Minion Party!!

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Published: 03/03/2015
 This is Savannah.  She is adorable.  She also really really really really really really really really likes minions.

A lot.

PS- this level of writing skill is why I get paid the big bucks.

Oh wait.  Nevermind. :)
 So for her 7th birthday we had a minion party, which, apparently, many of you were interested in having also! So, here's what I did.  Above you will see a bay window with blue streamers and yellow balloons.  I also got yellow paper lanterns, which you can turn into minion faces if you want!
 I am a giant dork and make themed food.  These are "shrunken moons" like from the movie.  They were just going to be the white cheese on the white crackers (these are round Saltines) but Savannah likes pepperoni, so...our moon is red.  Whatever.
 This is the cake my mom made for my cousin. Yes, I said my cousin.  Second marriage, things happen.  He's the same age as my middle son.  It's his birthday, too, so they had a joint party :)

The interwebs has some cute printable info.  I liked this banana language printable-
I made pin the eyes on the minion out of posterboard, and I found the eye masks at Target.  I just cut the edges off so they were just eyes.
Yes, we are using a Griffyndor scarf I made for my son's Harry Potter birthday as a blindfold.  I forgot about needing one that was minion-y!
These gift bags were super simple.  Black paper, black marker, and the eyes are just the tops to Mason jars with an eyeball on white paper.
Minion bowling- we used spraypaint on empty two litre bottles.  Just a note- you'll want to make sure these are REALLY REALLY dry or they'll leave paint on your hardwood floor and you'll have a panic attack.

Not that I know that from experience.

PS- You're gonna want some Goof Off.  And maybe a magic eraser.
I am a dork.  I don't know what else to say.  Yes, I did Purple Minon Juice in the form of Honest Kids Grape Drink.
Same concept on the gift bags with a little purple feather boa to make crazy purple minons.  Our pinata was filled with cotton candy (it's so fluffy I'm gonna die!), necklaces, tattoos, and candy, and then we sent home a unicorn horn and a cup with each child, too.
I just bought the plates at the store.  I had a plan for really cute polka dot stuff, but my daughter wanted these, so it's what she got.

I am obsessed with the Party Co in Manassas.  It's amazing.  They had minion shaped pinatas, too, but they were a little smaller than I wanted, so I went with this one.

This cake is what you get when you inform your mom the night before your party that you want a "Girl Minion Ice Cream Cake".  I bought a pre-made ice cream cake from Harris Teeter, scraped the decorations off, and re-spread yellow on top (which I also bought from HT- they'll sell you frosting by the pound in the bakery and it's SO MUCH BETTER than that crap frosting in a can (and I am not apologizing for that stance- it's gross) if you lack either the time or the inclination to make your own.

We had a great time. The kids arrived, played a little or colored on some sheets I printed off, then we played games, had snacks and cake, did the pinata, and watched the movie.  The party ran from 2pm-5pm, and if we weren't watching the movie, 2pm-4pm would have been more than sufficient.

Kid Ornament Ideas

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Published: 12/09/2014
Remember that time that my husband didn't set up the Christmas tree correctly and it fell over and all my ornaments broke?

(Yes that really happened)

(Okay, fine, and yes, I'm just sharing that story because so many of you agreed that they're just towels....but it happened!)

Ever since that incident, homemade Christmas ornaments are some of my favorite things to get! Luckily PwcGrammy is amazing and frequently when the kiddos hang out with her they come home with presents for me! These ideas are all very simple and would be great for your house, or as presents to send to family and friends!

 Rudolph and Frosty here are super simple.  They're just made from 1.5 inch terra cotta pots that you can buy at Michael's! You'll need ribbon, white paint, brown paint, sharpie markers (black, orange, and pink), ribbon, brown pipe cleaners, goggly eyes, and pompoms.  You can use regular glue and let it set up, or if you have older kids, you can use the hot glue gun while they supervise- but you might still burn yourself....or maybe that's just me.

Paint your pot brown for Rudolph or white for Frosty.  Then, just let your child decorate! We added antlers and a red nose for our reindeer and ear muffs for frosty.  Use ribbon to make a loop to hang your ornament. If you're using regular glue or craft glue, be sure to allow enough time to fully dry before hanging.  Hot glue will basically dry instantly.
 Okay, so this guy is not so cute when you're looking at him like this....but....
HE HAS A LIGHT UP NOSE!! These are just tea lights wrapped with a ribbon scarf and decorated with sharpies.  I found the tiny tiny top hats on Amazon.  They're actually totally cute :) You could draw circles for coal or even regular facial features.  Be sure that when you buy your tea lights they already have the batteries in them.  You can find REALLY cheap packages of them, but then you have to buy and install all the tiny batteries, so just save yourself the hassle and buy them with batteries inside :)


Yes, we really were THAT busy.

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Published: 05/14/2014
So. We bought a house.  We waited and saved a really long time for that house, and when we got it we were going to get a ready-to-move-in 4 bedroom. 

And then we got a really great deal on a fixer-upper, so we scrapped that idea and decided to be crazy instead!! Yay crazy! Since all I've been doing for the last few months is HOUSE I thought I'd share with you guys a few of the things that were good, bad, and ugly about the move and renovation, since many of you have asked me about how it's going or who we're using, etc.

Our home inspector, who, giving credit where it's due, was recommended by the Realtor (who was not my favorite)- was totally amazing.  His name is Dave Thompson of Equity Home Inspection, and you can holla at him at 703-470-9571.  I believe he's also a contractor, but the main point here is that he does a really really REALLY good job at home inspection.

Let's start with the kitchen.  The dishwasher worked!! Sadly, that was the only working appliance that we inherited from the previous owners. The cabinets were peeling black paint, and the floors were broken ceramic tile.  Also, orange. I realize that's not a sentence, but seriously. Orange.
We used Luna for our flooring and they were very accommodating about ordering the floor I wanted for the kitchen- I wanted "luxury vinyl" which looks like ceramic but won't break everytime your kids drop something.  They had that, but not in the color I wanted, but they got it. With Luna, our experience was that the price was good, the products were good, and the logistics were really bad.  They didn't have enough carpet to do our install, they didn't have enough quarter round to do our install, and then they got glue from the kitchen floor all over our hardwood floors.  It took several phone calls, but they did eventually send back a team to fix it, so the floors look beautiful now, but it was kind of a headache. I hear that your experience can vary greatly depending on your install team.

Next, we (and I say we here, but I mean "my husband and my mom") refinished the cabinets using Rustoleum's Cabinet Transformations Kit. We're still in a "time will tell" stage about that, but we definitely had issues with the faux wood on the end of the cabinets.  It's also super time consuming, so if you're planning to use it rather than having to sand and refinish, you're not really going to save time.  They spent 45 hours doing the cabinets for our kitchen using the clean, degloss, two base coats, glaze, and top coat process.  The glaze is optional, but drastically changes the color in some cases.  There is a 100% satisfaction guarantee, but they won't necessarily email/call/tweet you back to respond to issues. They look really good except the small spots on the cabinet ends, and honestly, I'm so happy the island isn't orange that I don't even notice. On the up side, the kit runs you around $75 which is WAY THE HECK cheaper than buying new cabinets or having Sears come and reface everything for you.

For our countertops we used Granite and Marble Express.  They showed up when they said they were going to show up, they took their shoes off on our new floors without being asked, they installed quickly and efficiently, they cleaned up their mess (if you've ever had contractors you know this is a big deal) and the end result was gorgeous.  Well, I think it was gorgeous, you can think whatever you want. 

So for our cooktop, we had to get a cooktop with a downdraft because of the way that the kitchen was built, which meant we had to get a Jenn-Air.  If you are in the market for appliances like that (by which I mean "our kids are not going to college") Appliance Distributors Unlimited in Chantilly was incredibly knowledgeable.  According to PwcDad they know "literally everything" and can tell you each tiny little difference, every review that's ever been written about every appliance they carry, and while they only carry high-end products, their prices were really good considering what you're purchasing. Ted Ashby was the contractor that installed our appliances, and he did a great job.  703-371-4336.

New kitchen.  Yay!

Next, there was lots of painting. We used to really love Lowe's paint, but the new type of Valspar with paint and primer Signature kind of sucked. In some rooms we had no problem with it, but in other rooms it was like it wouldn't stick to the wall.  We used trisodium phosphate (TSP) on all the walls to clean them and get the crayon and the stickers and the food residue and the "I'm not sure what that is, just clean it" off, so they should have all worked the same. However, it all ended up looking really good, some rooms just took more coats than others.  Shoutout to Kilz, if you've never used it, because that stuff will cover ANYTHING, including black ceilings. Before:
This took one coat of Killz and two coats of white ceiling paint to turn into this:
The final contractor I want to share about is Victor Canizalez and his cell is 571-332-7728.  The master bathroom was leaking down into the family room, and so there was a lot of work that had to get redone, from plumbing to broken tile.  Not only did the bathroom turn out beautiful (this picture is from mid-renovation), Victor and his team ALWAYS showed up when they said they were going to show up, they were fast, and incredibly affordable. He came highly recommended from two friends in Lake Ridge who'd used him for various projects, and they were not wrong. 

This is just the stuff that we had to fix to be able to live in the house- we'll still be fixing things for awhile, but it's been a fun process to watch, and exciting to see the results! Have a favorite contractor? Leave a comment with their information below. 

Disclaimer: Nobody paid me, gave me a discount, or even knew I wrote this website.  I just had a lot of questions during this process and I know people are always looking for feedback on contractors, so I'm sharing. 

January 20th "Day Off" Recap

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Published: 01/21/2014
We don't typically follow the PWCS schedule in our homeschool, but we decided we'd take yesterday off with the rest of you and have a little fun :)

We started the morning off with my reader meetup hosted by The Animated Child, which my kids were SO excited about, especially the boys, because, in a word, Minecraft.  Am I the only mom out there who really has no clue what Minecraft is? My kids were totally addicted to it before we even had it at home.  I'm so thankful to The Animated Child for hosting all the kids at such a special discount.  Their Parents Night Out programs are typically $35/child, and they had us out for $10/child, plus $3 for lunch.  It was such a fun opportunity and I hope that everyone enjoyed learning more about the center!
I have to remember to invite a photographer for every event I host.  My iphone pictures are horrid :)
As for our moms, we had a pretty good crowd- I should've counted- but I think there were about 25 of us.  Not too shabby for a Monday lunch! If you haven't made it out to one of these reader meetups, I do hope you'll join us in the future. In March I think I'll start doing a playdate type meetup and a moms night type meetup, but we'll see if I survive Silver Sparkles first ;)

After we finished up at the reader meetup, we had to drive to Stafford.

Stafford is usually where I draw the line.  I know that it takes me just as long to get there as it does to get to the other side of the county, but for some reason there's a block in my brain about going south! However, today there was a really great reason for me to man up. 

Sweet Scene Photography hosted a "Tea Time with Belle" which, for $15, included snacks, crafts, pictures with "Belle" and a small goody bag for each girl.  My daughter, Savannah, is almost 6 and she'd been looking for an excuse to get some girl time with a few friends.  While she's definitely mine (she shares my appreciation for pink and sparkles) she would rather wear pink jeans than a dress, but she did humor me and dress up for the occasion.
 There were plenty of coloring sheets, along with a decorate your own crown craft, and the girls seemed to have a lovely time.  I appreciated that the photographer took pictures before she let the girls start in on their teatime snacks (mini cupcakes, fruit snacks, and a few candy options).  It definitely helped keep the pictures frosting-free.
All of the girls got a few professional snapshots of them with Princess Belle (there was a library-themed backdrop) and there was also time for- you guessed it- iPhone pictures!! Yay!  I think if I did this again, I'd ask to have my daughter's group get their pictures together with the photographer rather than her alone- they were sweet, but the fun part of the day for her was being with "her girls".  All four of the ladies that came with us had a really fun time, and I definitely think this was a fantastic special treat, especially with the bonus princess time.  Sweet Scene hosts these fairly regularly with various princesses and they also do "Diva Parties" for birthdays. 

One note- if you decide to go, the studio is on the left hand side of 610 across from the Arby's.  If you pass Sherwin Williams you went too far.  There's a sign for the studio (it's in a shopping center) but it's at the bottom of the sign, and if you are me, you will be late because you passed the Sherwin Williams several times....on both sides of the road...

Luckily my friend told me she did the same thing, so at least I was in good company!

I hope you enjoyed your scheduled holiday- and that you enjoy your unscheduled break today, too!!  I know a few businesses are planning to open- but if you go please call first to confirm and use caution when you drive!

Disclosure: I paid for my lunch, just like everyone else, as well as for my daughter's tea time with Belle.  The Animated Child is an advertiser with  However, all opinions are my own and were  not requested by any company/business. 

Party Ideas: Leftover Potluck

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Published: 12/25/2013

Entertaining is one of my favorite things.  I love to fill our house up with family and friends and have a really great time.  Since we celebrate several holidays and birthdays between Thanksgiving and New Years, it's a good thing that I like entertaining, too!

However, entertaining for the holidays doesn't have to be complicated!  Last year, when I looked into my fridge at our Christmas leftovers (Day 3) and realized that I didn't have room in the fridge for anything new, but I didn't want to eat prime rib anymore, I decided that I was going to have everybody over!  A few Facebook messages later, my equally nutty friends had thrown some plastic wrap over their leftovers (and in the case of one party fan-favorite, grabbed a 12 pack of Taco Bell Tacos) and headed to my house for what would become the first-annual "Christmas Kotluck".  Everything I ever host somehow becomes annual.  In fact, when people RSVP "no" to things they frequently say "I'm busy this year- but when you do it next year, I'll be there!" Not sure how that happened, but whatever! I thought that we'd have trouble getting people out for a "leftover buffet", but everyone I asked said yes, and while you can't see it in this picture, we had over 30 people crammed in our townhouse for this between adults and kids! Half-drunk bottle of wine? Bring it over! Half a honeybaked ham that you can't eat anymore? Great! We had beef, so it's a welcome change!  It was actually really fun!
Unrelated Aside: Yes, Kotluck.  Because our last name is Kotlus.  I grew up with the last name "Schnack" and I thought I'd gotten over things like "I'm really hungry, I could go for a Schnack" and "Hey, Kristina! We're going to call your group of friends the "Schnack Pack"! Like Pudding!" and "Running, huh? I guess that makes you a healthy Schnack!" But noooooo, now there's a Kotluck.  Brilliant. 

This was BY FAR the best party I've ever hosted.  Nobody had to prepare anything, so everyone was completely un-stressed.  I threw a few plastic tablecloths on over every surface I could find that would pass as a table, everyone enjoyed someone else's new-to-them food.  We even all agreed to be horrible parents and feed the kids first before sending them off to play so we could enjoy "grown up" dinner! After eating, everyone stayed and played games until late into the evening. 

Even this "guy":

While I may joke about everything becoming "annual", our leftover potluck is definitely a new tradition I plan on keeping this year, too!  Fun, low-cost, and fabulous, it was worth repeating as a great way to have friends over without busting our budget or stretching our sanity to the breaking point!!  How do you keep your holiday entertaining simple and easy? 

(PS- sorry about the odd pictures- I forget to ask people's permission to use them in posts, which limits me to pictures without faces!!)

PwcMoms Christmas Cocktails 2013

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Published: 12/21/2013
I had so much fun getting to meet some of you at Bar Louie in Gainesville on Thursday night!! I had a momma email me in November and ask if I could please host moms nights, and much like everything else I do on this website, my response was "sure, why not?"  Virginia Gateway was so kind to host us for our first moms night out, and I think everyone had a good time! I heard great things about all the flatbreads and the spinach artichoke dip, and I didn't notice anyone's drink sitting idle, so I'd guess those were good, too :)  I will mention that Bar Louie is loud- so if you're noise sensitive, wait for spring and grab a spot on their outdoor patio- I love that they have that option!
 Syma K Photography came out to snap pictures for me so that it would happen (I always forget!!) and I so appreciate her! She was very sweet and right at home in our group.  Be sure to check out her Facebook page for more pictures and details on her family/event photography!!
Loved the couches- even though people stood forever!!
Drama Mama Cakes not only came out to party, she brought cupcakes with her.  I wanted to try a chocolate strawberry one, but somehow, they were all gone at the end of the night....hmmmm ;) I heard nothing but praise for every flavor, though, and I did snag a spice cupcake for my hubby, who said it was fantastic.  Kara (Drama Mama) does custom cakes and cupcakes for any occasion, and is such a sweet lady!
Giveaways!! You know I love giving stuff away :) Virginia Bliss from Premier designs was handing out jewelry (as well as discounts in our swag bags!), The Little Gym gave away a Parent's Survival Night (score!) and one mom got a really cute set of nail wraps and application tools from Jamie Vuong with Jamberry Nails, which are a chemical-free alternative to nail polish, and come in mini-sizes for your little diva, too.

Swag Bags- of course- Virginia Gateway was kind enough to provide these, although a huge shoutout to the girls that helped me throw in last-minute items!! Thanks to Lindsay Adams from Juice Plus (purveyor of tasty gummy vitamins!), Katherine Breyfogle of Perfectly Posh for the spa samples (additionally, Katherine brought me a glitter stick.  In case you haven't noticed, glitter/sparkles is the way to my heart. <3 a="" href="">Potomac Local
provided free copies of their community guide, The Little Gym of Gainesville provided a free class for every mom in attendance, Prince William Living tucked in a copy of their December issue, and Virginia Gateway also had some special coupons for everyone!!
I hope that you guys had a great time (I heard rumors of a Bunco group forming and I want an invite!) and that I'll see some of you back at our January moms meet up (details coming soon!!).

Thanks to everyone that made this night possible!!

Cute Christmas Party Food: Olive Wreath

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Published: 12/17/2013
These are from my cookie swap last December (believe it or not, I'm writing this post in January 2013.  How's that for planning?) I have to warn you now, though, that while you may be used to my typical crappy iphone photos, these were taken on someone's flip phone.  That's right, a flip phone.  Apparently those aren't all in museums yet, because my kids' "Auntie Elaine" has one.  It takes EVEN CRAPPIER pictures! Holla!

Anyway, you'll still get the idea :)

Love it? Don't forget to Pin It!

 Olive and Tomato Wreath
On a round serving platter, arrange 3 large bunches of Rosemary in a circular form for your "wreath".  Next, arrange olives (these are three different types from the grocery store's bulk olives, which was much cheaper than three jars!) in three mounds at the "points" of an imaginary triangle around the platter, and then fill in the empty spaces with cherry tomatoes.  Be sure to provide toothpicks or forks for your guests to spear their olives!

Veggie Tray Soup

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Published: 12/16/2013

Believe it or not based on my cow-like build, I actually try to keep things relatively healthy around here.  That means that when I'm doing lots of entertaining, I make a lot of veggie trays.  I feel like if I fill 3/4 of my plate with raw veggies, I can fill the last 1/4 with a treat and not being doing too badly for myself.  That means, too, though, that I end up with a lot of odds and ends form my veggie trays.  Celery, carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower all end up in baggies together and they never make it to the next tray, they just hang out in my fridge.  

Inspired by my children's love of Panera Bread's Broccoli Cheddar Soup, I decided I would make Veggie Tray Soup using a similar  flavor profile.  It's super easy, too!  Shred/Chop/Coarsely Food Processor the mixed veggies of your choice.  I used 2 cups of chopped veggies, total.  

Next, in a soup pot, place 1 tablespoon of butter and 1/2 a cup of chopped onion and sauté until the onions are clear and cooked through.  Next, add the veggies plus and 3 cups of chicken or vegetable broth.  Bring to a boil and cook until the vegetables are your desired level of doneness, between 5-10 minutes depending on your taste and the size you chopped your vegetables. 

Next, add one can of Cheddar Cheese condensed soup (I said it was easy and good, not gourmet!) and 1/2 cup of whatever mixed cheeses you have laying around, and heat until cooked through and warm.  If the soup isn't thin enough, use milk to think it out.  I also added salt and pepper to taste.

If you'd rather not use the condensed soup, you can easily switch it out.  After cooking your onion and butter, and then add and additional 3 tablespoons of butter and 3 tablespoons of flour, and cook while stirring for 3 minutes.  Then, add 1.5 cups of milk, 1.5 cups of chicken stock, stirring until slightly thickened, and then your vegetables (cooked in water and drained).  1 cup of shredded cheese will finish you up nicely.  

Enjoy!  (We had ours with warm Pampered Chef Beer Bread, and it was awesome!) 

Cute Christmas Crafts: Brownie Trees

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Published: 12/14/2013
How Cute Are These Cookies?

You don't have to answer.  They're pretty freaking cute.  For our cookie swap last year, these are what my mom made.  Again, this isn't even a tutorial, it's me showing off something cute as captured on a horrible mobile phone picture.

So, make your favorite brownie recipe.

Done? Excellent.

Cut into triangles.  You don't need an engineer for that, but if you have one available (we did) they can diagram the way to cut the brownies for minimal waste.  I don't believe you can have waste when cutting brownies, because it just means more for you.

Next, gently work a piece of mini candy-cane into the triangle to serve as the trunk of your "tree".  Decorate each tree with a swirl of frosting and ball candies or red hots.


These are such an easy and adorable treat, and I love that they're not cookies- it's a nice change!  What are you baking this year? Leave a comment and bonus points for a link to your blog!

Cute Christmas Foods: Santa Cheese Tray

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Published: 12/10/2013
These are from my cookie swap last December (believe it or not, I'm writing this post in January 2013.  How's that for planning?) I have to warn you now, though, that while you may be used to my typical crappy iphone photos, these were taken on someone's flip phone.  That's right, a flip phone.  Apparently those aren't all in museums yet, because my kids' "Auntie Elaine" has one.  It takes EVEN CRAPPIER pictures! Holla!

Anyway, you'll still get the idea :)

Love it? Don't forget to Pin It!

Santa Cheese Tray
For the Santa Bellies- use Baby Bel Light cheese wheels.  Leave the cheese unpeeled.  Cut a 1/4 inch strip of black construction paper and then cut to fit around each wedge.  Attach with tape.  On the front of each piece of cheese, use a square of silver tape or silver or gold paper for the "belt buckle" For the Rudolphs, use unwrapped wedges of Laughing Cow Garlic and Herb cheese.  Gently wedge two mini pretzels on either site of the wide part of the triangle (this works best if the cheese has been on the counter for a few minutes).  Using a round piping tip, cut small circles out of red and green bell peppers, using the green for eyes and the red for noses.  

Christmas Crafts: Embellished Wine Bags

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Published: 12/07/2013
These were such a fun craft for our Cookie Swap and Craft, and they can be done on the cheap! Dollar store frequently have the wine bag sized gift bags, and you don't have to use them for wine! If you prefer not to drink, these will dress up a bottle of sparkling cider just as easily, and they're a much more festive way of toting your drink to the next party you attend!

There's not much here in the way of directions- just snag a few embellishments and get going! We did cut out trees on the Cricut, which most people wrapped ribbon around since they have "indentations" between the tree layers, but other than that, you'll just need ribbon, stickers, cutouts and jewels.  Quick and easy!

Harry Potter Party and Magician Michael Chamberlin

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Published: 12/05/2013
We had a Harry Potter fiesta for my son's 10th birthday.  I love birthdays- I absolutely go nuts for them.  I figure I only really get a few before the kids are too "cool" and "grown up" for them, and I want to enjoy every magical moment of their childhoods.  (As always, apologies for my junky iPhone pictures and the lack of pictures- I don't want to email a million (read: 10) parents and ask for permission to use their kids on my website, so I had to find kidless pictures or pictures without kids looking at the camera, which is not easy!!)
So first, a little about the party.  We spent a small fortune in plastic so that we could turn our house into Hogwarts.  We did a "Platform 9" and "Platform 10" sign outside the door, which we covered in brick-colored plastic sheeting (because only a muggle would put a Platform 9 3/4 sign- everyone knows there's not a sign there!)
Once inside, we had a dressing station.  I made Hogwarts capes (I think they look like graduation gowns, but whatever) out of duct tape and black plastic tablecloths.  I got 3 out of each one, and they were pretty decent looking for the pictures, but the boys tore them to shreds, so I wouldn't waste your time, if you're also about 10 years behind the times and having a Harry Potter Party even though it's 2013 (or later). We also made wands out of dowel rods that we used hot glue guns to make look more "wandy" and then spray painted.  I used Rustoleum Hammered Finish spray paint and it did a really great job- the wands turned out really well, and I was very happy with them.  Super Grammy also made Gryffindor scarves from red and yellow fleece.
Once they were dressed for the occasion, we did a short potions class (I made flaming basilisk skin, foaming truth serum, and ooblek) and then the boys had a Hogwarts feast.  Of pizza.

Because Papa John is totally magical.  How else could it arrive hot and fresh at your door at exactly the right time even though you ordered Monday? (Bless you, internet, for pre-ordering)
 We did serve everything on gold chargers and had lots of candles, and there was, of course, butter beer and pumpkin juice (we re-labeled some V8 Splash).  We did a candy store display for goody bags that included chocolate frogs (I filled mine with green marshmallow fluff) and boxes, "every flavor beans" (just mixed Jelly Bellies), golden snitches (Ferrero Rocher chocolates with wings), acid pops (blow pops with pop rocks on them) and glow wands (just glow sticks).

The high point of the party, though, was definitely the entertainment, though.  I found a new website called Thumbtack, which allows you to request quotes for local services, and it was awesome.  I put in that I needed a magician, entered a few details (size of the party, age of guests, theme, date/time) and within minutes had responses from several magicians in our area.  I was actually quite nervous about having a magician since the kids were all going to be 4th/5th grade and I wasn't sure if they'd like it or think it was completely lame.

When people respond to you, they're able to include a brief note along with their price.  Magician Michael Chamberlin stood out to me because he noted that older children need "more sophisticated" humor and tricks, and he also clearly read my note that it was a Harry Potter party because he offered to open with a trick featuring one of the books from the series (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire).

The other part about hiring a magician that made me nervous was that our party was Friday evening, and our magician was going to have to take 95 south to get there.  In what was perhaps the best magic of the night, he arrived on time, though, and came in through our back gate so he could set up without the kids even knowing he'd arrived.  It was a great surprise for our birthday boy.

Then there was the show.  The kids loved every bit of it and were all very eager to come up and assist.  Books lit on fire, card tricks were performed with the assistance of audience members, one boy was even brave enough to use his hand to demonstrate a magical chopper.  Several of the kids asked for Mr. Chamberlin's card as we finished- they truly enjoyed the entire show (I kept a few to give to parents).  What surprised me most, however, was how much the three adults (my husband, my mom, and myself) enjoyed it, too!! We couldn't have fit any more people in our basement- it's a townhouse after all- but I sincerely wished we'd had parents stay so they could have enjoyed the show as much as we did!  He did a great job, and not that anyone's asking, but I would totally recommend him for your next event, whether it's for PTA or a par-tay ;)

They're only little once, right?

All opinions, including the awesomeness of Papa Johns by candlelight and the magic show, are my own.  I was not compensated or provided with a discount, or even asked to write anything, although if Papa John wants to start throwing some of that money he's giving out to Football players my way, he can totally email me anytime.

Cute Christmas Foods: Christmas Tree Veggie Bread

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Published: 12/03/2013

These are from my cookie swap last December (believe it or not, I'm writing this post in January 2013.  How's that for planning?) I have to warn you now, though, that while you may be used to my typical crappy iphone photos, these were taken on someone's flip phone.  That's right, a flip phone.  Apparently those aren't all in museums yet, because my kids' "Auntie Elaine" has one.  It takes EVEN CRAPPIER pictures! Holla!

Anyway, you'll still get the idea :)

Love it? Don't forget to Pin It!

Christmas Tree Veggie Bread
Pop open two cans of your favorite refrigerator crescent dough, but don't unroll them.  Cut each with a seraded knife into 8 equal pieces.  Arrange the slices on a greased baking sheet into a triangle with one piece at the bottom for your "trunk".  Bake according to package directions.  Meanwhile, mix one softened block of cream cheese with one cup of mayonnaise and one packet of Hidden Valley Ranch dressing mix.  After the crescents have cooled, cover them with the ranch mix, and then decorate with the veggies of your choice, using finely chopped broccoli as your base.  (This comes out cuter if you don't let your 4 year old help, but what's the fun in that?) 

Fitness Standards in PWCS

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Published: 10/22/2013
Awhile back on Facebook (click on "Facebook" to read the conversation), I shared a news story about the new fitness program that took over for the Presidential Fitness Awards.  Now called "The Presidents Challenge" the program includes some things I considered questionable, including a pinch test to determine BMI. The article itself was about a girl receiving a letter that she was overweight- and looking at her, I'm not sure I see it.  In fact, I know I don't.

Anyway, we finished up the conversation with me promising that I would hound email PWCS and get some firm answers.  Took awhile, but I was put in touch with their head of Physical Education, who provided me with the following documents.  PWCS does not participate in the President's Challenge, but they do have their own similar program.  It DOES include a skin fold BMI.  Now, we had teachers respond that they did not believe PWCS would ever do a BMI on a kid, and that might be true at individual schools, but this is the policy I was provided, so I'm sharing it with you.

Here's the info:

The Ritz-Carlton Tysons Corner

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Published: 10/21/2013
I feel like something of a hotel aficionado after spending six weeks in hotels during my radiation treatments at Duke.  We stayed in a super sketchy Homestead Suites for the first two weeks and switched to a La Quinta that was awesome, but still, you'd think after over a month of hotel, I'd be all stayed-out.


When we received and invitation to come and enjoy a night at the Ritz-Carlton, Tysons Corner, we rallied.  A "staycation" can be a really fun change from your regular date-night routine, and we were excited to check it out!

We hear that the Ritz-Carlton, Tysons Corner has fantastic suites for families, as well as children's teas, too, but we opted to go child-free and enjoy a date night/hotel stay that didn't involve children OR doctors.


While the Ritz-Carlton isn't the most modern of hotels, its reputation for elegance holds true.  Classically decorated, the details are what makes the Ritz-Carlton a destination hotel.  The staff are professional, courteous, and attentive.  The hotel is attached to the Tysons Galleria, which is known for its upscale and designer shopping, and the restaurant is delicious.  Little touches like being able to text the valet staff and have your car waiting make a big difference.
Okay, fine, and there are phones in the bathrooms, which my husband yelled out to me, and totally made me laugh about Pretty Woman all night.
 We started our evening with dinner at the Entyse Bar and Lounge which offers an extensive wine list as well as a varied menu for all tastes.  Case in point, I had Pad Thai (which typically comes with shrimp but I ordered vegetarian) while hubby enjoyed Filet Mignon with whipped potatoes and asparagus.

 For an appetizer, he ordered clam chowder and I had a mezze platter with hummus, tabbouleh, and baba ghanoush.  I have no clue how middle eastern food and pad thai go together, but I really love eggplant, so I was happy :)
 Again, the little touches are so enjoyable- our dinner was followed with a plate of small, sweet bites, which we enjoyed before our creme brûlée.  The meal was quite good, and the service was excellent- our waiter Luis was friendly and attentive.  Friday nights also feature live jazz, which we enjoyed quite a bit! Entyse has two dining areas, which allows for large groups (there was one in the bar area celebrating a birthday and having a great time), as well as more intimate dining, including the area we were in, which had several tables as well as stuffed-chairs/sofas with tables, as well.
The hotel offers many amenities, including a business room, spa, pool, lounge, and more.  We decided, however, to walk off some of our dinner in the attached Galleria mall.  Austin (my husband) wound us right through to the mall thanks to his years working at Booz Allen, which frequently rents space for larger hiring events, meeting and off-sites at the Ritz-Carlton, Tysons Corner.  Their wedding room looked lovely, as well.  I notice these things since my baby brother is getting married in September.

We had a lovely evening at the Ritz-Carlton, Tysons Corner.  Having a quick "staycation" was a great way to switch up our date night routine, and being in the heart of Tysons allowed for plenty of options for fun, with shopping, movies, and more all located either within walking or courtesy shuttle distance of the hotel.  To plan your own staycation at the Ritz-Carlton, Tysons Corner, or to enjoy one of their many events, including pumpkin carving, Nutcracker Teas, Princess Teas, and more, check out their events calendar, located here.

Disclaimer: We were offered a free night's accommodations and meals at the Ritz-Carlton, Tysons Corner.  All opinions, however, remain my own, and only links to the calendar and the requirement I include pictures were dictated by the Ritz-Carlton, Tysons Corner.  All writing is my own.

Boys Book Club: The Knight at Dawn

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Published: 10/17/2013
(I didn't take pictures, I completely suck.  However, I'm including links to everything and I'll try to be better next time!)

There are a plethora of beginner reading books targeted at young girls.  Just look at American Girl- they made an entire industry out of it.  For boys, I feel like it can be a little harder.  Some of that is based on the subject matter- "beginning readers" on dinosaurs? Pterodactyl is not a fun word for a six year old.  Let's be honest.  We do love "The Magic Tree House" series at our house, though, and think they're fun for boys and girls.  However, to encourage my boys a little extra, I wanted to do a "boys book club".  Girls were welcome, but we were going to do stereotypical "boy" stuff.

Since our homeschool group is doing the middle ages right now for history, we decided our first club read would be "The Knight at Dawn".  Everyone read the book before coming.  We started off with a little light discussion about adjectives that describe Jack and adjectives that describe Annie.  Then we talked about who thought they were more like Jack, and who thought they were more like Annie.  Next, I read a few selected pages from the companion book, "Knights and Castles" from the fact checker series that accompanies many of the Magic Tree House.  Finally, we did a Venn Diagram comparing Facts about the Middle Ages with Fiction from the book.  We included facts we knew that weren't included in the book, facts that were in the book, and then talked about the fictional elements. I wrote this out on my white board- sitting and writing is not boy book club appropriate.  This whole section took about 10 minutes, and was really to set us up for our next activities.  In case you've been living under a rock, here's what a Venn Diagram looks like:
So, the plan now was for stations.  We had four sisters who came along for the ride, and I made them a group, and then we had eight boys.

Station 1- Headwear
For the boys, I planned helmets.  We used the idea from Layers of Learning, but modified it slightly in that we covered our milk jugs with aluminum foil and added feathers to the top.

It's all about the style, baby.

For the girls (because I didn't have enough milk jugs) we did foam and sparkle tiaras.  They liked it.

Station 2- 
You can turn popsicle sticks, rubber bands, plastic spoons, and marshmallows into deadly weapons.  Well, mostly deadly.  A short discussion about simple machines, a reminder of what we read in the section about weapons, and the boys were all set.  Directions were from Sturdy for Common Things.
 If you want to take it next-level, check out Storm the Castle's "How to Build a Catapult" section, which is epic.

Station 3- 
We made Book Club journals, which were just dollar store spiral notebooks that we glued in activity pages to.  We didn't do them at book club, we just made them. Sitting and doing worksheets is not what boy book club is about.  My plan is to have stickers next time so that I can give kids a "Passport Page" for each book they read. I used the same site as for the catapult directions for a word search and a crossword puzzle.

Station 4-
Snack time! I know I talked about turkey legs, but brain surgery has made me lazy.  My brilliant mother, who stopped at the store for me, came up with this:
GENIUS!! They've got crowns, horses, rooks, all kinds of knightly themed images, pressed right in!!

Station 5-
This was, after all, boy book club, so we had to finish it up with a sword fight.  Well, maybe we didn't have to, but why WOULDN'T we finish it up with a sword fight? I was actually rather concerned when my sons started getting all of their Nerf swords out so I could see if I needed to ask people to BYOS (bring your own sword).

We didn't.

It turns out there is a substantial amount of space in my home dedicated to foam weaponry.

So, that was it! Boys Book Club, meeting one.  I think everyone had a really great time, and I'm looking forward to our next book club, which will be a higher reading level book with a Renaissance theme- so look forward to a report on that, coming at the end of the month!

Guest Post: Prince William County’s Best Kept Secret for Weary Mommies

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Published: 10/03/2013

For those of you who feel like you’re hangin’ on by your fingernails…I hear you!!  Allow me to share with you my story of survival…

My husband has been out of town this week, so I’ve been doing my best to single parent our FOUR little girls 8 and under (one of whom is potty training…which FEELS like the equivalent of having newborn triplets in my humble opinion). 

Yesterday, after spending most of the day deep cleaning the summer crumbs and cobwebs (and feces) away, I could not fathomthe thought of my freshly sanitized kitchen being destroyed by another meal.  The kids were bouncing off the walls, I was starting to lose my cool, and things appeared to be heading south quick. 

Then I remembered.

It was Tuesday night.   

We drove north to exit 156 and as soon as the IKEA sign came into clear view, it was as though I was staring at the Statue of Liberty herself, bright torch held high to the evening sky.

"Give me your tired, your poor,
 Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”  The 
sonnet engraved at the base of her Lady Liberty started to ring in my ears.  “Send these…the tempest-tost to me..,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

You think I’m being melodramatic, but when I arrived at the IKEA cafeteria for Kids Eat Free night, it was as though I had stumbled upon a support group for Mothers of Small Children.  School House Rock played on the TV in the background while we introduced ourselves, talked about potty training survival tips, and tried to teach our toddlers not to steal each other’s chicken fingers and meatballs. One mom asked if I had ever come to IKEA twice on a Tuesday (free lunch and free dinner).  I said no, but noted it for future reference.

In between sips of Lingonberry juice we made new friends journeying through the same season of life and encouraged each other because God knows we need it.  And then we dropped off the delightful little souls in IKEA’s safe and wonderful play place, Smáland, where they frolicked in the magical “forest” after being firmly instructed/threatened to not have an accident in the ball pit (Children must be potty trained to go to Smáland).

So, next time you feel like you’ve reached your end and you’re not sure where to turn, just remember, IKEA will feed you ALL (You only have to pay for ONE adult meal!), and even watch your children for you (If you apply for an IKEA family card, children can stay in Smáland for one hour).  What a cup of cold water for those of us in the trenches.  

Thank you, IKEA, for preserving me and our posterity this Tuesday and for many Tuesdays to come. 

Annie Brogan Garman feels HIGHLY UNQUALIFIED in her role as a mother, but is willing to talk about it just in case it helps others who feel the same way.   She is a wife to Colby John and a mother to four gorgeous girls:  Haley Jane, Darcy Elaine, Gracie Kane, and Penelope Raine.  They all serve at Pillar Church in Northern Virginia ( where their husband/father just happens to be the Pastor.  If you don't mind her transparent writing (on everything from her inadequacies to plucking chin hairs) you can find her at  

Talking to Your Kids in a "Situation"

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Published: 06/30/2013
After I shared my story about having an Ependymoma (that's fancy-speak for brain tumor in my 4th ventricle), the most asked question was "how did you talk to your kids about this" or "how did your kids handle this" or "how did you get your kids through this"? I'm not an expert or a psychologist, so this is just our parenting, and you'll probably disagree or want to do it differently.


We have a 9 year old, a 7 year old, and a turned-5-the-week-after-my-surgery year old.  I think that the most important part about talking to your children in the face of a less than ideal situation is knowing them.  I am not a fan of the "Family Meeting" style of crisis address where everyone is put into a room and provided with a prepared speech and allowed to ask questions because I don't think that it's fair to each child's unique needs.  I do think, however, you need to tell each child within moments of each other and ensure that they know there's an ongoing open dialogue.

My 9 year old son has a tremendous need to see and understand everything.  We don't hide things from our children, although we do guide them through and try to listen to their needs.  He's always been very intuitive about how much information he needs, and he needs a lot more than my other two kids.  He retains information from everywhere, so it's important for us to talk to him and let him ask questions.  He wrote a whole list of questions for the neurosurgeon, and when we told him I was starting radiation, he wanted to know if I would get another tumor from the treatment- he remembered hearing that radiation could cause tumors after the nuclear fiasco in Japan.  It was important for us to listen to him to know how much information he had, and what exactly he was thinking.

That's another note, though.  While we knew up front that post-surgical radiation was likely, we didn't provide all the details at once.  Even though our 9 year old is savvy and intelligent and likes information, we gave him manageable pieces of information.  Dealing with an illness, or other crisis, is kind of like the proverbial "eating an elephant", and you need to do it one bite at a time.  Overwhelming even the most emotionally mature child with too much information just gives them too much, and they can't digest it or logically approach each piece.  We started with the information that there was an object in my brain that shouldn't be there, and the term he'd hear was "tumor", and that it needed to be removed.  We explained we had an excellent surgeon and that I'd be staying in the hospital for some time while I recovered.  We didn't make promises about a number of days or tell him the potential for things going wrong, because there were far too many.  We decided that once I woke up, my husband would be able to address those issues that actually mattered, like "mommy is slow when she speaks and very slow when she walks".  Also, I'm not going to lie, ending on a high note isn't a bad idea.  We followed the QandA with "bonus- you get to hang out with your awesome Uncle all day while mommy's at surgery", which I'm pretty sure made a big difference.  We believe in reflexive questions, and make sure that we don't over-provide information, but rather answer questions concisely and allow him to follow-up if he'd like additional details.

Our 7 year old, on the other hand, is incredibly sensitive.  He doesn't want information.  We've given him small bites of information and allowed him to ask questions to get more information, but he doesn't typically want to know.  He is the one who needed me to wear a hat or scarf to cover my scars while my stitches were still in and who would sweetly come into my room and confirm "You're going to be better one day, right?"  It was the only information he wanted, and all he needed to know.  We had to force some information on him, like some of the scarier terminology that he'd be hearing, and unfortunately I messed this up.  In trying not to push him too hard, I didn't realize how daft and insensitive other adults would be (and you can leave angry comments on that below- but it's nicer wording than I want to use).  People would take it upon themselves to come up and ask incredibly detailed and inappropriate questions about my health IN FRONT OF MY KIDS.  Just to clarify, that's a totally jerk move.  Asking "could she die during surgery" or "will she be able to talk and walk" or talking about "what's going to happen to the kids if she leaves to get treatment for six weeks, won't that be horrible for them?" is:
a) none of your business
b) wildly inappropriate, and
c) a totally jerkface move
especially when you're forcing a child to confront a truth again and again that they want to hide from.  Grown-up conversations are appropriate in grown-up only areas only.  I waited too long to force some of the terms on my 7 year old and ended up doing damage control.  One of the most important lessons I learned from him was to tell him that he had the right to tell anyone, even an adult or a teacher, anytime that he didn't want to talk about me being sick, and if they persisted, he was allowed to yell, kick, scream, and walk away without worrying about being rude or in trouble.

Our 5 year old turned 5 a week after my surgery.  We provided her with basic facts, the terms she might hear, and checked to see if she had questions.  She didn't.  Then we told her that she got to stay with her uncle the day of my surgery, that her favorite (and only!) Auntie was coming to visit while I was in the hospital, and that her BFF and her mom would be coming to visit, too.  Mommy having surgery became the most awesome thing in the world.  She still comes in to pet my head and tell me I'm her beautiful mommy "even if I'm bald".  I adore that :)

So, in conclusion:
1) Provide your children with the individualized amount of information that they need.  Don't make promises you can't keep when answering.
2) Make sure you introduce the vocabulary of your situation so that so that someone else doesn't do it for you
3) Keep checking in, asking if the kids have questions
4) Provide the information they need to get them through the current step of the process, don't make them try to process a situation that will take months (or years) in one conversation
5) Empower them to deal with others.  They are allowed and entitled to deal with the situation and their emotions in a way that is self-honoring, and if that means telling others to butt out, it's okay.  Let them know some safe people to talk with- they may not want to talk to a sick parent, or a second parent may be unavailable, especially if they're acting as caregiver.  Give them grandma's number on speed dial, a close family friend they're comfortable with, or a godparent who can step in confidently and deal with your child's insecurities or questions in the manner they need.

As a last note, I think that being mentally ready to talk to your kids is helpful, too.  It was important that we didn't just tell our kids not to panic, but that we actually were not panicking.  That meant getting to a place mentally where we were okay really quickly, and as I've mentioned before, our faith helped with that, but whatever you need to do to get there, it's important.  I realize this whole post probably makes me seem really far-out there in terms of my beliefs about kids, but I don't think kids are dumb, they know when you're actually okay and when you're lying to them.

At the end of the day, though, when you're faced with a really difficult situation with your children, whether it's a divorce, an illness, a death in the family, it's all about the continuing process of building trust between them and you.  You're going to do the best that you possibly can, and you're probably going to screw something up royally, too.  They will love you tomorrow.  You will love them, too.  Next time, you'll try not to screw up the same thing.  In the course of a lifetime, most of the crisis we face eventually smooth out to blips in the radar in retrospect, and if you can do your best in the moment, then that's a really good thing.

If you'd like to read some experts on this subject, not just my "Kids are intelligent individuals" rant, here's some suggestions for various "Situations" that you might encounter:
Talking to Kids About Cancer- The Dana Farber Institute
Straight Talk to Kids- NYU Cancer Institute
Talking to Kids About Death- National Institutes of Health
How to Help Your Child Grieve- Focus on the Family
Six Tips for Talking to Your Kids About Divorce- Psychology Today
Tips for Talking to Kids About Terminal Illness- Huffington Post

Guest Post: Free Things to Do With Little Ones In PWC

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Published: 06/14/2013
Free Things to Do With Little Ones In PWC

My oldest, Max, is 5 ½ now, but when he was about 1 we realized we REALLY had to tighten up our budget or else I wouldn’t be able to continue to stay home with him.  It really wasn’t much fun at all having to turn down adventures with other mom friends because it just wasn’t in the budget.  At that time,  I even had to make sure I didn’t use much gas because there wasn’t much for THAT in the budget either!  Anyway, I managed to find some things to do to get me out of the house as well as stick to our budget.  These might not be the kinds of things that get your heart racing with excitement as you picture your child’s  pure joy when you arrive at your destination, but trust me when I say that little ones have as much fun in these places as they do at some place like House of Bounce(which I loved and love, but can’t always afford). 

Chik-Fil-A:  My favorite is the one on Liberia in Manassas.  Max & I spent many mornings there in the  dead of winter or summer.  I would get a coffee and he’d play.  I couldn’t enjoy my coffee a lot since you can’t take food or drinks in the play place with you, but it was something other than our 4 walls.  And it was usually pretty quiet in the mornings.

Manassas Regional Airport:Always a fun thing to do!  I actually used to go over there before I had kids and just take a camping chair, a good book, a cup of coffee and read and watch the planes take off and land on pleasant-weather days.  WITH kids, we would go over and walk around outside the fence and just look at the parked planes & helicopters and if some were taking off and landing, all the more exciting!  They also have a museum in one of the buildings there.

The Mall:  I think Max was almost 2 or 3 before he realized that the ride-on toys at the mall served a purpose other than indoor playground equipment.  We’d go to Manassas Mall and he’d play on the ride-ons for a long time.  He was perfectly happy to do so, but once in a while, if I saw a dad or a grandparent, I could almost guarantee they were going to get schmoozed into paying for a ride and sometimes Max got the benefit of that on things like the carousal ride!  Most of us moms just claimed we didn’t have money to make the rides go.  Manassas & Potomac Mills have ride on toys.

Mall Play Area in Potomac Mills:  I’m so bummed this didn’t exist when I was in the stage of life I’m sharing here.  I would’ve gone there all the time!  Now Max is nearly too tall to go in, but it’s a great play area!  No shoes or coffee allowed (what’s with all these places not letting us get our coffee on??  I mean, REALLY!!  I know they could spill & make a mess, but still…..)

Prince William Forest Park: I can’t believe how many people I have run into who haven’t been here!  It’s so close and for just $5 per car per visit or $20 for a one year family pass, you get entry into the park and all it’s trails, including a stroller & wheelchair accessible trail AND it’s awesome playground!  If you’re military, you get in free.  This is one of our favorite places to go now - it’s almost always very quiet during the weekdays and we pretty much have the place to ourselves! Sometimes we hike to a creek and throw stones in for a while, other times we just play on the playground.  Last year I found that if you go during the week days in May & June, you might meet up with large groups of field-tripping kids.  They tend to head back to school around 1ish, so after that you’re golden!  They also have a quaint visitor’s center with a store and some displays.

Frying Pan Farm Park- This is actually a bit of a drive, it’s off of Route 28 in Fairfax.  However, they have great free programs in the spring & summer (get on their email list) and they have pigs, goats, cows and horses and there are often baby goats & pigs to be seen.  Again, if you get on their email list, they will let you know when new babies arrive.  They also have a farmers market during the week.  There is a playground, a country store, a wagon-ride tour of the property (last I checked it was $3 for adults and $2 for kids), and some kid-sized tractors for them to climb on.  Everything but the wagon ride and whatever you want from the store is free.

The Farm at Broad Run-  This place is a plant nursery, but they also have chickens, roosters, turkeys & donkeys you can walk around and view.  One area even has the feed dispensers where you can get a handful of feed for a quarter and feed it to the animals.  I like to walk around the whole place with the kids and then end up in the small store inside and buy a basket of organic berries and maybe pick up some grass-fed ground beef before leaving.  When we were there last time, they had about 14 baby chicks staying warm inside the store.  A torrential downpour began while we were inside, so we hung out eating our berries and playing with the chicks!  It is a hike from Eastern Prince William -  about 40ish minutes, but my kids love it more every time we go.

Sarah Meisenhelter is mom to two boys, ages 5 & 3 and resides in Montclair.  She has a passion for God, girls & women facing unexpected pregnancies and  natural living.  She blogs about these things over at

Get Outdoors with NoVA Outdoors

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Published: 04/12/2013

If you haven't heard about NoVA Outdoors, our area's finest blog for reviewing parks and playgrounds, you've been missing out!  You can expand the county list on the left sidebar to find a large number of parks in Northern Virginia and beyond.  Families love the honest reviews and pictures, so you can "know before you go."  

I got a chance to chat with Kamber Petty,  local mom and founder of NoVA Outdoors and asked her a couple of questions. 

Kamber Petty, NoVA Outdoors

What do you look for when reviewing parks and playgrounds?

When I'm reviewing parks I look for fun equipment for the kids to play on, restrooms for the potty training crowd and natural areas where the kids can walk the trails. Safety is always a concern so I look for parks that are kept up and if the equipment is in good shape.

Have you had any funny moments on any of your adventures. 
One of the many funny moments I've had over the past two years while reviewing parks was with my oldest Cooper. Cooper was 3 years old at the time and I asked him what he thought of the park we were at. I'll never forget, he put his hands on hips and in a very serious voice he told me he was concerned there were no swings for his baby brother Max. From that day on every time we get in the car after a park visit he lets me know what he likes about the park and what was missing.

Although the website boasts many, many reviews.  Here are some that are specific to towns in Prince William County. Click on the town to read the reviews. 

Article written by Micaela WIlliamson, author of Kid Trips Northern Virginia Edition

Ode to a Brain Tumor

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Published: 03/28/2013
**Fair Warning: While I typically try to stay neutral with you guys, I can't tell this story without sufficient mention of God, grace, and humility.  It would be a lie.  It's my best attempt at toning it down for you, though.  Take it or leave it :)  Many of you have asked about what happened/is happening, so here's as condensed of a version as I can manage.

Hello, my name is Kristina, and I had/have a brain tumor.  It's complicated.  Let's back up.

After jogging slowly in the Cherry Blossom 10 Miler last April, I was feeling pretty awesome.  While I wasn't fast (just ask my amazing friend Stacey who power walked next to me) I had worked hard to get to 10 miles! I felt healthy and awesome! Then, I started having the occasional headache.  By the time we went to the beach in June, I couldn't lay on my stomach because it caused head pain.  By July, waking up every morning felt like hitting a brick wall.  By the middle of July I was at the local ER in the middle of the night because I thought I was having an aneurism.  I had three kids without any pain meds, and I was crying on the floor- clearly I was either having an aneurism or a stroke.  The doctors told me that I was having a migraine, and it sounded like they were chronic for me.  They gave me some different medications and told me I'd need to figure out what worked for me.

The pain was increasingly difficult to deal with, but I tried.  I tried no caffeine, no spicy foods, more sleep, over the counter, massage, chiropractic care, essential oils, nothing helped.  Christmas Eve I walked out of service in tears because the pain was overwhelming.  The first week of January, I was helping my son brush his teeth to prepare for hockey, and I passed out.

Don't worry, we're saving for therapy.

I spent the next week in agony in bed.  My mother was, thankfully, out of school (she's at Mason, and I am so proud of her!) for winter break still and came to take over school for my children.  The following week, a new neurologist was able to see me.  Her name is Sheila Myers, and she's with Manassas Neurology Associates.  She took a great deal of time examining me and listening to me.  It was the first time I felt like someone was really taking me seriously.  Based on some family history, she decided to rule out a blood clot as a precaution, and Prince William Hospital was able to fit me in for an MRI the following week.

As much as it drives you nuts when your doctor makes you wait for test results, you don't want them to call back within the hour.

We gave ourselves 24 hours to totally freak out, and then I decided that the whole idea of what I was being told was happening was entirely too much for me to carry, and I was going to let God do it for me.  I reject the idea that God would give anyone an illness to "teach" them anything, but I believe He'll walk through it with you.  So that's what I did.  My level of calm and lack of tears freaked out more than a few doctors :)

The next week I was at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital meeting with Dr. Vikram Nayar.  He ended up admitting me for a few days (this is when I first told you guys I'd be out of commission with no details).  We were there for 3 days and I had my first 2 hour full spine full brain MRI with contrast.  It was horrible.  I had NPR on for 2 hours talking about Hilary Clinton making another presidential run.  My brain is a red state.  ;)

Here's a high-tech iphone photo of what they found.  All that white-looking stuff around my brain stem (near the middle around neck-height) was tumor.  On Thursday we had a second opinion at Johns Hopkins.  I'd prayed really hard for discernment about a surgeon and while JHU is an amazing facility, for us the whole appointment was not at all what we wanted.  My husband even left his laptop in Baltimore and had to go back for it after we'd driven home! We felt very confident about our choice of surgeon, even more than we had walking out of Georgetown after the admission.

The next Wednesday, February 6, I had sixteen (that's 16) hours of brain surgery to remove a tumor the size of a citrus fruit from my 4th ventricle, C1, C2, and around my brain stem.  So many things could have gone wrong or been impacted, and while I walk slowly and still feel wobbly and have a few other minor (in the grand scheme of things) complaints, I walked out of the hospital eight (that's 8) days later.  Well, they tell me it was eight, I spent the first several in the ICU on some incredible narcotic pain killers.  From the amazing women who came to pray and sing hymns with me the night before my surgery to the people who volunteered to pray in 15 minute increments all day long on the day of my surgery, to say that I was covered in prayer is an understatement, and to say those prayers were answered in great and powerful ways is completely inadequate, but it's the best I've got. Dr. Nayar is also completely awesome, I won't detract from his skill level, either!

 (To the left is me with hair- somebody got a nice wig, I hope!)

Oh, and, I donated my hair! I've always wanted to, and keeping a sideways mohawk (they needed a drain in the front and the incision up the back) seemed silly.  A huge thank-you to the wonderful people at Statements Salon in Lake Ridge whose manager came out to my house (because if I was going to cry I didn't want to do it in front of everyone) and mailed my donation off to Locks of Love for me, too.  (Not because I said I'd give them a shout-out, just because they were nice people.  I don't think they know who I am from Adam)

For the record, I cried at the prayer meeting that came right before the haircut, but I didn't cry about the hair.  I am so glad that someone else will benefit from my "crisis". For the record, if you've never had hair short enough to sugar scrub your head, you are seriously missing out.

So, where are we now? Well, I am incredibly blessed.  We have had so much help and love and support, and it's completely humbling.  People we don't even know have brought meals.  Friends and family have come in from out of town to help with children and hold our hands.  We've had access to absolutely the best possible care we could have EVER asked for.  However, recovery has been humbling in other ways, too, such as the fact that walking to the end of the block is now a struggle, or that one of my exercises at Physical Therapy is "sit down in the chair, stand up, repeat". I am slow and unable to be the mom I want to be right now, but thanks to the amazing people that God has placed in our lives, my children are happy and well-loved. 

My type of tumor is called an Ependymoma.  It's common in children, but very rare in adults, especially adults in my age group.  I had a complete and total removal of all the visible tumor, but there is a very high probability the tumor will return in a few years without radiation treatments.  Even then, it's fairly common for them to come back in 7-10 years.  However, with oncology research the way it is, progressing rapidly, buying 7-10 years means access to better treatments if it comes back.  So, next is radiation, the major side effect of which is incredible exhaustion.  We're opting to go to Duke's Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center, which was not an easy choice, but is, again, a discerned and correct one.

I would never have asked for this, but going through it, I wouldn't take it back, either.  Taking a very clear look at your life can be a great way to realize you don't regret things (like staying home with your kids) that you have questioned in the past.  I see now so many little and big things that made us uniquely prepared for this situation, that show me that God prepared us for it- from having our children at a young age (spinal radiation was on the table, which would have left me infertile) to choosing to raise our family in an area that gave us access to incredibly doctors, to my Physical Therapist baby brother having a certification in working with patients undergoing radiation and chemotherapy, my life is covered in fingerprints of a bigger plan at work.  Sometimes I've felt like I don't matter, and being surrounded by people willing to go out of their way to help my family makes me feel like a piece of a greater community.

I even learned that my husband loves me way more than Edward loves Bella.  I learned that for a fact. Without one complaint or gripe or call for recognition, the man has coordinated my care, interviewed my doctors, and advocated for me when I was too weak or too drugged to do it myself. Even though I was balder than him for a few weeks ;)

So....I feel like there should be a point here. If I had to sum up I would say:
1- Listen to your body, and don't be afraid to question a diagnosis that seems dismissive or wrong.
2- You matter to so many more people than you know.
3- Even in a really horrible situation, there are so many ways to see how blessed you are.

(Disclaimer: this is not medical advice.  I named my doctors because so many of you have asked, but you should make your own medical decisions based on your own instincts, research, and condition, not mine) 

Guest Post: Better to Give than Receive: Kids' Birthday Party Presents

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Published: 02/28/2013

We love giving special presents to our friends...even to friends that we don't know very well.  Whenever my children are invited to a birthday party, we take time to think about the child and like to get something unique.  However, the past few birthday parties that we have gone to, we never even saw the child open the present!  We end up leaving it in some bin.  If we're lucky, we will get a generic card in the mail saying "Thank you for coming to my party."  There is NO mention of our specific gift.
I remember my grandmother complaining about such a party years ago.  She was invited to a  child's birthday, and there was no present opening.  She didn't even receive a thank you card, and that is a huge no-no in her book.  At the time, I didn't even have a child, but I vowed to her that I would never to do this.  She would be proud to know that two children and twelve birthday parties later, I have kept my word!

My children open EVERY PRESENT they receive from friends at their birthday parties (except gifts from people that are not in attendance.)  I don't care if other children are bored and don't like sitting around.  We have small parties anyway, and the whole process takes 10 minutes.  Everyone will receive a PERSONALIZED thank you card within a week (okay...maybe 2 weeks tops.)

I realize that some people invite the whole class to their birthday party, or they are paying for playtime at a fun kids' place.  If I had a 90 minute party for my child at a bouncy place, I would want the time to be spent playing or jumping too, but I would never send a generic thank you card.  I wouldn't subject my guests to sitting through 25 gifts being open, but I also do not want/need 25 new toys in my house.  (Another reason I like to keep the parties small.)

What do you think?  Am I out of line?  Do you feel like you pay so much for your child's birthday party that a generic thank you card is enough, or do you forgo thank you cards all together?

Image credit:  © Mschalke | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

Thanks to Micaela Williamson, AKA SuperNovaMommy for this fantastic guest post.  If you're on the Fairfax border, be sure to check out Micaela's fantastic site for even more great events to keep you and your family active and happy in Northern Virginia. You can also find SuperNovaMommy on Facebook

Let's Talk Community

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Published: 01/12/2013
Hello Loves of My Life,

All several thousand of you.

Listen, you guys are awesome.  Totally and completely awesome.  And, numerous! You're so very numerous.  Your collective knowledge is so much more vast than my individual knowledge could ever possibly be.  However, I have a lot of people who know to come here to find things.  That means, we should totally team up.

As an example, I'm like peanut butter.  Good, all on its own.  However, together, we could be like chocolate plus peanut butter....

Yum.  So much better than peanut butter alone!

Oh, you have a peanut allergy? about this:

Look, we're like Peas and Carrots!  Amazing!

So, let's talk about the new blog line up that I'm going to be rolling out in February and how you can totally get in on it.

1) Kristina! I totally love to go places! And write about stuff!
Hello, new BFF! I want you to write stuff about places!  Went to the playground? Tell us about it and send a picture! Checked out a library event? I want to know, and so does everyone else! We're all nosy! Tried a business I haven't been to? Let's share with the class! Available to go check stuff out (or always wanted to go somewhere but would looove to go for free?) email me a proposal and I'll help you set it up!! I'll include a link to your website, blog, or business if you'd like, too! Especially if you have kids younger (babies and toddlers) or older (tweens and teens) than me, I'd love to hear about where you go, what you like, and what you do! I can't take my kids to baby story times or classes anymore, so share with other moms about things you try (good or bad!) it's a huge community service!  Plus, you know you want to be internet-famous! It looks awesome in one of those holiday brag letters! Use this space! It's free! 

2) Kristina! I totally love to write about mommy-related stuff and/or kids!!  And rant about things! 
I'd love to feature you as a guest blogger, which I'm hoping to have happen every Thursday. That's the day I teach at our homeschool co-op, and having a guest blog to go up makes my life so much easier!  This is a great way to get exposure for your own website, and I like to share!Use this space! It's free! 

3) Kristina! I totally hate to write, but I looooove to take pictures! Of everything!
Send me your pictures!! I want to get you guys more invovled in interacting with the site, and I'm going to be starting a "Wordless Wednesday" where I feature a photographer, momtographer, or somebody who got lucky with an iPhone! Your picture can be of a local place, landmark, scene, your kids, whatever you want! Just email it to me with a title for your picture or a brief (sentence or less) caption.  Want a link with that? Sure! Have your own blog? You'll be able to link your picture up with the picture I select to feature each week! Start sending them now, because I want to get a few weeks ahead of myself! Use this space! It's free! 

4) Kristina!! I totally own/volunteer at/love a non-profit! I want to get in on Featured Organization Friday! 
Oh my gosh, thanks for remembering! I love to feature non-profits of ANY kind that are family friendly.  Send me your organization's profile in whatever format you'd like that you think will get you noticed by our readers, and we'll plug you in for a Friday.  I WANT TO HAVE AN ORGANIZATION EVERY FRIDAY!! We have so many great organizations and groups in our community, so having this space vacant breaks my heart! Use this space! It's free! 

5) Kristina!! I am hoping to be A Big Deal on Pinterest! Can I share a recipe or craft and have you share my Pinterest Board so people will follow me? 
Heck yeah you can! I love crafts and food ideas, lets do this! Own a crafty business and want a link to your business page instead of your Pinterest? That's good, too.  Use this space! It's free! 

6) Kristina!! I have some other AWESOME idea that I think will be AWESOME for some AWESOME reason!
Email me, peeps! I love hearing from you (well, when you're not mad) and I'm sure we can make it work!

Marisa Tomei's Hair. For Real.

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Published: 01/04/2013
Tonight I went with my mom and her BFF (who's in visiting from Colorado) to see "Parental Guidance".  It was cute with a few funny moments, and definitely a good message about tolerance in parents and grandparents who do things differently.  I can see grandmothers liking it way more than moms like me, who are hearing the message, but not really interested in "buying what they're selling".

I mean, it was cute, but I'm not calling up "the other grandparents" to come stay for a week in the hopes that a black eye, fight with the speech therapist, and cake will result in happy family.

What I really want to talk about, though, is Marisa Tomei's hair. She's a gorgeous lady, don't get me wrong.  In "Rescue Me" her hair is fantastic, and her red carpet curls are definitely enviable.

This shot of her is from DesktopWallpaper.Net, if you want to have her stare at you every time you log in to your laptop.  I'm not here to judge.  My wallpaper is my husband and kids sticking their tongues out at me, so Marisa Tomei would probably be an improvement.

Anyway.  In this movie, they cast Marisa Tomei as a working mom of three kids who is the typical movie mom.  Fantastic wardrobe, amazing body, size 0 designer jeans and then someone must've taken a look at her and said "Wait.  We need to make her more approachable and believable as a mom.  Take away her hairbrush."

I don't really know why it bothered me so much, but it drove me nuts!! In every scene of the movie, the woman looks like she got up, put on her fantastic wardrobe, and then looked in the mirror and was like "eh, the hair is where I draw the line."

What's the message here? No matter how hard we try, we moms always look disheveled? That even the moms who seem to have it all together always forget something? Don't get me wrong, I know moms come in all shapes and sizes and appearances, but the fact that the hair person on set made a conscious choice to make her hair look like that really got under my skin!

I guess most things Hollywood says about moms frustrate me.  Don't even get me started about "Couples Retreat".  That's right ladies, keep those bodies looking amazing for your beer-bellied husbands, because all that matters is that he keeps a trophy wife.


Do you feel pressured by the TV/Movie versions of what a mom should be, or do you just ignore the hype?

Sandy Hook School Reflections

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Published: 12/17/2012
A few of you have emailed me about ways to "explain" Friday's tragedy to your children.  I emailed those people back, and was going to let this go, but I received a few more emails today about it as people sent their children to school and figured they would hear more about it while they were there, so here are some of my thoughts.  Again, I'm not a therapist, these are just my approaches.

 I've worked in Children's Ministry and studied philosophy and religion, and if you can explain Friday's tragedy, please let me know because there's a nobel peace prize with your name on it.  There are no explanations, in my mind, that could ever explain why someone would slaughter sweet children as they sat in their classrooms.  There is no possible reason that could ever explain why this happened that would satisfy me.  Mental illness? Possibly, but even then, why wasn't the shooter getting help? Why wasn't he on medication? Why wasn't it working? There is an endless string of questions as to why.

In conclusion, if you're looking for an explanation, all I can do is offer you that from my background, we believe that we live in a fallen world, and because of that, evil things happen.  There are concepts in most Western faiths that involve the idea that part of our purpose is to help repair the damage that evil does.  Even though I'm Christian, I like the Jewish idea of Tikkun Olam, or that we have a requirement to heal the world through social justice and societal awareness, but your belief system will surely have some answers for you.

Practically speaking, whatever your religion or lack thereof, you can help your child to know that they can continue to move forward.  I am a huge believer in reflexive questioning with my kids, so I am not offering information about Sandy Hook to my youngest daughter.  When my older two boys ask me about it, I start by asking them what they know, and ensuring that I understand what they are asking me.  There is no need to force too much information on a child who isn't seeking it, in my opinion.  For example, when my six year old asked me what happened at the school in Connecticut (thanks to the NFL for that one) I asked him what he knew, and he told me "something bad".  I told him yes, that it was something bad, and that people were working to make sure it never happened again.  That was enough information for him.  When my nine year old asked the same question and got the same response, he wanted to know if anyone died, and when I told him yes, he wanted to know how many people.  A few hours later, he had put together in his mind that people died at a school and asked me the terrifying question of whether or not children had died, too.

With my own children, I am emphasizing the following:

1) They are surrounded by people who love them and want to keep them safe.  Parents, teachers, counselors, coaches, babysitters, daycare providers, all of them want to help them to thrive and be safe in whatever setting they interact with them.

2)  When bad things happen, we are able to learn about how to prevent them from happening again, and people are responding to this crisis with legislation, increased police presence, and increased vigilance about school policies.

3) Part of our faith is to respond to evil with goodness, and we can come up with practical ways to help the families in Newton. I think that developing a reaction plan helps children to feel like they are not small and helpless in the wake of what is making many adults, myself included, feel small and helpless. If nothing else, there's a national sympathy card you can sign online.

4) This isn't really an emphasis, but if you haven't already, TURN OFF THE TV.  Over the next several days there will be more revealed about the order of the shootings, funerals for children, and I'm sure they'll dig up whatever reasons the killer listed as his causes.  Just turn it off.  Remember that "breaking news" can pre-empt your child's TV show at any time.  If you "need" TV, go with DVDs for a few days.

5) Validate that it's okay to feel whatever your child is feeling about this. Let them know they can talk to you, to their teacher, and to the school counselor about any concerns or misgivings.

6) My kids don't go to school, but if they did, I would make a point of starting a conversation this afternoon asking if they heard anything at school they want to talk about.  Different families will have provided their children with different levels of information, and much like a game of telephone, your child will have a mish-mash of fact and fiction to sort through in their head.  Also, find out what the response is at your child's school by asking the office if the teachers/counseling staff are addressing the issue, and what types of increased security, if any, your child will be seeing today.  There may be a letter going home (there frequently is after a major occurrence the school needs to react to) so be sure to check the bottom of your child's backpack where they've crumpled it up for you.

If you need additional ideas or information, the following resources could help.  I've collected these from facebook, and don't necessarily endorse them, just sharing so you have as much info as possible:
Dealing with Crisis, from Save the Children
Talking About School Shooting, from Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters
Am I Safe?, Time Magazine
Talking to Children About Disasters, American Academy of Pediatrics
Restoring a Sense of Safety After a Mass Shooting, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology

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