Forget your troubles and do a puzzle

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By Sue Baldani

There is always a jigsaw puzzle in various state of completion on my dining room table. I do it on a big piece of cardboard so when people are coming for dinner, I can just pick it up and slide it under the couch. Out of sight, but not out of mind. As soon as the coast is clear, I drag it back out, with the guests never knowing that they were sitting on a sandy beach or snow-covered mountain.

As a child, I always enjoyed puzzles, but as an adult I forgot about them for a while. Then, about 10 years ago, I was planning a trip to the shore to stay in a rental house for a week. I was so looking forward to relaxing. I had all my beach gear, books and magazines, but wondered what else I could do when I was tired of the hot sun and sand. I happened to see a beach-themed puzzle at the store, and just like that, I had my new hobby.

Besides being fun, I find that puzzles are often a great way to overcome anxiety and stress. When I sit down and work on a puzzle, focusing so intently on those little pieces helps me forget about my own problems for a while. It’s hard to worry when you’re trying to complete the whiskered face of an adorable cat. (A lot of my puzzles involve cats, dogs and a variety of other cute animals.)

I am very, very picky when it comes to choosing a puzzle. First of all, I like to occasionally match them to the season, so in the summer I will pick out a beach or floral scene, for example. I also need a busy puzzle; no big blue skies or wide expanses of green lawns. No, the more stuff crammed into that square or rectangular picture the better. I also prefer between 500 and 750 pieces; anything less is too easy and anything more sometimes frustrates me. And I don’t like to be frustrated. After all, I’m doing puzzles to de-stress and enjoy myself.

What I find truly amusing is when people come in, see me doing a puzzle, and remark about what an old-fashioned pursuit it is. However, more often than not, they find themselves wandering over to watch. Then, before they realize what’s happening, they’re doing the puzzle with me.

By the way, I think puzzles are making a comeback. When I went to my local library last week, I noticed that they now have two jigsaw puzzles going at all times. What a great idea!

Written for The Country Register, distributed across the USA and Canada

Batteries Not Included

Board Games Can Cure Cabin Fever

It always surprises people when they walk into my living room and see a half-finished jigsaw puzzle. They ask, “Wow, people still do those?” Yes, yes they do. They also play Monopoly, Clue, Connect 4 and other non-tech games.

As a matter of fact, board games are making a comeback. Go into the toy department of any store, and you will still see a large array of not only board games, but card games and jigsaw puzzles as well. According to ArticleBiz.com, “Games like Risk, Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit and The Game of Life are some of the classic games that are still very much in demand and well loved. And traditional games like chess, checkers, and backgammon will always be favorites.”

Who doesn’t remember sitting around with family and friends while laughing and arguing about who was going to win the game? Or hearing the cheers and boos of your fellow players as you push that round checker across the board or try to extricate that wooden piece during Jenga? That cannot be duplicated on a computer, phone or television screen. And no slick 3D video game can replace this live social interaction.

For most of us, it started out with Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders, and now the choices are many. Board games like Scattergories and Pictionary to card games such as Uno or Phase 10; there is something for everyone, at any age.  Also, as stated on howandwhys.com, when it comes to kids, “Board games play a huge role in children’s health and brain development: different types of board games help to develop logic and reasoning skills, improve critical thinking, increase verbal and communication skills, develop attention skills and the ability to concentrate for longer periods of time.” Furthermore, if the power goes out or there are no batteries in the house, not to worry. You can still carry on with your game or puzzle. And besides, playing Twister in the dark may be a lot more fun and challenging.

So go into your closets, dust off those game boxes (or pick up some new ones), and make plans for a get-together with your favorite people. Whether you make dinner first, or just serve coffee and cake, it doesn’t much matter. Sit around and enjoy one another’s company while the televisions, phones and computers sit silent and lonely in the background. And remember, no cheating. Enjoy!

Written for The Country Register, published across the U.S. and Canada.

Bring in the spring with colorful, fun treats while helping children learn new skills

Kids Baking

March can be a tricky month. One week we can have a warm and sunny day followed by a cold and blustery one. It may even snow. Some of our biggest storms have happened in March.

Because of this, it’s somewhat difficult to make plans. Although winter is on its way out and we’re eager to get outdoors, those plans don’t always work out. Children especially have a hard time being stuck inside and tend to develop cabin fever much quicker than adults.

Why not then plan some fun things to do in the house? It’s even better when we can combine something the kids will enjoy with learning new skills.

Baking is one of these perfect activities. Not only will children love mixing the ingredients and decorating the cakes and cookies, but they will also learn how to make something from scratch, instead of buying it in a store, ready-made.

To make things even more interesting, use cookie cutters shaped like flowers and bunnies and anything else that will make them smile. And when those cookies and cupcakes are ready for decorating, use pastel icings, dyed sugars and bright sprinkles to bring some spring color indoors. Make them festive and fun to liven up an otherwise gray day.

Besides being a great way to pass the time indoors, another benefit of baking is that children can also acquire some useful skills in math and science. Depending on the child’s age, you can make it as easy or as hard as you like. For example, with little kids, if a recipe calls for 2 eggs, ask them how many they would need in order to double the recipe. Or, for older children, if it says ½ of a teaspoon of salt, ask them how much they would need if you were to cut the recipe in half.

For science, explain what baking soda and baking powder do and why you need them in some recipes. Or, if making bread, give them information about yeast and how it makes the dough rise. These are quick and entertaining ways to teach children some basics while they learn how to make delicious cookies or crusty bread.

After all this, if the sun eventually does come out, gather up all the treats you’ve made and have a picnic outdoors. Just remember to pack some cold milk with those cookies, and you’re all set.

Simple Spring Sugar Cookies

Ingredients
• 1-½ cup Sugar
• 1 cup Butter softened for flat thinner cookies (or you can use Butter Crisco, for fluffier cookies)
• 3 whole Egg Yolks
• ½ teaspoons Vanilla
• 2-½ cups Flour
• ½ teaspoons Baking Soda
• 1 teaspoon Cream of Tartar
• 1 pinch Salt
• Various Colored Sugars, for Garnish

Preparation
Cream sugar and butter (or Crisco) until light and fluffy, then add egg yolks and mix well. Add vanilla extract. Add remaining dry ingredients (except the colored sugar, which is a garnish) and mix until mixture becomes a soft dough. Chill in the refrigerator for 1–3 hours.
Preheat oven to 350ºF. Roll dough into 1″ or 1 1/2″ balls and roll in colored sugar. Place on ungreased baking sheets about 2″ apart and bake for about 12 minutes.

Enjoy!

Recipe credit: Brandy’s Baking.

Written for The Country Register published across the U.S. and Canada

Take a Hike and Exercise Your Mind and Body

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Many of us spend too much time indoors, whether due to work or other responsibilities. Now is the time to get out, get active and breathe in some fresh air.

Explore your town or state to find the best places to hike. Many trails can be traversed easily with just a good pair of sneakers. Others are more arduous and may require a pair of hiking boots. Hiking is something you can do anytime, either by yourself or with a partner or group, and trails can be matched to your level of ability. It’s a great way to enjoy nature and get away from the hustle and bustle of our sometimes fast-paced world. Stroll under a canopy of trees while birds and other wildlife serenade you. Let yourself relax and forget your troubles. Or if you prefer, push yourself up a steep incline and revel in the satisfaction of making it to the top.

There are some important items to bring with you, whether you’re taking a short walk around a park or a long trek through the mountains. Water, of course, is number one on the list. It’s important to stay hydrated while doing any form of exercise. Bug spray or some kind of tick repellent is also critical, and make sure you wear high quality socks. It’s also a good idea to bring along some healthy snacks, and yes, bring your phone, but only use it to take pictures. Also pack an extra pair of shoelaces, just in case.

If you want to take your hike a step further, try geocaching. What is this, you ask? As defined by Wikipedia, “Geocaching is an outdoor recreational activity, in which participants use a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver or mobile device and other navigational techniques to hide and seek containers, called ‘geocaches’ or ‘caches’, at specific locations marked by coordinates all over the world.” Doesn’t that sound interesting? When you find a cache, remember to sign and date the log book and return the item exactly how and where you found it. A cache can be any number of things: a toy, trinket, a book, or something else that has some kind of meaning to the person who left it behind. For more information, go to https://www.geocaching.com/play.

If geocaching is not your thing, you can make up your own games as you walk along. How many pine cones can you fit into your pockets? Who can spot the first squirrel in a tree, or the first bird’s nest? What is the first animal track you see? These are just a few examples, but use your imagination to make it an adventure.

Written for The Country Register published across the U.S. and Canada.

Homemade toys spark creativity and imagination

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Old-fashioned fun for big and little kids

By Susan Baldani

When many of us think back to our childhood toys, we don’t think of computers or video games.  The majority of our toys didn’t make noises or light up, and we often had to use our imaginations to have fun.

Parents and caregivers can bring back this same kind of joy and wonder for their children. Yes, a lot of kids love the latest and loudest products as seen on television commercials and store shelves, but many don’t realize the entertainment value of quiet, simple and even homemade toys.

As a little girl, I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house. I loved playing there, even though she didn’t have a lot of money for anything extravagant. But I do remember her sewing together little square bags out of extra fabric and filling them with dried beans. She would then take a basket and have us toss these bean bags in there for points. What a great memory for me and my siblings.

There is an abundance of ideas for simple, homemade toys to be found online on sites such as https://happyhooligans.ca/70-awesome-toys-make-kids/, in library books and in magazines. Many of these are made with items already in our homes or even in our backyards. Making toys is also a great way to recycle all those plastic bottles and soup cans.

In her article Really Cool Toys for Kids to Make Themselves on rediscoveredfamilies.com, Sharon Harding writes, “Children are naturally creative and have fantastic imaginations. They can make toys out of anything.” She also goes on to cite that making their own toys “stimulates the imagination, helps children solve problems and discover that they can make their own fun.”

Besides having a great time with the end products, the making of these toys can also help children in a myriad of ways. Kids get to use their imaginations while honing their hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills. Oftentimes counting is involved, so it can help children learn numbers and math skills.

In her article Why Art and Creativity are Important on Parents.com, author Paula Bernstein writes, “When children experiment with materials, they dabble in science. Most important perhaps, when kids feel good while they are creating, art helps boost self-confidence. And children who feel able to experiment and to make mistakes feel free to invent new ways of thinking, which extends well beyond the craft room.”

Letting children help with making these toys enables them to feel a sense of accomplishment and pride in what they’ve created. This in turn will increase the likelihood of them playing with the things they’ve made and motivate them to make even more. These projects are also a great way for parents and children to spend time together in a meaningful and goal-oriented way.

Here are some ideas for parents and children:

  • Want to do a hand puppet show with your kids? Grab some old socks and make faces on them. If you want to get really fancy, glue or sew some buttons for the eyes and nose and maybe some yarn for the mouth and hair. Have kids color a big piece of cardboard (even a pizza box will work) to make the “stage” that the puppets will appear above.
  • Speaking of cardboard boxes, the ideas are endless. Have children paint or color the outside. These can become playhouses for kids or dolls, blocks to stack on top of each other, or even a toy box for all those homemade toys. Most kids (and cats) love boxes.
  • What child doesn’t like balloons? Take large paper plates and a large Popsicle stick for the handle. Make a slit in the bottom of the plates, slide the “handle” partway into it and tape. Now they can play balloon tennis, which is even safe to play indoors since a balloon can’t do much damage. Use a bed, coffee table or a couch as your “net.” This is a great rainy day activity.
  • What about homemade play dough made with ingredients already in your kitchen? For a great recipe, go to https://theimaginationtree.com/best-ever-no-cook-play-dough-recipe/. Then use cookie cutters, small rolling pins and other plastic and safe baking items to make all different shapes and patterns.
  • Have your kids find some smooth rocks, paint or color on animal faces, and they’ll have their own set of pet rocks. Or use seashells; these can become sea pets.
  • A simple piece of chalk can make a hopscotch board and a small rock can be the marker. This makes for great exercise and balance control.
  • Holiday themed toys are also fun. Make ornaments out of old costume jewelry or cut out pictures from last year’s Christmas cards. A simple hole puncher and some yarn and you’re ready to hang it on the tree.

Start collecting things now for future toy making. Rinse out and store bottles, cans, and other odds and ends for fun, easy and inexpensive projects. Remind your children to be on the lookout for anything that can be used in your next creation. Make it a family event, one that will foster great memories now and into the future.

 

Cabin Fever

Games

By Susan Baldani

What can we do to keep our minds and bodies engaged while our normal routines are totally disrupted? Even with adults working remotely and children doing their schoolwork, this whole self-quarantine mandate is getting BORING.

So, I’m going to be re-posting some articles about playing games, making homemade toys, cooking with children, and other subjects I hope will be helpful, especially to parents, over the next few weeks. Stay safe!

The Smyrna Owls

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How one couple is providing a safe place for these extraordinary birds

By Sue Baldani

Emily Schreck and Ben Davis of Smyrna have always enjoyed hearing the owls in their wooded backyard. She, a bird lover, and he, a general contractor, decided to build and install two owl houses in their yard last year.

“We built them on January 1st; it’s the first thing we did,” said Emily. “It’s a special day, and quiet. We put them out on the 2nd and by the beginning of February, we saw owls going into the houses.”

This year, two barred owls have taken up residence once again. She thinks they’re the same ones as last year.

“I read online that once they find a good place to nest they come back to the same location,” said Emily.

Last year, two owlets were born and raised in one of the houses, and as of February 21, 2020, there were two eggs in the house. Emily said that the female will sit on them for about three weeks and the male will come around to feed her. She will also leave for short periods of time.

The eggs will probably hatch around the week of March 9. After that, the owlets will stay in the nest until about the beginning of April, during which time the male and female will feed them pretty much continuously. The female will also stay with them most of the time, but once they get bigger, she’ll leave the nest for longer periods of time. Sometime in April, the owlets will fledge and leave the nest for good.

“We love it, and want to do anything we can do for the animals so they have a safe spot to raise their babies,” said Emily.

The couple installed three cameras – one on the inside of the house and two on the outside. To observe the Smyrna Owls, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MI32NeIutvI, and to make the houses yourself, follow the instructions here: https://www.wildlifecenter.org/sites/default/files/PDFs/Nestbox/BADO%20boxes.pdf

Update: as of March 21, 2020, the two owlets have been born.

Written for Smyrma Vinings Lifestyle magazine in Georgia.

Showcase Salutes Watchung Pediatrics

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By Susan Baldani

Watchung Pediatrics has expanded to provide more services for their patients and families. With the addition of new physicians, plus a nutritionist and a social worker, the practice offers a comprehensive health care experience.

Dr. Kapila Marepalli, MD, and Dr. Elaine Sanjuan-Saleh, DO, who came on board last summer, are dedicated to the health and well-being of their patients. They feel that being part of this practice enables them to give the best care.

“Watchung Pediatrics has created this family culture within their staff, and that translates to the patients and their families as well. Everyone really works together and supports each other, and I think you can really see that in the care that’s provided to the kids,” said Dr. Sanjuan-Saleh.

Watchung Pediatrics was named New Jersey Family’s Favorite Kids’ Docs 2019 for two years in a row as well as Hulafrog’s Most Loved Pediatrician of 2019.

The two doctors never had any doubts about going into pediatrics. The relationships they’re able to form with not only the children, but the families as well, is very meaningful to them.

“When you’re working with kids, you’re working with the whole family dynamic. You’re assessing the entire situation to see how they interact with each other, see how comfortable a family is with a prognosis, and managing the child at home,” said Dr. Marepalli.

Caring for children is greatly rewarding for both pediatricians. Unlike treating adults, they get to see many changes from visit to visit and have the opportunity to watch their patients develop and grow.

“Kids are constantly reminding you of the simple joys in life, even when they’re sick. But I also feel that at this young age, you’re really able to make a lifelong impact. You can help them grow into the people they’re supposed to be,” said Dr. Sanjuan-Saleh.

“It’s so rewarding when you’re making kids feel better. When they come in with a health issue and then they feel better, you feel very satisfied,” said Dr. Marepalli.

The doctors also very passionate about being proactive and work with caretakers to provide the best in preventative care. They feel that educating parents on how to keep their children healthy, whether it’s through diet and exercise, timely vaccinations, or accident avoidance, is one of the most important things they do. They also understand that children are resilient.

“Knowing when to intervene and when to reinsure is important. Kids have a great way of bouncing back and doing a lot of self-healing, and one of our jobs as a pediatrician is knowing when to give their immune system some time to heal itself versus giving them medication or other interventions,” said Dr. Sanjuan-Saleh.

The two physicians are also bilingual, with Dr. Sanjuan-Saleh being fluent in Spanish and Dr. Marepalli being fluent in Telugu. They believe that being able to speak to families and patients in their own languages helps to provide the most accurate medical care, and also helps connect with those families on a deeper level.

Written for The Showcase Magazine in Warren, NJ.

Nightly Beauty Routines

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A Beauty Blogger Shares Tips and Products

By Susan Baldani

Megan Elliot, who lives in Atlanta, Georgia, started her website, Lush to Blush, in March of 2012. It was a way for her to share advice about beauty, luxury travel, and more.

“As far as beauty, I love trying products out and sharing my favorites with my audience,” said Megan. “I have very sensitive skin and I have been through a lot, so I’ve kind of gone on this skin journey with my audience. They’ve been there with me from the beginning and since I’ve documented it, even newcomers can see the transformation my skin has had.”

Here, she gives some tips and product recommendations for winding down at the end of the day.

“Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize!” she said. “I love a good, thick cream to use at night. Anything with hyaluronic acid is also amazing. Pro tip: When you’re using various products, always apply the lightest/thinnest formulas first and the thicker ones last.”

Megan also believes that clean beauty is the way to go, especially if your skin is sensitive. However, she still uses a few medical-grade products for keeping fine lines and wrinkles in check, and to prevent and fight acne.

Beautycounter Supreme Cream

Supports elasticity and visibly firms while minimizing the look of fine lines and wrinkles. With continued use, wake up to more radiant, youthful-looking skin. $89

https://www.beautycounter.com/product/countertime-tetrapeptide-supreme-cream

Beautycounter Tint Skin Hydrating Foundation

Lightweight, creamy foundation that goes on seamlessly and blends effortlessly to cover imperfections and visually even out skin tone. It also includes sodium hyaluronate, a natural moisture magnet, to promote smoother-looking skin and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. $42

https://www.beautycounter.com/product/tint-skin-complexion-coverage

Obagi360 Retinol 1.0 Cream

Tretinoin – common brand name: Retin-A

Improves the appearance of the skin by reducing fine lines and wrinkles, reducing roughness, and improving skin color. It should be used with a sunlight-avoidance program and daily use of an effective sunscreen. $57

https://www.lovelyskin.com/o/obagi360-retinol-1-0

Written for Smyrna Vinings Lifestyle magazine in Georgia.

Book review of Window on the Bay

 

Window

By Susan Baldani

What do two single mothers do when they find themselves with empty nests and no romantic prospects on the horizon? Well, the first thing is to plan a trip to Paris, and the second is to prepare for the unexpected.

In “Window on the Bay,” a 2019 novel by New York Times bestselling author Debbie Macomber, Jenna Boltz and best friend Maureen Zelinsky commiserate with each other about the struggles of mid-life. While reveling in their newfound freedom, they are also staving off feelings of loneliness.

Coming from failed marriages and still reeling from disappointments and betrayals, the two are wary of opening up to new people. However, while appreciating the love of family and cherishing their longtime friendship, they find there is something missing from their lives. Deep down, they both feel the absence of partners to share their lives with.

When a near tragedy leads Jenna to Dr. Rowan Lancaster, and job duties force Maureen to interact with rough-around-the-edges Logan, both women have a hard time ignoring their feeling, even though these men are not who either had in mind when thinking about possible future relationships. Jenna vowed to never get involved with another surgeon (her marriage to one was enough), and Maureen, a prim and proper wine and ballet aficionado, cannot imagine what she could possibly have in common with a construction worker who drinks beer ,drives a pick-up truck, and is a proud owner of NFL season tickets.

In “Window on the Bay,” Macomber shows that opening our hearts and minds to people who are different from us can lead to whole new experiences and put us on a path to happiness. By staying in our comfort zones, we may be missing out on worlds of new opportunities.

Through her excellent writing, we get to share in these women’s triumphs and heartbreaks as they traverse the uneven landscape that is life. We are shown that although our lives do not always follow our carefully laid-out plans, and certain dreams don’t always come true, the twists and turns that occur can sometimes lead to even better outcomes.

To find out more about “Window on the Bay” and other books by Debbie Macomber, visit her website at https://debbiemacomber.com/.

Written for The Felixstowe Magazine in the U.K.