Friday, April 16

Building with unit blocks

My parents got our children a wonderful set of blocks for Christmas and they've been in almost constant use since. I'm always amazed at the uniqueness of each structure they design. They've built car washes, race tracks, parking lots, houses with furniture and people, elevators, grocery stores, towers with well-concealed hiding places and tunnels, walls, giant people, windows, castles, random abstract structures, and on and on. Most often other toys are involved, which I totally understand. Someone small enough has to have the pleasure of being inside these awesome buildings.
The pictures I have don't demonstrate much variety, but I'm not always standing at the ready with my camera when the kids exhibit their genius. And, actually, I was contracted building help on a couple of those.
If you're on the hunt for a high quality set of blocks, I highly recommend Barclay Blocks. Their website is very informative, their blocks are excellent quality, come in a great variety of shapes, are offered in sets for school and home, and are made in our backyard (Indiana). You can purchase blocks by the set or individually, which means you can always add to what you've got. I'm looking forward to supplementing our set in the future! We also got their recommended Block Building for Children and have had fun duplicating projects inside and have been inspired by the examples pictured.
Some benefits of having a well-made set of unit blocks (besides being so much fun) are that the pieces are standardized and made uniformly which makes them great for educational purposes and allows for sturdy and dependable construction.
As a parent, I really enjoy creating and building with my kids and our blocks. I prefer it over most other toy-play that happens in our home. These blocks are great for kids and entire families since the play varies and will continue to be interesting as the kids grow older (and the blocks stand up to all the wear!) I did happen to see that Barclay Woods is currently having a sale, which is another point for their company.
Check back here tomorrow for one more block picture. Surprise for our Nanna.

Thursday, March 4

Freezer paper stenciling

In November, in preparation for our Craft Social, I tried freezer paper stenciling for the first time. I didn't experiment with many fabrics so I can't say whether my less-than-perfect results were due to the fabric type or due to my tendency to apply too much paint. Maybe both.
Above are bags we gave to our kids' cousins for Christmas. My kids helped choose the images and paint colors, but I did the cutting, ironing and painting.
Also above is a bag I made for my sister. We're Seinfeld fans so I painted on a quote that I thought would be funny when remembering the context and appropriate for grocery shopping (although I don't know if she uses it in that capacity or not). It was fun to make but definitely tedious in cutting all those letters. I probably should have re-ironed it before taking a picture.
If you've never tried freezer paper stenciling but would like to, here's a tutorial to get you started. I would just advise that you use a pretty smooth fabric and enough paint to fill out your stencil without over applying it. Maybe a onesie with a stenciled shamrock is in order for St. Patrick's Day? Everything's cuter on onesies.

Tuesday, March 2

Books and the BBC

I said once that I would never post the books I'd read on my blog, that I'd be too embarrassed (by quantity of material read, not necessarily quality). But since I've started reading more regularly, and gotten such enthusiastic comments from you, I decided to occasionally post my literary pursuits. I wholeheartedly welcome your comments and recommendations.

An author of a blog I happened to see recently admitted to reading 90 books in a single year. THAT IS NOT ME. My recent average had been about 2 or 3 a year until this last one, so 1 or 2 a month is something for me to be personally pleased with. Maybe I'd find more time for reading if it wasn't for the darn BBC, but more on that below.

My 2009 completed reading list
Prisoner of Tehran: A Memoir by Marina Nemat
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
The Cranford Chronicles by Elizabeth Gaskell, (includes Mr. Harrison's Confessions, Cranford, and My Lady Ludlow)
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
A Girl From Yamhill: A Memoir by Beverly Cleary
James Herriot's Cat Stories by James Herriot
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver
The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency (LDA #1)) by Alexander McCall Smith
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Tears of the Giraffe (LDA #2) by Alexander McCall Smith
My Own Two Feet: A Memoir by Beverly Cleary
Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones
Morality for Beautiful Girls (LDA #3) by Alexander McCall Smith
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
The Kalahari Typing School for Men (LDA #4) by Alexander McCall Smith
The Full Cupboard of Life (LDA #5) by Alexander McCall Smith
1/2 dozen Sherlock Holmes short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
In the Company of Cheerful Ladies (LDA #5) by Alexander McCall Smith

2010 completed reading list
Blue Shoes and Happiness (LDA #7) by Alexander McCall Smith
The Good Husband of Zebra Drive (LDA #8) by Alexander McCall Smith
The Miracle at Speedy Motors (LDA #9) by Alexander McCall Smith
The Law of Dreams: A Novel by Peter Behrens
Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

I'm currently reading Rhythms of Renewal, written by a woman I know and admire, and will read Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson for book club this month.

Selection from my ever-changing to-read list
John Adams by David McCullough
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
The Milagro Beanfield War
by John Nichols
The Hiding Place
by Corrie Ten Boom
by Guy Gavriel Kay
Tess of the D-Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
The Bourne Identity
by Robert Ludlum
The Princess Bride
by William Goldman
by Daphne Du Maurier

Now, my beef with the BBC. They're killing me! I admit, I like movies and television. I like big budget Hollywood movies, I like low budget indies, I like foreign films, I like a few tv shows, but nothing sucks me in like programming from the BBC. I'm sure I've only just skimmed the surface of what they have to offer, which makes me think I'll be glued to the tv or computer screen until the end of time. To give you an idea, here are a couple more lists. Again, comments and suggestions will be gladly received.

Selection of enjoyable watching
Foyle's War
Black Adder
Little Dorrit
State of Play
The Forsyte Saga
Pride and Prejudice
Horatio Hornblower
Monarch of the Glen
MI-5 (If you're harboring the copy of season 7 from my local library, please return immediately!)
Shakespeare Retold
The Office
All Creatures Great and Small
Fawlty Towers
Tess of the D'Urbervilles
North and South

Selection of may-watch-some-day
Life on Mars
That Mitchell and Webb Look
Jeeves and Wooster
Prime Suspect
Place of Execution
As Time Goes By
God on Trial

To watch tonight, if I ever remove myself from this chair
The 39 Steps

If you're looking for a new addiction and haven't yet experienced what the BBC can do for you, try out Masterpiece. It's a great way to get hooked.

Thursday, February 18

Ornament from the recycle bin

Like most people, we did celebrate Christmas two months ago.
But I didn't blog over the holidays and hate the thought of letting them go by completely unmentioned.

We realized a few years ago that if we want to avoid broken ornaments and the guilt and disappointment that goes along with broken ornaments, we need to stick with the home made variety. Most of our ornaments haven't lasted from one year to the next. I'm totally fine with that. As long as we enjoy making and hanging the ornaments (and hopefully looking at them), I'm satisfied.

This year, my kids ended up using Sculpey clay molded into balls, squares, discs and a lot of free form shapes, pipe cleaners and colored beads for theirs. They turned out pretty cute and weren't demolished during the stay of our tree.
I had been thinking for some time about making trees out of lids from our recycle bin, though, and managed to finish one. I drilled a hole in the center of each lid and strung them together with basic white string. I used a couple Sculpey balls and a disc to create a stronger resemblance to a tree.
So, totally belated, but there it is.

Speaking of belated...O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, You've overstayed your welcome....
Confession: Our (artificial) tree is still piled up on a table in the living room awaiting its return to its box and our basement. This year's ornaments are also still in the living room awaiting their trip back to their dark and creepy home. You know how when you let something go for a while, you start to get used to it being there, even if it's unwelcome?

Saturday, February 13

Family night and Valentine's fun

I was challenged by an older and much wiser mom recently to institute regular family nights into our routine. It's not a new idea, rather one we've always liked the idea of, but never put into regular practice.
The good thing, for people who shrink at the thought of having to create new and exciting activities from scratch every week, is that we have so many holidays and special occasions as a family, as a country and across the globe from which to draw inspiration. More on that later.
Our family values giving gifts made by hand and sharing kind words through home made cards. We don't, however, manage our time particularly well and have always had trouble separating the kids and giving them each a chance to make something special for their siblings and parents. I mean, you wouldn't want to see your card being made, right?
After hearing another family's experience in card-making, though, it occurred to me that I could go about this in a completely different way and actually accomplish our goals of enjoying a creative activity together and blessing everyone in the family with a heartfelt gift.
We set aside time Friday evening to be home together making Valentine cookies and cards. We brought all the cookie ingredients into the dining room so we could all fit around the table, versus crowding up in one chair in order to reach the available corner of counter space in the kitchen, and mixed up a batch of those peanut butter blossoms from the back of the Hershey kiss bag.
While the first pan baked, we cleaned the table and brought out some card-making supplies. Felt, buttons, glues, papers, craft foam, scissors, markers, etc. After pressing the kisses into the tops of the hot cookies, we began making cards. The goal was for each of us to make one card for every member of the family.
My husband surprised us and turned out some very cute and catchy cards. (He doesn't expect much from himself in the craft department). My oldest daughter quickly made two cards for everyone, losing momentum as she went until her final card (mine) simply said Mom on one side and featured a minimalistic spiderweb-ish design on the back. My youngest daughter had to be put to bed before the cookies were completely mixed and therefore didn't attempt making any cards. My son made four cards all illustrated with a multi-humped camel flying over a land dominated by moles. And all for his older sister.
I foresee many cards in the future starring the Heep family Valentine camel.
We had some unpleasant bumps and some very pleasant quality time. Today, however, everyone was thoroughly excited to exchange Valentine cards and eat cookies. We had lunch together (kind of a rare treat for us) and then distributed the cards. They loved the personal messages from their dad, the pretty pictures from their mom, and the sheer receipt of anything from their siblings. I gave them each one of the decorated pb jars filled with a box of animal crackers (my sister's genius idea), a couple chocolate kisses, and a couple mini raisin boxes. They were thrilled. I think they're discussing their Valentine's day adventures as I write, wishing they'd fall asleep, which is pretty cute.
Happy Valentine's Day! I hope you enjoy time spent with your family this weekend.

I was going to write a bit more on family nights, in general, but realize I've written a lengthy narrative on Valentine's Day alone. This just means I'll have to blog more.

Friday, February 12

A Recycled Valentine's Day

Hello! Nothing like a cute and completely Hallmark-ized holiday to draw me back into blogland.
I'm still here, but have been spending more time reading, watching movies, going to meetings, organizing meetings, celebrating meaningful holidays and merely doing nothing than I have been crafting or blogging (that one's obvious).
I felt motivated to blog about this little Valentine project, though (let's hope it's like riding a bike), and I may find blogging again gets me excited to come back on a regular basis. Who knows?

So, Valentine's Day....Instead of buying the cute but unnecessary trimmings and trappings, ribbons and wrappings from Target, I've dug into my stash of recyclable containers, fabric and paper to wrap up some little gifts for the fam. I didn't try anything elaborate or time-consuming, just wrapped, taped and glued some pieces to these jars.
Try decorating any kind of container you can easily wrap, it doesn't have to have a lid, and stuff your tissue-wrapped gifts inside. Add gift tags with glue, string them through ribbons or print out your message on the wrap itself. Oops, I forgot to do that.
Happy Valentine's Day!
And many thanks to Starbucks and Jif. You provide all sorts of creative opportunities in our home, and anytime you're interested in sending free products, we'll gladly accept.

Saturday, October 10

Congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Halpert.

Alternately: It's too fun not to be a nerd once in a while.

On Thursday nights, I run to my friend Jess's house right after dinner (although on these nights I usually manage not to eat any) in time for The Office, what will be 30 Rock, and Project Runway. TV night. Nothing else on the agenda. It's great.
We decided to really unleash our pop culture-couch potato-osity this week and join in the celebration with the folks on The Office. No, I don't have pictures of Jim on my desk, I don't have any Office flair on my Facebook account and I don't read The Office blogs. We just happen to enjoy watching it together and thought it would be fun to jazz up our evening.
I made this wedding cake and the clothespin doll cake toppers for the occasion. Jess made punch and our friend Penny wore a bridesmaid dress. (Well, for a few minutes, at least). We had fun.
And, really, when you love to bake you'll make any excuse, right?

Wednesday, October 7

Craft Social time again

It's that time again. Another Chicago Craft Social! This time, we'll focus on making gifts and ornaments for the holidays. Head over to the Craft Social blog to get the full scoop and to rsvp. Remember, space is limited!
If you happen to be interested in leading a project at this social, send me an e-mail and we'll talk.

We had some press last time, Beth Engelman from Mommy on a Shoestring, and have an article complete with demonstration videos to prove it. If you'd like to get instructions for a few of our past Craft Social projects or make fun of how I look or act on camera, here's the place. Thanks, Beth, for supporting us!

Wednesday, September 30

Reading is good

In case you've been wondering, I haven't fallen victim to some tragic illness rendering my hands paralyzed and unable to create or write about our creating. Rather, I've fallen victim to reading. Books. I'm an addict. It actually started last winter, but my addiction has become more severe recently causing my interest in using my hands for any purpose other than flipping pages to wane.
I'm not reading every minute of the day. In fact, some books have remained bedside for several weeks as I've found only a few minutes of the evening available for reading (that brief time between crawling into bed and finding the book on your face). Nevertheless, as soon as I find time to finish one, I'm on to the next.
I commented some months ago (here) that I would never post a list of books I'd read during the year on my blog as I'd find it too embarrassing. I'm revising that. I found it so enjoyable getting comments from you on which books you've loved that I'm doing it. I'm posting my list.
Some of the books I've read were at your suggestion. Others happened to find their way from a friend's hand to mine. Some happened to be on a shelf near the bed in which I slept at my parents' house. And some I sought out after enjoying other books by the same author. I'm still planning on following up on some of your previous recommendations, but I'd love to hear an update on what you're reading and loving. And when do you read? During a sneaky trip to the bathroom? While waiting for the oatmeal to finish it's go-round in the microwave? While sitting on the bench during gymnastics class? When you should be doing your own homework or preparing to teach on a topic completely unrelated?

My 2009 reading list
Prisoner of Tehran: A Memoir by Marina Nemat
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
The Cranford Chronicles by Elizabeth Gaskell, which includes Mr. Harrison's Confessions, Cranford, and My Lady Ludlow
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
A Girl From Yamhill: A Memoir by Beverly Cleary (I just realized, after wishing this story would have continued beyond her high school graduation, that she does continue her story in My Own Two Feet: A Memoir. Guess what's going on my To Read list?)
James Herriot's Cat Stories by James Herriot (If you've never read his All Creatures Great and Small series, you should!)
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver
The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Currently working on Tears of the Giraffe by Alexander McCall Smith

To Read:
John Adams by David McCullough
Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street by Michael Davis
Something by Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food or The Omnivore's Challenge)
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (Somehow I've made it this far without reading Dickens and I feel I should remedy that).
My Own Two Feet: A Memoir by Beverly Cleary

So there you have it. My pleasure reads.

Wednesday, September 23


We have about 30 books out from the library right now, some for pure fun and some for the betterment of the nine 5 and 6 year old minds I'm teaching in co-op this month. This book, Cook-a-Doodle-Doo! by Janet Stevens and her sister Susan Stevens Crummel, happened to be fun and educational.
I heard Janet Stevens speak many years ago and have since been a fan of her books and illustration. We picked this up not knowing it contained a recipe for strawberry shortcake, but once we read and enjoyed the story of Big Brown Rooster (great-grandson of the bread-baking Little Red Hen) and his friends making a cake, we had to make one to match.
The story takes Rooster through a process of being hungry, finding a recipe, recruiting help, making and eating strawberry shortcake. It's a cute and educational story in itself, but the authors have added side notes on several pages explaining elements of baking like sifting (above) or using measuring cups (In the story, Rooster's friend Iguana attempts measuring a pile of flour with a ruler) which add even more educational value to the book.
The book ends with Little Red Hen's recipe for Magnificent Strawberry Shortcake. The cake is a simple one-bowl recipe made with 7 ingredients plus the cream and strawberries. My kids and I found it very do-able, attractive and good to eat.