Wednesday, March 26, 2014

I'm back...

   

After a year and a half hiatus, here's a blog post to update you as to where I've been.  A lot has changed since I posted Tom Thumb's birthday cake from when he turned 5 in September 2012.
     First, the Cobbler got a promotion and we were able to get away to Europe sans kids while he was on a two week assignment for work (thanks Mom and Dad!) in December 2012.  We traveled to London (that's the Tower Bridge behind us in the above photo), Cologne, and Paris.  Can't wait to get back there when the kids are a little older.  Red really is motivated to learn German after me forcing the kids to listen to language CDs in the car for weeks before the trip.  I've tried to explain to her that pretty much everyone speaks English in Germany (even when I tried to speak German to people they would say "Oh!  You're American!  Let me practice my English on you."), but she doesn't care.
     Then, I got a job.  Nearly two years ago now, I got a job as a substitute teacher.  What started off as one or two days a week quickly became a full time job.  I did two three month long term jobs in the last year...so six months of working full time.  One was in a class for severely cognitively impaired 6 to 12 year olds and the other was for a K-5th grade autism spectrum disorder class.  I found I have a knack with special ed students (who knew?) and that I really enjoy teaching them.  I've now found my groove and I'm subbing for special ed classes at Red and Tom Thumb's school one or two days a week.
    I also became president of the PTA.  I know...I'm nuts.  I kind of got sucked into it because the outgoing president actually said just before the election "Well if no one wants to be president, I know some guy who might do it."  I know some guy!?!?  I couldn't have "some guy" I didn't even know telling me, as a PTA member, what to do.  We actually made a ton of progress this past year at the kids' school.  We designed a new PTA website and a new website for the school, launched a new school logo, made $7,500 at the first fundraiser of the year (our whole annual budget was about $7,000 so we were done with fundraising right away), we had a great Halloween party, increased our membership to 85 from 65, and made another $1,600 for the school library through a Scholastic book fair.  We were really on a roll.  I was feeling amazing about the PTA's growth.  Then, the rug got pulled out from under me.
    In December, a note went home from the office of the school district's superintendent saying that he was considering moving the school to a different location.  The principal gave me one day advance notice before the letter dropped.  There would be meetings in January at the building that they were proposing that we move to.  He assured me that it was "bigger and better."  I told him that I would keep an open mind.
     I attended the meeting at the proposed location in January.  It was neither bigger nor better.  Even though I had been assured otherwise, the classrooms appeared smaller than the ones we had (I later found out that they are 200-500 square feet smaller).  The building was in pretty rough shape.  Evidence of water damage was on the ceiling tiles and the gym floor was significantly damaged.  When asked where the playground would be, I was directed to a narrow patch lawn that was sloping toward a major intersection.  Not to mention it was a teeny fraction of the size of green space compared to our current school.   I met with the principal the following week with my concerns about the location---specifically the number of bathrooms (about 1/3 of the number at the current location and no handicapped accessibility), the fact that adults were taking classes in the adjacent hall to where they wanted to locate our program, and my concern about the significantly higher crime rate in the area surrounding the proposed location (i.e. 150+ crimes in the last 6 months vs. 5 crimes near our current location).  We had a PTA meeting a couple weeks later when I presented the benefits and concerns about the proposed location to parents.  The superintendent was in attendance and still could not address our many issues with the building and said that whether or not we moved was his decision to make.  His disdain for our concerns and his arrogance was evident.  Even though the new location had been presented as a possible choice in the beginning, I knew in that moment that it was not a choice.  It was going to happen.  This was about saving money and had nothing to do with what was best for our children.  Other parents and myself emailed our district's board of education about why we thought the new spot was inferior.  They ignored our emails.  We literally got no response until a month later when the vice president of the PTA and I cornered the president of the school board at a city wide PTA dinner about why he doesn't answer emails.  He listened, but I could tell it was falling on deaf ears.  The superintendent came to our March PTA meeting and announced that the move was going forward.  The PTA vice president, the PTA treasurer, and myself announced that we were resigning at the end of the school year because we couldn't have our children attend school at a location where the crime is high, the classrooms are small, there aren't enough bathrooms, and the playground is postage stamp.  I lost a lot of sleep over it, and I'm still upset.  The local newspaper called me yesterday for a quote for their article on the move.  I could only describe my demeanor as frustrated and disappointed...and that was being nice.
      So where does that leave our family...  After much discussion, we have opted to return to the path we were led to originally----homeschooling.  I think we're in a much different place now than we were in 2010 when Red entered school.  The two kids are more mature and self motivated.  I have a great relationship with both of them, and I think we're all looking forward to the flexibility that homeschooling will give us.  They are going to finish the school year out where they are so that they can enjoy the next couple of months with their friends, and I'll have time to tie up loose ends with work and projects around the house (oy!  Too many house projects!).  We're going to get going with math over the summer to keep their skills up, and then we'll start school in earnest in the fall.  I'm looking forward to this new adventure and I'm hoping to occasionally share the fun things that we do on the blog.  I don't know how often I'll be blogging, but I'll try to share if something cool comes up.  Blessings to you and yours in 2014!

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Yellow Lego Birthday Cake


My kids always have very specific ideas of what they want their birthday cakes to look like.  You may remember the tie dye peace sign cake of earlier in the year.  This time it was Tom Thumb's turn and he requested a yellow Lego cake.  Here was the inspiration that he provided:
And of course the cake had to be chocolate.  Chocolate cakes are such a pain in the you know what to decorate because you always have brown crumbs trying to sneak into your frosting.  Anyway--- if you're looking to create a Lego cake of your very own, here is how I did it.

First, I baked a 9X13 cake using a mix and following the directions.  After the cake was done, I popped it out and cut it down into a smaller rectangle and reserved the leftover pieces.  I used a foil covered upside down cookie sheet as my work surface.

Next, I made a double batch of buttercream frosting following the Wilton recipe
To get the correct shade of Lego yellow, I used about 1 1/2 tubes of yellow gel food coloring with a few extra squirts of red.  It took quite a bit of trial and error to get the color just right.
Then, I free hand cut circles for the top of the cake from the reserved cake.  

This is the one change I would make in the future if I ever made this cake again.  My sister in the past has made a similar cake, but made a separate batch of muffins and cut off the muffin tops and used the muffin bottoms to make the circles.  I was trying to make it easier on myself by skipping the muffin making step, but it ended up just being harder.  I neglected to remember that as soon as you cut into the cake there are crumbs.  Crumbs, crumbs, and more crumbs!  Chocolaty crumbs that want to jump into my frosting!  In the case of the muffin bottoms, you have a mostly crusty baked exterior to work with; thus, less crumbs.  The moral of the story --- make yourself a batch of muffins for the circles.  You'll be happy that you did.  

Even with my error in judgment, I managed to pull it together.  Some crumbs got in the frosting.  Whatcha gonna do?
This is a cake and not a box so it did not look like a perfectly smooth and rectangular Lego.  I probably could have gotten a smoother exterior with fondant, but I am not a fan of the taste. I'm going to wait until the baking world comes up with a better tasting fondant before I give up my buttercream.  Needless to say, it wasn't perfect so my star tip came to the rescue to hide some of my mistakes, and I wrote the Lego logo with a small round tip on the top of each circle.

Happy 5th birthday to my little Lego maniac!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Morning and evening routines for the kids

We have always had a bit of a struggle at our house getting out the door in the morning.  For the last year or so, I have gone to the gym around 6 A.M. and returned home around 7:20.  The first bell at the kids' school rings at 8:35.  You would think an hour would be plenty of time for my two to get ready to go.  On the contrary...

Most days I would get home and find them both still in their pajamas, playing games on the computer, and having not eaten breakfast yet while my dear husband was in the shower.  I then struggled to tear them away from whatever important task they were doing on PBSKids.org and nudged them downstairs to the breakfast table.  I made them breakfast and proceeded to make lunches while they ate as slowly as humanly possible.  Red has always been fairly independent about getting dressed.  Tom Thumb is not.  A 20 minute ordeal would then ensue with him insisting that I take off his clothes and dress him with me pleading with him to take off his pajamas.  Tom Thumb and socks have always been the bane of my existence.  The kid just hates socks.  After finally shoving him into his clothes, we would rush out the door and just barely make it to school on time.

The evenings weren't much better.  I always would start at 7 P.M. (well, most days) to get them ready for an 8 P.M. bedtime, but something always seemed to go wrong.  A half a bottle of shower gel would get dumped into the bath tub.  A child couldn't find a pair of clean underwear.  Tom Thumb would demand that I not wash him and then scream when I did.  Red would decide that 7:59 was the perfect time to dump every toy she owned on to the floor.

Flash forward to this week.  I decided that we had to do something different.  HAD TO.  I just couldn't take what was happening one more second.  So with the kids' help, I typed up their morning and evening routines.  The result--- a complete turn around in terms of how things are going.  The Cobbler and I agreed that there would be no TV or computer time until every task was completed on the list in the morning and it has worked so far.  Tom Thumb has required some extra reminders and assistance (those darn socks are still getting me), but Red has been going it on her own.  The evening routine is going even better!  After dinner last night, I said, "Okay guys, go do your lists" and they both ran off to get them done.  I couldn't believe it!  Will it still be happening like this in a few days?  I don't know.  Geez I hope so, but for now I will take my sanity any way I can get it.  

In case you can't read the routines in the photo above, here's a list of what the kids and I came up with:

Morning Routine
Put on your clothes.
Eat your breakfast and vitamin.
Brush your teeth.
Brush your hair.
Make your bed.
Pack your backpack.

Evening Routine
Finish your homework.
Tidy up your room.
Take a bath.
Put on your pajamas.
Brush and floss your teeth.
Pick out tomorrow’s outfit.
Read.
Go to sleep.


I also started packing their lunches and snacks for the next day the night before.  Just that makes my morning so much easier!

What do you do in your house for routines?  Do you have any tips that streamline your day?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Welcome back to school!

Red and Tom Thumb hug themselves on the first day of school, not each other.

No blogging = one crazy summer.  Unfortunately, I spent a lot of the summer trying to get them to keep their hands to themselves.  Judging from the above photo, I may have succeeded a little too well.

Today was Tom Thumb's first day of school ever.  He is in kindergarten!  Believe it or not, today was like Christmas morning for the little guy.  He was so excited to go to school.  I hope that enthusiasm stays with him throughout the school year.

Here are some more first day photos:



I've already had a couple of moms who still have kids at home ask me what I'm going to do with myself with both kids in school.  I assured them that I will find something....I will definitely find something.

Happy first day to all those starting school everywhere!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Vacations with Kids: American Girl Boston

Red and cousin Scarlett with their dolls at American Girl Boston

It all started last year in September.  I somehow got on the American Girl mailing list and a catalog arrived at our house.  Red looked at it cover to cover and decided she wanted to buy Kanani, the 2011 Girl of the Year who was from Hawaii.  We're not the sort of family to just go out and buy something for our kids just because they say they want it.  Even if we could, a $105 doll is a bit out of budget for us even as a birthday or Christmas present.  Being the industrious little girl she is, Red started saving her money for Kanani.  As Christmas approached it was pretty clear that she wasn't going to have enough money before Kanani was discontinued at the end of the year.  I proposed a solution --- Mommy and Daddy would buy Kanani for Christmas but that would be her only gift from us.  That did not go over well.  Just one Christmas gift?!!?  Once she rejected my plan, Red decided to keep saving on her own and get a My American Girl doll (i.e. the dolls you can buy that look like you) instead of Kanani.  

Then, June arrived and with it Red's 7th birthday.  She had achieved her goal.  She had $115 in hand and was ready to go to American Girl Boston when we went out east for our Massachusetts visit.

First of all, American Girl Boston is not located in Boston.  It is located in the suburb of Natick on the perimeter of the Natick Mall wedged between Crate and Barrel and The Cheesecake Factory.  We arrived at the mall around 1:30 on a Friday, and the parking lot was PACKED!  I literally drove around in circles for 10 minutes before I gave up and decided to pay to valet the van.  The moral of the story --- don't mess around, use the valet!

When we finally entered the store, the atmosphere was simply overwhelming.  There are cases everywhere filled with dolls and all their different outfits and furniture.  Anything you've seen in the catalog is on display.  Here are a couple examples:

We went to the store on Red's actual birthday.  When the staff was notified, they immediately got her a sticker to wear on her dress that said "It's my birthday!"  After that point, every staff member who saw her wished her happy birthday.  I thought that was a nice touch.  Red went there knowing which doll she wanted to buy.  She had decided upon this doll months earlier:
Then, we got the bad news --- they didn't have one in stock!  There were some tears and the sales girl did offer to ship one to our house for free once it was back in stock, but that kind of defeats the purpose of going to the AG store to buy the doll, right?  The sales girl claimed they had one right up until that morning.  Argh!  Bottom line --- call ahead to make sure they have in stock what you want to buy.  Anyway, Red decided she'd rather purchase her second choice than not buy a doll that day so she got this doll instead who she named Velma:

And all the sadness was forgotten!

After our experience, I have a couple more recommendations if you are planning a trip to the AG store yourself.

1. See if there is an activity going on that day.  The day we went to the store they had a free craft which was making a hair scrunchie for you and your doll.  They have the crafts and the dates listed on the American Girl website.  Many of the crafts this year are related to the release of the 2012 Girl of the Year McKenna.  Here are Red and her cousin working away on their hair scrunchies...
 ...and Red and Velma with their new matching scrunchies!

2. Have afternoon tea!  Tea is only available 2-430PM during the week, and you can only make tea reservations by calling the American Girl 800 number --- 1-877-247-5223.  What's really great about dining at the American Girl Bistro is that they have a high chair for your doll and at tea Velma even got her own little tea cup and saucer to use.  Also, if you don't have your own doll, they'll provide you with one to sit with you for your meal.
For beverages, the adults got our choice of teas, while the kids could have tea, hot chocolate or lemonade.  Our girls opted for lemonade.  The menu for tea is fixed, but the food was plentiful.  Here's the menu.  Zoom in to take a look:
The food for tea was served on tiered plates.  Here's mine.
Here's the rest of the food.
 Each person got a fruit kabob with yogurt and a mini muffin.
 There were three mini sandwiches per person---
turkey, ham, and cucumber with cream cheese. Pictured here are two cucumber and two turkey sandwiches.  I thought the stars shaped sandwiches with the flags were darling.
For dessert there was a brownie pop, a cupcake with pink frosting, and a Jello smile which was red jello in an orange peel.  Cute!
Even though we didn't purchase a birthday package (we didn't feel we needed another cake since we were having one that night at Grandma's house), my sister told our waitress it was Red's birthday.  She brought out a piped blob of whipped cream with a candle for her and the staff sang happy birthday.
While prices vary from location to location, brunch, lunch or dinner at the Boston location will run you $15.50-16.50 while tea is only $10.50.  The price difference might not seem like such a big deal, but here's the way I look at it.  Would you rather pay over $15 for a standard mac and cheese/hamburger type kids' meal or eat more of a heavy snack at tea but have it be a food experience that you're not going to get at another restaurant?  Tea could be a meal for some kids.  I know our children couldn't finish it and we had to get a box!  In the end, I was really glad that we went with tea instead of a meal.

As our time at American Girl wound down, Velma got her ears pierced at the doll salon and we bought a couple outfits for Velma as Red's birthday gift.  Red opted for Rebecca's movie dress and the ballet outfit.  Overall, it was a great time at AG Boston!  

Do you embrace or hate the American Girl phenomenon?  Do you think you'll go to an AG store in the future?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Vacations with Kids: Cape Cod

Red and cousin Scarlett head for the beach!

Who doesn't love the Cape?  Since we used to live in Massachusetts and my husband spent a couple of years living on Cape Cod, we kind of consider ourselves veterans in terms of vacationing there.

In the past, we've rented a house (we've stayed in Eastham, Hyannisport and Yarmouth in the past) and hunkered down for a week by ourselves and drove to a bunch of different towns.  This year we stayed in Yarmouth with my sister's family and my mother-in-law for a little less than a week.  Even with all the togetherness (5 adults and 4 kids in a 3 bedroom house!), I think it was a best trip yet!

First of all, if you've never been to Cape Cod and you're looking for a place to rent, may I suggest the Great Island Ocean Club in Yarmouth.  This is where we stayed.  You are literally steps from the beach.  In our case, we were about 2 houses away!  They also have a pool, tennis courts and a playground on the property.  Needless to say we spent a lot of time at the beach:


Everyone coming on to the beach.
Tom Thumb chasing Daddy!
Me and my sister Andrea
The kids are pretending they're lifeguards.
Out on the rocks...
A daddy son moment :-)

If you get tired of the beach, here are some other great spots to try:

Cape Cod Creamery - This is seriously the best ice cream on the Cape---and we've tried most of them! :-)  They make it themselves and they have all kinds of fun flavors named after different parts of Cape Cod.  The kids couldn't get enough of Marston Mills Mint Chip, while I became addicted to Corporation Beach --- a new addition to their menu that features chocolate ice cream with pretzels filled with peanut butter.  I literally got it both times we went there.  Sit in the Adirondack chairs out front and watch the tourists drive by!

The Lobster Boat - Cheapest place for lobster around!  I totally recommend the buy it at the fish market and cook it at the house method (if you go this way, there is a fish market right next door to this restaurant that is good), but if you'd rather have someone kill the lobsters for you this is the place to go.  If you're looking for a fancy pants atmosphere this is not it, but for $22 you can have two steamed lobsters, a baked potato, and an ear of corn.  Their chowder wasn't too shabby either.  If you want value for your money, it's The Lobster Boat.

The Sesuit Harbor Cafe - Want to do it like the locals?  Go here for the lobster roll.  It will be confusing getting in there.  It looks like a private boat marina and you have to get a parking pass to get in, but once you're in be prepared for the most yummy lobster roll around.  My sister and her hubby are big fans of the fried seafood there too.  My little sis recommends the fried scallops.

The Book Rack - Don't have an e-reader, but want a book quick at a reasonable price?  Hit The Book Rack.  It's in a strip mall on Route 28 and has nearly every genre used book you can imagine organized in an easy to find method.  I went in there looking for Half Broke Horses.  They didn't have it so I walked out with Bel Canto at half the list price.  That's their price methodology---half the price listed on the back of the book.  Easy peasy.  Is it as cheap as Amazon?  Maybe not depending on the book you choose, but you're paying a bit for convenience.  This is vacation, remember?

The one new thing we tried on this trip was a seal watch.  Unfortunately, we had to do it the unorthodox method because the waters were too rough the day we went.  Normally, you get on a bigger boat for a couple hours and they drive you around the perimeter of the island to see the seals.  We got the little boat instead.  They did give us a $10 a head discount for the inconvenience (normally it's $35 for adults and $30 for kids 12 and under).  They loaded us on to a glorified ski boat, dropped us on an island, and we walked to where the seals were beached.  We did get some great photos however and the kids were simply thrilled:

Here we are on "the little boat."  Tom Thumb thinks he's the captain!
 Here's Red---the seals are the black on the beach in the background.
 We were able to get a smidge closer to get some pictures.  Keep in mind that my camera is still zoomed all the way in.  We didn't want to scare them into jumping back in the water! 
Check out the cute baby seal in the foreground.
 Some of the younger seals were swimming right up to the beach to check us out!


Overall, despite the snafus with the water, a great experience.  Here's a link to the tour company we went with for the seal watch.  Just FYI --- you need to make advance reservations for this one.  

There's still time to head to the Cape before summer ends!  Ha ha!  Where are you going on your vacation this summer?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Vacations with Kids: Howe Caverns

Our family standing on the heart at the Bridal Altar inside Howe Caverns

I just got a comment today that said something to the effect of "Aren't you due for a blog post?"  Yes, I'm somewhat overdue, right? ;-)  We were off traveling in New England visiting the Cobbler's mommy and my sister's family for a week and a half.  Then, upon our return, I developed an inner ear infection.  Fun times...I'm still dealing with intermittent dizziness after a week and a half, but I'm well enough to write today.  There is such a thing as "ear rocks."  Who knew?


If you're planning any summer trips, I can make a few recommendations based on our recent excursion.  This time was our first visit to Howe Caverns.  Red has developed an interest in rocks over the last year so this side trip on our way to Massachusetts was a nod to her latest hobby.  Howe Caverns, which is located in Howe Caves, New York, was discovered in 1842 by Lester Howe.  Over the years the cavern, which lies about 15 stories below ground, was explored and later developed for tourists.  If you're looking for a natural cave tour in which you rough it and climb over rocks and squeeze through crevices, this tour is not for you.  If you want an easy walk on brick pathways in which you get to see rock formations up close and personal, then you'll like this tour.  


A variety of choices are available, but we opted for the Traditional Tour.  The Traditional Tour is about an hour and a half in length.  It included an easy group walking tour with a guide and a short boat ride inside the cavern.  There was some cheese factor involved---like a dated animatronic Lester Howe telling us about discovering the cavern at the beginning of the tour---but once you got down into the cave you really got to see some great formations.   The photos don't do them justice, but here are some shots of what we got to see:
This is a rock formation known as "The Chinese Pagoda"
"The Turtle"
The kids and I touching the one touchable formation in the cave.
Many of the formations were bathed in colorful lights so you could see the details.


The tour didn't come cheap.  It is $23 for adults, $12 for kids 5-11, but Tom Thumb at age 4 was still free.  They do offer a AAA discount which got us a couple of bucks off each ticket.  Even with the prices, we all agreed that it was well worth it for what you got to see.  Red even asked if we could go again next year.  One suggestion---bring jackets!  No matter what time of year it is or what the temperature is outside, the cavern is always in the mid-50s.  I was so glad we had sweatshirts.


A recent addition to the Howe Caverns campus is the Howe Caverns Mining Company.  Is it touristy? Yes.  Did the kids love it?  An emphatic YES.  What you do is you purchase a bag of
mining rough at the register inside and then the kids get to use a water sluice (essentially a stream of water running through a trough) to remove the dirt and clean the rocks.  We bought a 5 pound bag for $8 and the kids had a blast!  Here are some photos:




Red and Tom Thumb each ended up with a small bag of rough gemstones including amethyst, quartz, and fool's gold.  Well, worth the money for our little rock lovers.


Next time you're close to Albany or Syracuse, NY, consider a side trip over to Howe Caverns.    It comes highly recommended from our crew!  More blog posts coming in the days ahead!