A Boy Called Christmas by Matt Haig

Dec 19, 2017

At the end of November, I checked out several children's Christmas novels from the library: Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories by P.L. Travers, Winterfrost by Michelle Houts, and A Boy Called Christmas by Matt Haig. I read each summary to the boys, then we took a vote, and A Boy Called Christmas won. I was glad because it was one that I wanted to read last year, but by the time I heard about it, there was no hope of snagging a copy from the library.

It's a Santa origin story, and it begins with Nikolas, who was born on Christmas Day. Nikolas' mother died when he was still quite young, and he and his father have always struggled to get by on his father's meager living as a woodcutter. Nikolas' two most memorable Christmas presents were a wooden sleigh made by his dad and a doll made out of a turnip.

One day, a big man named Anders comes through and convinces Joel (Nikolas' dad) to join his group in their search of Elfhelm. The king has promised a big reward to anyone who can bring back evidence that elves exist. The reward is large enough that Joel and Nikolas won't have to worry about money again for the rest of their lives.

So Nikolas is left in the unkind hands of Aunt Carlotta, and after a short time, he can't stand it anymore, so he runs away. He nearly perishes but is saved just in time by Father Topo and Little Noosh. Elves.

He has made it just where he wanted to be, but he's not greeted with the kind of reception he was hoping for. In fact, most of the elves don't trust him at all and end up locking him in a tower. Their distrust of humans has only recently been acquired (before that, they prided themselves on being friendly and welcoming to all). Nikolas soon gathers that a group of humans visited Elfhelm just before him, and they left with something that didn't belong to them--an elf named Little Kip.

Nikolas knows immediately who must have taken him, and he is determined to get Little Kip back where he belongs. Little does he know that doing so will put him on a path that will change his life forever.

If my kids were writing this review, they would not hesitate to give this book five stars, two thumbs up, and their full stamp of approval. They loved every moment of it.

But I'm the one writing it, and overall, I was less enamored with it. I didn't hate it (it wasn't torture to get through like The Great Ghost Rescue from last year), but I was still rather glad when we came to the end of it.

The writing didn't impress me, and I felt like things in the plot weren't set up or introduced very well. It felt like I was being jolted through the story rather than getting a smooth ride.

It is entirely possible that the difference between my opinion and my kids' could be attributed to a lack of attention (me) and an eager focus (them). I don't know. I'm just giving you fair warning.

The other day I was driving and said something about it being "impossible to turn left." Maxwell called out from the back seat, "Mom, you just swore!" My mind raced back to what I had just said. "No I didn't. What are you talking about?" "You just said the word impossible!" Aaron and Bradley chimed in with gasps of disapproval.

Then Bradley quoted, "An impossibility is just a possibility you don't understand yet."

And I was impressed--that probably was the main theme of this book, but I don't think I could have remembered it if pressed.

And then they laughed about the troll's head exploding. Because that was really their favorite part.

P.S. And apparently, there's a sequel, so I guess I know what we'll be reading next year.

A Little of This and That in November

Dec 15, 2017

I have long said I'd enjoy fall more if it actually lasted a full three months instead of three weeks, and this year, we got that. In fact, this Thanksgiving was the warmest Thanksgiving we've had since 1910. We spent the day outside jacketless and shoeless. Besides that, November also found us . . . 

Trying . . . food and being absolutely disgusted by it. Ian likes sitting at the table with the rest of the family, but he does not appreciate it when we put anything into his mouth. The rest of us are quite entertained, however, by his wide variety of grimaces. He has quickly learned how to keep his mouth clamped shut and start spitting immediately if any food happens to touch his lips. He also tries to sabotage the operation by wresting the spoon out of my hands. Luckily, he's significantly more tolerant if he feeds himself, so we've been doing lots of finger foods in addition to anything pureed. 

Discussing . . . favorite books with Rachel on BYU Radio's literacy show "Worlds Awaiting." You can listen to the episode here. (My segment begins around the eighteen minute mark.)

Sitting . . . up. Ian has been taking his time acquiring new skills (which suits all of us just fine since we are in no hurry for him to grow up), but he finally decided sitting up was fun. Since he doesn't crawl yet, we simply give him a few toys, and he stays happy and entertained. It's pretty much the best thing ever.

Teaching . . . a lesson in Relief Society (the women's organization in my Church). I'd been preparing this lesson for months--not because it was a difficult topic but because I was originally supposed to teach in September, but then Mike and I ended up going to Ohio that week. Anyway, I was happy to have it over, even if it didn't go exactly as planned.

Listening . . . to all of my piano students perform in a recital. I find recitals to be pretty nerve wracking since I feel partially responsible for everyone's success or failure, but this time, the whole thing went off pretty smoothly (except when it was my turn to play and my hands wouldn't stop shaking).

Attempting . . . to knit and read at the same time. I mean, why wouldn't I want to multitask and do both of my favorite hobbies at the same time? As long as I'm working either all knit or all purl stitches, I'm not half bad at it.

Finishing . . . my colorwork mittens. Remember my knitting class from October? I wasn't able to get the mittens done by the end of the class but continued to work on them at home and finished them in November. I think they're so fun, and now I want to knit alllllllll the colorwork patterns. (But, just to clarify, this was not the project I was working on when I was knitting and reading at the same time!)

Planning . . . a service activity for the women in my church. We made feminine hygiene kits for the Days for Girls organization. Days for Girls travels all around the world providing washable menstruation kits and education so that girls are able to stay in school while on their period. As helpful as it is to donate money to great causes like this, there's something so amazing about actually getting in there and doing the work. Even though I've never met any of the girls who will benefit from these kits, I was thinking about them the whole night. It felt good to help, even in such a small way.

Coloring . . . and coloring and coloring. Almost overnight, Clark developed an intense love for coloring. He is extremely meticulous, which means one coloring page can keep him occupied for at least fifteen minutes. Needless to say, I'm giving this new situation two thumbs up.

Sending . . . off my brother, Blaine, on a church mission to Kentucky. He's been preparing for a long time, and we're all very proud of him. He'll be gone for two years.

Sharing . . . my favorite Christmas picture books at my neighborhood's book club. I would be happy to give that presentation a million times over. I love talking about Christmas books.

Losing . . . to my parents at bolo ball (or ladder ball, as some call it). Mike and I were ahead for most of the game (thanks to Mike, not me) when my mom landed all three of her balls on the top rung in one turn (which, if you don't know, earns the highest score possible), and they consequently won the game. With each throw, my brother called out, "Do it again, Mom!" and she did. It was pretty fun to watch, even though it led to Mike's and my immediate demise.

Using . . . parchment paper. Have you ever had something you feel like you should have been using your whole life but, for one reason or another, never did? That was us and parchment paper. Somehow we always got by with waxed paper or aluminum foil, and we never remembered to actually buy parchment paper when we were at the store. But then one day, Mike bought a roll, and now we're big fans.

Eating . . . lots of yummy food, as one will do on Thanksgiving in November.

Addressing . . . and stuffing a huge stack of Christmas cards. But I managed to get them all sent off before the first of December. Bam.

Spending . . . time with Grandma and Grandpa. My parents usually babysit for us a couple of times a month, and it is so nice. I still can't believe they live close enough to babysit. My kids love them so much.

Taking . . . Maxwell on a date to purchase his own set of scriptures. His eighth birthday is approaching, which means he will be getting baptized in just a few months. Getting into a habit of daily scripture study will help prepare and strengthen him. It was such a fun little outing. He loves one-on-one attention (or two-on-one in this case), and he chatted the entire time we were choosing his scriptures and eating ice cream. He's pretty delightful (and blows our minds sometimes).

Trying . . . to convince Ian to stay a baby forever. He's not listening.

How to Manage Your Home Without Losing Your Mind by Dana K. White

Dec 8, 2017

At the beginning of the year, I made a goal to read the cleaning book of all cleaning books, Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelson. Clocking in at nearly 1000 pages, I was pretty sure it would solve all of my cleaning woes. But after reading the first one hundred pages and feeling distinctly more depressed than inspired and realizing it was going to take me another fifty hours of my life to finish reading about how we needed to use two forks, a cloth napkin, and the second best china at every meal, I made the conscientious decision to abandon it.

But I couldn't abandon the goal--and not just because abandoning a goal would go against my very nature. I needed real help, something that would alleviate the daily chaos that is my current life.

A couple of weeks later, I happened to read this post where Torrie briefly mentioned the book, How to Manage Your Home Without Losing Your Mind, and I thought, That sounds helpful, and then I saw the cover (<---), and I knew I'd landed on the right book at the right time.

(But apparently, everyone else thought so too since this book was extremely difficult to get (and keep) from the library.)

When Dana White began her blog, A Slob Comes Clean, she did so under the pen name Nony (short for Anonymous) because who wants to actually admit that they're a slob? But over time, she came to own it for what it was and, more importantly, overcome it. Her secret was two-fold: She implemented little non-negotiable routines into her day, and she relentlessly purged her stuff.

I loved this book--not only because it gave me the hope and the tools to improve my life but also because it didn't completely pulverize my self-esteem the way the other cleaning book had. In fact, as I started reading, I realized maybe I wasn't such a bad housekeeper after all. Dana's first suggestion was to do the dishes. Just do the dishes right now. And then do them the next day. And the day after that. No matter what other catastrophes are going on in your house, just do the dishes every day.

But guess what? I already do the dishes every day. It is rare for them to ever pile up into a heap so daunting I'd rather throw them all away and start over than bring myself to tackle them. In fact, I don't know if I've ever confronted a dishes problem like the one Dana described in this book.

But the point isn't actually doing the dishes. In Dana's words, "If your dishes are always clean, don't switch to my method of doing them. Choose something that's a problem in your own home."

And immediately, I knew what that was for me: clearing and wiping down the table and counters in the morning. It is something that is so simple (probably too simple since it seems like other things always take priority over it), but it makes a huge difference to my mental health to get home from school drop off and walk into a kitchen with clean counter tops. It's not that it was a problem of the magnitude Dana was describing, but when my kitchen counters stay crumb-ridden throughout the day, it colors my whole attitude toward myself and my house. And it only takes me five minutes to wipe down everything. Five minutes! My sanity is worth five minutes.

So that was one routine I immediately added to my morning schedule.

But I think reading this book made me realize that while my house often looks like a slob (actually, seven slobs) lives here, I am not a slob at heart. If I lived by myself, I would not be a slob. And I have proof of this. As a freshman in college, my roommate and I were both very tidy. We made our beds every day. We kept our desks clear and organized. We did our laundry promptly, long before we ran out of clean underwear, and our floor was never strewn with cast off clothes. Our tiny dorm room was a haven, and friends would actually stop by just so they could enjoy being in a clean space for a few minutes. That's what I'm like when I live alone.

But having five kids has changed me. In the last three years especially, it has felt nearly impossible to stay on top of the chores and the messes and clutter. In fact, the only time my house stays clean is when I follow my kids around, quietly straightening and cleaning in their wake. But, believe it or not, this is not how I want to spend every waking minute of my day.

Dana is quick to point out that you can't blame your family for your messy house. It's unfair for me to say, "I'm not a slob! It's my kids!" Especially since my bedroom is often just as messy as theirs (but of course, I have my totally legitimate excuses). I think my point is just that it was somewhat validating to read this book and realize, "Oh yeah, I gravitate toward good routines that produce a clean environment." The problem is I think I've been trying to do things the same way I did when we were a much smaller family. I haven't changed and tweaked our routines as much as I should have to fit with our new family dynamic.

Case in point: the laundry. My arch nemesis. The bane of my existence. It seems we always have a million baskets scattered around the house: dirty laundry waiting to be washed, clean laundry waiting to be folded, with no end. Ever. When Dana started in on the laundry chapters, I could feel myself zoning out because she was pushing for a Laundry Day. That's not a new idea, and it's something I'd already considered and rejected several times. A Laundry Day just wouldn't work for our family because we have so. much. laundry. The thought of a week's worth of dirty laundry literally made me feel sick.

But then she said something like, "Depending on the size of your family, you may have to have more than one Laundry Day," and it was like the light flashed on and I thought, I can have two Laundry Days? Is that allowed? And suddenly, I could see exactly how Laundry Day could work for our family. I realized that the beauty of Laundry Day was that it had a beginning and an end with a blessed break in the middle. And whether that was all of the laundry on Monday or all of the laundry on Tuesday and then again on Friday, it would still have the same benefits.

It's too soon to tell for sure, but this has felt like one of the easiest routines I've ever implemented, and so I'm hopeful that means it will stick.

Maybe this book is full of genius information (Slob Vision, Dirty Dishes Math, and the Clutter Threshold are revolutionary ideas, I'm sure), but maybe, just maybe, this was the right book for me to read right now. It was simple, repetitive, and funny, but mostly it was just so so realistic. Rather than talking down to me, I felt like Dana was in my corner, lamenting and commiserating but also cheering me on. I can do this! I can make changes and set up routines and get rid of stuff so we can live a happier, lighter life. I still don't know how to fold a fitted sheet (one of the things I was hoping to learn from Home Comforts), but I know how to stay on top of the laundry.

And that's a big win.

Review x 2: The Hundred Dresses and The Moffats

Dec 1, 2017

I've had two of our readalouds from the summer patiently waiting to be reviewed, and since they both happen to be by Eleanor Estes, it makes sense to review them together.

The first one is The Hundred Dresses. Sometimes I choose books for our readalouds that I feel like I should have read as a child but didn't. This was one of those.

But even though I had seen it listed on a handful of lists and heard it mentioned by various friends, I must have never actually read a synopsis of it because it was completely different from what I was expecting.

It's about a little girl, Wanda Petronski, who moves to a new town and school. Almost immediately, the other children tease her because of her different last name and the fact that she wears the same dress day after day after day (in spite of her claims that she has one hundred dresses).

But the story is told more from the perspective of Maddie, who doesn't instigate the bullying but doesn't stop it either. Afraid that if she speaks up, the tables will turn and she will be the one who is picked on, she quietly stands by and lets it happen to Wanda. Her conscience is forever pricked when Wanda eventually moves away, and she never gets to reconcile what she didn't do with what she should have done.

This story touched a tender spot in my memory because I have been Maddie. I was in second grade, and I can still remember the boy's name, although I won't mention it here. His clothes and hair and general appearance were always unkempt and his glasses were taped together. Most of my classmates were not nice to him. And although I don't remember ever saying anything mean to him, I never stood up for or defended him either. I have regretted it for twenty-five years.

One of the mottos at my kids' elementary school is: "Be an ally. Don't stand by." I think this is so important because the majority of kids aren't the bullies; they're the Maddies. And if the Maddies would call out the bullies and befriend the tormented, it would reverse so many of the problems.

Written in 1945, this short story (I wish it had been longer!) was ahead of its time and contains a poignant message that is extremely relevant today.

The second book we read by Eleanor Estes over the summer was The Moffats.

Even though this was our first time reading this story, it immediately felt familiar because we've read so many books with a similar structure and feeling: Starring a happy, loving family (in this case, the Moffats, made up of Sylvie, Joe, Janey, Rufus, and, of course, Mama) with each chapter a self-contained adventure. (The Saturdays, The Railway Children, All-of-a-Kind Family, and Meet the Austins would all fall into this same category.)

It has all of the charm of an old story while losing nothing in terms of adventure and escapades. We loved the chapter where Janey marches behind the chief of police, copying his every move, until the neighbor boy tells her she could be arrested for that, and so she spends the rest of the day hiding in a bread box.

Another favorite was when Rufus accidentally plays hooky on the first day of kindergarten. It wasn't his intent to skip class (he's been dreaming about going to school like his older siblings for years), but when another little boy sneaks out of the classroom, Rufus feels duty-bound to bring him back, and things escalate from there.

Some of the chapters were a little more serious, like when Joe is sent to buy coal with the last money they have until Mama finishes an order of sailor suits (she's a seamstress). (At one point, Janey asks, "Are we poverty stricken?" and Mama answers, "Not poverty stricken, just poor." They're always pinching to make ends meet.) When Joe arrives at the coal yard, he reaches into his pocket for the five-dollar bill and can't find it, and my boys and I spent the rest of the chapter in agony with Joe as he desperately searches for that money.

But even though the book is fairly episodic, there is a running thread throughout, which is the fear that their beloved yellow house on New Dollar Street is going to be sold.

There are three more books in this series, and I think we'll eventually read the rest (although Aaron already beat us to one of them and read Rufus M. on his own soon after we finished this one). They're the kind of books that could be spaced out and revisited whenever we feel like we need a cozy, comfortable read.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Nov 28, 2017

Mike read this several years ago, and I remember the one thing he said when he was finished was, "It seemed like the story was created for the sole purpose of sharing an allegory."

In other words, it was a little contrived, maybe even to the point that if you stripped away all of the life lessons, you wouldn't be left with much of a story.

With that less-than-glowing recommendation, I didn't rush out to read it. But when it was chosen for my book club, I was optimistic. I knew many readers who claimed it among their favorites. Maybe I would be one of them. At any rate, it was short, and sometimes a short book is a blessing.

It is the story of Santiago (I listened to the whole book and didn't realize that was his name until I went to book club), a young shepherd, who decides to leave his flock in Spain in search of an elusive treasure in Egypt. Along his journey, he meets several wise mentors who offer him counsel about the value of pursuing his personal legend. In the end, he finds his treasure but not where he expected.

I think I came away from the book with similar feelings to Mike. All of the lessons and morals are right there in front . . . with flashing lights around them . . . and a giant arrow pointing them out . . . absolutely impossible to miss. The story itself just kind of limps along behind.

But even though it wasn't the most subtle of allegories, I still found myself jotting down quotes--things I wanted to remember or ponder or discuss with my book club.

For example, Santiago works for a crystal merchant for nearly a year to earn and save money for his journey. The crystal merchant has always dreamed of traveling to Mecca and has a pile of money saved for just this purpose, but he admits that he'll probably never go because "I'm afraid that if my dream is realized, I'll have no reason to go on living." This hit me hard. As someone who loves the anticipation almost more than the realization, I can see myself doing something similar--leaving my dreams as exactly that--dreams--so I'll have something to continue to look forward to. And I think I'm always a little worried that whatever I'm dreaming about won't turn out to be as amazing as I'm imagining it to be, and I don't want to be disappointed.

The flip side to this is that I'm also extremely anxious about bad things happening in the future. I dread the unknown horrible event that is surely just around the corner, and I resist making any changes to my life that might possibly bring any of those imaginings to fruition. At one point, Santiago talks to a camel driver and asks him if he is afraid of the looming war. The camel driver answers: "Because I don't live in either my past or my future, I'm interested only in the present. If you can concentrate only on the present. you'll be a happy man." And Melchizedek, the seer, counsels him: "If good things are coming, they will be a pleasant surprise. If bad things are, and you know in advance, you will suffer greatly before they even occur."

I believe that both of those statements are true, but another part of me wants to cry out, like Santiago: "My heart's afraid it'll have to suffer!" And I love what the alchemist counters with: "Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself and that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams because every second of the search is a second encounter with God and with eternity."

That advice resonated deeply with my personal belief that my life here on earth is but one step in my eternal progression to become more like my Heavenly Father. It's hard for me to keep that perspective at the front of my mind though when the physical cares and pressures and heartache of this life press down upon me (which makes it sound like my life is really hard, and it's not--at least not right now--but I'm always worrying that it's going to be).

Anyway, I guess what I'm trying to say is that even though the story itself felt somewhat pedantic, I could overlook most of that because I came away with new insights and a renewed desire to pursue my ambitions and dreams.

What was your greatest takeaway from this book? Were you disappointed by the lack of plot or inspired by the many moralistic lessons?

25+ Stocking Stuffers for the Whole Family

Nov 24, 2017

When I was growing up, one of my favorite things about Christmas was my stocking. I loved hanging it up on the mantle right after Thanksgiving, but not before sticking my hand into its depths and seeing if I'd accidentally overlooked anything the Christmas before. It was thrilling to run downstairs on Christmas morning and see all of the stockings bulging with unknown treasures (our stockings had little bells on them, and sometimes we were sure we could hear them jingling on Christmas Eve as Santa filled them up). And then there was the excitement of taking out each item one at a time to the curious oohs and aahs of the rest of the family who were being made to watch (there was no unceremonious dumping in my family). Most of the time, the stocking was filled with the same items as the years before: a toothbrush and toothpaste, a candy bar, a couple of candy canes, etc. But sometimes, there was something so unexpected and delightful, it etched itself into my memory.

As a mom, the stockings have continued to be one of my very favorite parts of the season. I'm always on the lookout for little, unusual things that won't turn into junk within the first five seconds. I thought I'd share some of my more successful ideas in case you're still looking. (Don't forget, I have five boys, so you're not going to find anything too pink or frilly on this list, but many of these items are totally gender neutral.)

1. Socks
You're probably thinking, She said she was going to share fun and unusual ideas, and she starts out with socks?! But I'm not talking about filling up the stocking with an 8-pack of standard white Hanes. For my boys last year, they each got a new pair of soccer socks in a fun color. I received this pair of library card socks (that I may or may not have purchased for myself when it went on sale). There are so many different options for non-boring socks (or tights).

2. Rubiks Cube
Aaron received this one last Christmas, and it has been solved over and over again. (He has also taken it completely apart, which is just what he does, but it speaks to the quality of this particular one that he could easily put it back together and resume playing with it, just as before.) I love giving my kids classic toys--something that Henry Huggins might just as easily have received in his stocking in 1965.

3. IQ games
We own this one and this one, and both have been played with hundreds of times (in fact, they saved us on our long road trip this summer). Each one comes with a book of puzzles. You set up the board in a certain configuration, and then you have to manipulate and move around the rest of the pieces until they all fit. It is not unlike the game Rush Hour, which I mentioned in my gift guide last year, and which would also be an excellent stocking stuffer (depending on the size of your stocking). The IQ Puzzler Pro is especially fun because in addition to the puzzles that are worked flat on the board, it also has a bunch that have to be constructed into a pyramid shape.

4. Musical Instruments
One of my favorite Christmas memories from my childhood was the year we all received a harmonica in our stockings. It wasn't a cheap plastic one. It was metal and came in a case (similar to this one) with a folded paper of instructions for how to play it. I still have it. Last year, Clark received a few egg shakers in his stocking. I also think these wrist bells would be fun. Or you could get a variety set and divide it up amongst the stockings (although some of the pieces wouldn't fit), and at the end of Christmas morning, you'd have your very own musical band (which you might regret).

5. Music or audiobooks
We are still old school and have two CD players that are in use every day--they are just so user friendly for little hands. So I love giving my kids music or audiobooks on CD for Christmas. Plus, they're just the right size to tuck into a stocking. (But if you've managed to phase out of CDs, a piece of paper with a digital code is even more space efficient.) This year, Clark is getting the Frances audio collection in his stocking. Santa might also slip in one or two of Emily Arrow's albums (she's our new favorite--she takes children's books and turns them into songs!). I could do an entire series of posts on great audio collections, but I'll just mention a few more here: Mercy Watson, Henry Huggins, Scripture Scouts, any Laurie Berkner album, and Here Come the ABC's.

6. Pocketknife 
What is it with boys and pocketknives? They think they're the most useful tools in all the world (maybe they are). Aaron asked for one last year (he was eight then), and I was hesitant to give him one because I was worried about him hurting himself or one of his brothers. But we ended up getting him this miniature Swiss Army one that has a really small blade, and it's been fine (for the most part--it's only been taken away from him a couple of times). It was the last item to be pulled from his stocking and was a happy surprise at the end.

7. Watch
Bradley, Maxwell, and Aaron all wear a version of this watch. I love that it's waterproof, so they don't have to take it off to shower or go swimming. They use it for keeping track of their reading minutes, timing each other, and being aware of the time so they can be responsible.

8. Flashlight, headlamp, or reading light
We've done all three, although I don't think we've put the reading light in the stocking before. Aaron has a big metal one that wouldn't fit, but Maxwell and Bradley both just have this little one from Ikea that would slip in without difficulty. It has held up remarkably well for being so inexpensive (and we were pleasantly surprised because we had already tried a couple other little ones that hadn't survived more than a few months). My kids also love flashlights and headlamps for games in the dark and for helping them find things. (If I'm being honest though, I kind of hate them because my kids always seem to want to take them apart, and then I find little flashlight pieces and batteries strewn all around the house.)

9. Sudoku or crossword puzzle books
Last year the three older boys each received one of these crossword puzzle books in their stockings. They brought them along on our family vacation in January, and they were a great little road trip activity. They've also been getting into Sudoku puzzles this year, but I've just been printing off a few pages here and there. This year, I think I'm going to get them an actual book of puzzles so they can just work their way through them. This one looks promising.

10. A piece of fruit
If you were a child in 1873, getting an orange in your stocking was all the rage. Now you might think it would be a bit of a letdown. But would it surprise you to hear that Aaron is actually asking for avocados this year? He loves slicing them in half, sprinkling with salt, and then scooping them out with a spoon. And although we often have avocados, I usually already have plans for them. So he wants his own that he can eat whenever he wants without having to ask permission. I can also see my kids getting excited about a pomegranate or maybe something unusual like an artichoke or cactus fruit that I wouldn't normally buy.

11. Altoids or Icebreakers or Tic Tacs
I think my kids love these for the case they come in as much as the candy itself. It's just so fun to snap it open, take or shake one out, and snap it closed again. Plus, they find all sorts of uses for the case after its empty.

12. Necktie
This one is a tradition for us. Mike and all the boys each get a new tie for Christmas. Because they each wear a tie every Sunday, they're usually in need of a new one by the end of the year. Aaron moved up to real ties a couple of years ago (last year, he received this one, which he adores), and I'm hoping Maxwell can do the same this year because the real ties tend to last much longer than the ones with a clip or zipper.

13. Card Games
Not a day goes by without my boys pulling out a game to play with each other. They love games. So nothing could make them happier than finding a new game tucked into their stocking. I think if they had to choose one favorite card game from this past year, it would be Skull King. I'm not exaggerating when I say they've played that game hundreds of times (it's a variation on the trick-bidding card games). Other favorites include Five Crowns, Monopoly Deal, Cover Your Assets, Coup, and Sleeping Queens. And although not card games, we also love the small games, Tenzies and Pass the Pigs.

14. Pens or Pencils
Christmas is a perfect time to restock our writing utensils, and I like to do it with pens or pencils that are unique or maybe a little more of a splurge (although, for me, I'm always perfectly happy with a big pack of blue Bic pens). One year we did these Lego pens. I've also divided up a pack of Fineliners. And my kids never say no to a multi- color pen. For journal writing, I love the Pilot Precise V5 pen. And of course if you get pencils that need to be sharpened, you might want to also get the best little pencil sharpener in all the world.

15. Craft or art supplies
Clark has loved using markers lately, but he is terrible about putting the lids back on (we're working on it), so I know he's going to be getting some new markers in his stocking. He might also get a new set of watercolors. This is our favorite watercolor set, although it could be a tight squeeze in a stocking. My kids love getting new Perler bead boards (you could divide up a pack and put in one per stocking), or split up a stamp set among everyone.

16. 3-D Crystal Puzzles
We have both the skull and the shark, and they're pretty fun to put together and really cool to look at once they're finished. There's a large selection, and my kids love dreaming about which one they want next.

17. Thinking Putty
I mentioned this in my gift guide last year, but it's still a favorite of my kids. They get it out a lot when I'm reading aloud (although I think we might be due for a couple of replacements).

18. Lego Minifigures
I'd be remiss if I didn't include this on the list since my boys have probably all received one in their stockings for the last five years. (Yes, we have a LOT of Lego guys at our house.)

19. Trader Joe's Chili Lime Seasoning
Have you guys tried this stuff yet? I put it on everything (eggs, pasta, roasted vegetables, etc.), and I can't get enough of it. I don't know that my kids would be thrilled to find it in their stockings, but I would.

20. Two-sided measuring spoons
We've had these measuring spoons for several years now (I think they were a stocking stuffer for Mike), and I love that I can measure both wet and dry ingredients without having to use a different spoon.

21. Tovolo Mixing Spoon
I heard Mel (from Mel's Kitchen Cafe) rave about a certain mixing spoon, and so I went to Harmons and bought one for Mike last year (notice Mike receives all the cooking and baking items). It turns out, it wasn't the same one she loved, but we have absolutely loved it nonetheless. A happy accident.  It has a silicone head, which makes it easy to use on any surface, but a metal handle, which gives it just the right amount of weight in your hand.

To round out this list, I'm going to share a few of the things that haven't been in our stockings before but which will be making an appearance for the first time this year.

22. Thank you cards
I feel like writing and sending thank you notes is becoming something of a lost art, especially for kids, and I don't want it to be. I think there is something really powerful in sitting down and writing out the words THANK YOU. As you do it, you actually become more grateful. I always have my kids write thank yous after the holidays, but they usually just use the cards I already have. This year, I'm going to put a few in each stocking so they'll be ready to go. Here are a few sets I think they would like: Animal Pun; Retro Chalkboard; Vintage Rustic Typeface.

23. Gift Cards for a Treat
This year I'm going to tuck a $5 gift card into each stocking. It will be to a frozen yogurt or ice cream place, and my plan is to then take them on one-on-one dates to redeem their gift cards. I try to have Mike or me or both of us spend quality one-on-one time with each of our kids, but sometimes the idea works better in theory than in practice. I'm hoping this will give us at least one date that is already planned (and already paid for), so it will make it easier for it to happen.

24. Sheet music
Aaron, Maxwell, and Bradley all play the piano, and they love learning fun solos. I'm going to get each of them a new song to learn and roll it up so that it will fit into his stocking.

25. Knitting notions
Ha! This one is for me, obviously. But I think anyone who crafts might appreciate a small notion like one of these. I have my eye on this gauge ruler, this pair of scissors, this notions pouch, or this cute tape measure. I think if I want any of these, it will probably be up to me to put them in my stocking myself. ;-)

What have been your most successful stocking stuffers? Please share!

For more gift ideas (not limited to stockings), visit last year's gift guide (which I still stand behind 100%).

A Little of This and That in October

Nov 17, 2017

You know I'm not as enamored with October as the rest of the world seems to be, but even I have to admit that we had a lovely, beautiful month. Some highlights were . . .

Driving . . . the Alpine Loop. The last time I remember driving this mountain loop in the fall was before we had kids, but now I think it needs to be a new tradition. Seriously, it was jaw droppingly gorgeous. Nature amazes me.

Watching . . . General Conference. Our kids managed to let Mike and me listen to about half the talks, and I've been relistening in the weeks since. Two of my favorite talks are "Turn on Your Light" by Sharon Eubank and "The Eternal Everyday" by Quentin L. Cook.

Hiking . . . Grandeur Peak. This actually happened at the end of September, and I can't believe I forgot to write about it in my September recap because it was kind of a big deal. We can see this mountain from our house, and so it was one of the boys' summer goals to hike to the top of it (because how cool is that to look at the same mountain every day and know that you've been at the very top?). They had to wait for the summer heat to retreat, and then they settled on a Friday when Mike had the day off work and the boys didn't have school. I kept Ian and Clark at home, but the rest of the boys went, and they happened to go on a day when they could be joined by a few cousins, a couple of aunts, and an uncle. They completed the entire hike but only just. Maxwell got altitude sickness and was pretty miserable for the majority of the hike and then spent the rest of the day in bed or on the couch. It was kind of like he had the flu. Poor kid.

Winning . . . the Reflections contest in the photography category. The funny thing about the above hike is that Max had been planning to take a photo from the mountain that he could then use for the school Reflections contest. But by the time he reached the top, he was deep in the throes of altitude sickness. His head hurt, his legs were weak, and the last thing he wanted to do was take a picture. But Mike got it pointed in the right direction and then had him come push the button, all while Max was whining and complaining and crying. And then, his photo won. Personally, I think it had more to do with his description than the actual photo because he wrote about all he had to overcome in order to take it.

Taking . . . a knitting class. One of my goals this year was to take a knitting class. I bought a Craftsy class on stranded knitting a few months ago, but I kept thinking about how much fun it would be to take a class at my local yarn store also. So when a class came up to learn how to make a pair of colorwork mittens, I jumped on it. Even better, one of my good friends took the class with me. Those two evenings were an absolute delight. I was surrounded by beautiful yarn and other knitters doing an activity that I love and improving my skills. Plus, I was so happy to become friends with the instructor. I had been following her on Instagram for several months, but she was even nicer in real life. Here's the thing I realized though after completing the class: I loved it for the camaraderie and conversations and trouble shooting, but I think I actually prefer learning from a video because I can watch it as many times as I need to and not feel self-conscious. So what I really need is a knitting group. But first, I need to find other friends who knit.

Visiting . . . the pumpkin patch. Our kids loved searching for just the right pumpkin, running through the corn maze, rolling around in the corn bin, and going down the long slide. I think we picked the perfect day weather-wise for it. Last year, we went to Chick-fil-a after going to the pumpkin patch, and so this year, everyone assumed we'd do the same thing. So we did. I guess it's kind of a tradition now.

Losing . . . two teeth in ten minutes. Aaron finally, finally lost his two front teeth. They were so worn down, there was hardly any tooth left to lose, but he still managed it--first one, and then, a few minutes later, the other one. At nine years old and in the fourth grade, he's the last one in his class to lose his front teeth, so I think he's glad to finally join the ranks. (Maxwell seems to be following in Aaron's footsteps since he has yet to lose his first tooth.)

Practicing . . . the piano. I've been getting all of my piano students ready for my annual recital, and I always like to play a piece as well. This year, I chose to play Chopin's minute waltz, and it's been so fun to have a reason to sit down and practice, (However, my rendition takes considerably longer than one minute to play.)

Going . . . to This is the Place park. Our friends have a pass that allowed us to get in too, so we went with them. We probably picked the craziest day to go because not only was it fall break (which we knew), but it was also Little Haunts (an annual Halloween event which we didn't know about). Luckily, most people were there for the Halloween activities, so we were able to avoid most of the crowds doing the things no one else was interested in. I think once our zoo membership expires, I'm going to get a membership at This is the Place because my kids loved it so much, and we didn't even get to do half of the activities.

Walking . . . through the zoo. But in the meantime, we're using our zoo pass and loving it.

Volunteering . . . in the boys' classrooms. My goal is to help in Aaron's and Maxwell's classrooms once a month, but in October, I was able to help in Bradley's as well. I love seeing what they're working on and learning and how their teachers interact with them.

Attending . . . Homecoming Spectacular at BYU. Kristin Chenoweth was the guest performer, and she meshed so well with BYU's performing groups. She had some stunning solos, and she was just so complimentary to BYU and its professors and students that I couldn't help but love her. After the performance, we walked around campus a bit, and I basked in all the good memories I have from my time there.

Celebrating . . . Mike's weight loss victory. He's been in a weight loss competition with his friend at work for the past three months. When they started, they decided that the reward (for both of them) would be going out to a nice restaurant at the end of it. The catch was that the loser would have to foot (most of) the bill. Oh, and both wives were invited as well, which suited me just fine. Mike ended up winning (he's nothing if not competitive), so it was not only delicious but inexpensive (and dark--the lighting was perfect for ambiance but not photos).

Dressing . . .up as pirates. Our neighborhood did an adult progressive dinner, and each house had a theme. Everyone rotated to each house, but you dressed up according to which house you'd been assigned in the planning stages. We were in the pirate group, and I was happy to get to resurrect our costumes from a few years ago. (And even though it was only for adults, Ian got to come too because babies don't count as kids, right?)

Taking . . . family pictures. Always an ordeal, but thanks to Mike's talented sister, it was a very pleasant one. And she got some great shots.

Jumping . . . in the leaves, painting and carving pumpkins, and going trick-or-treating. All of the things that make October, October.

How was your October? I'm still interested in hearing about it even though we're more than halfway through November. :-)

Review x 2: Rose in Bloom and The Blue Castle

Nov 10, 2017

About half of my reading goals this year were loosely defined, giving me plenty of wiggle room and opportunities to change my mind, and the other half were very specific. Number Three was one of the latter: "Read Rose in Bloom by Louisa May Alcott and The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery."

I read Eight Cousins last year, and I knew if I didn't put a high priority on reading the sequel, Rose in Bloom, it would be years before it happened, which would make me think I had to reread Eight Cousins before I could pick it up, and . . . you can see how that could turn into a vicious cycle for me.

By contrast, The Blue Castle has been on my to-read list for years and years and years. And every year, I thought I would get to it, and every year, I didn't. Except for this year. I knew making a goal would force it to happen.

Because the two books were grouped together in my goals, it only makes sense to review them together, although they're actually not very similar at all.

Rose in Bloom was a slow read for me. I listened to it, and, as you might remember, this is not the year of the audiobook. It probably took me four months to listen to, and the only reason I ended up getting through it was because I made weekly goals along the lines of, "Listen to an hour of Rose in Bloom."

All of Louisa May Alcott's books have a strong moral undertone (I'm making assumptions here since I haven't read all of her books, but my sample size would indicate that this is the case), but this one was especially heavy handed. Rose was a little too much of a goody two shoes for me (and when the girl who has always been a bit of a goody two shoes herself admits that, then you know it must be pretty blatant).

I grew tired of Rose continually chiding and preaching to her cousins, giving up certain things because they were giving her too much pleasure (as noble as that is), and sacrificing all of her time for the good of others. It was just too much, and I couldn't seem to muster up the same feelings of adoration that everyone else seemed to feel about her. She was too good and too saintly, made all the more aggravating because she was always bemoaning how she was not good and not saintly and must therefore try a little harder.

One of the reasons I really wanted to read this book was because when I reviewed Eight Cousins, I mentioned that I was so curious about Uncle Alec and what made him stay a bachelor. One of my friends commented and said that all of my questions would be answered in Rose in Bloom. And so I kept waiting to hear more about Uncle Alec's past and what I was sure would be a failed love interest, but I guess I was looking for the wrong thing because that kind of story wasn't there. (Then again, maybe I just missed it because I was reading the book so sloooowwwllly.)

I will say that the ending redeemed the book a bit for me because it was so sweet and exactly what I wanted to happen. So there's that.

The Blue Castle was a completely different ride--one that was quirky and completely unbelievable and just so much fun.

Valancy Stirling has always lived under the oppressive thumb of her mother and various relations. She wears what they want her to wear, spends her time doing what they except her to do, and laughs appropriately at all of Uncle Benjamin's insufferable jokes. But after she finds out she has an incurable heart condition and has less than a year left to live, she throws all cares to the wind and finally lives her life the way she wants to. It's thrilling and exhilarating, and she takes the reader right along with her.

When Valancy first learns about her diagnosis, she is naturally upset, but I loved this line: "Rebellion flamed up in her soul as the dark hours passed by--not because she had no future but because she had no past." This rebellion makes her bold and brazen in a way that is completely endearing--like, she buys herself a green dress (shocking!) because she's always been made to wear brown, and she goes to the Presbyterian church even though the entire Stirling clan has always gone to the Anglican church. She creates a past for herself, something that she can fondly look back on and that other people will remember her by.

I mentioned above that it's a rather unbelievable story, and it is, and I suppose some readers would fault it for that, but I didn't. I loved every unbelievable moment. There have been times in L.M. Montgomery's books where I've wanted more (who can read Anne of Windy Poplars without thinking, That's all sweet and charming, but what about Anne and Gilbert?!), but there are no passionate feelings lacking in this one (and of course, it's all innocent and perfectly appropriate (even if Valancy thinks she's being scandalous), which made me love it even more).

After I was done with it, I pushed it into my sister's hands, and she in turn pushed it into my mom's hands. So within about a month of each other, we all had read it, and we all loved it.

I think part of the reason I loved it so much was because it was so different from what I was expecting. For some reason, I had the impression that it was going to be dark and moody, so when it ended up being spunky and sassy and even at times a bit silly, it delighted me to no end. Valancy's mother is too awful, Barney is too perfect, and Valancy is too adorably clueless for real life, but they're all just the right amount of those things to make a really good story.

I can see this one turning into a comfort book--one that I return to when I just want to escape into a happy place.

I know many of you count Rose in Bloom as your favorite Alcott novel, and even though it won't be mine, I'm interested to hear why you love it so much. And what is your opinion of The Blue Castle: is it endearing or ridiculous?

The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World's Happiest Country by Helen Russell

Nov 7, 2017

It begins in October. Those gorgeous fall colors that everyone else is raving about are taunting me. A blazing, brilliant disguise, but I know better.

And then in November, it hits: Bleak. Dark. Cold. And the promise of four more months of the same.

It's almost more than I can bear.

But something changed last winter. Or, at least, I discovered something that helped.

That thing is Hygge.

Hygge (pronounced "hoo-guh") was kind of a buzz word last winter. Everyone was talking about it and trying to figure out how to make their homes and environment a little more hygge.

It was a concept I understood and embraced immediately. Hygge is a cozy feeling of comfort, peace, and security. I have long said that if I could just hibernate, winter wouldn't be so bad. And essentially, that's exactly what hygge is.

When I made my goal to "read a book about slow, conscientious living," it was the idea of hygge that I really wanted to learn more about.

I immediately thought of The Year of Living Danishly, which seemed to be one of the sources that really kicked off the whole hygge obsession. Although I was interested in learning about what makes the Danes the happiest people in the world, it was really the promise of hygge that made me pick up this book.

Helen Russell is a journalist living in the UK when her husband is offered a job working for Lego in Denmark. They move to a rural part of the country (Jutland) and arrive in January. Anxious to get to know their new home, they go out, only to discover that the place is a ghost town. Apparently, everyone else is staying in--hunkering down, if you will, to wait out the worst of winter.

But the thing Helen Russell soon realizes is that they're not just gritting their teeth and muscling their way through winter. They're actually enjoying it.

And it's due in large part to hygge.

Early on, Helen Russell talks to cultural integration coach, Pernille Chaggar, about hygge, who says, "It's hard to explain, it's just something that all Danes know about. It's like having a cosy time."

But then she elaborates:
"Staying home and having a cosy, candlelit time is hygge. But really, hygge is more of a concept. Bakeries are hygge, and dinner with friends is hygge. You can have a 'hygge' time . . . Hygge is also linked to the weather and food. When it's bad weather outside you get cosy indoors with good food and good lighting and good drinks. In the UK, you have pubs where you can meet and socialise. In Denmark, we do it at home with friends and family."
Although some would argue that you can experience hygge outside (and I'm not saying you can't--"you," meaning, "someone other than me"), when Helen Russell asks other Danes how to survive winter and mentions some of the things she's already tried, one person responds, "Well that's where you've been going wrong! The secret to getting through winter in Denmark is to stay inside!"

Danish happiness is linked to more than just hygge (The UN World Happiness Report gave many reasons: "a large gross domestic product per capita, high life expectancy, a lack of corruption, a heightened sense of social support, freedom to make life choices, and a culture of generosity"), but I'll be honest that hygge ended up being one of the only things about this book that truly interested me.

In fact, I found myself organizing everything I liked into the hygge category and discounting the rest.

For example, the Danes love great design, and so, consequently, they really invest in making their homes beautiful (Helen Russell cited one study which confirmed that "looking at something beautiful really can make us happier, by stimulating dopamine in our brains"). That definitely seems to be true for me since the one room of our house that really makes me happy is our living room, which happens to be the only room in our home that actually has some sort of design feature (those gorgeous shelves and cabinets Mike built last fall). The rest of our home is undecorated and is really just a random hodge podge of stuff with very little thought about its aesthetic value.

This idea of beautiful design goes right along with hygge since you want the space you're spending the majority of your time in to feel cozy and inviting. (Now I'm trying to figure out how to get the laundry out of my bedroom since a mountain of clean and dirty clothes is definitely cramping my hygge style.)

Other keys to Danish happiness include an emphasis on family at the expense of time at work, hobbies and learning, and good food (make that, good pastries). All of these thing contribute to the feeling of hygge and therefore, I paid attention to them.

But in spite of its high happiness marks, Denmark isn't all sunshine and roses. Apparently, Danes "have the highest levels of antidepressant use in Europe according to the OECD" and Scandinavians "hold the gold standard for SAD [Seasonal Affective Disorder]," which begs the question of whether they're really the happiest people in the world or just the most medicated.

They're also "among the highest drinkers in Europe, according to the World Health Organization," are physically violent, and have no problem with sleeping around and being unfaithful (I'm speaking in general terms, of course). Their taxes are extremely high, but the government then takes care of most of their health, social, and educational needs. And it's very common to send their children to full-time daycare from the time they're babies.

These were the things I refused to acknowledge in my quest to understand what makes the Danes the happiest people in the world. Hygge? Yes. Excessive drinking? No.

But back to the imminent winter, which seems to be looming much closer after this weekend when the temperature dropped and the evenings instantly became dark an hour earlier. When Helen Russell questions meteorologist, John Cappelen, about winter, he enthusiastically says,
"Winter weather in Denmark is special. It brings people together. It forces us to be inside and brings families and friends closer. In southern Europe everyone's still going out and spending time in restaurants and cafes, but in Denmark, we pull together at home and get hygge! In the olden days, you wouldn't have been able to survive winter here without gathering wood and food beforehand, so you had to help out neighbors, your family and friends to survive. Then when the cold weather came, you could hide away inside."
 When she hears that, Helen Russell questions, "Like hibernation?"

And I answer, "Yes, exactly like hibernation." Bring it on, Winter. Hygge and I are ready for you.

What do you think? How do you hygge? And is it essential for your winter survival?

A Calvin and Hobbes Halloween

Nov 3, 2017

Last Halloween, almost everyone recognized that our costumes went together. It wasn't difficult. The red and white stripes of a half dozen Waldos was quite striking.

This Halloween, almost no one noticed our theme. Even those who knew we were supposed to go together couldn't figure out who we were or what connected us.

But the few who got it (the nerds!!!) loved it. And we loved it, too. In fact, these might go down as our favorite Halloween costumes ever.

My boys have long been obsessed with the comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes. I think they've read every single collection (many of them several times), and yet rarely leave the library without one in hand. They can spout off a dozen lines with the least provocation, and they laugh themselves silly recollecting Calvin's antics.

Mike is right there with them. He has loved Calvin and Hobbes since he was a kid, and I think he relishes the chance to enjoy them all over again.

One night, probably six months ago, the boys were talking about what we should go as for Halloween (you can never begin too early . . . ). One of them suggested Calvin and Hobbes.

I was just about to regretfully tell them we would need seven costumes, not just two, when they all jumped in with suggestions:

"Bradley can be Calvin because he looks the most like him."
"Maybe Aaron and Max can go as Calvin's alter egos."
"Yeah! Max can be Spaceman Spiff!"
"And Aaron can be Stupendous Man."
"Mom and Dad can be Calvin's mom and dad, of course."
"Clark can be Hobbes."
"And the baby . . . what about the baby?"
"How about the snowman?"

And just like that, they had it all planned out.

Mike did most of the costume planning and constructing, but I made one important contribution. We decided Bradley needed a Hobbes doll he could carry around. Even though Clark was going as the real Hobbes, he wasn't going to be right next to Bradley all the time, and without him, Bradley didn't look all that dressed up.

But you can't buy a Hobbes doll (unless you go to Etsy and pay someone to make one for you) because Bill Watterson never released the copyright to commercialize any of the characters. So I decided I'd have to make one.

It was a labor of love for sure. I was reminded why I haven't sewn much in the last eight years--it just requires so much work to get out everything and then put it all away an hour or two later. It took several sessions to complete the doll, but I was so pleased with it. It added just the right touch to Bradley's costume.

As the mom and dad, Mike and I also struggled with how to look any different than we look in real life. Turns out, we both bear a striking resemblance to Calvin's parents. However, Calvin's mom has a bit more of a mullet than I do, so a mullet wig was in order. Unfortunately, just donning a wig didn't make me instantly recognizable, but I at least felt like I was wearing a costume. (And I will say, I received more false compliments on that wig than almost anything I've ever worn.)

The first time the boys put on their costumes, they became the characters. Maxwell especially, as Spaceman Spiff, literally seemed to transform every time he put on his blue suit and darted around the house yelling, "Kiss your protons good-bye!"

And that's why, even though we may not have made much of an impression on most of our neighbors (no one pointed to us and exclaimed, "Look! They're Calvin and Hobbes!"), I'm so glad we made these our costumes this year. My kids will always remember the year they transformed into their favorite comic strip characters.

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