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Sometime last week, my brother-in-law sent an e-mail around to our extended family (my parents, my siblings and their families) with some articles about health.  In the course of some e-mail conversation, the suggestion came up that we as a family do some type of “Biggest Loser” health challenge.

We all loved the idea and spent some time together on the 4th of July talking about it.  We came up with a basic plan and the competition began yesterday.

The challenge:

“To Increase health, fitness, stamina and happiness in each family member.” 

We’ve divided the 6 families into 2 teams, 3 families on each team, trying to make both teams equal with abilities.  (We decided to keep whole families together because we want to promote family unity, not pit husbands and wives and siblings against each other.)  Each family tallies their points and reports to a team captain their family’s daily total.

The competing teams keep their points secret from each other…so Team 1 doesn’t know the total points of Team 2, and vice versa.  This will be revealed in September.

The time frame:

Ongoing—but the first “checkpoint” will be in September at a Labor Day gathering.

The plan:

We’ve decided on a list of “tasks” we can do each day to eat better, exercise more, and improve our general health and fitness.  Each task is worth a certain amount of points.  I created a simple chart (example here) that each family member can fill out each day.  We tailored it to the needs of the youngest and oldest and to our personal values (including “outside time” for older people that don’t get out much, and “spiritual tasks” for those who are already pretty fit and want more of a spiritual challenge). 

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Even those of us who don’t need to lose any weight can work harder on healthy eating, drinking more water, and getting to bed earlier. 

The Basic Tasks:

* Exercise 30 minutes (worth 5 points)
* Drink water (1 point per 8 ounces)
* Eat fruit/vegetables (1 point per serving or 5 points for 3 servings)
* Use portion control during meals (1 point per meal or 5 points for a whole day of good portion control each meal and healthy snacks)
* For adults, be in bed with lights off at 10pm (5 points).  Kids in bed by 8pm (5 points)
* 1 whole day with no sugar or junk food (5 points)

The Rewards:

Since money is tight for everyone, we decided that the losing team will give the winning team services: knitted items, photo shoots, baked goods, housecleaning, babysitting, and so on.

We haven’t decided yet what exactly will happen at the September checkpoint…we’re still figuring this out as we go. 

The Results:

Of course we don’t know yet what the results will be, but we hope they will be great: increased family unity and love; better health and fitness.  I’ll report on our ongoing progress.  One thing’s for sure—we are already seeing a lot of motivation to “beat the other team” and work hard to get healthy (it’s a lot easier to make a salad, have some fruit as a snack, or make yourself exercise even if you really don’t want to when you know your whole team is counting on you).  And it’s already a lot of fun!

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I’ve been into birdwatching (or “birding” as it is commonly called) for a little less than a year now, and this year the kids and I are participating in the GBBC—The Great Backyard Bird Count.

Basically, everyone in North America can count the birds wherever they go this long weekend (Friday through Monday)…whether it be on birding trips or hikes, or just on a trip to a local park or running errands to the grocery store.  Did you see 6 pigeons when you went to WalMart?  You can count that.  Were your kids playing at the park when a flock of 30 starlings flew by?  Check.  Did some adorable black-capped chickadees come visit your yard bird feeder this morning?  The GBBC people want to know. (Scientists use this information gathered every year to track bird trends, health and other things.)

Here’s the website with all the information you need to participate.  There’s also a section for kids with a birdsong quiz, puzzles, recipes for bird treats, and more.

We are having a blast watching the home page for the GBBC change constantly as it’s updated every 30 minutes or so with bird finds from across the country.  Yesterday morning, when it started, there were a few red dots marking submitted checklists in the west part of the U.S., with a large cluster of them on the East Coast.  Now the map is nearly full of red, with lots in Canada and Mexico, too.  We love to see the bird count and species count change.

You can also access lists for your state and even city.  We are following Utah (because we live here) and Wisconsin (my beautiful home state…I love that my hometown of Eagle River even had 1 checklist submitted! Thank you, unknown Eagle River birder).

Yesterday we watched our back and front yards for a while and counted 1 Black-Capped Chickadee, 1 Mountain Chickadee, 12 House Sparrows, 5 Starlings, 1 House Finch, 1 Dark-Eyed Junco (Oregon variety) and a Spotted Towhee.  The Spotted Towhee was a thrilling find…we’d never seen one before, let alone had one visit our yard!  They’re beautiful birds.  The kids decided they have the head of a Junco, the tail of a Magpie, and the stomach of a Robin. 

Spotted Towhee (from Wikipedia)

Last night we went out to the International Center, near the airport, and saw a Great-Horned Owl.  He was more awake than the last time we’d seen him and the kids were so excited to see him wide awake and looking at them.  We tried to get some pictures but our cameras aren’t the best:

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Here’s the nest, which is a bundle of pine needles, sticks, and leaves, and the owl peering out of his nest

We also had a fun time feeding the ducks in a nearby pond, despite the bone-chilling wind.

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Nia thought it would be fun to pretend this bench was a bed

The kids were beyond excited to come home and enter their count on the GBBC checklists.  They loved the fact that we counted the only Great-Horned Owl and the only Killdeer (as of this morning) for Utah.

Note: In the half hour or so I’ve been composing this blog post, the national bird count has gone up by 4,000 birds.  We hope you’ll consider taking part in the fun!

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Since I homeschool my kids, I’m always looking for ways to make school more creative…more fun…more engaging…more enjoyable.  Sometimes I draw a blank, but I often manage to come up with some fun ideas that the kids love.

One favorite activity is as follows:

1.  The mom/teacher writes activities on slips of paper and folds them

2.  After the child completes a problem (or 5 problems, or a whole page) they get to choose one slip of paper and do the activity on the paper.

3.  Repeat step 2 until all work is done.

pick a slip bowl

If you come up with a large list of activities (many slips of paper), you can keep them in a jar or container and re-use them as often as needed.  Here’s some ideas (not all of these are pure “fun” activities, but they do give the kids a break from school):

* build a tower out of blocks

* do one math problem on the computer (or math game) for 2 minutes

* eat 1 chocolate chip

* do 5 somersaults

* play 1 song on the piano, harmonica, kazoo, or tin whistle

* put away 5 things in the living room

* draw a Star Wars character (customize this one to your child’s interests)

* send a text message (my kids love to text my sisters on my phone)

* send an e-mail (grandmas love getting e-mail from grandkids!)

* go outside and scatter some corn or birdseed for the birds

* bird watch for 1 minute (we have active and busy feeders outside out front window)

* put away 10 things in your bedroom

* jump 30 times with the jump rope

* eat at least 5 nuts or seeds

* drink 1 cup of water

* play a tic-tac-toe game with an imaginary opponent

* read 1 page in a book

And so on.  The possibilities are really endless.  Of course, the kids have to be watched so they don’t “abuse” the game (so they don’t take too long doing activities or decide they don’t want to do something, put it back, and choose a different one); if they don’t like the activity they chose, they “forfeit” that turn and do their next set of problems.  But for the most part they really love this game and it’s a great way to get them excited about finishing schoolwork quickly and well.

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I’m taking just a few minutes in the midst of coughing (yep, sick again…sigh.  I think because of the kidney stone I  had on Sept. 16 I got really worn out and easily caught this terrible cold) to write about my children’s latest obsession: cross-stitching.

I learned cross-stitching when I was probably 12 or 13.  My mother had a nice pile of Aida cloth and lots of magazines  full of patterns.  I didn’t finish very many projects—just a Lady and the Tramp pattern which I entered in our local county fair, a bird/window picture for my high school choir teacher, a small self-designed project for Young Women, and a cute picture for John’s birthday right before he went on his mission.  (John’s picture featured two mice, a boy and a girl, and one was holding a candle.  Underneath it said, “You light up my life.”  I was afraid he would  think it was cheesy but he actually really liked it and to my surprise, took it with him on his mission.)

The “Start Each Day” design on the right is the same as the one I gave my choir teacher, Mrs. Domek.  I found this  the other day on the internet and enjoyed showing the kids the design (via Stonehillcollectibles).

I’ve been thinking for a while that my kids would really enjoy cross-stitching, especially the girls.  (I didn’t know if Bran would have the patience for it.)  So we went to Michaels a few days ago and bought some Aida cloth and printed off some patterns from a “kids craft” book. 

They LOVED it!  All of them—even Bran—worked hard at their designs for four hours before they stopped.  I couldn’t believe their concentration and attention span.  The girls are already on their second designs (Ciara’s is here; Nia’s second one, here).  I spent a while searching the internet and found some good cross-stitching websites with free patterns:

http://www.better-cross-stitch-patterns.com/

http://www.cross-stitch-academy.com/

http://www.craftsitedirectory.com/crossstitch/index.html

http://www.dmc-usa.com/majic/pageServer/1z010000ky/en_US/Free-Cross-Stitch-Designs.html

http://www.freepatternsonline.com/xspatterns2.htm

http://shopping.originpublishing.com/charts_category.asp?category=5

http://www.alitadesigns.com/

This one has  more cartoonish/kid-themed patterns:

http://www.dltk-kids.com/type/crossstitch.htm

I like this site and the matching blog:

http://www.countrycrossstitchkits.co.uk/acatalog/free-cross-stitch-patterns.html

http://cross-stitch-addict.blogspot.com/

More free patterns:

http://www.allcrafts.net/needle.htm#cross

This one has some super cool bird patterns, including adorable hummingbirds:

http://www.birdcrossstitch.com/crossstitch/guide2.html

Jan Brett artwork done in cross stitch:

http://www.janbrett.com/cross_stitch/cross_stitch_main_page.htm

There are also lots of gorgeous ones for sale.  Some of my favorites so far, for humor or cuteness:

“Mad Blue Bird” from 123Stitch.com.  Doesn’t his expression—plus the title—just slay you? 

“Dog’s Day Out” from CrossedWing.com.  I love the collie!

“Autumn Cats” from Herrschners.com.

“Achoo!” from Herrschners.com.  This little puppy accidentally sneezed off his spots—so cute!

Adorable bird bookmarks, again from Herrschners.com. 

You can tell I was looking specifically for bird and animal ones the day I found these. :) 

Well, I could go on all day, but this is already long enough.  Let’s just say that the cutest thing of all is this picture here, of three new cross-stitching fanatics:

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The second week of August, the kids and I entered a bunch of things in the Salt Lake County Fair.

As children in our local northwoods Wisconsin 4-H club, my siblings and I entered stuff in the Vilas County Fair every year.  But Utah fairs were a new experience for all of us (besides being spectators at the State Fair the last few years). 

We’d just returned from our family reunion on August 8, but on Monday, August 9th we threw ourselves into baking. 

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By 10pm we were exhausted so we got up early the next day and continued.  I decided at the last minute to bake 2 items, as well, and we barely made it to the Fair by the noon deadline.

We’d previously turned in the kids’ art projects on Sunday afternoon, so we counted the hours until we could go on Wednesday morning and see if our items got any prizes.

Wednesday dawned, sunny and hot.  When we got to the Fair, we raced to the art section and scanned the many framed entries hanging on the wall.  When the kids saw their prizes they started screaming and jumping up and down.  Nia, especially, was quite ecstatic and couldn’t stop screaming for a few minutes.  (They award prizes based on merit, so everyone who deserves one gets an appropriate prize.)

Ciara:

1st prize: Forest and waterfall scene

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2nd prize: Unicorn on a hill

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1st prize: Chocolate chip cookies

2nd prize: Pumpkin bread

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Bran:

2nd prize: Clone Trooper drawing

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3rd prize: GF sugar cookies

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4th prize: GF muffins (I guess the judges don’t like the taste of gluten-free cooking!)

 

Nia:

1st prize, “high blue” (for entries better than 1st place) and “Sweepstakes Award” for best in category: Pink Flower drawing

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1st prize: Oatmeal cookies

2nd prize: Chocolate no-bake cookies

 

Me:

1st prize: lemon poppyseed muffins

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2nd prize: Sour Cream coffeecake

After we’d finished screaming and jumping, we met up with our friends Linda, Rebecca and Joseph.  We had fun visiting the animal barns (though my allergies didn’t let me stay there long…apparently there were owls in the bird and rabbit barn!! I don’t know how we missed them!), looking at all the exhibits, and watching the Pig Races.  Yep, that’s right…Pig Races done by Cook’s Racing Pigs.  It was extremely funny, and if I get a YouTube video up at some point I’ll come back and link it here.

We came back to the fair that evening to watch a free concert by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.  Wow, are they ever incredible musicians!! I didn’t know any of their songs except the famous “Fishin’ in the Dark.”  The banjo and harmonica players were especially talented.  It was a terrific concert.  I took some videos, but the pictures didn’t turn out very well.

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We were pretty far back and to the side…I had to leave partway through to pick up Nia from a birthday party and then come back, so we sat close to the side so I wouldn’t disturb very many people. 

Around 10:30 p.m. when the concert was ending, a nice lady in the row behind us tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if there was any news in Susan’s case.  I am continually touched and amazed at all the people who continue to care about and remember Susan, even though it’s been so long.  I appreciate them so much and I know Susan’s family does, too.

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I’ve been really sick the last 3 weeks with some kind of cold or respiratory gunk, so it’s been quite a while since I’ve felt up to doing stuff online.  But three weeks ago tomorrow the kids and I went to the Utah Renaissance Festival and Fantasy Faire.  It was so much fun, even though I was a day into a horrible cold.

Last year the kids and I didn’t have costumes but this year we wanted some.  Time was short, so we modified what we had, shopped thrift stores, and made it work.  Nia used clothes and fairy wings she already had.  I found a long thrift-store skirt for myself and we modified an old vest.  My mom made me a poufy shirt and apron.  For the older kids, including their nephew Benjamin, we made hooded cloaks.  Friday morning before we left I made some drawstring bags to get around the problem of needing a place for money, keys, camera, and phone but still look authentic.

The first thing we did upon arriving was put each kid in the stocks.  You can’t tell really, but he’s smiling.  Maybe we need some rotten tomatoes. 🙂

I’d crossed my fingers every day for two weeks on checking the weather and it was supposed to be mostly sunny and 66 degrees.  Perfect!  Unfortunately, in the afternoon a big rainstorm hit and it was pretty cold and wet for a while.  We kept warm by huddling around the blacksmith’s fire.

 
A kind lady named Susan cuddled Nia in her cloak

 
The blacksmith, complete with wooden leg

There were all manner of colorful characters wandering around…our favorite was Captain Jack Sparrow himself.  He had the look, the costume, the mannerisms, the walk, the lingo, the ship, and even the voice.

The kids loved playing in the Belegarth fortress and guarding it with their new swords and baldrics:

A highlight of the faire is always the jousting with the hilarious Knights of Mayhem.

 
A knight suiting up

One of our favorite parts of the Faire is all the awesome shops and booths where you can buy authentic costumes, weapons, treats, and accessories.  We let each child take $20 this year and they had so much fun spending it.  Nia got a parasol, a gorgeous inlaid box made of stone, and a necklace with a real flower imbedded in it.  Bran bought himself a boken—a wooden samurai-type sword and also a leather baldric to hold his wooden sword he bought last year.  Ciara bought a sword and baldric combo and a crystal.  I got a messenger-type bag and a handmade white wide-brimmed hat, which the makers stretched for me to get the perfect size. 

Besides the jousting and shopping we watched a magic show, a massive jenga-type game, and a shop owner demonstrating “Contact juggling” like Jareth in the Labyrinth movie.

It was so much fun and as we drove away, exhausted, hungry, and footsore, we were already talking excitedly about next year’s Faire.

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My birthday was last week…and I was not expecting a good day.  Susan’s still missing and the only thing I want is to have her back.  It’s hard to care about anything trivial like a birthday.

But I was surprised that Sunday was actually quite a nice day after all.  Besides receiving sweet birthday cards from family, my 11-year-old daughter made me this, all on her own:

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A crocheted neckwarmer (short buttoned scarf)

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She also hand-wrote a fun “Birds of America” word search puzzle for me to do, which must’ve taken her a really long time.  And drew me a beautiful card with a lifelike picture of a chickadee inside.

John surprised me, too.  I’d told him a few days before that I just wanted a little cash to spend at the upcoming Renaissance Faire, so I wasn’t expecting anything.  But he gave me a digital camera!  Such a great present because our old camera was not only ancient and decrepit, but also sucks the life out of every battery after just a few minutes.  I’d really been wanting a new camera.

He also gave me a mixing bowl and big wooden spoon/ladle.  I’d just told him last week how much I needed a new mixing bowl.

As if that wasn’t enough, after church he and the kids made me a cake.  Yes, it was a mix, and yes, it was lemon cake—not my favorite—but since he’s never made me a cake before, it was such a sweet gesture.  It was good, too!  The kids ate it so fast it barely had a chance to cool down.

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My sweet friend JoVonna also made me a treat and brought it over.  What a lovely friend she is.  Also, my online friends poured out the birthday wishes on my Facebook page so much that it nearly made me cry.  Friends from Wisconsin, Utah, church, homeschool, and many people I’ve never met in person but have become dear friends through this 5-month ordeal since Susan has been gone.  I am very blessed.

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