Saturday, May 19, 2018


"Simcha" is a Hebrew word that means gladness or joy.  It's also used to describe a Jewish private party or celebration.

Ian's Hebrew name is Simcha.  How fortuitous of us to have given Ian this as his Hebrew name.  One week ago, we experienced the greatest of simchas when Ian became a bar mitzvah.  It is pretty spectacular as a parent to see your baby grow and 13 years later be standing on the Bimah in front of a congregation of over 300 people. 

There is so much preparation that proceeds this day.  Since Kindergarten, Ian has attended religious school during the school year (3 hours every Sunday and 2 hours every Tuesday afternoon).  In addition, the 10 months leading up to his Bar Mitzvah date, he attended a weekly tutoring session to specifically work on the readings of the Torah and the various prayers he will be in charge of reciting.  And let's not forget, 6 weeks out, those tutoring sessions are expanded to 2 times a week; bringing the days we are at the synagogue to 5 different visits each week.  The amount of time and work put into making the big day goes as smooth and polished as possible is nothing short of mind-blowing.  Then when you throw in starting middle school, keeping up with school and it's demands, any extracurricular activities kids are partaking in, it becomes a stressful and taxing year.  I'm not going to lie, we had our moments where Ian's attitude was less than stellar and he couldn't take much more.  But somehow he persevered and did us all proud.  So proud.   Ian was poised, confident, articulate, and simply outstanding.  There have been many times over the years that I've been proud of Ian.  But May 12, 2018 is now topping my list.

What they don't tell the parents is that when your child is in front of the congregation, you are watching your child while holding your breath.  You know they know the prayers and readings and practiced their speech many times, but you just don't know how they will hold it together in front of so many people and having all their eyes on you.  There is no practice session for that.  Ian presented himself as if he had been in this position dozens of times. If he was nervous, he didn't show it.  If wanted to fidget or get antsy, he didn't let it happen.  

I absolutely loved looking out into the congregation and seeing so many family and friends sitting among the regular congregants.  It was so nice to feel the love and be surrounded with all this wonderful support.

No matter what life throws Ian's way over the years, he will always be able to look back and take pride on how he rose to the occasion and hit it out of the ballpark.  He can draw upon his experience and take whatever confidence or work is needed and know that he is capable.  More than capable.  Because if you can do it once (at age 13 no less!), you know its in you to do it again.

What a special day for us all to witness.

We gave Ian the choice to continue his religious education or take a long, long, long (as long as he wants to) break.  Ian has opted to continue.  Jeff and I are delighted.  This exceeds our expectations.   He has a great group of friends through the religious school and its so cool to see him want to continue.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Dinner with a side of greivances

Last Saturday night we went out to dinner.  We went 2 miles from the house to a nearby Asian restaurant we all enjoy.  Within that 5 minute drive, the family managed to annoy me.  Not just one person, but all 3.  Now that is some fast acting going from feeling perfectly happy to feeling highly annoyed in no time flat.  It wasn't even the same thing that all 3 of them did collectively.  Nope!  Jeff, Ian and Sam each had their own thing they were doing that bugged the hell out of me. 

I bit my tongue and held in how I was truly feeling. Just because I was annoyed didn't mean I needed to take it out on them. At some point the feeling will go away and I'll be back to my happy self.  I guess I was quieter than usual because as soon as we sat down, Jeff asked me "Are you alright?" 

I answered honestly and said, "No, I am very annoyed right now by each of you."  I then listed what each of them did to bug me. I proceed to go around the table and one by one, told them what was bothering me.  By the time I got done speaking, I instantly felt better.  Just getting it off my chest and into the universe made me feel like a huge cloud was lifted from my mood.

I am pretty sure by the expressions on Jeff, Ian and Samantha's faces that none of them were expecting any of this.  Without missing a beat Samantha fills in the quiet moment that follows (otherwise known as shock) and says, "This is what is annoying me about all of you." She then proceeds to go around the table and tell us what we do that bugs her.  Then Jeff takes his turn and then Ian.  This is how our dinner conversation went that night at the restaurant.

We are all quickly amused by this turn of events and start laughing. Not only that, but we agree with each other that we've accurately described that each of our "quirks" that bug us are pretty much dead-on accurate.  You just can't get mad at the truth.  ;)

We are soon laughing hysterically each time another one of us speaks.  We are enjoying this dinner very much.  I am sure if there was anyone near us over-hearing what we were saying, they would be appalled.  But it was very funny! 

Jeff did say by the time we leave the restaurant this conversation needs to stop. However, on the walk back to the car, he did automatically go to the passenger side and let me drive us home.  It appears he was listening to every word.

I commented we've now turned the last night of Passover into the Seinfeld holiday, Festivus; the airing of grievances.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

A sandwhich to remember

When friends heard we were headed to Pittsburgh, most replied with, "You must go to Primanti Brothers".  I had never heard of it, but Jeff most certainly had and knew how much Ian would enjoy eating there.

They are known for putting French fries on top of everything!  Even my salad came to the table with a layer of fries sitting on top.  Yum!

Ian said this was the 2nd best sandwich he has ever had.  Nick's Old Original Roast Beef in Philadelphia takes the top position.  If Ian's sandwich from Primanti Borthers couldn't take the lead, there will probably be nothing that can.


Roast Beef, Cole Slaw, Tomatoes, Onions, Pepper Jack Cheese, and French Fries all
on their house made Italian Bread.


Yes, that was all Ian, minus 1 bite from Jeff.  He wasn't hungry again for quite a while!

Monday, April 9, 2018

Spring Break 2018

For the kids' Spring Break this year, we took an idea Jeff had and expanded to include an idea I've been wanting to do with the kids.  We spent 4 days visiting Niagara Falls (Canada) and Pittsburgh.  If it's not obvious, Niagara Falls was my idea; Pittsburgh was Jeff's.

I love getting to show the kids new places and new experiences.  And as long as we can keep costs reasonable (drive, not fly!), Jeff is up for an adventure too.  Niagara Falls did not disappoint, despite it being a bit off-season and the biggest draw, the Maid of the Mist boat tour was not running yet.  The weather was gorgeous; sunny and in the 30's-40's.  This was perfect for walking around.   We made the most of our time and hit the highlights - Skylon Tower, Niagara's Fury, IMAX film, The making of Niagara Falls, Journey Behind the Falls, The Butterfly Conservatory, Clifton Hill, and of course, The Hershey Store.

After Niagara, we drove to Pittsburgh and spent 2 days seeing the sights.  Jeff had heard how awesome the Carnegie Science Center was and had been eager to take the kids there for some time.  While it was very well done, we all agreed the kids are near the end of the age range on getting the maximum enjoyment.  We also went to the Andy Warhol Museum and rode the Incline - which was cool and gave us a great view of the city and the 3 rivers.  And I can't forget to include eating at Primanti Brothers or our visit to the Fort Pitt Museum.  Jeff loves a good revolutionary war point of interest.

The biggest hit in Pittsburgh?  None other than The Milkshake Factory we could walk to from our downtown hotel.  This was another of Jeff's finds and the kids could not be more thrilled.  What a sweet way to end our day!

The Skylon Tower
The Butterfly Conservatory -- my favorite place in Niagara Falls

The view of Pittsburgh from the Incline

Bananas Foster milkshake!

Video - Surprising the kids with The Milkshake Factory.  

Friday, April 6, 2018

Fantastic food find

Whenever you travel to a new city and have to find restaurants to eat (we try to avoid chain restaurants), you definitely want to bring Jeff with you.  He will do lots of research prior to arriving and find these awesome little places that no one has heard of.  Because I am gluten free and Samantha is somewhat picky, Jeff goes out of his way to make sure we will all have a good eating experience.

When we stayed in downtown Pittsburgh during our Spring Break trip, Jeff found us this total hole-in-the-wall restaurant that offered a mix of greek and Italian food.  To Jeff's defense, he didn't know it was a hole-in-the-wall until we walked thru their door.  But the menu online looked good and I was up for giving them a chance. By the way, this is so not like me.  I usually base everything on how a restaurant presents themselves. First impression is everything!

I ordered an asparagus and tomato gluten free pizza.  Jeff ordered a garden salad with gyro meat, Ian ordered a 5 cheese white pie with bacon and a garlic base.  And Sam ordered chicken tenders.  It was the kind of place where you order at the counter, pay right away and then they'll bring you the food to the table.  There were maybe a total of 8 tables.  I had the feeling they did a huge take-out and delivery service by the looks of the traffic that went in and out while we were there. 

We put the order in and find us a table - which was easy to do as we were the only ones sitting there and planing to eat our food on the spot.  Jeff's salad is handed to him and right away we notice the gyro meat is missing.  They are confused why Jeff would want gyro meat on his garden salad.  Jeff assumed since the menu offered to add different kinds of meats to any of the above salads, that this wouldn't be a strange request.  However, I guess it applies to every other salad they have listed.  So the salad gets handed back to fix.  Then the guy tells us that they are out of chicken tenders.  So now Sam has to pick something different to order.  Ugh!  She does not do well having to make an on-the-spot decision.  She is hemming and hawing for a good 5 minutes while the guy waits for her to say what new thing she wants to eat.  I order for her and decide to do a kid's portion of pasta with sauce on the side. 

Ian and I are devouring our pizzas.  Seriously we can't stop raving about how insanely good the pizza is.  OMG!  This could very well be THE best gluten free pizza I've ever had.  And for some reason having asparagus on it wasn't weird at all.

Sam's noodles arrive with a container of sauce that is bigger than her bowl of noodles. I ask the guy for some Parmesan cheese for Sam to put on her pasta.   Jeff's salad comes back the Gyro meat on it.  He is very pleased with how great it tastes.  Ian and I are stuffing our mouths with the yummiest pizzas ever.   The guy comes back with a huge pile of mozzarella cheese.  It was very odd, but we let it go and decided we were done bothering him.  I think we ended up becoming very high maintenance customers and they probably thanked themselves that they don't have more tables available for people to stay and eat. 

Would we go back?  In a heartbeat!  This place, which was less than appealing to look at, was fantastic.  We actually said that if we were ever in the area or near the area, we'd make it a point to return.  We currently have a fantastic Mexican restaurant like that in Delaware (for all those times we are on I-95) and now we will have a place bookmarked in Pittsburgh.  Sometimes it's worth the extra 10 minutes or so it takes you out of the way when you know you will have a fantastic meal.

Here is our big pile of Mozzarella cheese. 
Not sure what we were supposed to do with it. I had asked for Parmesan.  Ha!

My amazingly delicious pizza!
I ate two slices before I could slow down enough take a picture.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018


I am as big of a fan of technology as the next person, maybe even more so. I love what we have the capability to do, the conveniences it gives us, the communication channels it enables us to have, and of course, the entertainment factor.  But I fear technology is going to be the downfall of our youth.

I recently read this book titled, "Disconnected: How to reconnect our digitally distracted kids".  It was eye-opening and completely validated everything I had been feeling.  We never used to place time limits on Ian and Samantha being on their ipads or Xbox.  I felt as long as the kids could walk away upon request, then we didn't really have a problem. I was wrong, wrong, wrong.  We have created problems and lots of them.  I, for one, am to blame.  It's very easy to let screens become an electronic babysitter.

It's interesting as Ian and Sam, who both spend way too much time connected to a screen, have manifested their attention deficit, grumpiness, and restlessness through different approaches. 

Samantha is glued to her iPad and will spend hours upon hours, alone in her room, playing quietly.  The peace it gives our house is actually quite nice and I suppose that is why we've never upset the apple cart.  However, without an iPad in her hands, she has no ability to entertain herself.  This is a really big deal, as she has never fully developed the power to be creative and imaginative on her own.  Back in my day growing up, when iPads weren't a thing, we'd have to come up with a way to fill up our free time on our own.  Thus, I turned to books and found a love of reading that keeps me going to this day.  Give me a good book and I'm happy for hours.  With Samantha, she struggles greatly with this concept and is quick to say "I'm bored."  Repeatedly!   Additionally, she is so used to the instant feedback when playing a game electronically and the over-stimulation is gives, that she can no longer 'tolerate' having a conversation with me at a normal pace.  It's quite rude when you are trying to talk to her and she says, "I got it. Go faster.  If you can't get to your point quicker, I'm walking away."  Or melting down when I am trying to explain math or history to her and she expects to grasp the concept instantaneously and has no patience to sit and listen. 

Some of the problems we are experiencing could be the way her brain is wired.  She has been diagnosed with ADHD, Inattentive Type, but this could very well be exasperated by the countless hours playing her on iPad.  Since she was 3 years old.*  Don't get me wrong, I do love the education, and strategic thinking it has provided and does still provide, but enough is enough.  Not to mention there is nothing better than a 13 hour road trip to Florida and having her not ask us "Are we there yet?" every 10 minutes.  Does this make me a hypocrite?  Maybe so.  But for the longest time I was under the impression there was nothing wrong with how we were living. 

Meanwhile, Ian has a very different issue.  He is fully able to hold a conversation and not be rude.  He can entertain himself without a screen; he actually likes reading too.  But, he has multiple screens going at the same time.  He'll be playing the xbox, texting on iphone, while streaming YouTube video after YouTube video. It is maddening!  And this can't be healthy.  Can you imagine the effects this is having on your brain? 

In this book I just finished reading, I learned so many valuable things.  When you think you are good at multitasking, you actually are not and having the exact opposite effect.  Everything you are working on suffers and concentration to perform one task while simultaneously doing others, is not successful. Also, studies have shown that kids being connected to screens for too many hours diminishes their attention spam, by a staggering amount.  That's an immediate short term effect.  Long term effect?  The inability to hold a conversation or even present themselves intelligently in a job interview.  They are not used to having to make eye contact with others, among other necessary social skills.  Of course school work suffers as a result. Now that Ian is in middle school, he has 90 minute blocks for his classes.  Sitting in one spot for 90 minutes is tough for most people, but imagine sitting still for 90 minutes listening to a teacher when you are used to jumping and moving around playing a video game.  Oy! 

I am done, Done with a capital "D" letting this go on any longer.  After reading the recommendations on appropriate screen time (3 hours a day?  Are they insane?), I have come up with our list of rules we are now enforcing at Casa del Toppall.  It's been 3 glorious weeks and I have to say the improvements we've seen to date have put a big smile on my face.  I found an app that will limit screen usage and put it on Sam's iPad.  She is allowed 1 hour a day during the week, 90 minutes on Fridays, and 3 hours on Saturday, 3 hours on Sunday. Saturday and Sunday's usage can not be more than one hour at time, with at least a 30 minute block in between hours.   The app will monitor how long she is on for and then block her from doing anything once her time is up.  Sam has full control on if she wants to be on it for some amount of time before school or leave the whole hour to when she gets home.   Homework has to be done before screens can be used after school.  If given any attitude, whining or demands being made, the remaining iPad time for the day goes away instantly.  If the time has already been used, than the next day's time goes away.  I am able to control this app remotely from my iPhone and additionally, have a special password on her iPad to switch between parent mode and child mode when changes need to be made.

All electronics get turned over to me at 9:00pm each day -- regardless if its a weekday or weekend. 

With Ian, if I see him working two screens at the same time, he instantly loses both of them. So far this has happened only once. 

Since the new rules have been enforced, Sam picked up a book she needed to read for school and had been procrastinating doing.  As she is reading the book, she looks at me and with much sass says, "I'm only reading this because I am bored."  Ha!  My dear, you are putting a nail in your own coffin.  And get this!  The first snow day we had 2 weeks ago (it was a Wednesday), it wasn't until 3:00pm before Sam picked up her iPad for the first time that day.  She filled her time with playing with Lucy in the snow, drawing a cartoon character she created calls "Dog Girl", coloring and watching some tv.   #Winning!

I am finding that this is not singularly our problem.  A large majority of friends I've spoken with are having the same exact issues.  There is much solidarity among the moms on how to fix this epidemic and get it under control.  Moms against too much screen time unite!

Monday, April 2, 2018

Going with the flow

I've come to a major realization. It is really eye-opening. Here it is:  My family of 4, Team Toppall, functions better as a family when we are on vacation than when we are living at home in our day to day life.

And its not because we have the most amazing trips ever -- hardly; it's because, for lack of a better explanation, we work well as a team.  Really well.  We somehow manage to all be on the same page and can go with the flow either for the better or the worse.  We manage to find the humor in all things, no matter how crazy.  We were instructed to go to the Welcome Center in Niagara Falls to redeem our Wonder Passes.  The first 2 welcome centers were closed (smack dab in the middle of the day!) and it took walking back to exactly where our hotel was (and the point we started from) to get to the Big Welcome Center that was open.  This did not dampen our mood but rather get a chuckle from all of us at our wild goose chase.

Case in point:  During our drive home from Pennsylvania two weeks ago, we ended up getting a flat on the PA Turnpike.  Had to wait an hour for roadside help and then ended up at Pennsylvania Firestone location getting 4 new tires on my car.  It's sounds nuts that one flat tire led to the purchase of 4 new tires, but we figured if we had to buy one, and the other 3 would need to be replaced within the next thousand miles or so, let's just do them all.  We made lemonade out of lemons and Jeff took the kids down the road to get Frostys and french fries from a Wendy's not too far away while we waited for the car.

Yep, that's a flat alright.  
Actually, on our road trip down to Orlando for the Thanksgiving holiday, we stopped at The South of the Border (I mean really, how could you not??) and upon getting back in the car, we discovered it wouldn't start.  Again, we had to wait for roadside service and yet again, while we waited, we took the kids across the strip and got ice cream.   I am seeing a pattern here. :)   It should be noted, lest you think my car is a real dud, that it has 50,000 miles on it and these two car issues we've experienced are the only ones I've had. Unfortunately they were both during road trips. Fortunately we had plenty of time to have the car serviced and we were not in a remote area where a mechanic wasn't too far away.

A key to success on us having a wonderful trip is advance research on where we are going and the kind of things we like to do.  It's a give and take, we do a revolutionary war location for Jeff (Fort Pitt in Pittsburgh), and everyone tolerates the Norman Rockwell museum for me (Stockbridge, MA), the Milkshake Factory (Pittsburgh), or the Hershey Store (Niagara Falls) for the kids. There is always something for everyone.   The best is when we try something new as a family and it goes really well; white water rafting (Berkshires), walking the entire Freedom Trail (Boston), or discovering the kids and I love zip lining (Berkshires).

We enjoy our time together so much that it instantly makes us want to plan our next adventure.  We limit ourselves to realistic distances we can do by car.  My threshold for a 3 or 4 day trip can be no longer than an 8 hour drive away.  After that, we need to be there at least a full week.

If only money was no object, oh the fun I could have in planning for places for us to go.
My dream is that we win the lottery and can travel continuously working like a well-oiled machine.  It's nice when we all get along and we are not anchored to our routine of school, homework, work, and activities.  No, make that really nice.