Happier

Things that make me happy?  Hiking, dog smiles, and dog hugs!

Things that make me happy? Hiking, dog smiles, and dog hugs!

Have you heard about Happier?  It’s a social media website that focuses on positivity – not a bunch of ads, political rants, or inflammatory comments.  Like any other social media site, you can create a profile, and then post about moments that make you happy.  You can also read happy moments shared by other users and “smile” at them (as opposed to Facebook “likes”).

I joined a few months ago, and I love it.  I definitely don’t use it as often as I would like, but I’m trying to change that.  When I’m stressed, a dose of positivity from other people can really help.  Plus, research has shown that focusing on small happy moments instead of chasing after an ideal of happiness can actually improve overall mood and life satisfaction.

I’m not affiliated with the site at all – I just love the idea of focusing on positive thoughts.  One of my favorite features of the site (and the iPhone app) is that it reminds me to be grateful for the little things.  Since I’m feeling so busy/overwhelmed right now, taking a few minutes each day to use the app gives me just the pick-me-up that I need!  Check it out!

A day at the aquarium

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I can’t believe my vacation is halfway over!  Sigh…  As much as I love my program, I’m not sure that one week is long enough to give my brain a true rest!  Ah well.  I’m making the most of things this week, trying to balance some work with some fun stuff.

One of my fun activities this week was a trip to the Mystic Aquarium!  I’ve wanted to go there for years, but it’s about 2 hours away and the New England Aquarium in Boston (much closer!) is usually enough to satisfy my need to periodically see penguins, rays, and colorful fish!

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Let me tell you – it was worth the trip!  Since it was a weekday, the crowds were minimal (in fact, we were often able to enjoy the exhibits alone or with only 1-2 other people).  The facility was clean and the staff seemed eager to share their knowledge about the various animals/exhibits.  The exhibits are mature enough for adults to enjoy, but they are also very kid-friendly.  Some have crawl spaces under the tanks for kids to climb inside (for a unique view!).  There are also some tanks close to the ground, and all of the tanks extend down nearly to floor level – the kiddos can get a great view without help!  The only downside to our trip was that we didn’t realize how much of the aquarium was actually outside – there’s a large area with Beluga whales, sea lions, and penguins.  While I loved getting to see those animals, I felt like I didn’t get to enjoy them as much as I would have liked since I left my coat in the car.  Whoops.  As the weather gets warmer, I’d like to go again and spend a little more time at the outdoor exhibits.

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Like most aquariums, the Mystic Aquarium is clearly focused on conservation and species survival.  There are signs throughout the facility that explain some of the aquarium’s conservation efforts, and the staff seemed enthusiastic about these types of causes.

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Jeb and I will definitely return to the aquarium – especially as the weather warms up, and definitely with Talia!  I tried to take some photos, but, as you can see, it is hard to get clear shots through thick acrylic!  Ah well.  🙂

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Prioritizing

She keeps an eye on me!

She keeps an eye on me!

Continuing on my thoughts about having realistic expectations for myself…

I’ve realized that I can’t do it all (at least not within the confines of my current commitments)!  I suppose we all come to this realization at some point, but I’ve spent a lot of time working on work-life balance over the past few years, so I’m a bit frustrated that things have gotten SO unbalanced again.  This frustration is not conducive to productivity – if anything, it leads to more stress and I find myself in that vicious spiral where I can’t seem to get anything done.

So, instead of stressing about this, I need to break things down and figure out the best way to maximize my time.  School and work are obviously top priorities, so those commitments have to pretty much stay as they are.  I also need to keep sleep and exercise as a priority.  However, instead of trying to drastically improve strength or speed, I think I should focus instead on maintaining my strength and building my running endurance.

Of equal importance (though certainly less tangible) is my family time, both with Jeb and with my parents/sisters/niece.  The time passes so quickly and I sometimes forget (during my marathon homework sessions) how much time has passed since I spent time with my family.  I’m much better about this with Jeb than anyone else, but that might be largely because he lives with me! 🙂

Then, I have to allow some time to enjoy life and recharge my brain.  As hard as it is to find the time, I’ve learned that I actually am more productive if I’ve set aside time to take a complete break.  This downtime includes time with my dogs (which has the added benefit of being motivating on its own – I feel a responsibility to make them happy and, in doing so, I get a little recharge).

So, in general, my priorities are school/work, family, sleep, REALISTIC workouts, and downtime (with dogs).  Now, I just have to figure out how to fit all of that into a 24-hour day!

Winter Day at the Beach

 

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Since it has been unseasonably warm here, we decided to head up to Maine and spend a few hours at the beach.  I love going to the beach anytime, but there is something special about going in the winter.  Maybe it is the small/nonexistent crowds?  Or maybe just that we can bring our dogs…?

Duke has always loved the beach – he chases toys into the water and runs around like a crazy dog!  He also loves meeting all the other (big) dogs.  People are always surprised that his little legs can keep up with all the larger dogs (seriously – he’s tiny.  Only about 13 pounds!).  Fiona loves the beach too, but she’s a little less social than Duke.

The only downside to the day is that we forgot the camera!  Our phones did the work this time, but it would have been nice to try out my new macro lens. 🙂  Although.. forgetting the camera gave me an excuse to collect shells and rocks to bring home and “practice.”

I’m definitely going to need one or two more quiet days at the beach before the crowds come back!  This was just what I needed for a mental break!

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MIA

Wow – it’s been awhile since I’ve posted.  Time sure flies!  Things have been busy, but good (mostly).  Updates:

  • I’m super busy.  I’m in an intense graduate program, and adjusting to its pace (and a long commute) took awhile.  I finally feel like I have a handle on it, though I’m still swamped all the time!
  • I thought I had kind of figured out work-life balance when I was at my last job, but it turns out that I will have to keep working on that one.  I suppose a certain amount of it is the nature of the beast, but I have had to rely on Jeb like never before!
  • My strength workouts have been going well.  I hit some big PRs over the summer when I was getting good nutrition and sleep, but I backed off a bit once school started back up.  I hit 225# on both my squat and deadlift!
  • My running has not been going as well.  It did at first – I was in a good routine and enjoying my workouts.  But then, in early October, we lost our sweet Wendy.  It was devastating to both of us and, since she was my running partner, I kind of lost all the enjoyment I normally found with our runs together.  It seemed like every spot on every run holds some sort of memory after 3 years of running together, and I couldn’t seem to get through a workout without breaking down in tears.  I significantly backed off the running after that, but I’m starting to get into it again.
  • We have a new dog!  Fiona is a Sato (and some kind of Shepherd mix), and so sweet!  I’m hoping to get her out running with me this spring, though she is very timid so it will be slow and steady progress until she gets comfortable.
  • I’m running the Nike Half in DC (in April!).  I thought it would help me get on track with running.  It did, and then I got a raging bronchitis for 6 weeks and lost all my training.  Gulp.

Bash Bish Falls State Park

In the same area as Mt. Everett (the Mount Washington State Reservation), there are multiple state parks.  The day we hiked Mt. Everett, we didn’t have time to check out any of the surrounding parks, but we were pretty curious about Bash Bish Falls State Park.  According to the website, Bash Bish Falls is the largest single drop waterfall in Massachusetts (yes, I know – not saying much).  While the falls were nice, we also really loved some of the surrounding trails.

There are two parking areas – one in MA and one in NY.  These parking areas are only about a mile apart, and I highly recommend checking out both areas.  The hike down to the falls from the MA lot is very steep and strenuous, but there is also a short, steep hike UP from the parking lot to a scenic viewing area.  We liked the view so much that we went back again just after sunset to take another look.

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Same view, but sunset!

Same view, but sunset!

There was also a small trail off to the side of the parking lot that led down to the river (not sure what it is called, but it’s the one that feeds into the Falls).  No one else was down there, and we really enjoyed the quiet!  There’s nothing like the sound of rushing water for stress relief – plus, the dogs liked swimming in the calmer areas.

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After a couple hours hanging out by the river, we drove over to the NY parking area and hiked about a mile uphill to the falls.  It was a nice, relaxing hike with a wide and smooth trail.  We had to cross the state line (back into MA) to get back to the falls, and were excited to find that we were the only people there.  Apparently, the falls are very crowded in the summer, but it was quiet when we were there – likely because it was 7 p.m.!

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All-in-all, we had a great day!  The hiking wasn’t overly strenuous, which was relaxing (in a way), but we were rewarded for our efforts.  Plus, the dogs had a great time, and I had some fun playing with my camera!

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Smoky Grilled Pizza

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Now that we’re really into summer, we’ve begun our annual grilling extravaganza!  Jeb has always loved to grill, but I only started last summer (I’ll admit, I was a little intimidated).  We’re pretty good at the traditional grilled meats, but I’ve always wanted to try grilled pizza – and, believe me, it is DEFINITELY worth a try.  Since it makes four pizzas (around 9-10 inches each), this is a perfect recipe for casual entertaining.  We made ours on the charcoal grill, but it would also work fine on a gas grill.

The crust takes about two hours to rise, but that allows plenty of time for prep work… and a glass of wine.  Because the crust will be grilled, it is different than most other pizza crusts (more water and more salt).  This adaptation calls for the use of a smoke packet during cooking – it is definitely worth the time/effort and gives the pizza a great flavor!  See the bottom of the post for in-process photos.  🙂

Smoky Grilled Pizza
(adapted from Cooks Illustrated)

Ingredients:

Crust:
1 cup water, room temperature
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1.75-2 cups all purpose flour
1-2 tablespoons whole wheat flour (optional)
2 teaspoons sugar
1.25 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon rapid-rise yeast

Sauce:
1- 28oz. can of diced tomatoes (with Italian seasoning if desired)
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

Spicy Garlic Oil:
1/3 cup Olive Oil
6 cloves garlic
Red pepper flakes

Cheese:
2 cups whole milk mozzarella
1/2 cup parmesan or romano cheese

How to make it:

Make the crust:

  1. Combine the water and olive oil in a liquid measuring cup.
  2. Pulse 1.75 cups of flour, whole wheat flour, sugar, salt, and yeast in the food processor until combined.
  3. With food processor running, slowly add water/oil mixture to the flour and process until dough forms into a soft ball (about 1.5-2 minutes).
  4. If the dough is still not formed into a ball, add flour 1-2 TBS at a time and process briefly until soft ball forms.
  5. Transfer dough to a lightly greased bowl and cover with plastic wrap (also lightly greased).  Let rise for 1.5-2 hours, or until doubled in size.

 

Make the Spicy Garlic Oil:

  1. Combine oil and garlic in a small skillet.
  2. Heat over medium heat until oil just starts to sizzle.
  3. Add red pepper flakes to taste (I use about 1/2 tsp).
  4. Cook for an additional 30 seconds (do not let the garlic toast).
  5. Allow to cool and transfer to a small bowl.

 

Make the sauce:

  1. Put diced tomatoes in food processor and pulse until coarsely crushed.
  2. Pour into fine mesh strainer (over a bowl) and allow to drain for at least 30 minutes.
  3. Pour drained tomatoes into a bowl, and mix with sugar and salt.

 

Mix the cheese:

  1. Mix the cheese together and put aside.

 

Putting it all together:

  1. Soak a handful of wood chips in a bowl (submerged) for at least 15 minutes.  Use a sheet of aluminum foil to make a small packet and place the soaked wood chips inside.  Use a knife to poke a few holes in the top (only) of the packet.
  2. When dough has doubled in size, transfer it to a clean surface and divide into 4 equal sections.  Roll each section into a tight ball, place on well-floured counter, slightly flatten each ball (with palm of the hand), and allow to rest for 15 minutes.
  3. Use a chimney to heat the coals.  When they are hot, spread them across the bottom of the charcoal grill.  Place foil packet over the coals (in the corner) and replace grate.  Open the vent in the grill, and allow grill to heat for at least 5 minutes.
  4. Clean and oil grill grate.  Make sure all toppings are ready – once you start grilling, everything goes very quickly.
  5. Roll each disk of dough to 1/8-inch thickness and place on a plate or cookie sheet.
  6. Flip dough onto hot grill and allow to cook, uncovered, until bottom is nicely browned and top is bubbly – about 2-4 minutes.
  7. Repeat with remaining dough balls.  I usually cook two at a time.
  8. Brush the cooked side of each crust with the spicy garlic oil, then top with cheese and then sauce.  You can put the cheese on top if you prefer, but the pizza holds together better (and has a better flavor) when the cheese is directly on the crust.
  9. Drizzle a bit of garlic oil on top of the sauce.
  10. Return the pizzas to the grill and cook, covered, until cheese is melted and bottom of the crust is golden brown.  You may need to do this in stages.
  11. Allow to rest for 5 minutes before cutting and serving.

 

I hope you give this recipe a try – and I know you will love it!  The crust is just the right texture, and the balance of flavors is spot-on.  Jeb says this pizza is what Bertucci’s pizza always tries to be!  Let me know what you think!

Put the foil smoke packet toward the back of the grill - the temp over it is much lower so you don't want it under your cooking surface.

Put the foil smoke packet toward the back of the grill – the temp over it is much lower so you don’t want it under your cooking surface.

These crusts are about ready to come off the grill.

These crusts are about ready to come off the grill.

All topped, and ready to finish cooking.

All topped, and ready to finish cooking.

 

Jeb loves to grill! :)

Jeb loves to grill! 🙂