Saturday, September 25, 2010

GenCon 2010: A family adventure

Long before we started loading the car, I knew Ranger was eager for GenCon Indy.  Last Halloween, when he first donned his Mario costume he said, "Let's go to the Costume Place [his name for GenCon]!"  For the next 10 months, every time he saw his Mario costume I had to explain that GenCon only happened once a year and yes, we would pack his costume.

We worried about how Scout would tolerate the crowds this year.  Last year, she rode in our awesome Kelty Town backpack where she napped a lot.  She was not yet a walker, so her independent nature wasn't insulted by the continuous carrying.  This year, she's a toddler who prefers running to walking and she only endures a stroller for short periods of time.  The backpack offers her a better perspective, but we couldn't imagine her quietly napping between intervals of waving and people-watching like last year.

And her brother wanted her to dress as Luigi.  I envisioned her felt mustache, hat, and overalls staying on for maybe 30 minutes before she demanded something more comfortable.  After filling my bag with snacks, small games, and a girly sundress, I crossed my fingers that her upcoming meltdown wouldn't deafen too many innocent bystanders.

After the long drive to Indy, Ranger was so excited to change into his Mario costume.  Scout was far less enthusiastic to change clothes.  We had to park in a nearby mall parking garage and take skyways to the convention center.  When we entered the elevator to enter the mall Luigi was whining in her stroller and Mario was bouncing off the walls.  Then the elevator doors opened to a chorus of "awwwww" spouting bystanders and Jim and I magically transformed into celebrity handlers.  We weren't 10 feet out of the elevator when the first person asked to take the kids' photo.  The photographer was a mall shopper, not even a con-goer.

Scout has strong social instincts and relished the attention.  Ranger can be shy, but as Mario he's unflappable.  As we neared the convention center and met more costumed people, the kids filled with excitement.  Their euphoria reminded me of childhood Halloweens and returning to summer camp.

Within our first hour at GenCon, Luigi was kidnapped by the World's Tallest Leprechaun.  Her casual attitude about towering over all the people surprised us.

The kids got to meet icons of our childhood like Zelda's Link, Alice's Mad Hatter, and the Duck Hunt Dog (with Ratchet) .

They also picked up world-domination tips from the villainous, venomous Cobra Commander:

The next few days were a bit of blur.  Jim and I stayed up way too late trying to solve Puzzle Hunt 9 the night after the family scoured the convention hall for all the clues.  The kids insisted on wearing their Brothers Plumber costumes every day and relished all the smiles, waves, and high fives that resulted.  Ranger climbed and bounced around LEGO Games' giant inflatable Ramses' Pyramid at every opportunity.  We played demo games, tracked down some titles we've been looking for, and people watched.

We also ran from the Beholder, swam in the hotel pool a lot, spent time with old friends, and enjoyed being back in the Circle City for a couple days.  The days were splendid and jam-packed.  We all wanted it to last longer and are looking forward to next year.

Keep an eye out for upcoming reviews of the games Ranger and Jim played.

***Baby Toolkit is the ongoing saga of geeks with kids.  We're Amazon affiliates, so a small portion of purchases made through Amazon links on the site does come back to us and we use it to pay for connectivity (thanks!).

Photos (all but Link): (c), 2010 all rights reserved.  The Link photo is John Stanifer's (Link).

Friday, September 24, 2010

Joy on Ice: DIY Iced Chai Latte

Tazo Chai Spice Tea (SBK149904) Category: TeaThere's a reason Starbucks has a siren on their logo.  Lately the call of iced chai lattes has been drawing me to the Seattle-borne shop.  The night I found myself explaining to Jim that I either wanted the middle size if the menu board showed 3 sizes or the smallest size if the updated menu board had been put in place, I realized that I had spent too much time drinking the corporate Kool-Aid.

So here is the Jones' answer to the witches' brew.

Jones' Iced Chai Latte

4 c boiling water
4 spiced chai teabags (we used Trader Joe's because it was in the pantry, Starbucks uses Tazo)
1/4 c & 3 TBS sugar
4 c milk
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp cinnamon

Boil water and brew teabags until you're pretty sure the resulting sludge is both bitter and repulsive.  At any point you can add all the sugar to brewing tea (sorry it didn't come out to a normal cup measurement).  Stir until the sugar dissolves.  You can use a sugar substitute, but we're into extreme sucrose around here.

***IF YOU USE A GLASS PITCHER, please make sure that the tea has cooled before the next step.  In childhood, Jim exploded a glass teapot making sweet iced tea.  His mother still mourns the teapot.

Pour milk into a pitcher with the brewed, sweetened tea.

Stir in vanilla and cinnamon.   Serve over ice.  Makes 2 quarts (64 ounces).  We have no idea how long it keeps because it only lasts about 24 hours here.  Do not serve to toddlers unless you're willing to share most of your cup.  In our small sample preschoolers seem entirely immune to its charm.

***Baby Toolkit is a random smattering of events told by geeks, full of words and lame jokes, signifying parenthood.  We're Amazon affiliates, so please be duly warned (and thanked) that any purchases made through our links promote even more of this nonsense..

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Super Mario on Icing: Our 3D, 2D, 32 bit Cake

A week before Ranger's party, Jim revealed his plans to customize this year's bakery-made birthday cake. Similar to our 2008 cake, he wanted to use marshmallow fondant. Being Jim, he wanted to up the stakes and model 3-D figures of the Brothers Plumber franchise. Though I don't doubt his ability to create a magically delicious Mario et al, I did doubt our timeline. By my estimations we should have started this grand endeavor in March.

"You realize we now have two children, right?" While the last fondant exercise wasn't incredibly time consuming, we're now dealing with sibling and toddler chronologies. In our house it seems that the new timelines are something like this:
[normal task time requirement x children] + [3 hrs x toddlers] + [1.5 hrs x preschoolers] + [1 month x newborns] = time required for task (aka reason not to start in the first place)

Sensing my subtle skepticism, Jim downgraded his vision from a cartoon sugar biosphere to something he knew I couldn't resist. Paper. Actually few things appeal to a literature major like a pulp-dressed cake. We didn't want the paper to touch the cake, so Jim envisioned posting the flat laser-printer images on clear drinking straws where they could levitate above the surface. When none of our local groceries carried clear straws, we switched to bamboo skewers since we already had a giant package languishing in the cabinet (in case of future kebab crisis).

In printing Mario screenshots, Jim realized that the standard resolution required a lot of conversions to get a decent image. As we were working near a deadline, he started looking for screenshots taken from high resolution displays. We sat down the night before the party with a stack of cardstock images, scissors, skewers, and packaging tape to create the soon to be 3D scene.

Pipes in front are attached to cakeboard.
It was faster to cut the images we wanted from larger scenes by hand than on-screen. Jim laid all the cut outs on a coffee table marked to the width of the cake and cut the skewers to appropriate heights. We used clear packaging tape to secure the images to the skewers, and it worked fine in terms of adhesion. Jim used blue painter's tape the following day for the pipes in front of the cake and found it much easier to manipulate.

The next morning I picked up the giant cake. I must admit, there's a sick thrill to ordering a white cake with white frosting and white accents. People were quizzical at best. It was even better walking through the store having people come over to ogle the cake.

"Wow, what a lovel.... cake?" recuperative silence. "What's the occasion?"

I wanted to make up some answer involving minimalism, but I realize now that the funniest answer would have been the partial truth. In retrospect, "My son's fifth birthday!" is actually pretty hysterical. But I folded like a greeting card and explained that my husband had made cake toppers. Depending upon the age of the inquisitor, that response could also be met with looks of cold skepticism. Next year, I'm going for sheer enthusiasm "Isn't it marvelous?!"

A peek behind the cake.
Jim arranged the figures atop the cake. I snapped some quick blog photos before we wrote a birthday greeting to Ranger on the clouds, and I took a couple pictures of him with his cake. News of the cake drew a lot of guests to the kitchen for an early peek.

Skewers are arranged in layers from front to back to give a 3-dimensional effect.
When we brought out the cake after lunch (sans candles as Jim and I have never really mastered fire), the kids' faces lit up in recognition and the table was swarmed with small admirers. We gave a hip-hip-hooray style chant in place of the birthday song that Ranger despises (Jim believes this is due to restrictive copyright).

The cake was surprisingly easy to serve. While Jim pulled the skewers, I was able to start cutting. With no embellishments on the actual cake there were no request for specific pieces. The cake was served in record time, and Ranger got to bring Mario home (we're going to put some of the figures on magnet backing for him).

In Ranger's opinion (as well Jim's and mine), this is his best cake ever.

***Baby Toolkit is the confession of a couple of parent hackers who try to create magic with common household items. Our end results are bolstered by our children's imaginations (for which we are quite thankful). We're Amazon affiliates, so a portion of any purchases you make through our link (need skewers?) helps support our online endeavors (thank you!). Photos (c), 2010- all rights reserved.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Level Up and Get Down: Ranger's Mario Birthday

For the past two years, we have violated most of the rules of kid party planning and hosted a big dance party/play time with lots of friends and their families for Ranger's birthday.

For the invitations we wanted to use a photo of Ranger as Mario.  He's still so proud of his Halloween costume (especially after GenCon), and there is one photo he especially loves of his plumber alter-ego.  Jim loves the photo because Mario happens to be punching the dragon from the first D&D set he ever owned.  Once the photo was in place, the invitation pretty much wrote itself.

As in past years, we requested guests not bring presents.  We view the party as a present in itself, and we like to enjoy friends' company without obligating them to buy something.  The only hiccup we encountered was that Ranger can now read the invitations.  He had two separate tantrums before I reminded him that a few special people (relatives and close adult friends) always give him gifts on the day of his party.  He also gets gifts from grandparents, godparents, and parents for his birthday (which usually is not the actual day of his party).  The reassurance that he would have at least one special surprise was enough to meet his desires.

foam medal name tag & posterboard crown
Jim and I busied ourselves making posterboard crowns, foam medallion name tags (like Mario Olympics), and looking for activities that work with an audience ranging from age 1 to 9.

We stuck with some old standby activities like building with milk-carton building blocks then knocking the structures down with homemade beanbags (tutorial coming soon*) to coloring paper crowns to dancing to a mix of Ranger's favorite tunes from the past year (another future post).

Inspired by a great event at Ranger's old preschool, Jim wanted to add balloon volleyball.  We didn't locate a suitable badminton/volleyball net, and it looked like we were out of luck.  My mom suggested we use a section of baby gate on the floor in place of an elevated net and that worked well with our mostly preschool crowd.

We had also planned a game where every kid got a balloon and tried to see how long they could keep it off the floor without catching it.  I don't recall if Jim actually started this game, but it turned into a really beautiful half an hour of really serene, but active playtime.  Every kid focused on their balloon and keeping it up in the air as long as possible.  Even with frenetic dance music in the background, the slow transit of the balloons offered a dreamlike quality.  For me, this semi-hypnotic revelry was the best part of the whole party.  I reluctantly called the kids out of the gym to make their own pizzas.

This was our second year of DIY pizza making.  Instead of spending hours on homemade crusts this year, we bought soft pita bread from our favorite falafel place.  We gave the kids paper boats of cheese and other toppings and had an adult sauce the crusts according to each child's preference.  Each pizza was on its own sheet of parchment so we wrote the creator's name on a corner and sent them in batches through the church's convection oven.  When all the pizzas were done, we served them all at once so no kid worried that his pizza was lost or forgotten.

For the adults we had easy prep buffet foods like lasagna and Caesar salad.  Friends also pitched in some wonderful additions like a fruit tray and pasta salad.

Then came the cake...
(Stay tuned.  Jim really outdid himself.)

*I mistakenly thought I'd posted this tutorial YEARS ago.  Once I find the photos, this one will be posted.

***Baby Toolkit is the pell-mell, helter-skelter, and harum-scarum philosophizing of Midwestern geek parents with a bent for verbosity.  We are indeed Amazon affiliates, so a portion of any purchases made through our Amazon links supports our site (thank you!).  Photos (c), 2010, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

All Is Quiet On The Blogging Front

Mario meets the Mad Hatter
Just in case you were worrying: We didn't slip down any rabbit holes during GenCon Indy nor were we abducted by legions of stormtroopers.

Why the recent radio silence, you ask?

As bloggers, Jim and I have tried to keep a separation between parts of our lives (especially in respecting the privacy of those close to us) and what we post.  This summer, that undisclosed part of our lives has been a series of challenges and revelations.  My mind became a contemplative space.  As a result, I kept writing posts about our normal content that felt formulaic, cheesy, or out of touch.  In my opinion, those writings simply were not worth posting.  Even our 4th blogaversary passed unmentioned.

Recently Baby Toolkit's siren's song has returned to my ears.  This summer Jim and I have found a host of things we want to write about.  I really want to tell you about Ranger's birthday cake and let you peek into our geeks' eye view of GenCon.  This has been a banner year for new books and games as publishers put out some surprisingly wonderful new products for preschoolers.  I'm reading a book on baby cognitive development that is fresh and inspiring even for a seasoned parent.  A new compilation album is rocking our world.  We also have some new projects and household solutions.

Thank you for subscribing and sticking with us through the quiet times.  Your good faith is strong motivation to return to the keyboard.

***Baby Toolkit is two geeks' tale of parenting young children in a complicated and ever-fascinating world. We send our best wishes to others currently battling the dragons of offline life.