Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Serious Jack-o-Lanterns

Back when I was a kid, making a jack-o-lantern meant risking cutting off your fingers (or your entire hand) using a giant carving knife to dig out rough triangles for eyes and a nose and adding a jagged mouth for scariness.
But with the current wide availability of pumpkin-carving tools, stencils, and on-line tutorials, even a non-artist like me can create a great-looking jack-o-lantern with minimal risk to my extremities. Print out a stencil, tape it to a pumpkin, use a sharp poker to outline each shape, then use the tiny jigsaw to cut from dot to dot, as if doing a child’s numbered dot-to-dot puzzle. It requires patience and accuracy more than it does any kind of artistic skill.
The first pumpkins I ever carved as an adult were for my husband’s college homecoming: his fraternity logo on one and his class year and the Dartmouth “D” on the other.
It was quick, it was easy, it was fun, and I was hooked. So in succeeding years, I’ve gotten a bit more brave and daring each Halloween, and this year I carved Tinkerbell for my daughter and Jake from “Jake and the Neverland Pirates” for my son.

I was pretty impressed with the results, and I dare say my kids were pretty impressed, too. And for an unskilled amateur, I have to say that those are two good-looking pumpkins. But they’re nothing compared to what a pumpkin can become in the hands of a true artist. Check out some of these amazing jack-o-lanterns!
Some art requires more than one pumpkin, such as this beautiful geometric snake.
Some pumpkin artists don’t carve holes in the pumpkin, but instead sculpt the pumpkin’s pale flesh into terrifying creatures.
Some replicate great works of art in a new medium.

Many are based on movies or other pop culture references.

But my favorites are the funny-and-just-a-tiny-bit-creepy ones that make Halloween fun but with a bit of an edge.

But if you think a jack-o-lantern like those is beyond your capabilities, there’s still one easy way to modernize your pumpkin without getting quite so complicated.
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Friday, October 25, 2013

Cool Costumes for 2013

As I’m planning my kids’ Halloween costumes, I can't help but snoop through the internet for ideas. And there are some amazing, clever, and hilariously funny costumes out there. Most of these are beyond the skills or ambition of the average person, but those of us who can’t (or won’t) make them can at least appreciate their brilliance. Here are the top ten that jumped out at me.

Head in a Jar
Novelty Factor: A nice variation on the classic Headless Horseman.
Requirements: Long trench coat, ski gloves, large plastic snack jar with lid (VERY important to put holes in the lid), cotton balls
Overall Effect: Creepy and mysterious

Stick Figure
Novelty Factor: You’re not exactly likely to run into another stick figure while out trick-or-treating.
Requirements: LED rope, battery pack, toddler who doesn’t walk very well yet.
Overall Effect: Hilariously funny when in motion and still pretty funny when still.

Grumpy Cat

Novelty Factor: It’s easy (and timely) enough that you might run into a few fellow grumps here and there. Just give each other dirty looks.
Requirements: White face paint, lots of brown eyeshadow, an extremely grumpy expression.
Overall Effect: Funny. You know, in a grumpy sort of way.

Army Guys
Novelty Factor: In the unlikely event you run into someone else wearing the same costume, he can just join your army.
Requirements: Rain gear, helmet, boots, some kind of large weapon, large quantities of green spray paint and matching green body paint, a high degree of commitment, the ability to hold a pose without moving for a very long time.
Overall Effect: Variable, dependent on the last two requirements above.

Novelty Factor: Much like the Army guys above, if you run into someone else wearing the same costume, he can just join your group.
Requirements: Lots of similarly-sized cardboard boxes, various bright colors of paint, a good sense of spatial relations.
Overall Effect: The more levels you can form, the more impressive the costume. Bonus points for recruiting some really tall or really short people.

Miley Cyrus
Novelty Factor: This costume will pretty much only work for the year 2013, so it’s fair to say it’s novel.
Requirements: Teddy bear onesie, large foam finger, complete lack of dignity.
Overall Effect: The response to your version will probably be as mixed as it was to the original. In other words, is it trampy or is it art? The answer is a resounding, “YES.”

The Human Anatomy
Novelty Factor: I guarantee you will not see someone else wearing the same costume, unless you happen to live in Heidi Klum’s neighborhood. (Yes, this photo really is Heidi Klum.)
Requirements: Paintable catsuit with bald cap, large quantities of red, black, and white paint, impressive knowledge of human anatomy.
Overall Effect: Shocking and amazing. In a good way.

Doctor Who

Novelty Factor: Even if you bump into another Doctor Who, chances are it won’t be the same incarnation, and even if it is, you can both shrug it off with the words, “wibbly-wobbly” and “timey-wimey.”
Requirements: Depending on your incarnation of choice, requirements may be a tweed blazer and bow tie (plus optional fez); double-breasted pin-striped suit, tennies, and overcoat; or a long knitted striped scarf and large felt hat. Bonus points for having the TARDIS and a sonic screwdriver along.
Overall Effect: Even a poor attempt at this costume will leave fangirls squealing, just watch out for those creepy weeping angels.

Novelty Factor: You’re pretty likely to run into another minion or two this year, but with a costume this cute, who cares?
Requirements: Bright yellow hoodie, overalls, goggles, ability to speak gibberish.
Overall Effect: Adorable even if the wearer isn’t under the age of 6.

Guy on Stilts
Novelty Factor: Unless you happen to not be the only guy in the neighborhood who’s seven feet tall, you’re pretty much guaranteed the unique vote for this one.
Requirements: Two tall cardboard boxes that fit over your legs from ankle to knee, spare pair of shoes, being seven feet tall.
Overall Effect: People who know you will do a double-take. So will people who don’t.

So if you don’t have your Halloween act together yet, maybe these will give you some inspiration! And if not, there’s always the old bedsheet with eyeholes costume.
Just be warned that you’ll probably collect a few rocks.

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Halloween Costumes!

If you could make a chart of how much fun Halloween is during every year of your life, it would be anything but a straight line. When you’re very small, you have no idea what’s going on. Someone puts clothes on you – the same as every other day - then they carry you around the neighborhood and people exclaim how cute you are – the same as every other day – and then when you come home they don’t let you have any of the wonderful treats you think you should get – the same as every other day. Not very exciting. When you’re a bit older, you get to choose your own costume, usually some hero or cool guy that you desperately want to be, you get to stay up later than usual, and you get to eat candy. A LOT of candy. This goes on for a number of years, until you reach, say, high school age, and the costume is not nearly as exciting as the candy (unless you are female, in which case the costume is an opportunity to dress waaaaay sexier than you can get away with any other time). So the interest drops off again during most of your early adulthood. But then when you have children and you get to live vicariously through them, the excitement skyrockets off the chart once again.

Being both a theater performer and a seamstress, Halloween provides me with fabulous opportunities for creative costume-making. Since I’m an adult, I don’t have much opportunity to make a costume for myself, but now that I have kids, I can’t WAIT for them to pick a costume so I can let my creative juices flow. And I will admit, I have been known to direct their preferences a bit to echo my own.

My son’s birthday is just a few days after Halloween, so his first Halloween costume was actually this:
(My husband gets credit for making all three of these jack-o-lanterns.)
When my son was almost a year old, my husband beat me to the punch and got him an adorable tiger costume before I told him I wanted to make something. It was so adorable that I couldn’t say no.
My daughter was born a few months before my son’s second birthday, so she was not quite three months old on her first Halloween appearance, and neither of them had much say in their costumes. We had gone to the Big E in September of that year and my husband had bought fabulous cowboy hats for himself and my son, so when I found some fake suede at a good price, I couldn’t help myself: I made my son a pair of chaps and a fringed vest, and we bought my daughter a teeny-tiny cow costume.
Last year, my son was nearly 3 and my daughter was only 1. Which meant that it was pretty much my last chance to talk my son into going as whatever I wanted, and my daughter neither cared not even noticed what she was wearing. So after umpteen different changes, my son finally set his heart on being Mr. Smee from Jake and the Neverland Pirates, and I decided that my daughter would obviously have to be Tinker Bell. (She was blonde, adorable, and barely mobile: it was perfect.)

  (I had given him an old pair of wire-rimmed glasses with the glass removed, and a pair of shorts and sandals like Mr. Smee’s, but it was all I could do to get him to wear the shirt and the hat. Sometimes, the hill is just not worth dying on.)
But this year, my son is nearly four. Four years old is the age when a Halloween costume is incredibly exciting. Pretending to be someone else is an everyday occurrence; hero worship is at its peak; dressing up is a highlight of not only the day, but the week, the month, and the year. And on top of that, there’s candy. Halloween is almost better than Christmas. And so his decision of what to be is of the utmost importance. And naturally, it changes from week to week, day to day, and practically hour to hour.
His first thought was that he wanted to be the red Power Ranger. But when he saw the costume at the store, he changed his mind. And after driving past the Halloween display at Ben Franklin Crafts, he decided he wanted to be a skeleton instead. Easy-peasy! I’d buy an articulated cardboard skeleton, tack it to a black sweat suit in a few strategic places, and done. But before I got that far, he decided he wanted to be a pirate instead. Or maybe a gladiator. Something with a sword, anyway.
So I’ve given up on making him a fabulous costume. I’ll just wait until the day before and punt. It’ll be a challenge to my creativity, but I’m up to that challenge! I come from a long line of fantastic last-minute costume creators. After all, my first Halloween costume was a bunny outfit made from a winter parka, an old pillowcase, and a bent coat hanger. And my all-time favorite was simply a white choir robe, a borrowed belt, and a few bobby pins.
Anyone can come up with a fantastic costume with a month or so of lead time. I can't wait to see what I come up with in an hour and a half!

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Saturday, October 12, 2013

My Other Other Child is Also a Monkey

I wrote a blog entry about a week and a half ago about my “other” child, a sock monkey named E.E., who had become my daughter’s “lovey,” and whom I had to keep track of as carefully as I would another child to avoid breaking her heart if E.E. should ever go astray. Well, wouldn’t you know that a few days later, E.E. somehow managed to acquire a “lovey” of his own, a little pink sock monkey that my daughter dubbed “Pinkie.” (Well, she actually named her “Pink,” but my husband was really bothered by that name for some reason and convinced her to change it to “Pinkie.” Because that’s more creative. Or something. Hey, as long as husband, daughter, and monkey are all happy about it, so am I.)

So now I have another other child to keep track of at all times.

Now, instead of asking “Where’s E.E?” all the time, my daughter asks, “Where’s E.E. and Pinkie?” all the time. And now, instead of her doing things twice as slowly because one of her hands is busy holding E.E., she does things four or five times as slowly because she’s trying to juggle both E.E. and Pinkie at all times. She wants to be carried down the stairs every morning because she doesn’t have a free hand to hold the railing. It takes longer to buckle her into her car seat because she needs to carefully transfer both monkeys from hand to hand in order to slip her arms through the harness. Ditto for putting on a shirt or jacket. And eating, as you can see from the photo above, is a much more complicated – and time-consuming – and messy – business when done with two monkeys clutched firmly in her arms.

But there are also advantages to double monkeys. With both her hands occupied, the chances of her getting her hands on an unattended crayon or ballpoint pen or magic marker are significantly lessened. She has less ability to resist when I pick her up against her will for fear of dropping a monkey. She is more likely to keep herself entertained by making her monkeys dance together (their favorite is the cha-cha, which for some unknown reason is danced to the rhythm, “one, two, cha-cha, four, five, cha-cha;” I’m still not sure where the missing cha’s and the third beat went – sorry Bammy and Aunt Holly!), or have conversations, or hug and kiss each other. But best of all, double monkeys means that when one of the monkeys is banished to the washing machine (as is almost always necessary following any meal involving maple syrup, ketchup, jelly, or marinara, which includes about 80% of all meals served in our home), the other can stay with my daughter. While this is not completely an acceptable situation in my daughter’s eyes, it’s a great improvement over having no monkey at all until the washing machine cycle is complete (I don’t even bother with the dryer; damp monkey is better than no monkey, in her opinion).

So now every time we get in the car – or out of the car – I make sure I count 4 noses, 2 kids and 2 monkeys. When we leave the playground, I make sure I have 2 kids and 2 monkeys. I check at least once per aisle in the grocery store to be sure I still have 2 kids and 2 monkeys present and accounted for.

But to be perfectly honest, I really don’t mind that much. I’m just glad that my daughter has such pleasant and well-mannered friends.

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Thursday, October 10, 2013

How to Design a Playground: Parent Edition

It was a beautiful fall day today, so I brought my kids to a local playground. This particular playground has a large, flat, paved area with giant rocks to climb on (it’s also a spray park during the summer) with a circle of benches around it; a row of covered picnic tables; a sandbox; a large climbing structure with a slide, a swinging bridge, and monkey bars; a smaller climbing structure with a smaller slide and swinging bridge; a swing set with traditional-style swings; and a swing set with bucket-style swings for little ones. The individual components are terrific, but the layout of the park as a whole is…well, let’s just say it was obviously not designed by a parent. At least, not a parent of multiple children.

The biggest limiting factor that should be accounted for in playground design is the bucket swings. Anyone who has ever met a small child understands that once a child is in a bucket swing, the adult accompanying that child will be unable to move more than 5 steps away from the swing for more than 23 seconds without instigating a screaming fit that will cause every parent within a 50-foot radius to stare in judgment (in the supervising adult’s mind, anyway). That single limitation effects the placement of every other item in the entire playground.

The two swing sets at this particular playground are at the opposite ends from each other, which means that I had to continually race back and forth across the entire width of the playground at top speed to keep pushing both my children to an acceptable height, much like a circus performer racing to keep multiple plates spinning at once. 

In a parent-designed playground, the swings for larger children would be placed directly across from the smaller swings. Ideally, the two swing sets should be placed such that an average height adult can simultaneously push two children, one on each swing set, without needing to take more than 2 or 3 steps in either direction. This would eliminate much sibling squabbling over a parent’s attention, as well as preventing parental exhaustion from cutting the children’s playground time short. And, if the parent in question is as uncoordinated as I am, it would also minimize the chances of a liability lawsuit due to a parental faceplant while racing between swing sets.

Another design change based on a parent’s being anchored to the small swing set is that there should be a clear line of sight from the swings to every place in the playground that a pre-schooler could conceivably go, particularly all points of ingress and egress. In the park we were at today, the smaller play structure was right in front of the smaller swings, which seemed like a good idea until I was trying to push my daughter on the swings while at the same time trying to make sure that my son wasn’t running other children over with his bike on the far side of the park (or pedalling out of the park and down the street). So I found myself pushing the swing a few times, then running over to the walkway where I could see past the play structure, spending 30-40 seconds locating my son and confirming there were no wounded children in his wake, and then racing back before my daughter’s swing slowed to an unacceptable height. Lather, rinse, repeat. By the time my kids were tired enough to want to go home, I was downright exhausted. If I were designing that playground, the small play structure would either be so short that the average adult could see over it or I’d have added a wide tunnel running from the swings toward the rocks at adult eye level that would allow parents to keep an eye on their older kids and a hand on their younger kids at the same time. 

And finally, I would add more benches throughout the playground. Because even when you don’t have to run quite so far and fast to keep your children happy and supervised, being on a playground with your kids is exhausting!

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Friday, October 4, 2013

When You're in Love, It Shows

I saw the title of this blog entry in a list that a friend posted on Facebook recently, and it really struck me. “When you’re in love, it shows.” And it’s really true. When you’re in love, everyone around you should be able to see it. They should see it in how you treat the person you love, and in how that person treats you back.

I’ve been having a rough week this week; I admit it. I’m frustrated with potty training; I’m frustrated with my kids being picky eaters; I’m frustrated with myself as I’m getting ready for a show this weekend; I’m frustrated with my body due to multiple ongoing health issues; I’m not feeling that great and it’s putting me in a much crabbier mood than I would like to be in. And I’m taking it out on the person I love most in the world: my husband. And he’s not giving me a hard time about it.

That’s how I know we’re in love.

I always hated the tagline of the movie Love Story: “Love means never having to day you’re sorry.” I think that’s completely off base. What love REALLY means is that you can’t even live with yourself until you say, “I’m sorry.” When you’re in love, and you do something that hurts the other person, it hurts you even more. Saying “I’m sorry” is the only way to feel less horrible about yourself. When you’re in love, hurting the other person feels worse than hurting yourself. And when you’re in love, you want – no, you NEED - to say “I’m sorry” any time there’s even a vague possibility you might have done something that hurts the person you love.

So I want to use this blog to say, as publicly as I know how, “I’m sorry” to my husband. I’m sorry that I’ve been crabby and short-tempered lately. I’m sorry that I haven’t taken responsibility for some of the annoying things I’ve done. I’m sorry that I got mad at you for things that were out of your control. I’m sorry that I haven’t been the most pleasant person to be around lately.

That’s how I show that I’m in love: I DO say that I’m sorry.

And the way my husband shows that HE’s in love too is to accept my apology, and even to tell me that it’s not necessary. And it’s not. But, to quote Galinda in the musical Wicked, in response to Elphaba’s comment, “You don’t have to do that.”: “I know. That’s what makes me so nice.” And he doesn’t have to accept it. But he does. And that’s what makes him so nice.

And that’s what shows not only me, but everyone around, that he’s in love. And so am I. Yeah, it shows. <3 o:p="">

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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

My Other Child is a Monkey

My readers who know me personally know that I have two biological children as well as an adult stepdaughter. But I bet that none of you know that I also have one more child. His name is E.E., and he is a sock monkey.

My son never had a typical “lovey” like most kids have as babies. We had a collection of four dozen plain white washcloths that we referred to his “rags” that he used to cuddle with, chew on, and just generally comfort himself with. But having two dozen of them that were identical, there were always a bunch around in both cars and in every room of the house, any of them that got dirty or damaged could be thrown away and replaced, and if we lost one it was no big deal. So we didn’t really have to pay attention to or keep track of the rags. But my daughter has decided that her sock monkey, E.E., is her best friend and constant companion. And E.E. is in no way, shape, or form, replaceable.

One of the first things my daughter says when she gets up in the morning is, “Where’s E.E.?” despite the fact that he is lying in bed next to her. If she leaves a room and comes back, she asks, “Where’s E.E.?” as if he’d wandered off while she was gone. If she gets distracted by a toy and suddenly realizes he’s not next to her, she’ll exclaim, “Where’s E.E.?” in great alarm. When she’s overly tired, she’s even been known to sleepily inquire, “Where’s E.E.?” while she’s holding him IN HER HANDS. She shares her snacks with E.E., she tucks him carefully under the blanket with her at nap time, she pretends to change his diaper, she hugs and kisses him, she even holds conversations with him. We have weekly arguments over whether E.E. has to stay in the car during her gymnastics class or whether he will guard her sneakers in her cubby at the gym. If E.E. is not visible to her at all times, she panics.

And because of that, I have to supervise E.E. as if he were another child in the family. I need to be absolutely certain that I know E.E.’s whereabouts at all times. If we leave a particular area, like a playground or a restaurant, unless E.E. is holding someone’s hand, there is no hope he will follow us like most children would. He’s like an independent, self-focused child who pays no attention to the rest of the world. He neither notices nor cares that the family is leaving, and stubbornly and silently stands his ground. You would think that he would at least be easy to find since he stays wherever he is put, and yet his tendency to wander (with a bit of help from one pair of small hands or another) is notorious. I have to check on him every few moments so he doesn’t have a chance to get far without my knowledge. Since he doesn’t answer when I call him, it’s entirely up to me to figure out where he’s hiding.

So nose counts in my family these days include my son, my daughter, and my monkey. I feel just as responsible for his health and well-being as I do for my human children. And although he may not reward me with hugs and kisses, he also never talks back, never misbehaves, and is completely potty-trained. Which is more than I can say for my other children. So I think I’ll keep him. (But don’t worry, I’ll keep the rest of them, too. The hugs and kisses more than make up for everything else.)

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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

I'm Not a Bad Mom; My Kids Just Make Me Look That Way

Today is Tuesday. I hate Tuesday. Because Tuesday is the day I take my daughter to gymnastics class. And at gymnastics class, she makes me look like a bad mom, just like her brother did when he took gymnastics at this age.

My kids are generally very well-behaved and pleasant to be around, but something about gymnastics class sends both of them into screaming, whirling dervish, misbehaving, mom-embarrassing mode. Their gymnastics teacher is incredibly patient and understanding, but even she has admitted that my children are the worst-behaved kids she’s ever had in class.

They make me look like a bad mom.

Or, at least, they make me FEEL like a bad mom. After all, what kind of mom can’t control her two-year-old for 45 minutes? What kind of mom raises a hellion who won’t sit down for even 30 seconds to listen to directions? What kind of mom has a kid who screams so loudly that no-one can hear the teacher (a teacher who is used to making herself heard in a GYM)?

I’ll tell you what kind of mom: A mom who disciplines her children, who teaches them to use polite words, who makes them say, “excuse me” when they interrupt a conversation, who puts them in the naughty chair when necessary, who reminds them to listen with their ears and not their mouths, and who does not put up with tantrums. In a word: Me. And yet, when my daughter gets to gymnastics, all that discipline and all those good manners go right out the window. And there I am, tossed once again into “Bad Mom” territory.

I hate it. It’s embarrassing.

But you know what the worst part is? The worst part is that it makes me spend more time worrying about what the other parents think and not about what my daughter could be getting out of the class. I want to quiet her down not so that she can have fun and learn something, or even so that the other kids in the class can have fun and learn something, but so that I won’t look bad in front of the other parents. And that kind of does make me a bad mom.

So today, I vow to take off my bad attitude when I put on those yoga pants, and to bring my daughter to class with my head high and my expectations low. Today, my goal will be for my daughter to have at least 5 minutes of enjoying the class between tantrums. My goal will be to think only about what she’s thinking and not about what the other parents are thinking.

Because BEING a good mom is a lot more important than LOOKING like a good mom. 

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