Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Little Whiter, a Little Brighter.

This holiday season seems more Christmas-y compared to last year. This is partly weather related. There were a couple of decent snowfalls (and snow days) over a week ago, yet the ground has remained white thanks to lower-than average temperatures. I am enjoying this mini-freeze -- it feels a bit more like home. Humidity and heat will always befuddle me, but -8 C is a situation I can deal with. While the cold brings a cozy ambiance, the snow covered ground brings a lightness. Last year's winter was a snowless grey; cloudy and boring. This year we have the nighttime luster of midday, the reflected sunlight resembling diamonds, and happy children enjoying the outdoors: sledding, castle building, and throwing chunks of ice at each other.

We know more people this year, which also lightens the mood. It's amazing how a little adult conversation can steady the brain. We've had some fun play dates, which noticeably improves the kids' attitudes. And why not? We are stuck inside a fair amount (snow or no snow), and a change of scenery and people is helpful for everyone. In that vein, our visit to Jon's family in Virginia over Thanksgiving was well timed. Refreshing, and restful, and I didn't burn the turkey. I barely saw my kids, as enamored as they were with cousins and cats and outdoor swings. I will forever remember Isaac trailing his oldest cousin, like Peter Pan's shadow.

I'm baking a bit more this season. I made the best gingerbread cookies ever using this insightful recipe (minus the almond flour, which is wicked expensive), as well as popcorn balls. I love popcorn balls, and to be done properly they really require Roger's Golden Syrup. Strangely, I am the only person in this house who enjoys popcorn balls. This is (a) objectively wrong, and/or (b) evidence of a popcorn-ball specific gene, without which one cannot enjoy this amazing culinary treat. There's just no other explanation.
This weekend we will also make our annual candy cane cookies, which are a molded shortbread type cookie with a delicate peppermint flavor. I'm always surprised that the kids like these, since they hate peppermint in every other context ("TOO SPICY!!!!!") Maybe the fun we have rolling them out carries over.

We've also been enjoying the Mystery Box Game, which is fast becoming a tradition. Once again both Grandma and me did the bulk of our Christmas shopping online. And once again (because we do not learn from our mistakes) we both addressed all boxes to me. So right now I have about 15 boxes in my basement with more on the way. The presents inside the boxes are unwrapped, and the boxes are almost uniformly from Amazon. I think last year I just wrapped them all without opening. Christmas morning we took turns guessing whose was whose. As it was, so shall it be.
I enjoy shopping online, although I'm not sure it is temporally efficient. I probably spend too much time figuring out how to minimize shipping. And then there are the hidden costs. One morning I awoke early with one simple goal: to buy my mom a particular candle. Over an hour later, not only had I failed to purchase the candle, but I had spent almost $100 on wine. For myself.

The last big item on my seasonal to-do list is plan Christmas dinner. We were planning on goose, but today I discovered that I can't buy a fresh one for less than $100, or a frozen one for less than $60. And it would be small. Not Bob Cratchett small, but certainly petite. So, I am without a plan and it's only a week to Christmas!

Finally, a word on Christmas cards. I did not send them out this year, and I feel a little guilty. I know that many no longer keep this wonderful tradition, and I don't want to contribute to it's demise. But something had to give, and I've been thinking that an every-other year policy seems feasible for us at this point. We seem to change locales on the even years, after all. And anyway, this particular year I may need the extra cash to buy a goose. Or a gander. Maybe a gander would be cheaper. Or am I missing something here?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Seven Years of Anna

After too many false alarms last year, I guess the school district is taking it slowly when it comes to deciding whether to call a snow day. It's quite early in the morning and I still haven't heard, despite the threat of another five inches of snow. Seven inches accumulated on Sunday, so the kids rightly had a day off yesterday. We went sledding, built snowmen, had snowball fights, and climbed the mini hills that pop up after shoveling the walk and driveway. Now I am sore all over, and wondering if I should ask Anna to stop praying for more white stuff.

I did not mean to be awake this early, but I'll try to take advantage of the time by pondering my best girl - a snapshot of who she is now. This is a difficult thing to do. Much like verbally expressing the many layers in a sip of fine wine, it is hard to sum up a person with words. But I'll do my best.

First, the facts. The Favorite Facts.
Hobbies: (1) Arts and Crafts. Rainbow Loom bracelets are a big deal now, although she loves all things crafty. She'll attack any project with zeal - both kits and her own ideas. She decorated her Barbie house for the holiday season, and it looks quite festive. However, she does not necessarily approach these things with the most care. She speeds through, or simply isn't that careful. I'm not sure whether this is the product of her age and attention span, or if she has inherited her mother's lack of fine motor skills. Time will tell. For now I continue to cherish her imagination and enthusiasm.

(2) Cooking. Anna loves to get in the kitchen and do it all. Chopping, mixing, stirring, making her own "stew," or baking without a recipe. I need to allow this more, because I can see that the window of opportunity is closing. My issue is that by the time she gets home from school, I just want her to play with Isaac so I can get dinner on the table. I need to be better about including both kids in the process. And anyway, she makes a mean stew.

(3) Minecraft. The cousins are into Minecraft, so obviously we had to try it. As virtual worlds go it's pretty amazing - in a cubist sort of way. Anna sticks with creative mode (i.e., all materials are available for building at all times) and spends her time manufacturing houses of various ilks. Isaac mostly blows stuff up and digs holes to underground lava. I'd rather she play this than watch TV, but we do need to monitor her usage (i.e., weekends only). I bought the kids some Minecraft magnets for when they need to scratch that itch, but the weaning process is still painful.

(4) Pretend Play. Forts, picnics, babies, house, princess, school, etc. etc. Universes constantly created and destroyed. But rarely dress-up, anymore. At least, not much beyond blankets. Although it's amazing what one can do with a blanket.

Media: (1) Lemony Snickett's a Series of Unfortunate Events. This year, preferences tilted slightly in favor of chapter books rather than picture books. Her latest fav is Lemony Snickett. We've been reading these books out loud, and I rather hate them. A phrase which here means, "I hate these books." Specifically, I dislike how adults are portrayed - dangerous, willfully negligent, or simply idiotic. Jon is more forgiving, noting that kids want to explore darker elements while in the safe confines of their own lives. Well, fine. The vocabulary is at least done well, so we plug on. We've read books 1, 2, 6, and 7. Spoiler alert: things do not end well.

(2) Phineas and Ferb. Favorite shows are changing all the time, but this is tops right now. Pro: both kids like it. Con: it's not a learning show. But since it keeps them occupied for 22 minutes, I can't complain. After all, the T.V. really is just a babysitter. If it has some other function, I am not privy to it.

(3) Movies in theaters. I love that Anna still pronounces it thee-A-ter. This year they've seen Monster's University (Isaac's first theater experience), the sequels to Despicable Me and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and if the roads are okay this afternoon [since it looks like schools are closed, after all] we'll see Frozen. She loves the experience, so whatever is in theaters is her favorite.

The Not-Favorite Facts.
(1) Organized physical activity. Anna tends to be active and squirmy and jumpy, but she doesn't want these things to be structured. She'd rather run with a pack of kids than take a dance or gymnastics class. Alas, kid packs are not easy to come by, we don't have a yard, the weather is usually wet and dreary, and the schools do a poor job at recess/gym. That is, we need to figure out something. Anna's natural inclination for activity is waning noticeably, and I'm concerned. One of my jobs this month is to sign both kids up for active extracurriculars. I'm sure this will make for an interesting Jan/Feb/March.

(2) Dresses. It's been over a year now, and no change of heart. Sad times for me.

(3) People touching her Barbie house. This was an interesting turn of events. It's not like Anna plays with this item frequently (Christmas gift fail), but heaven forbid anyone else should touch it - even a friend over for a play date. We had a talk about that, and she's melted a little. I told her we didn't have enough space to keep a mausoleum.

(4) Cheese and milk. This is more than an interesting turn of events, this is shocking. She'll still eat them in on occasion, but they used to be her favorite foods. Crazy kid. At least yogurt is still in.

The Greater Whole
Those are few fun facts, but don't nearly capture Anna as a person. As I said, it's hard. She's still our encourager and cheerleader. She loves to give gifts as much as to receive them. Her memory continues to astound, and we continue to miss opportunities to nurture it (parental guilt item #4581). She does not have a best friend but gets along well with everyone, boys and girls alike. She loves loves loves her cousins, and cannot wait to see them again. She is also whiny, easily melts down when physically hurt, and is very emotional. I think this puts off some kids her age, and I can't say I blame them. She needs to get this side of her under control, and I hope that comes as she grows. She likes dogs and cats, and I wish we could have a pet for that reason. I think a pet would do wonders for both children, or even horseback riding lessons, but we are simply not positioned for such things. Anna started a diary, and enjoys writing and listening to books, but not reading per se. She is patient and nurturing with small kids, although can devolve into Miss Bossy Pants as is common at this age. She wants to be an artist some day, but is also mathy with excellent spatial ability. I vote engineering.

Happy seventh birthday, to my little cypher. I am looking forward to the coming year, and wondering what will change, what will stay the same, and who you will grow to be. You are loved, well and deeply.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Party the Seventh

I've heard it said that there are three dimensions to event planning: time, cost, and quality. You can maximize two of those, but never all three. For Anna's seventh birthday extravaganza, I tried to maximize the last two. Which is to say, planning took a fair amount of time.
Anna proposed a Harry Potter theme early in October, after we finished reading the first book. I initially rejected the idea as too involved. But then I realized that all parties I throw are too involved, so we might as well have fun with it. At least she didn't want something along the lines of Lemony Snickett, a phrase which here means "a party that Mommy would despite planning." 

The party took about six weeks to pull together, and a mere two hours to complete. I learned a lot, everyone enjoyed themselves, and so I deem the party a success. I may even put on a sequel based on book two... eventually. Herein is a summary of the festivities. The summary of Anna herself, newly seven, deserves it's own space and thoughtfulness and post.

The invitations invited first year students to meet their teachers in Diagon Alley (a new, early-entrance program), so on party day students were greeted with a simple sign on our front door, and a variety of store front signs in the entry way: Sugarplum's Sweet Shop, Leaky Cauldron, Potage's Cauldron Shop, etc. Eeylop's Owl Emporium was the sign on the bathroom door, and I decorated that small room with a ton of owls.
Some owls I whipped up using pine cones, others were from a foam craft kit that Anna tackled last year. Everything involved bits and pieces I already had on hand. A couple of signs (as well as clues featured later) were antiqued via two preschoolers painting with tea bags. I recommend tea bag painting to any preschooler.

There were eight students, plus three Hogwarts faculty supervisors: Professor Ploof, Head of Hufflepuff and Professor of Magical Home Maintenance (me, in doctoral robes and a feather boa;  nothing adds a touch of crazy like a feather boa); the Head of Slytherin and official Chaos Creator (Jon, featuring a stuffed snake around his neck); the Head of Ravenclaw and Professor of Enchantments (a good friend, also wearing robes and a fabulously enthusiastic attitude).

First we entered Ollivander's Wand Shop (the kitchen) to learn a bit about wand making. Each child chose a wand and decorated it with ribbons, stickers, fancy duct tape, and tinsel. The wands were sticks that were previously whittled down, sanded, and then fancied up using a glue gun and some glitter. This was my first experience with a glue gun before - an oversight which now seems unthinkable.

I wanted to get all the crafty stuff out of the way at once, so next we worked on owl creation. This craft was a simplified version of the pine cone owls. Cotton balls for eyes, with a bit of brown foam for the middle and orange foam for the feet and beak. Feathers, extra cotton balls, and pipe cleaners were also used liberally. The students had some creative ideas and the outcomes were impressive, although I'm not sure these particular owls were flight ready.

After crafts we wandered into the living room, location of the famous book store, Flourish and Blotts. We were in search of our Potion’s text: Magical Drafts and Potions, by Arsenius Jigger. There was one text per child, each containing about 10 recipes. To create the books I looked online for some authentic sounding recipes, modifying ingredient lists and directions according to the items I had on hand. I printed the results off, punched a few holes in the sides, and Anna strung the holes with yarn. A simple and economical way to make a fun party favor.

Next, a flurry of wand waving, three spins, and we disapperated directly to Hogwarts. All first years must be sorted, and thanks to Michael’s post-Halloween sale, we had just the Hat to do it. Made of paper mache it was quite solid, so I merely added a bit of construction paper for the eyes and mouth. After reading the Hat’s song from the book, I began sorting the guests alphabetically. All ended up in Gryffindor, and although Professor Ploof was officially saddened by the lack of Hufflepuffs, this simple act did create a bit of camaraderie among the students. Of course, Jon was in the background the entire time, using his stuffed snake to encourage the students to join Slytherin.

Professor Ploof noted that since everyone was in Gryffindor House, they could take classes together. Convenient since Enchantment’s Class was to begin immediately. Taught by the Head of Ravenclaw, three spells were reviewed: Fire-making, Singing Spell, and the Cheering Charm. Meanwhile, I quietly hustled my youngest two students to the Third Floor Corridor (i.e., the landing leading to the basement). I was very proud of my preschool pupils as they quickly got into place, holding various canine stuffed animals, and waited to take on the role they had practiced for two weeks: Fluffy, the three-headed dog.

If you remember the first book, you know the climax involves a series of challenges and clues as the characters search out the Sorcerer’s Stone. I thought this would translate well to a treasure hunt, which here began with an interruption during Enchantments. There was a knock on the door and upon inspection the students found a mysterious note left by an unknown person:
For your first test, do not fear,
Though three-pronged danger lingers near.
Be brave as you descend the stair,
Then find the clue that lingers there.”

After some discussion, the students realized they must enter the Third Floor Corridor, despite the ominous Keep Out sign. Upon opening the door, the group was greeted by an impressive chorus of growls and yelps by Isaac and his friend, relishing their characterization of Fluffy. The only thing keeping Fluffy at bay was a mysterious set of four colored circles (the drum set from Rock Band), to which was attached this note:
Consult your Potions Book to tap
A tune - so Fluffy takes a nap.”

At this point Professor Ploof, trapped behind Fluffy, communicated the underlying dilemma: the Sorcerer’s Stone had been taken, but someone sympathetic to Hogwarts had left a series of clues to help us locate it. The first years must solve the riddles, and find the stone.
So, how to get past fearsome Fluffy. Here, the students needed to look at the back page of their Potion’s book, where there were two colored dots. Each student took turns tapping the corresponding circle on the drum set, and once this “tune” was tapped out, Prof Ploof was able to use her “Fluffy, Sleep!” spell. Fluffy then curled up quite obediently until all the students passed to the trap door.
The trap door was cobbled together using a piece of cardboard (to give it some heft), a blanket, and a rope tied to the stair railings. On the top was the following clue:
 “The Devil’s Snare awaits you next.
Don’t touch! Or it will squeeze your chest.
If you can pass from here to there,
Another challenge you will share.”

Once all students had passed through the door, they were greeted with a classic party motif at our house: streamers. If you’re familiar with any of our prior parties you know that streamers play a big role, and here they stood in for Devil’s Snare. The goal was to get through to the other side of the room, read the clue, and make their way back.

Luckily, Enchantments Class had featured the Incendio (fire-making) spell, so they were not harmed upon touching the fearsome Snare.
The next clue read as follows:
 Two-by-two you enter here.
The weather’s fierce, but it is clear,
The key to finishing the game,
Is close at hand. So find your name.”

The challenge this time was based on the cavern of flying keys, with the goal of finding the key associated with their name. We have a small hallway in the basement that served as the cavern. I closed it off using some large sheets of felt, a rope, and a couch cushion. Fans at either end of the hall created the weather, blowing around balloons with keys drawn on them. The kids were surprisingly eager to enter the cavern, so enforcing the two-by-two rule was the hardest part. Everyone found their name, as well as the final clue posted on the far end of the cavern:
One last thing before you’re through.
Unscramble the sentence upon the balloons….”

Each name-specific balloon also had a word written on it. With a little adult help, the words were unscrambled to reveal: “The Sorcerer’s Stone is located in the upstairs Owlery.”
The Owlery (upstairs) had also been off-limits, save for emergencies. Obviously, this was an emergency. The students dashed upstairs and there were the stones – a bunch of them in fact, hanging from the owls on the banister. I think they will continue to look magical on any Christmas tree.

That concluded the treasure hunt, and by this time the great feast was ready. The menu included McGonagle’s mac ‘n cheese, Hagrid’s imported dragon tail (pepperoni slices), fruit and veg from Professor Sprout, Dumbledore’s Liquid Lemon Drops (lemonade), and Butterscotch soda from the Leaky Cauldron. I had been excited about the soda, but it was not exactly a hit. It might make a better adult beverage, with a bit vodka and a rat spleen (see below).
The table was simple adorned with silver and gold colored table cloth, paper plates, napkins, etc. Originally, I was going to hang glow sticks using clear, plastic beading string. I was hoping it would give the illusion of floating candles. But I realized there was too much light and not enough time. Will save that trick for the next party.

After the feast the students had energy to burn, so we hunted for the Golden Snitch. This was a simple game, with eight Ferraro Rochet chocolates hidden throughout the living room. Each student was instructed to find only one. Originally, I was just going to use the chocolates as is - handily done up in golden wrapper. However, I quickly realized that with a few simple modifications a pair of wings would emerge, and the result is pictured below.

Potion’s class followed, with students instructed to create a topping for the upcoming ice cream cake. They could use the recipes from their textbook, or do their own thing. Most students went rogue, but a few followed the recipes. No one's concoction floated above the table or emitted a rainbow, though, and they may have been a bit disappointed.

The ingredients were really fun to put together:
dragon's blood (chocolate sauce), sopophorous beans
(chocolate chips), whipped unicorn horns (whipped cream), rat spleen (maraschino cherries), wormwood (pretzels), leech juice (crushed pineapple), etc. etc. The containers were a mixture of glass jars saved over time, metal bowls, containers covered with aluminum foil, etc.

The cake, presents, and mayhem common to all parties followed. Chaos was duly created by Jon, and the kids romped and played until their parents decided it was time to go.
Each student left with a goodie bag, and these may have been the most time consuming part of the whole endeavor. Each bag was a Nimbus 2000 broom, made of a cut up paper bag with a pretzel rod handle. In retrospect it would have been better to use two smaller paper bags, one inside the other, and leave the inside bag intact. Oh well - it's not like they were going to last long, anyway. The goodies inside the bags were the point: a small bag of Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans, and a chocolate frog.

Ah, the frogs. To quote Ron, "It's the cards you want." So, I duly went online and located some well done printables, which I then laminated. I was pleased with the results, and the kids liked them, too. If only the chocolate frogs had been that straightforward. What I wanted was a simple mold to fill with chocolate, but I couldn't locate such a thing anywhere. Instead, I found a picture online and went to work. My base was an Oreo cookie, with pretzels for legs and green M&Ms for eyes. I planned to cover the whole thing with green tinted, melted white chocolate. My first error was buying cheap white chocolate chips. They tasted horrible. But I forged ahead because I had my heart set on green frogs. Luckily for the kids, I made my second error which was melting the chips without sufficient forethought. I figured tossing them into the top of a double boiler would work, but nooooo. It turned into a massive clump. What I should have done was added butter, but I was in a panic and given the nasty taste I elected to toss the whole thing. Luckily, there were plenty of plain sopophorous beans in the cupboard, so I melted those with plenty of butter (thanks Mom!).

Not enough butter, apparently, since my first couple of attempts looked more like chocolate tarantulas. This was not a good sign.

But I dumped a lot more butter in, and that did the trick, more or less. The results were not as cute as I'd hoped, but at least they weren't going to create nightmares.

If I ever make chocolate frogs again, I will use Thin Mints with chocolate covered pretzels "glued" to the bottom using regular chocolate icing. Much simpler - I wish I would have thought of it sooner.

So, all of that and over in two hours. It was a whirlwind.

But the extant question remained: how much did it all cost? Did I really maximize that dimension? One would think this home-based party was cheaper than a package at some facility, but sometimes things add up. Out of curiosity I added things up, and included the breakdown below. I included items I actually purchased, rather than the cost of using things I had on hand. Obviously, that makes this list specific to me, but I still think it's informative.

Hat - $8
Treasure hunt - $12
Feast - $29
Table d├ęcor - $17
Potion's class - $14
Goodie bags - $18
Total - $98

Overall, substantially cheaper than a party out somewhere. On the other hand, the guest list was pretty small. I'm okay with that, though. This was a unique party for a unique girl, and that's what matters.