striped gifts

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striped gift2I’m delighted that my gift exchange theme post has been so popular!  I hope that many of you enjoyed some fun gift exchanges this Christmas season.  Our own family exchange was as fun as always.  You may recall that our theme this year was “striped.”  This turned out to be a bit more difficult than we had anticipated.  One of my brothers said that he didn’t care for this theme as it was too hard to shop for; another relative commented that although it was a bit of a challenge finding things that would be broadly appreciated, the resulting gifts we chose showed more variety than in past years, and so they liked it.  We all agreed that using a solid color would have been much easier, but we didn’t back down from the challenge of stripes.

Here is a sample of some of the gifts:

2012-12-25 102 This is a very soft and cozy blanket, with subtle brown and tan stripes.  My niece is posing with her spoils–she was excited that her dad was the winner of this prize!

2012-12-25 100There were two blankets in the gift exchange mix.  This one was a more youthful zebra stripe, and had the young girls in our family gathering pestering their parents to try to win this fuzzy wrap.  In addition to the blanket, this gift also included his and her pajama pants.  It was a striped bonanza!

2012-12-25 104This was the festive striped bowl that I came home with!  It is large and will look perfect with the other red accents in my kitchen.  I think we need to have a popcorn party real soon.

2012-12-25 099This striped candle made a nice statement in the center of a large hurricane vase, accented with our favorite striped candy of the season.

2012-12-25 097

This is my sister-in-law showing off her new striped beach umbrella.  Since her home is within walking distance of the beach, this was an especially appropriate gift for her to take home.

2012-12-25 101Another perfect striped gift: the Stars and Stripes!  My brother and his family were actually thinking of buying a new flag this year, so it was a home run gift exchanage match.

2012-12-25 105This gift box included a fun selection of fidget toys (as well as some striped candy)–the kind of trinkets that can sit on your office desk to help you think, or get packed in a quiet bag for church or car rides.  All the kids and adults enjoyed playing with these for the rest of the evening.  Good thing they get to stay and Grandma and Grandpa’s house for future clicking, clacking and puzzling.

We had a fun Christmas and are eagerly thinking up new themes for next year.  Let me know if you had any themed success with your own exchanges!

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pomegranate recipes

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pomegranate treeI’ve got a couple pomegranate trees, so each fall, when the gorgeous red fruit is ripe, we try to find new and exciting ways to use pomegranates in our cooking.  But first you have to get all those seeds out of the pomegranate.  This used to be tiresome and messy–until we discovered the best way to seed a pomegranate: in a bowl of water!

pomegranate seeding in waterCut off the crown, then score the pomegranate along the sides (but don’t cut deeply enough to go all the way through) in order to break it apart into pieces.  Submerge the pomegranate in the bowl of water, then split along the scored lines.  Use your fingers to push off the seeds to the bottom of the bowl.  Discard the large peel pieces as you finish with them.  When you are done seeding, any remaining membrane will float (as in the picture above) and is easily skimmed off.  You can seed a pomegranate in less than five minutes!

Now you have lots of lovely, juicy seeds to eat or cook with.  I have put them in salads or served them as a side (we always have both cranberry sauce and a bowl of pomegranate seeds with Thanksgiving dinner).

My favorite creation is a Pomegranate Chicken Salad:

13 oz. can chicken breast
2-3 green onions, diced
1/3 cup mayonnaise or salad dressing (I am just guessing here–I do it to taste; adjust as necessary)
seeds from one pomegranate
1/2 cup cashew pieces (I like a lot; you could certainly use less)
fresh ground pepper

Mix all the ingredients together and enjoy on your favorite bread or roll (crescents are especially nice!).  I have served this many times now, and I always get the best comments.  The pomegranate seeds are a wonderful and unexpected crunch and burst of flavor against the chicken.  Yummy!

Last year we made a pretty fabulous pomegranate sorbet in our ice cream maker, so this year we thought we would try it as an ice cream.  It turned out wonderful.  For these kinds of recipes you need to turn your seeds into juice.  We just pop them in a blender, then run the juice through a strainer.

For the ice cream we used

3/4 c pomegranate juice
juice of one small lemon
1-1/2 c powdered sugar
2 cups heavy cream

Combine the pomegranate and lemon juices, then whisk in the powdered sugar to dissolve.  Add the cream and whisk for several minutes until it starts to thicken.  It will be a pale pink color.  Pour into the ice cream maker and run for 30 minutes.  Freeze to firm up.  Garnish with seeds if desired.

pomegranate-ice-cream

fun gift exchange themes

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I have just posted an updated list of gift exchange themes here, based on this post and all your many wonderful comments and suggestions!

I have four brothers and one sister.  We are all married, and one of my brothers has a daughter who is also married.  With our mom and dad added in, that makes 16 adults for our yearly Christmas gift exchange.  For many years, when only some of us were married, we drew names and bought presents that way.  But that system ended up being rather impersonal: we would ask what the recipient would like, we would buy it, and then quietly exchange gifts when we arrived at Mom’s house on Christmas Day.  I, for one, wanted something more fun, if not more meaningful.  I missed the Christmases growing up where we carefully purchased little gifts for each other and watched everyone take turns opening their gifts on Christmas morning.  It was so much fun to see what EVERYONE got, not just our own stack of gifts.  I wanted our adult gift exchange to have the same sort of impact–something that would be more of an event, that would focus on spending time together and enjoying each of the selections.

We eventually decided on having an anonymous gift exchange.  We would each bring a gift based on a different theme each year and then play a game to determine who would win each gift.  We always state a budget up front (generally we keep it in the $25-$30 range for our family, but you could adapt it to your own comfort level), and have the rule that gifts can be brought as a couple or an individual.  You just take home the same number as you bring.  We have also tried to avoid gift cards in this exchange (unless we choose a gift card theme, which we haven’t yet).  The games we play have varied over the years.  Originally I created a board game that we refined for several years, but after a while we changed it up with other types of games (I’ll discuss the exchange game ideas in another post).

In this post I wanted to talk about some of the theme ideas that have worked well for us (as well as some that were a bit underwhelming).

By far, our most popular theme (everyone really enjoyed this) was “As Seen On TV.”  It was a theme that even my kids liked shopping for.  Two of my children were pre-readers that year, but as we would go to stores they helped me spot the iconic red label as we considered our many, many options.  In fact, I don’t know that anyone actually ordered off a television commercial since As Seen On TV products are widely available at so many stores and at every price point.  Some of my siblings found great deals and combined several lower cost items into one gift, and others featured just one thing.  One tip I can offer is to check online review sites (epinions, Amazon, etc.) to find out if the products really work as they say.  But then again, part of the fun of this theme is just to experiment with some of the wacky products that are offered these days.

My personal favorite theme was “Homemade.”  Some of my siblings, however, felt like it was too much work.  You would have to decide if this is a theme that would work for your group.  I was delighted with the variety of gift ideas that my family came up with.  I made a jean quilt similar to the one at left.  My husband made some of his custom Star Wars figure Christmas ornaments.  My sister created a sign featuring her artistic mosaic work.  And one of the most unexpected offerings was my sister-in-law’s homemade marinade (my brother threw in a few thick-cut steaks to go with it)!  I loved the personal touch that was inherent in this theme.  Yes, it was a bit more work, but I thought it was worth it!

Another theme we tried was “Food” (every gift had to have at least one thing that was real food–the rest could be related to food).  For example, you could have a selection of cheeses with a nice cheese slicer.  Or ingredients to make cookies along with cookie sheets.  I had high hopes for this category, but it turned out to be a bit of a dud for our family.  It was fine, but we didn’t exhibit some of the fun and creativity of some of our other themes.

My family, as a whole, is blessed with green thumbs, so we have had a couple of themes centered around “Yard and Garden.”  We always seem to appreciate new plants, pots, or garden tools.  One year our theme was “Big Box Store,” where our gifts could be anything that came from a Big Box Store like Home Depot, Lowes or Costco.  This theme didn’t mean we HAD to buy yard or garden related items, but we seemed to lean towards those kinds of presents anyway.

Recently we chose the theme of “Survivor,” which is essentially an Emergency Preparedness concept.  Lanterns, flashlights, batteries, first aid kits, food storage, or any other gift that could help us be more prepared in an emergency would be appropriate for this theme.  My family all lives in earthquake country, so we know how important it is to have supplies and kits in place for when the need arises.  Most of these items can also be used in more minor emergencies as well, so this is a very practical theme, and may not have the “fun” factor that some are looking for in gift giving.  My family likes practical.

One year, one of my brothers had completed a major house addition and had a lot of blank walls in his home to fill up, so he requested the theme “On The Wall.”  The gifts that year were anything you could hang on a wall (indoors or out): pictures, frames, clocks, decorative pieces, barometers, lights, shelves, vinyl decals, shadow boxes, plate racks, etc.).  I know you can also hang television sets on the wall these days, but that would be quite a bit out of our budget!

My family grew up playing lots of board games and putting together jigsaw puzzles, so it was a natural fit to have a “Games and Puzzles” theme.  Some of us went traditional with our choices, but a lot of us bought newer games to try.  This was a really fun category, which also led to even more enjoyment when we got together to try out some of the gifts.

I am super excited about our theme this year.  We decided to have a “Color” theme, but we couldn’t agree on one color among us, so we opted for a pattern: “Stripes.”  It doesn’t matter what the gift is this year as long as it features stripes, in any color combination.   I can’t wait to see what my family comes up with for this category.

There may have been another theme from past years that I have missed in this recounting, but those are all I can remember right now.  However, I do have a list of themes that we have discussed but haven’t used yet:

  • Something “refurbished or repurposed” (find or buy something old and fix it up in some way that makes it new or different).  This is a sort of semi-homemade category.  Related ideas would be to have a “Garage Sale,” “Freecycle” or “Craigslist” theme.
  • Something “nostalgic.”  This could be anything that reminds you of times past (your own childhood, or even before your own time).  It could be something vintage, or it could be something new that reminds you of something old.  However you want to interpret it.
  • Time related.”  There are tons of cool clocks, watches, barometers, etc. to choose from that would make a fun theme.  Who doesn’t need another clock?  Or perhaps you could come up with some other kind of gift to fit this theme–perhaps a time-travel novel?
  • How about a “Religious” theme?  If you are a church going family or group, like we are, then this might be a fun category.  You could find books, music, jewelry, art or even scriptures as gifts.  Additionally, there are many nativity themed Christmas items that could also be appropriate.
  • My book club does a book gift exchange every year.  We also like to choose themes, such as “a classic we haven’t read,” “a children’s book,” “one of our favorite books,” “something from the dollar table at the local used book store,” “something we would like to read,” etc.  These ideas could be adapted to your group if you have a lot of readers.
  • Have you noticed the extensive variety of boxed gifts the stores put out at Christmastime?  I have thought that could be a fun and easy exchange theme: choose a pre-made gift basket or gift box of any kind–nuts, popcorn, candy, mugs, scarves, chocolates, spices, ties, pajamas, candles, ribbons, frames, ornaments, scents, car related, and on and on.  You could make your own gift baskets as well.
  • One year I also had the idea to have a theme like “Long or Fat, or Hard to Wrap,” but my family shot me down on that one.  My idea was that you had to choose a gift that was big and awkard–the kind that is either too pointy or too bulky to wrap nicely or too large to fit in a standard sized gift bag.

I hope these ideas inspire you to start your own gift exchange tradition in your family, or to think of new and unusual themes to add a sense of fun to the activity, as well as make it more memorable.  Happy gifting!

a stack of books

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I check out almost all of my reading books from the library, so I send in a lot of requests for holds (the library emails me when my books come in and I just go pick them up!).  Usually, I try to have three or four books show up at a time, but if I want to read something more current and in demand, I will sometimes have to be put on a waiting list, and that can add a sort of randomness to how many books are waiting for me.  At my most recent library trip, I collected a larger than usual stack of books to read, but I am so excited about all of them that I don’t mind looking at the large stack by my bed.  It provides so much anticipation.

I have now read three of the books from this stack, and am well into my fourth.  I read Adriana Trigiani’s “The Shoemaker’s Wife,” Elizabeth C. Bunce’s “A Curse as Dark as Gold,” Laurie Viera Rigler’s “Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict,” and am currently reading Sadie Jones’ “The Uninvited Guests.”

Trigiani’s latest novel is a sweeping epic of two families from northern Italy, and their life stories encompassing a childhood in an orphanage, emigration to America, working at the Metropolitan opera, and establishing a shoemaking career in a Minnesota mining town, among many other stories.  It is somewhat based on a family story and that is where the charm lies–in looking at the individual life and how the love of country, beauty and family sustains our characters through all their trials and challenges and gives meaning not only to their own lives, but lays the foundation for the lives that will follow.

Bunce’s fairy tale-like story “A Curse as Dark as Gold” is dark and spooky and perfect for Halloween time.  It is somewhat based on the “Rumpelstiltskin” story, and the darkness of that tale permeates every corner of this story of a miller’s family trying to succeed during the Industrial Revolution, despite an enduring curse and the death of their father.  If you want a ghost story for older children, this might fit the bill.

A friend gifted me a copy of Rigler’s “Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict,” which I read and enjoyed last month.  After realizing that it was a sequel, I decided to check out the first book, “Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict.”  I think this book, where a 21st century single girl wakes up in the body of a Regency-era girl (but retains her modern memories), is not nearly as successful as the second book, where the reverse happens: it tells the story of the Regency-era girl in the body of her 21st century counterpart.  I found the Austen girl in the modern world a more enjoyable concept, and the freshness reflected in the writing, the attitude and the ways things played out.  The modern girl gone back in time seemed a little more tired and not as strong, although it still had its enjoyable moments.

I’m anxious to finish the rest of my stack.  Watch for my reviews on goodreads.com.

art and icarus

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Pieter Bruegel, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” c.1558. Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Belgium.

In the college art appreciation course that I teach at the local community college, we recently discussed different elements and principles of art, including line, shape and color as well as balance, contrast and pattern, among other concepts.  For the image above, we were discussing emphasis and subordination.  The subject of the painting is a landscape, but it also includes the story of the fall of Icarus from Greek mythology.

We had already talked about the Icarus story previously in a print by Matisse, so it was interesting for the kids to see a different interpretation of it.  In Matisse’s image, Icarus is floating among the stars, free and full of exuberant abandon, unaware that the red beat of his heart will soon be extinguished because he flies too close to the sun.  Icarus is the focus in Matisse’s bright modern work, filling up the picture space with his bold energy.  Matisse adds text to his image: “At this moment we are so free, shouldn’t we make young people who have finished their studies take a grand trip by plane.”  This is about Icarus in his moment of joy and wonder as he flies on his manufactured wings, and Matisse wants his image to encourage young people to likewise go out and experience the world firsthand.  This is not a cautionary tale in any fashion.

In contrast, Icarus is all but hidden in Bruegel’s painting.  He is completely subordinated to the the landscape.  Our focus is on the man plowing in the foreground and the lovely seascape in the background.  Color, line, and shape all focus our attention away from the sorry legs of Icarus disappearing into the water in the bottom right of the canvas.  This image is often interpreted as an illustration of a Flemish proverb: “No plough stands still because a man dies.”  Life goes on.  Or perhaps, in a more negative interpretation, there is the fear that our life may pass unnoticed.  Icarus’s fall and death is completely marginalized and ignored here.  The focus is on life, work and economy.

My students enjoyed looking at and discussing this painting, and as we wrapped up our observations, one student rose his hand to comment: “What does it mean that the sun is setting?”  I got his point.  If Icarus falls because he flies too close to the sun, why isn’t the sun high in the sky melting the wax of his wings?  Why is the sun low on the horizon, almost disappearing from view?  I’ve been thinking about it since, and I’m not sure I have a good answer.  Certainly the lovely glow cast by the setting sun reinforces our attention on the landscape and not on the mythology.  And there is an interesting parallel of the sun slippling quietly into the water at the back of the scene just as Icarus sinks below the surface at the front.

Any thoughts?

chinchilla pilla’

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I made another custom pillow for some cute friends who recently got married.  I knew they had some pet chinchillas that they love, so I came up with a design that would pay homage to their beloved pets.  I sketched out a simple graphic shape that reminded me of a chinchilla and cut one out of light grey and one of dark grey felt.  I played around with different design positions, but ended up liking the bold graphic effect of this reverse mirror image one.

As with the Star Wars pillows, I hand stitched the felt to the white fabric, just around the outside edges.  I considered stitching face and leg details, but in the end I opted for simplicity.  I really like the way it turned out.  It looked nice on my grey velvet couch before I wrapped it up to give away.  I hope this pillow is happy in its new home.

liliana armchair

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I fell in love with these Bold Floral Liliana Archairs from Pier1 Imports last year.  I had to visit three different stores before I found one that had it on the store floor (at that time) because I needed to see them in person.  I eventually bought two for my living room, so I thought I would post a little review about how these chairs have held up over the past year (almost a year now).

First off, I really wish Pier1 had reviews on their site.  That would have helped me A LOT when I was trying to make a decision.  But since they don’t, I thought it might help if I posted my review here for anyone else trying to make a decision.  The short review is I LOVE THEM!  They are great chairs.  Cute and comfortable and striking.  They are everything I was looking for.

Now, having lived with them for a year I can say that I still LOVE THEM!  My plan was to find two armchairs in a fun fabric, from which I could base the whole color scheme and design of my room.  This is not an easy task in ready made chairs.  It seemed like I might to need to get something custom.  Then I saw these chairs from Pier1 and thought they might be perfect.

They are a very comfortable size: 34 inches tall in the back, 29 inches across the widest part.  I am fairly tall (5′ 9″) and my husband is 6′ 2″ and we both find these chairs cozy and supportive.  Shorter friends have also commented on how comfortable these chairs are.  I sat in at least 100 chairs while I was shopping for these, and I found that frequently the cutest chairs were the most uncomfortable.  Not so here–these chairs feel great!

The colors are perfect.  I love bright things and this pattern filled my need for color without being overly bright or garrish.  These colors could be played up or toned down, depending on what else you want to use in the room.  I ended up choosing purple walls, using a shade taken from the purple orbs in these chairs.  They look fabulous!

They would look equally stunning in my red family room or my yellow bedroom.  They are really versatile, colorwise.  I never considered putting a grey couch with these chairs, but as you can see, they look just great together!

One of the things I was most worried about with these chairs was the quality of fabric.  The first time I saw this chair in the store, the fabric was quite frayed around the edges.  The embroidered design looks lovely in texture, but it didn’t inspire confidence in durability.  I have cats and I didn’t want these lovely chairs to become scratching posts (actually my cats never have used my furniture as scratching posts, though they do catch their claws on things sometimes).  What finally convinced me to take the risk was seeing this same fabric design (different colors, though, and not near as attractive) in a custom furniture store.  I could handle the fabric sample and see that it was more substantial than it at first appeared, and the designers in the store assured me that it was of durable quality.  And I have found it to be so.  My kids play all over these chairs, and my cats sometimes enjoy lounging in the seats, and they still look almost brand new after one year.  They wipe down easily, and I have not had any fraying issues of my own.  I did find one pulled string from the colored embroidery from either a cat or a child, but it is not very noticeable and I have not had to take any measures to deal with it.  I just let it be camouflaged.

Costwise, at $379 list price, these are comparable to other upholstered armchairs of this quality, if not less expensive.  I got both of my chairs at two different times on two different sales and paid right around $300 for each of them.  I think they are worth it.

I would give them five out of five stars.  They were super easy to put together–I just had to screw the legs on (they are lettered–just match them up so you get them in the right positions).  I really have nothing bad to report about them at all.  I get lots of compliments, especially after people sit in them.  They really are VERY comfortable!  And super cute and stylish.  If you are considering purchasing these chairs, I hope my review helps you feel more confident about buying them!

creative colors

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Have you seen the amazing ads by Sherwin Williams?  This vase of flowers is one of their magazine ads.  I LOVE the use of paint chips to make these fun images.  Their TV ads are also pretty incredible.  During our house remodel I looked at so many different paint chips that it became quite overwhelming.  I downloaded these colorful designs from Sherwin Williams to use as wallpaper on my computer screens.  It helped give me a sense of order and inspiration in the effort of choosing colors.

and

These kaleidoscopic pictures are so inspiring!    I applaud the designer of these ads because they are so creative and effective.  Just thought I’d share in case you’re as color obsessed as I am.

read any good books lately?

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I am a fairly obsessive reader, and I get asked this question a lot:

Have you read any good books lately?

So I’m wondering why I usually stand there like a deer in headlights and can’t think of a thing to answer.

Of course I’ve read good books lately.  Many of them.  I just can’t seem to bring anything specific to mind when the question is asked.

Many things go through my mind: what kind of books do I think they would like?  what would be the best recommendation?  with all the books I’ve read, which ones stand out most in my mind?

Maybe if I read fewer books, it would be easier to come up with one or two to recommend off hand.  But I read LOTS of books.  Soooo… here’s what I usually answer:

Have you heard of a website called goodreads?

If I can get my friends on goodreads, they can see everything I’ve read and even read my little reviews to find out what I think about them.  PLUS, extra bonus, I can see what THEY have read as well (if they take the time to enter them), and then I can get book recommendations in return.

I LOVE goodreads.  After the library, it’s my favorite book place.

So, if you want to know about the good books I have read lately, check out goodreads. (Yes, it’s a shameless plug.  But it’s free, so why not?)

edges of our expectation

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In my alumni magazine for the BYU College of Humanities, there is an article by J. Scott Miller (Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages) called “Out of the Blue: Serendipity, Translation, and Literature.”  Of the various issues he discusses, one quote really caught my attention.  He says that

art is found just beyond the edges of our expectation, where we are challenged to interrogate strangeness

He means art in all forms.  In fact, in just the next paragraph he restates this same idea, using the word truth in place of the word art(“I invite you to think about the times when you have stumbled upon beauty in ugly places or have found truth just beyond the edges of your expectations.”)

I find this an intriguing definition of art.  I am currently in the process of developing a syllabus for an art appreciation course I will be teaching this fall, and I am using a new textbook.  In the past, I have taught more of a history-based course, starting with the art of prehistory (cave paintings, pottery, Stonehenge, etc.) and continuing through modern times.  But this new text has less of a linear or chronological flow, and I am trying to rethink my process of teaching to make this class a little broader in its discussion of art.

So I am extremely open right now to new ways of thinking about art.  My recent excursion to LACMA with the kids has also contributed to this.  I found myself fascinated with the oversized contemporary sculptures and watching how my children responded to these works of art.  They had very little patience for the representational two-dimensional paintings that hung on the walls of the museum.  They wanted to touch and walk around (or through) the art and experience in it in a very physical, emotional and personal way.  They liked what was new and different.  They liked being presented to familiar things (like a rock) in an exaggerated and specific way.  They never once stopped to ask, is this art?  They immersed themselves in the experience and enjoyed the sensation of the “strangeness” of presentation.

Another thing that has altered my perception of art was being invited to be on a jury panel for an international art competition hosted by the Museum of Church History and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  I love the art of the past, but I have always had a harder time with current trends in art.  Looking at, and judging, works of art created in the last couple of years, was inspirational.  The competition was for religious art, but the theme, Make Known His Wonderful Works, was broad enough to elicit an amazingly wide range of submissions.  I had never had to make the kinds of judgments before that would rank an artist’s work worthy to hang in the show or even win an award.  It was enriching to need not only to choose works that I liked, but to be able to discuss them, defend them, and try to understand them.  Within a religious culture where much of Church art is didactic and for teaching scriptural stories, it was refreshing to look at works that went beyond that: that went “beyond the edges of our expectations” and to challenge us to see the things of God (truth) in new or unusual ways.

I am grateful for these experiences in art.  I enjoy using the things I have studied and taught, and pushing beyond the boundaries of my comfort zone.