Sunday, April 9, 2017

Small Town Spring Break

The day I almost thought about work.
I'm not sure exactly what it is about the craziness of our lives that makes us crave Spring Break so much, but I feel like that is exactly what happened this was like Spring Break couldn't come fast enough and couldn't last long enough.  There was a moment (it was a very small moment) where I was sitting on the beach and I almost thought about work, and then I went back to drinking my Pina Colada and reading my romance novel, and said, "not today, Satan!"

Spring Break does that to us.  It breaks through real life and reminds us that we weren't designed for these 24/7 lives that we lead.  It's no wonder that we're addicted to Netflix - life moves so quickly, that sometimes we just try to take mini-vacations by immersing ourselves in 7 seasons of Scandal, and then we blink and realize that we've completely forgotten to shower or make dinner for our family in a week (true story) but at least we've gotten a little bit of relaxation in the middle of our crazy lives.

This past week was wonderful. It consisted of beaches, food, naps, and was kind of like being a 2-year-old...or an 82 year old...all of which held nothing similar to 40-year-old Small Town Life. I would be remiss, however, if I didn't thank the two very special people that made this trip so amazing:

View from our stolen cabana!
1. Roberto.  Roberto was our beach waiter at the Playa Blanca Beach Club.  There is something incredibly special about having parents who live in Punta Cana Village and have access to their own private beach club.  Roberto is that something special.  Granted, he makes his living off of tips, and my husband happens to be a generous tipper, so he was very attentive this week...but let me tell made for an amazing beach week, including the day that Roberto saw us and kicked another family out of a beach cabana and told them that it was ours for the day.  When the lady looked at me (and by looked I mean glared/scowled/tried to kill me with her eyes) and asked if we had paid for the cabana, I of course said "yes," so that she wouldn't punch me in the face and told Chris to make sure to tip Roberto extra so that I wouldn't be lying.  That being said, the cabana was amazing...and aside from having to avoid the evil eye from the lady whose clothes Roberto literally picked up and threw on a beach chair directly in the sun, it was a perfect day.

2. Ruth.  Ruth lives with my parents and she is their...well, person. She's not technically the maid, because SHE DOES EVERYTHING... literally, she cooks, cleans, and pretty much helps them survive. Before everyone gets all huffy and comments about the injustice of this, can I just please let you know that this is cultural and that EVERYONE in the DR has a's a thing...we have Starbucks and English-speaking television, and they have Ruth.  And Ruth is amazing.  I didn't quite realize just how amazing until I returned home and had to make my own coffee in the morning...and dinner for my family (I mean...I didn't actually make dinner, but I did realize that Ruth wasn't here to do it, which is practically the same thing).  And I had to do my own laundry (I didn't actually do that either...but I will...soon...probably). And I had to clean the house (again...same as the laundry...but you know what I mean!).  I'm trying to get my mom to send Ruth to us for an extended stay in the U.S...kind of like an exchange program...she can take one of my kids and I'll take Ruth...but my mom is currently not on board with this.  She actually said to me: "Jennifer, I work full time and don't get home until 2:30 from school, how would I be able to get anything done without Ruth!?"

I'm going to go ahead and pause right there.  Full time? 2:30?  I'll just let that sink in and once again, make my case for why I need Ruth much more than she does.

There are so many other great memories.  Beaches, palm trees, family time, the day that Kaitlyn had a giant wave crash into her while she was fully clothed...the list goes on and on.  But like all great things, it's come to an end, and I'm sitting on my couch once again watching a House Hunters marathon and thinking about the cleaning that I should do and the lesson plans I should prepare before jumping back into real life, which this week includes baseball games, gymnastics practices, SATs and ACTs, and pre-prom preparations.  You see, My calendar is full...but so is my heart.  

And that is the beauty of Spring Break.  It gives us moments in between the hectic events of our real life to truly relax and prepare for the next round of 24/7 craziness coming our way.  And while I'd rather face the craziness with Roberto and Ruth by my side, I'm just grateful for the 1 week of rest and relaxation that they helped me achieve.  Oh, and also...let me be honest, the people that truly made this trip so amazing? My mom and dad, of course.  And Chris.  And the kiddos. And, well, honestly? Roberto and Ruth were pretty darn special as well!

With much love from a very relaxed-and-ready-to-face-the-world Small Town Girl

Monday, March 20, 2017

Leftover Tacos

I'm sitting here trying to decide if I should order Arturo's Tacos.  Tonight they are $1.00 each, and they are amazing! The problem is that last Monday I ordered 12 (it's the standard order for our family...I get 2, Kaitlyn gets 2, Chris gets 3, and Carson gets 5 and then eats a bowl of cereal, 2 pop tarts, and asks for Skoops because he's still hungry) but because no one is ever really home anymore, last Monday I sat and stared at those 12 tacos until 9:00pm and then shoved them in the fridge (actually there was no shoving because there really isn't anything else in there).

That's the thing with this phase of life...I have to admit that it's a bit lonely.  It's not really anyone's fault. In fact, right now life is filled with so much good.  Chris is coaching baseball, and Carson hangs out with him at the gym until 8 or 9 at night.  Every day he insists that he has no homework, which I totally believe (not really, but it's way too much work to actually check online) and Kaitlyn's time is filled with babysitting and track and gymnastics and boyfriends (not multiple boyfriends...there's actually just the one) and youth group.  And the truth is, I wouldn't want it any different for them.  They are doing what they love.  And I love watching them do what they love.  But sometimes it's lonely.  And sometimes I get stuck with 12 tacos.

Getting stuck with 12 tacos isn't all bad.  In fact, last week Tuesday I decided to challenge myself to turn my leftovers into a great family dinner, and because I am practically an expert at watching Chopped on the Food Network, I figured that I would be an expert at making dinner out of leftovers too.  So, I took all of the meat out of those tacos and cooked it up with some black beans and salsa, rolled that up into some flour tortillas that were in the cupboard and created a lovely enchilada sauce out of a can of tomato soup, ketchup, brown sugar and a packet of fajita be honest, by the time I made the sauce I was imagining that Alex Guarnischelli and I were pretty much best friends. I poured the sauce over my enchiladas and topped them with some shredded cheese, and by the time 8:30 rolled around, the rest of the family had made their way home from their various places and we were able to sit around the table and enjoy those 12 tacos...just in a different way than expected.  I mean, we did have the following conversation:

Kaitlyn: Ummmm...this enchilada sauce is a little sweet
Me: But good, right
Kaitlyn: Yes...but sweet
Chris: Babe, these are great!
Me: Thanks, I made the sauce out of tomato soup
Kaitlyn: Like I said...
Me: You don't have to have any dinner tonight.
Kaitlyn: These are great!

Overall, my Chopped challenge worked out, and those tacos-turned-enchiladas were one of the best dinners we've had in awhile (I mean...there's not really much competition because our other typical dinners come from Papa Murphy's or the D&W Deli).  But it made me realize that I'm feeling a little bit like those leftover tacos right now...they're great, but we're not really in a phase where we have time for them anymore.

The unplanned Chopped challenge also helped me realize that leftovers aren't all that bad.  Spending time on my own as my family is running around being awesome is giving me the opportunity to see what God has for me next, how he can use me, and what can he do with my life beyond just being a mom, and yet, even as I write this, I'm getting texts from my oldest.  She needs stamps.  And a prom dress.  And dinner.  And me. So I'm going to go ahead and order those tacos after all, and when everyone gets home they can dig in...or not...because if they end up in the fridge I can always change it up and make something special out of them tomorrow...because really, leftover tacos make some of the best family dinners.

Lots of love from a slightly lonely, but looking-forward-to-tomorrow Small Town Girl

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Small Town Snow Days

My actual Parent Alert screen!
There are two words that every student, teacher and parent looks forward to in January more than any other: SNOW and DAY...  unless those words are repeated over and over and over again, until no one even remembers what it feels like to have a daily rhythm in their life and they have completely run out of Netflix options.  This is the current conundrum of our household.  3 snow days, 1 holiday, and 1 late start, all within the last week, and at this point, no one actually remembers the route we take to school every morning, or even what classes they are taking.

The first snow day is always exciting.  The kids flush ice cubes down the toilet and stick a spoon in the freezer the night before, anticipating an extra day of sleeping in.  This year, on the first snow day, we made popcorn for breakfast and stayed in our PJs watching inspirational movies all day.  By snow day number two, we had run out of inspirational movies and had moved on to "Central Intelligence," with the Rock and Kevin Hart, which was mostly inappropriate, but I pretty much just cringed and ignored it because we were out of options...and by yesterday, I had pretty much given up on life...I have no idea what the kids were watching, but Carson spent the day with an iPad and I'm just hoping it wasn't anything that will turn him into a serial killer.

Today's ice day pretty much pushed me over the edge.  There's something to be said about having structure to the day, and right now I have so little structure, that I keep forgetting to even feed my kids.  At this point they're going to have to settle for whatever they can grab on their own - which, looking in the refrigerator, includes half a bag of frozen tater tots and a jar of pickles.

In case you thought I was kidding.  And don't be fooled by the ice cream's empty, but we're all too lazy to throw it away!

In an effort to get out of this snow day funk, I'm trying to make a list of things to do today based on recent suggestions I've been given by others.  Here's what I have so far...

1. Go sledding.  Except, there is no snow.  And honestly, we don't really go outside unless it's above 60 degrees.

2. Bake something.  Except, I only own one measuring cup and I'm not actually sure where it is.  I do have some flour in the freezer, but I only have brown sugar (not white), so unless I can bake something with those options, we're out of luck.
I actually found the measuring cup!  Right next to the rest of the unused kitchen appliances!

3. Work-out.  Except, the couch already has an indentation from where I've been sitting for the past week, and it's really hard to get out of it.  I could probably do some sit-ups from this position - but even that seems like a little too much effort.

That pretty much leaves me with catching up on America's Next Top Model, staring at the ceiling, or going to the store to buy food to feed my family.  But since ANTM is only an hour long, and since I really don't have the energy to leave the house, I suppose that the most viable option is really to lay in my couch indentation and stare at the ceiling until this snow day is over.  I will make an effort to melt all of the ice in the freezer so that no one can accidentally flush a cube down the toilet, and I've hidden all the spoons...and just in case, I'm also crossing my fingers so that I don't get any more early-morning notifications...until next week of course, when I'll probably need another snow day.  But by then, my fridge will be restocked, and new movies will be out, so I'll be much more prepared to sleep in, make popcorn for breakfast and enjoy a day in my PJs.

Until then, a very happy small-town, snow day to's hoping we all make it through!

Friday, January 6, 2017

Well...I wrote a novel.

Yesterday, I sat down and I finished the final page of my very first novel.  Granted, it's taken me 7 years to complete it, and if you do the math, it's really not that impressive - that's only 31 words per day. Seriously, at that rate I could have written Les Miserables 3 times over!  It figures though, it took me 11 years to finish my Bachelor's Degree, and another 10 to finish my Master's, at this point, 7 years is pretty much a record.

And speaking of Les Miserables, I have to be honest and say that my little novel is really not the literary gem that you might expect from an AP Literature teacher, in fact, it's much less Victor Hugo, and much more Hallmark Channel.  It's one of those books that no one ever admits to reading - like a Harlequin Romance or a Nicholas Sparks book, but that everyone secretly enjoys.  And that's the thing.  I. love. it.  Honestly, I just really love this story.  It's lighthearted, people fall in love, and everyone lives happily ever after - and right now, it's at the top of my "favorite books I've ever read," list - but I'm probably a little biased.

Writing isn't easy (obviously - it's taken me 7 years to do it!) And believe me, I'm no expert.  But here are a few things that I learned were especially difficult along the way.

1. Language: as in bad in curse words. My personal vocabulary is pretty PG.  We actually have a swear jar at our house, and Carson is very rigid about pointing out when someone needs to contribute.  There are $5.00 words, which should really never be used, but sometimes slip out when Michigan loses to Ohio State in overtime, there are $1.00 words, which should really also not be used, but sometimes slip out when you slide along a slippery road and almost get hit by a semi (actually, if you want to go ahead and use a $5.00 word during that experience, you have full permission), and there are $.50 words that no one actually knows if they are swear words or not, for example:

Kaitlyn: I'm so pissed!
Carson: That's a dollar!
Kaitlyn: Pissed is not a swear word!
Carson: Mom?
Me: I don't know - put $.50 in the jar
Kaitlyn: Ugggghhhhhhh!

The problem with language in a novel is that I am not a character, and even though I rarely use $1.00 words, other people do - including some of my characters.  But to be honest, I just can't picture most of the characters getting themselves into situations in which they would say, "Oh gosh, golly, jee!"  So there are some $1.00 words in there...and maybe a $5.00 word...

2. Love Scenes: Ok, so there isn't really a full out love scene in the book, because to be honest, I just couldn't do it.  I felt that I could definitely leave the heaving breasts for someone else to write about.  But there is kissing.  And writing about kissing is a weird thing.  Like, do you describe whether or not it's open mouth or closed mouth? Do you talk about the awkward head tilt or the weird sounds that are made. Regardless, it is a love story, and I couldn't very well have the happy couple seal the deal with a fist bump. So I closed my eyes and barrelled through...similar to my first actual kiss I would say.

3.  Relevance: When you take 7 years to write a book, you realize just how much things change.  I was going back through one of my first chapters and realized that the character, "flipped open her phone." Flipped open her phone? Who is this person? A grandmother? No, actually she is just someone stuck in 2009.  My character was also at one point wearing a velour track suit...enough said.

Now for the real question...and the answer is no, I'm not looking to publish it (it's not nearly as well-written as a Harlequin Romance!) my goal was really just to finish.  And I'm so glad I did. Because while I may have only written at the incredibly ridiculous rate of only 31 words-a-day, in the words of my husband who is over-the-top supportive of this endeavor, that's 30 words-a-day more than most people in the world - and after 7 years, I've finally even written the two little words that matter the most:

Much love from your very own Small-Town Writer!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Small Town Resolutions

Last night I had the privilege of ringing in 2017 by watching the ball drop...well not THE ball, but A ball.  The ball that our charming small-town community hangs from a crane and drops down a wire as the crowd counts down to the new year.  To be honest, the ball is not quite the Swarovski chandelier that the New York crowd is used to, and instead my hubby looked at it and said, "hmmm...kind of looks like they made it with barbed wire and Christmas lights.

In all fairness, this is only the second year that our little town has held the midnight ball drop, and last year, my daughter exclaimed, "Maybe we shouldn't stand so close, it doesn't really look stable up there." So, our little town has made progress, and the ball drop has gotten more stable and made for a fun little event. In fact, despite the awkward jerking of the ball as it descended the wire, the crowd was fun and enthusiastic, and even us 40-somethings got excited about the celebration and joined the younger, hipper party-goers in our own attempt at selfie memories.  My friend Amy's selfie attempt is here:

Basically, by the time we figured out how to change the direction of the phone camera - all while wearing gloves - the ball had already dropped and our picture ended up including the tops of our puffball hats and the black sky above us.  All in all, a great memory!

As with each January 1st, this new year brings with it the anticipation of exciting new things as well as the stress of trying to decide which of the exciting new things I'm actually supposed to get excited about.  I'm currently in a slight panic about all of the very motivated and organized women out there who have written down their goals, created resolution support groups on Facebook and posted very encouraging statuses such as:
Today is the first blank page in a 365 page book, write a great story!

For real, I'm just trying to get through this week without locking my keys in the car, I'm not sure I can handle 365 pages of goal-achievement!  That being said, in an attempt to make 2017 the best year yet, I did create a few manageable resolutions that I'm hoping won't make me cry by the end of the week.

1.  Exercise.  I feel like this is doable as long as I keep my expectations low - so like a few times a month...give or take. I used to work out all of the time.  And then I just got tired...and busy...and I know that working out is not about having time but about making time, but right now I just can't make time...because that would mean giving up things like watching Netflix or sleeping in.  I started today on this goal, and hubby and and I took a great 2 mile walk around the neighborhood - I even wore running shoes, and to be honest, my legs are already sore, so basically I ran a 5K.

2. Do nice things.  This past year I watched my students do really nice things for others - they raised almost $20,000 just in the month of December, all to give away to others - I love that! And I love that they all began to understand life is really not about serving themselves but serving others.  My goal is to hold on to that same others-centered living and do random acts of kindness that will change others' lives.  I'm so excited about this goal that today I had my groceries put in paper bags instead of plastic - it's the little things!

3. Wear red lipstick. I really love red lipstick, but somewhere along the way I became too worried about what other people think, so I stopped wearing it.  This is common for me - I often worry about what others think.  In fact, I few years ago I was writing and blogging quite a bit, and then someone said to me, "Don't you think it's awfully narcissistic to think people want to read about your life?" So I stopped.  Because I certainly don't want to be narcissistic (see goal #2) but really, writing about my life is kind of like wearing red lipstick - it's not for everyone, but I really love it!  

My real goal this year is to be brave - in fact, BRAVE is my word for 2017.  I've even written it down in my journal, so that I will remember to take risks, to try new things, and stop worrying about everyone else's opinion.  

I really love my Lilly Pulitzer day planner/journal!

So in 2017 I'm going to wear more red lipstick...and write more, because really, it's 2017, and it's time to do new things, or maybe it's just time to do old things that I love, and when I do, I'm going to do them looking like a diva and writing all about it for all of my friends!

Here's wishing you a very happy and small town 2017!

Saturday, August 31, 2013

She Did NOT Just Say That Out Loud!

So this is usually the time when I look back on the week and think of something witty to write about in order to entertain my family and friends.  And actually, I have so much fodder this week...I mean, I spent Wednesday morning talking to Freshmen and Sophomores about sex and relationships...and guess who is in the Freshman class this year? Yup! Kaitlyn.  It was AWESOME to see her completely mortified when I said the word "sex" out loud to a group of her peers...her friend Dorie turned especially pink, and she was like, "Mrs. VanHekken did NOT just say that out loud."  Even better was when I read the lyrics to "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke out loud.  You know it is every kid's dream to hear their mother read to their friends, "I know you want it.  I know you want it.  Must wanna get nasty. Go ahead get at me."  Oh, it was a beautiful thing.

Anyway, more than the excitement generated by my underclassmen relationship seminar, I wanted to take a more serious turn today and share with you a little bit about my friends Marc and Gretchen Driesenga.  Marc and I have taught English together for the past 2 years at WMC, and without a doubt I can say that he is one of the best teachers I have ever met (he did of course learn everything he knows from me....probably).  Anyway, Marc and Gretchen heard and heeded God's call on their lives and moved from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, Africa, to teach and minister at Haven of Peace Academy.  In July they packed up all of their belongings (except for the 552 crates of movies that they left in our basement),

Their crates...Our basement :)
got on a plane, and began a new chapter of life 1/2 way around the world....oh, and I forgot to mention that they have a 5, 2, and 8 month old! Marc and Gretchen are an incredible couple, and I just wanted to share their journey with all of you.  Chris and I support them financially knowing that every little bit is a part of growing God's kingdom, but I also know that they are still raising financial support as well.  Above all, they covet our prayers.  Even though you might not know them, I would encourage you to just lift them up in prayer...even if it's one of those "please bless that one couple that Jenn knows who moved to that one place somewhere in Africa."  I'd also encourage you to subscribe to their blog.  It's so interesting to hear about their life on the other side of the world...I know you will find so too. Click here to read their entire blog...and here is a little snippet from their latest:

I can honestly say that the first few days of school were not the same without Marc.  I didn't have anyone to make fun of students with, and I didn't get to throw down the gauntlet for who would win this year's Project Grace challenge (I would never brag...but last year my class beat his by $6.00!!! I personally think he moved just so he wouldn't have to face defeat again.)  But I know God has his hand on their lives, and anyway, we still have social media, so we'll just have to make fun of students via Twitter. And Facebook. And Instagram...and well really, I guess it's not really all that different after all!

Lots of Small Town Love from a Missing-and-praying-for-her-friends Small Town Girl

Sunday, August 25, 2013

On Being a Handraiser

So here's the truth, I'm a self-proclaimed hand-raiser.  Now, you either know exactly what I'm talking about, or you are completely lost in translation.  Let me explain, a hand-raiser is one of those people in church who gets so caught up in the music that their hands fly up in the air in worship; I'll just let you know right now that I am also a hip-swayer, a knee-bouncer, and a eye-closer during times of worship, but most of all I'm a hand-raiser - hey I figure if Taio Cruz can convince us to "throw our hands up in the air sometimes singing Ay-o, gotta let go..." then so can Jesus!

Anyway, not everyone understands the whole hand-raising thing, and that's the great thing about so many different churches, there are sprinkle-with-water baptizers and dunk-until-they-need-a-life-jacket baptizers, there are organ-and-hymnal worshipers and drum-and-guitar-and-occasionally-a-weird-African-instrument worshipers.  We're all noted by my Dominican mother who recently commented on a cousin's wedding...

Mom: "We (meaning her giant Dominican family consisting of 132 first cousins) didn't even know if there was going to be dancing (gasp!) because your cousin and his wife go to one of "those" churches.

Me: "One of those churches?"

Mom: "You know, they're kind of different, and we (meaning her giant Dominican family consisting of 132 first cousins) don't know anything but Catholic.

Please let me pause here.  No seriously.  I just need to pause, because what I didn't say but wanted to (and I would write this in capital letters, but it's too long and I would look like I'm yelling...which I'm not) is...

Do you not remember that you raised us in West Michigan, and we grew up going to that will-remain-nameless-but-fairly-charasmatic-church in which Molly Magee* would dance wildly down the center aisle, speak in tongues at the top of her lungs, be slain in the spirit and fall down backwards after which time the elders would come wrap her in white sheets and carry her out into the lobby??? Hmmm....

Anyway, it turns out my cousin's wedding wasn't all that extreme after all and everyone was relieved when they in fact did have dancing...of course they did, it was a Dominican wedding!!

Anyway, I may not be a speaking in tongues, slain-in-the-spirit kind of worshiper, but I'm definitely a hand-raiser, and with that I thought I'd share this little video with some fun, hand-raising humor (go ahead, it's only 2 minutes long) and don't worry, I'm not poking fun at anyone, I'm poking fun at myself (and you other hand-raisers out there)'s like being Dominican, if you're Dominican you can make fun of Dominicans...but if you are Guatemalen?  Oh no, don't you dare start making fun!!


And P.S...I'm definitely a "schoolroom" :)

Lots of filled-with-the-spirit, Sunday morning, Small town love,