Friday, July 17, 2020

Twelve Years!

Crazy to think that twelve years ago today, I wrote my first blog post. I knew nothing of blogs and started it on a bit of a whim when one of the guys (young guy, just out of college) said to me, you seem to know so much you should blog. I have really enjoyed my time blogging and being able to share tips, tricks, what works for me and reviews of many different things with everyone.
I have changed a lot over the past 12 years, as I imagine many of you have. I will say that I didn't really know what busy was when I started this blog 12 years ago. I had a lot more free time and down time with my family. Now, even with things still being only partially reopened, things are much busier in my life. I have shifted a bit on what I blog about, I still seek out deals but finding the time to plan and share deals just doesn't always fit into my schedule.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

One Hundred and Ten days!

It is a little bit crazy to sit back and reflect on the last 110 days. It is 110 days since 'normal' life took a shift.

From an accomplishment perspective, I have held to my commitment to walk at least 30 minutes every day for the past 110 days. There have been a few times that I just didn't feel like it but I found a way to persevere and get the walk in. As a result, I have achieved my step goal almost every day in that same window. I had one day where my watch hadn't updated to the new goal and so the goal 'fireworks' went off but I discovered the next day that I was 4 steps short of the goal. I had one day where we were at a bonfire and I didn't realize it was midnight and wound up 100 steps short because I had been sitting most of the evening. I had one day where a tornado sent me to the basement for the last hour plus of the day and I wound up 200 steps short. I had one day where I simply fell asleep with less than 100 steps to reach the goal. The orange bars that show up when I look at my 4 week step history over the past 3-4 four week periods make me sad but I also realize that most were not a true lack of effort but just bad timing.

In addition to my daily walking, I was finally able to get back to swimming earlier this month, after 12 weeks of the pool being closed. I had been on target to complete the 100 mile swim club (for 2020) back in March, until the pool was closed down due to COVID19 orders. Even now, the pools are open but we are only allowed to swim for an hour (75 minutes in the building is the rule) at a time, which has made reaching the 100 mile mark a little harder. I did get to just over 90 miles swam as of the end of June. I should be able to reach 100 in July and hopefully make some steady progress towards reaching the special anniversary 150 mile challenge that they included as part of the 100 Mile swim club for this year. Essentially, I need to swim at least 10 miles per month to reach that goal. That is very doable and I should complete it easily before the end of the year.

It was just over 110 days ago that schools were closed for the rest of the year, and now graduations are being held in parking lots because of gathering limits. Our school was hoping to have theirs at the stadium but did not receive the approval (not sure who had to approve) to do that, so they went with the contingency plan for a parking lot ceremony. They held Prom two nights before graduation across two venues - food trucks at the high school (with in car service) and then a movie at the drive in (where they are being asked to stay in their car). I'm glad they got a night to celebrate but wonder why we couldn't find a way when wedding receptions are permitted for up to 300.

In our area, conversations have started with groups of parents, teachers and administrators meeting online to talk about what school could look like in the fall. Our school is looking at three approaches - 100% online, hybrid in school/online and back to the classroom. They are gathering info from the CDC, studies/findings that have been published, perspective from schools in other countries and counties and other sources that participants are sharing to help inform their proposal. They have done parent and student surveys. In the return to the classroom approach, it definitely feels like parents are divided on whether they will send their child back to school if it resumes in the fall (and fortunately, the schools are making plans for that contingent of students within their option of fully returning and hybrid approach). With back to the classroom option, there are those that think masks make sense but another portion that is expressing concern with the challenges with them being worn correctly, teachers/students being able to effectively communicate, safety/adverse consequences of wearing them. I have heard that one thought is require masks at arrival/departure, in the hallway, and other places where they will pass each other in close proximity but allow them to remove masks in the classroom where the desks are spaced, so as to balance ability to teach/learn. I don't ultimately know where things will land but my hope is that we will have them back in school and take sufficient precautions without being too prescriptive or doing things that will negatively impact learning. We will know more next week when they present the proposal to the school board...then I think the Board of Health has to weigh in.

What goals have you set? Were you successful in meeting them? What is the plan for school in the fall where you live?

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Win a copy of Cross Shadow by Andrew Huff

No compensation was received for this post. I am sharing this giveaway, not hosting it.

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Cross Shadow by Andrew Huff

No compensation was received for this review. All opinions expressed are my own or that of my family. A complimentary review copy was provided to me. 

Last week I shared that I had read A Cross to Kill by Andrew Huff. This week, I had the chance to read the second book in the series, Cross Shadow. I always enjoy getting the opportunity to catch up with characters that I have met before in a new adventure; this new adventure takes place about 8 months after the first book. The good thing is that if you haven't had the chance to read the first book, you can still enjoy this second book as a stand alone story.
The book opens on an ordinary day. Christine is heading out to interview for a role at a new network. We get a glance at the budding relationship with John as they chat on a video call on her walk to the train. She ends the call quickly, realizing how busy the platform is and wanting to make sure she catches her train. As she settles in on the train, her minds is racing with reflection and what-ifs. Forcing herself to be in the moment and relax, she concentrates on the car's passengers, making observations about each. When her eyes settle on a young man at the front of the car, she starts to notice things in his demeanor and his physical features...a drop of sweat trailing down the side of his face, the way he keeps his eyes on the floor, the excess licking of his lips, the oversized jacket he wore...she started to put them together, recognizing but struggling to identify the profile; until it clicked - it's at this point that the action begins and doesn't let up until the end of the book.

John is a former CIA agent turned pastor. Christine is a journalist. They have been dating since the end of the last book, although it sounds like they connect around life and don't always give their relationship the time it deserves. Christine has always been a woman that could take care of herself (which John knows and admits) and with John's training she has learned to be more aware of her surroundings, plot her course of actions and remember the small details. Even so, John can't help himself in wanting to protect her. She struggles with him not trusting her. Together, they make a dynamic team; brought together for another adventure filled with suspense, danger and challenges to their faith.

The story is fast-paced, driven by a lot of action and suspense. The author does a great job describing everything that goes on during the story; the way he writes the car chases and fights, makes it easy for the reader to visualize the scene in their minds. The twist and turns and the continual discovery of who can and can not be trusted keeps the reader guessing and at points, worried about the safety of the characters. Thankfully, they seem to have the right allies on their side (CIA, former military, law enforcement) that always seem to come to the rescue with information, identities, technology and resources, especially when things are at their worst. I'm always amazed at the technology shared in some of these thrillers - some because it sounds really cool (molar mic, glasses with embedded cameras), some because it sounds unbelievably realistic and down-right scary (military robots). Together, the high action, the suspenseful plot that keeps you guessing and the difficult situations and decisions that the characters face create a captivating thriller that you don't want to put down.


About the Book:
All journalist Christine Lewis wants is the truth. All pastor John Cross wants is to avoid it.

Former CIA agent turned evangelical pastor John Cross is busy caring for the small community of believers he ministers to in Virginia. Journalist Christine Lewis is busy with the demand for her talents from top news agencies in New York City. Neither has any time left for their relationship, which began eight months before when they paired up to prevent the detonation of a chemical bomb in the nation's capital.

But when Christine hears that her stepbrother has been arrested for murder in Texas, they team up again to discover the truth about the crime. Untangling a web of conspiracy, the couple finds themselves in the center of another dangerous situation-and in trouble far deeper than they expected.

With an assassin on the loose, a trusted colleague acting as a double agent, and unreliable artificial intelligence connected to mercenaries who have Cross on their hit list, these two may not get out of the Lone Star State alive.


About the Author:
Huff spent ten years in local church ministry as a youth pastor and creative arts pastor before pursuing God’s calling into creative storytelling and media production as the product director at Igniter Media, a church media company (ignitermedia.com).

He is a two-time finalist in the American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) Genesis Contest for unpublished authors (2014, 2017) and also won the best screenplay award at the 2015 48 Hour Film Festival in Richmond, VA. A Cross to Kill and Cross Shadow in the Shepherd Suspense series are his first releases.

Huff holds a bachelor of science in religion degree from Liberty University and a master of arts in Christian education from Dallas Theological Seminary. He resides in Plano, TX, with his beautiful wife, Jae, and their two boys.

Learn more Andrew Huff and the Shepherd Suspense novels at www.andrewhuffbooks.com. He can also be found on Facebook (@huffwrites), Twitter (@andrewjohnhuff) and Instagram (@andyhuff).

This book did not disappoint, living up to the expectations set by the first in the series. Cross Shadow was another action-packed suspense story from Andrew Huff. I would recommend this book for anyone that likes a good suspense novel. The book reads well on its own but you really should consider reading the first book in the series too because it is good. The third book comes out next year but you can read the first chapter at the end of this book.

No compensation was received for this review. All opinions expressed are my own or that of my family. A complimentary review copy was provided to me.


Summertime!

I am so glad to finally be getting back to a more normal course of activity. I have enjoyed the down time and the time spent with family but it is good to have things starting to return to our schedules. Today marked the okay to open for playgrounds, museums, zoos, theaters, and a few other things in our area. Next week it is amusement parks and casinos. Some of the plans released seem a bit weird and some make me wonder if the experience is worth the hassle. I assume that those things will begin to relax in due time and until then, I am just glad for the steps that we are making.

Summer baseball has started and it feels about 95% normal. The bleachers are closed, which seems like an odd set up because I find that it leaves less space for parents to be spread out but heard that they were closed to allow the players a space in which to spread out when their team is in the dugout. The umpires (at the games we have been at) are calling balls and strikes from behind the pitcher and the field umpire stands behind 1st only (rather than moving to a more centralized field position once runners are on). One game though, our home plate umpire was behind the pitcher calling balls and strikes but the field umpire was behind the catcher, set up to better make the calls at home and foul balls. Makes you kind of wonder why he could be back there for that but that the home plate umpire can't set up there to calls balls and strikes. From what I understand, the decisions have been made on a per league/per tournament basis so we may see variations. In fact, the one umpire showed up with the intent to stand behind the catcher at another game and was told that he couldn't because the coaches didn't want for him to get in trouble.

It is nice to have restaurants open again. In some, you simply don't see that they have changed things because they moved and removed tables. Sure the servers are wearing masks and there are little things (including signs) that are different but they feel mostly normal. We went to Chili's this weekend after baseball though and there it felt obvious - every other table is marked with blue tape, the ketchup is brought out in little cups with lids, the water glasses can't be refilled so they bring you a new one each time. We went because we had a gift card and honestly, we wanted to make sure to use our gift card...there have been some restaurants where all of the local locations have closed - not sure whether it was because of the pandemic or if that was the proverbial straw. The service was excellent, the food was delicious and the portions good, and it was nice to enjoy a meal out with the whole family. This next weekend we are in a tournament and we will likely enjoy a meal out with the team...that will definitely be a unique experience.

The swimming pool opened for lap swimming this week. They are limiting us to 75 minutes in the facility/60 minutes in the pool - I'm not sure how much they are monitoring / enforcing but it seems everyone is complying. I was on target to complete the 100 mile challenge back in March and am hoping even with the shortened swim time that I will be able to complete it in June. Swimming time feels normal to me, just me back and forth in the pool alone with my thoughts and the occasional greeting of a fellow swimmer that I haven't seen in 12 weeks. My body definitely was tired and achy after returning to a workout that I hadn't done in so long and I was slower for sure. I am starting to pick up my pace a bit and hope to have it back up to where I was by the end of next week. Seeing the Camp kids playing in the rec pool and then the runners outside as I leave, certainly feels more like normal.

I have continued my daily walk but fitting them in is a bit more tricky now that I am also trying to swim 4-5 times per week. I am up to 89 days of completing at least a 30 minute walk with my typical walk now being up to 55 minutes. It was crazy warm here yesterday and today it was the humidity that was the challenge, I decided to walk before I swam, which meant walking in my glasses instead of my contacts. It worked okay but the glasses do steam up with the high humidity and me walking.

I start my new job next week. Having half of my time unemployed be during the pandemic has been interesting. One of my friends asked me today if I felt like a kid on the last week of summer vacation. I said yes, actually I do. I have developed a new routine (second one if you consider the pre- and during pandemic routines) that will be hard to move away from. I got a lot done that was on my to do list but feel I have so much more that I had hoped to accomplish during my time off. With everyone being home, the motivation and schedule seemed to be in my way. I have a few more things that I will tackle this week and the other things can simply wait. There wasn't a great urgency to getting them done just things on my list.

How is your summer starting? Are things opening up near you? Have you been out? What was your experience?



Monday, June 1, 2020

A Cross to Kill by Andrew Huff

No compensation was received for this review. All opinions expressed are my own or that of my family. A complimentary review copy was provided to me. 
The weather lately has been wonderful. We had a few days in a row where the weather was rather warm and humid but this weekend brought the return of spring like days. I took the opportunity to sit on my front porch and start a book. I had just received a copy of A Cross to Kill by Andrew Huff, as a bonus to his new book Cross Shadow, so it was the book that I chose. John Cross is a former CIA assassin that found God and left his CIA life behind (mostly) and is now a pastor at a small church. Christine Lewis is a reporter who had been kidnapped in Jordan and is going to be executed on camera. When she is saved from a certain death through the amazing heroics of Cross and makes it home, she wants the chance to say thank you to the individual that rescued her and decides to seek him out. This unfortunately puts them both in danger's way.
The action started right on the first page and didn't really stop until the story was done; once I started reading I simply didn't want to put the book down. The author's description of the action was well done and allowed me to vividly picture what was happening in the story which helped draw me in. With the story in continuous motion, the author does a good job sharing about the characters over the course of the story, revealing more about them through background and dialog as the story unfolds. The story is told from a somewhat omniscient narrator point of view, still allowing the reader insight to what the characters are thinking and feeling. The characters were well developed and you quickly find yourself cheering on the main characters and loving the quirky supporting characters as well.

The story was full of drama, adventure and of course, that element of unknown that makes it a great thriller. Being a work of Christian fiction, there is an underlying thread of faith that is easy to read and well incorporated to the story line. John has a newer found faith and is still learning and struggles to not revert back to his former life. Through the course of the story, we see him sharing his faith and encouraging others to renew (or find) their faith. He wants others to learn from him and share the same type of benefits that his faith has provided to him. But, will his sharing be enough to help others take the high road and have the faith to get through this adventure with him? That being said, there was one short scene where the Christianity thread felt a little too forced and off pace from the rest of the book - but that was only about a page of the book and the story quickly moved forward leaving that slow section behind. The twists and turns leave the reader guessing and as often is the case, leaves you surprised and even shocked as you learn the truth. In balance to the suspense, or perhaps to help drive it, there is a bit of romance mixed in the story.

About the Book:A gripping debut thriller pits a man of God against terrorists—and his own deadly past.

John Cross is a small-town pastor, bent on leading his flock to follow God's calling. He's not the sort of man one would expect to have a checkered past.

But the truth is that the man behind the pulpit preaching to his sheep was once a wolf--an assassin for the CIA. When John decided to follow Christ, he put that work behind him, determined to do penance for all the lives he took. He vowed never to kill again.

Now someone wants the peaceful pastor to pay for his sins with his own life. And when a terrorist out for revenge walks into the church, John's secrets are laid bare. Confronted with his past, he must face his demons and discover whether a man can truly change. Can he keep his vow--even when the people he loves are in mortal danger? Will his congregation and the brave woman he's learning to care for be caught in the cross fire? In the end, John's life may be the only sacrifice he has left to offer...


About the Author:
Andrew Huff is the product director at Igniter Media, one of the largest church media companies in the nation. He has also spent ten years in church ministry as both a youth pastor and creative arts pastor. Andrew currently lives in Plano, Texas. This is his first novel. Learn more at www.andrewhuffbooks.com.


An action packed, mind bending suspense with a twist, I would recommend this book for anyone that likes a good suspense novel. I look forward to starting the second book shortly and have high hopes based on his first book.

No compensation was received for this review. All opinions expressed are my own or that of my family. A complimentary review copy was provided to me.