Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Smallest Art Gallery in the House

Whenever I'm in the downstairs restroom in my parents' house, I always think back to a specific day shortly before I turned six. Visitors ALWAYS ask us about that particular room, too.

I'm not really sure what my parents were thinking when they broke out the acrylic paints and gave 7-year-old not-yet-an-uncle Punk and 5-year-old me each a brush and palette.

Can you tell Punk has mad art skills and loves dinosaurs and I have a lifelong love for Smokey the Bear and far less talent? All these facts remain true today.

My parents also contributed to the decor. Though, since they worked more slowly, Punk and I dominated the wall space.
Over the years my excitement about the room has waxed and waned. At the height of my embarrassment (late high school and early college), I begged them to let me paint the walls again- with a thick coat of primer and then some standard color latex. All requests were denied.

The room now charms me yet again. Maybe now because I can clearly see in my childish work exactly how adoring and supportive my parents have always been.

Tableware Designer: Make-A-Plate Kits

Today, the UPS man delivered a some Make-A-Plate classroom kits for my mom.

Every year her fifth grade, students get to design melamine plates. Uncle Punk, Jim, Ranger, and I are always invited to make a plate of our own.

When Ranger was one, he was not interested in coloring but he was obsessed with letters, numbers, and shapes. It was fun to give him a plate that integrated his burgeoning interests.

Ranger (at two) made a plate of his own which we labeled with his name and the year.

With the classroom kit (~$11 with shipping) and free early bird shipping (templates submitted before November 31st), the plates cost $5.95 each. This is a good option if you want to go in with some friends on a bulk order. Otherwise individual kits are available for around $15.99 (online and at craft stores like Hobby Lobby).

The plates are dishwasher safe, but not microwavable. There are also kits to make bowls, trays, and mugs if melamine plates don't hold much appeal.

With bulk ordering and free shipping, these plates can make durable and inexpensive custom gifts for grandparents and friends of the family.

What kind of custom and/or homemade gifts does your family make?

Related posts:

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Spy-Catcher Gang Caught Me: DK's Graphic Reader Series

In a family of readers, it's not uncommon to find that the good book you left on an end table is suddenly missing, abducted by another interested reader.

DK publishing sent us a copy of The Spy-Catcher Gang, one of their Graphic Readers Series. This intriguing mystery offers an adolescent's view of London during the Blitz.

The graphic novel format reminds me of the deliciously pulpy Great Illustrated Classics that my brother and I shared. I always felt like I was getting away with something to discover the characters and plots of great fiction comic book style. Those pulpy little paperbacks whet my appetite for great stories, and historical fiction like DK's Graphic Readers offers the same potential for lifelong interest in history to a new generation.

The Spy-Catcher Gang not only includes historical facts relating to the plot but also uses lots of British slang (though nothing particularly tawdry) explained in an end glossary.

Driven by a mystery, the story was good reading even for an adult. I was definitely compelled to discover the resolution. The book does not gloss over the destruction of the Blitz. Not only does it give statistics on the loss of lives and complete destruction of homes and other buildings, it goes so far as to mention the deaths of classmates as a result of the bombing. Serious stuff for young readers, but emotionally compelling and more humanizing than history textbooks.

The deaths in the book actually made me wonder if my friend's son was too young in third grade for the emotional content, so I showed the book to my mom for a professional opinion on age appropriateness. She thought I should wait at least a year, maybe even two, before sharing it with him. In the meantime, she offered to keep the book in her fifth-grade classroom.

The Spy-Catcher Gang will make its classroom debut in preparation for a Veteran's Day presentation by a very charming couple, two WWII veterans a former Navy captain of an Escort Destroyer and a Women's Army Corp veteran who served in Britain during the Blitz. The book offers great context for the WAC veteran's stories of visiting London.

If all of DK's Graphic Readers offer well-researched historical settings for their fiction stories, I think they've got a great formula for engaging students with the past.

Publisher's recommended prices: paperback, $3.99 and hardcover, $14.99.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Letter Paint: Freezer Paper Stenciling a Name Bunting

If you want to make a name bunting, but don't feel up for applique work, freezer paper stencils are a quick and simple alternative for the lettering.

  • Exacto knife
  • straight pins
  • an iron
  • some clean brown paper, and
  • freezer paper (also called butcher paper). It's like waxed paper, but it's only coated on one side.
Draw or stencil the letter outlines onto the paper side (NOT the coated side) of your freezer paper. Leave a wide space between the letters to prevent painting mishaps. Cut out the letters with an Exacto knife. You will need to leave some connectors to hold the centers of letters like o and a.

When you've finished with your letters, cut them apart leaving a wide margin on each individual letter. Center the letter outlines on your pennant flags and pin them in place.
Iron lightly to affix freezer paper to pennant. Use some clean paper to prevent the freezer paper from leaving residue on you iron.
Remove pins and iron again. Press hard and use high heat. It's important to solidly affix the letter outline to the pennant to prevent the paint from bleeding.
Once the stencil is firmly affixed fill in the letters with fabric paint. I used three coats to get a bold white against the dark green.
Allow paint to dry fully before peeling off stencil. Tip for the impatient: a blow dryer can rapidly speed drying time.
Once your stencils are peeled off, you are ready to finish your name bunting.

Friday, October 17, 2008

A Banner By Any Other Name: Sew A Custom Name Bunting

My sewing machine is limping along. I'm not sure if I've simply worn out some of the plastic parts or if Ranger's covert "adjustments" have actually caused damage. Let's just pretend I sewed the machine to death, it's a far cooler scenario.

One of my favorite sewing projects this year is pennant flag name banners (or buntings for you Brits). Back in February, I made two for young friends (earlier post). The simple freezer paper stenciled prototypes have evolved to a fancier model after Emma, my sewing mentor, taught me to applique mid-Spring.

So here are all my custom bunting sewing secrets in stream-of-consciousness tutorial form.

Supplies (for 8 letter name banner)
  • fabric for pennant front-less than 1/2 yd
  • fabric for applique (unless stenciling)- less than 1/4 yd
  • fabric for pennant back (optional when stenciling)- less than 1/2 yd
  • 1 pkg (3 yds) of double-fold bias tape (1/2" or 3/4" width) or homemade bias tape
  • double-sided fusible interfacing for applique (like Stitch Witchery)
  • thread for applique (unless stenciling)
  • thread for pennants and tape
  • buttons or other embellishments (optional)
  • pinking shears
  • fabric scissors
  • sewing machine (unless you're super hardcore and into hand sewing)
  • ruler/yard stick
  • letter stencils (optional)
  • freezer paper, Exacto knife, & fabric paint (if stenciling letters)
  • straight pens
  • chalk pencil or removable fabric marker
  • iron
  • press cloth (clean thin cotton cloth- a clean, colorfast handkerchief works)
Part 1: Cut Out Your Parts
1. Mark the front fabric. Using the front pennant fabric, mark with your chalk pencil two lines 11" apart (this will be the height of the pennant). Beginning at one side of the fabric mark 10" (pennant width) intervals across the top line. On the lower line mark one 5" distance then 10" intervals. By tracing between the two lines' intervals, you should end up with a uniform series of triangles. If you need more triangles than a single row affords, mark a third horizontal line 11" below your existing line and note 10" intervals. Fill in the diagonals to the middle line for more triangles.

2. Mark the back fabric. If you want the back fabric to frame the front fabric (as I did on the example banner) make your two lines 11.5 inches apart then use intervals of 11" for the top line and 5.5" followed by 11" intervals on the bottom line. If you want the front and back of the pennants to be even in size (not shown here) then use the same measurements as the front fabric.

3. Cut along the top and bottom lines with standard shears. Cut the diagonal lines with pinking shears (this prevents fraying of the raw edges).

4. Mark your interfacing for letter applique. With the paper side DOWN, stencil or draw on the letter outlines; Alternately, I find it easier to stencil the letters on the paper side BACKWARDS, but I don't recommend drawing them this way unless you're very gifted at mirror writing. Cut out letters.

5. Line up the letters paper side up on the back of the applique fabric. Once you're satisfied with their placement and orientation, pin in place. Iron according to interfacing directions.

6. Using standard sheers, cut around the edge of the interfacing. Check the letters to be sure they're facing the correct direction.

Part 2: Affix the letters to the pennant fronts:
If you're doing freezer paper stencils, skip this portion and check out my freezer paper stencil instructions.

I usually take a minute here to lay out all the letters and pennant fronts together
. With patterned fabrics like the one used in the example, some letters look better on one pennant than others.

7. Remove the paper backing from the letters. With the right side of the pennant front facing up, center a letter on each pennant. Pin in place. Iron letters to pennant fronts according to interfacing instructions.

8. Thread machine with applique thread. Set your machine to a satin stitch or a very short zig zag stitch. Stitch around the raw edges of the letters to prevent unraveling.
9. If you're using buttons for the tops of is and js, sew them on now.

Part 3: Sew pennant backs and fronts together
10. Place the frontpieces right side up on the back of the rear pennants. If they're different sizes, center the front pennant on the back one. Pin together.
11. Change thread, if necessary. Top stitch the diagonal (pinked) sides to form a big V.

Part 4: Attach pennants to bias tape
12. Layout the pennants with letters in order facing up. Find the center of your bias tape. Match the center of your bias tape to the central letter (odd number of pennants; e.g. 3 out of 5) or the right edge of your next to central letter (even numbers; e.g. 2nd out of 4, 3rd out of 6, 4th out of 8).

13. Open your bias tape and pin the narrow side to the top your central pennant (letter side up). Radiating out from that central pennant pen pin on your other pennants in the same way.

14. Double check the order of the pennants. Triple check the order of the pennants. Seriously, it's easy to get them backwards.

15. Starting at the first pennant and working to the last one, sew a straight stitch JUST ABOVE the top fold in the bias tape. This stitch will be hidden later by the folded bias tape.

16. Fold the bias tape over the top of the pennants and pin into place.
17. With the letters facing forward and starting at the left end of the bias tape, top stitch the layers of bias tape together. Continue stitching over all the pennants and to the far end of the bias tape. Stitch the ends of the bias tape shut.

18. Pat yourself on the back. You are done and it looks fabulous!

Questions, comments, poxes upon my house?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Stick It To 'Em: Marking Important Buttons For Toddlers

Ranger's fixation with a few CD tracks used to drive me crazy, so I decided to teach him how to find the desired track again after it played.

We kept having problems because there are few good ways to describe the player's buttons to someone who (at that time) couldn't identify shapes or directions.

So, I put a sticker under the essential button. Ranger's now been locating his own tracks for almost a year. It's been great reinforcement for identifying numbers and counting as he knows his current favorite songs are tracks 1, 4, and 11 on CD 1.

Before kids, I wouldn't have dreamed of putting a sticker on electronics, but this strategically placed sticker offered Ranger greater musical independence and a gateway to numeric literacy. It looks pretty good to me.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Putting Words to Paper: Check Out November's Parents Magazine

My cell phone very conspicuously rang yesterday at my physician's appointment. It was hanging in my bag right below a gigantic sign reading "Absolutely NO cell phones" while the dermatologist I've been seeing since childhood checked the same old moles and their new colleagues for signs of revolution and mutation.*

After leaving the office, I made a return call in the elevator. Jim said "I'm driving back to work, and I have a November issue of Parents with me." Well, faster than homeland security can search that statement for coded meaning, I am in the car driving toward the nearest bookstore.

Why the sudden acceleration to buy a magazine I already subscribe to? Because my article appears on page 152. It's "The OMG Guide to Parenting Disasters." Written months ago, I didn't know exactly when it might appear.

I resisted the urge to show the my driver's license and the byline to everyone in Borders (saving that kind of shamelessly excited bragging for, well, this post). Back in my car, I opened the magazine and took it all in. My body rang with electricity as I held the concrete reality of print publication.

Wow. Thank you, Judy (I owe you a cupcake) for inviting me to write and providing such great support and editing. You and Parents gave me an opportunity to fulfill one of those long-shot lifelong dreams.

*Important medical note: I made this skin check-up appointment the day after I drove my dear friend (36 years old) home from Moh's surgery to remove facial skin cancer. My friend's cancer (which she thought was a persistant pimple) taught me that skin cancer can strike any skin type at almost any age. Even though it's not always easy to get to the doctor, it is important to get regular check-ups.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Our Hobo Kitchen: Reusing Everyday Objects

Play kitchens can be loads of fun for toddlers, but new ones can cost a small fortune.

You can build a kitchen from cardboard or score one at a yard sale (like our $10 kitchen), for nominal costs. Really lucky folks may get hand-me-down kitchens from friends or family.

Our kitchen was bare bones when we bought it. It lacked any utensils or fake food. I was way too lazy to buy the food and utensil sets, so Ranger found it stocked with real kitchen items (duplicates, cast-offs, and rarely used items) and clean, empty food tins and boxes.

While Ranger isn't a dedicated junior chef (probably due to a lack of kitchen role models), all our young visitors gravitate to our pell-mell kitchenette. It actually gets so busy at times that I have to unearth a second phone handset so more of the junior chefs can make important calls.

Jim dubbed it the hobo kitchen because its cookware is primarily old food cans which had their lids removed with a smooth edge can opener.

The idea of a hobo kitchen charms me immensely, as my adoptive grandfather Lonz (Alonzo) used to tell me stories of riding the rails looking for work during the Depression so he could support his young family. I'm sure he cooked over his old tins in far less hospitable settings, but I like to think he'd be proud that those lessons he taught me about thrift and conservation are ones I value enough to share with the next generation.

Current contents of kitchen:
  • plastic travel mugs that I do not like using in the dishwasher
  • some polycarbonate food bowls with lids
  • silicone ice cube trays
  • empty tea and cookie tins
  • clean, empty food cans
  • empty salt shaker
  • plastic drink mix container
  • pot holders I made on a loom during childhood and a random promotional pot holder
  • duplicate set of measuring cups
  • canning funnel
  • manual juicer
  • potato masher
  • baby food jar spatula
What kinds of things do you repurpose as toys?

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Literally Two Seconds: Exergen Temporal Scanner Measures Up

This might show just a bit of neurosis, but ever since we received an Exergen Temporal Scanner earlier this summer, I've been on watch for someone in our household to have a fever. Fortunately, my insanity cannot conjure actual events, so we've stayed healthy all summer.

That good health hasn't quelled our curiosity or stopped us from playing with the Temporal Scanner.

Upon taking the scanner out of its plastic clamshell packaging, I noticed that the battery door did not have any super-accessible tabs for opening (like most remote controls). With toddlers in the house, that is a huge relief. Ranger has been a dedicated electronics hacker since gaining manual dexterity, and the batteries are always his first target upon disassembly.

The included 9-volt battery also underlines this tool's smart design. A 9-volt is a long lasting battery (actually a series of 6 AAAA batteries under one covering) that doesn't roll off the table, and doesn't look snack sized to most humans.

This amazingly fast thermometer produces a consistent result in seconds. We never had any luck with ear thermometers and our cheap CVS-brand temporal scanner takes FOREVER to determine a temperature (and never offers the same result twice). Unlike oral digital thermometers and ear thermometers (which estimate a real body temperature from a number of samples), the Exergen measures real body temperature from the temporal artery (forehead) and then accounts for heat loss due to room temperature.

The simple one-button design has an elegance that only comes from a passionate and talented expert. This isn't something dreamt up by non-techs and then half-heartedly executed by a team of engineers. This smart device was developed by a Havard research physicist with special interest in medical technology (Francesco Pompei).

Pompei and his wife head this Massachusetts-based company and have made impressive choices for their company: Exergen temporal scanners are made in the United States. How many digital products can make that claim these days?

We love the Exergen temporal scanner. It promises to be fast, accurate, and non-invasive when we're testing a grouchy, sickly family member.

It's recommended retail price is around $50, but will outperform and outlast its cheaper competitors. Currently the Exergen can be found at Amazon (for around $32), Walgreens, both R Us chains, Sam's Club, and Costco (among other brick and mortar and online sellers).

In the future, we'd love to see the option of a hard-sided case (for protection during travel and storage).