Wednesday, September 10, 2014

My recent epiphany

"I've just had an apostrophe."

"I think you mean epiphany."

I'm probably quoting that wrong, but bonus points if you can tell me what that is from....

In any case, I had a homeschooling epiphany recently. Not a huge one, but a significant one nonetheless. It was something I had thought about before, but it really sunk in and I realized how to use the concept to make a difference in our homeschool - for the better.

Curriculum is a tool. It isn't the goal.

Simple, right? I read something along those lines from Sarah at Amongst Lovely Things (such a wonderful and inspiring homeschooling blog) a while back (and I'm not sure which blog post it was, otherwise I would link to it directly, but seriously, read her stuff). She talked about not letting curriculum rule you, but using curriculum as a tool to achieve a goal. At the time, I nodded along as I read it, thinking I agreed. And I did. But the reality of what that really meant, for ME, here in OUR home, is now becoming apparent. And it is relieving a lot of stress.

I'll explain with an example. This year we are studying US history and geography. I have a very nice US geography curriculum. I looked at how many lessons there are, to give myself an idea of how often we should try to do geography each week. It really stressed me out. After all, there are 50 states, and each state has a number of things to cover. If I thought of the curriculum as the goal, I'd be trying to cram it all in, whether we really have that much time to devote to it or not, because somehow finishing the curriculum in a school year = I did enough geography.

But what if I looked at it differently? What if we have a goal that isn't the curriculum? What if our goal is: learn about the states and capitals. What if I cast off the strictures of the school year and realize we don't have to do this all in one year. We can, and we very well might. But if we don't, is that going to ruin them? Do I have no further chances to teach them about the states and the capitals?

If our goal is "learn about the states and capitals," and the curriculum is our tool for doing so, suddenly my planning (and stressing) is a lot different. I don't have to figure out how to jam learning about 50 states into roughly 36 weeks of school (that would mean more than one state per week - yikes!). I can let it flow as it will. Sometimes we will go through a bunch of states in a week, or even a day, if the kids are into it. Other times we might not cover a new state for a while, if we are busy with other projects. We're flexible like that, and I want to be, but it is hard to maintain flexibility without stress and guilt if the curriculum is the end goal.

So I'm keeping that in mind as we settle into another school year. I'm writing down some goals, and they aren't "finish X curriculum." I'm focusing on what I want the kids to get out of certain subjects, or what I want to emphasize, and the curriculum we use is a means to an end, not the end in and of itself. And that feels pretty good.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

First day of school!

I don't know about you, but we had a great summer. There have been so many things I've wanted to write about, but I was a little busy this summer writing a book. (Squee!) We had a summer full of sun and play and lots and lots and lots of free time. My writing frenzy translated into a lot of play outside time for my kids - definitely a good, old fashioned summer. They spent quarters at garage sales, held a lemonade stand, rode bikes, climbed trees and played countless games with their friends in the neighborhood.

All good things must come to an end, and today we joined the ranks of families going back to school. Although by "going" I mean "going downstairs." 

This year I have a fourth grader, a second grader and a kindergartner. It is still sinking in that my youngest baby is five years old and I no longer have a preschooler. I've had at least one child in preschool (or at preschool level) since like 2008. It is crazy to think that my kids are all in the elementary zone.

This is our fourth year of homeschooling (which also seems crazy), and I've learned a lot about what works for us and what doesn't. I've learned that simplicity is a good thing, over-planning (which is my natural tendency) is rarely worth it, my kids come up with better project ideas than I do, and I have to pace myself with read alouds or I lose my voice (that's one I was reminded of today). 

We'll be tackling more writing projects, US history and geography, astronomy and probably some life science later in the year, a lineup of fun books to read and dissect, as well as the mainstays like math and reading and handwriting. 

I'm excited to start another school year with my kids. Every year is different, and we adapt and change, finding new ways to learn and have fun. I don't exactly run a Pinterest-worthy homeschool, but we delve deep into our interests, experience a lot of interesting things, and spend a ton of time creating and building. Like I always say to people who ask me about homeschooling, it works well for our family.

Heck, it works AWESOME for our family.

I'd love to be among those posting cute first day of school pictures of my kids, but so far I have not convinced two of the three to get dressed, so pictures will have to wait. I'm not gonna lie, clothing is definitely optional at the Frank Academy of Awesomeness (although underwear is required).

Happy first day of school! 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

A simple picture

My husband picks up the boys from their jiu jitsu class on Thursdays so I can take Ella to gymnastics. It works out nicely because not only does it mean slightly less running around for me, but Daddy gets to watch them practice.

Typically, their jiu jitsu class ends with 10-15 minutes of grappling matches. The coach matches the kids up based on both size and skill and they get the chance to practice what they've been learning. The kids who aren't grappling sit on the side and watch.

Today, during a grappling match while our boys were sitting on the side watching, my husband snapped this picture:

They had no idea he took it. I don't think they've seen it yet. They weren't posing, they weren't asked to sit near each other, to put their arms around each other. They were sitting like that, together, watching their classmates.

Because that's how they roll.

My husband and I value family closeness a lot. Things like eating together and playing games and spending time as a family come naturally to us because this little group of crazies, this is where it's at for us. Things aren't always sunshine and unicorns, because we're all human; but fostering a family environment that values closeness and cohesiveness is important to us. It isn't even something we necessarily consciously strive for; it just is.

But even with our commitment to creating a close family, I don't know how we got so lucky.

That picture says in ways that I can't articulate in words what our family is about. I wish I could take credit for it, but that would be highly presumptuous of me. I suppose we've done some things right (and surely some things wrong). The fact that my kids are so close to one another makes my heart soar.

My children are normal little people. They get on each other's nerves and argue sometimes. And they also genuinely like each other. As homeschooled kids, they spend most of their day together, and amazingly enough, it is awesome. They miss each other when they're apart. They are the first ones they run to when something good (or bad) happens. They hug each other, they comfort each other, they have fun together. They all sleep huddled together in one room because they like being together.

I couldn't ask for anything more. When I think about what I want for them, what I wish for them in their lives, this one ranks pretty high on that list. I want them to be close. I want this family to be their safe place, their roots, their rock, their foundation. The core of that is my husband and I, but each of them have an important part to play. To see their relationships with each other blossoming is an amazing, and very humbling, experience.

I suppose this post is turning into a mommy-gush-fest. It isn't like I can write "how to have siblings who love each other in 10 easy steps." I don't have those answers, and I think in many ways it is by the grace of God that we're this lucky. But if I had to distill it down, it is simply this: it is all about love. John Lennon was on to something there. We love on them a heck of a lot, and we don't accept anything less than them loving each other. Part love and part luck, and I get a moment like this, captured in a picture.

Sometimes they simply take my breath away.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Fun With Poetry

We've spent some time focusing on poetry over the last several weeks. We enjoy reading poetry pretty regularly; Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky are favorites around here. Recently we've done some fun writing exercises, creating our own poems, and even some acting, creating some silly dramatizations of poems as well.

Today I drew ideas from Rose, How Did You Get That Red, by Kenneth Koch, a book about teaching children to write poetry, using classic poems as inspiration. Shout out to my Aunt Linda for the book - she was kind enough to get me a copy. It is fantastic.

We read The Tyger, by William Blake

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

The whole poem is a lot of fun to read, but it does have language that children don't usually understand immediately. We spent some time talking about many of the stanzas, thinking about what the words meant and what the author was trying to say.

Then they set about writing their own poems. As suggested by Koch in "Rose, How Did You Get That Red," I suggested we imagine we were talking to a creature or thing, and had the chance to ask it questions. The subject could answer back, or not, it was their choice.

I love what they came up with this morning; I just had to share.

Ice and Water, by Grayson (age almost-7)

Ice, ice, why are you so hard?
Why aren't you soft, like water?
Water, water, why are you soft?
Why can't you be hard like ice?
Water, water, why can't you hold a hammer?
And make ice sculptures.
Why are you liquid?

The Sun, by David (age 9)

Sun, sun, why so bright?
Sun, sun come out at night.
Shine your rays upon the night.
Do you fall asleep at night?
Like a flower, gleam and glow,
In the spring, melt the snow.
Why so yellow and so bright?
You are light.

Aren't those just lovely? Ok, I am biased (just a little), but I thought they were both really sweet. I'm proud of their hard work today!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Reflections on 37

Today is my 37th birthday. I've never been one to worry too much about getting older. I have always seen it as simply part of life; the natural way of things. We all get older. Plus, if I start complaining about being "old" when I'm in my 30's or 40's, I am literally going to spend more than half my life complaining about my age. How does that make any sense? We either get older each year, or, well, we don't... meaning, we're dead. I'll take older, thankyouverymuch!

But sliding down the other side of my 30's, I am struck by how things have changed. I've had the same group of good friends since we were all in our 20's, and we often look around at our lives and wonder, "How did this all happen?!?" Gone are the days of hanging out after work until late on Friday nights, and sleeping in on Saturdays; of spontaneous road trips and weeknight snowboarding; of reading that 1000 page book cover to cover in 36 hours, barely coming up for air. For you, it probably looked a little different, your life as a young adult. But if you're heading towards 40 (or beyond), you have probably noticed things aren't quite the same as they were 10 or 15 years ago. (Especially if you have kids!)

So in honor of my birthday, here are some reflections on my later-30's:

Ten years ago was not 1998
Have you seen that meme? Good grief, that is SO true. I still think 10 years ago was sometime in the 90's. I'm not sure when my mental calendar is going to catch up with the rest of the earth, but I am still floored when I think about how many years have passed since certain milestones, like high school graduation or my marriage (20 years next year, and 15 years in June, respectively).

Movie theater trips are for GOOD movies
David and I were movie people. Before we had kids, we probably saw a movie at least 3 or 4 times a month. We saw just about everything. And if it was awesome, we saw it again. Now, between the expense of going to the movies (seriously, why is it so freakishly expensive!), plus the need for a babysitter, we reserve going to the movie theater for movies we really want to see on the big screen. Even movies that look enjoyable, but aren't necessarily visual or action-packed, don't make the cut. It needs to be theater-worthy, and our standards are pretty high.

"Late" has a new meaning
My first 6 or 7 years of motherhood were spent with at least one child who either a) didn't yet sleep through the night, b) woke at 6am or earlier, or c) both. I was in bed by 10pm every single night. Now my kids are more merciful and don't wake at such an awful hour (have I mentioned I am NOT a morning person?), but I still need to go to bed by 11 in order to be a nice human the next day. Staying up late used to mean 3 or 4am. Now? I'm a crazy party animal if I'm up past midnight.

Shopping for cars is all about utility, and rarely about coolness
I can't even think about cars with any sense of what might be cool to drive anymore. Cars are a tool to get from point A to point B, with a zoo of kids in tow. I wasn't a big car person before, but now? I drive a minivan. And I love that thing. Seriously, the doors slide open so I don't have to freak out about my kids dinging the car next to them! There's plenty of space so they rarely wind up elbowing each other in the back seat! What more do you need out of a car than that? I'm so out of touch with "cars as status or coolness symbol" that when my husband has asked me what kind of car I'd get if I could have any car in the world, I can't fathom anything with seating for less than 7.

I'm still me
My mom once told me that one of the strange things about getting older is that you still feel like yourself - the you from your twenties or thirties or whatever. But as the number gets higher, you feel like you ought to be different somehow. When you're 25, someone who is 40 seems a LOT older than you. You might not think of them as an "old person," but they seem like they are in a different category than you are. It's like the seniors when you're a freshman - dude, they're SENIORS. They're on some other plane of existence. In young adulthood, adults who are a decade or more older than you seem similar - older, more experienced, maybe lamer (maybe not). But then you hit that age, and you think, "Wait, I'm not lame. I'm not some old fuddy duddy. I'm still ME. I'm still the ME that I was when I thought 37-year-olds were like waaaay older than me." And yet now you're the 37 year old. Or in this case, I am. Weird.

Getting older is a funny thing. We move through seasons of life and watch things change, and yet who we are, at our core, remains. I have more experience and (hopefully) more wisdom than I once did. I'm rockin' a little bit of pixie dust in my hair, and my life has certainly changed in a lot of ways. But I'm still me.

With a minivan.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Our medieval feast

My kids decided weeks ago that they wanted to have a medieval feast. We've been reading and learning about the middle ages over the last few months, and this seemed like a fun way to wrap up our study of this fascinating time period.

I wanted to keep it simple. No roasting a suckling pig all day or making seven courses of decorated tartlets and meat pies. Medieval lords had a staff of cooks and servants - they simply had to shell out the gold, show up, and eat all day. Me? No staff here. So simple it was. We invited some family, served some good food, and the boys put on a show - good times.

The boys had been working for days on their knight costumes. David even sewed himself a cloak.

It turned out really well. They also used poster board, card stock and a lot of duct tape to make armor. Add to that their shields bearing the colors they chose and their coats of arms, and they were decked out!

Dinner, as I said, was simple - but awesome, if I do say so myself. We had roasted turkey legs, ham (of course they had Honeybaked ham in the middle ages, duh!), soup, crusty bread, and some assorted cheese and fruit plates. It was easy to throw together, and everyone had a great meal. Since there wasn't a ton of preparation involved in making dinner, I made a couple of medieval-inspired desserts. The apple turnovers may not have been strictly authentic, but pastries with fruit filling were common at feasts; and they were delicious, thanks to my amazing Grandma's apple pie recipe. I also made some lemon cakes, which were somewhat authentic, although made with modern ingredients. And they were good - really good. Seriously, go make some.

Our table. Yes, those are paper plates. Remember the not having of servants? Yeah.
We had medieval harp music on in the background (thank you Spotify). We said it was a minstrel in the corner, certainly not a cell phone hooked up to a set of speakers. The kids also made some decorations to make our feast more medieval.


Ella made this torch all by herself. I love that she added flower and butterfly stickers
The sign David made to greet our guests. It might be hard to see in the photo, but he drew dragon heads and the tissue paper is their fire breath
After dinner, the two Prince Knights did battle in the arena! I wish my camera had not chosen that moment to run out of batteries, but I did get part of their tournament. It was a lot of fun. They wound up calling it a draw at the end, hugging and bowing to each other. Seriously, these kids are ridiculous. I love them. (And I can't get the video to upload here, but here's a picture of the beginning of their battle.)

It was a great evening. We enjoy any excuse to invite family and friends to eat lots of good food, so this was right up our alley. And keeping it simple meant it wasn't a source of stress or tons of work for me (which can definitely happen when my kids have ambitious ideas). Maybe we'll have some fun and do a big meal from other time periods we study.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Illuminated manuscripts and why I joke about being a lazy homeschooler

One of the largely agreed upon benefits of homeschooling, at least amongst fellow homeschooling families, is the flexibility. Sometimes that means taking a vacation in November and enjoying shorter lines at Disneyland without the concerns of kids missing class. Sometimes flexibility is a little smaller; a simple matter of watching your kids interest pique and allowing an unforeseen and unplanned diversion to take shape.

Today we read, Marguerite Makes a Book, a lovely story about Marguerite, a girl living in 15th century Paris. Her father is an aging manuscript illuminator; a highly sought after artist who is currently behind on completing a prayer book for a noble woman. When her father's glasses are broken, Marguerite takes it upon herself to complete the beautiful illuminations so the book will be complete on time.

About half way through the story, as Marguerite is painting using the paints she has just mixed herself, Grayson exclaimed that we should do a project and make our own illuminated manuscripts, just like Marguerite. Then he said he wanted to make a book of all the prayers he knows, and illustrate the pages.

Clearly the answer to that request is a resounding yes.

The results are enough to make this homeschooling mama's heart soar. First of all, multitasking awesomeness. We have art, penmanship, reading and history all rolled into one. Are you kidding me with that? Plus, they were so interested and invested in their work, they all sat at the table, carefully drawing their designs and painstakingly copying the words. It was so... quiet.

Grayson chose a prayer, while David thumbed through a book of poetry and found one he liked that wasn't too long. Ella wanted hers to look "just like Grayson's," so she watched him carefully and tried to copy his pictures.

We never made it to the other work I had laid out for the day. We had outside activities this afternoon, and this took up the time we had left before lunch. But I wouldn't trade it for all the pre-planned, checklist checking-off in the world. Today was awesome.

Are all our days this good? Well no, not really. Most days we go through our schoolwork for the day and move on to other stuff, and it is fine. But once in a while I see that light in their eyes and they come up with an idea that turns out awesome.

Days like today are why I joke about being a lazy homeschooler. I'm not really, but I have relaxed my approach and found that less is often more. I used to try to plan all sorts of projects and activities - but it was hard to keep up with them, many fell flat, and I felt like I was putting more work into all of this than was necessary. Now that I plan less, I find we do more - and not only more, but projects that interest and motivate them like nothing I could have planned for.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Sometimes I just can't interrupt

Most days, I have a rough plan for what I'd like to accomplish that day. We do things like reading, math, spelling and so forth on a regular basis. We do science labs and read alouds and all sorts of things. I used to plan things by the day, but I found that taking a more relaxed approach fit our family better.  Although I don't write lesson plans that tell me what to do each day, I do have a sequence of things to accomplish, in a rough order (or a strict order, depending on the subject), and we move through those things as we go. I usually start the day with a plan of what we'll do that day, and it helps me stay on track and make sure we're accomplishing what we need to accomplish.

The thing is, sometimes I just can't interrupt them.

Today is a great example. This morning, they were building Lego stuff, so I pulled out a couple of books and read aloud. Yesterday we got a new book, Design Your Own Coat of Arms, so we took that out and the boys immediately wanted to design their own heraldry. This was something I'd planned to do as part of our history studies, but I didn't pre-plan it for today. They got really excited about it, and carefully crafted their designs. Afterwards, they wound up spending the morning making cardboard shields with plans to include their new coats of arms on them.

Grayson decided to be an "American Knight" and David wants to be the "Green Knight."

If I was still trying to check off all the boxes on my list, I'd have stopped them. To be fair, I probably wouldn't have, but I'd have felt pressure to get through the rest of our list this afternoon, and would have been madly erasing our schedule and rewriting it to make it fit with the time we have left this week.

After lunch, I figured we'd do our "seatwork" - things like cursive and handwriting, math, spelling, etc. The kids drifted into the school room while I finished my lunch, and fired up their favorite art website (Art for Kids Hub is great!). All three of them went to work drawing sharks and dolphins, first following the video instructions, and then continuing to enhance their drawings on their own. Grayson told me a very elaborate story about his great white shark trying to eat a hammerhead shark, who was trying to eat a fish. And then the dolphin came along and leapt out of the water to avoid the shark.

Grayson's is on the left; David's is on the top right and Ella's on the bottom right.

An hour later later, they are all still sitting at the table, drawing and telling each other stories.

I just can't interrupt.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Everything. In my face.

I know plenty of things have been written, both in seriousness and in jest, about the trials and tribulations of being a stay-home-mom. I've heard everything from mind-numbing to fulfilling, from desperate housewives to dedicated homemakers.

The truth - actually, not THE truth, but A truth, which is to say, MY truth - is that being a stay home mom is wonderful and rewarding and I wouldn't want my life to be anything other than what it is right now. And, it can be pretty hard.

The hard thing for me (at least lately) is based on two simple facts. One, I will never be caught up on anything. And two, all the things I am never caught up on will always be staring me in the face. I live here, I work here, I even school my kids here, so the work, the laundry, the dishes, the cooking, the cleaning, the playing, the picking up, the everything is always right here.

In my face.

Maybe I have a slightly overactive imagination, but I'm pretty sure the laundry in my house has a personality and it likes to mock me. It isn't very nice. I walk into my room a dozen times a day and see the overflowing hampers and think, "Gee, I should really do one or two or thirty loads today." But I was walking through my room, not to pick up the book by my bedside table, curl up under the covers and read for a few hours, but to get something in order to do something else that really needs to be done. So in that moment, I have to pick between doing what I was there to do, or doing laundry. So the hamper stays.

In my face.

I walk through my kitchen a minimum of 800 times a day, as these growing children seem to need a constant stream of calories in order to maintain their skinny little selves. The dishes pile up, and I know I ought to take care of them, but something else always beckons. We were in the midst of painting a volcano or reading Pippi Longstocking or I promised them apples and milk. So the dishes stay.

In my face.

My day is made up of decisions - decisions of how to spend each moment. Do I get this done, or that? Do I spend time here, or over there? It all calls to me. It all needs to be finished. The bills need to be paid, and we all need clean clothes to wear and food to eat, and being able to walk without piercing your foot on a demon Lego piece is also nice. There is always, without fail, too much to do over the course of any given day, so all day long I am deciding, prioritizing and leaving things undone.

What I ought to do is focus on what I accomplished today. What DID get done. But do I do so? No, I don't. I run through my mental checklist of what should be finished, and always find things left undone. I'm fixated on the negative. And the knowledge that tomorrow will be more of the same - more things I won't get to, won't accomplish, won't finish - it wears me out.

I'm not sure what the solution is, really. As much as I love lists, I long ago stopped making checklists that included things like laundry, because you never, ever get to check it off as being done. I've tried being more organized, and I've tried letting it all go and purposefully being less organized. I suspect the key has something to do with embracing the chaos and the mess, and unfollowing everyone on my Pinterest feed that pins things about homemaking and organization.

What should I focus on, at the end of the day, when there are still lego sets on the dining table, a random pile of kid's clothes next to the couch (because Ella simply can't stay dressed in the same outfit for more than 10 minutes), and a myriad of other things that will be demanding my attention tomorrow?

Maybe things like this.

And this.

Or this.


Even this.

And most certainly this.


Perhaps the measure of my success as a stay at home mother is not the state of my home, but the state of the relationships within it.

Now that is a thought I am going to take to bed with me tonight.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The seasons of the homeschool year

Like a lot of things in life, homeschooling has a rhythm to it; a cyclical pattern that follows the seasons. Obviously this plays out differently for different families, but I've found over the last few years that there is a typical pattern in how the year flows. It goes something like this:

Late summer: Anticipation

She's done all the planning and prepping and researching. She's ordered her curriculum and books and resources. A cup of freshly sharpened pencils adorns the table, the crayons haven't been broken and there's a stack of fifty-cent composition notebooks on the bookshelf. Heck, she doesn't even know what she's going to do with them, but they were on sale! The paint brushes aren't crusty and the books are all shiny and new. She has a great plan and she looks with eager anticipation for the new school year to begin so she can begin implementing her well though out, thoroughly researched, and no doubt exciting and stimulating plans. This year is going to be great, she thinks to herself.

Fall: Determination

The first day wasn't exactly as idyllic as she envisioned, but over the ensuing weeks, she works out the kinks in her plans and they settle into a decent routine. She adjusts to the pixie-small attention span of her kindergartner, discovers a few ways to keep her older child challenged, and they plow ahead with the books and curriculum... mostly. There's always a casualty along the way; a book left by the wayside that no one really liked or a subject that isn't going quite as quickly or as smoothly as she thought. But she moves through fall with determination that yes, this year will still be great!

Holidays: The Big Exhale

Phew! We made it! No, it might to be the half way mark of the school year, but it is usually a nice break and a chance to regroup. Who doesn't like reevaluating things as you approach New Years! She takes some breaths, catches up on laundry for the first time in four months, and moves into January with some renewed energy.

February: The Two Fevers

February is the shortest month of the year, but to many a homeschooling mother, it is the longest. She heads into the bleak, boring wintry days of February without any sparkling holidays to look forward to (Valentine's Day hardly counts). The weather is cold, snowy or rainy with nary a sign of spring in sight. She starts to get a bit of cabin fever, when a new kind of fever sets in - planning fever! It seems like the perfect time to begin fervently researching possibilities for next year!

Early spring: A New Hope

She plans, she reads, and she takes heart in the things that are working well. She may even put aside the things that aren't working, finally letting go of the shackles of failed curriculum, knowing her plans for next year are even better. The sun breaks through the haze of winter, park playdates pop up on her meetup calendar, and there may even be a picnic or two.

May through June: Racing.. or maybe limping, to the finish

Depending on how things have gone, the race to the finish may be more like a slow slog. The weather gets better, which lifts her spirits, but also increases the wiggle-factor of her children. Many aren't coming to the start of a long summer vacation, but even those that school year round are probably approaching a break. She is ready to cast off routine for a while, let the broken crayons sit in their container, the crusty paint brushes dry out and embrace the season of sunshine - or at least "less rain" if you live here in the Pacific Northwest. She made it through another year, and she gets to recharge her batteries just a bit and revel in the anticipation of a new school year to come.

Those plans for next year, they sure do look good. It will be the best year yet....