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: 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

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

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

Posted in Blog

Seeking Solace and Silence

It feels like most days she is constantly busting her buns to do nothing more than maintain homeostasis. Before dawn she arises to begin the day while her family stays nestled all warm in their beds. There may not be gumdrops dancing in their heads, but she senses their peacefulness. Rather than be jealous that they slumber while she works, she tries to enjoy the only calm part of her day. It is the thought of coffee coursing through her veins that her get out of bed most days.

Once caffeinated, she busts through her work to-do list, focusing first on difficult tasks while the silence reins. Some days she gets minutes, other times hours, but she cherishes what she can get regardless.

Once the house begins to stir, chaos ensues. There’s always someone who needs something, be it a hug to chase away a scary dream or a change of bed sheets. These moments interrupt her calm and any attempt at deep focus. She does not hate these interruptions, just that it means she must pause her work tasks in the middle of her flow. The seconds tick by, and she knows she’ll be back at her computer later in the day than she hoped. Work is abandoned…for now.

Life shifts to keeping the household operational. People are clothed, fed, and cleaned. The house stirs while the dog slumbers. (Lucky girl.) All chores abandoned the night before are tackled now: dishes, laundry, picking up, wiping counters. Children log into virtual school and tend to stay focused. Two hours pass in a flash.

Work beckons by late morning. Calls are endless. She joins them with more caffeine in hand and a basket of laundry to fold at her feet. There is rarely more time for more deep work. She races to lunch time trying to get done only those tasks that must be completed before the day is out. It usually feels like there is only time to react before she is pulled away with a request from someone else who needs something from her. Does she have more to give? Her energy is draining. Coffee won’t help now.

She feeds the family. Children gripe about what is served. This is par for the course. She is getting tired now. The children have also grown restless of virtual school. The afternoon is full of interruptions, questions, whining, and requests. Her workday is waning and deadlines loom. She must return to work. Calls continue. She logs off by late afternoon, giving up on the day. Work will be there tomorrow.

This is the dead hour. There is often nothing planned, and this small pocket of time often offers some spontaneity. The children may want to play. They may take walks or play cards. She may read or clean or actually talk with her husband that shares her abode. This is a blissful time if she can step away from work.

By twilight in this winter season, she is out of energy. Everyone’s demands and requests of her time have drained her to the point of exhaustion, but there’s still more to do. Again, people must eat. She finds this highly annoying. This supper meal results in the most commentary on how undesirable the cuisine is to some. Afterward, there is food uneaten and another stack of dishes. Children must then be compelled to complete what they often deem torturous tasks like reading or taking a shower. Their independence has increased, reducing the burden on the parents. This is a blessing. There are cuddles and cute moments but also sometimes tantrums and stubbornness. I’m stubborn too. I get it.

By 8pm, she is “off duty.” Lately she has been climbing into her bed to snuggle under her covers. Although she drifts off to sleep quickly, it is not restful while her mind listens to the sounds of her children talking to each other from their beds down the hall. Tomorrow comes too quickly.

Posted in Blog

How Our Children’s School District Saved My Sanity

This may be a controversial post, but I decided to share it anyway. This offering has helped save my sanity lately while the kids have been in virtual school and my husband and I have been working from home.

There’s no denying that I hate food prep, meal planning, cooking food that people end up complaining about, and then cleaning it all up. I especially hate that this whole meal process occurs three times a day. It’s one of my least favorite chores.

That’s why, when our school district started offering free weekly pick up of food for the children, I jumped at the chance to skip some meal prep and shopping. I make it a point to swing by each week to pick up the available meals.

Our county has committed itself to offering free meals to all students, regardless of need, for the school year. They are now providing breakfast, lunch, snack, and dinner along with beverages. On top of all this, you get a weekly vegetable from a local farm with an accompanying activity to do with the kids. There’s a frequent rotation of school pizza and french fries, but also cucumbers, apples, oranges, squash, and beans.

Admittedly, my husband and I have been incredibly lucky throughout the pandemic to have stable incomes and jobs that allow us to work from home. I don’t take that for granted, and I recognize that we don’t NEED to take advantage of the free food offered by our school district. I don’t feel entitled to it, but – goodness – it is a nice benefit and wonderful support to a family working from home with children constantly underfoot.

It is such a relief to not have to think about every meal every day while adding a bit of variety to the boy’s diets. (Before this, I was limiting breakfast to cereal only and lunch to peanut butter and jelly, so this has to be better, right?)

I share this information because our family has really benefited from this offering, and if it’s available and potentially helpful to others, I hope they leverage it. It’s also important to highlight that everyone could benefit from a helping hand, even this momma. I’ll be the first to admit that there are still many days in this house when it just feels like we’re trying to get through each day in an attempt to balance work, school, and family. It doesn’t always work out. Having support like this definitely helps, and I’ll take all the help I can get.

Posted in Blog

Striking the Right Mood In Our Alternative to the “Formal Living Room”

I’m a huge fan of making mood boards or vision boards for rooms before I redecorate. I’d like to say it’s for some sophisticated reason, but the truth is that I need to “see” something before I know whether it works or not. Since we’re in the process of redecorating around here, I’m sharing the mood board for our den that I made in a PowerPoint slide.

This room is technically supposed to be the “formal living room,” but seeing as we’re not really entertaining right now and these types of formal spaces are out of vogue anyway, we are going with a den. To me, a den is a space to unwind with family or maybe even escape to get away from others for a while. I want to use this room to play games and do puzzles with the kids, grab a book from the shelf and read in relative quiet, or escape to have a drink with friends. There’s no TV, but rather cozy places to chill out without a screen.

Okay, so I want this room to be all the things.

We’ll see what we can make happen.

Before we got serious about painting the room, the space was the kids’ playroom. It worked well for many years because the toys were largely contained, and I could easily keep my eyes and ears on them. This was a great solution with early walkers and destructive toddlers.

One of our original playroom setups

Now that the boys are 5 and 7 years old, though, I don’t need to hear and see them constantly. Honestly, I could go for a lot less noise and fewer LEGO pieces underfoot on the regular. Moving the playroom to an upstairs bedroom (with a door!) has given us this space.

My husband graciously agreed to support this redesign and move of rooms, thank goodness! We’re currently in the middle of the project having moved the playroom and painted the den. Now we’re waiting for furniture to be delivered, and then I’ll add the finishing touches. Now we’re getting to the fun part of the project! I’m sure I’ll share photos when we’re all done.

Posted in Blog

My Kids Share a Bedroom and I Don’t Feel Guilty About It

We live in a neighborhood where many families have three to five bedrooms and enough space for each child to have their own room. Even though we are lucky enough to have four bedrooms plus our not-technically-a-bedroom, guest room space in our basement, we have our boys sharing a room. When people learn this tidbit, I sense their surprise or curiosity about why we’d make this choice when we have the space for separate children’s rooms.

Well, there are several reasons. First, when my boys were little – maybe two and four years old – they wanted to share a room. Well, let me rephrase, the four-year-old munchkin was adamant that he not be left alone.

As I pulled the younger son’s crib into the room, I explained. “Here, kid. I made you a brother. You are no longer alone.”

My older son was happy, my husband and I were happy, the two-year-old didn’t care, and we all slept well each night. All was right with the world.

A second reason we made this change is because I was a fool. I worked from home 5 days a week and somehow thought it would be a good idea to share my workspace with the family space on the main level. The kids were in daycare or school all day, so I could work without them underfoot. It would be fine…until I had to work an evening or weekend or the boys decided to pull out every item in my desk drawers. Oh, what a naïve and silly woman I was!

That’s when I converted one of the bedrooms into my office. If you’re keeping track at home, that means one bedroom for the boys, one for my office, another is the master for my husband and me, plus the guest room in the basement. That leaves one more bedroom, which we recently turned into a playroom. I love it! We had the playroom in the “formal living room” space, and I was tired of it always being a mess and noisy. Now that the playroom is in a bedroom upstairs, when the playroom is a mess, I can just close the door.

I’m sure there are still some out there thinking, “But, why, Stephanie, would you force your kids to share a bedroom? Surely you could make something else work.”

Yeah, I could and maybe I will in the future when my kids are older. I refuse to feel guilty about this choice for several reasons.

First and foremost, everyone in my household is happy about our living situation.

Plus, I have to share a bedroom (and a bed, mind you!) so my children can share a room too.

There is also great learning to be had when you need to learn to compromise and share a space. I remember the struggle I saw in myself and others freshman year of college when people who were forced to share a dorm after living in their own rooms for so long at home. I have no problem with my children working through this life experience before they leave the nest. There are certainly a significant number of children, now adults, who shared their bedrooms with one or more family members and turned out just fine. No one is being hurt or emotionally scarred here.

Additionally, I absolutely love having my office (with a door!) where I can have my own private space. This is something I’ve learned that I need to maintain some semblance of sanity. It has the added benefit of helping to create boundaries with my work-from-home situation. When I leave my office, I’m off the clock. When I’m in the office, everyone knows I’m in work mode (and they mostly respect that).

Ultimately, I live by the philosophy that everyone needs to make choices that work best for them and their family. I certainly won’t be judging anyone else’s choices. You do you, don’t hurt others along the way, and all will be well. I’ll do the same.