Monday, November 26, 2012

Still Learning to Cook

You'd think that after about 10 years of marriage, I'd learn how to cook. Nope, not even close! I mean, I've come a long way since Chris and I first moved in together. Back then my specialty was salads and pasta (plain or with a sauce out of a jar). Now I can get an entire Thanksgiving dinner ready without much flipping out. And it'll be delicious as long as I have a good recipe to go by (yeah, I'm shacking my finger at you, Paula "One-Stick-of-Butter" Dean; your cornbread stuffing was a #fail).

And that's exactly the problem - the recipes. I can make just about anything given a recipe. But without one, I can't even make a Russian staple, fried potatoes with mushrooms. Ok, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit, but just a bit. The bottom line is I CAN'T COOK WITHOUT RECIPES.

But this is about to change, I'm telling you! I'm working my way (very slowly) through Tim Ferriss' new book "The 4-Hour Chef". So far I'm loving it. I've just started reading about specific dishes and am yet to try the first one, but my cooking seems to have improved already. Like, we're still dealing with the left-over turkey. So last night I made spaghetti with turkey marinara (what would be a fancy name for this dish?). It was absolutely delicious, both Chris and M requested seconds and thirds.

Today I turned even more leftover turkey into a shepherd's pie. Again, delicious, and I almost didn't need a recipe for this one (I did use Alton Brown's recipe, but only as an inspiration and to know the proper oven temperature).

The nice thing is that so far, not counting the cost of the 4-Hour Chef book itself, it hasn't cost me a penny more to cook better food. But things are about to change as I'm approaching the first how-to of the book - Osso Bucco.

Sunday, November 25, 2012


Lately M's been very busy building islands. I forgot how it all started, but next thing I knew he build the first island - just a few stones with a couple of angry birds stranded on top of one.

Then shortly after Chris got back, M decided to build a Family Island. So he got out all the stones he collected during our list trip to NY, added some tree rounds, pine cones, tree bark to the mix, and put up a lighthouse and a windmill and populated the island with as many toy animals that would fit on it.

Almost immediately he decided to build a larger island for more animals and with plenty of room for the boats to dock. He also decided that his two collectible angry birds will swim to the island in a shell boat. 

Then came the island of Every Kind of Animal and Astronauts and Aliens Island.

After the flamboyancy of the Every Kind of Animal island came the minimalist and uninhabited Three Bridges Island...

... which didn't stay uninhabited for too long .

 Check out the awesome bat on top of the lighthouse! And the penguin isn't bad either.
 Then a TIE-fighter landed...
 And the island became deserted once again.
 LEGO mini-figs were the late-comers, but they quickly got rid of all the non-essentials, installed a lawn for sunbathing and running around...
 ... and built a rocket launch pad.
Last I've heard, the TIE-fighter left the Dark Side and instead joined the mini-figs in their space exploration quest.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Homeschool Catch-up Post

Yes, we are still homeschooling. And no, we aren't planning to change it just yet. So lots of things are going on in our little school and lots of new stuff. The big news is that I'm now teaching M English reading. Phonics sounded too crazy for me, so instead I settled on a book called "Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons" and I absolutely love it (so far).

We've done just over 30 lessons and M reads! He reads words, sentences and even short stories. And he understands what he reads without relying on a picture. Besides, his reading is very smooth and he blends the sounds well (better than he does in Russian, actually). This book is so simple to use! It provides very clear step-by-step instructions for parents and there's like no prep time for the lessons.

I'm also greatly relieved that with the DISTAR method used in the book we don't need to worry about sight words. One of the reasons I wanted to homeschool was to avoid just this type of rote learning ever-present in alphabet songs, rote counting to ten and back and sight words.

I was a bit worried that starting English with him would interfere with his Russian reading especially since his progress was so uncertain. So far it doesn't look as if it does. There were a few times that he mixed up Russian and English sounds. But I realized that if I teach English first, then - math, then a longish (an hour or so) break before teaching Russian, it helped. Another thing that helped was reminding M which language we were practicing reading.

One of the totally unexpected things about introducing English reading was that it actually helped M blend sounds better when reading Russian. Now he almost never reads individual letters, but instead the entire syllables which makes for much faster reading and better comprehension.

Last time I was in NY, I picked up this reading workbook at the Russian store. It's for kids ages 5-6 and M is finding it pretty easy (we end up skipping some of the easier exercises). But the book cover says that it's for "gifted children". Hmm... maybe they are playing to the parents' vanity. I don't let this get to my head. For now we practice lots of two- and three-syllable words and play games that work on fluency and actually reading a word vs guessing it.

And, of course, we also do math. I set aside the RightStart book for now. He was doing very well with geometry, but not so good with number facts past 7. So I decided to back up a bit, work on very basic stuff, like adding by 1, number facts to 5, etc. It's a bit frustrating for sure. Especially since if I replace numbers with any other symbols, he gets it and adds and subtracts without any difficulty.

At the same time, M's been intensely interested in very big numbers - a million, a billion and a trillion. He keeps asking me to re-read the "How Much Is a Million" to him. But more about this one some other time.

Apart from the homeschool, he's been busy at his Jr First Lego League and also at home building vehicles and Star Wars scenes with Legos, making islands, helping Chris in the yard and playing with friends.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Epic Climb

On Day 2 of our stay in NE, Chris got it into his head to climb a tree in Grandma's backyard. I guess, raking leaves was getting to be too boring. Fortunately, I was there to take pictures of his fit of strength.

"Not sure what got into me, but I can totally do it! Totally!"
"It ain't nothing. I work out!"
 "Hey babe, check this out! Told ya I could do it!"
 "Crap, this is pretty high to jump down from"
 "No worries, I'll figure something out. Will try climbing down the other side"
 "Hmm, the other side is also pretty high... Ok, gotta go back the same way, I guess"
 "If this was yoga, this would've been a Panda-asana."
 "It'd suck to fall and break a leg. Should I tuck and roll?"
"The Eagle has landed!"

Nebraska in November

Let me tell you one thing about going to Nebraska - it's a LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONG drive! How long? Well, let's put it this way - at some point half through the drive, M voluntarily gave me the iPad back saying that he had enough of it. So you can imagine what the second half of the drive was like in terms of the frequency of the "Are we there yet" and "I'm bored!" sentences.

To be fair, M didn't just play on an iPad all the time (I wouldn't let it happen no matter how many "Are we there yet" he threw at me). He spent a lot of time drawing too. On the way there it was mostly Star Wars stuff. But on the way back it was all about dinosaurs, dinosaur bones and him and his friends digging up dinosaurs. And he took lots and lots of pictures of Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Iowa... all looking pretty much the same.

The highlight of the trip there (for me) was seeing a trailer hauling a wind turbine blade. The thing is unbelievably huge and absolutely beautiful, especially up close.

M loves taking pictures. He's careful enough that I trust him with my cheapie camera. He doesn't know how to navigate through the menus or, say, turn the flash or the macro options on and off. And sometimes his hands shake so much that the pictures come out impossibly blurry. But other times he takes great pictures! The best part is he is not at all afraid to find just the perfect spot for the picture, even if it means crawling under furniture or climbing up on the kitchen table. And he rarely takes "a picture of everything", preferring to focus on just one or two elements at a time. The downside is he takes A LOT of pictures. I mean, hundreds. Which makes my job of sorting through them that much longer.

But I digress... By the end of the drive to Lincoln, M was so sick of being on the road and so bored, that he kept saying how he wasn't going to be nice to Nebraska and how he was going to not like it and kick it. And how he wasn't going to talk to anyone in Nebraska.

And then we got to Grandma Phyllis's house and parked the car and M looked around and said "And you dragged me here for this?!" But then two things happened. One was M got to go out into the yard and play in a huge pile of leaves. And then he got to eat spaghetti for dinner. Well, actually there was a third thing - M got to see, touch and pretend-call a friend on a very old telephone that was hanging on the wall downstairs right above a huge old wooden trunk (M's dream possession). All this was just too great to stay mad. So M cheered up and even conceded that "Nebraska was turning out to be better than he thought".

Then the next day M got introduced to American football as we spent the afternoon with Chris's family watching the game on a humongous TV, the biggest TV M has ever seen. At first he was bored with the whole thing. After all, we don't have a TV set at home and he's not used to watching anything, not even cartoons, much. Plus he's never seen American football before. But by the end of the evening he said he understood what the game was all about and liked it. And the next day he came over to me and asked me to switch the TV channel to a game.

Honestly, I don't care much about football. Yeah, it's an American thing and all and maybe I should learn a bit more about the game. But it seems pretty boring even compared to soccer (which I don't care much for either). Still, I must say that I had a great time at Aunt Sharon and Uncle Sam's house spending time with the family. Too bad we had to leave kinda early 'cause M was so tired that he actually kept asking to go to bed (another first).

Over the next two days we didn't do much. One day we went to this little museum on the U of N campus. It was terrific. We were in luck 'cause they had some kind of Science Sunday event with all the fun activities for kids. The best one, IMHO and according to M, was the one about making edible scat (that's animal poop, in case you don't know). I always knew Tootsie Rolls were good for something.

M was absolutely in love with the place. And that was just after looking at mastodons and dinosaurs and trilobites on the first floor (and making edible poop). Then we got to the second floor where they have a great collection of rocks and minerals. Oh, boy!!! I think if M could stay there overnight, he would had. He was all teary-eyed when we had to leave 'cause the place was closing for the day. The next day he kept asking to go back.

But instead we went to the zoo in Omaha. And we spent pretty much the whole entire day there. I love that zoo. Except I never get to see it when the weather is warm. Seriously, I've been there 3 times - in the winter, in late fall and in early spring. And each time it was cold and miserable. So I haven't seen the entire zoo, not yet anyway. But what I've seen is really terrific. And M seems to agree, mostly.

The very first place he wanted to see was, of course, the Desert Dome. It's the most visible structure as you drive up to the zoo and it looks so cool too! At first M wanted to see and take pictures of everything there - the cacti, the birds, the "cave paintings", the snakes, the meerkats and so forth. But after about 20 minutes or so he started to get overwhelmed and was ready to move on.

And so we braved the cold and wet weather and went to see the big cats (tigers were having lunch of what looked like chopped steak), the orangutans, the gorillas and the giraffes. Of all these, M seemed to be most interested in gorillas mostly because they had a baby gorilla who kept trying to annoy the daddy gorilla. Plus in the same structure there were displayed skeletons of various primates for comparison. M spent quite some time in front of them, discussing the difference between human and gorilla skeletons.

Then we went to the aquarium. And that was pretty much it. Once we got inside, M did not want to leave. He just wanted to look at everything over and over and over. And when he got to the end of the aquarium, he wanted to start the tour all over again. He tried taking pictures, but that was tricky because of the lighting. So he asked me to do it and kept pointing to hundreds of fish and corals and anemones, asking to photograph them all. Apparently he had this idea that once home, we'll print all those pictures, cut out all the fish, etc, glue them to blue paper and we'll have our own aquarium.

After we took pictures of every fish in the aquarium... twice, we all went to eat at a cafe in the Lied Jungle pavilion. It's definitely the best place to eat at the zoo. The food is actually good and not at all expensive. And you can get a table with a great view of the family of monkeys. That's exactly what we did. It was great, watching Mama Monkey, Papa Monkey and their two kids. Except M got it into his head to act like those baby monkeys for the rest of the day which was funny only for the first 10 minutes or so.

We then tried going through the Jungle pavilion which is my favorite place at the zoo. Except M was dead-set on going back to the Aquarium. So after just 2 minutes in the jungle he asked мама, ты уже наджунглилась? And after another 5 minutes or so he started the "Are we there (at the exit) yet?". Which turned the whole thing into an exercise in parental restraint. So we turned around and went back to the aquarium... and, of course, to the gift shop.

On the way back from the zoo I noticed a sign for the Strategic Air and Space Museum. But I kept quiet because it was already around 4pm (and the museum closes at 5pm). Pitty. But maybe next time. Besides, they do not allow kids under 48" tall on their multi-axis trainer rides and M would'd been pretty unhappy. He tried this ride back in NY and loved it. I finally found a video of it.

And the next day it was time to drive back to NC. Another two-day drive, grrr. This time it was especially long for some reason. Missouri seemed absolutely endless! But then, late in the evening on the second day we finally got home. As Dorothy would've said "There's no place like home!"

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Home for Halloween

Home for Halloween... For a whole year this was my standard response to M's endless questions about when would Chris get back "from the Army". And whadda ya know! He did get home just a few days before the Halloween! (Ok, so it was fairly easy to predict since Chris left last year right before Halloween, but still, things happen and we didn't know the exact date until the very last moment).

Once we knew the exact date, we had just about enough time to rent a car, get M into his astronaut costume  and drive to Greensboro airport. Why astronaut costume, you ask? Well, first M said that since Papa was going to be wearing his Army uniform, it's only fair that M would wear his astronaut uniform as well. Once we got to Greensboro, M saw that some of the families there had Welcome Home signs. So he said "See, Mama, I'm wearing this spacesuit and Papa will see me right away, better than if I had a sign". Which was definitely true.

So Chris was home in time for going to a pumpkin patch and taking M trick-or-treating on Halloween night (that was something M was REALLY looking forward to for months).

The pumpkin patch we all went to was new to us and it just might be the best one around here. It has so much stuff - animals, a giant slide, an air pillow (also giant), hay to jump in, hay to slide off of, hay rides, a little castle thingy to run around, a train, and a ton of other things.

It was a very cold day though and we didn't stay for too long. Just long enough to do the most fun things and to pick pumpkins.

Chris and M then carved one of the pumpkins before going trick-o-treating. This year M actually helped to scoop the seeds out. You see, last year he absolutely refused to get his hands into the pumpkin or touch the "gobly-goop" inside. But this year he came up with this idea of creating a mitten out of a Ziploc bag.

And then, the day after Halloween we left for Nebraska, to see Chris's family. But that's another story.