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Suck It Up or Suck It In

This past spring, I was in a funk. It was frustration (seeing autism red flags in Thing 3), exhaustion (Thing 2 still not sleeping), and burn out (lethal mix of immature students and their psycho parents). When I am stressed, I do three things: eat, drink, shop. By the time July rolled around, I finally stopped eating my feelings and decided to get healthy–because I was tired of feeling lethargic, and raising three kids on the spectrum required more dedication to my own health.

Weight loss is about setting goals and maintaining control, and eating less is more important than exercising more. For me, I maintain control by streamlining and simplifying. My husband and I joined Weight Watchers in 2012 and had success with that program, so we started religiously tracking points again this summer. I returned to the habit of meal planning, creating a weekly calendar for breakfasts, snacks, lunches, and dinners and prepping those dinners in advance. Once a month I create at least 25 meals to stock our freezer. On Amazon Prime Day, I bought an Instant Pot for an amazing price so those dinners go from freezer to table in 20-30 minutes, and all I do is push a button, which keeps us from hitting a fast food drive-thru on busy weeknights. I also joined monthly accountability groups led by my high school friend (a Beachbody coach) for extra support. I check in daily and tell the group what I ate, how I exercised, and everyone shares meal planning tips and recipes. I tried Shakeology and loved it, and now those shakes are my breakfast. They are 130-160 calories depending on flavor, keep me full until lunch, and almost completely banished my sugar cravings. Only downside is they’re freaking expensive, so I had to break up with Starbucks to afford them… $4 for a latte versus $4 for my “daily dose of dense nutrition.” I’m on target some weeks more than others but lost 9.8 pounds so far, and my husband is down 13 pounds.

So what does meal planning look like? Cooking Light has a cool interactive dinner planner, and Organized Home provides tips and printables to get you started. I don’t really understand people who plan menus before shopping because I work in reverse. I buy meats on sale and plan menus from there, using Pinterest and my cookbooks for inspiration (I try one new recipe each week). We buy meats in bulk once a month, then visit the grocery store weekly for produce, milk, etc. So here are two sample days to show how I survive Weight Watchers and the new SmartPoints system…

Monday:

Breakfast: Shakeology (vanilla blended with coffee and ice — 3 SmartPoints)

Snack: Coffee with 1 tbs. creamer (1 SmartPoint), hard-boiled egg (2 SmartPoints)

Lunch: Leftover Chicken Piccata (3 SmartPoints) and 1/3 cup egg noodles (2 SmartPoints)

Snack: Banana (0 SmartPoints) and Babybel Light cheese (1 SmartPoint)

After-School Snack: Apple with PB2 (1 SmartPoint) OR Cheez-It crackers (5 SmartPoints)

Dinner: Low-carb wrap (2 SmartPoints) with romaine lettuce (0 SmartPoints) and homemade chicken salad (made with Greek yogurt instead of mayonnaise — 2 SmartPoints)

Snack: 2 cups SkinnyPop popcorn (2 SmartPoints)

Tuesday:

Breakfast: Overnight oats (1/2 cups oats, 1/2 unsweetened cashew milk, 1/4 tsp. cinnamon, 1/4 cup diced apple — 4 SmartPoints)

Snack: Coffee with 1 tbs. creamer (1 SmartPoint) and Siggi’s strawberry yogurt (3 SmartPoints)

Lunch: Leftover red beans & rice with turkey sausage (6 SmartPoints)

Snack: Apple (0 SmartPoints)

After-School Snack: Larabar mini (4 SmartPoints)

Dinner: Homemade corn and potato chowder (6 SmartPoints)

Snack: 2 cups SkinnyPop popcorn (2 SmartPoints)

That leaves me enough wiggle room within my 30 daily points to enjoy a small second helping at dinner, or a slice of banana bread left in the copy room, or that piece of chocolate my coworker brings to a meeting, or a glass of wine after dinner (4 SmartPoints for a 5 oz. pour).

For me, though, diet alone is not enough. To tone this mombod, I need to work out 3-4 times every week. I pay $10/month for a gym membership and head there on weekends for a mix of cardio and strength training. I tackle cardio first and spend 30 minutes on the rower or elliptical. Then I opt for machine weights…or if I feel ambitious, I’ll grab a kettle bell and follow this routine. During the week, I complete a couple Focus T25 workouts. Even though his oblique knee push-ups make me want to cry, I try to follow Shaun T’s advice to not over-do it and work out at least every three days.

It is hard to push play after the Spanx come off at the end of a long day, so we try to get moving as a family. We take a lot of walks after dinner–either around our neighborhood or following the trails at a county park. My kids love these hikes, especially when they include rocks, bridges, and bodies of water. We let Thing 1 and Thing 2 set the pace, and often their skipping and prancing turns into running. I’ll gladly tackle a two-mile jog if it tires them out before bedtime!

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Thing 2–the kid with endless amounts of enthusiasm and energy–usually quits with 1/2 mile left to go so he can commune with nature. While he rode on my back, he kept saying, “I speak for trees.”

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The family that sweats together (and recites The Lorax together), stays together.

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Censorship and Other Bad Words

I recently read an article from Lehigh University’s First Amendment Site regarding book censorship. Written in 2009 by a journalism student, the article chronicles a brief history of censorship and book banning. One quote struck me: “The most effective antidote to the poison of mindless orthodoxy is ready access to a broad sweep of ideas and philosophies. There is no danger from such exposure. The danger is mind control.” That was the 1978 decision of Judge Joseph L. Tauro of Massachusetts in Right to Read Defense Committee v. School Committee of the City of Chelsea.

Thinking about a few amazing works of literature that have been banned over the centuries, including To Kill a Mockingbird (racism), Call of the Wild (banned and burned in Nazi Germany), Ulysses (obscenity), Of Mice and Men (profanity), Fahrenheit 451 (uses God’s name in vain), The Giver (drugs and suicide), The Color Purple (people have sex), and even Dahl’s The Witches (move over J.K. Rowling because Roald Dahl was inspiring wizardry first)…parents, legislators, and school board committee members love to stoke the literacy funeral pyres when students read anything besides censored textbooks or that one book that begins with the line, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

Why is this relevant now? In my county in Virginia, where I live and teach, there is a mother who homeschooled her child. Then she sent that precious snowflake to public school and became very concerned over the county’s suggested summer reading lists for secondary students. Last month, that mother took her complaints to our county’s weekly newspaper, who published her story. In that article, this mother threw words around like “pornographic,” “vile,” and “trash” to describe the books Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell and Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys. Yet has this mother ever read the books herself? No. What concerned me most was her bragging that four titles on the 2015 summer reading list for one county high school were removed after she contacted the school’s administration. Why administrators cave to the whims, rants, and aggressive nature of bulldozer parents is beyond me…it not only undermines teachers, but also feeds into the mind control that Judge Tauro warned against. By allowing one parent to dictate the summer reading list for an entire school of 1500 students, she came back for round two this summer with an even bigger chip on her shoulder. In the case of fundamentalist mother versus administrators without backbone, mother wins.

As if the original story wasn’t infuriating enough, the following week The Chesterfield Observer published a follow-up article that included an interview with our State Senator, Amanda Chase. In the interest of full disclosure, I do not care for Mrs. Chase, nor did I vote for her. I consider myself politically moderate (despite the fact I’m wearing my “Feelin’ the Bern” t-shirt as I write this), but I am wary of politicians aligned with the inflammatory and fear-mongering tea party. Mrs. Chase defeated our previous out-of-touch senator in the primary and there was barely a contest in the Republican stronghold of District 11 in the general election. She won with 64% of the vote. Our Virginia General Assembly notoriously passes what I call “Do-Gooder” laws, and Amanda Chase is one of those do-gooders. A family friend described the problems of our General Assembly this way: there are too many do-gooders and not enough lawyers. However, I am grateful that our Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, vetoed two bills in particular while in office so far–one requiring public schools to notify parents before using sexually explicit books in school, and he twice vetoed a “Tebow Bill” that would open public school sports to homeschooled children. So that tangent aside, in the June 29th article, Mrs. Chase calls for firing certain librarians, stating, “If librarians are not recommending books that line up with Chesterfield County Public Schools’ core values, they should be dismissed.” When the Observer presented the idea that parents should help their children pick out books, Chase says parents are too busy.

What. The. [Censored].

Dear fellow parents and Mrs. Chase… I do not claim to be a perfect parent, or even a patient one. I swear in front of my children, and the f-word flows pretty freely in these parts. I listen to SiriusXM’s Backspin in my minivan while shuttling my children around town. I know you mean well, I really do. “Save the children!” It’s a noble thought, but my children and many like them do not need saving. Granted, my kids are young and autism keeps them blissfully innocent and unaware of many of life’s harsh realities, but they know there is profanity and obscenity in this world. Nonetheless, my kids mind their manners, follow directions, and do not hit, bite, or swear. And here is an outrageous idea…I am not too busy to be a parent. I know what they watch on YouTube, I know what book characters they like, and I take time to help them choose books and activities. I even talk to their teachers about their interests and ask for suggestions for books and games. If and when the time comes that I am not comfortable with them reading, hearing, or viewing something, then I will make that call. Please, please stop telling us how to parent. Any middle- or high-school kid wanting to read Eleanor and Park will find that book tamer than what she hears in your average school hallway, bus, or locker room. Bad habits are not curated at the public library. Instead of sheltering kids from controversial things and hiding from reality, we need to teach them how to cope with adversity, make good choices, consider other viewpoints and experiences, and learn from good and bad consequences. If my senator Amanda Chase wants to protect my kids in a meaningful way, she can introduce a bill that will erase the age cap from the autism insurance mandate rather than call for the dismissal of public school librarians who foster curiosity, imagination, and creativity in young adults. To these micromanaging legislators and the parents who seek to impose their will on all of us, don’t you have anything better to do? Maybe you should read a book.

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(Image source: http://quoteaddicts.com)

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Dolla, Dolla Bills Y’all

The word “shopaholic” originated in the 1980’s. That fitting, since I was born in that decade. I admit I often buy stuff I don’t need. My weight fluctuates every year, so I end up buying clothes to accommodate my changing shape. I typically do a closet purge every spring in preparation for our neighborhood yard sale to squabble with people who think $3 for an Ann Taylor blazer is too expensive. I more recently started using two websites to earn money for my old clothes, and I’ve had overall positive experiences with both. If you’re looking to reclaim some closet real estate and earn extra cash, read on.

First up is Poshmark. I saw the app advertised on Facebook. You can download the free app on your iPhone or Android, or create an account on their website. Poshmark created a community where people from all over the country buy and sell clothing and accessories. Poshmark keeps a percentage of your “closet” sales, but they cover shipping costs, offer buyer protection, and cover shipping on returns. Selling on Poshmark takes some time to navigate, including taking pictures of your items, adequately describing them, researching retail cost, and then assigning your sale price. Buyers can make offers instead of buying items for your list price; as a seller, you can counteroffer or ignore any low-ball offers. It took me a couple hours, but I uploaded my maternity clothes, a few purses, and a couple other items I had not worn in a while…and earned $260 so far. You can use that money to purchase items from other Poshmark sellers or transfer it straight to your bank account. Most of the money went to my checking account, but I took advantage of awesome deals on a pair of LuLaRoe leggings and an Anthropologie top.

If you want to try Poshmark, download the smartphone app and sign up with the code JKQLF. You’ll get $10 to spend!

Next up is ThredUp, a online consignment boutique for women, maternity, and kids clothing. You can order a free Clean Out Kit from their website. A few days later, a huge green polka dot bag arrives, and you fill it with your gently used but defect-free clothing. ThredUp covers the shipping cost of this beast package and will closely inspect your clothing upon its arrival. They keep approximately 40% of items they receive. What they do not keep, you can select they return those items (you pay return shipping) or have those clothes donated or recycled. I did not count how many items I sent in my first bag, but ThredUp kept 30 items and paid me $70. Like Poshmark, you can use that money to shop from ThredUp, or have the money transferred to a PayPal account.

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Give ThredUp a try by creating an account here, and get $10 to spend. There are detailed videos and information about selling to their organization there, too.

Guess who is not yard-selling this year? This gal.

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Life Lately

After an insanely busy winter, I am back on the blog wagon… I suppose it’s time for a catch up.

Thing 2 continued his journey down the neurology rabbit hole. Last fall, we sought a second opinion on suspected absence seizures, and proceeded with an EEG, head MRI (revealing a Chiari malformation restricting the flow of cerebral spinal fluid), then a follow-up MRI on his spine to evaluate for any tears or syrinx. The spinal MRI was clear, and the neurosurgeon suggested repeating the scans yearly. Our coinsurance for the spinal MRI was $2,200, so I doubt yearly repeats are financially feasible, unless by some miracle Thing 2 qualifies for Medicaid. So far our county Department of Social Services has refused to screen Thing 2 for waiver services. Outright refused, which I am pretty sure is illegal. Typical Virginia. Meanwhile, Thing 2 has been pushing on his cheeks and acting like his face is in pain. Our pediatrician noticed his 6-year molars (the first permanent molars we get) were erupting. We gave him Advil, and that seemed to help. At the dentist last week, Thing 2 was amazingly cooperative, and it must have been divine intervention. Our dentist found an abscess in a baby molar, which must be horribly painful. That is why he’s pushing on his cheek, and that tooth will be pulled next week. This is the point I find myself frustrated and furious with autism and the lack of communication that goes with it. Thing 2 was unable to tell us he was in pain, and that is not acceptable. And unfair. Hopefully his mood will improve once that tooth is pulled, because no one in this family is allowed to take a knee! This month Thing 2 also returns to the neurologist and gets registered for Kindergarten.

Thing 1, on the other hand, is doing incredibly well–in school and ABA sessions. Thing 1 is in second grade, and by Christmas mastered Kindergarten and first grade sight words. His behavior therapist is working on generalizing that skill, meaning recognizing and reading those sight words in formats other than a flashcard. I left my school laptop at home one morning and came home during my planning block to pick it up. I walked in on an ABA session, and Thing 1 was reading. READING. I didn’t want to leave. Besides going into a general education second grade classroom for literacy circles, starting in January he was included in general education math, too. I love it when the stars finally align and Thing 1 makes such huge strides… Sometimes it is difficult to see a light at the end of the tunnel, but hard work always pays off. Thing 1 has been working his butt off.

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Thing 3 is mere days away from his second birthday. He was completely delightful and easygoing until he hit 18 months. That’s when he decided to jump start the Terrible Two’s. The kid is so stubborn! He wants to do everything himself, his way, on his own time. He is also not saying a single word, and every time he stands on his toes or walks in some repetitive pattern around the room, I feel a lump my stomach. I had to make the call yet again and ask for an autism evaluation, which will be another two months away. On that note, I am donating our brains to science. We have not seen a geneticist since Thing 1 was diagnosed in 2010, but there must be something behind the way our genes are mixing and mingling to produce potentially three kids on the spectrum. Hopefully by joining the Autism BrainNet, our noggins can help solve the mystery for other families. Besides, it’s not like any of us will need our brains when we’re six feet under.

I’m almost halfway done with the national board certification process. I submitted Component 2–a portfolio showcasing how I teach writing and differentiate instruction. I had to analyze three writing assignments for that component, and it made me grateful to not be a Language Arts teacher. Oy…the writing! I take a test (multiple-choice and short answer) in June, and then I’ll pick up the process again this fall with two more components to submit. I’m also ready to kick this group of seventh graders to the curb. Despite the lethal mix of laziness, immaturity, and psycho parents this year, I still love my job most days…until Pi Day comes around, and I take one in the face.

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It’s all for a good cause.

The house is in shambles since my husband demolished our master bathroom. It will look amazing when finished, but in the meantime, there’s a bathtub and two toilets hanging out in the garage, sawdust scattered, and a shop-vac by my bedside.

There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, right?

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Thanks, but No Thanks

Richmond Family Magazine is a free, local publication that’s been in existence since 2009. I browsed the magazine a few times, but I am not a devoted reader because of it’s lack of substance. It’s chock full of more advertisements than articles. The managing editor of RFM is Karen Schwartzkopf, and this week she put Virginia teachers in her crosshairs.

Beginning Friday, it started snowing in Central Virginia. By 10:00 p.m. on Saturday night, we had 12-15 inches in Richmond and the surrounding counties. School was cancelled Friday, Monday, and Tuesday…so far. Like my students, I get giddy over snow days. Mrs. Schwartzkopf, however, does not approve of that sentiment and let Twitter know about it.

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“Thanks, but no thanks,” is the only acceptable and family-friendly response I can think of for her #sorrynotsorry lameness.

Mrs. Schwartzkopf, I am not rooting to avoid my students. Snow days create more work for teachers when we have to revise our lesson plans and, undoubtedly, cut certain activities because we are expected to adhere to guidelines for pacing and testing. There will be field trips, conferences, and meetings to reschedule, as well as children to refocus. I find your attitude faulting teachers for the weather misplaced and immature. I root for snow days because I can be productive (I emailed parents, responded to students’ questions via Edmodo, and graded work today) while spending extra time with my own children. Slowing down our morning hustle and bustle on occasion is a nice and welcome change.

Here is what I really do not understand…

Why is it acceptable to openly disrespect and mock teachers in 2016? Over a snow day. When did the profession become worthy of such snark and silliness? Why are public servants, including police officers and teachers, the villains these days? I have taught middle school since 2007, and every year there are those few little darlings that make me question my chosen profession. But I realize that a child’s poor attitude and behavior towards teachers and classmates are likely learned from the adults in his or her life. Children need a model for respectful behavior, and some parents fail to meet this bill. On the other hand, middle-schoolers are impulsive, emotional animals. You deal with it and move on. As teachers, we strive every day to foster positive relationships with students and parents, hold our students accountable, give children a sounding board, make the classroom fun, encourage analytical thinking, and spend our own money on classroom supplies to that effect–all while collecting endless amounts of data, completing forms, checking off boxes, and spending hours upon hours in professional development, parent conferences, and meetings. Our good intentions and best practices never seem to be enough, and we are under constant scrutiny. Gregory Michie wrote in The Washington Post, “We’ve created a climate where good, hard-working educators feel justifiably discouraged and unjustly maligned.” That’s a big reason why morale is low among teachers across this country. The concepts of teachers becoming targets and our country’s CULTURE of disrespect is further opined by The Chicago Tribune, NoBullying.com, and The Wall Street Journal.

The fact that Mrs. Schwartzkopf, a work-from-home mother, saw her teacher friends celebrating a snow day apparently sent her over the edge. Perhaps she’s waging the psychological mommy wars, one of those parents who project her own sanctimony and/or shortcomings on other parents. Maybe she views school as daycare and teachers as babysitters. Whatever her motive, I’ll say it again: Our good intentions and best practices are never enough.

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I found Mrs. Schwartzkopf’s apologies insincere. Since those apologies, she deleted her Twitter account. It’s unfortunate she felt the need to hide. Mrs. Schwartzkopf, as a teacher, please allow me to share why I welcome a couple days “off” and the goals I’m working on this week. Consider it a “teachable moment.”

  • Work on my NBC entry: This 12-page narrative to accompany my submission for National Board Certification is kicking my butt. I haven’t written a paper like this since college, but it’s nothing like college writing. By the time I achieve certification, I will spend $1,025 of my own money and give up several Saturdays attending workshops and coaching sessions. I don’t want to sound like a martyr because I realized the work, time, and money commitments when I signed up; but I do want to point out how ridiculous you, Mrs. Schwartzkopf, sound when you mock people who also work from home in the evenings, weekends, summer, and blizzards.
  • Paperwork: I am up for recertification and my triennial summative review this year. I brought home my binder to organize the forms, certificates, emails, and lesson plans I collect to demonstrate I can do my job.
  • Get at least four Weight Watchers FitPoints every day: I’ve done this by walking the dog with my oldest son, and sledding and playing outside with my younger two.
  • Meal plan and prep: I usually do this every other weekend, but this Saturday I’ll be attending one of those NBC coaching sessions referenced above.
  • Clean bathrooms: I live with three little boys and a husband…enough said. This is low on the totem pole and the reason we buy Clorox wipes in bulk.

Today, my three boys and I piled onto the couch after breakfast and watched The Lorax. Things 1 and 2 took turns reciting all the lines. Thing 3 was just happy to be invited to the couch party. It was a wonderful moment, and one I will not apologize for wanting more of. I’ve never met Mrs. Schwartzkopf, and I certainly do not want to judge a person based on one poor comment. People have bad days, but when you use your status to promote poorly-placed snark and disrespect among your readers and followers, you lack integrity and common sense. Perhaps you should spend a week as a substitute teacher and see what it’s like in the trenches. How quickly will you be hoping for a snow day? I’ll offer the same advice I offer my 7th graders…Slow down, check your work, and think before you speak.

To read more about this debate and another perspective, check out Mouthy Mother’s blog post here.

And no matter what Mrs. Schwartzkopf says, my boys are loving our snow days. They also love their teachers, who I hope are enjoying some well-deserved time to explore the world outside the classroom.

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Sayonara, 2015

As 2015 and winter break come to a close, I am grateful for the past two weeks off work. Seventh graders were driving me bat-shit crazy, and I spent the week leading up to break telling them, “It’s not you. It’s me. We should see other people. We need a break.” My husband usually has more time off between Christmas and New Year’s, but not this year. We were still able to enjoy family staycation time. We made at least three trips to the mall for last-minute Christmas shopping, and the boys took in all the lights, reindeer, puddle jumping, and train rides their little brains could handle.

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Thing 1 has gotten much better about responding to questions with “yes” or “no” appropriately this fall. His behavior therapist hit that hard in their ABA sessions. When the Short Pump Express chuffed by, Thing 1 erupted into words asking and answering his own questions: “Go train? Yes! Train? Yes!” We rode–twice. Those little victories are amazing to witness, when you can see his eyes light up, everything click, and break through those communication barriers.

The husband and I managed a couple day dates thanks to the grandparents babysitting. On Christmas Eve, we drove to Veritas Winery to pick up my wine club bottles and a bottle of bubbly Scintilla for New Year’s toasting. I love Veritas wines, especially the Viognier and Merlot. I also love that the Veritas management allows people to bring outside food to the winery and picnic on the grounds. That’s what the husband and I did. We brought crackers, sausage, cheese, and enjoyed a glass of Scintilla on the veranda. We hit Blue Mountain Brewery afterwards for a tasting flight, and worked off that pretzel and beer by walking around my college alma mater.

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Christmas Day was not about fanfare. My kids do not like to open presents, they do not show excitement over Santa, and they definitely do not want to eat what’s served for Christmas dinner. Thing 3 was the first kid awake and thought all presents were for him. Santa brought him a shopping cart filled with fake fruits and veggies, which he’s pushed around the house nonstop for the past week. Thing 2 got launchers for his Thomas trains that make the trains race. And Thing 1 got an I.O.U. Lame, but the Target gift card we ordered using our Chase rewards to buy him an iPod never arrived. Santa’s gift is still in the mail, but Thing 1 did not seem to notice or mind. He instead showed Thing 2 how to work the train launcher.

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December has been unusually wet and mild in Virginia. We’ve had soggy days and temperatures in the 70’s. When it wasn’t raining, I took the boys to the playground, and we took the grandparents to the zoo one afternoon. These boys needs lots of fresh air and space to run.

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As last year ended, we felt tired and frustrated. We hated Thing 1’s school and the administration, Thing 2 was on a downward spiral of not sleeping and outrageously erratic behavior, and we had an infant. In the words of Jim Gaffigan, “Imagine you’re drowning. And someone hands you a baby.” We are still tired, but the year improved. Thing 1 had a great year with less meltdowns, more communication, and he is truly a delightful kid. Thing 2 is not sleeping, but we’re on the road to answers. Thing 3 is moving into terrible-two’s territory. They are all happy. We wish our friends and family the same health and happiness in 2016.

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One-Year Blogiversary

This month, I celebrated my one-year anniversary blogging with WordPress. Thank you to everyone who read, shared, and subscribed to Far Beyond Zebra in 2015! I continue to be shocked to see how many people share my ramblings… My top eight posts were about our autism journey (no surprise there) and shared 382 times on Facebook.

WordPress monkeys put together a cool yearly stat report:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,100 times in 2015. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 3 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Now it’s time to make some 2016 goals.

Thanks again, and Happy New Year!