The holidays are upon us! We’ve been reading The Grinch and gearing up for a fun celebration, though we approach that, in our family, in a decidedly low-key way. We try to limit holiday travel, and even (erm, especially?) extended family shenanigans; we clear our schedules and cozy up together, at home, instead. This tradition of small-scale winter holidays was born the Christmas before we had Kaspar, when Aaron and I turned down all in-law advances and stayed in Brooklyn, just us, together. We slept in, bought ourselves a Wii, ordered pizza and spent Christmas day ‘bowling’ in our tiny living room. It was the best. Stress free. Since then, Christmas has been more about the kiddo, and less about sleeping in, but still – because it’s a (newish) family tradition – we’re all about lazy, home-style Christmas breaks. (Don’t worry: we make sure to visit with all of the grandparents before and after the holidays happen. We’re selfish about Christmas morning proper, but the season is all about sharing good times with the fams.)
Streamlined, small-scale gifting is a part of that tradition, too. Back in Brooklyn, where space was limited and ‘stuff’ just got in the way, we thought carefully about anything new that came into our home. And while everything may be bigger in Texas, we still do our best to stave off the endless stuff-pile that is American life (especially American life with kids!). We focus on just one or two main presents, per person, choosing items we think will inspire lots of fun throughout the year to come, instead of just ending up in a pile, forgotten. This year, Kaspar is getting a talking, plastic Spiderman action figure (it begins), which Aaron bought for him… and is very excited about. I’m sure Kas will be, too. But his main present is one Aaron and I made together, which was inspired by a photo his teacher sent to us from school one afternoon. In it, Kaspar sat at a small table, wielding child-proof scissors and carefully cutting a piece of paper into a million little bits. Beneath the pic, his teacher typed: “He focused on this work for a full twenty minutes!”
Kaspar is super proud of his new scissors-skills – he’s apparently been showing them off for the rest of the school’s staff, when anyone happens to stop by the classroom – and I’m impressed and pleased with his recent capacity for focus. He loves to draw, cut, and make stuff; if markers, paper, paint or glue are involved, he’s all-in. But what struck me the most about that photo wasn’t Kaspar’s focus, or his craft. It was his work station – the table and chair.
I regularly set up activities for Kaspar at our kitchen table, at home, and he’s always excited when I do. But if he had a little space to call his own, with creative materials to choose from, I know he’d dive in and get his paper-cutting (etc.) groove on independently. (Independence is his thing these days. Like whoa.) So I hit up Craigslist and found a wooden table and chairs another mom was selling for $25. Two hours later – after running the idea by Aaron and showing him the listing – I had the table and chairs in the trunk of our car, and big plans for their renovation in the front of my mind.
As you may have noticed, I am somewhat impulsive when it comes to projects; Aaron, on the other hand, is a planner. I’m big on concept; Aaron’s thorough with details. I cut corners, and am content with “good enough”; Aaron likes to do a job right when he decides it’s worth doing. But, he can sometimes take forever to even make up his mind to embark on something. (For my part, I often embark on said somethings without adequately preparing, then quit half-way through when the somethings go South.) Surprisingly, our very different project-making styles support each other (and cancel their respective pitfalls out) when we go in on things together. Our recent activity table makeover was a perfect example of this unique alchemy.
Aaron actually didn’t feel, at first, that the table and chairs needed to be painted at all. He viewed them with a purely utilitarian eye, and said they’d be fine for a work space for Kaspar just as they were. I, however, felt that of course they’d need a full DIY makeover. The previous owners (aged 8 and 5) had drawn on them with crayons, and their mom had painted over their surfaces with one coat of white paint. Not only could you see through the paint, but it wasn’t glossy. And I hate the feel of rough paint. Ugh. Besides that, the whole point was to make something amazing out of something that was verging on junk. Concept, remember? (And yo, we were talking about Christmas… we may be low-key, but we’re not total slackers.)
I think Aaron pretty much heard all of this as ‘more to do’ in our long list of lots to do, so I told him not to worry about it; I’d take care of everything. I intended to get the job done right. As in, I intended to do some actual planning and get the proper materials before beginning. (I am so much wiser now that I’m 28!) I headed over to a nearby store, Treehouse, which is essentially an environmentally-conscious (and independent, local biz) version of Home Depot, bringing one of the chairs with me. I told the head paint guy what I wanted to do, and he deftly interpreted my descriptive words (“shiny, smooth paint” = polyurethane layer, apparently) and hooked me up with a pint of VOC-free bright green paint, and one of low-VOC (no-VOC once dried) polyurethane. (I had some acrylics at home for detailing… And Aaron had agreed, before I left, to rock out his art skills per my conceptual requests once the project advanced to that stage.)
By the time I’d painted the table and chairs green, and added a red border on the table-top (I did this by taping it off, then painting… a good way to work with limited artistic talent), Aaron could see where the project was headed. Which is to say, he saw the conceptual light. I imagined fox and raccoon faces painted, respectively, on each of the chairs, but he suggested we go with stylized silhouettes instead. He also added some deer to the table top. The result is current, yet classic. I love it! (My man's a genius.) Aaron does, too. And so will Kaspar. We’re going to stuff his stocking with art supplies, and we still need to figure out a kid-accessible shelving/storage setup to house them in (ideas?). But we’re 90% of the way there. Christmas, here we come.
This activity table and chairs cost under $100 total (and we have tons of paint and poly left over), is made with recycled and non-toxic materials, and is completely unique/one-of-a-kind. It also made for a fun bonding activity for the hubs and me (cuz, truth is, that Wii has pretty much collected dust since the little man arrived). Best of all, I know Kaspar will use it all the time. I can’t wait to see his face when he first sees his very own workspace. And I look forward to admiring all of the masterpieces (and shredded-paper messes) he creates there.
Do you like it? What are your kids or loved ones getting for Christmas/Hanukkah/end of Mayan time? Do you have any new-ish traditions? Do you embrace, or stave off, gifty 'stuff'?
Hooray, it's officially Fall -- my favorite season! We received some long-awaited rain a couple of weeks ago, which turned Texan grasses green again and ushered in some properly autumnal temperatures... for a few days, anyway. Although the thermometer's climbed slightly since, the scorching summer heat appears to have abated, and we've been enjoying these pleasantly warm afternoons outdoors, observing nature's subtle signs that the season is, indeed, changing.
Kaspar wants to wear his water shoes year-round.
We've been sending up some signals ourselves, as well, to encourage the weather gods along: purchasing pumpkins for our front porch, steeping chai all day in order to fill our home with spice-smells, hanging a fall wreath on our door, and creating a seasonal centerpiece for our table (the centerpiece was all Kaspar -- an entire afternoon's search and assembly went into this activity, by the way; totally recommend).
Thanks for the lovely wreath, Erin M!
Maybe it's my New Hampshire upbringing talking, but, for my part, I'm all about the leaves at this time of year. In the absence of sweeping hillsides drenched in oranges and reds, my new fall philosophy is 'put a leaf on it' (pretty much just like this Portlandia skit, but with leaves). I impulse-bought leaf-shaped soaps for our bathrooms, enthusiastically encouraged Kaspar's votive-holder choice for our table, and, today, busted out a bottle of bleach for a Put A Leaf On It Pillowcase Project.
Scroll to the bottom of this post for the Before. Observe, Kaspar's perfectly fine pillowcase, already improved upon from its white-with-blue-stripes beginnings during a day of hand-dyeing action way back when. But what better way to further improve upon a job well done than to put a leaf on it, right? (Exactly.) So I gathered my materials.
Materials: An old towel, an old rag or washcloth, bleach, a sheet of sticky-back vinyl (available at any craft store) and said pillowcase. (You can use anything made of cotton -- t-shirts, kitchen hand towels, backpacks... go crazy... Put a Leaf On It!)
Next, I drew, and cut out, some oversized leaf shapes from the vinyl. You could certainly collect leaves with your kids and trace them onto the vinyl for a more true-to-life Put a Leaf On It project, but bear in mind that super-precise shapes (lots of little points and indents) won't necessarily translate through the bleaching process. (This is why I supersized... but experiment! See what works.)
I then removed the paper backing from the vinyl shapes and stuck them where I wanted them on the pillowcase. I also put the towel, folded, inside the pillowcase, so as to prevent soaking-through when it came time to bleach. You'll notice some stars among my leaves. Because Put a Star on It needs no season, or reason... hence my various star tattoos, general bias toward anything sporting stars and perhaps even our current state of residence. (Stars are EVERYWHERE in Texas. Woot! ... Then again, so are republicans. Whoops.)
The vinyl cutouts on the pillowcase.
(Be sure to press your vinyl shapes down pretty thoroughly. They won't stick as stubbornly as, say, duct tape, but you at least want to give any pointy areas some extra love so the bleach can't creep underneath.) Finally, I wet a corner of my washcloth/rag with bleach and dabbed around each shape. The color started lifting pretty quickly, so I could easily see what I was doing. I also worked efficiently to keep the color from lifting more than I wanted it to, or from getting under the vinyl and blurring my lines.
The bleaching begins.
After a good (immediate) rinse -- during which the vinyl shapes fell off of their own accord -- and a few minutes in the dryer, the pillowcase was finished! I'll wash it before he actually sleeps on it, but here it is (below) on Kaspar's bed. He loves it!
How do you spruce things up for the season? What are some fun projects you recommend? Let the Put a Leaf On It rampages commence!
Oh, hi! How long have you been standing there? Forgive me if I'm a little distracted; I'm deep in the heart of busy season down here. Without getting into too much detail, I have four big projects to complete this week and next, and am also studying for the MBLEX in order to finally get my massage license. (I finished massage school, and a fifty-hour internship, back in the spring. Since I can take the test -- my final hurdle -- at any time, I thought I'd wait for a slow month in order to give myself a window for review before taking the exam and updating all of you. Then I realized I don't have slow months, and signed up anyway, for August 7. Wish me luck.) Kaspar's school is also on a brief hiatus at present. It's been a little nuts, but I'm thankfully not driving this bus alone this time. Aaron's doing morning/early-afternoon kiddo care while I work it. From home. Specifically, my home office. So come in! (Can I get you something? Coffee?)
Since multitasking is my workday M.O., my work space is deliberately minimalist. I prefer for my surroundings to be relatively clean-lined and uncluttered. That way, when I have three email exchanges going rapid-fire, and 20 documents open on my computer, I can look away, take a breath, and get my zen calm on. It works for me.
Aaron and I share the office, actually, and while his desk is big and black, and his monitor super-sized (he's an illustrator, so his gear is extra fancy), my space is largely neutral, with soft lighting, a few bolts of color or contrast, and a laptop that closes shut.
I started with the desk, of course (remember this vintage score?); I love it now as much as ever. It's perfect for writing, but has a few big drawers that can handle files (or clutter, in a pinch), and fits well against our wall. Although there's a window several feet to my right when I'm working, I like facing the wall in this way; it provides a certain sense of enclosure and focus that's really helpful in the midst of multiple professional and environmental distractions. (Facebook-al distractions, however, can't be helped).
It sounds counter-intuitive, but one of the most effective ways we keep our house clean and organized is by entertaining. If we have friends coming for dinner, we give the living room and kitchen a good sorting and tidying-up, we wipe down all major surfaces, and we definitely clean the guest/Kaspar bathroom. When we have guests coming for a Sunday dinner, as we did last night, and last week (new tradition? I'm all for it!), we can chip away at the cleaning-up over the weekend, too, so it's not a rush job, or stressful. In fact, yesterday was a little dark and drizzly -- my very favorite weather, and a rare treat in Texas -- and, after running around in the wet grass, Kaspar settled down to sing himself a book (yes, that's right), and Aaron and I kind of got into the domestic puttering, Radiohead on the iPod and our minds free from work commitments and other concerns.
Now, using entertaining as housecleaning motivation can backfire; without proper down-time in advance -- and with a toddler at home, a two-day weekend is just about right -- the whole thing heads South. In the event of mid-week guests or working weekends (even just fun-busy weekends), the mess tends to simply move, rush-job style, to our closed-door office, walk-in bedroom closet or kitchen pantry. And once a mess moves in to a new space, it rarely moves back out in a timely fashion.
Over the last few weeks, our pantry's general state of mess has started to get... a little out of hand. Most of what we eat is fresh, so bulk items and non-perishables -- many of which exist in only small amounts, left over from recipes-past -- languish for long periods in the pantry without our really noticing. And, after several rush-job kitchen cleanings, the space had also accumulated a few stacks of randoms lacking proper, obvious homes (New Yorkers, quarter-full bubbles containers, a plastic-handled trick-or-treat pumpkin). A few of our regular, daily dry items (sugar, coffee, tortilla chips) also live in the pantry, however, so while we weren't exactly missing the half-cup baggy of barley that lay buried under bay leaves in its dark recesses, we were experiencing its mess with some element of deliberate denial. Because honestly, we have bigger fish to fry, pretty much every minute of the day (and night), than cleaning our pantry. I mean, aren't organized pantries the stuff of 1952, Real Simple magazines, and/or distraction for the deeply unfulfilled?
Maybe. Or maybe not. Something came over me in the midst of yesterday's cozy cleaning circumstances. I removed everything from our pantry, did a bit of consolidating, some throwing-out, and a general inventory. Then I put everything back in. I re-organized. Bulk grains and legumes in one corner, pastas in another, snacks within easy reach. Cookbooks, coconut milk cans-- everything seemed to have its place before I even put it down, and it all felt very right from beginning to end. Especially end... Aaron and I both stood back and marveled at the minor miracle for several minutes before agreeing it was much better than before. Whatever this says about us, admiring our organized pantry was vaguely fulfilling. It definitely felt less chaotic. Calming, even. So I'm hereby adding, as a fiishing tip for the Alt-Mama crash course in Kitchen Ayurveda 101: Organize Your Shit. It's worth it. (Especially for those who seldom sleep; pulling Kaspar's cereal from its newly re-orged shelf, at 5:30 this morning, made me smile... and I was not in a good-morning kind of mood just yet).
Aaron and I felt such a sense of accomplishment and progress that, just under a month shy of our third anniversary, we finally busted out our wedding china for our little evening fete; it had been living on the pantry's top shelf, still in its boxes and bubble wrap. Eating off of it, later, even in a casual setting (and while using flatware from Ikea), reminded me of the directives we'd received along with the china, from our elders: "Use these plates -- and not just for special occasions." Beautiful things, and spaces, have their most meaningful place in our everyday lives. As do (and as per) organized pantries.
I made a quilt last week! More accurately, I made a small-sized quilt, and it took me several weeks, as I worked on it in fits and bursts, at one point stopping for days due to having sewed the borders on all wrong and becoming sort of avoidant about making them right again. I was sewing it for a baby, however, who’s two days from her scheduled arrival, and there’s nothing better on this earth for my productivity than a hard deadline; I pulled my project back out of wherever I’d stashed it, undid the seams, and finished just in time.
I learned a few things about sewing from making this quilt. For one thing, proper tools are probably a more solid starting point than all-around improvisation, without any real tools at all (save for the trusty sewing machine itself). I went with improvisation, which shouldn't surprise you. I cut the squares from un-ironed fabric (pieces I’d pilfered from a scraps box outside a fantastic fabric store/craft factory here in Austin, Stitch Lab), without measuring, using kitchen scissors. I didn’t have any pins yet, either, so when I set about sewing I just topped one square on the next and got to it. Eyeballing the quilt into being this way wasn’t unsuccessful or anything, but it resulted in a few uneven lines, some bunching fabric, and other minor annoyances that could have been easily avoided, given proper planning. But shit, I’m not a planner, and the final product turned out to be kind of awesome for its intended purpose. No, it’s edges aren’t perfectly straight, but I did commit myself to the thing and pay attention to detail in a way I usually don’t (I am BIG picture-oriented, people. This was good for me!). It looks handmade. It looks perfect for bundling a baby, for getting spit-up on and washed again and again, for tea-party picnic outings, for fort-building, cape-wearing, and maybe someday for re-creation or incorporation into something else someone else makes.
On the day that I finally finished it, I put my real work (the kind I get paid for) off until the evening and went out to buy some filling, and a fabric for the back. (Found organic materials for both-- score!). When I arrived home, a package was sitting outside my front door with my name on it. It was from my dad, and contained an old box full of colorful thread, some thimbles and PINS like you wouldn’t believe. I’d never seen it before, but immediately deduced that it belonged to my paternal grandmother (who passed away when I was in high school... and I didn’t even know she sewed). Hooray for my dad being a hoarder of sorts, because here was my perfect sewing tools starter-kit, needing some organization and updating, but definitely enough to get me through. I rocked the final touches on the new-baby quilt, took some (imperfect) photos to remember it by, and sent it off in the mail.
I like making presents for people. I like swallowing my impatience in order to see something (big picture) I imagined take shape from pieces. I like the uneven lines. I like that the quilt I made doesn’t have six million identical twins, all manufactured in China. It's completely unique. For the borders, I cut up (without measuring) a big piece of cloth my most favorite of cousins had brought back from some travels in Kenya before Kaspar was born; we swaddled him in it for months, and now it’s part of something new, for someone new no one's met yet. I like this piecing-together process. It takes patience but brings about surprises (thanks Grandma!) and rewards. My friend, who’s very pregnant with the little girl-baby, wrote today that it’s “by far the most beautiful thing we have for (her). I’m so touched.” Which left ME so touched that something so clearly imperfect can also be beautiful and appreciated and loved.
This is how we are. And so it's fitting that our things-- that we make, give, and receive-- should also be this way.
Now I want to make more. My friends better keep having babies, though; I don’t think I have a big quilt in me just yet. Not until I learn to measure things properly, anyway, and I don’t see that happening anytime soon.
Hello, my name is Taylor, and I’m an imperfectionist.
My friend Jenn, aka Baby Makin’ Mama (and one of my absolute besties), came over today and got me hooked on one of her favorite hobbies: sewing. She’s been at it since October and is already turning out truly awesome toddler-wear on a regular basis. If you knew her this wouldn’t surprise you at all; the girl’s a self-dubbed Domestic Diva who also maintains a flourishing news reporting career, and has writing and photography chops to boot. AND she’s humble, patient and funny as hell, which makes her an excellent instructor… Which makes me today’s lucky winner. We met up this morning as soon as the kiddos were both dropped off at daycare, then joined forces and sewed ourselves two pairs of reversible toddler pants.
Jenn had offered to teach me to sew a few weeks back, but I confessed that I’m a) completely inexperienced, b) not detail-oriented and c) without a sewing machine. Not exactly a recipe for success. Then it turned out that her hubby hooked her up with a new sewing machine for Christmas. Meanwhile, my mom’s been offering to buy me one (despite points a and b listed above) since I graduated from college. So Jenn and I decided I’d inherit her old one—she gave me (slash my mom) a sweet deal—and sewing lessons were suddenly in the cards. I did a little Googling as we decided upon a date for this to go down, and ended up choosing reversible toddler pants as a first project. Jenn has made skirts and dresses galore for her Lil’ J, but never pants, so she’d get to explore some new territory, too, in the process of showing me what she knows.
We started with this online tutorial, which made no sense at all to my virgin eyes, but showed the end product I imagined (sans the super-ugly fabric. Sorry, lady). We did print the pattern that it linked through to, and then Googled around some more for other basic toddler pants tutorials, because the one we started with omitted some crucial steps (thus I didn’t feel quite so bad about being so lost). So if you, too, like what you see and want to make some reversible pants, I recommend you get yourself a good regular pants pattern to start with—the one from the tutorial is a little skinny in the butt for the diaper-sportin’ set—and pick up at the whole sewing the bottom seams together step. That’s what we did, anyway.
Supa-cute Baby E sporting a hand-dyed tee and crib sheet.
For those of you that didn’t catch wind of this, Austin was stupid-hot this summer. Like, days and days and days of 100+ degree heat kind of hot. It was brutal. And although our apartment complex featured a small, shaded pool to which we ventured across the non-shaded parking lot each day around 3 pm (when we just couldn’t take our imprisonment anymore), we eventually grew bored. Of the pool. Of the bathtub. Of crayons. Of crayons on walls. Of all the other air conditioned baby-friendly places in Austin.
Then I got an idea for a project. And a glimmer of hope and transformation shone in the distance, somewhere beside the blinding, blazing hot sun.
Two of my friends were pregnant at the time. Which makes me look pretty lame for bitching about the heat, but hey, it was bad for everyone (though no doubt the worst for them… To be fair, we did extend an open invite to the pool to the Austin Mama… And she sure cashed in, believe you me). One of these pregnant friends was back in New York, too, and she actually inspired my project. I wanted to send her a gift, something that somewhat approximated the in-person girl-date we’d have otherwise had were I not landlocked on the hottest spot on the planet, and wherein I'd take her out for lunch, manicures and the mom-to-be business of good friends. I wanted to make her something that would simultaneously build upon her excitement, welcome her little one, and communicate my love for her whole fam (which would soon expand to three).
Baby E. "before"-- her mom's supa-cute, too, and internet-shy. :-)
And I wanted it to be colorful. So that’s when it came to me: I was going to rock some dye! I was going to mix up colors and let all of the white fabrics I could find just steep in the heat, become saturated and bright and bold. Fuck pastels. These babies—both of them girls—were late-summer arrivals, and August don’t mess. Not in Austin, and not in Brooklyn. Color was called for. Loud and clear.
I’m usually a little wary of free curbside furniture. Seems like a sure way to welcome bedbugs into your home, although some New Yorkers swear by trash day in certain upscale neighborhoods as the fast track to furnishing fancy-like and on the cheap. There is, of course, a first time for everything, and I recently plucked this bedside table from the curb while on an unrelated Craigslist pick-up mission; the table was actually right beside the driveway belonging to the people we purchased Kaspar’s bike trailer from. Their home did not look bed-bug prone in the least (plus, the table offers little hiding room for insect stowaways). It’s not a particularly fancy table—in fact, it was kind of cheap and unattractive, and Aaron questioned my enthusiasm in adopting it into our home—but I needed a bedside table, and I had a vision for this one.
I have a thing for bold colors, clean lines and interesting accents; handles or knobs can make or break cabinetry, you know? If I were a hoarder, and had time for flea markets on the weekends, I’d surely sport a collection of cool and unusual drawer pulls, doorknobs, etc. I don’t have a collection like that, but I’d recently seen this cool owl-pair drawer pull at a local shop. The table brought it to mind, and gave me an excuse to claim it as my own with the intent to bring the two together.
This pull is actually silver (or pewter or whatever), not gold. The photo lies.
I ordered some turquoise Real Milk Paint (we also ordered some French Gray for our bed… I think the colors will compliment each other nicely), which is non-toxic and fume-free (though it does contain lye, which is highly corrosive, so it’s important to take caution not to inhale it while mixing). It comes as a powder, lasts for up to a month once you’ve mixed it (with water), and far longer than that just stashed on the shelf in its unprepared form. I sanded the table down and got to work this morning, with Kaspar sitting beside me on the back deck, drawing with crayons. The paint dried quickly, and I applied a few coats, attached the new pull, and—presto, change-o— my project is done. Take that, Anthropologie! I’m now on the hunt for just the right table lamp. I’ll someday read in bed again while closing out the day (lately I’ve been working every night until I collapse around 2… but this is a particularly busy phase that will eventually pass), and when that day comes, I’ll be ready for it with my fun and feminine nightstand.