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The boys and I made these adorable mice for their Christmas parties at school. It was funny having a whole army of mice spread out on the dining room table! We made it a whole mouse theme by reading the Christmas version of "If You Take a Mouse to the Movies" -- so fun! These little mice were super easy and yummy -- we couldn't find cherries with stems, so we used pretzel sticks for the tails. I highly recommend these if you're looking for a way to fill these no-school, waiting-for-Christmas days.

I also highly recommend Family Fun magazine (idea came from them). Usually you can find a deal for the magazine subscription online somewhere, but lots of their ideas are on their web site, too. They have printable games and color pages that kept the kids busy most of Thanksgiving day. I plan to call on some more of their ideas to keep the kids from watching non-stop TV for the next two weeks. Seriously, how much Phineas and Ferb can we watch? Although I love their Christmas special. Take a minute and enjoy!

For many years my family has set up a Christmas village. I remember growing up we used to play pranks with the village, adding things that didn't belong and my mom would act offended (at least I hope she was always acting). One of my favorite holiday trips would be to see train and village displays, checking out all the intricate details and creative arrangements.

When Matt and I married, my parents gave us a "Start a Tradition" set so we could begin our own village. We've added to it every year (except one year when we actually sold a few pieces, trying to make the village fit in this house). This year we (and by "we", I mean "Matt;" he busted out his old foam carving skills!) constructed a big display in our office so we can properly arrange the village.

Our village is the Department 56 Dickens' Village series. We love the old world look of nostalgic village life. I like to ponder the lives people might have lived back then, considering how very blessed we are with today's modern conveniences, yet how we can be reminded to simplify life.

One of my favorite scenes is the church district. The bride and groom coming out of the church are new to our village this year, commemorating our 10th anniversary. I also love the little girl donating apples and a basket of bread to the parson. I think he'll probably snack on one of those apples before he delivers them to the needy . . .
I call this the government district, since it has the castle and the stock exchange. I made the creek and pond out of satin and decorative river rocks. I think the king likes to sit on that bench while he ponders grave matters of state . . .
This year we decided to start a new tradition and involve the kids in the village, so we've added a North Pole to our village. As you can see, the North Pole Series from Department 56 has a very different look. With lots of colored lights, moving parts, candy, and even some licensed characters (the Mickey Mouse piece is beautiful!), it really draws the boys in. They even helped me make the candy trees in the background. Hopefully we've found a way to take one of our hobbies and begin making new memories for the entire family.
Our village will be up through the month of January. It's always the first thing we put up and the last thing we take downeach year. If you're local, please stop by to take a look!
Azlan's preschool class "performed" a couple of songs for the parents at their Christmas party this week. Enjoy these!

Patriot's class had their Christmas program together with the other classes at his school. This is the program in it's entirety. If you take the time to watch it all, see if you can guess why he'll be receiving a handkerchief in his stocking this year. And maybe some coal.

. . . quite like Jack Bauer interrogating Santa.

WARNING: This is NOT family friendly. But you'll love it if you're a "24" fan.

BTW, 2-night 4-hr Season 8 Premiere begins Sun Jan 17th at 9.
I enjoy most parts of the Christmas season. However, some traditions I could live without and my Christmas would not be ruined. Those are the things I do kind of halfway -- for example, decorating the Christmas tree. Just doesn't mean much to me. So we let the kids put the ornaments on and they're all in one heavily decorated part of the tree. I considered rearranging them so the tree is evenly covered, but I just don't care that much. Honestly, our tree could be bare and I'd be fine with that.

There are a few, kind of strange, parts of this season that I just love and am willing to put extra effort into. Be prepared, it's an unusual list, but these are the things that make my season bright (besides my family, of course).

1. Wreaths - I have an unexplainable affinity for wreaths. We have a wreath on almost every door of our house. (Couldn't find the wreath for the downstairs bathroom door this year. I personally think Matt "lost" it in the storage shed. I fear next year he might "lose" another, just to harass me.) Our indoor wreaths are very simple, just the greenery and a bow. Our front door wreaths have some pine cones, but that's it. No reason to mess with God's natural beauty. Our wreaths are artificial, but I daydream about filling the house with live wreaths . . . maybe someday.

2. Bows/Ribbons - I adore beautifully wrapped presents under a tree. (Shoot, I like any present with my name on it, but that's a different story.) Last year I found a Bowdabra on sale and used it to make a few bows -- I was hooked. I determined that this year I would make all my bows, no pre-made bows for me. I'll admit that it's taking longer to wrap gifts, but I think it's so worth it. I also like to decorate the house with ribbon and bows, so I have them tied to the banister and on every wreath. Something about brightly colored ribbon just feels like Christmas to me.

3. Photo Christmas Cards - I love receiving Christmas cards in the mail. We so rarely send snail mail anymore, but the tradition of Christmas cards is classic. The artistic cards with beautiful covers and rhyming prose are meaningful, but I get so excited to receive photo Christmas cards. Even if it's someone I just saw yesterday, I like looking at their picture on their Christmas card. I especially like cards with the entire family included in the photo, but I'll admit that our card this year only has the kids (it's so hard getting everyone looking at the camera and smiling at the same time!). I confess that I find it a real hassle to send photo Christmas cards and consider not doing it every year, but I like receiving them so much that I always talk myself into sending them.

So there's insight into some of the little things that make my season bright. I also adore Christmas music and movies, that's a trait handed down from my mother which I hope to hand down to my boys (although even the 5yo fought me listening to Christmas music in early November). We also have our Christmas village that I'll discuss in another post.

What makes your season bright? And what could you live without during the Christmas season?
I'm reading "The Birth Order Book" by Kevin Leman with my MOPS group. I haven't finished it, yet, so I'm not going to review it now. But it has caused me to pay closer attention to the developing personalities of my boys, and watch how they mesh with their parents' characteristics.

As described by this book, Patriot is a classic first born. He always has a plan and a schedule, and gets very bothered when things don't go the "right" way. I can identify this in him because I could also be describing myself (I'm also a first born). You can imagine the struggles between us at times. His preschool teacher has noticed perfectionist tendencies, especially when it comes to cutting and writing (she says it takes him forever to write his name). I've been helping him develop the positives in these characteristics by teaching him how to tell time, showing him how recipes work, asking him to help determine the dog's routine, etc. He really seems to flourish in tasks that require precision and routine.

Azlan, however, is the baby of the family. I call him my jokester because he's always thinking up a joke or a prank. The other day he hid the angel from our nativity and replaced it with a monkey figurine. Then he walked around the house "looking" for the angel: Is she in the Christmas tree? Is she under the couch? He played it well -- I really wasn't sure if he was joking or serious. After I gave up looking, he "found" the angel and laughed and laughed. I fear this is going to become a problem in the future (pretty sure I will be the butt of too many of his jokes), but for now his easy-going, light-hearted personality is such a breath of fresh air for me. The difficult parenting piece for me is developing the positives of this personality, since its so different from mine. For now, my focus is giving him enough free time in his routine and wiggle room with the rules (i.e.: not punishing him for messing with the nativity) to allow his creativity to bloom. And helping him realize appropriate times to joke. For a 3-year-old, I think that's enough.

I'm having a ton of fun with this stage of parenting and can't wait to see how God will use these characteristics.
These have been the rules of our family lately:

1. You may not shoot out your car window.
2. Never punch a dragon.
3. No skydiving off the top of the stairs.
4. Don't hit your brother in the head, face, or ears.
5. You have to finish your french fries before you can have candy.
6. No more hanging from the garage door.

I'm such a good parent.
Here are some pics of old-fashioned fall fun. We had a hilarious time playing in the leaves with Toodles (AKA Spaz Dog)! And the boys each had their fall parties at school (I actually helped organize Azlan's, thus more pics). Enjoy!

I was the safest trick-or-treater this year because I was accompanied by Batman (Patriot), Spiderman (Azlan), and Superman (Cousin Caedmon). I love Halloween in this neighborhood because everyone sets up in their yards and it's like a giant block party. SO much fun!

We went hiking at a local nature preserve with some friends. Boys had never hiked before and weren't quite sure why we were doing this. It was a pretty cold day, and being so outdoorsy, I wasn't sure why we were doing it either. But we ended up having a great time and plan to go back!


My firstborn turned 5 years old today. This occasion has led me down memory lane -- join me, won't you?

Seems like it was just yesterday I found out I was pregnant -- it snowed that weekend, in Texas. I vividly remember all the doctors appointments where the baby (and I) grew bigger and bigger. I remember the fears that he'd get too big (which I now believe to be ridiculous, but that's a different soapbox).

We scheduled our induction for Monday, October 18 at 8 AM. The week before I coordinated, and Matt taught at, a conference for children's pastors. It was huge, so was my belly, and my ankles. I was rather miserable, but Matt kept singing to me "Come Monday, it will be all right. Come Monday we'll be holding him tight . . ."

The conference ended on Saturday and our families started arriving. (A definite benefit to scheduling the birth, everyone could plan to be there!) Matt's parents flew in from Kentucky. My mom flew in from Poland. And my sister flew in from Africa. Mom and Joni had only seen pics of me pregnant and Joni almost screamed in the airport when she saw the giantness of me.

Joni hadn't eaten an American meal for years, and I wasn't supposed to eat the morning of the induction, so at midnight we went out for burgers, fries, and ice cream. That was the last meal I ate before my world totally changed.

We got to the hospital and started the paperwork and pitocin. The day progressed slowly. The family played cards while I napped and watched Dr. Phil. Finally, around 7:30 that night, it was time to push. I had chosen to not take any childbirth classes, for fear that they would freak me out, so I had no idea what was normal. Turns out, we weren't. I pushed and pushed but he didn't come. My doctor explained that he had gotten stuck on my pelvic bone, so each push was pressing him into the bone, rather than out the canal. They used a vacuum and out he came. His little face was bruised and squished, but he was otherwise perfect.

(BTW, during all of this pushing business, the doctor was more concerned with Matt than me. Apparently Matt wasn't handling all of this well. Dr. White kept sending him out to get juice and suggesting he sit down. Hello, people, I'm trying to have a baby here!)

I'll never forget the sunny fall day we drove him home from the hospital. I've found a Maya Angelou poem that describes how I felt that day -- and still do.

The moment you came into the world
I tried to see it through your young eyes and
Everything became new again.

The moon became brighter,
The sun warmer,
and the stars even more mysterious.

Yet nothing is as glorious as you.

Happy birthday, my Patriot!

Yesterday was the 10th anniversary of the day I married my best friend. We're celebrating with a trip to New York City in November, so we decided not to really celebrate on the actual day-of. (Plus, we're on a family road trip to North Carolina, so the focus has been packing and getting down the road -- thus this blog post wasn't written yesterday.) However, one of Matt's love languages is gift-giving, so I thought I'd get him a little something to commemorate the day.

Thinking it might be a fun place to start, I looked up the traditional 10th anniversary gift which, according to, is tin or aluminum. "The pliability of tin and aluminum is a symbol of how a successful marriage needs to be flexible and durable and how it can be bent without being broken."

What a beautiful illustration of the place I feel like we've reached in our marriage! After 10 years, we've discovered each others faults, realized we can't change them, and learned to strengthen where the other is weak. After 10 years, we've acknowledged that the goals and plans we had on our wedding day may not all become reality, but we're committed to the adventure that is before us. After 10 years, we've learned that our spouse cannot meet all of our needs (that took some counseling sessions) but it's OK to look to friends, hobbies, and God for some fulfillment.

Right now we are in another "pliable but durable" phase in our marriage. Kids are starting school, I'm looking at taking a job outside the home, and Matt's responsibilities are changing again. Transitions are rarely smooth and easy, but I am confident our marriage will survive to the other side. What will the next 10 years bring? If I've learned anything, it's that I have no idea what God has planned. But I know our aluminum marriage will survive.

So, what gift did I give him? An aluminum water bottle with a cool design on it. He can stay healthy and be green -- perfect!
So we were in the car and we had this conversation:

P: Hey, Mom, I learned something new from Kung Fu Panda.
M: Really, what did you learn?
P: I learned that when we're upset, we're supposed to eat a lot.


M: Um, well, a lot of people do eat when they're upset, but it isn't really healthy for our bodies. It's best for us to pray to God when we're upset. We could also talk with someone or go for a walk. But you should only eat when you're hungry.

(BTW, I am an emotional eater, so this one was difficult for me, too!)

These are my favorite moments with my boys. They come when I least expect it -- so I have to always be prepared. When they suggest a topic, and I'm able to put together a rational and correct answer for them, then I feel like a successful parent.
I see her almost every time I go out in public. You've probably seen her, too. She looks like a mild-mannered young mother, often with her little ones and their necessary garb in tow. But suddenly, and without warning, she morphs into a short-tempered, inflexible, ugly, often insulting, beast-mom.

I can hardly go in public without another sighting. The mother in the public restroom degrading her daughter for not moving out of the way so the door can close. The mother in a restaurant completely beside herself because space at the available table won't allow her to put the high chair where she'd like. The mother creating a scene because the only racecar shopping cart is too dirty. Unfortunately, I realize, I see it in myself when the children would rather dance into their carseats than roboticly sit and fasten their seatbelts.

What has so many of us so high strung?

I have some thoughts:
1. Budget stress - For many women, economic security is a high emotional need. Many of us hear the talk in the media, but don't have the time and energy to understand it. The fear of the unknown overtakes us and we begin to worry about our own financial situation. We start scouring sale ads, collecting coupons, reading budget friendly cookbooks, all in an effort to control something that really is out of our control. This additional stress can be a real burden and certainly could shorten our overall patience.
2. High expectations - In this age of select sports and elite preschools, the competition drives many of us set unreasonably high expectations for our kids, and often for ourselves. This sprint to perfectionism will cause all of us to fail. I think sports and preschool and all the other things are beneficial to kids, but we parents have to give our children room to be kids.
3. TMI - The internet is such a useful tool. My kids can watch astronauts take space walks and research the lives of dinosaurs. But it also gives moms every product recall, every research study result, and every medical finding. What mom wouldn't be stressed out to learn that her child's favorite toy is coated in toxic paint, but taking it away could cause feelings of insecurity that could lead to bedwetting!?

So what's a mother to do?
First, learn your own triggers. What causes the beast to rise in you? Then create ways to work around it. It's OK to make lifestyle adjustments to work around your weaknesses. I know that if I don't get time to myself regularly, my patience starts to waiver. So this summer I've had a teenager come babysit one afternoon each week. This gives me time to take a deep breath, get something accomplished, and really just dash in and out of a store. It does cost us a little in cash and mommy-guilt, but it's really so worth it.

Second, count to ten. Will this situation really matter in 10 minutes, 10 weeks, 10 years? If not, calmly let it go and creatively think of a solution.

Third, remember the mom you dreamed you'd be. When we first learned we'd be parents, we all had a picture in our heads of the fun, kind, beautiful mom we'd be. Let that picture become your reality.

Goodbye, beast-mom! Hello, fun-mom!
One day a farmer asked his son to move a boulder out of the field. The son ran out and pushed the boulder, but it was too heavy and wouldn't budge. He ran back in to Dad and declared he couldn't do it. The farmer sent the son back out saying, "Try again, you can do this."

The son went back and really put his shoulder in it, pushing as hard as he could. The boulder didn't move. He laid on the ground and pushed with his legs, but nothing happened. He tried taking a running start to push the boulder, but it didn't work. Discouraged, the son came back to the farmer and said, "Dad, I tried everything, but I just can't move that boulder."

"You haven't tried everything, yet," the farmer explained. "You haven't asked me for help." Together, the farmer and his son went to the field and easily rolled the boulder away.

Our guest speaker at church this weekend shared this story and it really struck a nerve with me. Initially because so often my boys will whine and complain about a task I've asked of them. If they would calmly and politely ask for help, I'd be happy to help them accomplish it. Instead, their whining usually ends in disciplinary action and we still have to finish the task.

Then I started to think about myself. I wonder how often I do the same thing with God. He gives me a task. I try to complete it in my own strength. When I can't do it, I whine and complain instead of asking Him for help. I can think of specific things I've given up on rather than ask God for help.

When will I learn asking the Creator of the universe for help should be my first response to any task?
. . . at a conference for about 5 days this week. The boys and I are getting along fine, with a lot of help from Grandma, Grandpa, Nana, and Papaw -- and American Idol. Before he left, Matt and the boys recorded this Two-Minute Tuesday about what we'll do while he's gone.

Matt's plane left at 11:10 on Tuesday morning. At 11:30, this is what we were doing. We wasted no time mourning his departure.

We've also been conducting our own version of Clean Sweep in preparation for an upcoming yard sale. The boys have been so good about cleaning through their toys that I'm treating/bribing them with Chuck E. Cheese tonight. So Daddy's missing a lot of fun.

But I think he's having some fun of his own, too. This was recorded last night, or maybe very early this morning . . .

Brown Bag Lunch from Kenny Conley on Vimeo.

Here's video of the boys playing air hockey with two leftover plumbing pieces and a quarter on the ottoman. Very resourceful!

BTW, the plumbing pieces laying around the house should give a little insight into how our weekend went -- flooded basement, couldn't find the replacement part, water turned off for 24 hours, had to move in with in-laws, shower repaired, all is well now.
Five weeks ago Matt and I made a fateful decision that will forever change the face of our family. We decided to get a dog. We'd been thinking about it for several months, considering it for Christmas, but the time wasn't right. Thought we might wait until Azlan was potty trained, but that could be forever. So after much research into breed characteristics, one weekend we decided this was the weekend we were going to get a dog.

Enter, Toodles . . .

Toodles is a golden doodle, which means her mom was a poodle and her dad was a golden retriever. Her breeder says she'll be 45-50lbs full grown, and should shed very little, both things that were very important to us.

We've had a lot of fun with Toodles over the last five weeks. Here's very bad video of her playing in the yard with the neighborhood kids. She also likes to take walks around the block and loves to be cuddled.

We've also had a lot of frustration with Toodles. She bites everything -- including the children, to the point that they don't want to be around her. She's having difficulty with housebreaking. The vet says she's a slow learner. She barks anytime she's in her crate and knows we're in the house. The vet said to ignore it. She's out-of-control wild. The vet offered us a Ritalin prescription, and he was serious. This is what she tends to look like to us.

So today is Toodles 3-month birthday. For her birthday present, we're getting her puppy obedience classes. I'm determined she's going to be a nice family pet someday. This is the best birthday portrait I could get of her.
You may be wondering what I've been doing lately. Perhaps this pic will help you understand why I've not been blogging.

This is the pile of laundry I have to sort, clean, fold, and put away today.

Oh, how I wish I had a Laundry Fairy who could come in and help me. Enjoy the following video to see what I mean. I think many of you will relate to it. When you pass this video on, All Small and Mighty will donate to a designated charity.

I awoke this morning to a thermometer that read -3 degrees. That was the temp! The wind chill was something like -4000! So my thoughts have naturally wandered to daydreams about summer vacation on a warm beach. In case anyone else has fantasies like mine, let me tell you about my vaca last year, because it was fabulous and I'd highly recommend it!

Matt and I took the boys to Beaches Family Resort (they advertise after every Sesame Street episode, that's where you've heard it before). There are several locations, but we chose Beaches Boscobel in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. It is an all-inclusive family resort.

Let's run down the highs and lows of the trip for you:

1. Sesame Street - Because Beaches has partnered with Sesame Street, the Sesame characters are part of the resort. Three evening each week they perform a live stage show with singing and dancing, sets, etc. Every day has kid's activities like Dancing with Zoe, Baking with Cookie Monster, and Storytime with Elmo. My boys thought they had entered some magical Sesame Street land.

2. All-inclusive - Our room had a little fridge in it. When we arrived it was fully stocked with tiny cans of juice and sodas. I assumed it was like a hotel mini-bar and those tiny cans would cost a ton. Then another family told us they were free. So we let the boys have a can of juice in the morning before breakfast. The next day, it was restocked. It became a little ritual for us to have juice on our balcony and watch the sun come up every morning.

Kids Camp was open from 9 am - 6 pm every day. Your kids could stay there all day long for free. They took them swimming, fed them lunch, took them to craft time, gave them naps. They had daily themes like Olympics day when they had Olympic events on the lawn. There was a pirates day and a birthday party day. The kids loved it! They asked to go to kids camp every morning. So we dropped them off and would spend the morning lounging by the pool or on the beach. (We did get a copy of the Kids Camp schedule and would drop in when our guys were doing something worthy of a photo. It was fun surprising them!) Matt and I ate a nice lunch without cutting anyone else's food and would pick them up after naptime for an evening together. It was all included in the resort price!

3. Such service - Every member of the restaurant staff learn our kids names and often what they liked to drink, too. The Kids Camp staff knew what my kids liked for lunch and their favorite toy. There was always a clean towel at the beach. The lifeguards taught Matt how to do tricks off the water slide. No matter what we asked, it was met with "No Problem."

4. The pools - There were several pools on the resort, but we preferred those with water slides. Two pools had three levels of water slides: one was appropriate for Azlan, one appropriate for Patriot, and one appropriate for Matt and me. We had so much fun cheering for each other when we'd slide down and laughing when we fell in. The toddler pool also had fun toys that the boys could climb and splash with. Great stuff!

1. Travel day - I know customs is always long, but it seemed so much worse in Jamaica. Maybe it was just because we were waiting with a cranky toddler and a restless preschooler, but it was brutal. And the resort was a 2 hour bus ride from the airport. They don't tell you that in the brochure.

2. Fabric table clothes + no lids - At dinner, every restaurant had beautiful place settings with table clothes, real silverware, and glass glasses. No lids, no plastic plates or forks. We spilled or broke something at almost every meal. I think we ruined at least 4 table clothes. The servers were always very "No problem" about cleaning the mess and were pretty quick about it, I think because they had so much practice. I guess Beaches is trying to give the grown-ups a nice meal, but a plastic cup with a lid would really help.

3. Food variety - Matt was disappointed in the restaurant options. There are three family restaurants, a family buffet, and an "adults-only" restaurant. I thought it was fine, but we've heard that other resorts have more choices.

4. Tiny beach - For a place called Beaches, we expected a pretty nice beach. Not so much. It was maybe a football field in length and 50 feet wide (I'm not very good with distances, but it wasn't big). Taking a stroll on the beach was only a two minute excursion. It was lined with comfortable lounge chairs under palm tree awnings, perfect for reading a book and listening to the ocean. And we had lunch at the grill on the beach, definitely a memory.

5. Time change - My kids wake up at 8 am no matter what happened the night before. Because of the time change, they were ready for bed and cranky at 6:30 (some nights we didn't even survive dinner before they broke down) and woke up at an obscene hour in the morning. This could happen on any trip, but it's something I wasn't prepared for.

All in all, we had a wonderful time. I'd love to do it again and would recommend Beaches to any family. (There were teen activities if you have an older kid.) You can check out more pics on my Facebook page.
5. Our conversations are consumed by Star Wars and Indiana Jones.
4. My kitchen towels and chip clips have morphed into capes.
3. I found Lego pieces in the dishwasher.
2. My children really want me to burp the ABCs.
1. We had to make a "no guns at the dinner table" rule.