmark card on Mother’s Day.

I don’t need a mug that says “Mother.” I don’t need any thing at all. You don’t even have to buy me flowers.Mother's Day flowers

On Mother’s Day, I’d like your time, your love, and your cheerful participation.

I’d like to sleep in

I’d like to sleep in, on Mother’s Day, until I wake up with a yawn and a smile and no alarm clock—digital or demanding human—in sight.

Then, when you’ve heard sounds of my stirring, I’d like my two favorite kids in the history of the universe to come joyfully in and jump in my bed with hugs and kisses like I got when you were toddlers and I was the center of your world.

No one’s too old to kiss his mom on Mother’s Day.

I’d like someone else to cook & clean

I’d like someone else to cook breakfast, but I don’t care if its fancy. I want the dirty dishes to disappear without my saying a word. In fact, I’d like to find the kitchen clean at the end of the day, even especially if I never set foot in the room.breakfast skillet

A running dishwasher without prompting is like a love song to me on Mother’s Day.

I’d like to spend time with you

On Mother’s Day, I propose we build a jigsaw puzzle with nary an eye roll and no suggestion that a video game would be more fun. I like playing Ages of Empires with you, or The Sims, but I enjoy building things more.

If you bought me a gift over my protestations, I hope its a 1000+ piece puzzle with an image you like, too. Or maybe a Lego City set—one of the modular town buildings that I love. We could spend a whole day assembling and playing with that.

If there’s a gift, I hope you bought it with the intention that we would enjoy it together.

Show me your best self

Order takeout or pizza for dinner, if you don’t want to cook again. I don’t mind; I just like to be fed.

Show me your consideration by remembering what I like, or use that excellent brain to observe that I’ve marked up all the menus with everyone’s usual order. That’s how I make sure your favorite dish is never forgotten.pizza

If you looked, you’d find my cookbooks full of similar notes, too. Who likes what? How must I challenge Betty Crocker so you like a recipe better? Have you ever noticed that this is just another little way that I take care of you every day?

Serve the food on plates, not from the boxes. Remember to put napkins on the table without being reminded that we’re civilized. Ask me if I’d like a glass of water instead of asking me to get one for you. Bring silverware for everyone, even your brother.

Use your very best, cruise ship manners.

Tell me, show me, acknowledge me

Tell me you love me. Show me you love me. Today is the day to acknowledge my boundless love for you.

That’s what I’d like for Mother’s Day.Mom hug

How will you celebrate Mom on Sunday, May 14?

Suburban food storage: no apocalypse required to stock your own stores

Shall we talk about what’s in my basement?

Basement food storageNo, it doesn’t compare with an episode of Criminal Minds, but the supply of food in my basement could feed my family for a couple of months. To someone who hasn’t seriously considered putting food aside for a rainy day, that can be pretty shocking.

You don’t have to be religious or paranoid to store food

  • 2012: “Superstorm” Sandy affects 24 states, including the whole eastern seaboard.
  • 2005: Hurricane Katrina and the levee and floodwall failures in New Orleans.
  • 2001: 9-11
  • 1994: Northridge earthquake in California’s San Fernando Valley
  • Flu pandemics several times every century

Disasters sometimes come with a little warning (hurricanes, winter storms) but they sometimes strike out of the blue (earthquakes, terrorism.) You can’t plan for every individual disaster. Storing food is the only solution I know of to provide insurance against hunger for your family should the unexpected occurs.

It’s true that you may never confront one of those sudden, one-off emergencies. I sincerely hope that you never do!

Dried food

Ever had to run to the store or switch recipes in the hour before dinner because you were out of one key ingredient? Dehydrated and freeze-dried veggies work great in many recipes.

But what about more predictable events? Anyone who lives in a region prone to intense weather is familiar with the crowds and long lines at every store when a major storm is forecast. Avoiding those lines is a good enough reason for me to store food, because I value my time very highly.

I never have an immediate need to go to the grocery store to feed my family.

No hyperbole this time. With total sincerity, I can state that, no matter what happens in the outside world, I can confidently meet my family’s immediate needs with what I have stored at home.

Can you say the same?

Milk

Milk doesn’t have to say, “Moo.” Every one of these is good for baking.

Keeping staples like dried eggs and powdered milk on hand—plus a few simple recipes that make them palatable!—makes us self-sufficient for the duration of a major storm and its aftermath.

I don’t bake traditional yeast bread completely by hand anymore (kneading + arthritis = misery), but I have a bread machine and several tasty quick bread recipes that can see my family through a crisis.

Eggs, bread, milk, bottled water, batteries

Eggs, bread, milk—these are the staples for which most people wait in long lines the evening before a storm. When a hurricane is due, add plywood and batteries to the list, but you could—perhaps should—plan ahead for those, too.

batteries

Eneloop batteries are the best; I buy them at Costco. Amazon Basics are another great option for rechargeables.

Your “probable” emergency needs will vary based upon your location, but your family needs to eat no matter where you live. Storing a three day supply of fresh water and a little extra food could mean the difference between comfort and crisis during an “extreme event.”

Our own government recommends basics actions for preparedness to every family. You’ll notice that food and water are the first items on the CDC list. Of course, they also have a page about the zombie apocalypse, but I’m pretty sure that one is tongue in cheek.

I’m going to go with the CDC on this question; whatever gets you thinking about taking care of your family is a good prompt to action. Hurricanes, snow storms, earthquakes, or zombies: are you prepared for an emergency that disrupts the food supply?

I love Lego, and I built a platform on an IKEA base to host a city where I can play with my growing kids

I love Lego

True confession time: I love Lego.

I don’t just mean love in that generic, parental, “I love to buy Lego for my kids so they will grow up to be engineers and support me in my old age” way. No, I love Lego in an “I won’t share my bricks with my kids” way.

Lego is one medium with which I still know how to play.

I had a few bricks as a child, but I really started collecting Lego sets when I  was a young professional. Living alone and working long hours as a software quality engineer, I sought a relaxing pastime to keep myself off the computer for a few hours a day. It started when I discovered ancient Egyptian themed Lego sets during a spontaneous trip to Toys “R” Us one evening after work…

I won’t share my Lego with my kids

I hoard my Lego bricks, and I store them separately from the children’s toys. They don’t sort their bricks properly the way I prefer. Also, I like to keep the parts for my favorite sets together, though I don’t keep the boxes or treat them as collectibles. I just enjoy the option of re-building without too much digging for specific pieces.

Family Lego city display MOC in progress

My modern office building MOC in progress. I need over $100 worth of grey and clear bricks to turn my vision into a reality, so it’s on hold. A construction site is a fun spot for creative play in Bricklyn

My spoiled little darlings own enough Lego to stock a store, but I could fill a large Rubbermaid tub with my own bricks. Actually, maybe two tubs. And, realistically, I wouldn’t desecrate my greatest builds by stuffing them unceremoniously into a bin.

I guess I’m a little spoiled, too.

I love model cities

I’m geeky enough to admire model train sets. I grew up thinking how cool it would be to build such a thing in my future home. I’d love to have a toy train running from room to room on a suspended track like I saw once in a small town Maine restaurant.

I love Lego builds on a grand scale, too. I not-so-secretly identify, just a little, with the dad (spoiler alert: a.k.a., Lord Business) in The Lego Movie. I would never glue my bricks together, but I would expect a cohesive vision to be respected by my family as a labor of love, at least for a while.

family-lego-city-display-front-e1493311369289.jpg

“Bricklyn” main street; battle carnage courtesy of DS2

I absolutely adore the modular Lego City Creator sets. They have an early 20th century downtown vibe that’s aesthetically pleasing to these adult eyes. I own a few now. I enjoyed building them, and I really wanted to display them instead of putting them away.

I’ve found that kids are drawn to the finished buildings in an adult space. They just cry out to be played with, but I didn’t want to be constantly policing children or tempting them with untouchable objects on a coffee table. That’s just mean.

Here’s how I found a way to keep my sets intact, for my own enjoyment, while also creating a fun, inter-generational play space for my family and friends.

I built an “open source” Lego “platform” for family sharing

We set up a fairly large (48″ x 66″), counter height surface on the library side of our great room. I assembled four IKEA kitchen cabinets for a base, then used a sheet of plywood for a level platform. It isn’t beautiful, but it is tolerable in a space that also functions as our “formal” living room. Obviously, our lifestyle isn’t really very formal!

IKEA Lego display platform cabinets

I have the veneer to finish the ends of the cabinets to match, but that’s also waiting for “someday.” I’d rather play with my Lego sets than finish my home improvement projects…

Someday, I’ll get a proper counter top to replace the plywood we edged with packing tape to reduce splinters. Most of the surface is covered with base plates anyway, or will be when we’ve added a few more buildings. A simple edge treatment would improve the looks of this project more than anything else.

The IKEA cabinets below “Bricklyn”, as DS2 dubbed our little town, created storage space for all of our board games. Two cabinets each at 24″ x 30″ and 24″ x 36″ hold a lot of family clutter. I opted to use drawers on one side, and cupboards with doors on the other. The drawers are easier to keep organized, but much harder to assemble if you’re an IKEA novice.

To add stability and prevent dangerous tipping over of the heavy cabinets, we fastened the same-width units back-to-back. We also keep heavy objects on the lower shelves and in the bottom drawers so the unit isn’t top heavy. The plywood top extends across multiple cabinets to further cement the units together. Even with every drawer open on the back side, the unit doesn’t budge.

Three rules keep the peace during playtime

There are just three rules for our play table, and even visiting children have been willing to abide by them.

  1. Each family member “owns” some of the baseplate “lots” that cover the table; we each get to define our part of the neighborhood. We can build anything that fits the confines of our plate. Roads are public and may be used by everyone.
  2. Whoever built a structure or vehicle controls the rights to modify that structure or vehicle.
  3. Anyone may move vehicles and minifigs within the cityscape without fear of reprisal, but no one may remove vehicles or minifigs from the display unless s/he put them there.

It helps that my kids are old and mature enough to have some respect for private property. Each has a smaller table in his room set aside for personal building that is sacrosanct. Bringing something to Bricklyn is an agreement to share.

It also helps that the cabinets keep Bricklyn about 40 inches off the ground; our rare infant or toddler visitor can’t reach what s/he shouldn’t take! We keep a step stool handy for our small friends (usually around kindergarten age) to see the display and join in the play. So far, our youngest participants have shown a sort of reverential respect for what we’ve built, and they’ve played by the rules.

Mother’s Day is coming up, which is one of those holidays when I just might be lucky enough to receive a new Lego City building. If I do, I’ll build it in Bricklyn.

Beastie massage ball as portable preventative, and sometimes cure, for tension headaches and associated maladies

The “Beastie” massage ball is one of those little gadgets you don’t know how much you need until you try one… and then try living without it! If you find deep pressure massage of very specific points eases your pain or releases stress, this tool might work just as well for you.beastie1

Essentially, the Beastie is a hard rubber, star shaped ball with rounded points. It comes on its own little stand so it won’t readily roll out of position if you use it on the floor. It rolls much less than the common lacrosse ball (about $5) often used for self-massage methods. As a mom in a house with boys, I find the “not a ball” feature alone worth the higher price ($25) of a Beastie—no one picks this up and wanders off tossing it from hand to hand, or tries to start a game of catch inside the house.

The stand has four screw holes, so you could attach it to your wall for use massaging the upper back. I’m very satisfied with just placing the Beastie against the wall and holding it up with my weight, so don’t worry that you’ll need to put holes in your walls. I’ve never noticed it marring any wall, painted or wallpapered, as it rolls.

I used to just apply hard pressure with my fingertips when I felt a headache coming on. This only sometimes proved effective. The arthritis in my fingers now means I simply can’t press hard enough, or hold pressure long enough, for relief without a tool. The jaw, the base of the skull where it meets the neck, the fat pad of my palm—all of these spots and more hold tension that benefits from deep, prolonged pressure.

My worst spot, right under what my husband calls the “chicken wing,” the spot on my back where my arm merges with my shoulder—only a willing friend or professional massage therapist could effectively reach before I found the Beastie ball. This area, so often aggravated by long days at the computer (arms forward) and driving a car (arms forward), was also the weak spot where I developed a herniated disc many years ago, interrupting my career and causing me months of excruciating pain. That experience played a large role in encouraging me to learn simple self-care techniques, like self massage, to help avoid developing any more problems related to our modern “sitting disease.”

I’ve used a few other “trigger point” self massage tools, and I’ve gotten useful information about the technique from a few specific sources. The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook, for example, is really informative and thorough, but I would suggest trying self massage with a Beastie (or a lacrosse ball!) for a while to see if the technique helps you before investing more money or time in this much theory. It also isn’t the first book I’d recommend on the topic.

I can’t say enough about the Trigger Point Performance instructional booklet ($25) that got me started on this journey. My only complaint about their products is price. Their version of the simple lacrosse ball roller is $20, but, unlike the Beastie’s “fingers” that really dig deep, I don’t see any improvement in functionality with the TP Massage Ball.

I don’t regret paying for my “Trigger Point Performance Ultimate 6 Total Body Self Myofascial Release and Deep Tissue Massage Kit” (similar to this current set for $80), but I wouldn’t replace every item if my originals were lost or wore out. I would replace the booklet and do the exercises with a standard foam roller, a yoga block, and my Beastie ball.Trigger Point2

I’ve got a RumbleRoller ORIGINAL (blue) in the Compact (13 inch) size. I tend to work on one side of the body at a time, and I’m also just a medium sized woman, so the ease of storing the shorter roller made this the best option for me. I use this on the carpeted floor of the room where I exercise, but it’s too bulky to take out all the time. It’s not attractive enough to leave out in my family room. If I feel a headache coming on in the middle of the day, I’m at my desk or in the car, and the RumbleRoller won’t be where I need it. It also requires a wide open space to roll on it for best effect.

The little Beastie is about the size of a baseball on a display stand. I keep it on a shelf near the TV, one room away from my desk in our workroom. If I’m driving around a lot, I throw the Beastie ball, minus the stand, in my tote bag along with my water and snacks. It’s completely, conveniently portable.

Trigger Point1I can use the Beastie with just hand pressure any time, or against the leather upholstery in my car’s seat or the padded surface of the sofa for light pressure. I can usually find an empty stretch of wall in any room if I want to get deeper pressure by leaning against it for my upper body; sometimes I use it on the floor where the full force of gravity makes the pressure even stronger. It’s easy to keep the Beastie handy, so I use it a lot, and that makes my life less painful.

Headaches were a frequent fact of life in my teens and young adulthood. I was a computer geek from way back, and the old CRT monitors were barely tolerable for  constant use. Both reading (head bent over book) and computer usage (CRT flicker, squinting, bad ergonomics)—activities that consumed most of my waking hours—led to poor posture and muscle tension. Fluorescent tube lighting (flicker again!) in classrooms and offices just added to my woes. My headaches are even triggered by the “stripes” of light that come in through Venetian window blinds.

Unfortunately for me, tension headaches often segue into migraines if I don’t immediately stop the trigger—usually manageable these days as a stay-at-home mom, but almost always impossible as a student or office employee.

I wish I’d had a Beastie years ago. It would have saved me from a lot of pain without requiring a total lifestyle revision. Perhaps it could do the same for you?

My husband buys me flowers, even when he doesn’t: a reflection on generosity within a marriage

Spring struggled to arrive in New England this year. We’d had only about half the usual inches of snowfall until mid-February, then caught up over a matter of days and had snow on the ground into April. The late burst of wintry weather left me yearning for signs of spring late in a gloomy March.

On my way into Trader Joe’s to do the grocery shopping, I paused by the cheerful floral display and gave in to temptation. I bought a small bouquet. Arranging them in a vase at home, I caught the thought flitting through my mind:

“I wish DH had bought these flowers for me.”

And then I stopped, took stock, and realized that he had.

My husband makes this kind of little effort all the time. He’s not a born romantic, but a self-made one. He knows that romantic flourishes make me feel loved, so he adds them to his agenda and perhaps ticks them off a to do list. But he does them. He makes the gestures. He prioritizes my happiness. He shows his love for me in this and other ways all the time.

I have friends who sigh that their husbands consider cut flowers a waste of money; they would complain if they came home and saw these sunflowers on the table. My husband says, “Ah, good, here’s something to make you happy, and I didn’t even have to stop by a store.”

So when my husband made his way home that evening, the first thing I said to him was:

“Thank you for the flowers!”

His face read froze into half-pleased puzzlement. I’m guessing his thoughts were something like, “Did I do something I’ve forgotten?” or “Is this some kind of trick I can’t yet figure out?”

He works too hard and he comes home tired, but more often than not his welcome is a list of complaints, demands, and urgent declarations. I’m as guilty of this as the kids are. The boys want their dad’s approval; I want an adult ear and the support of my partner. We all clamor for his attention because his time at home is too scarce and so precious.

“I bought myself flowers,” I explained to him, “and then I realized that they’re from you. I know that you would have bought me flowers if you’d been at the store. I know that you would buy me flowers every day if you could. You make it so obvious that you love me, I couldn’t miss it if I tried. So you bought me these flowers. Thank you.”

Generous love means meeting the needs of your partner in the way your partner requires. I ask for occasional flowers, a hand with the dishes, validation for my work in the home; he wants to be fed something he likes, to be appreciated for his hard work, to be given some time and space to unfurl his public stresses before fully engaging with the family in the evening.

This was my turn to be generous. Here was a loving gesture from me that DH could happily receive. His efforts are appreciated. His gestures have been noticed. His love has been accepted, and reciprocated.

Short, bright tea-time in my room

My house has enough eccentricities to be worthy of a post in and of itself. The quirk prompting my musings today is the presence of not one, not two, but three built-in wet bars in our home. Presumably, the architect feared for the poor soul who had to climb even one flight of steps before having a mixed drink over ice. There is a bar on each of our three levels, each complete with a built-in fridge, bar sink, pull out glassware shelves, and a mirrored backsplash.

One of the wet bars is in my bedroom. Heaven forbid a homeowner be forced to make such a portentous choice: go downstairs to the second floor bar (or, horrors!, the kitchen), or go to bed sober.

I enjoy my red wine, but I’m not otherwise a big drinker. There isn’t much call for a wet bar anywhere in my social life, but especially in the bedroom. DH doesn’t drink, and I don’t often entertain in my boudoir.

I toyed with the idea of buying a beautiful set of bar ware for display, but that’s not really my style. I love the idea of a glamorous, sparkling setup, but then I’d have to dust it. More likely, I would fail to dust it, thus living with another constant reminder of my lackluster housekeeping and the resultant allergens. No, even antique cut crystal decanters weren’t the answer to my superfluous home “feature.”

Instead, I outfitted my bedroom wet bar as a tea station. A coffee setup would work equally well, but that doesn’t suit my routine. I really love my coffee, but I don’t drink it first thing in the morning. Coffee is a fortifying, sit down treat with second breakfast or elevenses. I don’t have time to enjoy that until both of my children are occupied with their academic work, one at home and one at school.

Ideally, before the three-ring circus day’s schedule begins, I like to have a mug of strong black tea to jumpstart my brain. Yorkshire Gold, please!

My typical weekday starts with waking up a little boy, getting him (to get himself) ready, then shuttling him off to school. I’m not one of those living-on-air types who won’t eat before noon. I need at at least a bite of something before operating heavy equipment (the minivan my children dubbed Pookie) but my first breakfast is often just a slice of toast or a piece of fruit on the run.

Morning stiffness is one of the characteristic symptoms of the autoimmune disease that I live with. With medication, this is much reduced, but I wake up something like the discovery of the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz. While my kids sleep on, I creak my way out of bed, shuffle into the next room to commence my morning ablutions, then spend ten minutes or so reading, gently stretching, and just generally allowing my body to warm up to movement again.

Tin Man

Just like me with my morning tea, except I pour it down my gullet instead of applying it to my knee. Usually. <dribble>

Bringing a counter top water purifier and an electric kettle into my bedroom gave me the means to have my first cup of tea during these quiet minutes at the start of my day.

Our local water doesn’t flow from the tap with a pure, clean taste, so I filter what I consume; my electric WaterLogic purifier uses a removable water carafe instead of requiring new plumbing, and it was a good fit for my narrow space. An electric kettle works just like the stove top version, but it’s plugged into an electric socket to provide heat to boil the water.

I use two trays to keep the space organized. A stainless steel surgical instrument tray came in precisely the right dimensions to fit the space to the right of the bar sink while accommodating both electric devices. If I miss the mark while refilling the kettle with stiff fingers, the drips don’t mar the wooden counter. (Who bothers with a mirrored backsplash while neglecting to install a water-resistant counter top around a sink? Drunken architects, apparently.)

Tea Station right

I chose the black T-fal BF6138 electric kettle because it was small in size and it does NOT ding when the water boils. This makes a lot more sense in a shared bedroom than it would in a kitchen.

A more decorative, handled wooden tray sits on the other side of the sink. It holds mugs, teapots, and anything else I might want to carry en masse to the kitchen for mechanical dish washing. If I had designed my own tea station from the ground up, I’d have a mini dishwasher installed beneath the counter instead of the refrigerator. I don’t need milk for my tea, and I really don’t enjoy hand-washing, not even a few lightly soiled mugs.

I’d always appreciated similar setups in hotel rooms, but never thought to try fitting such a thing into our cramped upstairs floor of our previous, much smaller home. The electric kettle and having what you need laid out nearby is all that’s really necessary, though. Bonus points if you have a convenient sink, but carrying water in a carafe will suffice with a little forethought.

If I move house again (God forbid!), I think I will forevermore duplicate this set up in a corner of my room. A small table or cart placed near an electric socket and the habit of replacing the consumable tea things the night before is all that it would take to keep enjoying my favorite ritual. It’s only a little effort, and a tiny space.

Sometimes, at the end of a long day, imagining my morning cup of tea is the soothing balm that defeats my pestiferous insomnia. I look forward to those quiet few minutes. I savor them.  The morning light, the soothing warmth of the mug in sore hands, the fragrant steam rising up to my face… Carving out a little space is a small price for a great luxury to enjoy every single day.

Have you set aside space in your home for your own little sanctuary? What’s your most nurturing ritual?

Books by my bedside 2017/04/23

Here’s what I’m reading this week.

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least have a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

Fiction

The Marvelous Misadventures of Ingrid Winter by J.S. Drangsholt
Mockingbird by Walter Tevis
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Non-Fiction

Economics, history & politics

The crisis of the middle-class constitution : why economic inequality threatens our republic by Sitaraman, Ganesh

The true believer : thoughts on the nature of mass movements by Hoffer, Eric

The white man’s burden : why the West’s efforts to aid the rest have done so much ill and so little good by Easterly, William

Language

Am I small? Bin ich klein? (Picture Book English-German Bilingual Edition) by Philipp Winterberg

German in 32 lessons by Adrienne

The little German notebook : a breakthrough in early speaking by Long, Charles Merlin

Starting out in German by Living Language (audio CD)

Math & technology

Gödel, Escher, Bach : an eternal golden braid by Hofstadter, Douglas R.

Biography & memoir

Tasting the sky : a Palestinian childhood by Barakat, Ibtisam

My doctor won’t take my insurance, and I’m thrilled

I liked my doctor, but I never got to see him

I’ve had the same primary care physician—the health care professional we used to simply call “my doctor”—for about a decade. I’ve always liked him, both professionally and as a human being.

A few years ago, I started looking around for a new doctor. I didn’t like my physician any less, but I hadn’t seen him face-to-face in years. Instead, every time I made an appointment, I saw a different nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant. I liked some of them; others, I didn’t spend enough time with to form an opinion. Even when I made an appointment for a physical eighteen (18!) months in advance, I could only see random members of my chosen doctor’s group practice staff.

The final straw came when that physical with the nurse practitioner that I’d scheduled one and a half years ahead was canceled one week before it was due to happen. My kids were younger then, and I’m their primary caregiver. It’s a role I take seriously. Parenting is my job, so I organize my life in order to do that job well.

I had scheduled all of my own “routine maintenance” appointments for the same summer week: eye doctor, physical, well woman exam, teeth cleaning. If I had oil, that’s the week I would’ve changed it. I enrolled the children in summer day camp so all my “business hours” were free for one week. I wanted to take care of my health needs without distraction or discomfort from discussing sensitive topics in front of little ears.

Modern group medical practice didn’t prioritize patient needs

The disinterested office staffer who called and blithely informed me that I must reschedule my physical for a date a few weeks later—after the school year had started, after my full slate of mommy responsibilities had resumed, at a time that absolutely did not work for me—clearly did not understand my frustration with her message. She certainly had no power to fix my problem, and she didn’t seem to care. That’s when I resigned myself to finding another health care provider.

Considering the current shortage of plain old family doctors in the United States, none of this is surprising. Having “good” health insurance seems like an oxymoron. If I can’t see a doctor, how is my health “insured”?

I did some research on the Internet. I’d read an article about doctors foregoing insurance to simplify their finances by accepting only cash payments, and I looked for one of those. None appeared to be practicing in my physician rich corner of New England, though specialists who can take advantage of my “good insurance” abound.

There were no good alternatives for straightforward routine care

I had reached the uncomfortable position of interviewing “concierge doctors” by late 2013 as I tried to find a solution I’d be happy with. I’m okay with the idea that some people want to pay large sums to have a doctor available at their convenience, but my needs seemed much simpler and very… common.

I’m willing to make an appointment. I’m willing to wait my turn. I don’t care if the office is luxurious, or exclusive, or much more than conveniently located and hygienic. I just wanted to see my doctor when I had a scheduled appointment, and have at least a chance of seeing him or her when I had an urgent need. I wanted my doctor to be familiar with me and my health history.

I didn’t think I was asking for the moon, but alternatives were lacking.

After six weeks of frustration and having selected the concierge doctor I liked best after interviewing the few available candidates in my price range, I happened to Google my old doc’s name one more time. You see, when I’d called his old practice to inform them I wouldn’t be showing up to see the nurse practitioner I barely knew at the inconveniently rescheduled time, they told me Dr. So-and-so had left the practice. They “couldn’t” give me a forwarding address. (Later, Dr. So-and-so himself told me that the practice was well aware of his new office, but they appeared unwilling to lose patients by sharing that information.)

My doctor was as frustrated with the system as I was.

Guess what I discovered when I Googled Dr. So-and-so? He had left his old physicians group practice because he didn’t want to practice medicine that way anymore. He was sick of being rushed through 20 appointments every day during which he couldn’t take enough time to hear out a patient. He was tired of being an insurance-appeaser when he had set out to practice medicine. He was leaving the system. He was as frustrated with it as I was.

I knew I liked Dr. So-and-so for a reason!

I’d stumbled onto an article in the local paper about my good old primary care doctor’s foray into the everything-old-is-new-again “direct primary care” provision of medicine. I could pay cash directly to my preferred doctor to receive medical care when I needed it.

Revolutionary? It strikes me as obvious. And let me add cost effective, convenient, and finally!

The simple analogy used in the direct primary care model is that it’s like routine maintenance on your car vs. getting repairs after a major accident you couldn’t predict.

You know you need oil changes and the occasional new tires for the car, so you factor that into your budget and carry on. That’s the stuff my doctor handles. I see him for an annual physical, when I’ve caught a cold, or if I sprain my ankle. I have his cell phone number; he answers it himself. I can email him or send a text message and I hear right back. He can fit me in today. He has time to talk to me until I have said everything I have to say about my problem.

Monthly payments to the doctor cost half as much as a cable bill

I pay my doctor a monthly fee that covers as much medical care as I need. It costs less per month for me than my cable bill, or my husband’s data heavy cell phone bill. That’s or, not and. If you can afford to spend $4 per day at Starbucks buying coffee, you can afford this caliber of medical care for one adult and one child at my doctor’s practice. This is a manageable bill for a middle class family.

I still have health insurance. It’s that <cough> good kind. I use it to see my specialist care providers, or when I need an expensive test like an MRI or a bone scan. My doctor can still order tests for me at the same local hospitals, and he can still submit the forms for those big ticket tests to my insurance provider, but he also tells me what the cash price would be. Thousands of dollars out of pocket? Yes, let’s do paperwork.

Cash prices for simple tests can be just a few dollars ($3)

But many simple blood tests done in the doctor’s office cost just a few dollars, so I pay the bill and skip the forms. A cholesterol test costs less than a latté when it hasn’t been marked up for the rigmarole of insurance reimbursement. It becomes fairly obvious why insurance rates are so high when you compare these prices for yourself in the context of your own care. It turns out that there’s a huge cost created by the complexity of the insurance system itself.

When you use your insurance, you’re paying for extra billing staff in every medical office, the insurance company’s offices, the army of employees at said offices, and even profits distributed to investors in those private insurance companies. You aren’t just paying for your blood test, so the cost of your lab work goes up.

I’m still insured against a catastrophe

If the big stuff hits, that’s when my health insurance will kick in, like the major bodywork you’d seek after a car crash. God forbid I ever need it, but, of course, I will use my insurance if I require expensive hospitalization or ongoing care for a major illness or injury.

The insurance company keeps sending me letters encouraging me to find a PCP and get a physical. Their closed loop system doesn’t have any way to acknowledge that I’m receiving preventative care without asking their permission or sending them bills. It’s eerily hard to get the records at my specialist’s office updated with my doctor’s details because they can’t match him to an insurance provider ID in the computer system. It’s like he doesn’t exist. I think they literally put a sticky note in my paper file in case they need to reach Dr. So-and-so.

That’s a little frightening considering the push toward electronic record keeping. Is the insurance model so entrenched that it is inconceivable for a legitimate doctor to be working outside its bounds?

Frankly, it offends my sensibilities that something as personal as health care is becoming the exclusive territory of monolithic institutions that provide no additional expertise when it comes to medicine, instead introducing financial complexity and bureaucratic overhead to what was once a straightforward relationship between medical provider and patient/recipient.

Direct primary care works well for my family

My experience with direct primary care medicine has been wholly positive. It has removed obstacles to my receiving prompt care, and it has enhanced the care I get by providing the time and access necessary for excellent communication with my physician. The closest thing I’ve got to a complaint is how hard the insurance industry red tape makes it to integrate my direct care doctor with everything else.

Direct primary care won’t solve America’s health care crisis, but it is a sound model that could go a long way toward alleviating the pain of accessing routine medical care for many average families. That seems like a good solution to one pretty big problem to me.

Do you have convenient access to your preferred doctor? Are his or her costs reasonable? Do you get enough time with him/her at every visit?

Would you consider following a doctor you like to a fee-for-service or direct primary care practice if you were given a choice?

Capsule wardrobe for Hilton Head Island, under-seat carry on size

This won’t be as pretty as the Polyvore sets you’ll see on fashion-oriented blogs. I’m not a photographer or a fashionista. In spite of this, I want to post a capsule wardrobe as I packed it in an under-seat size carry on bag for a recent (early March) family trip to Hilton Head, SC.

Amtrak luggage on cart redacted

Train carry on luggage at Savannah, GA Amtrak station. For two travelers, we had three Tom Bihn bags: an Aeronaut45 (with our train compartment friendly Rolo inside for organization), Western Flyer, and a large Shop Bag full of snacks and bottled water.

Compact capsule wardrobe saves precious vacation time

Packing lists and capsule wardrobes—which is just a fancy way of describing a simplified wardrobe that can be mixed and matched to create many combinations— help me enjoy my trips more. My stress is reduced, I don’t waste precious vacation time deciding what to wear, and I can present myself the way I prefer to be seen when I’m meeting new people.

Rarely do I see a travel wardrobe capsule that reflects the reality of someone like me. Items of clothing on my petite yet plump and short-waisted body look nothing like the stock catalog photos on Polyvore. More importantly, my priorities begin with function before moving on to the more enjoyable considerations of color and form.

Dressing appropriately while maintaining health & function

I have an autoimmune condition that involves widespread joint pain. I suffer particularly from foot problems. My wardrobe is constrained by the limiting factors of shoes that accommodate bulky rigid orthotics and clothes that don’t squeeze or pinch even when inflamed joints swell.

My symptoms flare when I’m tired. Travel, no matter how wonderful, comes with physical and sometimes mental stress. Traveling light is one way to reduce symptoms from my condition: I’m less likely to wear myself out, physically, with a lighter weight bag.

And yet! I’m a colorful person who enjoys attractive clothes. I don’t obsess over fashion, but I accessorize daily. When time is ample, I willingly spend some of it on my appearance. I rarely wear black, which I find both boring and depressing, and my neutrals are often dark red or dark plum instead of sedate grey, navy, or taupe. I express myself sartorially.

Wardrobe and sleepwear

Every stitch of clothing (minus my raincoat) for five days with 40 degree (F) temperature variations in the forecast. It was COLD when we left; STEAMY arriving in Savannah.

Wardrobe considerations—climate and events

Our trip was for four nights and five days. We flew to Savannah, stayed three nights in a Villa at Sea Pines Resort, then DS1 and I rode the train (Amtrak, overnight) back home. We left and returned to temperatures in the 40’s; it was 60-79°F in Georgia and South Carolina. Because DH was traveling for work, we needed dressy clothes suitable for socializing with professional colleagues in a resort environment.

With a rental car and apartment style accommodations, I could have easily packed everything plus the kitchen sink. Aside from enjoying the planning exercise of creating a packing list for this trip, I wanted to travel light on Amtrak. There was no baggage car on our Northeast Regional train after connecting in New York City. The train’s carry on restrictions are much more generous than found on airplanes, but handling luggage remains one of my least favorite aspects of travel.

I used my smaller travel pack for this trip, a Tom Bihn Western Flyer. Even fully packed, I can typically manage this bag myself. It’s better when I don’t bring a laptop, which I didn’t need for this quick getaway.

Packing lists — never forget a vital item

Here’s my clothing packing list, adapted from this one at LadyLightTravel.com:

Packing List for Hilton Head

Outerwear

teal raincoatFor early spring travel, outerwear choice is pretty critical. We had occasional light rain in the forecast. Even a week or two earlier, I would have gone with my purple, lightweight down coat, but water resistance is my bottom line in spring. All five pockets on this coat zip securely closed—a travel essential!

  • Teal Duluth Trading soft shell coat (thin gloves, not shown, in a pocket)
  • Purple down vest
  • Purple thin knit cap (not shown, in coat pocket)
  • Teal waterproof sneakers
  • Grey Propet Women’s Travelactiv Mary Jane (dressiest shoe I could consider)

 

Ahnu shoes sneakers

Ahnu Sugarpine shoe rainbow! Podiatrist approved, and colorful enough for me. Front row: airier mesh; Back row: waterproof styles.

I had to make sure everything I brought worked with my comfortable, supportive Ahnu Sugarpine sneakers in teal. These are my go to shoes for reducing the likelihood of crippling pain from too much walking. I opted for the waterproof pair that coordinates nicely with my raincoat and capsule color scheme of teal-magenta-grey.

Bottoms

I started my fashion choices by selecting the bottoms. As a fairly modest dresser, there are some pants I won’t wear with more revealing tops. I wanted the freedom to remove layers as necessary in case the temperature was hotter than forecast while still literally covering my bum.Bottoms1

To layer underneath on the colder, northern ends of the trip, I had pieces ranging from long johns, to silk pettipants, to pantyhose (which violate the comfort doctrine, but I do wear them as needed to add discreet warmth when dressed formally.)

I’m counting my soft, stretchy Angelrox Goddess dress as “bottoms” because it layers well and stands in for a skirt. These dresses (I also own a full-length Goddess Gown) are body conscious so I usually wear a wrap or otherwise layer on top. Tight is not my style. The Goddess dresses are so soft and so comfortable, though, I can forget to be self-conscious about the snug fit. Wearing one, I feel as glamorous as an old time movie star with the comfort of pajamas!

Tops

This is where I cut back from my usual policy of having one or two extras, just in case. The weather was forecast to be moderate enough, and I knew I could go shopping if necessary. I usually do bring more pieces than this, but I absolutely did not need additional tops to wear fresh, interesting outfits every day.

  • Grey cotton/spandex Duluth Trading No-Yank Tank (not shown)
  • White ExOfficio crinkle kimono tunic
  • Floral sheer silk poncho
  • Magenta faux twinset (sheer silk turtleneck & cotton/nylon cardigan)

Accessories

This is where the magic happens! Wow, no, not really that exciting, but… this is where a bunch of clothing pieces that I like turn into full-fledged outfits like those I wear at home when my full closet is available.

I don’t bother with makeup very often, and my hairstyle is almost as minimal as wash-comb-go, but I didn’t realize how much my accessories matter to my sense of being “fully dressed” until after our home was burglarized a few years ago. Mostly, I was grateful that we weren’t at home or hurt and that nothing more than “stuff” had been stolen, but every morning for weeks, I would turn to the shelf in my bedroom where my costume jewelry had been and feel my heart sink at the empty space dusted with police fingerprint powder.

The thieves took most of my deceased grandmother’s costume jewelry and a little velvet box full of Post-it sized love notes my husband left me every Sunday morning before his karate class during our first few years of marriage. It’s ironic that they missed our hidden safe where my few expensive pieces of “real” jewelry  were hidden, but they stole slips of paper many times more valuable to me and lots of $20 jewelry that gave me joy but probably earned them virtually no cash.

  • Pashmina in grey/magenta/teal
  • Scarf in teal/white rayon
  • Angelrox teal “sleeves” (arm warmers or fingerless gloves)
  • Earrings (silver dangles)
  • Earrings (colorful stone dangles by Shayla Lynn Jewelry)
  • Necklace (silver with moonstone by Shayla Lynn Jewelry)

Unmentionables

Here I am mentioning the unmentionable, but I have to specify these details for completeness if you’re wondering how a capsule wardrobe really packs into a case as small as the Western Flyer.

  • Floral silk caftan
  • White rayon tank/tunic for sleeping (also works as a top in hot weather)
  • 5 pair underpants
  • 2 brassieres
  • 7 pair socks (one wool, 2 thin ankle socks, 4 no show footies)

These don’t factor into the wardrobe as far as style goes, though I’ll admit to a touch of smugness that my travel caftan color coordinates in teal blue.

Underwear and socks pack so small, I do usually bring enough to avoid hand-washing because I don’t enjoy it. I could get by with two pairs of each by sink washing every night, but I’ve never felt the weight loss was worth the time spent from my vacation day.

Remember that the outfit you wear on travel day doesn’t go into the carry on. Here’s what I wore onto the plane along with my water resistant teal jacket.travel outfit

Everything else

This is where I confess to everything else I stuff into my carry on bag… except there isn’t very much. First of all, my full confession includes the fact that I prefer to carry my everyday purse (a Tom Bihn medium Cafe Bag) aboard as a personal item. I don’t have to cram all my daily distractors into my Western Flyer!

I have a Tom Bihn Packing Cube Shoulder Bag that is always packed with my carry on comfort kit. This is where my inflatable neck pillow, silk sleep sack (we call it the sleestak, a la “Land of the Lost”), ear plugs, eye mask, and lip balm live. During a flight, it is big enough to temporarily house my Kindle or iPad, too, if it is easier to reach than my purse.

Aside from the Packing Cube Shoulder Bag, my Tom Bihn 3D Clear Organizer Cube 3-1-1 toiletry kit, and my electric toothbrush, I stash a water bottle in the front pocket of my Western Flyer, and I always carry at least a small personal PackTowl with the water. I’ve read my Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy! Also, my little guy is prone to motion sickness. And playground swings are often wet. A towel always comes in handy for moms as well as hitchhikers.

Putting it all together

When you’ve packed it all, the Western Flyer looks like this.

It zips closed without a fight. The Western Flyer isn’t over packed, and the bag weighs in at 9 lbs (just over 4 kg.)