Mudroom / Craft Room Renovation

First, can I just say that I really love our house? When I think back to the agony of our long-distance house-hunt, I vaguely remember thinking that it would be amazing to have a mudroom, even just a tiny hallway that could serve as one, but I don’t think that I ever believed that it was likely enough to make it to our formal “wish list.” We were incredibly lucky to find this place, and one of the rooms that has held a lot of promise but mostly felt like a disappointment for the last two years is what the previous owners called the breezeway (despite the fact that it’s a fully indoor, four-seasons room). It’s a remarkably large breezeway, at 10′ x 18′, and I believe the previous owners used it as an office. It connects the garage to the rest of the house, with doors to both the great room and the kitchen.

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Halloween 2019: Space Men & a Mermaid

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Halloween was yesterday and today I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on some of the quirky and challenging things that make me me. In particular the things that come out in high-stakes situations that I value deeply. It’s no secret that I love Halloween. It’s second only to Christmas (and when I was a child it might have actually been first). My mom poured love into every homemade costume, my dad took us trick-or-treating from block to block until late into the night (it always felt like 9:00 or 10:00 p.m. but maybe times have changed? Or maybe 8:00 feels a lot like 10:00 at the end of October when you’re a kid).  Continue reading

Hitting the creativity wall

For the last week or so I’ve felt like I was ahead of Halloween in a way that felt good. We baked cookies, I bought a few decorations (because for some reason we’ve never had any, and that suddenly felt like a problem I needed to address), I started playing the kids’ Halloween playlist on the way to school on Friday, and I was making what felt like great progress on Vivi’s costume and had a solid plan for the boys. Then tonight I realized that I needed to rip out a seam and move some things, and when I stitched the skirt together one side seemed totally off and I couldn’t figure out how to put in the elastic, so I decided to put it aside and start on Jonah’s costume, only to discover that I bought the wrong color duct tape. Suddenly I was overcome by a wave of panic and felt my confidence slipping away. Continue reading

Vegetable gardening for beginners

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When Jonah and I went to the greenhouse a month or so ago to buy plants for the pots on our patio, I decided to pick up some tomato plants as well. For a year or so I’ve been interested in starting a small vegetable garden. They have one at the kids’ preschool and the twins eat cherry tomatoes off of the plants like they’re candy, and the other day Vivi came home from school with a small carrot in a dixie cup full of muddy water and could hardly wait to eat it. I thought that it would be rewarding to share the process of growing your own food with the kids and, if I’m being honest, it probably fulfills a small piece of my desire to raise the kids on a screen-free Montana homestead. Continue reading

Learning to love nature and passing it on

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It’s finally, finally becoming beautiful in Michigan. Last week we had a couple of rain storms and, while things were already beginning to show signs of life, everything in the yard seemed to wake up almost overnight. Our new bike trailer arrived last Monday, and I’d been eyeing the forecast all week long and had big hopes for a perfect weekend outdoors. Ever since we uncovered the patio furniture a couple of weeks ago I’ve been wanting to plant things in all of my mom’s hand-me-down pots, the farmers’ market opened for the season this weekend, and I was eager to get the bikes out. I had a moment towards the end of the week when I wondered if feeling this excited for the weekend was setting myself up for the possibility of disappointment, but I didn’t know how to feel otherwise so I let the feeling pass. Continue reading

Learning to sew

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I may have mentioned before that my parents bought me a sewing machine for Christmas. Every Halloween I call on my mom to bring hers over and handle the non-cardboard-and-hot-glue portions of the costumes, and while I believe that she really loves spending that time crafting with me, she also knew that it would be worthwhile (and fun) for me to learn how to do it myself.  Continue reading

Another Halloween in the books: Robots and Moana

It’s November 1st and I’m feeling a little bit sad because Kristin just left to spend four days in New York (the first time I’ve been with the kids alone for more than one night) and my parents are heading for Charleston for the winter first thing tomorrow morning. It feels a bit lonely, and then there’s always that slight twinge of sadness that comes after a big holiday for me. I can find things to get excited about many different times of year, but as Kristin said recently, October through December is kind of my jam.

I love Halloween; we’ve established that already, and this year I decided way back in the spring that I wanted to make robot costumes for the kids. They were really into this great show called Annedroids and I thought that it would be a really fun costume project. The first weekend of October Jonah and I went shopping for supplies, I started collecting boxes of specific sizes, and I started spray painting in the garage (which I knew would just remind me of the frustration of this project, but I just kept telling myself that the stakes were lower this time).

Almost as soon as I had the boxes painted, Vivienne announced, “I don’t like robots anymore. I like Moana now.” Despite having a killer robot voice that was part of my inspiration in the first place, she wanted to be her new idol, Moana, and was having none of this robot business. At first I thought that maybe I’d just buy her a cheap Moana costume and let her wear it to school and tell her that she still had to trick-or-treat as a robot, but the more I considered my options the less I liked that. I asked my mom (the queen of whipping things together without a map) if she thought we could make a decent Moana costume, and having only seen a single image of the character she said, “That looks easy enough.” My mom is always such a shining reminder that one way or another it will all work out, and I need that kind of energy in my life, especially when I’m DIYing.

I went to the fabric store one afternoon on my lunch hour on a mission to find the perfect fabrics. I was really pleased with what I found (after talking myself down from a $21/yard fabric that was more than a two-year-old needed for Halloween), and my mom came over that night to get started.

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Meanwhile, in robot-land, I was searching for the perfect lights to make pretend buttons. I ordered these way in advance, and thank goodness I did because they took roughly a month to ship from Azerbaijan (literally) which I didn’t realize when I bought them. They turned out to be kind of cool though, so I’m glad we included them. Most of the lights, however, were these because they blinked which added a really fun element. The tricky part was that the only way to turn them on and off was to squeeze them from both sides, which meant that I couldn’t really affix them to the boxes in a permanent way. I ended up making a control panel out of a shoebox lid and zip tying only the top of it to the rest of the costume so that I could easily flip it up to turn them on. I zip tied the bottom of each light to the back of the control panel and cut holes the size of a Sacagawea dollar for each one.

A friend suggested that we ought to try to work fidget spinners into the costumes as well, which was a brilliant suggestion. They had crappy ones at the dollar store, and my dad helped by drilling a hole into the center of each one and fitting them with screws so that when affixed to the costumes, they would still spin. This was a huge hit while trick-or-treating; lots of big kids wanted to spin the spinners.

I also made each of the robots a set of rocket boosters with felt flames coming out, because why not? I saw it on Pinterest while searching for ideas and it seemed worth the extra effort. The boys were totally into it.

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Late in the project I decided that Jonah ought to have a full robot head. Jude didn’t want a head covering of any kind, which was for the best anyway because I didn’t trust him not to trip and fall while trick-or-treating in the dark. I ended up just getting Jude a set of silver ball deelie boppers (that’s what we called them growing up, but I’m guessing that’s not universal?), and I think they made him look extra adorable. Jonah wanted a slinky on his robot head, so we added that along with a red light and cut out a couple of holes so that he could see and breathe easily and covered them with window screen. We ended up not attaching the head to the rest of the costume because most of the time it rested on the larger box anyway, but it also allowed him to take it off when he felt like he needed a break. I put some 2″ window A/C foam inside the box to make it fit a bit better.

For the boys’ arms and legs we used dryer vent tubing and bought the lightest weight stuff we could find (more like aluminum foil than sharp metal, but both types exist so go to the hardware store and feel it first). I zip tied the arms to the body box and made a set of suspenders out of elastic for the legs (attached to zip tie loops). Walking was a bit of a challenge, but honestly they did great once they got the hang of it (and we did a lot of hand-holding just to be sure).

Back to Moana – I didn’t feel like a midriff-baring shirt was acceptable for a two-year-old, so my mom designed a top based on another summer shirt of Vivi’s. She layered and trimmed the skirt fabric I bought to make a wrap skirt that went nicely around a cheap 12″ grass skirt I found on Amazon. We also bought the necklace on Amazon (because I suspect that making our own would have cost a lot more) and she’s worn it pretty much every day for the past three weeks, so I think we’ve gotten our money’s worth. I bought a few cowrie shells at a bead shop and we sewed them around the neckline. I bought some tropical-looking flowers at the dollar store and hot glued one onto a barrette that we already had, and I think that it made a lovely final touch.

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When Vivi finally got to wear this to preschool she was probably the proudest I’ve ever seen her. Throughout the month of October we’ve been hearing from her teacher that some days she’ll only respond to the name Moana. Preschool was also the only place we let her wear this without pants and a leotard underneath (because Michigan).

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We actually got incredibly lucky because it was supposed to rain on Halloween, and while it was roughly 40 degrees (or less) it was dry, and trick-or-treating was a huge success. Vivienne was chilly, but agreed to wear a cardigan and zip up hoodie (unzipped, of course) on top of her costume. The boys were pretty well bundled and the robot parts kept the wind off, so they actually seemed to fare well.

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If Vivienne was the star of the preschool costume parade (if only because she spent a month getting into character), the boys were the stars of neighborhood trick-or-treating. I can’t even tell you how many kids and adults stopped us on the sidewalk to ask if they could take a photo or video. I got high-fives from parents I’d never met, and at one house Kristin walked away with a glass of wine after helping Jude up the steps. “Did my robot costumes earn you an adult beverage?” I asked. She said that they probably did.

I had to take a video once it was dark because the lights make it so much more fun. Check it out on Instagram.

It was a ton of work, but I only cried once during construction and I have absolutely no regrets about everything that went into it. It’s funny, in general I tend to be pretty pragmatic about a lot of things. I like things that are useful and practical, I don’t like spending money on things that won’t get a lot of use, I don’t do a ton of whimsy, but when it comes to Halloween all of that seems to go out the window. I spend an entire month (and always more money than I’d planned) working on something made of cardboard and glue that really isn’t built to last and that we’ll only get a few hours use from, but it always feels like the right thing to do in my mind.

One of my favorite bloggers wrote something recently that absolutely nailed it for me:

…let me also tell you that when you see stuff like this–fun parties for kids or holiday crafts and celebrations, for example–on my site or in my social media feeds, this isn’t about attempting to be a good mom. I don’t associate being a good mom with celebrations and details and parties. But I do associate being a good mom with doing things that make me happy and inviting my kids to witness my happiness and be part of it. This is more about me than my kids. Because I like creating things and celebrating parties and making space for the 10-year-old girl inside who never died. It makes me happy. And I think the best way to be a good mom is to do things that make you happy.

I think that’s really what this is for me. I do this for me, because for reasons I can’t entirely explain (tradition, I guess?) this is ridiculously important to me and I love doing it. The kids would happily wear store-bought costumes, but that wouldn’t be any fun for me.

The other night we drove by the elementary school where they seemed to be wrapping up a school Halloween party, and I suddenly remembered that my parents used to put a ton of work into our elementary school haunted house when I was a kid. My dad was Dracula in it, and a few other neighborhood parents who were like family to me were in it too. I went through that damn thing SO many times, giggling every time I spotted a family member or friend in costume. I’m sure no one strong-armed my parents into doing that stuff, they just loved doing it, and I remember it and it brings me so much joy even now. My mom pointed out that we now have a tradition three-years running of she and I collaborating on the kids’ costumes, and I love that it’s turned out that way. It honestly wouldn’t be as much fun without her, so I’m thrilled that my parents are willing to stay in Michigan through Halloween in order to see this effort to the end.

Over dinner tonight both Jonah and Vivienne began to tell me and Gigi and Papa Doc what they want to be next year, so my parents and I may already be passing this tradition along to the next generation, which makes me pretty happy.

Ghosts of Halloween past

It’s almost October, which means that we’re preparing to kick off some serious Halloween costume crafting. Back in late August, Jonah really wanted me to buy “spooky stuff” for the house, but it felt way too early even if we did put it all away till October. Then September raced by, and suddenly I realized that I only have five weekends till Halloween and I need to get cracking. Even though I’ve had a theme in mind for the kids’ costumes since March, this week I’ve been thinking a lot about the costumes we’ve done in the past, as well as some sources of inspiration.

I’ve mentioned before that Halloween was big in our house growing up. I grew up in a spectacular trick-or-treating neighborhood where, even now, folks say that you can easily hand out 700 pieces of candy by 6:30 p.m. My mom always made costumes for me and my sister, and my dad always took us around the neighborhood while my mom stayed back to keep the porch light on for the other trick-or-treaters. I don’t have vivid memories of my mom working on the costumes, but now that I do it for our kids I can only imagine that hours of work that she must have put in. My mom has a much more low-stress approach to crafts than I do (plus she’s crazy talented), so last year I loved being able to work on costumes with her at night (since we were living in their house).

Last year we did Octonauts, because the kids were all really into the show. I won’t elaborate on it because that one has its own post, but I wasn’t blogging in the years before that so I’ll share a few highlights from other Halloweens.

The previous year, Jonah set the theme by asking to be a John Deere tractor. I wasn’t really going to try to make him blend in with the equipment, so instead I sort of made him a tractor driver, or a farmer if you will. That led us naturally into a farm theme, so I made Jude a scarecrow and Vivi a chicken (a rooster, I suppose is more accurate).

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I didn’t document the process for any of these, but for the most part they were all pretty simple. Not quick, but simple. While it’s hard to tell from the photo, Jude’s overalls had patches sewn onto them, with straw sticking out from a number of places. I made his hat from burlap and twine, put him in a flannel shirt and called it a day. Vivi got a TON of attention while we trick-or-treated. Her costume was actually just a feather boa loosely tacked around a white long-sleeved bodysuit, orange leggings, and some baby shoes hot glued inside kitchen gloves. My mom helped us to make her little hat with the comb on top. Jonah had a diaper box painted in John Deere colors (no, I didn’t pull any Pantone or RGB codes, but I chose as closely as I could from memory), with reflective tape for headlights and tail lights. He seemed pretty pleased with the result.

The farm was actually our second year of diaper box costumes, since the previous year Jonah wanted to be a bulldozer (once again, I went for “bulldozer driver/construction worker”).

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I was pretty happy with the way this one turned out, especially since it was my first box costume. The bummer was that when it came time for trick-or-treating, he wouldn’t wear it. I carried it the entire time we were out. He only stepped inside once towards the end of the night to let me take a picture.

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The year before that was Jonah’s first Halloween. He was eleven months old and had just begun walking, but was still in that in-between place where crawling was much quicker. He was also too young to choose his costume, so I made him an octopus.

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I spent many an evening sewing buttons onto tights, and while he was too young to trick-or-treat, we did spend the evening with friends and I was proud of my efforts.

There are so many extraordinary costumes out there, and while none of mine have ever come close to that level of artistry or originality, there’s something important to me in the process of making them. Earlier this week I was actually looking up something Christmas-related and went back to a blog that was probably the thing that made me dream of blogging someday. While it doesn’t appear to be operational any longer, Sweet Juniper was one of the first blogs about parenting that I read hungrily, many years before I ever had children of my own. It was also a blog about Detroit, and a family that moved there from San Francisco, so while we were still firmly planted in New York it was a welcome glimpse of what it might be like to move away from a big city on the coast back to the Midwest of our youth. But maybe most of all it was a source of inspiration for the kind of parent I could only dream of being someday. It was written by a stay-at-home dad who created the most magical childhood for his daughter and son through exploration, endless curiosity, and a willingness to build or craft just about anything you can imagine. They were the kind of family that made all of their Christmas presents by hand (for real), so naturally their Halloween costumes were outstanding.

I hadn’t given much thought to Sweet Juniper in quite a long time, but as I poked around on it this week I realized what gratitude I owe that father for sharing his parenting adventures with the world. Even before becoming a mom I knew that creativity at that level was probably not in the cards for me, but I do have to say that parenthood has brought out my willingness to try, and to end up with something imperfect and maybe unimpressive, but to still feel great pride that I gave it a go.

This weekend Jonah and I have a date planned to shop for Halloween costume supplies, and he tells me that he’s going to help me this year. I’d worried that I hadn’t chosen costumes that are interesting or unique enough, but now I feel like maybe it’s the perfect year to let Jonah have some control of the process. Too often I’ve let perfectionism get in the way, but maybe what matters most is letting the kids see how much fun creation can be, no matter what we end up with.

The sandbox, and an affordable DIY sandbox cover

The one element of the swing set that hasn’t been complete since I posted about it was the sandbox. I know that there are a lot of strong feelings among parents about sand boxes and even sand at playgrounds. Lots of people seem to feel that they’re dirty and full of bacteria since they can easily become litter boxes for neighborhood cats, and some parents just don’t want the sand coming into their houses in every shoe and fold of clothing day after day (the struggle is real). I can understand both of those arguments, but for me the tradeoffs are worth it because our kids love sand play so much. I want to make our backyard a place where they have lots of options for entertaining themselves, and giving them a great sandbox as an option was important to me. Some good friends of ours in New York have a wonderful sandbox that was SUCH a hit with all of the kids, so that was my vision.

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Our friends’ sandbox in New York, and my reason for wanting a great one

When we chose our swing set plans, I chose it in large part for the size of the fort deck, which also turns out to be the size of the sandbox below. We went with 6’x6′ because I wanted to make sure that all three kids had plenty of space to play. Once my dad completed construction I figured that we could get sand in there within a couple of days, the easy part, right? We ordered a pallet full of “play sand” in bags from Home Depot, only to find a California 65 warning label that informed us that the sand contained known cancer-causing chemicals that were proven to cause organ damage. Naturally we were alarmed. As it turns out, silica (which is in all sand, more or less) is dangerous when inhaled, so the safety of play sand has a lot to do with the particle size. We talked to a number of people we trusted and decided to return the bagged sand to Home Depot (they were very gracious about picking it up and even refunded our delivery fee) and instead have washed sand delivered by a local landscaping company. Who knows, it could be exactly the same stuff, but psychologically it felt better. We also figured that if sand is dangerous, it’s the same stuff we played in as kids, so how awful could this really be?

We had one cubic yard delivered, dumped into our driveway, and borrowed a neighbor’s garden cart to transport it to the back. A cubic yard of sand is a lot of sand, y’all.

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Jonah was a big helper. He was totally into helping me shovel the sand into the cart and then into the sandbox.

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To try to avoid the neighborhood litter box problem I made a cover for it. I found a number of places that sell custom sandbox covers, but they cost roughly $80 and I just wasn’t willing to spend that on it. Instead, I bought a roll of affordable shade fabric that came with a lacing needle and cord, two six-foot pieces of PVC with end caps, and put it together in an evening after the kids went to bed. It cost around $30 total and it works great. Even better, I ended up using the same material to provide a barrier between the dirt and the sand (so that the kids wouldn’t mix the two if they dig all the way down). That saved me from having to buy a huge roll of landscaping material when I only needed six feet.

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Sewing two ends of the shade fabric onto the PVC was easy, and the needle and cord that it came with was perfect.

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The cover lays across the sandbox nicely, with the PVC weighing it down on two ends. It’s lightweight enough that it’s easy to roll up when the kids want to play, and it’s breathable, which means rain will go through rather than pooling on top and causing a mess when we want to remove it, and the sand can dry out beneath as needed. I’m really happy with the way it turned out, and especially the price.

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The kids are loving it and have spent a lot of time in it over the past two days, and we look forward to sharing it with friends.

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