Celebrating Chinese New Year

With Haddon joining our family, we knew the importance of incorporating his Chinese culture into our family. We do this in a lot of little ways—with the foods we cook, the books we read, the news we pay attention to, the songs we listen to and the places we go, to name a few.

Of course, we started celebrating Chinese New Year.

Last year, we put up a few banners we had purchased in China and ordered takeout from our favorite Chinese restaurant in Milwaukee.

This year we upped our game a little bit. I read up a bit more on the traditions and their meaning (a lot of polytheistic folk religion) and we planned things out a little better. I know our celebration is but a shadow of how Chinese families celebrate, but we are an American family with mixed cultural heritage, including Chinese, and so this is our American Chinese New Year.

On the front door I hung our large Chinese knot. We hung the festive banners we brought back from China in the kitchen.

This past weekend, we hosted a little Chinese New Year play date with two other families with children adopted from China. One of the moms is from Hong Kong, so she led us in making about 150 dumplings. I lost track of how many dumplings Haddon ate, but it was a lot, and he hasn’t stopped asking about them since. Good thing I have a bunch in the freezer and now feel confident that I could make them again on my own.

For the play date, I printed out some Chinese New Year coloring pages for the kids. They kept my kids entertained in the ensuing days as well. I also let them practice using chop sticks by seeing if they could transfer almonds, M&Ms and popcorn kernels from one bowl to another.

I displayed our collection of Chinese books (some from the library) by the fireplace for the kids to peruse. “Emma’s American Chinese New Year” is a particularly good one for us since it’s about a little girl adopted from China (although the slant rhyming in it drives me crazy).

The kids made red paper lanterns and I hung those in our kitchen.

On Chinese New Year’s Eve (the night most families celebrate), we picked up Chinese food and had my sister and her family over for dinner. The kids wore traditional qipao outfits we had purchased in a variety of sizes when we were in China. Basically it was just a regular rousing dinner with family, with kids screaming and running in every direction.

Before bed, I gave the kids lucky money in red envelopes—$2 each. Even numbers except the number four are good luck, and the price of a candy bar is supposed to be an appropriate amount. I wouldn’t pay $2 for a candy bar, but wanted to keep it even (also, really each adult is supposed to individually give each kid lucky money).

Two things I forgot about but had wanted to do—give the kids Mandarin oranges and do sparklers or party poppers. There’s always next year.

This weekend we’re planning on checking out a community Chinese New Year event at our local high school.

And that’s that! It’s been a fun week so far celebrating Chinese traditions and ringing in the Year of the Pig.

Berenstain Bears Halloween costumes

We did another full-fledged family costume this year for Halloween. Last year it was Jake and the Neverland Pirates. This year: Berenstain Bears (yes, that’s how it’s always been spelled).


Corban discovered the Bear family thanks to the extensive collection of books my parents have from when I was a kid, and these past few months we have been compelled to read multiple Berenstain Bears books a day. You can’t get away with shortcuts with Corban either—he notices if you skip so much as a sentence.

This is a good thing, though: good moral lessons, childhood reminiscence, enjoyable storylines. Naturally, Corban draws connections between the Bear family and our own family of four. He is Brother Bear, Mara is Sister Bear.

So despite a new Star Wars obsession that has them plotting next year’s costumes already, they were excited to dress up as the Bear family for Halloween.

You can’t just go out and buy a Berenstain Bears costume (I looked and came up empty), so we had to get a little bit creative.

Thankfully, I came across this Etsy shop, which sells handmade embroidered Berenstain Bears masks. They only come in kids sizes, so they looked slightly off on Peter and me, but they were perfect for the kids. Without these masks the costumes would have been really obscure, especially since the Berenstain Bears are not normal-looking bears.

Brother Bear was the easiest: blue sweatpants and a red long-sleeve polo (found at Old Navy).


Papa Bear was simple, too: Overalls and a yellow plaid shirt.

My original plan for Mama Bear was to buy a blue nightgown and paint white polka dots onto it, but upon realizing how expensive even the most basic long-sleeve nightgowns and dresses are (at least the ones that I could find), my mom offered to sew me a dress. She has years of sewing experience and has made many Halloween costumes throughout my life, and I’m grateful for her expertise and eagerness to help! She used blue polka-dot fleece fabric and modified a basic dress pattern, adding a white collar.

Sister Bear was my project. For her shirt, I just used fabric paint to paint pink polka dots onto an old long-sleeve shirt of Corban’s. I could have bought a pair of regular pink overalls, but Sister’s overalls are slightly different—they have scalloped straps and a straight line across the front and back (no bib). So after hunting around unsuccessfully, I got inspired by something I saw on how to turn an old pair of jeans into shorts overalls.


I bought two pairs of pink fleece sweatpants (thank you, Walmart) and went to town. First, I cut two rectangles out of one leg of one of the pairs of pants in order to bring the waistline up to nearly chest-height. I sewed those two pieces together then sewed them to the waist of the other pair of pants.




No hemming needed with fleece; yay!

For the straps, I put the newly modified pants on Mara, measured the length the straps should be and cut a scalloped pattern out of poster board.


I took the other extra pant leg and cut along the seams to create two long rectangles of fabric. I folded each long rectangle in half lengthwise and cut the scalloped line out of the open side. Then I pinned the edges to prepare to sew them:


I carefully sewed along the scalloped edge.


Then I turned them inside out and ironed them flat (in the photo below, the top strap shows it before being turned inside out and the bottom one after).


I sewed the front of the straps to the front of the pants, and my mom sewed snaps onto the inside of the back straps and back of the pants. The snaps ended up being unnecessary, though; Mara just pulled the straps up over her arms. I did end up pinning the shoulders of her shirt to the straps so they wouldn’t fall down (thanks to the double layers of fleece, you couldn’t see the pins).


Oh, and the kids were super excited to wear these gorilla feet slippers we spotted at Walmart. They look enough like bear feet, I guess. They weren’t the easiest to walk in while trick-or-treating, though.

I also concocted some furry gloves for all of us by sewing some felt pieces to cheap cotton gloves to make it look like fur was coming out of our sleeves. If I were to do that again I would have hot-glued the felt…my quick hand-sewing job didn’t really hold up. Mara also refused to wear them, so there’s that.

It was a fun Halloween weekend: costumed play date party Friday morning, adult party Friday night (my solo Mama Bear costume isn’t quite as cute without the rest of the fam…), pumpkin carving and trick-or-treating Sunday and a Halloween party for the kids at our gym this morning.


Hard to believe we are entering November already!

Past years’ Halloween costumes: Pirate/Tinkerbell (2015) | Peter Rabbit/bumble bee (2014) | mouse/cat (2013) | lobster (2012)

Happier at Home: Marriage

Recall that last month I started reading “Happier at Home” by Gretchen Rubin, the sequel to her bestseller, “The Happiness Project.” Here’s where you can read my initial thoughts on the book and the overall concept.

October was focused on marriage. Gretchen’s mini resolutions to help intentionally bring some extra happiness to her marriage were to kiss in the morning and at night, give gold stars, make the positive argument and take driving lessons. Kind of an odd assortment, and I can’t really remember what the driving lessons had to do with marriage, but instead of rehashing the chapter let’s just skip to my thoughts.

Marriage is hard.

It’s also wonderful, beautiful, fun and absolutely worthwhile. But it’s not easy.

To be honest, I read this chapter quickly at the beginning of the month, and then promptly forgot about it until the end. I wish I hadn’t. I actually think October started off as a particularly challenging month for our marriage, not for any specific reasons, but just because. It probably would have been made easier had I put into action some of the things Gretchen did during her October. But instead, I took the easier-in-the-short-term route and didn’t hold back any of my complaints, criticisms or sarcasm from Peter whenever the mood struck. That never brings happiness.

Kiss in the morning, kiss at night

Gretchen suggests that routines and rituals are important to adults as well as children, and kissing can be a simple, yet effective, ritual to add intimacy and joy to your day. Since day one (or night one) of our marriage, I’ve made sure that I get a goodnight kiss from Peter. Even if we’re both half asleep, I still lean over for a peck. It’s one daily ritual we never, ever skip – a small gesture, but it ensures we end our days on a good note. Any ritual that involves affection is bound to bring an extra bit of happiness into your life.

Give gold stars

In short, giving gold stars can be anything you do to serve your spouse – texting a cute picture of the kids while he’s at work, being accommodating, focusing your attention on him when he’s speaking, thanking him, etc. This can, at times, go against everything I’m naturally inclined to do. It can be painful. But it’s right and good, and because it doesn’t always come naturally, I know I need to work on it. To have a loving, happy relationship, you need to take the first steps to be loving. Even harder than giving gold stars is holding back “black marks,” as Gretchen calls them. Sarcastic comments. Eye rolling. So difficult to refrain from at times! I don’t think I did my best at being intentional about giving gold stars or holding back black marks this month, and that’s probably why the beginning of the month wasn’t the greatest our relationship has ever been.

Make the positive argument

Toward the end of the month, I think I subconsciously started to put “make the positive argument” into effect. The idea is that you can find evidence to support both sides of opposing claims, depending on which you choose to embrace. Whenever Gretchen heard a voice in her head making a negative claim about her husband, she would reverse it and look for evidence of the opposite (“Jamie isn’t very thoughtful” became “Jamie is very thoughtful,” and – surprise – she was able to come up with thoughtful behavior to support it instead of dwelling on the negative). When I intentionally think about the things I love about Peter instead of dwelling on the things that bug me about him, it makes me happy. It also makes it easier to be kind and cheerful when we’re together. Pretty simple, but it’s amazing how I can fall in love all over again just by dwelling on the positive.

Take driving lessons

Gretchen got over her intense fear of driving in this chapter, and somehow it related to marriage. Doesn’t entirely connect with me, but I did willingly drive almost the entire way back from St. Louis in mid-October, while using every ounce of strength to stay awake at the wheel. That probably fits more in the gold star category though.

As I grow older, I’ve become more and more aware of my innate inability to be a “good” person. This is good in the sense that I realize just how much grace I need. But sometimes it causes me to want to just give up. Looking back on this chapter reminded me that although I will never be perfect, my efforts are not futile. Putting forth work can still reap benefits and work is necessary to have a happy marriage.

November’s theme is parenthood. Should be interesting to see how much applies to parenting a baby!

Happier at Home: Possessions

I picked up a copy of Gretchen Rubin’s new book, “Happier at Home,” from work last month (our books editor gets sent lots of books to review, and some of the rejects end up on the “up-for-grabs” counter, as I like to call it). I haven’t read her book that skyrocketed her onto the New York Times bestseller list, “The Happiness Project,” but I was vaguely familiar with the concept behind it – intentionally making small changes in your life that overall add up to more happiness. It sure sounds like an interesting experiment, right?

So I opened up “Happier at Home” and started reading. It’s the same concept as “The Happiness Project,” only focused on home life rather than life in general, I suppose. The book is divided into chapters by month – each month Gretchen focuses on a different aspect of the home and sets several goals or changes to make to see if they result in more happiness. Lest you write this off as navel-gazing, I should note that Rubin does an excellent job of incorporating research in with her anecdotes and personal feelings, so it reads as more than a diary. At least so far – I’m only one chapter in, ha.

Conveniently, the book starts with September, the beginning of the school year – oh yeah, and the month the book was released. Before this starts to sound like a book review of a book I’m only one chapter into, I’m sure you can see where this is headed. Seeing as it was September, and I love a good personal challenge, I decided to maybe, kind of, sort of go along for the ride with Gretchen and partake in some of her goals each month.

Now, before I continue, let me get one thing out of the way: I’m not entirely comfortable with her use of the word “happiness.” From what I’ve gathered so far, her philosophy is that happiness is a thing to be pursued daily, and that pursuit is, a lot of the time, in the small details of everyday life. I totally agree that it’s the little things each day that determine a lot of my mood and enjoyment of life. But I believe that true happiness is something that comes from above. No matter how hard I try to achieve happiness on my own, I’m still broken and in desperate need of a savior. I can have all the little details of my life nailed down and be miserable without God’s mercy. On the other hand, I can live in chaos and physical despair, but have peace in my heart because of His love. (Side note: what a comfort that my hope is found in something much greater than this world!)

So essentially, I think if Rubin is searching for true happiness, or even a mere glimpse of it, she’s looking in the wrong places. But if we’re just talking about improving quality of life, as long as the activities of this pursuit don’t become idols – that is, essential to your happiness – then I think this project can be useful.

That’s the tough part though. It’s a fine line. John Calvin wrote: “Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” We’re so naturally inclined to put anything and everything before God that I struggle with whether any sort of “happiness project” that doesn’t involve God is right. There’s no black and white answer.

That being said (wow, this post got a lot deeper than I originally intended! Funny how that happens when you stop to really think about what you’re thinking about), I’m going to treat this book as good motivation to focus a little more on some things that can help make my life easier and more pleasant, and be aware that in and of itself, this project will not lead to true happiness.

OK, so back to September…

Rubin’s first month’s topic is possessions. An interesting place to start, right? Possessions can bring much joy, but they also can weigh you down. I’m not going to go into too much detail on the chapter, but the three resolutions Gretchen set were cultivate a shrine, go shelf by shelf and read the manual.

Cultivate a shrine: Rubin said her goal was to “transform areas of my apartment into places of super-engagement.” She did this through tasks like swapping out photos in frames, displaying meaningful mementos and reorganizing her workspace.

My take: I am just awful at printing and displaying photos. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ve gone years at times with frames displaying the generic black and white photos they came with. In fact, I’m staring at a giant, empty collage frame I bought for like $10 on Black Friday, um… three years ago? Maybe four. Oops. So, while the collage frame escaped my newfound motivation to just put some darn photos in the frames (I guess it’s just become a natural part of the scenery in here, so I didn’t even notice it. Pathetic.), I was inspired to make use of some empty frames on my desk and fill them with a few nice, recent-ish photos. Now I can gaze up at friends and family while I’m browsing the Internet. How lovely, and long overdue. I still have some progress to make in other rooms, but this little photo frame task has made a worthy impact on the pleasantness of sitting at my desk at home.

One source of stress I’ve noticed in my life surrounds my morning routine. When my closet and bathroom are messy and disorganized, I get frustrated while trying to get ready for the day. So this month I “cultivated a shrine” in my closet and bathroom (that just doesn’t sound right!) This move was actually inspired by my mom and sister, who both recently created very shrine-like closets for themselves, but it fits right in with this chapter of the book. I’ll save the details for a separate post, but I made a few simple changes that dramatically impact the overall agreeability of my morning routine.

In thinking about this idea of making your favorite areas in your home really comfortable, I also came up with a plan for our sunroom, which is a lovely space that doesn’t get used to its full potential. It’s the perfect spot to relax with a book (something I wish I did more of) so why don’t we keep our books in there and turn it into a mini library? I’ll keep you posted on how this plays out.

Go shelf by shelf: Gretchen had some useful tips for clearing out and reorganizing her house. Things like: clean as you go, abandon a project that you know you won’t finish, buy what you need and clear surfaces. I liked her recognition of the difference between something that wasn’t used and something that was useless. It’s OK to keep something for purely sentimental reasons. Just don’t keep everything!

My take: Gretchen has way more time than I do to actually go shelf by shelf, but I did make a tiny bit of progress. I purged our shoe closet of flip flops I hadn’t worn in years. I cleared several piles of junk off my desk (you can see the surface again!) Throughout the month I continuously added clothes and objects to half a dozen bags I plan to donate (now to just take them to Goodwill…) I recycled old boxes I had been saving and got rid of or filed a bunch of papers. These were all small steps, but any little dent helps in keeping your possessions from overtaking your home, and even a little bit of clutter-clearing gives me a sense of satisfaction.

Read the manual: Funny how just taking a few minutes to properly learn how something works can make life so much easier. I can’t think of any specific examples of how I put this to work last month, but it’s a good piece of advice to bear in mind.

I feel like I could stay quite busy concentrating on these September goals for the rest of year, but alas, it is October, and this month’s topic is marriage. Yikes. I’ll write another recap at the end of the month. Care to join me? Grab a copy of the book and let me know your thoughts!

Goals for 2012

I know, I know. We’re already 1/12th of the way through 2012 and I’m just now getting around to writing about new year’s resolutions?

I did set a few realistic goals for myself at the beginning of the year, and have been following through successfully on some of them (which I will share at the end of this post), but there’s one goal that I’ve only been kinda-sorta-not really achieving. And after reading this commitment from Sarah, I realize I need to renew my devotion to this goal.

Reading God’s word. I’ve never been good at doing this regularly. I can’t use the excuse of not having time, because I read many other things – blogs, books, emails, news – so there is indeed time for reading in my daily schedule. Unfortunately it comes down to lack of desire, which pains me to admit, but is evidenced by my decision day after day to spend time reading the aforementioned before reading the Bible. I know that’s no excuse either, but I believe my lackadaisical feelings toward reading scripture can and will change if I just make it a habit, as Sarah said she aims to do over the next 30 days.

My goal at the beginning of the year was to spend 15 minutes a day reading scripture or a devotional or other teaching literature. Just 15 minutes. So simple. (I wanted to set myself up for success, not failure, and you have to start somewhere.) I haven’t completely neglected this intention, but I haven’t been as consistent as I should. I realize now, a month into the year, that a big part of my inconsistency is that I haven’t been setting aside a specific block of time each day. I also haven’t been holding myself accountable.

So here I am, publicly recommitting to spend at least 15 minutes each day reading scripture. My schedule with Corban can be all over the place in the mornings, so I think my devoted time will be easiest to schedule in right after I put him to bed each night.

My other goals for this year are:

  • Work out at least 3 times each week (100% success so far this year!)
  • Read 20 books (this is the third year in a row I’ve set this goal and I’ve always fallen short by only a few books. I’m determined to meet it this year, and I’m already halfway through my fourth book.)
  • Run a half-marathon (I would love to run another full marathon, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to commit to that kind of training this year)
  • Eat dinner as a family at least 3 times a week (this goal is currently on the back burner until we get on a more predictable schedule with C, but we do make an effort when possible to eat together)
  • Be more present and stop to appreciate the now (this is an immeasurable goal, but I really feel like it’s made a difference in my stress level and overall joy each day)

Last year I set goals that were way too ambitious and I ended up not meeting them, but I think this year’s are definitely realistic. I am also okay with focusing more on certain goals one month and others the next. In January my focus was on fitting in my three weekly workouts, and February’s big push will be daily scripture reading. The hope is that after a month, these ambitions will become habits.

Did you set new year’s resolutions? How are they going so far? If you’d like to join Sarah and me in our 30-day commitments, I’d be thrilled 🙂