Friday, August 31, 2012

The Changing Toys

Since returning from my childhood home, where a great many old photos and old toys were pulled out, I've become a little obsessed with how toys have changed.

I had Barbies when I was younger. One of them belonged to my mother. I would estimate my Barbie play went on for about 6 years. Here are the Barbies lined up, newest to oldest. Is it just me, or did Barbie's eyes get bigger while her eyebrows got higher and archy-er, even over the span of a few years? I'm almost tempted to go buy a new-new Barbie so I can compare her to the 1980s Barbie.

Barbies, newest (1980s?)  to oldest (1950s).

And then there are Lego men. My brothers' Lego men from the 1980s all had the same simple black line smile and black dot eyes. I can't even find a face that simple in Noah's collection. What does this say about us, as a society, or about toys? Does everything have to be a character-with-attitude? Or maybe toys are just more interesting and diverse now-a-days?

Noah says, about his Lego men versus his uncles' (older, less expressive) Lego men,
"I have the special kits while they had simple Legos."
Fritz asks,"You mean you have the Mental Health Upgrade?"

Tomorrow, I'm headed over to Target to pick up a My Little Pony for a friend's daughter birthday. My friend wasn't quite sure if it was My Little Pony or My Pretty Pony. I remembered My Little Pony from my own childhood, but I was feeling kind of out of my league (Hello, My name is Ann. I have boys.) so I hopped on the Target website to check the name. It IS My Little Pony,  but these ponies look different from the ones I know. The new ones are skinny by comparison. It seems super-inappropriate to take a girl-toy and make it skinnier, so I thought maybe I was remembering wrong. I dug up this photo of my brothers and I with Christmas loot, circa 1982.

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Do you see the pony? No? Let me zoom in a little bit and mess with the contrast and colors to see if I can make it stand out a little more:

Okay, go ahead, check out the Target website; it's totally true, they made the ponies taller and skinnier. I mean, REALLY, is this necessary? At least they didn't change the name to My Pretty Ponies (yet).

I think I must be getting old.

Monday, August 27, 2012


The German Schultüte tradition involves giving children a cone filled with goodies on their first day of school. In Germany, where the grades are grouped a little differently in their respective schools, students get their Schultüte on the first day of school at their primary school. That would be the equivalent of first grade in the U.S. When Fritz was a child, the Schultüte was filled to the brim with candy by parents. The way Fritz tells the story, it was given to the child in the morning, before school, and was not to be eaten until after school. Essentially: it was a bribe intended to sweeten the first day of school. Schultüten lined the halls of the first grade on the first day of school, waiting to be taken home and eaten up by their expectant recipients. Can you imagine? Because I can't really....

This year we gave Noah his own Schultüte. It seemed like the right time: even though this is (American) Kindergarten, it is his first day at the primary school where he will spend the next 6 years. We filled ours with mostly school supplies and a little bit of candy. (I suspect less-candy-and-more-school-supplies is what the modern German parent does, too.) Truth is, he didn't need any bribing, he was so excited and so happy to go to 'the big kid school.'

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Water Table

Last summer there were so many projects that felt monstrous: the deck, the yard, even refinishing all that lawn furniture. I can dream big – certainly, the big dreams accumulated this summer. However, I made a conscious effort to keep the projects small and simple.

The water table was one of those 'simple' projects. I've been scheming about building the boys a water table for months. Finally, my father stepped in and built the wooden base while he was visiting. Simple = Guilt Your Loved Ones into Doing the Work.

I wanted it to be wood. (I've been biased by my fond memories of wood water tables in Munich.) And I wanted to put a big old-fashion cast iron hand pump on it with a PHYSICAL-LABOR-LIMITING water supply, for educational purposes. (The water is in the red tub below the table.) This summer, both the boys have been known to turn on the water faucet and use the water hose by themselves. Worse than their ability to turn the water on, is their strange INABILITY TO TURN THE WATER OFF. The pump doubles as a gimmick/distraction piece. It arrived last month, so we attached it to the table and set up shop. So far, it's worked: they are a lot less interested in the hose! An added feature of the pump is that the leather gasket occasionally dries out over night, meaning that the pump needs to be 'primed' before they can use it. Basically, one pours some water down the pump from the top. They both think priming the pump is very cool: I think it makes them feel like they are 'fixing' something.

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In my dream version, Colorado would allow us to collect rainwater, which we would exclusively use for the water table. And then, year, the boys would have no water to play with. But in a pedagogically ideal year, they would learn about water conservation! Well...we can't (legally) collect rainwater anyway; so instead we fill the red tub beneath the table with water using a hose. The water drains (mostly) back into the red tub. Over the course of about a month, I've only added water to the tub twice. So, I think we're still limiting the amount of water they have to play with. Kind of. Let's just say it's better than a continuously running hose.

I'm still fiddling around with the functionality of the table - trying to get it to do more. Noah and I went on an exploratory shopping trip to Home Depot with the sole purpose of finding new additions (plugs, pipes, hoses, funnels). We are hoping to build the water table up onto the fence - but we'll see. Summer is almost over, and I think my dreams may have gotten a little oversized again....

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Monday, August 20, 2012


We escaped dry, brown Colorado to Rhode Island this month to visit my family. It was great - and I do mean really, truly, wonderfully, great to spend some time with them. Also: Rhode Island is GREEN this year, due to plentiful water in many forms: rain, ocean, humidity. <insert happiness sigh>

The boys made full usage of their umbrellas every time it rained.

There are many attractions to visit within an hour drive of my parent's place. However, we often find the simplest things are the best. This child-size stage in the woods is always a big hit. It's right next to a playground, but you would never know it if you followed the boys' beeline paths to the stage.

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One of the official attraction we did visit this year was the Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. It is my favorite living history museum because the atmosphere is very low-key and all the hands-on activities have a high degree of new-ness. Sail setting, anyone?

Or perhaps some boat building?

Or maybe we'll just wade out in the water and catch something.

Below would be a hermit crab.

We also went to the zoo in Providence. I gushed about the number of trees in the zoo. Ah! Shade! Feels like such a novelty!

The boys were duly impressed by the Del's Lemonade carts at the zoo. Del's is a Rhode Island specialty. I don't know what they put in their frozen lemonade (probably something addictive and unhealthy) but it's unlike any other sort that I have ever had. Deliciously refreshing in spite of my suspicions.

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We rode some swan boats at Roger Williams Park. You can't really tell they are swan boats from the photo below. Before I could come up with a better-photo-angle idea, I was kicked out because other people wanted to pedal! Can you believe it? Five year olds!

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So I occupied myself by taking funny photos. See? Swans boats.

There was also some hair cutting, just because grandma does such a great job...

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and there was some hair styling by apprentices. Thank goodness my brothers are good natured...

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because Noah and Mattias played long and hard with an old Lego monorail which – we would discover in the process of assembling – is a collector's item. Amazingly, my mother didn't vacuum up all the pieces. Do you think I should have her guest post about how she managed that?

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Oh, yes, and then there was this: a birthday party for my father. 

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All in all, it was one awesome trip that kept me from spending too much time obsessing about the things in Colorado that I can't control. Although, I'm happy to be home and looking forward to a less eventful and more reflective September.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Neighbors and the Giant Pumpkin

This morning I am up early – and I love waking up early. No, let's correct that: I love waking up early IF I am not woken up by one of the kids. Or I love waking up early IF I am the only one already awake. It doesn't happen often. (Mattias still likes to wake up before me.)

In honor of this highly unusual event, I give you a lighter(?) story from my summer. 

I live in a neighborhood full of kids. However, most these kids are still under the age of 8. I can count 19 children under the age of 8 in houses adjacent of ours. But I can only think of 5 preteens/teens within a one block radius. So this summer, when my neighborhood started experiencing the first rounds of preteen/teen-late-night-practical-jokes, one of my neighbors confided to me that she thought it was rather funny to see everyone's lawn ornaments rearranged.

The humor, however, was short-lived. After about 3 weekends we were all feeling fully UNamused. Also, we were feeling...well...pretty well whipped by the practical jokes*. The scores was something like: Practical Jokers, 56. Neighbors, 0.

One of my neighbors has a garden which sits directly across the street from us. In it, he was attempting to grow an 100 pound pumpkin. The pumpkin had gotten quite big. It had also become a clear source of pride and impromptu learning, with young neighborhood families stopping by to see just how big it had gotten each day.

Well, you can guess what happened. One evening, a pair of preteens walked by that giant, growing pumpkin, and smashed it. Except, one of my neighbors, Eagle Eyes, who lives across the street from the giant pumpkin, happened to see the whole thing. And when Pumpkin Grower came walking up just seconds later, Eagle Eyes told Pumpkin Grower,

"There they are! The culprits! They're walking right over there!"

So the Pumpkin Grower called 911 and knowing how slowly the police sometimes respond to 911 calls, Pumpkin Grower followed the culprits. He kept his distance, but he didn't want to lose the culprits either.

Meanwhile, the culprits noticed they were being followed and decided to call 911 themselves, to report that they were being followed! In a moment of clarity, the 911 operators figured out they were dealing with the same incident on both sides. The culprits were told to sit down at a specific intersection and wait for the police to arrive.

Which is just what happened.

So now the score is something like, Practical Jokers, 60. Neighbors, 1.

But that single victory does seem to have slowed the number of practical jokes.

* Unfortunately, too many of the practical jokes could also be called vandalism, but for the sake of this post and innocent-until-proven-guilty, I'll err on the generous side.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Dining Chairs

Our dining chairs used to belong to Fritz's grandmother; they are from Germany in the 1950s. They're made of solid wood and have this swoopy curve design on the back. According to Fritz this was a pretty standard, generic style in the 1950s. While we lived in Germany, I did occasionally see similar chairs sitting around at various Flohmarkts (flea markets); so let's just say they must be somewhat common in Germany. We had used them for about 2 years (in Germany) and then I decided to sand them and stain them a dark color. That was in 2008. Since then, the chairs have undergone much child-wear-and-tear. The dark stain started flaking off about 1 year ago. Okay, confession: this was not only due to children, but also to things like the buttons on the back of our pants. They look miserable.

This brings up a frustration of mine regarding furniture: dark stain. We have several pieces of furniture that are stained a dark color and it is so impractical with children! And chairs are pretty much the worst furniture ever to have stained dark. I don't know why dark stain has been so fashionable for so long now. Unfortunately, with these chairs, I have nobody to blame but myself, because the chairs used to be a more natural wood tone. Probably if they were still a more natural wood tone that would have disguised the wear and tear. But I stained them darker. My fault. Entirely.

I think here I should point out I used some 
"environmentally friendly chemical stripper"which is probably an oxymoron, 
so the boys wore gloves and masks, when they 'helped' which they didn't, really.
And...I don't know. Probably a project I'll continue working on 

when they are not around, but you know, sometimes my desire to change-the-chair 
just drives me to think less and act more.

Now that I know better about dark stain, and given their sorry state, I decided to peel off the stain and sand them back down to natural. I could just get rid of them, I suppose. But I like them! There's that swoopy curve design on the back. And now that they've been transplanted halfway around the world, I'm attached to their new-found uniqueness. I know, I know. Peeling and sanding chairs is a brave and time-consuming endeavor. But I felt convinced that I wanted them (back to) a natural wood tone that would hold up better with 'kids.'

This is post chemical stripper, and after this,
I still need to attack them with steel wool and sand paper.

As soon as I started to remove the stain, I remembered why I stained them in the first place. That swoopy design that I like so much reads so much better with a dark stain. Maybe I was too rash to remove the dark stain? Maybe I just need to be more vigilant about touching them up and fixing scratches – whatever that means. Hmmm. So now I ask you: what do you think? Should I strip them all and return them to a natural wood color (more kid friendly and more work)? Or keep them a dark wood color (and less kid friendly and less work?)  Noah wants me to paint them a really bright color.

What should I do? I made a poll so you can vote! It's over on the side bar. You can also leave a comment to give your vote some extra weight.

(I probably won't paint them a bright color, but I am truly undecided about re-staining them dark.)