Gamer Baby in Three Easy Steps: Intro to Toddler Board Games

Like board games? Have toddlers in your life? Want to share that love of competition and collaboration and teeny wooden Meeples with the next generation? There are some really, really fun toddler board games out there, designed for children as young as 2. They’re simple enough to teach to kids who have a limited vocabulary, but they’re not insipidly stupid, so parents won’t lose their minds playing along.

We’re lucky enough to have a group of gamer friends whose kids have been playing since they’re teeny, and they introduced us to some of the best toddler board games out there. These three are our favorites, and taken together they’re a solid three-step process to getting your toddler (or someone else’s) into the basics of board games – both the rules and the fun.

Step 1: Go Away Monster

(Cardboard pieces. Recommended for toddlers as young as 18 months, depending on temperament.)

Go Away Monster Toddler Game

This is more of a puzzle than a true board game, but it’s excellent for teaching toddlers the important concepts of turn-taking and placing pieces on a game board. There are four eclectically decorated flat cardboard rooms, and a small canvas bag of assorted bedroom furniture. Players take turns picking a piece out of the bag without peeking, and hope to pull out something that they need – a teddy bear, maybe, or a lamp. But there are monsters lurking in the canvas bag, too! Any player who pulls out a monster gets to throw it into the game’s empty box, saying “GO AWAY MONSTER!” This is, by far, my son’s favorite part of the game.

When you first start playing, it’ll be a challenge to get the kid to give up the bag for someone else’s turn, and to keep them from peeking into the bag to find their favorite pieces. In theory, the game ends when one player completes their room’s decor, but it’s okay not to push the concept of winning or losing just yet. It can be a good lead-in to discussions of sharing: “Mommy just got a bed out of the bag! But Mommy already has a bed in her room, what should I do? Does anyone else need a bed more than I do?”

Step 2: My First Orchard

(Cardboard with painted wooden pieces. Recommended for toddlers 2 and up.)

First Orchard Game Toddlers

This could also be called “My first Co-operative Board Game,” because this game pits players against a hungry crow who is trying to get to the orchard to steal our basket of fruit.

The shiny fruit pieces sit in their cardboard “trees,” waiting to be picked when a player rolls the right color. Yellow? Pick a pear and put it in the basket. Blue? Pick a plum. The basket symbol is a freebie – you can pick whichever fruit you want. If you roll the crow, then the bird moves one more step along the orchard path. If he gets to the orchard before you’ve filled up the basket, the game is over!

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The orchard game reinforces turn-taking skills and teaches children to roll a die and follow up with the appropriate action. My 2-year-old still has trouble with the basket symbol and how to proceed when he rolls it, so we’re currently using the basket as though it meant “roll again.” Younger kids also won’t understand the winning/losing aspect of moving the bird along the path, but they’ll get there. I love that this game starts out as a simple roll-and-match game for the youngest players but grows with the kids as they grasp more concepts.

Step 3: Snail’s Pace Race

(Cardboard game board, wooden pieces. Possible choking hazard, so I recommend age 2 1/2 and up, depending on your child’s propensity to stuff things in their mouth.)

Snail Pace Race Game

This is another one that’s not really a game, as there are no winners or losers. Six bright wooden snails are lined up at the starting line for a race, and are moved ahead depending on what the dice say. Players take turns rolling two dice, and moving the snails that correspond to the colors they’ve rolled. This introduces the idea of moving pieces along a board according to what dice tell you. Because sometimes you will roll the same color on both dice, kids will learn how to decide whether a piece needs to move one or two spaces.

Full disclosure: we don’t have this one for our son yet, but we’ve played it at a friend’s house, and it’s on our wishlist for the holidays. He’s asking us to play both Go Away Monster and “the apples game” almost every night, and it’s time to add this one to the rotation.

If you’re looking to get some games for the holidays, definitely consider these. They’ve brought us hours and hours of fun. They’re well made, and can stand up to grabby toddler hands. Absolutely worth the cost.

Note: links above are Amazon affiliate links, and you can learn more about that here. I only link to items I like enough to recommend to actual friends.




Thoughts in the Aftermath

I didn’t know that America’s core was this ignorant, this racist, this misogynist. We outsiders always joke about it, all the rednecks and gun-totin’ Yosemite Sams leaning out of big pickup trucks and hollering about freedom and Jesus.

I hesitated about moving here. To this country where so many still think humans walked with dinosaurs. Where guns are easier to get than mental health appointments. Where we don’t want tax money paying for abortion but we pretend teen sex doesn’t happen and refuse to give them information they need. Where police can pull a man over for a broken tail light and murder him in “self-defense.” Weekly.

Living here for almost a decade, I found that this country does contain good people. So many of them. Working for change and for understanding, working for others, defending their rights. I’ve grown so much thanks to their patience and their guidance. So much can be achieved through kindness and compassion and open minds. I began to think that with enough effort, we could make a difference.

I’m not sure I believe that anymore. The numbers don’t lie: at its core, America truly is a hateful and selfish country. I am so very nervous for my friends who don’t have the privilege of whiteness, cis-het-ness, health, affluence, and geography. I’m nervous for everyone.

 And I’m so mad that hate wins.




Liam at Two Years Old

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Two years. Twenty-four months of squirming and growing and changing. The changing is both the best and the worst part, because just as I get used to the baby I have, a new one comes along with new words and new skills and new opinions that don’t line up with mine.

Stats

  • Height: 33.5 inches
  • Weight: 27ish lbs
  • Favorite foods: Chicken nuggets, raspberries, muffins, french fries, raisin bread
  • Favorite toys: Weeble-wobbles, toy broom, toy phone (or Mommy’s phone, if he finds it), ukulele, new outdoor slide (thanks, Boobah!)
  • Favorite books: Goodnight Moon, the Mo Willems “Pigeon” books, Zoom City, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom
  • Favorite activities: Splashing in water, dumping things out onto the floor (especially Cheerios), reading, sharing things, watching short videos of other kids, going for walks, playing music on anything remotely like an instrument

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Chit-Chat

He’s talking so much that I’ve stopped trying to keep a list of words that he knows. New words come daily – hourly – and even though the conversations get repetitive, we’re talking together. I ask if he wants milk, he says yes. He asks for books, and I read them. He’s old enough now to understand what’s being said around him and we’re going to have to completely shift how we talk in his presence. In the car, when Dave asked what I wanted for dinner, I said “anything but pizza,” and Liam screamed TEETSA!! from the backseat. And he doesn’t even like pizza.

He even tells us stories about his school day, if we prompt him with leading questions. Did you play outside? “Ow-kide, yeah, Au-dee!” You played with Audrey? Did you see Zoe today? “Yeah! Doh-ee go ‘ome!

He is almost constantly chattering at home, even though it’s still toddler-speak that most people can’t quite understand. He says atsoo to us when we sneeze or blow our noses. “Uh-oh Leenum” when he trips. He plays happily with the pots and pans in his new toy kick-in and he draws with his yayons. He yells at “Ahmul” to get off the counter and away from our afternoon hnack of wabeewees and yoguck, and asks politely for me to o-peen my coffee tin in the mornings so he can hmell mommy foffee.

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He likes to hear me laugh – Mommy appy. Liam is NOT appy when I won’t let him watch Elmo wee-ee-yos on YouTube, though, even though he’s earnestly patting my chair, repeating “ere, Mommy. Dit, Mommy, Dit down Mommy.” We stop at the mailbox to check for new meeul every day after school and he always stops dead in his tracks if he sees a murm on the wide-walk. He loves his murms. And nakes, which are really just giant murms, after all. When I say “I love you Liam,” he’ll usually answer with I-lahyoo Daddy but if I’m out of sight he’ll sing-whisper Mommy wheyayoo? Most fruits are “apples”, and most veggies are “no.” He surprised us with plurals last week, telling us he saw “two beeeg deers” outside.

Development

If he sees or hears a thing once, he wants more. Explaining that I can’t make more deer appear in the backyard right now, or ask the garbage truck to drive past the house seventeen more times, leads to plop-down sit-in toddler protests. Protests are getting more frequent in general, and it’s hard to know how to react to some of it. Picking battles only works if you’re pretty sure which ones you can afford to lose without long-term consequences, and we don’t yet have that confidence. He dumps his food out of bowls, holds utensils out and watches them drop to the floor, and smashes crackers into dust and drips milk onto them. That’s when he’s in a good mood. We like to think he’s experimenting with physics and chemistry.

When he’s cranky or doesn’t like what we’re asking of him, he’ll shove whatever he’s holding with a huff and cross his arms. If he’s not holding anything, he’ll look around, find something, and glare at us while deliberately shoving it to the side with the absolute most disdain that a two-year-old can muster. If he doesn’t feel it’s moved far enough away from him, he’ll reach out and shove it again for good measure. Hmph. TAKE THAT.

He has a solid concept of “mine” and applies it often. Labeling things as his, or Mommy’s, or Daddy’s, is a seriously big deal to him. If we sit in the “wrong” chairs at dinner, he’ll tell us.

13483318_1231382123562274_6059097716345640770_oBut he’s also such a loving kid. He’ll run in for a hug anytime, and he’s still asking for “up” a million times a day because he loves to be held. We have snuggle time for a few minutes every night before bed, and he’s just devastated when I end it. Bedtimes are rocky again, with a new emotional attachment causing him a lot of distress when we leave the room. We’re working on it, but it’s been an exhausting few weeks.

Move it move it

Liam’s physical side is developing well, too, and he’s getting so much faster and stronger. He can zoom up the stairs in a flash now, even though he’s still mostly on all fours to do it. He’ll zip up the first three and then turn to yell “c‘mon, mommy!” He can also scoot down stairs on his butt now, but he prefers to do it standing, while holding the railing and saying “Leenum fah-full” with every step (I guess I warn him to be careful too often).

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He’s been more into physical play in general, probably because of his daycare buddies’ influence. He likes to roll around and be tickled, and climb on chairs and boxes. He’s started running, which is amazing to see, when we were so worried about his late walking. He loves to go for walks as often as we can find the time, and he’ll run ahead to make me chase him a lot. But he still tires pretty quickly, and he’s still unsteady with quick changes in direction or wobbly terrain. We’re still working with him to explore new ways to move and get more strength and coordination, and his new bike and new climbing structure/slide will help a ton this summer.

He’s a real kid now, not just a squishy little critter, and that’s just WILD. We’re finally able to share experiences with him and have him share them right back after they’ve been processed by that little toddler brain, and the whole thing is fascinating. I can’t wait to see the changes that are coming over the next few months, even though I’m sure the terrible twos will be rough on all of us. But we’re all still learning, and we’ll get through it all together.

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Love you, little dude.

 




Snuggles

I struggle to hold him still on the changing table as he twists his little naked body around to reach the light switch. “ight ahfffff!” he declares proudly, dragging out the ffff as though he were blowing out birthday candles. Not for another couple weeks, kiddo. I reach out to flick the light back on and spin him back around to secure the velcro on his diaper while he wiggles his feet in my face. “eet?” he asks. I grab one little foot and kiss its sole. MWAH. He grins. “Udda eet?” the other foot comes up beside the first, and I continue delivering kisses, MWAH MWAH MWAH, back and forth, one foot, two foot, while I get him into his shark pajamas.

I hoist him up and turn to set him on the floor, and he stops me, asking eagerly “Nunnel fuhst mommy? Nunnel?”

Of course.

Of course we can snuggle first.

Still holding him, all twenty-six wiggling pounds of him, I switch on the nightlight and pull the cord on the ceiling fan to dim the room with a click. I back carefully into the soft brown recliner and shift him into my lap, but he squirms free with a grin. “Cose! Cose dees!” he toddles to the bedroom door and pushes it closed with a click. He crosses the carpet to his crib and sticks his hand through the slats, all the way to his shoulder, to the very edge of his reach. He yanks his hand back out, triumphantly waving his frog Wubbanub. Half pacifier, half stuffed animal, “Bubba” is a snuggle time necessity. He pulls a blanket from the crib rail, pops Bubba in his mouth and walks towards me, stuffed frog dangling from his little face. He drops the blanket on my feet before lifting both hands up and out, and bouncing a little at his knees. The international toddler sign for “up, mommy.”

He’s heavy. The angle is awkward. I huff and I oof and I drag him up to my lap and he shifts around until his arms are in just the right places before he drops his head to my chest with a soft thud. He’s quiet except for snuffly breathing and the little sucking squeaks that escape around the pacifier. I wrap him up in the blanket and he wiggles an arm free, lifts his head, readjusts his shoulders, drops back down. He’s settled. He’s comfy.

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My mouth is right against the top of his head, and I kiss him. He doesn’t smell like a baby anymore. He smells like sunscreen and sweat, like an active little boy. But it’s the same weight on my chest, only heavier. The same little heartbeat, only stronger.

I don’t get to contemplate my toddler for long, because after thirty seconds of ‘nunnels’ he pops the pacifier out and looks up at me. “Suh-shyyy?” I sing for him, rocking, telling him he’s my little squirm-shine and he makes me happy. After three rounds of suh-shyyy, two baby belugas, and a twinkle twinkle, he pulls himself up and points to the space between the chair and the bedroom wall. There’s a pillow stuffed in there, is that what he wants? He nods, and the frog in his mouth hops twice. I shimmy the pillow loose and move it to the arm of the chair, and he immediately throws himself into it with a grin. I can’t see the grin behind the Wubbanub, but his eyes are bright and happy, and there’s one sweet dimple peeking out beside the pacifier’s edge. I grin back at him and his eyes sparkle brighter and the dimple gets deeper, and just the smallest “heh” escapes behind the frog.

I hug him tight, so tight.

I’ll snuggle you as long as you’ll let me.




The Greatest Generation

I had the highest of hopes for the Greatest Generation podcast when the Maximum Fun network picked it up and brought it to my attention. I’m a huge fan of other Max Fun podcasts, so I felt like if they were backing and promoting a Star Trek podcast, it would probably be a good one. Unfortunately, three episodes in, I’m done. I don’t feel like I can continue listening, and I absolutely cannot recommend the Greatest Generation podcast to any Star Trek fan.

It should have been a huge red flag to me that the hosts are so embarrassed to be hosting the podcast that they spend a little time in each of the first three episodes contemplating using pseudonyms so nobody knows they’re involved in such a nerdy project. Their premise is “A Star Trek podcast by two guys who are a bit embarrassed to have a Star Trek podcast.” Maybe that should have tipped me off. But it’s a comedy podcast, and I guess I figured they were playing to their audience, many of whom probably had to (or still have to) hide their love of Star Trek in order to avoid being mocked and bullied. Most geeks understand the impulse to stay quiet about what they love, in case someone comes by to tear it to shreds. So I let that slide, and decided to give it a few more episodes to see how it evolved.

It didn’t.

I thought I was going to hear a podcast that would poke fun at the silly things in TNG (and goodness knows there’s a whole harvest of silly pickings in season one alone). There’s some of that, to be sure, but there are also far too many Picard-the-closet-pedophile jokes for my liking, and I often found myself wishing they’d hurry up and talk about something else so I could stop squirming in discomfort. I’m glad I stopped at episode three, because @lakeline on Twitter tells me the sexual assault jokes get worse, and they go into weird Cosby territory around episode 8.

To be honest, though, that part doesn’t even bother me as much as it probably should. Those jokes have been made before, and there is a fair amount of casual sexism inherent to the show itself. Maybe the hosts are saying all that stuff ironically. Maybe.

Because they certainly don’t seem sincere. And that lack of sincerity gives an air of mean-spiritedness to the fun they’re poking at the show I love. If it ended there, I’d just have stopped listening and walked away without writing this post. I’d have just accepted that this podcast wasn’t for me and moved on to other things. But it’s not just the show they make fun of. They make fun of the fans, too. And that hurts.

I’ve spent enough of my lifetime taking crap for loving science fiction and other nerdy things – I will not put up with a podcast that jokes about holding up nerdier nerds to use as human wedgie shields. The hosts are careful to tell you over and over that they’re not super nerds, you guys. Yeah, they’re doing this podcast thing (don’t worry, they’re embarrassed about it) but there are waaaay nerdier fans than them out there. You know, those dorks who dress up and immerse themselves in the fantasy, and who try to recreate Klingon recipes with Earthly foods.

Dorks like me.

I love TNG. I was only a kid back when it premiered, but I watched it every week, without fail, while it was on the air. It’s what I compare all other science fiction to. I idolized Captain Picard and I was in love with Wesley. I wanted a friendship like the one between Geordi and Data. I wanted to check out the holodeck and work in sickbay as Dr Crusher’s assistant. I came to this podcast hoping to hear people geeking out about one of my favorite things. I wanted to connect with other nerds who love this same thing. Instead I feel vaguely ashamed for loving Star Trek as much as I do.

Why are they punching down? Why create levels and classes of nerds so there’s always someone to look down on? I’m genuinely confused about the audience they’re trying to reach with the show. It seems like it should be people like me, but then why would they insult me? Maybe this podcast is only for the super cool TNG fans who only watch it ironically on Netflix.

I’m especially disappointed because the other shows I enjoy on the Maximum Podcast network are so inclusive. I listen to Judge John Hodgman where “people like what they like” is settled fake internet law, and One Bad Mother where everyone’s parenting journey is equally valid and we’re all doing a good job. I guess maybe I thought that other shows on the network would share that welcoming atmosphere.

I’m not saying the hosts of the show are bad people. And maybe the show does get better in the second season, just like TNG did. But I can’t invest the emotional energy to continue listening.




Swedish Chef Therapy

 

This is my second in what will surely be a useful series of fictional-character-based self-help exercises. I’ve already told you how Spock can help you with some aspects of depression and anxiety by calling out your irrational side. Today we’re going to look at anger, and how to deal with it simply and effectively using what I like to call Swedish Chef Therapy, or MBAST: Muppet-Based Anger-Suppression Technique.

swedish chef

Credit: Connor Luddy via Flickr CC by 2.0

You’re angry. Frustrated. Irrational. Maybe your undies are too tight, you skipped breakfast, and have to sit beside Loudy McShoutington and his political opinions in the lunch room. Whatever the reasons, you’re successfully coasting through a tough day with gritted teeth and positive self-talk until you open your lunch and realize the sandwich artist put the wrong dressing on your sub.

We need to defuse this bomb before you give Mr. McShoutington the gift of a sandwich hat and you find yourself escorted out of the building.

1. Find two things you can hold in your hands. No weapons! Small everyday objects that you have nearby. A stapler and a water bottle are good options if you’re in the office. Just look around and get creative. They need to be big and heavy enough to really feel them in your hands – a pen is too small.

2. Get in front of a mirror. Alone. Lock yourself in the bathroom. If you’re at work, check for feet under the stalls. You’re about to get very, very silly, and you may not want witnesses.

3. Look mirror-you in the eyes. This part is important.

4. Hop up and down, flail your objects around like your arms are jelly, and sing as loud as you’re comfortable with:

Yorn deshorn, der burr beedish-kadoo
Yee bursh dee hurnder, de boor

BORK BORK BORK

If you’re not laugh-crying at yourself at this point, you need to go watch an hour-long playlist of Swedish Chef videos as a part of your training. If you’re prone to angry outbursts on a regular basis, you may need to start with advanced Swedish Chef Therapy right away and keep one of these chef’s hats in your desk drawer for emergencies.

swedish chef

Credit: Brian M, via Flickr CC by 2.0




Nine Exciting Part-Time Jobs for Med Techs

Whether you’re calling yourself a medical laboratory technologist or clinical laboratory scientist or any combination of those, let’s face it: you’re likely underpaid, overworked, and underappreciated by the rest of the healthcare team. In honor of Medical Laboratory Professionals Week, April 24-30, 2016, I’ve come up with a helpful list of part-time jobs that med techs can sign up for on their days off to bring in a little extra money. After all, we’ve got an impressive skill set thanks to our laboratory training!


1. Large Appliance Mechanic

maintenance on beckman lab instruments

The instruments are always down, and you’re always neck-deep inside one trying to figure out what’s stuck where. Why restrict yourself to chemistry analyzers and hematology counters when those same skills can probably dislodge stray forks from a dishwasher?

2. Shelf Stocker

shelf full of laboratory reagents

Everything is labeled, facing front, tagged with expiration dates and segregated by lot number. The grocery store will never be the same once you’re done with them.

3. Flower Arranger

plastic beaker full of pipettes

You can fit one more carnation in there. And a fern. Keep jamming.

4. Crime Scene Cleanup Technician

blood cleanup with bleach

It’s disturbing how quickly you can jump in with advice when someone asks how to get blood out of clothes.




5. Balloon Artist

balloon made of nitrile glove

They work well as water balloons too. Don’t ask me how I know. What happens during lab week stays in lab week.

6. Extremely Patient Phone Customer Service Representative

lab phone call

Yes, your specimen is hemolyzed. No, it was definitely like that when we got it. And no, we can’t run it anyway. No, we don’t hemolyze it just because we don’t like you. We’d use those laser-eyes for much better things if we had them, trust us.

7. Timekeeper

laboratory timers

Bake cookies in four different ovens. Sit in a hairdresser’s and monitor how long the dye’s been on whom. Stand by the track at the Olympics and time the bobsleds.1

8. Barista for Blood Cafe

pouring blood

Depending on whose blood you’ve got, it’s pretty lowfat, and I can definitely give you extra foam.

9. That Guy Who Writes Names On Grains Of Rice

labeled tubes sharpie

We know that anything fatter than an ultra-fine Sharpie doesn’t deserve the pocket space. Years of teeny tiny writing on tubes, labels, and badly-designed downtime worksheets means that we’ve perfected the skill of fitting our initials and the date (and more) into microscopic spaces.


Happy Lab Week to all my fellow lab rats. May your QC always be in range and may your STATs be few.


1 True story: I bought myself a lab-style timer for my kitchen, because I’m so well-conditioned that I can’t help but respond immediately to the beeping. And multiple channels are so incredibly useful when I’m cooking and have one thing on the stovetop and one in the oven and need to keep track of them both.

Many thanks to my lab friends for helping me with the photos for this post.

Amazon links in this post are affiliate links, and you can read more about that here. I only ever link to products I love and recommend.




Easy Zucchini Pancakes

Zucchini pancakes are one of the few reliable tantrum-free ways to get green food into my toddler. This afternoon felt like a good time to cook up a batch, so I got my equipment ready and then shared my plans with Twitter. As one does.

Screenshot from 2016-04-15 13:02:43And then someone on Twitter asked me for the recipe.

Uh-oh. Think fast.

I rarely follow recipes when I cook. I assemble meals out of some fresh stuff and some packaged stuff, call it a win, and then never manage to make that meal quite the same way ever again. The zucchini pancakes are no different. I “invented” my “recipe” almost a year ago when I had some pureed zucchini the kid refused to eat, and I turned to the millions of DIY baby food blogs hoping to find a way to use it up. I found lots of pancake suggestions, but they were all from scratch, because that’s how you prove your love as a mother, I guess? They wanted me to get out flour. Baking powder. Eggs. Blah. I have a box of pancake mix right here, how hard could this be to figure out? Let’s wing it.

Lazy Zucchini Pancakes

You need:

  • Zucchinis
  • Pancake mix
  • Water
  • Big microwave-safe bowl with lid (or plastic wrap to cover it)
  • Stick blender or regular blender

Wash and dice the zucchinis, skin and all. No, I didn’t tell you how many zucchinis to use. How many do you have? Use that many. We’re winging it, remember? Dump the diced bits into a microwave-safe bowl, add a splash of water, cover it tightly, and microwave until the zucchini is super squishy. 3-4 minutes usually does it for two zucchinis diced small.

Drain the water out carefully into a bowl or cup and save it in case you need to add it back in. Or dump it down the sink and just use regular non-zucchini water to thin stuff out later. No biggie, really.

Puree the zucchini. I use a stick blender, because it’s fast and much easier to clean than a regular blender, but either one will work. You can leave it chunkier or you can puree it completely smooth. I don’t mind chunks, but kiddo spits them out when he finds them, so I pretty much liquefy the stuff.

pureeing microwaved zucchini

Pour in some pancake mix. Maybe about half as much in volume as the amount of puree you have? Start with less; you can always add more. Mix it all in with a spoon. Or a fork: I’m not here to judge. Then just keep adjusting it by adding more pancake mix or more water until you get a consistency that looks like a thick (greenish) pancake batter. You’ve made regular pancakes using the directions on the box before, right? You know what pancake batter should look like? If not, maybe go do that first, then come back. I’ll wait.

making zucchini pancakes

Once the batter looks right, you’re ready to make pancakes.

Cooking zucchini pancakes

It’s hard to really screw this up – the worst that’ll happen is you’ll have too much zucchini in there and you’ll end up with really dense cakes that stay kind of squishy and taste more like zucchini fritters. If you’ve got more mix than zucchini in there, you’ll get nice fluffy pancakes, but you’ll have less zucchini per pancake that way. Be flexible and be prepared to play around with this one, because it’s such a variable process. How big are the zucchinis? How well did you drain them? What brand of mix are you using?

These pancakes freeze very well. Just lay them flat on a baking sheet or cutting board or something, and put them in the freezer. Once they’re frozen, pop them off and put them into a freezer bag. They last at least a month and can be thawed overnight in the fridge and microwaved back to warmth in the morning. They can also be microwaved from frozen, but you’ll need to flip them over a lot to avoid the frozen-middle-and-lava-edges problem.

easy zucchini pancakes

Go make some of these pancakes and show me! I want to see you winging it!

 

Spock Therapy

Vulcan Lane Sign

Image credit: Wonderferret via Flickr, CC by 2.0

I’ve fought hard against depression and anxiety for decades. I’ve read so many self-help books and tried all the positive thinking in the world. I’ve yanked on my bootstraps and I’ve Stuart Smalley’d myself in the mirror. I’ve written about my depression. I’ve given therapists my life story and they’ve tried to dig into my subconscious to pinpoint what emotional upheavals in my childhood might have turned me into a nervous caffeinated Eeyore. It wasn’t until I stumbled onto cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that my life finally started to change.

Cognitive therapy is hard work. Such hard work, in fact, that I wasn’t ready to take it on until I finally found a medication that lifted my depression just enough for me to dedicate my resources to anything other than basic needs. Even then, I was reluctant to take on the challenge. CBT is a long-term commitment. It’s not just dumping a week’s worth of troubles onto a therapist’s couch and walking away with a new bounce in your step. It’s constant repetitive work, like redirecting a fork-wielding toddler away from the power outlets, over and over and over.

Any Google search on CBT will quickly get you to a long list of “cognitive distortions” that get in the way of healthy thinking. It’s worth buying a copy of David Burns’ Feeling Good – The New Mood Therapy and reading through it yourself to really understand the research behind the therapy techniques. Essentially, you train yourself to recognize and label distorted thoughts as they come by, and then use appropriate techniques to challenge or “talk back” to them. Every time you check in and find your brain veering off course, you need to stop, focus, and correct it.

It can be intimidating to a beginner. I’ve recommended the book to friends who start out very enthusiastic and then abandon it after a chapter or two because it’s difficult or confusing. And it is difficult. Especially if the only therapy you’ve ever had (if any) is the introspective, cry-on-a-couch, relive-your-childhood-until-we-get-to-the-bottom-of-things therapy.

So I’ve found an easier way to approach it. If you want to start telling your irrational thoughts what’s what, but the books seem like gibberish to you, start simply. Don’t jump all the way in and splash around. Start logically. Your exhausted, anxious, depressed brain needs a first officer who can help you keep your shit together even when you’re falling apart. Your brain needs Spock.

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Let me explain.

The beauty of CBT, and the reason it connected so well with me, is that none of it is magic. No fake-it-till-you-make it, think positive, rainbows and unicorns pop-sci bullshit. It’s just logic. Pure, simple, and real. Logic. It’s Spock therapy.

At its core, CBT is simple: it’s about recognizing cognitive distortions. It’s about noticing when your thoughts need to be relieved of command. The purpose isn’t to change how you feel, at least not directly. It’s about recognizing that the thoughts you think contribute to which way your mood is likely to swing, and learning to control them instead of letting them control you. Everyone has irrational thoughts from time to time; the difference is that folks suffering from depression or anxiety have them more often, and believe them more often, and get trapped in a feedback loop of irrational thoughts causing very real feelings.

Now, CBT isn’t about never being sad: things suck sometimes and everyone deserves a good cry when it gets to be too much. And it’s not about never being angry: a kicked puppy is right to bite back. You’re allowed to have feelings! You’re human, after all. What the therapy does – what the hard work you put into the exercises does – is help you to assess whether the thoughts you are thinking make any sense, in context.

And who’s the best out there at telling an impulsive and irrational captain that he’s being ridiculous?

Kirk and Spock argue

Image credit: JD Hancock via Flickr, CC by 2.0

You know the logical answer.

Just imagine Spock (Tuvok will do, I’m not here to judge you on your Vulcan choice) on your shoulder, listening in on your thoughts. When your brain pulls out an irrational cognitive distortion, Spock is there to question you and make you reconsider. That’s his job as first officer. Don’t worry, you’re still the captain: sometimes, you’re going to decide that Spock is wrong and you’re going to accept your thoughts and feel your feelings. But before you dismiss your first officer, give him a chance to challenge you. When you start making statements about yourself or the situation you’re in, hand them off to Spock before you give them any weight. Think to yourself: What would Spock say?

Let’s take one of the most common kinds of distortions: “all-or-nothing thinking,” or applying a mental filter that accentuates the negative and discounts the positive.

“Dammit, I forgot my wallet at home again. I can’t do anything right.”

“Captain, that statement is illogical. You have, in fact, done several things right even in the past hour. You are wearing correctly-buttoned pants, and you drove yourself to this Trader Joe’s without breaking any traffic laws.”

How about “fortune-telling,” where you jump to conclusions (usually the worst ones) without any evidence. What would Spock say?

“He didn’t call back. I must have said something to offend him.”

Captain, telepathy is not a common human trait. Absent any evidence that he is in fact offended, you are basing your belief on conjecture. There are many explanations for a delayed response on his part, and your hypothesis does not carry more statistical weight than the others.

Irrational thoughts are sneaky. They can be really convincing, especially if they’ve been with you for decades or more. Talking back to them takes dedication and a lot of practice, and I honestly believe that the Feeling Good book is the best tool you can have in your pocket. Get the handbook, too, and really take the time to learn how your brain distorts things. Nobody else can do the work for you, and you can’t improve without effort. But that doesn’t mean that you have to make that effort alone.

Some people wear religious symbols – crosses, stars – or get meaningful images tattooed on their bodies to remind them they’re not alone in their journey. In my case my symbol is a reminder that I don’t always know best, because my thinking can list towards the irrational without my conscious mind realizing just how far off course we’ve gotten. If I’m not careful, I find myself fighting like mad just to stay in place as my depression and anxious thoughts pull at my mind like a tractor beam.

That’s why I depend on my first officer to help me make the right decisions about when to pay attention to what my brain is saying.

Spock and Kirk

Image credit: Sonny Abesamis via Flickr, CC by 2.0

Keep Spock with you. Let him help you.

He has been, and always shall be, your friend.

 




 

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Maybe I Use Too Many Monkeys

Monkeys. Too many monkeys. My brain is full of them. My cognitive control center is run by a monkey crew, none of whom work particularly well together or enjoy each other’s company. It’s never quiet up there. One of them is always worried about something, and they trip over each other to inform me about the VERY IMPORTANT THINGS that they think I need to deal with RIGHT NOW. They’re jerks. I really wish they’d shut up, because they’re causing some pretty serious anxiety these days and that’s a lot to deal with.

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Many people who seem to have their act together (including my trusted therapist) have suggested I try meditation as a strategy to deal with my anxiety. But I just don’t see how it’s going to work. There are too many monkeys. I know the point of meditation exercises are to quiet your mind, and to just let intrusive thoughts float through and be on their way, but I have too many thoughts. Too many monkeys reminding me about all the things I have to do. Not to mention the 24-hour round-the-clock repeating video of all the things I’ve ever done wrong.

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I envy people who can answer the question “what are you thinking about” with a simple, honest, “nothing.” If I’m asked the same question, the answer takes long enough that the listener should probably take notes to follow along:

This beer is good but I probably didn’t need the calories. But that caramel egg put me over a reasonable count for the day anyway. I should stop if I want to fit in any pants by next month. I need new jeans. When can I go shopping? Oh, clothes, wait. There are clothes in the washing machine, better get that in the dryer before bed. Liam needs socks tomorrow, he wore the last clean pair today. Oh, crap. Liam. I didn’t make Liam’s lunch for tomorrow, I should do that. Nuggets? He had those yesterday, I should probably change it up for him. But he won’t eat much else, this food thing is getting complicated. Maybe it’s time for the meal plan? But that’s expensive, what’s $15 a week come to, $3 a day? That’s a lot. Nuggets are cheap, fuck it. Oh, wait, I almost forgot the laundry!

**Note to my readers: I DID forget the stupid laundry after all.

Even if I could manage to succeed at meditation, I don’t understand how it can possibly fix an overactive mind. I guess it gives you a few minutes of calm, with a reduced heart rate and blood pressure and all that good stuff, but once you snap your fingers and pop back into reality, all those problems you were worried about are still there. And you’re now 30 minutes closer to death without having dealt with them. Even considering meditation makes me more anxious because it feels like a wasteful use of the precious little time I have to get shit done. I get angry just thinking about it. Seriously – just writing these sentences out and thinking about possibly trying to meditate has triggered an anger response in me.

To be honest, I can’t even say that I hate my monkeys. They’re so familiar to me now, and my brain would seem so quiet without them. I just wish I could train them to prioritize better.

Friends who meditate: how? How do you make it work? Have you evicted the monkeys? Or are yours just better-trained? What’s the point of the half hour of quiet, if it just means you’ve got to catch up with the world again afterwards? How can I approach meditation with something other than frustrated rage?