Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Million Tiny Pieces

This Christmas, I realized a universal relationship that I hadn’t noticed before: the smaller the child, the larger the Christmas present. For example, Santa brought my 2-year-old daughter a toy kitchen that is approximately the size of my own kitchen, and a Barbie house that is larger than my first apartment (and contains significantly more furniture). My 21-year-old stepdaughter, on the other hand, received gift cards (approximate dimensions: 2” x 3” x 0.005”).

I also realized another universal relationship: the larger the toy, the smaller the pieces. And the more numerous. My two young children received a combined total of roughly 27 Christmas gifts. Those 27 gifts contained a combined total of approximately 7,953,246 individual pieces, the majority of which measure less than 1 cm in any dimension. Within any one square foot of my home at any given moment, I am likely to find 4 pieces of plastic fruit, 37 Legos, 23 Duplo blocks, 7 fireman or policeman figurines, 4 miscellaneous Barbie-related items, 14 erector set components, a minimum of 2 wheeled vehicles of varying size, and 3 magnets shaped like either articles of clothing or construction vehicles.

Please don’t get me wrong; I’m not upset that anyone gave these gifts to my children (the majority of them were either purchased or suggested by myself and my husband). It’s not like anyone in my family hates us enough to have given the kids, say, a drum set or a ride-on fire engine with functioning siren. And I love that my children love playing with these toys so much that they’re always out and scattered around. But I never realized how much longer it takes to clean up the contents of a 12” x 6” x 2” box containing 2,000 individual items (for example, a Lego building set) than it does to clean up the contents of a 12” x 6” x 2” box containing five individual items (for example, a Barbie doll wearing a bikini and high heels).

But what I also realize about toys containing a zillion components is that, much like cars and computers, they carry with them a kind of planned obsolescence. At least once a day, I step on and crush a Lego item which I must then discard. Several times since Christmas Day some pink plastic item from Barbie’s house has gone permanently astray for whatever reason. Various items have already succumbed to irreparable chewing damage. By my calculations, at this attrition rate, 83.6% of the toys my children received for Christmas will be gone by the time next Christmas rolls around. And since my children will be that much bigger, their toys should be proportionately smaller, so the annual net increase in toy volume will be only around 11.8%.

At that rate, by the time their toy collections increase enough that we need to move to a bigger house, my son will be ready to enter college and we can turn his room into a toy storage shed. Either that, or my husband and I will just move into his room. I figure he’ll have some really fun toys by that point.

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Thursday, December 5, 2013

Happy Dance

Kids who are too young to have the words to describe their emotions somehow have little difficulty expressing themselves. They don’t need words; they have their bodies. When you see a small child stamping her feet, there is no doubt that she is expressing frustration. When a little boy throws himself down and punches the ground with his fists, he is clearly angry. And when children spin around exuberantly, wriggling their entire bodies in sheer ecstasy, everyone around is perfectly aware of their happiness. Their joyful dance reminds me of a happy puppy. After all, puppies are perhaps the most perfect example of expressing emotion physically. What does a puppy do when it’s happy? It wags its tail so hard that its entire body follows suit. It wriggles joyfully. It prances and jumps and races back and forth. And small children do the same thing.

There are different degrees of physical happiness, of course. At meal times, my daughter often performs something our family refers to as the “Happy Tummy Dance.” It involves raising her arms in the air and shrugging her shoulders alternately. A particularly exuberant Happy Tummy Dance might include wriggling back and forth in her seat as well (this is more common when dessert is involved). A scrunched up nose is also occasionally part of the choreography, as is a head bob. My son, when happy or excited, tends to perform a full-body version of the Happy Puppy Wriggle: he races around the room, pausing only to stamp his feet rhythmically, wiggle his hips, punch the air, and even spin on the floor like a break dancer.

But beyond merely expressing emotion, I find that these physical expressions of happiness (and of sadness and anger, for that matter) tend to inspire that emotion. When I’m feeling a bit down and I join my kids in doing one of their happy dances, I immediately feel more cheerful. (More silly, but also more cheerful.) If I’m eating a rather boring lunch and I stop to do the Happy Tummy Dance with my kids, suddenly my lunch becomes more exciting and interesting. If my kids seem to be bored and listless, convincing them to take a few minutes to do a crazy happy dance instantly puts them in a better mood.

So the next time you’re fighting off the blues, take a moment to do a little Happy Puppy Wriggle. Toss your hair, throw up some jazz hands, shake your salsa hips, tap your toes, pirouette down the hall. And if anyone gives you the fish eye, grab them and get them to join in. I bet you’ll both walk away from that encounter with a smile on your face. Although you probably won’t walk. You’ll skip.

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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Oh, Stuff It!!

Growing up, my favorite part of Christmas was opening my stocking. My mom was the world’s best stocking stuffer. Every year, my sister and I would get some kind of funny desk toy, cool band-aids, a CD or cassette (yes, I’m that old), a bunch of cheap earrings, gourmet hot chocolate or tea, a new toothbrush and our preferred brand of toothpaste, funny socks, crossword puzzle books, and an assortment of other random things that she collected over the course of the entire year. Although I can only aspire to my mom’s stocking greatness, I do have ten good suggestions for cool and unusual stocking stuffers for recipients of all ages – and all under 20 bucks.

Handmade Flavored Marshmallows

For a mere $7.95, you can get a whole box of handmade marshmallows in flavors like peppermint, bourbon, Guiness, s’mores, and more, from

Robotic Crab
This cute little robot will entertain and impress your office mates and your kids. It huddles quietly in dark places and scuttles away when the light is turned on; it scoots away from loud noises; it can even maneuver around obstacles thanks to sensors in its legs. And it can be yours (or someone else’s) for the bargain price of only $16.95, from

Funky Bottle Opener
The Drinking Buddy Bottle Opener adds a bit of whimsy to your bar or kitchen. And it has the added benefit of being made of shiny, festive chrome and will look adorable peeking out of the top of a stocking on Christmas morning. $10 from

I Mustache You to Close the Bag
At 4 bucks a pop, you can hardly NOT put these mustache chip clips in someone’s stocking. They’re funny AND practical; from

Connectable Drinking Straws

For only $9.99, you get two dozen clear straws in two lengths plus 20 various-shaped flexible connectors in your choice of colors. Who wouldn’t love seeing a collection of these in their Christmas stocking, whether they’ll be using them to drink chocolate milk or spiked eggnog? From

Magnetic Einstein Dress-up Doll

A modern version of the paper dolls you played with as a kid, Al comes with 28 different articles of clothing and accessories so you can dress up him in everything from a spacesuit to a tuxedo. $15 from

Bacon Band-Aids

Band-aids that look like bacon. Do I need to say more? Okay: “Free Toy Inside.” $7.94 from ‘Nough said.

Ninja Cookie Cutters
Ninjas are awesome. Cookies are awesome. Put them together and what have you got? A double dose of awesomeness from for $9.97.

Christmas Lollipops

A stocking isn’t a stocking without some special treats. This lollipop trio includes Santa, a penguin, and a reindeer with light-festooned antlers, each made of rice krispy treats and covered in rich chocolate frosting. They’re from so you know they’re worth every penny of that $19.95 price tag.

Oinking Pig Slingshot
Giving new meaning to the phrase, “When pigs fly,” you can send this bug-eyed piggy flying with a surprised “oink.” I’d recommend giving one to every member of the family, because doesn’t flying pig wars on Christmas morning sound like a blast? And for $6.23 from, you can afford a whole styful of oinking piggies.

And if these ideas don’t inspire you, try scoping around on the various tagged websites – these are only a few examples of the fun, creative, and inexpensive gifts that are out there!!

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Monday, December 2, 2013

How to Decorate the Tree, Martha Stewart Style

When I was a kid, decorating the Christmas tree consisted of winding a string of lights around the (real) tree, randomly tossing a hodge-podge of ornaments on, then throwing wads of tinsel at it. And it was pretty. I mean, it’s a Christmas tree covered in lights, ornaments, and tinsel; how bad could it be? But as an adult, I’ve learned that there are ways to get that Martha Stewart polish that really don’t take much effort.

So at the risk of sounding a bit snooty and know-it-all, I am passing along the lessons I have learned over the years. Feel free to take my advice or not; I’m sure your tree will be lovely no matter how you decorate it.

Lights Go on the Inside


When I was first married, my husband and I disagreed on the white vs. colored lights issue. He won, mostly because I had enough colored lights for a 3-foot tree and he had enough white lights for a 7-foot tree. (Honestly, he had enough lights for half a dozen 7-foot trees.) But what I learned from him about Christmas tree lights more than made up for losing that battle. He taught me the trick of burying the lights deep in the branches of the tree rather than simply wrapping them around at the tips. It takes a lot more time and requires a lot more lights, but the results give a depth of illumination that sets off the ornaments and gives the tree a beautiful glow that seems to come from deep within.
If you opt for a pre-lit artificial tree, as we recently did, be sure to get one with lights buried deep inside the branches. It’s well worth the extra cost.

Little on the Top, Big on the Bottom

No matter what type of Christmas ornaments you use, be it strictly glass balls or everything from kids’ creations to German blown-glass figurines, make sure they aren’t all the same size. Decorating a tree with similarly-sized ornaments all over makes it look disproportionate and top-heavy. If you already have a collection of various sizes, be sure to put the smallest ones at the top and the largest ones at the bottom. Like the magically growing Christmas tree in the Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker, this creates an optical illusion that makes your tree seem bigger than it really is.

This trick works best if you have similar types of ornaments in different sizes. For example, we use glass icicles all over our tree, and we have three sets: tiny, medium, and large. The tiniest ones dangle off the top branches, the largest nearly brush the floor at the bottom, and the medium ones fill out the middle. Ditto for our collection of various-sized snowflakes. The easiest type of ornament to do this with is the standard glass balls, which are available in many sizes. But if you have an eclectic collection of styles and shapes of ornaments, just put the smallest at the top and let them grow in size as you move toward the bottom.

Fill the Empty Space, Not the Empty Branch


This is a trap that is very easy to fall into, especially with a real tree. You see an empty space so you hang an ornament on the branch right in the middle of that space. But unless that ornament is a feather, it’s going to weigh the branch down and hang lower than where you put it. So fill spaces by hanging an ornament above the gap, let it settle, then see if it’s still in the right place. Heavier ornaments, obviously, will dangle lower than light ones; be sure to compensate for this. With an artificial tree, you can often bend the branches to tweak the ornament into exactly the right place; it’s a bit pickier with a real tree. Hanging the heavier ornaments first then filling in with lighter ones can make this technique easier.

Let ‘Em Dangle


Most ornaments are designed to dangle from a hook or loop of wire or thread; the crucial word being “dangle.” An ornament that’s resting awkwardly against a branch or hanging crooked because it’s bumping into something doesn’t look as nice as one that’s hanging freely. Adjust the placement of dangling ornaments so they aren’t propped against anything else. This is especially important for long or large ornaments, or anything with vertical lines. And it will allow glass and shiny ornaments to move slightly, making the tree's lights seem to twinkle warmly.

Don’t Overdo It



Finally, don’t pack on so many ornaments that you can hardly see the tree. This can be a hard rule to follow – I know it is for me! Every year we add another ornament or two to our collection, and it breaks my heart to not use any of them. But who says ornaments can only go on trees? I hang a few on the evergreen wreath inside the front door; you can make a nest of small ornaments around the base of a candle; tuck a few in a bowl of candy kisses; put them on an advent wreath; or strew them among some greenery on the mantel.

But however you decorate your Christmas tree, following these rules or not, it will be beautiful. Like babies and brides, Christmas trees are always beautiful by definition.

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