Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Top Ten Blogs I'm Reading... as of this minute

At the Arkansas Women Bloggers Unplugged conference, we all pinky swore to post our top ten list of favorite blogs we read, as well as the reasons they captivate us.  Without further ado (and definitely in no particular order):

1.  Catherine et les fées (Catherine & the Fairies) Yes, I am a confessed francophile and it is in French, but stick with me!  This is my all-time favorite.  It's visually stunning, each paragraph is translated into English (plus, surely you know where to find a page translator) and drips with the rural French countryside home-schooling experience-based lifestyle that I have with my kids... in my head.  Just peek once - it's a treat.

2.  Penelope Trunk: Brazen Careerist You'll laugh.  You'll snort.  You'll relate.  This gal is some kinda funny with large doses of life lessons and irreverence.  It's like the Pioneer Woman, sort of - big city gal falls for cute farmer.  I suppose technically she is kind of a life/career coach, but whatever.  Just read it.

3.  Seth's Blog If you were at the Arkansas Women Bloggers conference (if you weren't, shame on you!), you heard me mention Seth Godin.  He's a marketing genius with searing wit.  This is one of just a few blogs that I highly recommend subscribing to via email or text message.  His daily missives are short, digestable and thought-altering.  If you want someone to occasionally (or daily) slap you upside the head with a dose of reality, this is your blog.  He's also the source of one of my all-time favorite directives on marketing and social media: earn the right to whisper.  The idea is that in marketing you can shout through a megaphone all day long, but you'll only succeed when you develop relationships and earn the right to whisper in someone's ear - that trust means they are listening.  This guy is a complete anomaly.  He's the author of Tribes, Linchpin and many other amazing books, but also just gives his books like Spreading the Ideavirus away... yeah, free.  He'll even summarize the entire book if you don't have time to read it.  Wowza.

4. Simple Mom Tsh Oxenreider has created an amazing online resource mecca - Simple Living Media.  I'm kind of cheating on this entry because I'm really sending you to all of their other blogs: Simple Bites, Simple Kids, Simple Organic, Simple Bites, Simple Marriage and Simple Homeschool.  You'll find them all on that main page.  However, Simple Mom is my very favorite, and Tsh remains the primary writer/editor.  Check out all the sites and subscribe to one or several.  From inspiration to great projects, tips and ideas - they're all fantastic.  As an example, I don't homeschool but have picked up more great activity ideas from that blog than you can imagine.  They are all written with simple (obviously), soulful tones.  Plus, the giveaways are handpicked and amazing.  Not just stuff, by any means!

5.  The Park Wife I would clearly be remiss if I didn't mention one of my favorite women on the planet.  I adopted her fast and furiously, and she has allowed me into her home without fear.  She is everything that she appears to be to each of you - honest, sincere, funny, a devoted wife who reminds us all how to simply love the one you're with, an amazing mom and a gal who is thoughtfully and effectively changing the world around her every day.  I know I'm not the only one on the edge of my seat for her debut book!  I especially love her take on "raising warriors."  She inspires me every day, even when I'm not reading her blog posts. 

 6. NWA Foodie Again - a friend but also a must-read.  Lyndi explores food with a zest that is hard to describe, and whether you're in her neck of the woods and can visit the places she mentions or reading from afar and following her cooking antics, you won't be sorry.  Gluten-free or not, here's a gal you'll want to connect with if you care about food.  In addition, she is simply a rock star human being in her own right.

7.  Mommy Wants Vodka Ok, this blog is not for the faint of heart, but there's a lot to gain if you are not turned off by the occasional (ok, frequent) foul word.  And when I say foul, I mean really foul.  Do not visit if that makes you uncomfortable.  I don't want anyone to be unwarned and offended.  "Your Aunt Becky" delivers frequent doses of belly laughs with her impudence, but if you dig deep beyond her scathing bio you'll find a touching March of Dimes mom of an autistic child and a child with a neural tube defect who has brought me to tears with laughter as much as with reality.  She also founded Mushroom Printing, a site where people with the lowest of luck and saddest of fates have an outlet to tell people to take a hike.  Again, Aunt Becky is R rated - but she is also genuine and amazing.  I don't suppose her blog could be any more polar opposite from the sweetness that is Catherine et les fées!

8.  Practically Green I love this website (amazing, outside the norm tips for green living beyond "you should recycle and use CFLs"), and the blog is a great resource.  It's all approachable and... well, practical.  Take the quiz on the main site and keep up with the blog for tips from people all over.  You may even see a post from yours truly in the not so distant future!

9.  Cool Mom Tech A smattering of apps, tips, habits and products, but never forced on you in a "hurry and buy this right this minute!" way - i.e. with a megaphone, #AWBU ladies.  It's a treat to skim and keeps me hopping and thinking!

10.  Mashable There are several blogs available on the news and social media site Mashable, and I recommend either the main one or the Social Good blog, which is full of companies maximizing social media to influence positive change.  It's full of trendy tips and news snippets.  Good reading.

I think this is the first list I've compiled that does not include predominantly foodie, locavore and gardening references, but it's today's top ten list, not my all time list - that would be impossible!  And, apologies in advance - these recommendations run the gamut from inspiring to appalling, yummy to green and techy and naughty.  C'est la vie! 

AWBU attendees, I'm looking forward to your lists as well!  What are your top ten blogs?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

I'm just sayin': it's kind of a big deal.

As you've likely heard if you spent a minute or so in communication with me in the last month, we recently hosted the first-ever Arkansas Women Bloggers Unplugged (#AWBU) conference at the Ozark Natural Science Center.

I'm personally indebted to Stephanie Buckley (The Park Wife), Fawn Rechkemmer (Instead of the Dishes and Momcation) and Julie Kohl (Willow Tree Creek Farm) for accepting a phone call from a stranger inviting them to gather bloggy ladies from all over Arkansas at a remote spot in the woods.  They not only enthusiastically agreed, they've welcomed me into their fold and I am now most fortunate to consider them dear friends.  I predict much future plotting, gallivanting and general antics out of us collectively - be forewarned.

Normally following an event, I would post a recap on the ONSC blog - however, a blog conference is unique in its ability to generate unique perspective and posts from each attendee.  Since they've all done such an incredible job (read their posts or add your own at the end of this post), I'll let the story of the weekend be told through their voices.  Instead, I had to share a few things that I saw happen - all of which reflect the transformative nature of time spent in the Ozarks with good company:

This conference brought so many people out of their boxes and outside their norms.  To me, these were the most exciting successes of the event.  Novice bloggers attended their first blog conference, empowered by having access to such an event that was both affordable and accessible.  Lyndi hosted her first Twitter party. Julie set up a Twitter account and is using social media to market her farm goods - oh, the irony!  Annette left New York for Arkansas and flinched slightly less when critters got too close, and Robyn left her online world with something akin to glee - and holy cow, she posted a link to National Get Outdoors Day on her blog - love it! 

Mailena confessed a great love of the Buffalo and the Ozarks that is the basis for what will no doubt be a long and happy marriage.  Steph did not hyperventilate while using crafty scissors.  Courtney said words that were music to my ears: "Maybe we should hold a team retreat out here so people will actually listen."  

From stay at home moms to working professionals, women realized that their blog is their voice and an opportunity to explore themselves and their hopes for their families as well as a foothold for their own dreams.  Gals who were certain the outdoors was not for them found that it's quite enjoyable in small doses.  The uncertainty of the first day of school, of potentially not fitting in with others, of blending disparate personalities all melted away as women were kind and encouraging toward one another.  The incomparable Jasmine delivered belly laughs (pun intended) that may very well have been the cure for the soul that a few ladies didn't even know they were seeking - and she brought the bedazzled Chacos.

My very favorite moment may have been when I was pleasantly surprised to find not just three or four of our more adventuresome attendees, but rather almost every single lady clamoring around exceptional teacher naturalist Roslyn Imrie, who held out our conference's mascot she-turtle AWBX.  They asked questions.  They listened.  They learned.  Hey - that's exactly what we try to teach kids at ONSC!  Our folks plant the seed of knowledge and send kids back into the world to positively affect it.  That happened at #AWBU too.

At the risk of teetering on the edge of cheesiness, I have to say that I saw so many gestures that went above and beyond.  It's impossible to properly communicate just how many people saw the potential for something great in this little event, and they threw themselves into its success with great enthusiasm.  The relationships built and the future collaborations will be exciting to watch.  My heart nearly stopped when I learned that Jasmine asked that contributions be made to ONSC in lieu of gifts for her baby shower.  Read that sentence again and process that level of thoughtfulness and generosity.  We could all use a little more of it in our lives.

For AWBU, we didn't promise high-tech stuff - we said we'd save that for a future "real" conference.  There will be a time (not far off!) and a place (maybe Little Rock?) for graphic design, WordPress tips, search engine optimization and monetization.  This was just what we promised originally: a chance to unplug, step away from the screen, look each other in the eye, be inspired and really connect.  I think it worked.

The tagline of the conference may very well be: Arkansas Women Bloggers.  We're kind of a big deal.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Current Obsessions

It's been an official two month hiatus today.  My.  That's a rarity.  My husband would certainly argue that I've not had a dearth of things to say in that time period, but my bloggy muse needed a break.

Would you humor me for a diatribe regarding things I'm excited about currently?  Because in general, I find that my life is a series of things I'm excited about.  Nonetheless:

 Arkansas Women Bloggers Unplugged Conference (#AWBU) at the Ozark Natural Science Center on June 10 - 12.  If you've been around me for even a minute, you know I'm fired up about this.  It's a treat to be focusing on women's events at ONSC (such as our upcoming Women's Yoga Retreat on June 3 - 5), but there is a particularly fun energy surrounding this small but mighty group of female voices in Arkansas.  Join us, or tell a bloggy friend if you like.  We're delighted by the addition of our presenting sponsor, Collective Bias, and their proprietary Social Fabric community - do read more about them.  Event details on our website or the Arkansas Women Bloggers site, which you should check out anyway (and list your blog)!  I realize this is sort of work-related, but it's that lovely intersection where work meets passion, so I hope you'll forgive.

The Chez Stephens Kitchen is capturing my energy and attention.  So far, we've removed about seven layers of wallpaper and various other debris.  After living under a wallpaper border featuring adorable bunnies, flowers and watering parts lo these many years since we moved into our 1905 house in 2004 (and yes, of course we had a centennial party - please!), it was time to break free.  The Handyman and I discovered early in our marriage that we were not fond of wallpaper and carpet, and we've been extracting them ever since enthusiastically.  Soon, soon I'll be able to share photos of our calm, mocha kitchen with popping red accents.  I can see it now.  I've just got to escape a few more bad judgment calls.  Sigh.

My new book club is a source of delight - and I say "my" rather loosely since I simply attend.  The lovely Jennifer Pratt of J. Pratt Books is our fearless leader, and I can honestly say I never previously thought a book club would be my bag.   I judged them by their covers, I suppose.  It turns out to be a great delight, and is certainly pushing me to pick up things that are outside of my normal genre.  Define that genre, you ask?  Ugh.  I think it sways toward travel or place-based (by this I mean Love in the Time of Cholera, not Under the Tuscan Sun), rather epic and overly-descriptive (i.e. Hemingway and Steinbeck) with a few oddly uncategorized greening and organizing books thrown in for good measure.  It's a sickness.  I enthusiastically recommend finding a book club, preferably one that centers around wine, as well as checking out Goodreads.

Pinterest has captured my heart.  Megan at Sorta Crunchy (whose blog you should visit regardless!) did a wonderful overview for the novice pinner, and I found myself immediately intrigued.  I'm still exploring it myself, but let me know if you'd like to connect.  The bottom line is that it is a lovely "catalog" site that creates visual display boards, with a social tie.  Sounds overly-basic, I know.  But it's so fun to see things I love from Remodelista or moments in time captured in one of my favorite blogs, Catherine et les fées, which speaks to the mommy, organic, green and francophile portions of my heart on a visually delightful pinboard.  That's all.  You must give it a whirl when you need some inspiration. 

What's your latest obsession?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Arkansas Women Bloggers Unplugged mini-conference!

By the way, if you're a blogger, check out the Arkansas Women Bloggers Unplugged mini-conference, to be held June 10 - 12, 2011 at the Ozark Natural Science Center.  Join us, and be sure to tell others about it! #AWBU

Details & registration:

In Praise of Reader's Digest Condensed Books and Toast

If you're much of a reader and not already on Goodreads, I enthusiastically suggest you check it out.  I always compare it to Facebook for readers, although you won't want the throngs of friends you may have on the former.  I keep my Goodreads circle to an intimate group of book club cronies and those whose opinions about books are of great interest to me - maybe two dozen or so.

While reading France magazine, I saw an interesting article about Toni Morrison (Song of Solomon, Beloved) and Michel Houellebecq (La Carte et le Territoire), who both recently received the prestigious Légion d'Honneur award in recognition of their contributions to literature.  I thought Houellebecq's novel, "a fictional account of artist Jed Martin's personal evolution as he achieves fame photographing Michelin maps," sounded interesting, so I hopped on the Goodreads app to add it as well as Morrison's books to my "to read" list.  I digress.

While on Goodreads, I saw the following review of Edge of Glass by Catherine Gaskin posted by my dear friend Heidi:

I was excited to find this story in a 1968 Reader's Digest Condensed Books Book. Is it just me, or are those books so comforting, like you're spending the weekend with your Grandma and as you read, she's making you some sort of delightful meal that somehow only she knows how to make? This is a super easy read, but really enjoyable.  

The review delighted me for several reasons: first, I simply adore Heidi and anything that comes from her brain.  Secondly, the book cover reminded me of the stereotypical 60s era Nancy Drew tomes, which was fun on its own.  Most importantly, though, I could relate specifically to her experience.
I used to spend summers at my grandparent's house in Mena, Arkansas, where I would blow dust off of and then devour their aging copies of Reader's Digest Condensed Books.  My grandmother would make me toast (not because I was incapable, because she was nice), and she would stack it on the plate with the buttered sides pressed together.  I found this ingenius, and it made the butter all warm and melty.  I took it as a particular gesture of kindness.  In fact, as I type this it occurs to me that I often feel a sense of surprise that my daughter doesn't realize what a tremendous favor I'm doing her when I do the same for her.  Or, perhaps like me, she does and never says anything - I didn't express that sentiment to my grandmother, but toast makes me think of her warmly (of course).

One of the books that I read as a condensed version was The Charm School by Nelson Demille.  I found it exceptionally intriguing, and years later bought a copy to read in its entirety, which I still have today.  I love the idea that a book can transport with not only its topic but the place and time you consume it - on deck on a sailboat in the Caribbean, by the shores of a quiet lake in Wisconsin or in a far less exotic and rather humble backyard under a tree on a spring day.

The Charm School remains in my short list of all-time favorite books.  It could be the story line, the memory, the sense of specific time and place or the feeling as a teenager that I was delving into adult-caliber reading.  Regardless, those are exceptionally strong sentiments, and Heidi's note brought them into a more brilliant light.

Here's to summer reading!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Everybody's Living for the Weekend...

There's a fun thing that happens on a Friday night (when you're lame like me)...

Assuming I haven't been out and about on said Friday night (which is increasingly rare of late), nightfall finds me righting the kitchen. I don't use the term "righting" lightly... I actually feel like I discovered a little early what my mom knew for years: it feels good and comforting to shut the house down at night and prepare for the coming day.

I may clean as I go while making dinner or just wipe things up a bit after a relaxed Friday night (like this one) with some wheat crust Jim's Razorback Pizza and family movies. Tonight was Chocolat - must see if you haven't.

But to my point... my favorite, sad little moment entails the next day coffee prep for a Saturday morning. First, I get to make a little extra. Second, I take my time grinding whole beans and enjoying a whiff of the results rather than feeling like I'm indulging a major decadence when I could theoretically just scoop some coffee in the pot.

But third, and most importantly: I'm able to place two sturdy coffee mugs side by side on the counter, side by side in life. Because on Saturday mornings, we aren't grabbing travel mugs and dashing out the door, focused more on our jobs than one another. The mugs say that life is slower, and we'll have time to visit, make eye contact, sip slowly and connect. We can savor the taste of the coffee rather than down it in desperation to cope with the day ahead. We can be us, not them.

Call me sentimental, but it's comforting. In fact, it just might be what it's all about: our raison d'être, our reason for being... the point of dashing through it all during the week.

Yes, it's a cup (or three) of coffee. We sip it. We lounge in PJs. The kids have a forum for tall tales. It's life... only it's life in tune with one another.

All hail the Saturday cup of joe.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Monday, January 3, 2011

A bit about the Fitbit: my new BFF.

Have I raved about the Fitbit?  No?  Allow me a moment or three to rave about it now, por favor.  Ahem. 

After incessant, not-so-subtle hinting, my husband purchased it for me for Christmas.  He's a sharp man.  It has everything an information nerd's little heart could desire.  It essentially serves as a glorified pedometer and also tracks sleep efficacy, calories burned and so forth.  And before you say anything, let me confirm that it is indeed a non-essential device.  Obviously, I'm painfully aware already of how much or how little I sleep, eat and exercise. But here's the genius of this little device: it's not only a wonderful indulgence for the data-obsessed, it also encourages better behavior.  As an example:

I hop in bed a bit abashedly just before midnight, knowing I probably should have hit the sack around 10:30 p.m.  However, I know that I can still sneak in my bare minimum nightly goal of seven hours of sleep if I push it just slightly on our morning routine (never a good idea, by the way).  I hit start on the Fitbit just before my head hits the pillow, doze off quickly and wake up at 6:45 p.m. assuming I've gotten in my seven hours.  However, the Fitbit tells me I actually woke up 17 (!!) times during the night and despite being in bed seven hours, logged only six hours of sleep.  So, I know that I'm going to have to get to bed earlier to get the amount of sleep in I need - no wonder I feel tired!  Now, honestly - I sleep far better than this and plan accordingly.  And, for the record, this is not because I have a newborn in the house - she sleeps like a rock, just like the rest of our family.  But you get the picture.

This handy thing also logs my daily steps as I strive for 10,000+ per day, but most intriguingly, it gives me charts that show my level of activity.  So, if I sit in front of a computer working all day versus running to errands and appointments, it shows by making me feel guilty over 4 - 6 sedentary hours.  That's awful!

The related website lets me obsessively journal my food, water, weight, measurements and more.  I'll point out that all this works only if you are an information junkie.  I am absolutely affected positively by chronicling my meals, exercise and so forth - and in the process I'm forming better habits.  More on that, incidentally, in The Classic I-Will-Get-Organized-Tirade.  And, if you're also a fan of (or positively influenced by) regular monitoring, check out cool tools for implementing resolutions and better habits such as these:

1. - cool concept that socializes your better life challenges into a Foursquare-esque game.
2. - sends daily emails to check your progress over 21 days on habits you'd like to form.
3. - I'm a fan of their free plan - great concept that relates to my previous Foodie Fun rant.
4. - for the truly committed, set your own stakes.

It most certainly tracks daily steps quite accurately, but also tracks activity levels, calories burned, sleep efficacy and much more.  I've transitioned from using Lose It! and the Lose It! app for iPhone (and prior to that, CalorieKing) to enter my daily calories consumed.  And yes, I'm a bit obsessive about it.  It would be pretty simple to not track every morsel and just realize how well I'm doing, but I like to have this information ad nauseum.  Likewise, I obviously know whether I worked out in a day, but I like that the Fitbit monitors me all day and reports the hours I was sedentary (gasp!), lightly active, very active and so forth.

Honestly, I could ramble here about this for days - it's worth checking out.  Particularly if you are gadget or tech-oriented and would enjoy seeing graphs and comparing your stats with others in the fitness community, this is a cool tool.  I'll still use my MotionX GPS app (see favorite apps in the right hand sidebar below) and probably even the Runner's World log, but this is hands down one of the coolest tools I've run across.  At $99, it makes sense to upgrade from a very nice pedometer at around $40 to this for the extra information.

I've started a group on the Fitbit forum if you decide to pursue it and want to connect.  This thing is definitely not for everyone, but it's perfect for those who need to obsessively control food journaling, workouts and information as they work toward fitness.  And, while I'm on the subject - I've been impressed with the health trackers (recommended daily fat, protein and carbs, for example) at as well as this BMI calculator.  I'm a bit more inspired when I have all the hairy details on where I stand.

Happy fitbit trails, and here's to a healthy 2011!

P.S. Are you a runner?  Read a bit about our downtown efforts here, and check out the great running log at Runner's World.  But, if you're a runner, you're probably way ahead of me, since I'm a novice.  RunKeeper is a great app for smartphones, but I'm partial to the MotionX GPS for multiple sports - it's a fantastic app and well worth $1.99.  More on running and biking in a later post.