Things to Make & Do - Everyday Advent Calendar (2012)

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Last year, for the first time, I made the kids a daily advent calendar full of easy activities and books. It ended up working out really well, especially since I often feel trapped and uninspired by the dark days of December. And the daily "presents" kept the kids focused on the every day, rather than constantly obsessing over December 25th. So this year I decided to recreate the magic, while learning from a few of last year's "fails." For example, wrapping and regifting Christmas books we already owned really bored the kids, so this year I checked out all new winter and holiday books from the library. Oh, and if the timing of everything seems odd (for example - why so many reading days in a row?) it's because of other activities we have scheduled throughout the holidays. For example, reading days = busy days.

As always, I tried to keep everything pretty thrifty because we still have Xmas to contend with.

So the countdown begins:

December 1 (Sat) - Make Santa's Beard Advent Calendar with cotton balls (more on this, hopefully, next Tuesday)

December 2 (Sun) - Make Christmas paper dolls, using free printables from this site; Xmas stampers for T

December 3 (Mon) - Read Great Joy

December 4 (Tues) - Paint and Read Oh Christmas Tree

December 5 (Wed) - Decorate Your Own Christmas Stocking

December 6 (Thurs) - Family Movie Night I (Mickey's Christmas Carol)

December 7 (Friday) - Christmas Coloring Books (Christmas Doodles for F, Barbie a Perfect Christmas for P, and Trucks for T)

December 8 (Saturday) - Special Christmas Coupon for a Small Gift

December 9 (Sunday) - Read Fancy Nancy's Splendiferous Christmas

December 10 (Monday) - Read Harold at the North Pole

December 11 (Tuesday) - Read Who Will Guide My Sleigh Tonight?

December 12 (Wednesday) - Dover $1.50 Sticker Books

December 13 (Thursday) - Family Movie Night II (How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the old, wonderful cartoon version)

December 14 (Friday) - Make Stained Glass Ornaments

December 15 (Saturday) - Make Baking Soda Ornaments (recipe here)

December 16 (Sunday) - Make Felted Acorns (using this kit)

December 17 (Monday) - Family Stargazing (With Glowsticks) and Read Snow

December 18 (Tuesday) - Make Snowflakes and Read The Story of Snow

December 19 (Wednesday) - Hot Cocoa with Marshmallows

December 20 (Thursday) - Family Movie Night III (Despicable Me, recorded for free from ABC Family)

December 21 (Friday) - Celebrate the Solstice With Friends and Read Winter Solstice

December 22 (Saturday) - Felt Frenzy Craft Kit

December 23 (Sunday) - Read Mary Engelbreit's The Nutcracker

December 24 (Monday) - Read A Pirate's Night Before Christmas


Things to Read - China - From Mongols to The Nobel Prize

Because we spent this summer road tripping around the country (for better or worse), a good friend lent us The Great Courses: From Yao to Mao: 5000 Years of Chinese History, which I highly recommend (especially if you're a big dork, like me, who misses school); great lectures without tests or papers = wonderfulness. Anyways, after listening to over 18 hours of Chinese history, I became a little obsessed. I wanted to learn more about the periods and people that fascinated me the most. I began by purchasing Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu. Prior to this summer, I never quite recognized Marco Polo as a real person, rather, I thought of him as a swimming pool game we'd play as kids (wasn't that so fun - yelling "Marco!" and hearing "Polo!" and over and over again?). Anyways, Marco Polo's biography makes for some amazing reading.

Polo's father and uncle spent his childhood traveling as merchants between China and Venice. In 1269, when Polo reached 15 years of age, his uncle and father returned home for a short while and decided to bring the young boy on their travels. Polo's stories of life along the silk road bring to life visions from Arabian Nights (rather embarrassingly, I couldn't stop listening to the Aladdin theme song while reading it, much to the great amusement of my children).

After journeying through the oasis towns of the Middle East [most of which no longer exist], the group made their way through the Taklimakan "Desert of Death" where Polo wrote of hearing "sounds, sometimes of singing, sometimes of wailing, and it has often happened that travelers going aside to see what these sounds may be, have strayed from their course and been entirely lost, for they say they were the voices of spirits and goblins." Polo also documented unusual towns where "[i]f a stranger comes to [a man's] house or lodge" the man instructs his "daughters, sisters, and other relations to do all that the stranger wishes." Apparently the custom was common in villages where people intermarried to preserve assets and bloodlines, as nomadic strangers helped to refresh a depleted gene pool.

Eventually Polo's group made their way into the heart of the Chinese empire, run by Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan). After introducing themselves to the great leader, the threesome spent seventeen years in China, servicing the Khan. Marco's stories of Kublai's home, Xanadu (just like the Olivia Newton John song), dazzle with details of magical albino horses and collapsible, portable summer palaces. Further, Polo tells wondrous tales of Quinsai, "the City of Heaven" (now known as China's city of Hangzhou), which he describes as "the greatest city that maybe be found in the world, where so many pleasures may be found that one fancies himself to be in paradise." (Yes, I really really want to travel there one day).

In fact, Polo told of so many fascinating people and places that Europeans doubted his sincerity, "he was seen, initially, more as an entertainer and fabricator than as a historian." Nor did they believe him for the next 500 years. Finally, in 1824, a French linguist compared Polo's tales to Mongol and Chinese documents and realized that Polo presented a "strikingly accurate report" of eastern life.

Shortly after I finished reading Marco Polo's biography the Nobel Prize Committee granted this year's literature prize to the Chinese author, Mo Yan. The decision met with some controversy as this may be the first time the committee awarded the prize to an author embraced by a communist government (unlike famed Chinese artist, Ai Wei Wei, Yan works within the system).

Anyways, when I learned that Yan's books were free on Kindle with an Amazon Prime membership (I think this deal has ended), I decided to read The Garlic Ballads: A Novel, hailed by the New York Times as a "raw, brilliant, and eventful" novel depicting "the small person's battle against capricious authority, both of the corrupt state and of family tradition", sort of like a Chinese Grapes of Wrath (the Chinese government banned the book).

On the upside, the Garlic Ballads may indeed be one of the best books I've ever read, wow, can Yan write, every sentence comes alive on the page, even in translation. For example,

"Gao Yang looked at the sinking sun, whose rays were growing gentler and friendlier by the minute. He knew that the comrade policeman were by then dipping steamed dumplings in the vinegary, garlicky sauce . . . [w]hen they finish their meal, he reminded himself, they'll come out to put me into a shiny red van and take me . . . where will they take me? Wherever it was, it had to be better than being shackled to a tree, right? But who would say? Actually it made no difference what happened, as he saw it. 'The people's hearts are made of steel, but the Law is a forge.' If I'm guilty, there goes my head. Another breeze rose up, rusding the leaves of the poplars and carrying the brays of a distant mule, which chilled the nape of his neck. He forced himself to stop thinking about what might happen."

On the downside [as demonstrated by the above quote], this is possibly the most depressing book I've ever encountered, half way into the novel all hope is basically lost, but still the peasants keep going, tortuously slogging on as the details of their suffering continually worsen.

Anyways, the book was so good that I'm hoping to read more by Mo Yan, but I'll need long pauses between his novels in order to maintain any sense of happiness or faith in life and the human condition.

After finishing the Garlic Ballads, I returned to the Mongols' fascinating period of (almost) world domination with The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire, which also makes for for great reading (though Marco Polo's biography covered much of the same background information). Apparently Ghenghis Khan's sons weren't worth much, so the Great Khan had his daughters rule the most strategically important parts of the empire, yet history has erased the majority of their legacy. I still haven't finished the book (I'm only about 25% in) but I'm enjoying it so far.

So that's what I've been reading lately. What about everyone else? Any good books to recommend?


Things to Make - Sea Salt Chocolate Chip Cookies

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I'm not usually a huge fan of chocolate chip cookies, but the kids love them. You would think that I'd use this discrepancy as an opportunity to make my kids happy while eating less myself, but instead I've searched and searched for a wonderful chocolate chip cookie recipe so I can partake in yet another guilty pleasure. Turns out the answer is sea salt, which takes the ordinary cookie to a whole new level.

We found this recipe through Pinterest and it really is the best chocolate chip recipe ever. Amazing. Alice Currah deserves some sort of reward.

T and I like to make a batch every few weeks to "surprise" the girls when they come home from school. But, beware, they are quite addictive.


2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups firmly packed dark brown sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 1/4 cups semisweet chocolate chips


Preheat the oven to 360 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.

Using a hand or stand mixer, cream the butter, granulated sugar, and brown sugar together on medium-high speed for 3 minutes, until nice and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then add the vanilla, and mix for 2 minutes. Reduce the mixer speed to medium-low and add the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. When the cookie dough has absorbed the dry ingredients, stir in the chocolate chips and mix until they are well distributed.

Drop 2 tablespoons of dough (or use a medium cookie scoop) onto the cookie sheet for each cookie, spacing them 2 inches apart. Bake for 15 minutes, or until the edges are nice and golden brown. Remove the cookie sheet from the oven and allow the cookies to cool for 2 minutes [note from No Monsters - I also sprinkle the cookies with a little extra sea salt]. Then slide the parchment paper, with the cookies still on top, onto a wire rack to cool completely before serving.

(Recipe courtesy of The Daily Meal)


Places to Go - Shrek on ICE!! at the Gaylord National and Why Ketchup Is the Worst Restaurant Ever (National Harbor, MD)


Last Monday after school a good friend and I took our kids to see Shrek on ICE!!, Gaylord Hotel's newest below-freezing tribute to excess and visual splendor. This year, they've added a film to the presentation (don't worry, you watch it in a warm room before entering the ice cave), which documents the process of creating two million pounds of sculpture and also details the inspiration for the event - a yearly festival in northern China where (among other things) visitors can tour a life-sized palace of ice. My children have wanted to go to China for awhile now (mainly because our good friends moved there and all toys originate in China) so now that they've learned of the Harbin festival (click here for pics) their minds are set on our next vacation destination.

Eventually, we received HUGE blue parkas and shuffled our way into the freezing cold. As always, everything was nothing short of amazing - huge ice slides, a giant life-sized pink dragon, ogre triplets everywhere you look, a donkey so life-like I felt like I was being watched . . . simply wonderful. Until I looked down at T. The exhibit is free for children 3 and under, probably because THEY HATE IT. T looked like a frozen popsicle of a little boy (despite the two jackets, gloves, and hat). "Why we here Mom?" "WHY?" "It cold here mom." "IT FREEZING." Well, he had a point. I tried to console, then I tried to ignore, but eventually we had to go. Luckily, I bought the Living Social Deal for half-priced tickets (now expired), so I still felt like we got our money's worth.

After we left, I asked "but I thought you loved Shrek?"

"Mom, I love Shrek the movie, where it warm. I don't like cold Shrek." Well-stated for a three year old.

The girls, on the other hand, loved the slides and the sculptures, though even F kept saying it was "way way colder than last time" (in 2010 we saw the Grinch on ICE!).

After the exhibit, we decided to dinner at National Harbor and this is where the night went downhill. We chose Ketchup, mainly because it offered a children's menu (whereas most places did not) and we wanted a sit-down dinner. And hence began the WORSE DINING EXPERIENCE EVER. Upon arrival, the waitress informed us that they were out of almost everything - including hamburgers, juice, crayons (for the menus), and broccoli.Luckily, my kids wanted grilled cheese and I craved fish tacos, so all was not lost. Until, it took about an hour to receive our food (in an uncrowded restaurant), which tasted about three stars below mediocre. Service was non-existent. Eventually I let the kids throw sugar packets at each other with the hope that someone would bring us a check, when this failed we started singing Firework at the top of our lungs. I cannot say enough bad things about Ketchup, other than I hope with all my heart that it closes soon. The bathrooms didn't even have toilet paper (despite initials indicating that cleaning and service occur on the hour). When we finally left, I asked two other woman dining with children (kids made up about 50% of Ketchup's clientele) about their experience and one replied "awful, absolutely awful, in every way."

After Ketchup, we ran over to the Awakening statute (located on the river behind the giant Christmas tree) where the kids climbed, frolicked, and generally had a great time, while I contemplated that with a picnic dinner National Harbor might be a nice place to visit.

We finally returned to our metered parking to find tickets on the windshield. Apparently, the 6:00 standard time-out for meters does not apply in National Harbor, where all street parking costs $3 an hour, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Street parking also comes with a two hour limit, making it impossible to eat at Ketchup, where it takes at least an hour and a half to receive one's food.

I'm sure I'll get over it, but right now I'm not very impressed with National Harbor. Unless you plan on taking the ferry from Alexandria (click here for past post), which makes for some wonderful time on the water, or eating at Elevation Burger (yum!!) National Harbor just doesn't offer a lot for families of young children. And this makes me sad, considering the National Children's Museum is opening there in mid-December.


*Dear Lacey Terrell, I'm sort of obsessed with you right now. I just thought you should know.

*A HUGE Educational Gift List for Kids (lots of awesomeness).

*A new Miss Moss playlist.


Things to Do - Grateful List (October 2012)

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* Listening to the Strokes, the Collection
* Watching the Mindy Kaling Project
* Checking out cookbooks from the library (esp. all the Moosewoods)
* Reading George's Secret Key to the Universe to the kids
* F dancing to Gangnam Style
* Listening to the Lumineers obsessively (esp. Flapper Girl)
* Ai Wei Wei'ss "According to What" at the Hirshhorn for mommy/F day, then lunch at the National Gallery's sculpture garden
* Reading Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu
* Reading Mo Yan's The Garlic Ballads: A Novel(winner of this year's Nobel Prize in Literature, so good but so depressing)
* Watching Revenge, Season 1 on Netflix (it's so bad it's good)


* Dan's love of his new smoker
* Spaghetti squash with tomato sauce
* Raisin bread, avocado, coconut oil, and feta sandwiches
* Lunch with T at La Pain Quotidien
* Polenta lasagna (Moosewood)
* Caramelized pumpkin seeds


* Coco at Mt Vernon, bonding with the sheep
* The Bubble Fairy at the Artisphere's Family Open House
* Burke Pumpkin Farm for F's birthday (7!!!)
* Organizing a successful Silver Diner Fundraiser for the girls' school
* Closing out Cox Farms on a weeknight after going down the dinosaur slide over and over again
* Autumn colors at Great Falls


* The moon jar
* Our homemade Halloween decorations
* Trader Joe's coconut body butter (addictive)
* Land of Nod excavator for T, dolls for the girls, and an art kit for our whole family (thank you Land of Nod!!)
* A hand-me down box of cars (hours of entertainment, thank you Ann!)


* P, while watching the Avengers - "I think the bad guys should be good guys and the good guys should be bad guys - haven't you noticed that the bad guys always get along and the good guys are always fighting?" . . . . "I think they need more girl Avengers, the boy ones keep arguing with each other, girls would get things done."
* P's new nickname "the one-armed wonder"
* P declaring "I love being in kindergarten"
* "The police are there to help people, so if a robber or a ghost or George Bush comes, the police help save everyone" - P
* Doggie playdates
* T - "mom, want to hear a new joke"; me - "sure"; T - "why do you get cold when you get out of the bathtub?"; me - "why?"; T - "i don't know"; me - "that's your joke"; T - "yup!"
* N, our new Monday afternoon babysitter (she's awesome)
* Happy hour with our neighbors two nights in a row
* T screaming "PUMPKIN!!" whenever he sees a pumpkin
* Our electricity staying on during the hurricane and drinking with the neighbors all day
* Almost 11,000 page views this month (though a lot of that had to do with the Apartment Therapy shout out)

The Kids' Lists
F - my family, Cybil Lily, reading, social studies, coloring, that we live in a nice house with plenty of food to eat, my American Girl dolls, my birthday, books, grandma T, Grandma M, Tea at the American Girl doll cafe, my flashlight, art, school, Kiki and Lucy [new dolls], our organized room, my new chair

P - ice cream, my family, eating jello, coloring at the playground [she can't "play" because of her broken arm], going to the zoo, Grandma T visiting, going to McDonalds for smoothies, the festival [at the Artisphere], the bubble lady [at the Artisphere], homemade chocolate chip cookies, my arm getting better, F's birthday, school, my teacher, Silver Diner night, theater class, my cousins and grandparents visiting, making cake with daddy, making birthday cards for grandpa bob, the pirate cruise, that coco didn't destroy anything today, trick or treat, lots of candy at school

T - my family, pink sheet, that we went to the beach a long time ago [i.e. September], when daddy is home, Coco, having people over, that we go to Mt Vernon, that we got lots of pumpkins, tea at the American Girl store, the scary hayride [at Burke Pumpkin Farm], that we go to Silver Diner night, that we see the waterfall [at Great Falls], Red Robin [for a preschool fundraiser], daddy coming to Silver Diner night


Places to Go - Theodore Roosevelt Island (Washington DC)


A few weeks ago, on a rather chilly Monday morning, T and I headed over to Theodore Roosevelt Island for some much needed outdoor time. T. Roosevelt Island has always been one of my favorite places in the city - the loop walk is approximately 1.3 miles long, making it doable with young children (and stroller-tolerant, if not exactly stroller-friendly). Plus, I like how the trail changes from wooded terrain to a beautiful boardwalk through marsh, with plenty of spots to feed ducks along the way. And in the middle of it all, a gigantic statue to marvel at.

If you're looking for somewhere to go this holiday weekend, I highly suggest a visit to Theodore Roosevelt Island. Whatever you choose to do, have a wonderful Thanksgiving!!!


*Extracurricular overload - I really enjoyed this short piece on the joys and anxieties of too many activities.

*Amazing pictures of an 100 year old artist who provided safe hiding for Jewish teenagers during WWII.

*Daily Candy Kids' 14 Ways to Set a Festive Family Table - I really want the felted acorn kit.

*Alice Munro strikes again, she amazes me. And Grace Coddington just released Grace: A Memoir, which is at the top of my Xmas wishlist (well, under an ipad).

*ABC Family has their 25 Days of Christmas Schedule available for download online. So make room on your DVR.



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