Showing posts with label Family Friendly. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Family Friendly. Show all posts

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

{business 101} 940 Saturdays.

My elbows were sore. I felt like someone smacked them both with a hammer. It's because I'd been on my computer all day long. On a Saturday. When I'm working, my elbows sit on the desk. It's not ergonomically correct, I know. It hurt.

And it was a reminder of how I'd spent my time that day. Not with my kids, but instead fixing website details and figuring out pricing for our new organic lawn care business, Whole Yards.

I knew going into this learning-on-the-fly-adventure that I'd make sacrifices in order to run a business. I knew that this time of year would be busy, especially this first year. Late winter is when the lawn care industry ramps up for spring. Add to that the fact that I'm slow. I'm overly-detail oriented. I check and double check and triple check. Math takes me a long time. I like things to work properly, like Sir James Dyson.

But ten hours on a Saturday? In front of a computer?

If there's anything I learned from our Advent Adventure this winter, it's that I love setting aside structured time to spend with my kids and husband.

You know the famous Ferris Bueller quote, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

That's not just for high-schoolers. That totally applies to raising kids. Maybe more to raising kids than to anything else.

I'm looking for balance. I'm ready to set some boundaries for myself. When my kids are around, I want to spend most of my time making eye contact with them. I want to know them deeply. I want to laugh with them and dance and hug and get into arguments about whose turn it is to clean out the cat's litter box and why there is trash all over the bathroom floor.

How does a person make that happen?  I'm not one for rules. I can't say, "No weekend work. Ever." Because there will be weekends. And there will be evenings.
But there shouldn't be hustle or ignoring each other or snapping at each other because we're tied up in work.

940 Saturdays from the time my kids are born until they're 18. I'm more than halfway done. I can make a business run 400 Saturdays from now. And maybe I can make it run now. I've got seven more months to figure that out. But my kids come first.

How do you balance your time? What's your strategy?

This post is part of a series called Business 101, where I share my experience taking over a business for 8 months while I figure out whether it's something I want to take on permanently.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Movin' on up: Adjusting our spaces to kids' changing needs

While all kids have different interests and enjoy different activities, one thing is true for every kid: as they grow up, the way they use their spaces is ever-changing. I've found that I can make my life easier (read: cleaner and less crazy) if I adjust their spaces to suit how they spend their time.

When we first moved into our house, a space behind our sofa in the family room was dedicated to the kids and their toys. It worked well because I could see and hear them playing while I was in the kitchen, which is where I spent most of my time back then. The kids' space wasn't immediately visible to visitors and it was an area that, if left messy, wouldn't disturb the adults in the house.

As the kids grew older, though, and they didn't need my eyes on them all the time, it was a relief to move their area upstairs to the loft. Our loft area, a 9'x12' space at the top of the stairs on the way to the kids' bedrooms, has been an invaluable area for our kids over the past six years. I have a partially obstructed view of it from my kitchen and I can hear activity in this area from any corner of my house.

Before: Little Kid Space

After: Big Kid Space

Until this Christmas, the loft was home to my kids' play kitchen. We built it when Brynn was three years old and even as a ten year old this summer, she and Callie were still playing in it. They used it as a restaurant, as a pretend classroom, and sometimes even as a kitchen. Even though the play kitchen was still usable for the girls, we sensed that they were starting to cross into an age where they would appreciate a more mature play space. They weren't as loud and boisterous anymore when they played in the kitchen. In fact, they were whispering – almost like they didn't want us to know that they were still using their little kitchen. But what really convinced me was their tendency to raid my craft closet and their inability to put anything away when they were finished.

One day I kind of exploded. No, I totally exploded. It was one of those mom moments you never forget even though you wish you could totally block it out. Callie had been in my craft closet, made a mess, and left it a total disaster. Glue stuck to the table, glitter and paper scraps all over the place. Cardboard scraps strewn on the table and floor. String and ribbon and stickers and sequins everywhere. I had wanted to do a specific task quickly but couldn't even get into the closet.

I took all of her craft supplies out of the closet and tossed them in her room and told her she could never come back. My closet was off limits to her.

Within seconds I realized how unfair it was. Crafting is what Callie does. Creating purses and houses and bracelets out of cardboard and tape and rubber bands and fabric is who she is. When she can't create, she starts to burst at the seams. It is who she is. A tinkerer. An artist. A creator.

So I took a deep breath and said, "Here's the deal. We cannot coexist in this space but you cannot exist without crafts. You need to choose: play kitchen or crafts." It took her a millisecond to respond, "Crafts!" Brynn agreed.

As much as it hurt to admit that they were growing up, I knew it had to happen. I took photos of their play kitchen and posted them on a local moms' Facebook page. The kitchen and its contents were gone within a day. We boxed up the little kid toys that we wanted to hang onto for visiting toddlers. We gave away everything else.

Starting with a clean slate, I built a simple divider to make the loft feel more separate from the hallway and to give me a wall to set a dresser against, so that we'd have plenty of storage. The divider is screwed into the floor, the adjacent wall, and the dresser it sits in front of. The dresser is a hand-me-down that I cleaned up and painted – it's perfect for holding fabric and craft supplies. I moved around some bookcases that were already in the space and I built a table out of bits and pieces in my garage (and a sheet of plywood I had to buy). I made curtains from fabric that I'd found in a pile of remnants a year or so ago. I had set the fabric aside for the next step in the evolution of this space and was glad to find it still sitting in my sewing closet. We stopped into Ikea for a few pieces to help us organize, and for a couple of stools to set at the table.

The divider is a 2x2 frame and 3/8" plywood leftover from other projects.

I scrubbed the brass pulls with Bar Keeper's Friend to make them shine!

Construction paper to roll over the table.

Buckets from the dollar aisle at Target and an Ikea BYGEL rail.

We also bought a new computer to put in this space. It wasn't something we'd planned to do right that very second, but our kids are using computers for more and more homework assignments, and the computer they'd been using was eight years old and running pretty slowly. (For the record, my four year old MacBook works fine...I just don't like to share it with my children.) We already had a computer cabinet in the loft – it was formerly a TV cabinet, that we converted to a computer cabinet – and it's been great for them to have an updated machine that I can see and hear from almost anywhere in the house. And I kind of love the giant 27" screen, even though it's hard for me to admit.

This TV cabinet was in my house as a kid. It's solid pine and really heavy! I painted it a few years ago and built the
platform for the computer. The keyboard sits on the pull-out tray that used to hold the TV. Our printer, printer paper,
ink, and camera accessories all fit into the bottom cabinet. And up top is our TV antenna for the whole house. Can
you see the beer cans on it? Classy.

If you don't count the new computer (ahem) changing this space cost us under $100. We already had almost all of the supplies and sold the old kitchen for $50. This has been, by far, the most impact-per-dollar change we've made in our house.

While it was sad to say goodbye to the little kitchen, watching the girls create in this space and knowing that it is a space we can use together has been a nice change for all four of us.

Here are some elements of this space that I think make it effective:
  • I can see and hear it from the kitchen. When the kids are using the computer, I can monitor it. 
  • I pass the loft while going to and from the girls' rooms at night, so I can stop in to clean up any supplies or scraps they leave behind. I'll never be surprised by a mess there because I have to pass it often.
  • The space may turn into a multi-use space for doing homework as well as crafting, but for now it's a place where they can leave an unfinished project to return to later, and in the meantime it doesn't bother anyone. It doesn't have to be moved out of the way for dinner or for guests.
  • The space is well-lit with lots of natural light and lamps as well as bright and cheery colors. It's an inspiring place to work.
  • Because the new computer is up there, the kids can turn a movie on Netflix or watch a how-to video on YouTube while they work.
  • The carpet is old, so I don't really care if they spill on it or screw it up in some other way, as I'm sure they will.
  • The table is finished with nearly bullet-proof PolyWhey floor finish, so it's easy to clean.
  • For super messy projects, I added a roll of construction paper to a dowel fastened under the table. Now we can roll paper over the table to make cleanup quick and easy.
  • There is plenty of storage. Storage in the hand-me-down dresser, storage in cans hanging from the walls, and storage in the two bookcases we've had in our house ever since we got married.
  • A whole wall is dedicated to inspiration and display. Right now a third of that wall is taken up by a Ugandan alphabet which was given to us by a friend who takes care of street kids in Uganda. I added some artwork with positive messages from The Handmade Home and we hung up the kids' favorite artwork to spur them on to more creativity.
Do you think you could carve out space in your house for a dedicated craft area? Or would a dedicated Lego space go over better in your house? How do you adjust your home to meet your kids' changing needs?

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Cream of Tomato Soup

When I was a sophomore in high school, I visited Northwestern University with a friend and our moms. It was February so I wore a new navy blue pea coat with toggle buttons and a super cute floppy hood. My mom bought me that coat just for that trip – isn't it funny the things we remember? While in Evanston, we ate at a restaurant that had the best tomato soup any of us had ever tasted (I'm sure my palate was advanced for a 15-year-old). The soup was so good, in fact, that we asked the waiter if he could get us the recipe. And he did.

Do you ever ask for recipes in restaurants? This is the one and only time I've requested a restaurant's recipe, but maybe I should try it more often. It would cut down on the number of copycat failures my family has to endure.

I've altered the original recipe to fit how we eat now, meaning I've replaced the animal products with veggie alternatives. I promise it tastes great as a vegan version of cream of tomato (my kids say it's even better than Panera's cream of tomato, which speaks volumes coming from them), but I've included some dairy options in the recipe in case that's your preferance.

Northwestern Cream of Tomato Soup

  • 5 carrots, shredded
  • 5 stalks of celery, shredded
  • 1 medium white onion, shredded
  • 1/4 C water + 1/4 C olive oil OR 4 Tbsp butter + 4 Tbsp butter (I don't buy fake butter/margarine due to the palm oil it contains. Here's why.)
  • 3/4 - 1 C flour
  • 6 C water
  • 1 Tbsp veggie Better than Bouillon (OR replace water and bouillon with chicken or veggie stock)
  • 1 28oz can puréed tomatoes
  • 1 28oz can crushed tomatoes
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tsp minced garlic
  • 1 tsp pepper
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/3 C cashew butter OR half and half
  • 1 C almond milk OR milk
In a very large stockpot or Dutch oven, sauté shredded carrots, celery, and onions with water for 7-10 minutes or until tender. Move to a bowl and set aside.

Warm olive oil over low heat. Add flour and cook 4-5 minutes. Increase heat to medium and add water (or broth), bouillon, tomato puree, crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, bay leaf, garlic, pepper, salt, and cashew butter. Bring to a simmer and then add carrot mixture. Bring to a simmer again and reduce heat to low.

Simmer 30-45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add almond milk and stir until well blended. Purée some or all of the mixture if desired. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve with crusty bread and salad greens.

Makes 4 quarts.

Monday, December 16, 2013

How to build a kid-friendly gingerbread house

When I was a kid, I remember making gingerbread houses with my mom. Unfortunately what I remember the most clearly is our gingerbread houses collapsing. It seems like our roofs were always caving in! Maybe we made ten sturdy gingerbread houses and only one that collapsed, but all that withstood the test of time in my brain is the one that collapsed. Sorry, Mom!

Because of that, building a gingerbread house has always seemed a little daunting to me, but I've used the same process a few years in a row now and not a single house has collapsed (not even in the humidity of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where we built a few of these houses back in 2011).

My favorite recipe and template comes from Simply Recipes. I've added some ground pepper to the recipe to give the dough a bit more spice (we always make cookies out of the leftover dough) but other than that, I follow her recipe exactly.

Our Simply Recipes template cut out and ready to use.

Here are a few notes on what has worked for us:
  1. I double the recipe. One recipe will make two houses, but you have to use every single scrap and re-roll it a few times to get all of the pieces cut. Instead, I make a double batch and then use the scraps to make cookies. Unlike pie dough or a more delicate cookie dough, this dough doesn't get tough and inedible with multiple rollings.
  2. I use parchment paper under the house pieces while I cut and bake them, as Elise at Simply Recipes suggests. It's amazing how much more square a gingerbread house can be when the raw dough pieces don't shift and stretch as you move them from the cutting board to the baking sheet! When we cut the pieces, we do it on a cutting board and push down hard so that the knife can go through the parchment paper. Then we slide the parchment-backed walls and roof pieces right onto the baking sheets.
  3. Since the walls and roof pieces always get a little out of shape and rounded while baking, after they finish baking and while they're still hot, I lay the template on top of them and use a serrated knife to trim the edges. This gives me uniform, square pieces to work with. Then I let them cool, preferably overnight, before building the houses.
  4. For icing bags, I've had just as much success in the past using a ziplock bag filled with icing and a tiny bit of the corner cut off as I have with real icing bags. The ziplock bags are actually a little easier since my kids can't seem to keep from squeezing icing out of the top of a real icing bag. (If we're using real icing bags, I fold the tops over and secure them with a rubber band to keep them closed.)
  5. My kids like landscaping around their houses as much as they enjoy decorating the houses themselves, so I make sure to cut out cardboard pieces big enough to for a yard, then we wrap the cardboard in aluminum foil before gluing the walls to the foil as we build the houses. 
  6. As we put together the houses this year, I used a rubber band around the four walls to keep them together while the royal icing dried. I've used the melted sugar technique before, but prefer royal icing. Melted sugar is a bit too scary for me and my blood pressure rises as I stress out about whether or not I can put the pieces together before the sugar hardens. It does work, it's just not my favorite way to put together a house.
  7. Once the houses have their four walls up, I give them at least half an hour to set before putting on the roof. Finding a small jar or something similar to prop up the roof as it dries helps keep it in place.
  8. For the chimney, in the past I edge-glue all four pieces together, leaving a hollow center like a real chimney. This was never quick or easy. This year I figured out that I could sandwich together the two angled pieces and then glue the short and long pieces right along the edge of that sandwich. There's no need for the chimney to be hollow, and all of the seams end up covered in decorations anyway.
  9. For decorations, in the past we've used both leftover Halloween candy (stashed away just for the houses) and candy bought just for the houses. I also let my kids raid the pantry. They love to use nuts, dried beans, cereal, grains, lentils, and pretzels to decorate their houses.
  10. Lastly, gingerbread houses are time consuming and so I make the dough, bake, and build them over the course of a few days. I try to do most of the baking and cutting either by myself or with just one kid at a time. Once the decorating starts, they don't need my help anymore. They're pretty good at wrangling the icing bags without me. But if they tried to build the houses without me, it would be a disaster. I'm happy to do that for them – slowly and without them trying to rush the process.
Red lentils for the pathway.

Diagonal pretzels for siding.

Almond and marshmallow walkway, with a little pond out of blue sprinkles.

Almond chimney and Chex shingles.

Dried cannellini beans for stonework.

The gingerbread girl chilling outside her house!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

ADVENTure part 2: Enjoying the excitement!

I wondered, as I built our Advent calendar and created a million extra activities for us to do (because our life isn't hectic enough as it is) whether I was over-doing it. And maybe in a normal December it would have been too much. But, thankfully (did I just say that?) our weather has been super cold for the past week and we haven't been able to do much besides fun Advent activities.

I kind of feel like I dodged a bullet, actually.

And sometimes I look at the activities we (as in my kids and I) picked out and wonder if they're not holy enough? Not serious enough for something as special and as important as Advent. Are we turning the wait for the best gift in the world into something too lighthearted and silly?

But then I remember that when you're waiting for the best gift in the world, the one that gives you hope for our broken world, you should be giddy with excitement. You should be overflowing with joy. Any activity I can do with my kids that makes them laugh and makes their eyes sparkle fits that bill.

Our first nine days of Advent have been (mostly) joyful and giddy. They have been fun, silly, messy, creative, and occasionally a little bit frustrating, too. That's what happens when you ask kids to string popcorn using needles that are too big. Sigh. Every activity can't be perfect, right?

With fifteen days left until Christmas, thinking about our Advent adventure thus far makes me smile and I'm feeling excited about the days to come. And that's exactly what I was hoping for.

Psst...for more on our Advent adventure, check out the intro post here and the first ADVENTure post here.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

ADVENTure: Reminding us of the excitement of the season

The Christmas season is upon us and with just hours to spare, Scott and I got our advent calendar finished. Thanks to the activities in our calendar, so far we've decorated the house, played a few games of Jenga, enjoyed some family time on the floor with Callie's two guinea pigs and Brynn's mouse, and had a broccoli night (I made this broccoli crunch salad and this broccoli soup). The broccoli night was Callie's idea (especially interesting since she doesn't like broccoli). I've been documenting of all of our Advent fun so far on Instagram, using the hashtag AdventAdventure2013. I'd love it if you'd join in – post a photo of something fun your doing to celebrate the season and hashtag it so we can all see!

Here is a link to the document I made with our advent activities – please feel free to use it for your family. The ideas were mostly mine but I also had the girls make a list of their ideas and added those ideas to our activities. We ended up with many more than we needed and are keeping the extras in an envelope as "wild cards," for when we have time to add an additional activity or for activities that are weather dependent (ie: building a snowman doesn't work every day around here, but it might work tomorrow).

Scott was assigned the task of figuring out what activities could go on what days, so with our family calendar in hand he laid out all of the activities (which I'd printed and cut into cards), and slipped them into the right envelopes. Somehow he left out "decorate gingerbread houses" because apparently the man doesn't appreciate the joy of building a home only to eat it a few days later. That activity is a wild card now, which probably works out better so I'll have more time to plan for it.

For the calendar itself, I used an old cabinet door that came from the ReStore (you can buy them for a buck). I painted it with some barn red paint that I already had on hand and added 25 of the smallest cup hooks I could find at Home Depot. The cup hooks were $4 for 100 hooks. I found little 3x3 envelopes at Archivers (25 envelopes for $5) and punched holes into the top corners. We didn't seal them when we added the activity cards, so hopefully we'll be able to use them for a few years to come.

Are you doing anything special to remind you of the excitement of the Christmas season? Instagram it and hashtag it #AdventAdventure2013 so we can all see!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Homemade play dough with plant-based dyes

The last time I made play dough was about 8 years ago. I made a huge batch so that we could give some away as birthday gifts to my kids' friends. That dough lasted a good four or five years but it was kind of boring. Plain white. What fun is that?

It's a good thing kids have such great imaginations, right?

This time around I decided to try adding plant-based dyes to the dough. I've been wanting to experiment with plant-based dyes ever since we started juicing a few years ago. The intense colors of the juice made me want to do something fun with it...besides drinking it. I decided to try making plant-based dyes for this play dough without doing any research first...just to see how fool-proof it is. Or how smart I am?

I followed the basic play dough recipe with a few modifications to get the dyes to work. For each color, I made a separate batch of dough using the full dough recipe below.


Homemade Play Dough (makes almost two cups of dough)

For the dough:
1 C water/dye combined
1/2 C salt
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 C flour
2 tsp cream of tartar

I bought that giant cream of tartar from a restaurant supply
store about 10 years ago!

For three dye colors (purple, green, and orange):
1/2 C frozen blueberries, thawed
2 -3 C fresh baby spinach
1 small red beet + 2 Tbsp tumeric powder

  1. Juice your produce, cleaning your juicer between colors. If you don't own a juicer, chop up your produce and add a bit of water to it (just enough to cover your produce). Simmer it on the stove for a few hours. Strain.
  2. Using one empty jar per color, combine one color of juice with enough water to make 1 cup of liquid. 
  3. To each jar, add 1/2 C salt (and 2 Tbsp tumeric powder to the beet juice jar). Cover the jar and shake until the salt is dissolved or nearly dissolve. I was using coarse salt because it's all I had on hand. It never did dissolve completely, but the dough came out smooth despite the coarse salt.
  4. Add 1 Tbsp of vegetable oil to each jar and shake.
  5. In a pot that holds at least 1 quart, combine 1 C of flour and 2 tsp cream of tartar over medium heat. Add liquid (juice/salt/oil concoction) and stir vigorously with a flexible spatula until the mixture begins to look like play dough. This step took me about 2-3 minutes.
  6. Remove the dough from the pot and knead it until the color is uniform and the dough seems ready.
  7. Wash your pot and repeat the process with other colors, if you're making additional colors.
  8. Store dough in an air-tight container. If it starts to dry out, knead a bit more vegetable oil into it to bring it back to life.
Spinach juice, beet juice (right), and blueberry juice (left)

Juices combined with water and salt. Waiting for the salt to dissolve.

Making more than one color was a bit of a pain, to be honest, because of all of the containers and cleaning the juicer between colors. (Of course I did the research after I finished making my dough, and read here that you can knead your juice into the dough after making a big batch of plain dough. I also found out that carrot juice works to make orange dough. Duh.) But, I love the three colors I ended up with. And, while I think it's fun to be surrounded by neon colors like you find in the play dough you buy at the store, I love the earthiness of this dough and I really love that I don't have to wonder what's in it. 

If I were to do this again, I'd use carrot, spinach, and beet juice to make my three colors (that would give me green, orange, and pink instead of green, orange, and purple). The purple is beautiful, but blueberries are kind of pricey to be grinding up for play dough dye. I'd also try making one big batch with triple the recipe above and using pure water instead of water/dye mix for the dough. Then I'd knead the juice in at the end. The kneading would take more time, but the amount of time (and water) saved doing dishes and washing the juicer would probably be worth it!

Is this something you'd be willing to tackle at home? I loved experimenting with plant-based dyes. Next summer: plant-based tie-dye!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

What are you up to for Advent?

Psst...for more on our Advent Adventure, check out this more recent post!

Ever since my kids were little, our Advent calendars have been the kind with chocolate behind the doors of a cardboard calendar. But this year I'm ready for something different. Something a little more challenging.

Don't get me wrong. My kids still want their daily chocolate, and that's okay with me.

As the kids get older, though, I've found myself spending less time wiping butts, checking teeth, and picking up clothes. Instead, I'm spending more time reading and discussing books with them (Black Beauty and Poppy were our two latest reads), cooking with them, crafting together, building, painting...

And like a sudden clap of thunder on a sunny summer day, I realized that I've left the age of needy children and been thrown into a time when my kids are able to contribute to the daily running of our household.

For me, that means more time for fun. For activities. For enjoying my kids and also being able to relax when they've gone to bed.

This is a fantastic stage of life.

Which leads me back to the point: for my first time as a mom, I've got the time and energy to think about Advent as 24 days of connecting with my family. It can be 24 days of preparing for Christmas and 24 days of enjoying the greatest gifts I've ever received, my husband and kids.

And even as I write this, I think that maybe I'm being a little pollyanna. It won't be all fun and games. There will be times when we're running too late and have to skip an Advent activity. Sometimes the kids will want to take our activities too far. But I'm okay with that. I want the challenge. I think the fun will outweigh the eye-rolling. I'm finally ready for this.

So I'm building an Advent calendar. I took an old cabinet door, painted it red, and screwed in 24 little cup hooks. I've got little envelopes to hang on each hook. When it's done, I'll show it to you. But right now I want some feedback. What goes in the envelopes?

I've come up with some ideas of my own. Here are a few of my favorites:
  • Watch a Christmas movie
  • Take a drive to see Christmas lights
  • Take an evening walk as a family
  • Make popcorn strings and hang them on a tree outside
  • Write a letter to one of your teachers teacher telling her why you like his or her class
  • Pick up litter
  • Make s'mores
  • Share three reasons why each person in your family is special
  • Make snowflakes to hang in the windows

One of the best parts of creating this calendar has been getting input from the kids. They're so creative and...unpredictable. Here are a few of their ideas:
  • Do everything by candlelight for the rest of the night
  • Make crazy hats
  • Make whipped cream
  • Have an eating contest (I wonder if those two are related?)
  • Have a broccoli night

Yep, the kids' ideas rock.

So my plan is to gather our ideas, print them out, and put them into envelopes that correspond with the days when we have the right amount of free time to enjoy those activities. We won't be making Christmas cookies on Thursday nights, our busiest night of the week. But we could play a game of Jenga.

What do you have planned for Advent? Or has it even crossed your mind?

Monday, November 4, 2013

Smoke detector or unpredictable alarm clock?

A few years ago when I remodeled our basement, the inspector who came to do the final inspection told us he wouldn't pass our basement until we had smoke detectors in every bedroom. Apparently this was to bring our house up to current code – we only had smoke detectors in the two hallways right outside of the bedrooms. (Sidenote: is this one reason why homeowners avoid pulling permits? Because inspectors can hold your permit hostage? For me it is.)

And so, like the responsible homeowners we try to be, we put up "lick-n-stick" smoke detectors in all of the bedrooms in our house. That makes seven smoke detectors (five in each bedroom, one in each hallway) and two carbon monoxide detectors. We've got nine batteries to change every year.

Of course they're not the cheap less-expensive AA or AAA batteries. They're 9-volts which, if you have to run to the drugstore to pick one up in the middle of the night, will cost you about $5 a pop. And they need to be changed every year to keep your smoke detector from turning into an alarm clock that can't be set.

Inevitably, these detectors will only chirp at you in the middle of the night, and if you're like I was last night, you'll end up trolling your hallway cursing under your breath while you try to figure out which one is chirping. Is it the battery one? The hardwired one? Is it the carbon monoxide alarm?

Last night the most likely contender was the first to come down. It's our old original detector and it kept chirping after I had taken it off the wall and removed the battery (how does that happen?), so like any normal person in a sleep-induced haze, I buried it in the sofa cushions and crawled back in bed.

Two minutes later I heard more chirping, and it wasn't just the muffled one coming from the sofa cushions. At first I thought it was coming from the hardwired base of the detector I'd just removed from the hallway, so I nearly ripped the base out of the wall before I realized I'd probably shock myself and make a big drywall mess or maybe even start a fire in the process (ironic, I know). Instead I decided to stand under it for a second to wait for another chirp.

Eventually something chirped, but it sounded like it was coming from inside the bedroom. That's two alarms in one night. I jumped around the corner and pulled the carbon monoxide detector out of the wall and removed the battery. Back in bed with eyes wide open, I waited.


What the? Yeah, you know that feeling. Sleepy and wanting to hide under your pillow after yelling a few choice words.

That's when I remembered the lick-n-stick that the inspector made us put in. At that moment I had a few choice words for him, too. I stomped out of bed and yanked the lick-n-stick detector from the ceiling.

I pulled out the battery right before it chirped one more dying chirp and then I shoved it into the sofa with the rest.

I climbed back into bed one more time and waited. Nothing. Eventually I drifted back to sleep.

That inspector who required us to put up five more smoke detectors? He did arm us with this bit of wisdom: Change your smoke detector batteries every Halloween.

When I asked him why Halloween, he said because it's easy to remember. Smoke...Halloween. He also said, "Don't wait for it to chirp, because they only chirp in the middle of the night." At the time I thought he was kidding but now I think maybe it's actually true.

It's probably easy for some people to remember to change their batteries every Halloween, but it's not easy for me. Here we are four days after Halloween and I've got chirping smoke detectors. Today I'm putting it on my calendar for next Halloween and I'm setting it to repeat annually. Then I'm going to Costco to buy an economy-pack of 9v batteries.

What about you? When was the last time you changed your batteries? Do you do it on a schedule or whenever they chirp? How do you remember? And, have you ever heard a smoke detector chirp when it's not the middle of the night?

Sunday, September 8, 2013

{backyard bunk-alow} Part One: From Fort to Cabin

As part of our backyard renovation, we promised the girls that we'd tear down their old fort and replace it with something bigger and more grown up. They are, after all, 8 & 10 years old now. You wouldn't know it by the way they still fought over the fort's one swing...until it fell off sometime this summer. But still, a fort with a fake telescope and steering wheel just wouldn't do anymore.

The idea was to give them a place where they could have sleepovers (with their dad and grandpa and maybe me, too) and a place where they could kick back, read, and chill with their friends. The hillside where the fort sits is pretty steep and not an easy place to landscape nor is it a great place to play. The new cabin will reclaim some unused space and give them a bigger piece of the backyard to call their own.

The inspiration for our cabin comes from Ashley and Jamin at The Handmade Home. I had a chance to get to know Ashley this summer when we were both invited to an event for bloggers at Delta Faucet. I'd pinned her Handmade Hideaway long before I met her and when I finally made the connection that SHE was the one with the world's cutest backyard hideaway, I was stoked. Because not only is her hideaway super cute and exactly what I was looking for, but also because she is one of the most genuine, caring, and entertaining people I know.

Image via Pinterest. Here's a link to the Handmade Hideaway tutorial.

See how dang fun this thing is? For the past few days I've been working my rear end off to build something similar. I started by taking apart, piece by piece, our old fort. The girls happened to have the day off of school on Tuesday and they helped me out by organizing all of the hardware that I pulled out of the fort so that I could re-use it. They had about ten different containers full of screws, bolts, nuts, and washers with a sign that said,

"Brynn's Hardwear. Bring in your old wears. Buy new. Buy used. Awsimniss is in the air when you come to Brynn's Hardwear."

I know. Kids are too stinkin' funny. I especially love their spelling.

Here's the old fort:

Yep, it was a little out of square thanks to years of kids swinging on the swings (which used to hang off to the right but are now missing). My kids, at a combined total of about 140 pounds, were still spider swinging on the one remaining swing a few months ago. Scott and I would cringe as we'd see the whole fort twist every time the swing moved and we weren't that sad when the swing finally fell off. Thankfully, not while a kid was using it.

The fort actually has a bit of history in our neighborhood. Our neighbors across the street built it for their kids when they were young. When they outgrew it, the fort was dragged across the street to our next door neighbors' yard where it served two kids well. We acquired it about five years ago. We buried the base in our hillside since we didn't have a flat place to put it. Then we took off the plastic sides and replaced them with the wooden railing you see in the photo above. Eventually we removed the plastic slide that came with the fort. One swing bit the dust while we were living in Mexico a few years ago. The second finally saw its end this summer.

Although the fort had seen better days, the wood from which it's built is still in decent shape. So, being the re-user that I am, I'm hoping to incorporate as much of it into the new cabin as possible.

With that in mind, here's how the fort looked at the beginning of day two, after a day of disassembly:

And at the beginning of day three:

So those 10ft long 2x10s that make the frame for this beast? They're from our old deck (aka: The Raft). They're heavy. And, you know, I build heavy furniture and don't use the term "heavy" lightly. They're really heavy in a way that I've found to be atypical for lumber this old. I think it's because they are (or were) pressure treated. But despite their weight I got this far on the new cabin's base while Scott was at work. I did it by myself. That front right corner? It's more than 5' off the ground. All I'm saying excuses, my friends. If I can do this, you can do anything. You don't even need a buff partner to help you out. I mean, this deck is even level. Maybe not square (although I did my best to get the posts in the right places while wondering how many neighbors were spying and laughing every time my tape measure hit the ground), but it is definitely level.

The footprint of the posts is 10' wide and 8' deep, the reverse of Jamin and Ashley's. Since we have enough space I cantilevered the deck out an additional 2' 8" toward the front (making it 10' x 10'8" total). Most of the leftover 2x10s from The Raft (our old deck) were just barely long enough to make 10'8" work -- I'm glad I could find those giant boards a new home in our yard. They're old but they are in decent shape and have a lot of life left in them.

I thought I could build the deck for the cabin without moving all of the posts from the old fort. As it turned out, it made more sense to move all four of them and re-dig those holes.

More on that later this week...because everyone should know how to dig a good post hole.

Until then, follow me on Instagram to see progress of our cabin every day. Or follow me on Facebook to get intermittent updates (read: when I remember to post).

Lastly...any ideas on what to call this thing? The kids are calling it "the cabin." I wanted "backyard bungalow" but Scott says that "bungalow" sounds too much like "gigolo." We've tested out "chalet" and I've thought of "casita" and "cabana." We can't even consider calling it a "playhouse" or our oldest kid won't use it. If you can think of something better (and I'm sure you can) throw it out there. We just might grab it.

Edited to add: Callie found the perfect name! We're calling it the "Backyard Bunk-alow," and I've updated the title of this post to include the new name. Click here for part two where you'll hear how we came up with the name.  Click here for all of the Backyard Bunk-alow posts!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

High Chair -- from scraps!

When we gave away our old Peg Perego high chair it was with anticipation of building a replacement. We don't need one for ourselves (although Callie would probably still sit in it if she could -- she'd like to stay a baby forever). Since we've got visitors with a one year old coming into town this week, I finally had my chance to build this chair! I promise, it's a DIY-friendly project. You can build one, too.

My goal for the high chair was to build it without buying any materials but still come out with a sturdy chair that would last a long time. Long enough for my grandbabies to use someday. Other than the red paint, which I had to buy, all of the materials came from my house.

The Ana White plan for this high chair calls for 1x2s for the entire frame, but I used 1x3s for the legs and supports, 1x2s for the upper side rails, and an old dowel for the front. I also changed the way the seat was built in order to bulk it up a little.

The 1x3s had been sitting in my garage for quite a while. They'd even been stained, painted, and distressed for another project that never happened. The dowel for the front came from an old roman shade -- actually one of the shades I used for the back of this media center. The seat is made of a 1x3 for the face, a 1x6, a 1x3, and then a 1x2 for the back. They're joined using pocket holes. 

For the center strap, I used one of Scott's old belts. This is one side-effect of switching to a plant-based diet...lots of too-big belts. I was hoping to use this one belt for the center and also to strap over a kid's lap when they're seated in the chair, but it wasn't quite long enough.

The belt is screwed into the underside of the chair using two small cabinet screws. At the top it wraps around the dowel and then I joined the two parts of the belt using a small bolt with a washer and nut. Scott punched a hole in the belt for me using his leather punch (he's pretty experienced with it, since all his belts are too big).

For the finish I used premixed cherry red glossy Valspar paint -- I was looking for something that would be easy to clean, but also only took one step to finish because I didn't have a lot of time. If I were finishing an every day high chair, I'd probably clear coat the chair with PolyWhey to make it more durable. But for occasional use, I think this will be fine.

I applied the paint using my favorite tool, my Fuji Mini-Mite 3 HVLP sprayer. The sprayer is so fast and even and easy to clean that I've almost totally abandoned my brushes!

Once the finish was done and the leather strap was in place, I added two 1 1/2" Kreg screws to each side going into the back rest, just to give interest and a little edginess. I wonder if a high chair can even be edgy? I also added sliding feet like these to keep the chair from scratching up the floor.

Although this cute high chair will probably spend more time in the attic than it will with a baby's bottom in it, I'm hoping that we'll get some use from it and maybe even be able to pass it around the neighborhood for our friends' visitors, too. Or, maybe since it's so cute I'll just leave it sitting at my table and enjoy looking at it without the responsibility of feeding a baby!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Traveling the world...with kids

I just returned home from an adventure. We decided our kids were ready to travel. And when you're ready to travel (again) and feel like you've been chomping at the bit for a decade while waiting for a chance to get back out into the world, why start small?

I mean, why go someplace easy?

We didn't.

For our first big adventure with our girls, we decided to take them to Asia. It was meant to be a test. We figured that if they could handle this trip, they could handle just about anything and maybe we'd have more trips in our future.

We started with a few days in and around San Francisco (clearly, San Francisco is not in Asia...but it was a great jumping off point), then flew to Hong Kong where we spent about five days, took a ferry to Macau for a day, and then flew to Vietnam where we spent another four days. All together, the trip was 18 days and our girls, ages 10 and 8, managed the trip like champs.

For just a second, I want to talk about why we decided to travel with our kids, and why we chose Asia for their first big trip. Scott and I both believe it is important for our children to grow up knowing that there is more to the world than the little community in which we live. We believe that in order to understand that most of the world is not like America, our kids should see the world for themselves. We want their view of the world to be not an us-and-them view, but a we-are-all-in-this-together view. I know that it's possible to achieve these goals without travel (neither Scott nor I traveled as kids and we came out okay) but travel seems like the best way to ensure that our kids will end up with the perspective we want them to have.

Also, we recently realized that we've only got 8 years left with our oldest kid before she might be out of the house. That's not much time and we wanted to be intentional about spending focused, concentrated time with both of our kids, creating memories and bonding as a family. To us, travel is the best way to do that.

Most of the people who heard about our trip asked the same thing, "Why Asia?" And some, the more bold of our friends and acquaintances, asked, "Why aren't you going to Europe?"

There were a few reasons. First, a good friend from my childhood lives in Hong Kong. We've wanted to visit her there and haven't had a chance, so this seemed like a great opportunity. But also, Asia is very different from America. If you haven't spent much time there, Asia shocks you. It's crowded and noisy and looks different and smells different and tastes different. The language is impossible for us to understand. The food is completely foreign. The customs are unfamiliar.

And also, Europe? I've not been to more of Europe than London (which I realize doesn't even count in some people's eyes), but my impression is that Europe is relatively comfortable. From my experience traveling, I've found that the times I learned the most about myself and the world were the times I was uncomfortable. And the more uncomfortable I was (both physically and mentally), the more I learned.

While traveling in Asia we felt stupid several times and uncomfortable most of the time. We were laughed at more than once. Not in a judgmental, "You stupid Americans," way, but in a, "How silly that they don't know how to ask for more tea," way.

And that was good. Being laughed at in that way keeps a person humble. It reminds us that the world does not belong to us and that we represent, in fact, but one small bit of humanity.

Philosophy aside, traveling with kids is intimidating. No matter how rewarding it might be, it's a little scary.

Because my kids having tantrums in my house? Where I can send them to their rooms? I can handle that.

My kids having tantrums on a train in the middle of a totally foreign place? Not so easy to handle.

So, here are a few things we learned along the way. Hopefully these are ideas you can use, ideas you will use as you drag your children around the globe.

1. Keep them fed. Duh, right? But it's harder than it sounds. As an adult, you want to get from one place to another and you can fight through an empty stomach, knowing that your next meal is not that far away. We tried this with our kids -- not that we were intentionally trying to stretch them, we were just trying to pack in as many activities and sights and experiences as we could. Brynn (our older one) can handle being a little hungry. Callie, our younger one, cannot. Much like I've heard her father was at 8 years old, Callie falls apart before her stomach even growls. Grunting, groaning, shaking her body, pissed off at the world. And if we let her get to that place where she is falling apart, she won't eat because nothing "sounds good." So once we figured this out, even when it wasn't convenient, we made sure to keep her fed. This meant frequent stops for snacks and it also meant keeping water on hand. Sometimes water was all she needed, but she didn't recognize it. We had to remember to offer it to her regularly.

2. Build in downtime. During our first couple of days in Hong Kong, we had a lot of ground to cover and not a lot of time. We were staying in an apartment in a great location in the middle of Hong Kong, but it wasn't a place we wanted to hang out during the day. It was small and a bit cramped (as are most places in Hong Kong), it smelled a little mildewy, and it was a little warm. Between not having an ideal place to come back to for a rest and not wanting to sleep during the day for fear of never adjusting to the time difference, plus wanting to see as much as possible in a short amount of time, we may have worked too hard. Callie fell asleep at dinner the first three nights. Head on the table, carried out of restaurants. Meals she normally would have loved she totally missed out on.

Looking back, what could we have done differently during those first few days? We could have found a place for the kids to chill. Some kind of park or open space (not easy to find in Hong Kong, but I'm certain if we looked hard enough we could have found it) would have been a great place for the kids to let their brains rest while their bodies played. That brings me to #3.

3. Find other kids to play with. Our kids are 8 and 10. They're not toddlers. They don't need a LOT of playtime. But they need some. And, frankly, Scott and I are not ideal play companions. During this trip it occurred to me that playtime is to kids what sitting back and drinking a beer (or a glass of wine) is to adults. It helps us unwind, helps us chill out, helps us relax so that we are prepared for the next big thing.

We were lucky that in San Francisco we stayed with friends who have three kids. All three are younger than my kids, but I don't think it mattered. They had a ball playing together and their playtime each evening was enough to unwind the kids for another full day the next day. During the second part of our time in Hong Kong we stayed with friends who have two year old twins. Again, much younger than my kids and, again, it didn't matter. My kids engaged with them and through play were able to chill. In Vietnam we were hoping to have kids around for our kids to play with during the second half of our stay there. That didn't work out as planned, but the girls played really well with each other during the afternoon when we had nothing else to do. In a hot, sweaty, difficult situation, their opportunity to play together is what kept all of us sane.

4. Have realistic expectations. Traveling with kids is not the same as traveling with adults. We didn't see and do everything with our kids that we might have seen and done had it been just the two of us. For instance, in Macau we planned to spend our first afternoon/evening seeing the Las Vegas-ish side of Macau. Exploring the hotels and arcades and wandering past the expensive restaurants. The next day, before catching an evening ferry to the airport, we planned to wander the old side of Macau which was colonized by the Portuguese. Unfortunately, it was raining. And it rained all day long. Scott had a whole walking tour planned for us, with cool facts about everything we were going to see. He had a list of food we wanted to try. If we'd been there alone, we probably would have sucked it up and done the walk in the rain. But with kids? Forget it. We tried sitting in a coffee shop, waiting for the rain to die down. We tried wandering through the Wynn, hoping that eventually the rain would stop. The rain never stopped, so we cut our losses and headed back to the ferry terminal to try to catch an earlier ferry to the airport. At least there we knew the kids could sit back and read or write in their journals and rest. Of course the sun came out as soon as we got on the ferry.

As it turned out, there was a problem at the ferry terminal with our Vietnamese visas, so the extra time came in handy. But even if things had gone smoothly, downtime in the airport would have been better than going with our original plans.

5. Guide them in their learning. Both of my kids were asked by their teachers to keep journals of their trip. You want to know what those journals looked like at first? "I just got on the plane. Now the plane is in the air. The flight attendant brought us drinks. We watched a movie." Yeah, pretty much a play-by-play of everything we did. I encouraged them to choose one thing that they noticed that day to write about. A smell? A sound? A sight? This worked for Brynn. At 10 years old, she's learned how to write essays and can write well from a prompt. Callie still needed extra guidance, though, and by the time we got to Vietnam, she was done writing. She wanted nothing to do with it. At that point, I actually had to write for her. We would talk about what she wanted to say and then she'd dictate to me. And I had to be flexible enough to be okay with that. We never did get through the second half of our time in Vietnam, but at least now she has experience journaling and I hope that next time will be easier.

Before Brynn went back to school on Monday, I asked her, "When your teacher asks you what you learned, what are you going to say?" Her answer? "Ummmm, I learned about rice." Seriously? We just spent how many thousands of dollars and how much time and you learned about rice? I know she learned more than that and I know Brynn's teacher. I know that he wants his students to think critically and expects a lot out of them. That answer wasn't going to cut it. So I stopped her and reminded her that her answer didn't have to be so literal. Her answer needed to be something she couldn't learn from watching a movie or reading a book. It needed to be something that required her being in a new place. That helped move her in the right direction. Then she was coming up with answers like, "I learned that Asia is really different from America," and, "there is a lot more of the world that I want to see." Those were answers we could work with and expand on.

When I think back to my first experiences being in new and different places, I'm not sure that I could have done much better than Brynn, and I was a young adult. I know that the answers are inside her, that she internalized all she saw, but it's hard to make sense out of it. It takes maturity and experience to put into words what you see and feel and learn when you travel.

6. Pack lighter than you think is reasonable. We tried to pack light, but we could have done better. We each had a backpack and nothing else which seemed pretty good when we left the house, but the girls' packs were too heavy for them (especially for Callie -- Brynn did well). Our trip included some significant changes in weather that made packing difficult. We went from the Bay Area (which Scott says is the coldest place he's ever been) to the Mekong Delta (which was in the high nineties and humid while we were there). I don't mind carrying a heavy pack, and neither does Scott, but next time we'll make sure the girls' packs are as light as possible to make transiting from one place to another even easier.

7. Don't avoid the hard stuff. For me, the hardest part of the trip was the two days we spent in the Mekong Delta. It was hot. Like 99 degrees plus super humid. It was a long (3 1/2 hour) bus ride getting out there. Brynn left a backpack in the bathroom of a bus station and we had to go through a pretty drawn out process with the police to get it back while our bus was about to pull out of the parking lot. The place where we were staying was supposed to be a "homestay" but turned out to be more of a guest house. There was no air conditioning and no shower. We were dirty, sweaty, and stinky. It was hard and sometimes it was frustrating. I almost suggested that we cut it short and run back to the comfort of our air conditioned hotel in Saigon.

But I didn't.

And you know what? The kids didn't think it was hard. Or at least they didn't say so. They had fun. They played. They learned. They met a sweet woman from Japan and a great couple from the Netherlands who were staying at the guest house with us. The girls engaged with these strangers from other parts of the world and caught glimpses of cultures that they'd never seen before. They smiled and laughed and answered questions and were really great representatives of America. They made us proud.

Old Vietnamese women grabbed Callie's arms and smacked her behind and pointed at her and smiled toothless grins. (We can't figure out why, but old women and animals all love Callie.) Kids waved at us and yelled, "Hello!" through huge smiles. The girls chased minnows in the muddy water outside our cabin. They adjusted well to the heat and humidity.

As adults, the hard stuff is what makes us physically uncomfortable and makes us nervous because we don't know what to expect. But not for the kids. They took it all in stride and pushed us to be cheerful (or at least pretend to be cheerful) despite our discomfort. For kids, the hard stuff is walking through museums, reading guidebooks, being forced to sit at a table for long stretches of time. For them that isn't fun. Playing in the mud is fun. Meeting new people is fun.

That last part of the trip, the hardest part, reminded me of why I believe in traveling to challenging places. Sometimes it doesn't feel great. It isn't relaxing or luxurious or simple. You don't return home feeling recharged or revived or ready to take on the world. As I get older I see myself wanting to go someplace simple, someplace where I don't feel so challenged. I want to go lie on a beach or sit in a nice restaurant and drink wine. And we will. We need balance. But the stuff that's hard for Scott and me is great for the kids and so I have to remind myself not to avoid it but rather to seek it out and be intentional about including it in our travel plans.

I'll probably write a few more posts about our trip, but I'll do it over on our family blog. If you're interested in following along, feel free to check up on The Friendly Home on Facebook or follow me on Twitter. I'll publicize any other travel posts there. Also, we finally joined the Instagram family while we traveled. You can see all of our pics on Scott's Instagram page, here.

Have you traveled with kids? What would you add? I'm sure there's more to know!