Posted in Blog

Bringing Home the Science: Raising Butterflies

The butterfly lifecycle enters the curriculum in second grade in our state, so it seemed like the perfect year to raise butterflies. Just like the kids, I’ve never seen the process in action before. I’ve enjoyed hearing everything my second grader has learned about butterflies as the cycle progresses. It’s been an exciting few weeks around here!

Thankfully, there’s not much to raising them.

I picked up a butterfly habitat, which is essentially a collapsable laundry basket with six sides and a zipper, and then – of course – the caterpillars. There are tons of options for habitats and caterpillars just on Amazon. Mr. Eight Year Old was thrilled that we ordered five caterpillars but seven arrived.

Thankfully, our caterpillars came in a contained habitat with food. We could watch them grow and then form a chrysalis. Once every caterpillar had its on chrysalis, my husband (who has the steadiest hand) moved them into the butterfly habitat. I placed a towel at the bottom of the habitat after reading that it will cushion the accidental fall of a chrysalis and increase the chance that the butterfly survives. It took about 7-10 days, but then our butterflies started to emerge.

We were lucky that all of our butterflies survived, though one does have a broken wing. They have their own food source (sugar water) in the habitat, but we gave them some orange slices as well.

I read the recommendation that caterpillars be purchased after the outdoor temperature reaches 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The butterflies can be released if the temperatures tend to remain over 50 degrees, so we ordered our caterpillars a bit early in the season as our nights can dip below 50. Luckily, butterflies can live their 2-4 week lifespan in the habitat. I’ll be watching the 10-day weather forecast this weekend to see when ours can be released.

So, overall, this has been a fun experience for the whole family. I definitely recommend it for those interested.

Posted in Blog

Friday Fav: Paper Planners

I started 2021 with a paper planner, which is surprisingly something new for me. In the past, I typically kept my plans all digital with an occasional paper to-do list on the side. I’ve loved having a paper planner to map out my days and keep my lists all in one place.

Boy, are there tons of planners out there to explore and try out! I had no idea. I had to create a list of requirements to narrow down my choices.

I wanted daily and weekly pages with room to take notes. I didn’t want a calendar-focused planner because I have digital calendars. I wanted space to keep my projects and to-dos organized.

So, I started the year with a Panda Planner. I really enjoyed this book. Given the number of daily pages in it, each book is filled within 3 months. This was a great choice if you’re working on gratitude, trying to bring deep work or focus into your life, or reset your personal priorities. There are multiple spaces to answer printed reflective and planning-based questions on the daily and weekly pages. I used these at first, but I found myself getting repetitive. I’m in a good space at work being balanced and focused on what’s important. I didn’t feel like I needed those question sections.

I eventually just focused on the schedule, tasks, and notes section on the daily pages. I like having a daily page where I can block large chunks of time for deep work and list what I must get done for the day.

Image from Amazon’s website

After I filled the Panda Planner, I picked up a Wyze Planner. They are similar. The Wyze Planner has less reflective questions and, therefore, room for more daily pages. It should last me 6 months – double the time of the Panda Planner.

Image from Amazon

I still don’t really use the monthly pages, but I’m all over the weekly and daily pages.

On the weekly pages, I use the free space to list every to-do item I have for every work project. It’s my master list of tasks with due days next to each activity. If I take on a new task or assignment, it goes on the list. My must-dos for the week are listed in the weekly section call Plan Upcoming Week.

The daily pages are more distilled than the Panda Planner. Here we only have the sections I care about most: my top priority, my schedule, today’s to-dos, and a notes section (where I document how many hours I need to bill to each project).

I’ve been in the Wyze planner for a couple of weeks now, and I’ve really liked it. There are sections up front for goal setting that I need to leverage more. You can even track habits too. I tried to adopt that practice, but I’m just terrible at it. I don’t care enough to track.

That’s all for now. Happy Friday!

Posted in Blog

Keeping Boundaries Around My Part-Time Work Schedule

I’ve been asked recently if working part time has worked out. Am I working full-time hours but only getting paid for part-time work?

Thankfully, I can honestly report no. I work 30 hours a week and am compensated for 30 hours of work a week. I feel lucky being in this situation given the nature of my job. It helps that my work can be completed anywhere I have a computer and (typically) at any hour of the day. Unlike, say, working retail when you need to be available in person at given hours uninterrupted.

However, in the consulting world in particular, full-time work isn’t always viewed as capped at 40 hours a week. Before I switched to a part-time schedule, I’d often work over 40 hours because I had the time available in my life. There’s always more work that could be done.

I made the switch to part-time work once my children where born. My maternity leave drew the line in the sand between when I was full time to my new part-time status. I think this helped because my work duties were all delegated while I was on leave. When I came back, I just took on fewer projects.

How have I made it work over the last eight years? It comes down to a couple of factors.

  1. My employer is awesome. They embrace flexibility for all staff on when you work, as long as you get your projects done well, on time, and with high quality. If my clients remain pleased, my management is happy. This philosophy doesn’t eliminate the multiple meetings I have per day during normal working hours though.
  2. I am upfront with all of my teammates about my schedule. Every time I start a project or work with a new group of people, I share my schedule. My Outlook calendar reflects my working hours, and I block hours that I’m not free (like 4-5pm when I’m off work after the kids get home from school). This strategy has been key since March 2020 with the kids home with us 24/7 while my husband and I are trying to work simultaneously.
  3. I frequently say no. I work with several Type A individuals who like to help others and jump into new projects and initiatives. I’m like that too, and I always want to be doing more. However, on my part-time schedule, I just can’t say yes to everything. There’s only so much time available, and I have to make everything I commit to work within those hours. That’s why I have to turn down projects sometimes, even if I don’t really want to say no. If an effort doesn’t align with my annual corporate goals, then I’m more likely to pass on it. Saying no and drawing boundaries around my time is much harder to do than it sounds. I acknowledge that.
  4. I set boundaries. The other factors are related to how I set these boundaries, but that’s the crux of it. I set these boundaries with my teammates and myself. No one is going to tell me to stay to my 30 hours. Only I can enforce them. If I don’t respect them, no one else will either.

Now, that doesn’t mean that when I get to my 30th hour of work that I just log off for the week. Never. I will always deliver what I have promised to a client or team. However, I’m not going to take on an assignment unless I know how I’m going to fit it into my schedule.

It sounds easy, I know, and it’s not always straightforward. It is how I’ve made it work for me and our family though.

Image by Anrita1705 from Pixabay

Posted in Blog

Friday Fav: Geocaching

Our son’s cub scout pack introduced us to geocaching, which has been a fun way to explore new areas in our county and get in some hiking miles.

What is geocaching? Well, it’s a bit like a treasure hunt while hiking. You’re looking for a cache box typically slightly off a hiking trail. These boxes range in size to shoebox-sized plastic containers to pillboxes. Once you find the cache, you open it to discover the treasure (typically small trinkets) and write your name in a log noting that you found the cache.

If you want to try it, check out http://www.geocaching.com where you can create a free account and explore the geocaches near you. (There’s over 6,500 near me!)

Once you pick a cache to try, find the GPS coordinates and look for the clue on the page that will help you find the treasure. We’ve had several clues with ciphers that point us to where the treasure can be found, like “Under several tree roots” or “By a fallen tree.”

Things to know before you go:

1) Make sure you have access to GPS. (A cell phone map app work fine.)

2) Either solve the clue before you go or have a pen and paper to solve it on the trail.

3) Be dressed to go off trail to find the treasure.

4) Bring a pencil/pen to log your find.

5) Bring a trinket to exchange in case this geocache offers a toy swap. (Toy swaps are usually reserved for the larger sized boxes.)

6) Place the cache back in the same spot hidden in the same way. Don’t let anyone else see you opening it (that’s called getting muggled).

In the process of writing this post, I realized there are a few caches on the trails in our neighborhood and along the parkway. I guess I know what we’ll be doing this weekend!

Happy Friday!

Image by Settergren from Pixabay

Posted in Blog

Spring Break at Home (Again)

The Spring season is upon us here. More people are emerging from their homes each day to enjoy the fresh air and get outside. Our boys had a week off from school recently for Spring Break. We kept this year’s plans again low key since we’re not all vaccinated yet.

As I’m wont to do, I made a list. I asked the boys what they wanted to do over break, and they helped me craft the to-dos. Thankfully, the kids are easy to please. They added activities like rollerblading, egging a few friends, and playing soccer. Whereas, I added to mulch the front yard and plant a garden.

Having an idea of what to do helped on those afternoons where the boys just wanted to play video games all day.

I’d say, “Hey, want to dye Easter eggs?” Boom! Video games were temporarily forgotten.

Of course, we deviated from the list too. We started the process of getting passports for the family and binged several of the Marvel movies. All in all, it was a quiet and relaxing week with the family that everyone enjoyed without the need to travel anywhere.

We spontaneously decided to fish one day.

As much as I liked it, I hope to be traveling for Spring Break next year.

Posted in Blog

Feb/March 2021 Book Recs

I’ve found myself sputtering on the reading front so far in 2021. Normally I spend a good 30 minutes each day reading something. These days, I’ll dive into a new book, devour it in two or three days, and then wait a handful of days before picking up my next book. I’m not sure why, but I’ve been rolling with it.

Since my last update with January 2021 book recs, I’ve read a couple of really great novels that I want to recommend and share here. These are my top four.

The Alice Network – This is a historical fiction novel that’s actually based on more real events and characters than I originally realized while reading it. The author (Kate Quinn) talked about her sources at the end of the story. The novel is about the life of female spies during World War I, which is artfully paired with a tale about another woman’s search for her cousin post World War II. Each chapter changes perspectives and often takes you between France during World War I and 1947. I don’t want to give much away, but if historical fiction is an interest, pick up this book. I highly recommend it. If you like this book, then also check out Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale – one of my Top Ten 2020 picks. It is similar and also outstanding.

Oona Out of Order – Margarita Montimore’s novel is probably my favorite read of the year so far. It’s about a woman named Oona who jumps through time every New Year’s Eve, never knowing what year she’ll end up in until the stroke of midnight. It was interesting to see how her relationships changed and Oona figured out how to live her life out of order. She often jumps between decades, going from her twenties to her fifties. The author does a good job of exploring how strange life could be if you had the maturity of a 19-year-old when your body suggests to the world that you are 54.

I did find one thing particularly interesting. Oona takes actions with the intent to change the future, but every action is meant to impact her personal life. There are several mentions throughout the novel about 9/11, since the book largely takes place in New York City. However, the author never mentions why Oona doesn’t even try to stop major disasters from happening. I know that’s not where the author wanted to go with the story, but it struck me as something that should have been acknowledged.

Regardless, I loved this book. It’s everything I wanted The Midnight Library to be and wasn’t.

Last Tang Standing – Lauren Ho’s story here is described as a mix between Crazy Rich Asians and Bridget Jones’s Diary. I don’t think there’s a more apt description than that. The book is about Andrea Tang, a career-driven lawyer looking to make partner. At the same time, she’s battling family expectations. It’s a romance novel of sorts paired with a coming of age tale. I really enjoyed this one.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my love for the Harry Potter series. Mr. 8-year-old and I have been reading them throughout the pandemic. It took us 6 months to get through Book 4, but we finally finished in February. We’re slowing working our way through Book 5 now. We only watch the book’s movie after we finish the novel.

Happy reading!

Posted in Blog

The Truth Behind My Love of Alexa: I’m All About That…Backend System

You may have seen in one of my last posts that I made reference to all of the actions we can have Alexa do in our new den. Our Amazon Echo and its Alexa has even been one of my Friday Favs.

When I make these types of posts, my husband likes to remind me that I’m oversimplifying how it works. Sure, to me, I just tell Alexa what to do and she does it. If I ask that she locks the doors, you hear the lock turn. When I ask for the den lights to turn on, all of the lamps in the room illuminate. I can even ask Alexa to vacuum. She’s the best listener in the house!

There’s actually a bit more to it. I figured the best way to explain it was to go right to the source and interview my husband. Here’s our exchange.

You say that I oversimplify how Alexa works. Why is that?

The Echo is just one component of a larger ecosystem I have configured in our house. It’s all centered around running an open-source home automation interface called Home Assistant, which runs on a Raspberry Pi.

Through that software, I have configured our smart-enabled devices. We have smart-enabled locks, some lights, and multiple light switches and outlets. I also integrated devices like our Amazon Echo, home alarm system and sensors, our HVAC (via Google Nest), and the garage door. I even tied in my 3D printer, but that’s just a glorified toy. With a more recent Home Assistant update, even your car is connected.

By having all of these devices connected through Home Assistant, you can tell Alexa to do a bunch of things in our house.

Sounds complicated. How did you figure this all out?

I mostly figured it out from friends and coworkers who run similar setups. I also researched different smart-home software that’s out there. I went with Home Assistant because I wanted a solution that (for the most part) was completely self contained and not reliant on “The Cloud.”

While Home Assistant also has documentation on how to integrate the services so you can use the Echo to issue commands, with our setup, we can still control the house via the Home Assistant Apps on our smartphones or via its web interface if our Internet connection ever goes out.

If I didn’t have you, could I figure out how to set up and use a software like Home Assistant?

Yeah! It requires a lot of reading, trial and error, and willingness to write some computer code. I had to write some code to connect Home Assistant to Amazon’s Alexa and to connect to Google’s Nest API. I also had to modify several configuration files within Home Assistant itself to tailor it to suit our needs.

You also set up automations. What are automations, and how did you set them up?

Automations are additional smart-home functions built on top of your infrastructure. They are basically a bit of code that says if this happens, then do that. In our case, I use the Home Assistant interface to identify the smart-enabled devices I want to control like lights and locks. I can use any of the items connected to Home Assistant for an automation, including the various sensors attached to the alarm sensors or our phones’ GPS.

Combining all of that, I have to think of the logic of what I want created. An example is our bedtime routine. Since our bed is a smart-enabled device, I wrote an automation that says if we are home (based on our phones’ GPS locations), in bed, and it’s after a certain time in the evening, then turn off all of the lights, set our HVAC to our desired nighttime temperature, and lock the doors. A simpler automation is turning a hallway light on at sunset and off at a desired time. Another automation we us to help conserve energy is to use motion sensors that turn off lights if there’s no movement after 15 minutes.

Is our family being tracked by others because we’re using Home Assistant?

Yes and no. Home Assistant is locked down. The connection to it is encrypted, and I only have your account and my account allowed to access it. Any attempts by others to access it are logged. If there are abnormal attempts to access the account, I’m notified.

But your phone is tracking you. Therefore, it can be assumed your cell phone manufacturer and the carrier is tracking you. Most apps that you use are tracking you.

How have you mitigated the risk to our network?

To isolate and secure our home network, I’ve set up subnetworks. We have a home network, guest network, and smart-home device network. I have limited what our devices have access to on the smart-home device network. That’s done via our router’s firewall rules and port forwarding policies.

This way, if a smart-enabled device like the TV or Echo was to be compromised by a botnet or some external nefarious actor, it mitigates the risk of compromising our trusted devices like our phones and laptops that stay on our home network.

In short, smart-enabled devices like smart bulbs are cool and useful, but they also shouldn’t be inherently trusted. Most manufacturers don’t focus on securing smart-enabled devices. They just want them to work quickly and easily for consumers.

Ugh, it’s so complicated.

You can make a home automation system simple or secure. I aim to make the system as simple as possible, while maintaining a certain desired level of security. You have to do a risk analysis and determine how simple you want it to be and how much risk you are willing to take.

How would you recommend someone get started if they wanted to use smart-enabled devices or automate their home?

The simplest solution, which doesn’t require Home Assistant, is to buy a smart bulb from your local hardware store. They go for as low as $10. Try using that with whatever app they tell you to install on your phone. From a security perspective, though, I’m not a fan of IOT [Internet of Things] devices.

What advice would you give to someone interested in learning more?

This hobby can be a money pit. First, sit down and determine what items you want to be able to control in more ways and then what do you want to automate. Once you know what you want to do, then you can look into what technologies to buy to perform those actions.

You may want to Google home automation solutions. While you’re reading, determine what skill level you are comfortable dealing with. Check out the software or interfaces available. There are several out there, and even some that aren’t free. Home Assistant is free, but there are others out there that may be more to your liking like Smart Things and Home Seer. Find what works for you.

Photo by BENCE BOROS on Unsplash

Posted in Blog

Friday Fav: Female Friends

I have a dear friend who is moving away, and I’m…let’s just say…not thrilled about it. It’s made me reflect on my female friendships and how important they are to me.

I’ve never felt very good at maintaining multiple female friendships simultaneously. High school was not my jam. I felt like a 40-year-old stuck in a teenager’s body, and I was probably perceived the same way. I was into my studies, after school activities and sports, and hanging out with my boyfriend (now husband). Yup, I snagged him early.

Things turned around after high school. I was able to make friends in college pretty easily. There were a bunch of us thrown together into residence halls, and I was able to find people to hang out with, share an apartment with, join on trips to the library, and travel abroad with me. Then we all graduated and spread ourselves throughout the country. Ugh.

After college was a different story. I jumped right into the working world where I made friends with coworkers. I’ve been with the same company since I graduated college – a rare occurrence these days. Many of those work friendships persist today, especially with my colleagues I’ve collaborated with for years. There are few that I get to see outside of the work day though, since our teams are all over the country.

Then came my kids. I sought out new people with shared experiences. I tried a couple of different mommy groups and finally jived with one I found on the Meetup app. What a relief it was to find a group of women who were trying to figure out this whole parenting thing at the same time my little ones came around! I will forever be grateful for their support during that time, though they probably don’t realize how our library meetups, home art projects, and outdoor play dates saved my sanity.

Once we moved to our “forever” home, a new world of friendships opened up. There were a ton of new friends to meet at the bus stop, and I met so many more during our neighborhood’s monthly ladies’ night. (Boy have I missed those during COVID!) We have a neighborhood tribe of women I know I can reach out to and that I aim to serve, whether that’s to pick up a kid from the bus stop, host an outdoor movie night, celebrate major life events, or give a hug when the going is tough.

I’m incredibly lucky to have all of these wonderful women in my life. Some friends have come and gone over the decades due to the nature of our busy lives and where time has taken us, but I’m thankful for each and every one of them. I don’t think it’s necessarily a negative for relationships to change over time.

I want my female friends to know, near and far, no matter what stage our relationship is at today. I am grateful for their friendship. I’ll cherish the memories we’ve created together and the times you were there for me. I can only pray that I was just as good of a friend.

Photo by Becca Tapert on Unsplash

Posted in Blog

Our Den Reveal!

Back in January we tackled our latest home project to convert the main floor’s front room from a children’s playroom to a family den (sans TV). I hinted at our progress a while ago, and now that we’ve lived in this space for a few weeks, today’s the day for the reveal.

Basically, we started with a mess of toys and clutter. (This is an old photo of everything cleaned up. This was never the regular look. Ha!)

Before: As the playroom

And now we have a cozy family space for impromptu game nights, nightly readings (currently Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), and adult conversation after the kids are in bed. Even the dog has enjoyed it because she can monitor the front of the house out the window while lounging on the couch. She doesn’t even get up to woof half the time anymore.

After: The new den!

So what did we do to make this look happen? Well, besides a lot of reorganization in this room that rippled to other rooms and closets, not too much.

  • We painted the walls Owl Gray. The trim was refreshed and painted a shade of ivory to match the rest of the house.
  • I ordered furniture for delivery, including the bookcases (Ikea), blue chairs (Ikea), black side table (Ikea), nested coffee table (Amazon), and rug (Costco). We brought up the couch (La-Z-Boy) from the basement.
  • I largely shopped the house for many of the odds and ends as well as items to start filling the bookcases. Having the games on display adds to the vibe of the room and also encourages the kids to pick one up. I’ll play a board game any time over video games or imaginative play.
  • My husband set up the bookcase lights. He also linked all of the room’s lights to our Alexa, so we can control them using our voice. Alexa turns individual lights or the whole room on or off, and she can even dim the lights to a given percentage. You could set timers or routines too (like whenever you’re in bed the lights shut off or when you arrive home the lights come on), but we haven’t done that for this room.

That’s really about all we had to do. After living in the space for a while, I can attest that I love it. It was a good move for our family. I find that everyone else in the family follows me around the house, so if I come here after dinner, they follow. The set up of the furniture in one corner of the room (rather than filling the whole space and leaving large gaps between furniture) encourages conversation and makes gameplay easier. The coffee table frequently becomes a place to play cards. And by having a nesting coffee table, we can have drinks on one and the game board or puzzle on the other.

There are many evenings where I retreat to the den after the kids are in bed to listen to a podcast and cross stitch or read a book. Without a TV in the room, I’m not tempted to zone out in front of it. I’ve finding that my TV viewing is more intentional, which is my preference. All in all, I’m a happy camper.

Posted in Blog

Friday Fav: In-Person Kindergarten!

Our youngest recently stepped foot into his elementary school for the first time and started in-person kindergarten. He was so excited to meet his friends and teachers that he’s only ever seen on a computer screen. You should have seen his little legs run full speed with a heavy, laptop-laden backpack to get to the bus stop. Adorable!

Now, I fully recognize – at least in my school district – that families had choices. Choices seemed to range from undesirable to unworkable, and each family had to pick the best option for them. We considered homeschooling, private kindergarten that perhaps would be more likely to stay in person, and public school where we eventually got the choice to stay 100% virtual or come back to school two days a week. I have full respect for whatever choices families made this year. We are all doing the best we can.

For us, we knew Mr.-5-Year-Old would need some in-person instruction for his benefit and ours. Here are some things to consider if you are sending a child into the classroom anytime soon:

  • Kids are cleaning their hands 1,000 times a day and the little ones come home with such chapped hands. A neighbor wisely suggested to pack a small container of lotion, and it really helps!
  • Pack multiple masks. They get gross and wet throughout the day, I guess especially for kindergarteners. I have a baggie labeled with a clean mask each day and another labeled dirty.
  • If your child wears glasses, you know that they can fog up with a mask on. Sometimes it helps to fold up a tissue and put it on your nose. This blocks the air from going out of the mask and absorbs the moisture. The trick is to ensure the mask still goes around the face properly without air gaps.

Fridays are another in-person school day for us, so I’m off to get kids ready for the day. Happy Friday!

Photo by Austin Pacheco on Unsplash