I hope this time of year brings you many words of joy. Words like…

No assembly required
Dishwasher safe
Batteries included
One size fits all

And also,

I love you
Please
Thank you
Hooray
I love it
Yes
No thank you
See you soon
It’s perfect
You’re welcome
Come over
I remember
I love you, too

Thank you for reading my words here this year.
I hope to bring you even more in 2016!
xoxo

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Photo credit: Bonnie Berry Photography

Like a lot of families, we try to incorporate volunteering into our lives–to support our community and to teach our kids by example. As a family we have done countless school fundraisers and charity races. We’ve collected blankets for animals and coats for kids. We’ve hosted bake sales for needy families and planted trees for needy parks.

Every one of those projects was worthwhile and engaging, but this year we decided to switch things up. Instead of one-time projects we wanted to offer a steady stream of goodwill. We wanted an ongoing commitment that our family could do together and feel a real sense of investment.

It sounded simple enough because of course a city the size of Austin has plenty of needs. Then we factored in our kids’ age range and our busy family life and it wasn’t so easy after all.

So we started researching and began with this wish list:

1. Something meaningful to us.

2. Something that works with our family schedule.

3. Something that lets us work with friends.

Y’all, I’m happy to say we found a match!

It’s only been a couple months, but it already feels so great. Once a month we meet some friends (another family of 5) at Mobile Loaves & Fishes. We make sandwiches for the homeless and load up one of the trucks that goes out for delivery 365 days a year. When our schedules allow, we hope to make some of the delivery runs, too. A few incredible stats: Mobile Loaves & Fishes has 16 trucks and more than 18,000 volunteers in 5 cities and 4 states. They have served nearly 3.9 million meals to the homeless. That’s too many sandwiches to count!

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The organization has also created a 27-acre master-planned community that will provide affordable, sustainable housing and a supportive environment for the chronically homeless. We have worked out at the Community First Village and, like the truck ministry, it is full of family-friendly volunteer opportunities. In fact, one of MLF’s greatest strengths as an organization is how systematic and accessible they are. It’s so easy to volunteer that it takes away any obstacles or excuses.

Working with friends has been a huge perk. Our kids love seeing their friends in this type of setting. Sure, they joke around some, but they also take their jobs very seriously and try to out-awesome each other with their volunteer skills. As a bonus, with two families we have more flexibility if a kid gets sick or someone has a conflict.

And is the project meaningful for our family? Yes. Unfortunately, homelessness is a part of our daily landscape. We live in the middle of the city, a few blocks from an intersection that has at least one guy standing on the corner at all times of the day.

We use this intersection several times a day and for the past couple of years, a man named Eddie has been there almost every day. Eddie is there when we drive to ballet, to soccer, to art class. He’s there when we go to the grocery store, when we go for a run, when we go eat at a restaurant. Our kids see him when he’s cheerfully waving to all the drivers, when he’s yelling at a bystander’s dog, and when he’s stumbling up and down the curb with a bottle in his hand.

Countless times the kids have asked why nobody is helping Eddie. I’m usually at a loss for words. “Maybe people are trying…maybe he has a hard time accepting help…maybe he’s fighting some demons we don’t know about.”

Since we started helping Mobile Loaves & Fishes, the kids have a new question: “Do you think Eddie will get this sandwich tonight?” Maybe. I hope so. And if not this Eddie, then it will certainly help another Eddie we haven’t met.

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The holiday season is a great time of year to support your community, but it’s also a great time to commit to supporting it year-round. I hope you find something valuable that works for you and your family!

Other Austin organizations we love and support:

The Trail Foundation
Austin Parks Foundation
Little Helping Hands
Austin Pets Alive

 

 

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Seems like just yesterday we were wondering where September went and now BAM…what happened to October??

Life’s been busy, y’all! A few things I’ve been doing, reading, talking about or just generally enjoying…

* Hiking with my family and telling others how to make it easy and fun. (Hints: Never call it hiking and always bring treats.) Read more about it at The Queso, which incidentally has all kinds of awesomeness planned this month. Tune in!

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* This week REI won my heart (again) when they announced their #OptOutside campaign, in which they will close their doors on Black Friday and encourage employees and the public to spend the day outside with family. Can I get an Amen?

* Even though the weather in Austin has been cool (ish) lately, my camera and I have been recreating the heat of summer with our friends at Fine & Folded. They sell delightful (and super practical!) hand fans that are a purse essential for 9 months out of the year in Texas. Check them out…You’re going to want some of these.

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* I was so excited to have one of my photos featured in the November issue of The Sun, a literary magazine that I have read and admired for decades. When my kids saw it they said, “Oh darn, it’s on the last page, Mom…” I said, “YES! That’s where everybody turns first!” The whole issue is dedicated to parenthood and family life. As always, it’s full of thoughtful, humorous and unforgettable personal stories.

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* My friend Kacie of MamaCasePrints, who is a rockstar T-shirt designer and mom of two, has the most amazing new member of her family: Emma the Labrador service dog. Two years ago Kacie’s son Eddy (now almost 4 years old) was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. This year, thanks to special T-shirt sales and donations, Eddy has Emma by his side to detect dangerous dips in his blood sugar levels. She has been a game changer for their family and it’s only just the beginning. Every single time I read a post about Emma I get chills. Follow them on Instagram and you’ll fall in love with their story.

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* My new favorite gift is a custom poem from the talented crew at Typewriter Rodeo. This group of writers has been entertaining events for years by setting up a table and working their magic on the spot. Now they are also offering custom poems for birthdays and special holidays. Here’s just one brilliant example of their work. Find them on Facebook for more! (Click image to enlarge and read poem.)

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Other that, I’ve been throwing together Halloween costumes, trying to track down a cookbook from the library that I lost before I even made it to the kitchen, and texting my friends inane things like this. What have YOU been up to?

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Parenting requires a huge dose of optimism. Who else but the glass-half-full crowd would dare bring children into a world fraught with injustices, Kardashians and high-fructose syrup? It can be an uphill battle to keep focused on the bright side.

I have a naturally Pollyanna personality, but I still need frequent reminders to help stay the course. I seek them out in stories, images, blips of conversation. I’m a heat-seeking missile when it comes to examples of the power of positive thinking.

Last week a reminder came from an icon in the world of optimism. I had the great pleasure to meet Bert Jacobs, co-founder and Chief Executive Optimist of the Life is Good Company. Jacobs was in Austin to wow a crowd of 7,000 at the Texas Conference for Women. His speech was everything you’d hope it would be: energizing, inspiring, tear-jerking and funny.

Afterwards I had the opportunity for a quick interview with him, and I went straight to the topic closest to my heart: family life.

Me: Cynicism seems a little too cool in our culture right now. How do we raise children to be optimists?
Bert Jacobs: Tell your kids to look through history and find us the great pessimists. Find us the great cynics. You’ll be done with your assignment in 10 minutes. Then go through and find the great optimists, and you can do it for the next 3 years. Every hero you’ve ever had was an optimist, because they see things before they happen. In order to be optimistic, you have to be open-minded and ambitious.

My work is focused on the “small moments that tell the big stories of family life.” What’s one small moment in your life that tells your big story?
I would say my mom at the dinner table saying, “Tell me something good that happened today.” That could look on a given day like a very small thing, but it changed our lives. It changed the trajectory of our whole path. It led us to greater business. It led us to a great kids foundation. And look how lucky we are, doing all the things we are doing. All from one thing that Mom said at the dinner table. The interesting thing is…and it’s not even in the book…is that she had huge challenges in her 20s. My mom was put in a mental institute and was told that she would never amount to anything or have a family. So I think her heightened appreciation for life, and never taking a day for granted, and teaching us “Tell me something good” came from a place where she was really challenged.

What did you want to be when you were 10 years old?
A stuntman. I was a typical boy.

I went home and told the kids about my day, and we had a lively discussion about great people in history, about how we can all inject more optimism into our lives, and how (high five!) we are already doing the dinnertime sharing ritual, although ours comes in the form of “What are you thankful for?”

The interview and the conversations that followed with my family were both such lovely gifts. I enjoy any opportunity to talk with the kids about my inspirations as a parent and our goals as a family. The entire day was a great reminder that one small conversation can make an impression well beyond the people who initially shared it.

Knowing the power of that ripple effect, I have to admit one thing, my friends: I kept the stuntman detail to myself. The kids don’t need to know everything. I’m optimistic, not crazy.

“Tomorrow is Tuesday? Game Day? Today at school I’m going to run extra hard so I will be tired and fall asleep early so tomorrow will come faster!”

May we all bring this much enthusiasm to the week ahead!

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Have you noticed that as kids grow, it gets trickier to have a private conversation with your spouse? Even if it’s not a particularly adult topic, you never know what kids are going to retain and repeat. And who wants to be responsible for spoiling a surprise party because your 6-year-old overheard you ordering the cake?

It’s not much easier as they get older. Somehow my children are deaf to repeated requests to Get off the computer NOW and set the table, yet the moment I try to dish about the latest nonsense on the neighborhood listserv, the kids are all ears. I also find myself censoring many topics that I simply don’t want to explain. I know, for example, that the second they hear me gushing about an Amy Schumer video they will head straight to their pal Google. And as funny as Amy is, I really don’t want to be the parent who introduces the 5th grade class to “The Last Fuckable Day.”

Over the years, our coping strategies have evolved from adorable language play to ever-changing passwords and hazy, unfinished discussions. They are imperfect strategies at best and (surprise) the kids are adapting faster than we are. Who knows what’s next…I’m just hoping my husband and I don’t have to take an Espionage 101 class or get on Snapchat just to exchange crude jokes.

Age 1: Spelling. “It’s time to start her B-A-T-H…”

Age 2: Blundered sign language. “I’m spelling shot, not shop! We’re going to the pediatrician for crying out loud.”

Age 3: Pig Latin. “Oh I can’t stand that busybody neighbor! She is such an itchbay.”

Age 4: Vaguespeak. “I heard you-know-who is looking for another job doing you-know-what in you-know-where.”

Age 5: Using big, semi-foreign words. “Remember that overseas spousal rendezvous, sans chicos, we talked about? Call su madre and let’s make that happen.”

Age 6: Kitchen whispering. “Shh…They are being so sweet. Don’t breathe or they will start fighting again.”

Age 7: Facial gestures.  “No…(eyebrow raise) that was Santa who bought that gift for him, not us.”

Age 8: Advanced facial gestures. “…” (slightly wrinkled forehead, imperceptible shake of the head.)

Age 9: Emails. “We need to talk about gift ideas. Log on to Amazon and check my cart. Then destroy all evidence of this email!”

Age 10: Texts. “You wouldn’t believe the ducking day I’ve had!” … “Ugh, autocorrect!”

Age 11: Texts with auto preview disabled. “Oh, another group text arrived? Why am I laughing already? Call it a hunch.”

Age 12: Babysitters. “We just paid $60 to walk three blocks to a restaurant and discuss parent-teacher conferences.”

Age 13: Pillow talk. “Hey, wake up. I’m not done talking about…oh wait, never mind. I can’t even remember now.”

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How do you sneak in adult-friendly conversations at your house? Any tricks to share?

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So, I’ve been a freelance writer for 18 years, which means the last time I wore “office clothes” was back in the Ally McBeal years.

I’ve grown quite happy with my home-office uniform of t-shirt, jeans and flip flops. When I have a meeting, I throw on a nice shirt and boots, then I actually blow-dry my hair. You know, I get fancy.

Last year I took a contract job that involves spending time with wonderful people who, get this, often wear suits and heels. And unlike the hipster guys who frequent local coffee shops, they wear their suits without irony.

At first I was a little worried my wardrobe could not compete with this new professional scene, yet I didn’t run out to the mall right away. If there’s one thing I resent it’s having to buy clothes that can’t be multi-purposed into everyday attire or a date night outfit. With a few tweaks and a couple simple purchases, I made it work out…and so far I have not been kicked out of the grown-up club.

I might be stingy when it comes to buying professional clothes, but there are other business expenses that I never mind investing in. Like conferences. I love conferences! I try to attend at least two every year, and even then I wish I could fit more into my budget and schedule.

Because here’s the thing: these events are always worth the investment. Although I’m not the kind of person who uses acronyms like R.O.I, I get a total boost every time I attend a great conference.

The best conferences inspire and educate me. They surround me with smart, talented people. They reunite me with friends who are like my virtual co-workers. They encourage me to meet new people and practice putting myself and my work out into the world. Great conferences energize me in a non-quantifiable way that always leaves me ready to take the next step in my career. They are worth every penny and every hour.

Do you agree? Or want to test my theory? Join me at the Texas Conference for Women on October 15th! I’m giving away one free ticket and I would love for you to sit with me at the bloggers’ table.

The conference line-up is incredible: a full day of workshops and speakers, including my Boyhood crush and Academy Award winner Patricia Arquette; Good Morning America co-anchor Robin Roberts; and Candy Chang, TED speaker and creator of the “BEFORE I DIE…” street art movement. Wow!

If you want to win a ticket and join me at the conference, share this post on Facebook and tag my FB page (Elizabeth McGuire, writer/photographer) or tweet the link and tag me @ewmcguire. I will choose a random winner on Thursday, September 17th at midnight.

If you don’t win a ticket, don’t worry…I have a super secret password that will get you $10 off the ticket price. You can purchase tickets here and use the password TXBG15.

Oh, and guess what? You absolutely don’t have to invest in a suit to join us. Pretty sure I will be wearing my dressy jeans and professional boots. I hope to see you there!

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Note: My dog likes the way I dress because I’m almost always properly attired to take him for a walk.

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Well hey it’s back to school and I don’t know about you, but our first week lasted approximately 87 days. Or so it seems.

Every year the optimist in me approaches the new school year with enthusiasm, and by the first Friday I want to stab my eyes out with the kids’ freshly sharpened pencils. Transitions are fun like that.

That said, in my years of parenting school-age kids I have learned a few things about coping with the first weeks of school.

1. Don’t volunteer for anything at Parent Night.
After hearing the presentations by the principal and teachers, you will be drunk with enthusiasm. Don’t volunteer while under the influence! Give yourself a grace period. Trust me, the teachers and PTA will still want your help after the first week.

2. Make more routines and fewer rules.
Instead of hard-and-fast rules, such as no screen time during the school week, we try to focus on fluid, helpful routines. Every day when you get home, hang up your backpack, empty your lunchbox and wash your hands…pretty much exactly what you do when you walk in your classroom. Screens are a maybe…only after homework and only on non-activity days. Bedtime routines are fixed but times shift depending on the after school activities, with ultimate veto power held by parents.

3. Decline all but critical invitations.
My kids have had so much unstructured time during the summer that school schedules completely drain them. We don’t add anything extra into the family mix at first. Sorry, early September birthdays…but we are probably going to pass. (Especially if it’s a party that ends in Cheeze. Who am I kidding? This is great year-round advice.)

4. Make lunches before dinner.
I can’t actually vouch for this tip, but it’s one of our goals this year. The post-dinner cleaning and lunch-making is such a buzzkill in our house that it can turn a perfectly nice evening into a major grouchfest. The chore might still be a drag, but at least it won’t be a drag at the very end of the night.

5. Schedule the date nights immediately.
Five days into our school year and suddenly 90 percent of our spousal conversations are centered around calendars and carpools. If I’m not careful, Thanksgiving will be here before we remember to enjoy each other.

6. Plan a weekday pizza night.
This is a year-round thing for us. Once a week we order pizza and (this part is critical) always make sure there is enough for the next day’s school lunches. A win-win!

What helps you get through the back-to-school transition?

 

 

 

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Vacation re-entry is a bitch. Especially when you leave the cool mountains of Colorado for the fiery urban sauna of home. Oh Austin, I’m trying to love you again but right now I’m deep in the stages of grief.

1. Denial. Noooo. This can’t be that bad, can it? Sure vacation is over, but it’s still summer. I like summer. I like home. I like real life. I like routines and chores. I like heat. Wait, what?

2. Anger. What in holy hell have I done? How did I get home and why is it 1,000 freaking degrees in the shade? Why are my kids asking me for meals or wanting to be taken to the pool? Why am I expected to open the bulging credit card bills that arrived while we were gone? Why do I feel so cramped? Are there suddenly more people in my family? We have spent two solid weeks together! How much more Together Time do they all expect?

3. Bargaining. Maybe if I don’t unpack and don’t do laundry we can just tack on another trip that leaves tomorrow. Maybe Hubs and I can alternate working while the other drives. We only saw a little snow in Colorado…we really should find some place colder this time. Alaska! Icebergs! I would cancel vacations for the next two years just to get a few more days of fun right now.

4. Depression. I will never be as happy as I was that one day last week, running down the mountain in long sleeves. Or that morning I drank 3 cups of coffee under a rainbow sunrise. Or that night of the outdoor concert when we stretched out at the base of a mountain, the sky changing colors every few minutes, the kids rolling down nearby hills, the wine and laughter with friends mingling into a perfect harmony.

5. Acceptance. If I can’t be on vacation, I might as well be earning money toward the next one. School starts soon, and that means more hours in the day to work. Oh joy. But honestly, do I want to be the friend who complains about her vacation hangover? Don’t we all hate that person? Ok fine. I’m home. I’m unpacked. I’m dealing. I’ll just leave it at that.

 

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How are you surviving the last gasp of summer, my friends? I’m sending y’all strength and air-conditioned vibes!

 

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1. Go swimming on a whim. At night. Without refereeing the rules of The Splash Game.

2. Empty the kids’ closets of annoying T-shirts, crappy toys the kids won at some arcade party, and half the artwork they brought home from school this spring.

3. Empty the office of annoying emails, crappy pencils the kids left when they stole the good pens, and half the paperwork they sent home from school this spring.

4. Finish every conversation with your spouse, even the one you started 8 months ago.

5. Eat every meal at a restaurant.

6. Run a dishwasher loaded only with coffee mugs. (See above.)

7. Think your own thoughts.

8. Make out in the middle of the afternoon.

9. Binge watch a full season of a kid-unfriendly show.

10. Linger everywhere you go. Or rush. Either way, it’s your decision.

11. Sleep late. Or wake up early. Again, your call.

12. FaceTime the kids. Pretend that y’all are totally bored without them.

13. Get 8 hours of work done in only 3.

14. FaceTime them again. Pretend you don’t miss them and that it’s no big deal one kid doesn’t want to talk to you.

15. Make their beds and tidy their rooms, even though 5 days ago you swore up and down that it was their job for now on, every day, for the rest of their lives.

16. Buy fresh milk and apples.

17. Check the clock. Again.

18. Squeeze their guts when they return.

19. Squeeze Grandma harder.