At the start of the summer I challenged my kids to make something everyday.  Big Girl looked skeptical, clearly imagining one giant project after another.  But, she quickly agreed once I pointed out how many different ways there are to “make something.”

For the next 5 posts, I’m going to share some highlights from our make something challenge.  The rules have been as basic as can be:  make something using your imagination (rather than a kit or strict rules) and as much as possible try to use stuff we already have in the house.  Cooking counts and so do temporary structures.

One of our cheapest and most impressive group projects was to make lanterns using mason jars, elmer’s glue, food coloring, and nail polish.  We mixed glue with food coloring and used a sponge brush to apply the colors.  Each of these jars took two coatings.


IMG_3982We were inspired by some reading we had been doing about India as well as some lanterns we had seen for sale at Pier 1 (but I refused to buy 🙂 ).  So we painted them in bright jewel tones and used nail polish to create designs.

The final effect is really charming.  It took a few hours from start to finish and we have enjoyed making them our table centerpiece– especially when we are having Indian food for dinner.  Yum!




Rachel's iPhone 236Like many other parents, I spent a large part of early June attending end of year celebrations, preparing children to say goodbye, and thanking teachers for their work.  For us, this included deciding to make 12(!) homemade teacher gifts.

We wanted these gifts to be affordable but special.  After (too many) hours of brainstorming, browsing, reading, and websurfing, I finally hit upon the idea of making fabric covered journals.

These cost us only about $4 each to buy the notebooks and some additional elastic ribbon for the closing mechanism.

The full list of materials:

5″ x 7″ soft cover bound notebooks (not spiral)

10″ x 14″ piece of fabric (cotton works great, brocade was a disaster) to cover the notebook

9″ piece of elastic ribbon to bind on the back cover and stretch around to close the book

9″ piece of regular ribbon (we found 1/2 inch to be a nice size) to serve as a bookmark

2 4 1/2″ x 6 1/2″ pieces of paper to line the inner cover

modge podge or elmers glue and foam brush for spreading the glue

Optional: fabric flowers, beads or other embellishments to attach to the closing elastic

It takes a couple of days to make the journals as you need to allow enough time for the glue to dry in between steps.
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Step 1: Cut fabric (trust me, don’t use brocade!) to allow for one inch overlap on all sides. Cover the journal in glue.  Fold the fabric over the journal, smoothing out any bunching or bubbles.  Do this for one cover at a time and then stand up with the pages spread out to dry.





Rachel's iPhone 151Step 2: Once the fabric has completely dried and
adhered to the journal, cut the fabric to allow for folding on the inside of the journal covers.  This requires cutting a v at the top and bottom middles along the center page binding.  (Top left corner of the picture).  Also cut a v at each outer corner to create a neat corner edge.

Step 2: Fold in the edges of the fabric onto the inside front cover and glue into place.  Be careful not to get glue on the front page of paper and be sure to prop open so the front cover has time to dry.  I found we needed to complete the front cover one day and the back cover the second day in order to allow sufficient time to dry.

Step 4: Once the fabric is secured and dry on the inside and outside of both covers, it’s time to attach the closing elastic and the bookmark.  I used the hot glue gun for this.  I put a dab of hot glue in the left top corner of the back cover about 1″ from the top (bottom of the fabric edge but where paper would cover) and attached a ribbon to serve as a bookmark.  I repeated the process on the right top corner and right bottom corner to attach the elastic.

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Step 5: We lined the inside of the front and back covers with decorative paper.  The girls wrote brief notes to their teachers on the inner cover.

Optional:  For Big Girl’s main teacher we attached a fabric rose to the elastic closure.

I know this project comes too late for anyone to use for this year’s end of the year gifts but maybe it will work for some of you as a holiday gift or an idea for the future.  The great things about this project were that both kids really made them on for their teachers.  They picked out the fabric and cut it, glued it down, picked out the paper and glued that, etc… Also, for anyone with lots of fabric scraps this is a great use for them!  Since we could use fabric scraps these were really affordable so I could let both girls give one to every teacher they wanted to say thanks to!

Downside, because of the drying time, they took a long time to finish up.

Even so, I’m totally making one for myself this summer!

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I’m starting small and easy…
Rachel's iPhone 171It’s true what the internet says… this time.  Roasted Starburst are delicious!!!  Really, really delicious!


Rachel's iPhone 177Turns out, though, they can be improved.  I tried stuffing the starburst into a marshmallow.  My goodness, it was amazing; tangy, sweet and melty.  Think of them as S’mores for the fruit flavored crowd.

Two other awesome camping ideas:

-For my birthday I received a cast iron campfire popcorn maker.  Others (my husband) were (inexplicably because popcorn is his favorite food) skeptical.

Turns out it works great and is worth dragging around!

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Campfire popcorn made with olive oil.

I used olive oil because it’s what we have in the cooking bin for camping.  I also bought a taster pack of different types of popcorn kernels from Hoosier Hill Farms.  I think the Mushroom popcorn is yummiest but I haven’t tried the Ruby Red yet!

-After Little Girl fell out of her camp chair and landed on a rock for the 100th time, I decided we needed some alternate (close to the ground) camping seating.  I remembered the sit-upons I used to make for girl scouts when I was little.  They were a pile of newspaper (NY Times in my house) in a garbage bag (heavy duty, if you were smart) and sealed with tape (duct, if you knew what you were up to).

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Camping Sit-Upons made from left over foam, tarps, cotton stuffing, fabric scraps and camp-dry spray.

But… times change.  We only subscribe to the digital edition of the NY Times and duct tape comes in hundreds of colors and patterns.  So, my girls and I made super glamping style ones.  We used foam from old things lying around the house (great use for old nursing pillows!), cotton batting and stuffing, fabrics from my stash and lots of duct tape.  (All of these items could be bought from a fabric store.)   For the bottom we used a cheap tarp and then I bought a can of camp dry to spray over the fabric layer to make it water resistant.

These are so comfy and I styled them as backpacks (using folded over pieces of duct tape secured at an angle at the top and bottom) so each kid can carry her own to concerts or camping.

Phew… that wasn’t so hard.  But, practice makes perfect so I’ll be back again tomorrow.

wax melting in double boiler The good thing about me being a planner is that I always have elaborate ideas about awesome things we can do to make our trips, parties and events even more exciting and memorable.  I’m the person who likes to read novels months in advance of a vacation to get in the right mood, who researches themed projects and crafts, and who starts talking up a trip well before it arrives.  I happily sew new clothes before a trip to the Renaissance Faire, develop a week-long berry themed menu as a follow up to a day spent picking, and create lists of dozens of fun things to do during Summer vacation.  For goodness sake, we might as well rename October as Halloween month, really!


We have our first of four summer camping trips coming up next weekend.   And, I have a list of dozens of new and fun camping themed activities to do at home to get ready for our trip as well as tons of great new ideas for during the trip.

First up, homemade firestarters made from an egg carton, dryer lint and melted candle wax.  I’m not sure where we found this idea originally but we made these once before and they work amazingly well (there’s a reason you are supposed to clean out dryer lint; it’s highly flammable!)

The girls and I made these yesterday.  It took about 45 minutes all together.

What you need:

Cardboard egg carton

Dryer lint

Candles or candle wax

Tin can for melting wax

Small pot as double boiler

Chopstick, pencil or thin stick for pressing the lint into the wax

We’ve been saving our dryer lint in a basket near the dryer forever.  This project uses a lot of lint so you’ll need to plan in advance.  I would estimate that each firestarter requires two loads of dryer lint and ½ small candle.

dryer lint and egg cartons for firestarters

To prepare, push the lint down into the egg carton.  This is a good job for your littler kids. Chopping candles for firestarters

Big Girl and I chopped up the candles and put in a can for melting.  We used 9 shabbat candles and just let the wick get added to the mess.

I put a pot full of water on the stove and set the can into the water to create a double boiler.   It took about 15 mins to melt the wax.

Once the wax is melted, pour over the lint.  We put everything in a cardboard box to catch spilled wax.  Press down hard with chopstick to let the wax bubble up and fully coat the lint.  I did the pouring while Big Girl pressed the lint in.  Little Girl took the picture 🙂

wax melting in double boilerlint in egg cartons ready for wax

In all, we made 18 firestarters for free and in about 45 minutes.  And, we got to spend the time planning all the fun stuff we’re going to do next weekend during our trip!

finished fire starters

18 fire starters as down payment for 18 nights by the fire? I’m in!

Added bonus?  My kids are really good at remembering to empty the lint trap in the dryer!


IMG_3530Gifts are supposed to be a way to show the receiver that you value them and wanted to give them a token to show your appreciation and affection.  Homemade gifts are supposed to be personal and meaningful. Giving something you made should say, “I care so much about you that I took the time to make something from scratch for you.”

Gifts can also sometimes be an obligation.  This is especially true for those “hallmark holidays” when the people in your life end up with built up expectations for receiving gifts.  I try to make “hallmark holidays” into “homemade holidays” so I can try to prioritize the spirit of the holiday rather than the commercialization.

This week, it turns out is the perfect storm of “hallmark holiday” expectation.  It turns out that this week is “Teacher Appreciation Week”—a time when kids are supposed to bring gifts, cards and flowers to their teachers and parents are supposed to show their appreciation for the school.  And, this weekend is that pinnacle of “hallmark holidays”: Mother’s Day!

As you might imagine, we’ve been busy around here trying to make meaningful but affordable homemade gifts.  Despite only learning of Teacher Appreciation Week three weeks ago, I magnanimously agreed to provide a small gift to ALL of the teachers and staff in my daughter’s school (50!).  Small potted plants were already taken, so was chapstick with “You’re the balm!”

After much thinking about what would be affordable, doable and actually worthy of keeping, I decided that the kids and I would make magnetic bookmarks… mass produced by us.  They worked out so well that we might even include them with the homemade Mother’s Day cards we have yet to get in the mail (They are coming, mom & mil!).


Materials needed for magnetic bookmarks:

light card stock in various colors (we chose the school colors)

sheets of thin magnets to cut into small pieces.


I used a paper cutter to cut everything quickly and neatly:  Cut cardstock into a 6″ x 2″ rectangle.  Fold in half to create a 3″ x 2″ bookmark.  Cut rectangles of 2 1/2″ x 1 3/4″.

Stamp the small rectangle with a “thank you” stamp, apply stickers, or use a shaped hole punch to decorate the small rectangle.  Center and glue (we used glue sticks) the rectangle to the front of the bookmark.


Take two sheets of magnets and place magnetic sides together (sticky sides out but keep paper on).  Cut into small pieces of approximately 1″ squares.  Remove paper lining from one side and stick to the inside of the bookmark.  Remove lining from other side and stick to other side.  This technique will help to make sure your magnets line up.

Now you have a bookmark that holds firmly to your page.  These can be personalized endlessly and I’m hoping will be a big hit with those teachers.  You know they have some books to read!  (Cheap too.  Only cost about $10 to make 50 of these bookmarks.)


I know I previously promised to show the final craft from Big Girl’s birthday party.  I promise to write that post soon… though it turns out that it is really more about the tension between kids’ longing for structure and need for open ended activity.  Sorry for the delay on that… we ended up spending almost all of our time last week taking care of a sick chicken (who died middle of last week) and setting things up for new ones.

Look too for a post on saying goodbye in these final days of the semester…

IMG_3492The second craft at Big Girl’s 8th birthday party were charm bracelets.  One of the things I was thinking about when I was planning this party was about how I could (subtly) teach the girls something about how things are made and in doing so, empower them to feel like they too can make (instead of buy).

I figured making jewelry (other than simple beading) was something that seems especially mysterious  and hard so therefore it would be a fun and exciting project to try out with the kids.  Big Girl and I decided that charm bracelets were the way to go.

What you need:



charm beads

jump rings


We purchased chains, clasps and charms online (we ordered from Oriental Trading Company).  We decided to order a pack of pink, purple and blue chains to create fun and springy bracelets.  The charms we picked were all either Spring (birds, butterflies and flowers) or in the same color family.  I already had jump rings and wire cutting plyers so I didn’t need those.  This craft cost about $45 for 18 bracelets with lots of leftover charms for future activities.

134In advance I cut the chains into approx. 6″ lengths and used a jump ring to attach the clasp to make the bracelets.  For those of you who have never done this, it sounds hard but is pretty easy.  You simply need to cut the chain link with the wire cutting part of needle nose pliers.  The little links next to the chain in this picture are the cut links that we removed when we cut the chain.

Jump rings are those simple metal rings you’ll find on all of your jewelry.  You see in this picture a pile of silver jump rings and the plastic case holding an assortment.  You can use jewelry pliers to help you open and close them, but you can also often do it with your fingers.

For this project we used fairly large ones that were easy enough for the kids to grasp in their hands.

I also discovered that most of the charms we had purchased did not come with rings so I attached jump rings to all of the charms so the kids wouldn’t need to deal with finding rings themselves.  I made Big Girls do lots of this work as it was pretty time consuming. She got a little cranky but she’s really good at putting jump rings on now!

Once I had premade the bracelets and prepped the charms, I laid out the charms by type and posted instructions on a tray.  121

I asked each of the girls to first lay their bracelet
out flat on the table then to pick out the charms they wanted and to place them where they wanted them to be.  I showed them how to open and close the jump ring and encouraged them to try it themselves.  I helped each kid in turn to either tighten the ones they had done themselves or to attach the rings for them.

They turned out really well.  IMG_3486My girls and I have been wearing ours often!  Several of the girls were able to open and close the jump rings themselves and create the entire bracelet.  For a few of the girls, I may have reached a bit too high.  But, you have to admit these bracelets are charming!

The final big project for the party was making clay beads.  I’ll post more on that within a few days.

Big Girl turned 8 a few weeks ago.  She was really eager to have a birthday party at home this year.  We decided to invite the girls in her grade (12 kids) to our house for an evening craft party.   To make this really fun and special, I decided to think up some crafts that would be wearable, a little challenging and distinct.  The next big challenge though?  How to do this without spending a fortune?

After tons of brainstorming, Big Girl and I finally settled on three major craft activities (not counting cupcake decorating!): hair-ties & headbands, charm bracelets, and clay beads.  Each of these crafts were reasonably affordable and manageable for kids 8-12 years old.

First up, hair-ties and headbands:119

I was so amazed a few months ago when I discovered that those fancy “yoga band” hair ties were really just ribbon tied in a knot.  Ever since, we’ve been making our own, sometimes with the addition of bows, beads and flowers and sometimes plain.  We’re not a headband family, but we realized around the same time that we could make headbands just as easily.  We decided to share this magic with Big Girl’s friends as the first craft at her party.

To make these hair-ties and headbands, you need:

-needle and thread

-fold-over satin elastic bands

-flowers, gems, etc…  We used chiffon flowers.

I purchased the chiffon flowers and elastic ribbon on amazon.  Fifty flowers and 10 yards of ribbon cost about $25.  This is enough to make 10 headbands and 20 hair-ties with leftover flowers!

To prepare for the party, I cut the ribbon into 18″ (headbands) and 9″ (hair-ties) pieces and trimmed the netting off the back of the chiffon flowers.

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Hair-ties are super simple.  Just tie a knot!  I pre-knotted them for the kids.  For the headbands, I sewed the ends together with a three inch overlap.  It took a minute or so to quickly hand sew them; would have been even quicker with the sewing machine.

I then pre-threaded a dozen needles and laid them out for the kids to grab.  I wrote instructions on an index card and taped it to the tray.

I had them mix and match flowers with headban117ds/hair-ties and sew the flowers to the bands themselves.
It was a huge success.  The kids loved making them and wearing them.  Some of the girls needed a little help with the sewing but most of them could do it just fine.  And, check out how cute this looks!


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Super cute and super fun!  The charm bracelets were a big hit too.  I’ll post about them later this week.

115I mentioned months ago and weeks ago that we were turning an underused room into a library.  It’s finally done and it’s a lovely space.

I am enchanted with the idea that of a library, reading room and game space up at the top of the house where sounds can barely reach you and one can get lost in a great book. I look forward to the day when I’ll get to hang out and read up there.  In the meantime, I’m pleased to have made the space!

The major goals were 1) to create a space to store all of my favorite work related books; 2) to create a space where the kids could go and browse for a new unusual book to read; 3) a place for the kids (Big Girl especially) to play checkers or chess with a friend; 4) a retreat.

I think we hit all of those goals.  But it took some effort.  For one thing, it’s very small room.  It was a lot of work though to make it truly usable.  The room itself is less than 10′ x 8′ and has three doors and one window.  It used to be a small office, it could be a small kids’ bedroom, but instead we decided to make it a library.  With all those books it could too easily become a storage room instead.

To maximize storage, floor space and airiness, we decided upon a bright glossy wall color, very minimal built in shelves and floor pillows.  First, we had to clean the mess.  The picture below is already a cleaned up version.  The room was full to the brim of stuff! (Anyone else still storing 15 years of bills and receipts?  I know my husband would love to talk with you about all the reasons we needed that paper. )

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Next we picked the color and repaired the damages to the walls.  I used the same brown for the trim that I used in the kitchen a few months ago.  Big Girl and I decided to go for a bright navy blue that we though was kind of like blue velvet wallpaper.  Then we built book shelves by mounting 1″ x 2 ” to the wall, mounting shelves to them, and using posts on the fronts to make secure.

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This was an affordable way to build in almost 100 linear feet of bookshelves.  It took some real work though since our lathe and plaster walls are crumbling and we needed to insert toggle bolts before attaching the 1″ x 2″s.  (Thanks to my dad for this vision, drill bit and manual labor!).

We decided to move flor tiles from the kitchen (before the revision) up to create a rug.

Then the girls and I turned our attention to the floor pillows.  We bought some new fabric for these, but we also used TONS of stuff laying around the house both for the fabric and also for the stuffing.


We used an old dog bed we had bought for a little kid who kept falling our of the bed!  We used old bed pillows in a stack.  We cut open other old pillows and pulled apart their fluff to revive them.  And, we broke up old bits of foam (from an old breast feeding pillow and some other stuff) to create new filling for another pillow.  Little Girl spent several days hand-sewing another pillow for the room too.

All in all, it’s a lovely, sunny spot for reading.  I’ve just started Carol Berg’s _Soul Mirror_ (the second in the Collegia Magica) series.  Maybe I’ll find a chance this weekend to sneak up there for a bit and read.

It’s one of the earliest signs of Spring; Big Girl’s skirts and dresses are suddenly all way too short! Before I break down and buy her a new Spring/Summer wardrobe I decided to see how we might creatively fill some of the holes.  This skirt is an awesome solution; it’s warm enough for cooler spring days, super cute, it was free and it only took about an hour to make.


We began by looking through some of the older clothes I have in storage; things that don’t quite fit right or are in a color I like better on the hanger than on myself.  Among those clothes we found a very cute kelly green sweater that I never wear because of the awkward arm length.  sweater skirt 1

We began our project by having Big Girl cut the sleeves and collar off the sweater.

She wanted an A-line skirt with as much drapy-ness as possible so we then folded the remaining sweater in in half and drew a line from the former-neck-now-waist to the bottom corner.  I ran those sides through the sewing machine, cut off the remainder and reinforced the hem by hand-sewing with embroidery floss.

My preference for the skirt would have been to make it a pencil skirt.  To do that I would have made a line perpendicular to the waist, cut and re-seamed along those lines.

sweater skirt 2sweater skirt 3

I cut elastic to fit her waist, sewed it into a loop, and then attached it with a loose running stitch along the top of the sweater neckline. sweater skirt 4

I was concerned about the sweater fraying so I used embroidery floss to fold the hem over the elastic and then secured it by whip-stiching the entire waist.

The final skirt is super cute and just in time for her to wear to school on St. Patrick’s Day this week!

I only wish I had a way too big sweater that I could use to make one of these for myself.




Remember those cute blackboards I made for the kitchen?  Perfect for my countdown of teaching days…  18… 17… 16 days to go.

I decided back in January to submit my resignation right away and to use this semester to wrap things up and say my goodbyes.  For the past several weeks, that’s what I’ve been doing during my work days… slowly but surely packing up my office and saying goodbyes. (Tell me, do I really have to keep paper files? The paper copy of my dissertation?  My M.A.?  No, embrace the digital world, right?)

One thing I’ve noticed is that while the sr. faculty are fully in the know (but decline to address the issue with me) everyone jr. to me is shocked to learn I didn’t get tenure.  I don’t just mean shocked on my behalf in the sense of that’s so unfair (although I get a lot of that too).  I mean, they had no idea; the news had not reached them.

I don’t know why this surprises me or bothers me so much.  I know that my department and university are profoundly hierarchical and that decision-making is completely opaque.  But, maybe since I am slowly extricating myself from this soul-sucking atomistic culture I see more clearly how information is tightly controlled in order to control people and maintain the social order.  Since I’m on my way out, I can’t change the system, but I can break the silence by refusing to let the fact that I was denied tenure a secret.  So, I have been telling all the instructors, non-tenure track people, grad students and undergrads that I am leaving because I was denied tenure.  I’m not complaining or griping, but I am making sure it’s not a secret.

While I’ve been tying up the ends of my academic career, I’ve also been making plans for the future and making space at home.  This has mainly meant two big things: thinking hard about how we use our house and reconfiguring that space to make it fit our family in this new stage, and figuring out how to cut expenses and save money so we can afford for me not to work.

Some of the saving has been easy and fun.  We’ve been making cute hair ties instead of buying more, we have plans to upcycle one of my old sweaters into a new skirt for Big Girl, and to make floor pillows created from old pillow cases and baby blankets (posts on these activities soon!).

Other saving has been more challenging… since January I’ve been trying to cook all of the food from our freezers and pantry to use up older things and decrease our food waste.  We’ve definitely done that to some extent… but we had to eat a couple of yucky dinners in the process and we still have some odd mystery ingredients to go… including two kugels that I don’t want to eat…  The upside is that I have been doing so much cooking and baking that the girls can make banana bread, cookies, and gougieres pretty much on their own!  (Maybe a few baking posts to follow soon too?)

This week its all about our new home library!  I’ve been working hard on it and can’t wait to share pictures of the gorgeous color scheme, built-in bookshelves and fabulous floor pillows in some future posts.