Sunday, October 31, 2010

Last Minute Halloween

We've never done much with Halloween in the past. We don't have too much against the holiday, we've just never made much of a priority of dressing up our kids and sending them out for days' worth of sugar highs. And, oddly, we've never lived anyplace where trick or treating was a big deal. In our neighborhood now there are hundreds and hundreds of kids out but they only go to businesses.

This year the kids suddenly "discovered" Halloween and just last night started talking up the complex costumes they were hoping to wear today. We decided that a bit of holiday fun was in order so we came up with some last-minute costumes.

A very scary ghoul:

This picture does not do justice to my amazing face-painting skills. At Joseph's direction he had red and yellow eyes, a green mouth, and black face.

A fairy princess:

The dress is courtesy of Aunt Laura and, again, you can't really see Margaret's very sweet and glittery face here. She was so excited to wear a whole face-full of real makeup and wants to go to church like this tomorrow for All Saint's Day.

And a sad dirty bum:

He was sad that Eric wouldn't let him play with the dirt longer but he cheered up once he realized that we were going for a walk to get candy. William was completely unfazed by Joseph's face but completely freaked out when our baker donned a clown hat and tie and tried to give him a cookie.

Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Happy Birthday, Joseph!

Six years have sure flown by.

Joseph is a pretty low-key birthday guy. Margaret just lives for the hype and anticipation but Joseph gets pretty overwhelmed by it. We opted last year to skip a party and lots of presents and take a fun family outing instead and we liked it so much that I think we'll make it a tradition. We have plans for a boat ride around Manhattan for this Friday and Joseph is very excited.

For today we let Joseph choose the menu and we were extremely relieved when he asked for cheese fondue. We also had banana splits which I guess is another Joseph tradition. For breakfast he requested blueberry scones with scrambled eggs and lunch was supposed to be the hot dog truck in the park which had to be postponed due to rain (what is it with rain on this kid's birthday?).

Joseph was also the recipient of books and a book rack:

This is a great gift for him because he often wakes up slowly in the morning and prefers to sit quietly in bed reading rather than having breakfast with us. We're fine with this habit and it's nice for him to have books at hand since there is no way to fit a nightstand near his bed.

Our only other plans for the day were to play Joseph's new games and read his new books. This was especially the extent of our plans when Joseph's wheelchair all but fell apart on the way to church this morning. He was fitted for a new chair back in June and we were expecting delivery next month. We've been nervously watching his tires deteriorate and this morning was the last straw. I called the wheelchair company in what I figured would be a futile attempt to speed up the new chair process and just minutes after Eric finished duct-taping Joseph's tire the delivery guy called up and said that, in fact, Joseph's new chair was on his truck and would we like it today?

Joseph doesn't pose well but here are a couple of shots . . . The changes are subtle but important.

You can see, maybe, that the wheels are the same size but the seat is higher. You might notice that his old seat is flopped forward. We've had trouble with that seat for about three years and it's really compromised Joseph's efficiency. The new seat is very, very solid. The new chair also has permanent rather than removable handles. They are lower and, therefore, less comfortable for the pusher but it's great to realize how seldom Joseph needs us to push him these days. On the rare occasion that he needs help up a hill, Margaret is all-too-glad to give him a boost and these new handles are much better for her. They will also make it easy for Joseph to use a backpack if he wants.

The new chair is considerably wider which is an adjustment for everyone. Joseph says it is "easier to wheel, but harder to jump." The "anti-tippers" on the back can be raised much higher on this chair which will be a good way to transition Joseph towards having a chair without that safety mechanism. Down the road he will want to be able to jump curbs and even negotiate small steps on his own and he'll need excellent backwards balancing skills for that.

Otherwise, the chair is very similar--it was even made by the same company. It should last him at least three years and we're all very glad to not have to worry about it falling apart in the middle of an outing. And, one last shot--Joseph is asking me, "Is this a good pose?" Uh . . .

Margaret did have a birthday this year.

Margaret did, in fact, turn four almost a month ago. It was a beautiful sunny day and we had plans to go to our small, local zoo. Unfortunately we sort of had a housing crisis dumped on us first thing in the morning and much of the day--and much of the four weeks since--was given over to dealing with an ugly situation. I won't go on and on here but things on that front are quiet at the moment and we are hopeful that we will be happily living in our little apartment here at least until next summer. But we'll see.

I think that Margaret's birthday, from her perspective, was still really fun. Her favorite food is "Porkacheese" (Portuguese--it took us a while to figure that out) which is abundant in our neighborhood so we got takeout from a place nearby and had friends join us for an impromptu birthday party that evening. For Margaret, it's all about the party so she was all too happy that she had a second party with my brother and sister and their spouses just a few days later.

The celebrating continued in that Margaret got birthday money this year. She's gotten birthday money every year, of course, but usually the money is spent solely at the discretion of her parents and it never really occurs to her to have an opinion. This year, though Margaret has almost no concept of what a monetary transaction entails, she was very concerned about her birthday money and how it would be used. After quietly discouraging her from running out and buying the first cheap knick-knack she could lay her hands on, it was settled that the one thing she really wanted was a doll she could dress up. My brief doll-shopping experience has revealed that specially-made doll clothes can add up right quick and I had to admit, honestly, that I am not up for making doll clothes. I was glad to find a good-quality baby doll that was sized to wear newborn baby clothes. We ordered the doll together and it arrived on the Big Brown Truck last week.

Margaret is just smitten with this doll. She named her Lila for reasons unknown to us and has taken possession of all her own newborn wardrobe which I'd saved in case we ever have another daughter. Lila is the first one dressed every morning and gets changed several times a day including into a nightgown for bed. Lila has her own "crib" (the laundry basket lined with blankets) but prefers to sleep snuggled next to Margaret. She's been to the grocery store, to church, and to a Toyota dealership and often joins us at the table. Margaret insists that I take lots of pictures of her and her baby. Here are a couple--first Margaret and Lila doing a dry run in their holiday attire, and then the two of them in more everyday clothes:

Part of Margaret's birthday present was a book rack for her top bunk which I had a lot of fun making for her. I only today got it hung on the wall--shame on me! But I've spent most of the time since she opened it thinking we might move any week. So now Margaret's pink fortress is all set up for her on the top bunk. A friend asked to see some pictures of how we rigged up a canopy for her so I tried to get a few shots but the light in the kids' room is just awful for photography.

Her book selection and flower lamp:

Margaret's bunk from "outside". The fabric is just a "tapestry" from Target. I sewed little plastic rings to four corners (I think they might be stitch markers for knitting) and left a long side hanging. Then I screwed four hooks into the ceiling and just hung it that way.

This is the foot of her bed looking up. Her doll house lives at the foot of her bed as well. Since it's a twin-size bed and she's only four there is still plenty of room for her to sleep. She loves her own space up there and since her brothers can't (yet) get up to the top bunk it's a good retreat when she's feeling frazzled. Which is often.

So, there are some of the birthday highlights. We did finally get in our zoo trip the week after her birthday and we are all looking forward to what our little four-year-old has in store for us this year.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Mommy's new hobby

It's amazing to me that I can blog on a road trip but then not again for an entire summer. I apologize for being so off and on!

You probably know that the Johnston family moved once again. We decided this very last minute just before our big road trip. An apartment came along that was much more accessible for Joseph and much lower rent than where we were living. When we got back to New Jersey we had two weeks before moving help came and another three weeks after that to clear out of the old place. The long, protracted move was not fun and we are still unpacking. Part of my hesitation in blogging is that every time I think to snap a picture I'm embarrassed by the total chaos that will appear throughout the background.

And after all this time, this post isn't even about the kids it's about me, me me! I've had a few requests for this post and I finally had time to put it together.

Last spring I stumbled across a really fantastic blog called Knock-Off Wood. The blog author, Ana White, is a stay-at-home-mom in Alaska who helped her husband build their own house. In her spare time she started tinkering with tools and scrap lumber and discovered a talent for building furniture. Less than a year ago she started posting her furniture plans on a blog and now she's got 20,000 fans and counting. Ana has a real knack for easy-to-follow plans and fostering a supportive community so that people like me who had almost never touched a power tool suddenly want to refurnish their homes with hand built furniture.

I really wanted to get in on the fun and was thrilled to receive this bad boy for my birthday in May:

Beginning woodworkers can get lumber cut for little or no cost anywhere that sells lumber but I figured I'd want my own saw. With that and Eric's drill I dove into my first project just before we moved into the new apartment.

We'd been housing our books for the last several years in a mismatched selection of bookcases from Ikea and office-supply stores. After several moves they were in rough shape and trying to place them around a home in an aesthetically pleasing way was getting difficult. Our new apartment also has 10-foot ceilings and limited storage. So I had the bright idea to build an entire wall of bookshelves reaching all the way to the ceiling. And it actually worked:

I'm impressed at the sheer size of my first building project, though shelves aren't that difficult. I modified this plan of Ana White's but changed the dimensions considerably. Because of a mathematical error (on my part) I had to build the shelves in two sections so that the top two shelves are a separate unit. This turned out to be fortunate as I would not have been able to handle the building of the units all in one piece. I also left off the back panel and added lips to the back of a couple of shelves. All the pieces are screwed directly into the studs so that we won't have any of these sorts of accidents again.

These shelves really make the room and they are the first thing you see when you come into our house. Here's Margaret welcoming you:

This last week I finished two more (much smaller) projects. When we moved we realized the kids really needed a bigger dresser so we passed mine on to them. That left Eric and I with one small dresser to share. A bigger dresser wouldn't fit in our room, anyway, but neither did our clothes fit anywhere. The closet is long and narrow and had space for something. I wasn't sure about tackling a full-fledged dresser so I built this set of cubbies:

The bins hold some of Eric's things and will also hold baby clothes before long. The bottom cubbies are for shoes. A simple, functional piece I was able to build from real wood for way less than the particle-board versions are selling at the stores.

My third project was a side table. We use the front room where the bookshelves are during the day because it's a nice room with great light. It's the coolest room in the house in the summer and in addition to housing most of our books it also contains the piano, the kids' toys, and Joseph's school desk. We set up the old family roll top for him which is working really well. My rocking chair is near the desk and I use that rocking chair a lot when I'm pregnant and caring for a newborn. Once school started I realized I'd have to quit using Joseph's desk as my side table and get something else.

It just so happened that right across the room was an actual side table that would perfectly suit the space and my needs. It had been unceremoniously dumped next to the futon the day we moved in. When school started here a couple of weeks ago, Margaret announced that the table would be her desk. This is cute and all but I wasn't wild about her storing her crayon collection and precious notebooks right at William's height and, besides, I wanted my side table back. I offered to build Margaret all sorts of cool desks and she steadfastly refused to use anything but this side table.

I'm adaptable so I decided to build this nightstand for myself. After two sets of simple shelves I felt ready for something more challenging. I thought that the drawer, in particular, would be a learning experience on this piece. Here is my version, drying in the kitchen:

I'm really happy with how this turned out. I see a million mistakes in it but I did learn a lot and had fun building it. The drawer is a good fit and actually works! Amazing!

Of course, once this was finished Margaret realized that a school desk with a drawer would really be just the thing for her. I acquiesced and moved the side table next to my chair:

And let her take over the nightstand for her school things:

Everyone is happy.

I am really enjoying working with wood and have a few other projects up my sleeve. It is, honestly, not the most kid-friendly hobby. But Eric is supportive and entertains the kids on the weekends for me and otherwise I pop outside during naps to make a few cuts or do some sanding. The huge shelves were all done before we moved in while Uncle Ben was here to help with the kids.

So, enough from me! I hope to blog more about the kids before long.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Minnesota . . . oops

So we're back on the road. And the fact that I didn't blog--or even take a single picture--during our whole time in Minnesota is no reflection on how nice a time we had there. We saw many old friends over many meals and had a great time catching up with everyone. We saw lots of Grandma Marga and Larry and Uncle Ben. The kids had a great time getting to know Dunkel, the 1-year-old black lab puppy the Tuthills got just after we moved last year. Margaret was especially good with the dog, begging to feed him and take him for walks everyday. By the last day of our visit even William was beginning to warm up to the dog. Unfortunately, we're all a bit under the weather after all this vacation and late nights with friends and family left little time for blogging.

I do have pictures from our last day on the road before we got to the Twin Cities. We made one last Laura Ingalls Wilder pilgrimage to Walnut Grove the setting for On the Banks of Plum Creek. The book doesn't actually feature too prominently in my own Little House literary experience but the Little House television series was set entirely in Walnut Grove so it remains a popular tourist destination. The kids were excited to see the actual creek.

But I am sorry to say that Minnesota gets a big fail in the welcome sign department. We've been avoiding interstates when possible and the road we used to enter Minnesota wasn't too concerned about welcoming us.

Today we set off on the road again and it was by far the best travel day we've ever had. It helped that we stopped with friends for lunch and so had a nice long break and some nourishing food. It then helped that we got some ice cream for an afternoon snack. Margaret never finishes her ice cream no matter how little we give her and she was kind enough to give William the rest which we didn't notice until after he'd smeared it all over his face and stuck the ice cream cup on his foot.

Good times. The kids all laughed together for a few hours and then all three of them fell asleep. I think today was the one of the only times they've ever all slept at once in the car and it was certainly a first for this trip. Then I fell asleep. It's amazing how fast a trip goes when we all nap.

We're now relaxing in Sturgeon Bay, WI for a day or so before pushing on towards home.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

South Dakota

Today was our only day of driving in only one state. South Dakota is long. But we also purposely kept the drive time a bit shorter for today and tomorrow so we could actually stop at some things we normally zoom past at 75 mph.

First up: Wall Drug. If you've ever passed within 100 miles of Wall, SD then you know what I'm talking about. We started seeing the signs for Wall Drug as soon as we hit Wyoming. The signs are just stuck up in the farm fields and are a bit more on the "homemade" spectrum although that is partly part of their vintage Western shtick. Neither Eric or I had ever been to Wall Drug which is, in fact, a drug store. It opened in 1931 and offered free ice water. It is now in it's third generation of owners from the same family and they still offer free ice water along with 5-cent coffee, amazing homemade donuts and . . . pretty much anything else you might want. The place is massive and extremely kitschy. We barely plumbed the depths of all Wall Drug has to offer but we did check out the fun backyard.
When you're at Wall Drug you just have to participate enthusiastically in all things tacky.

William's new favorite sign is "horse" and he's had lots of opportunity to practice out here in cowboy country.

Even Eric got in on the fun.

We pushed on through miles and miles of endless, but beautiful, prairie for the rest of the day before rolling into De Smet. I've mentioned here before that I've always been a Laura Ingalls Wilder fanatic. We finished reading the entire "Little House" series to the kids a few months back and I really wanted to check out the town where several of her books are set. The Ingalls family moved to De Smet when Laura was 13. She was married and became a mother there before moving on to Missouri in her twenties. It was really fun to see some sites and drive around the town. Since I know there is at least one other Little House fan reading, I'll offer a brief tour:

Loftus's Store. This was the store that bought the wheat during the Hard Winter and tried to sell it at a hugely inflated price to the starving townspeople. Ironic that it's the one still there.
Pa's office building where the family lived during the cold winters. It was wood then, not brick.

Just after Laura and Almanzo married, the Ingalls family "proved up" on their homestead claim and promptly gave up on farming. They moved to this house in town and Pa proceeded to do all the things he'd actually been doing in town all along to keep the family alive.

The site of Laura and Almanzo's homestead. They tried farming two different sites and utterly failed in both places. After selling this site and burning down the home on the other they moved into town as well before heading to the Ozarks and finally finding farming success.

After having read the Little House books compulsively for years and years and studying the real history of the characters every chance I could get it was really interesting to see the country in person. Much of the country is given over to large-scale farming rather than the smaller homesteading that was going on in the 1880s. This is certainly a loss in some ways but, on the other hand, no one in these families could make farming work in that difficult country with unpredictable weather. It was also slightly disappointing to see so many trees everywhere. When the land was settled up the government was offering "tree claims." You could own the land if you could keep a certain number of trees per acre alive for five years. Almanzo Wilder almost killed himself trying to keep his trees alive on the dry, windy prairie and gave up in the end. But some of his trees are still there. And while it's still a huge, rolling prairie, the groves of trees and windbreaks everywhere really break it up. I would have loved to see it before all that planting.

Eric is reminding me that I've been exhausted and should get to bed but I'm not worried because I've got:

That, my friends, is coffee. Thanks to our new GPS (thanks, Dad!) we discovered this morning that Grand Rapids, SD is home to a Dunn Bros. coffee shop. Dunn Bros. started in St. Paul and is definitely our favorite coffee. And their iced cold press is our favorite drink (I don't even normally drink iced coffee). When we ordered they offered us their new growler full of coffee which can be brought in when empty for a refill at a great deal. No more suffering through nasty hotel and gas station coffee! I've got the growler chilling in an ice bucket overnight and I will be glad for it in the morning.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Back on the road

Friends in New Jersey who are familiar with both our car and life with small children were dubious that we had successfully packed ourselves into our Hyundai hatchback. I confess that I really, really wanted a minivan before this trip but it did not work out. I opted to get super-excited about getting 35+ mpg for much of our trip and feeling like a logistics rock star with this packing job.

Our situation is definitely complicated by the fact that the wheelchair uses up quite a bit of our trunk space. It doesn't really disassemble very easily so we have to pack around it in a way that allows us to get it out at rest stops without emptying the trunk completely. My strategy is basically to use lots of soft bags so that things can be squished. When we are stopping successively for one night at a time I pack one bag of stuff we use every night and an additional bag for each day's clothes which is then used for dirty laundry. It works even if we do feel a bit funny about carting our unconventional luggage through hotel lobbies. We did opt to leave cloth diapers behind this trip but we also have an entire bag just full of books.

Lest you think the trunk won't really close over all that ;)
We are also fortunate that the kids don't really need leg room. Below Margie's seat is a huge bag of snacks, a bag of drinks, and two small bags of books and activities for the kids. Below Joseph's seat is a portable high chair.

Today's drive was probably the most beautiful and interesting of the whole trip. We started off with a couple hours of driving north with the Rockies to our left. Pike's Peak is beautiful but I was glad to see the greater concentration of high peaks around Denver.

Today was my first time in Wyoming. The combination of rolling hills, high mountains in the distance, and the random spots of sandy desolation were definitely interesting. We saw a real cowboy in action on his horse and saw emptiness to rival Western Kansas.

I'd also never been to South Dakota before today. Our whole year in Minnesota we hoped to make a trip out to the Black Hills and never did. We just loved everything we saw about South Dakota and it was the first time Eric said, "I'd love to have a cabin out here," and I immediately agreed.

We passed the still-incomplete Crazy Horse Memorial. I do not know much of the Native American history of this area though I am well aware that there is plenty of tragedy to go around. This sculpture has been in progress for over sixty years and is quite controversial but I will say that the carving of the face is quite striking.

We saw Crazy Horse on our way to Mt. Rushmore--another controversial mountain carving. The drive up to the sculpture was itself worth the short detour. The rock formations were just amazing. Partway up the hill there was a pull off and we wondered what everyone was staring at until we turned around and caught the above profile of Washington. Further up the mountain were the views of all four presidents.

I remember in fourth grade asking my teacher if we could be assigned a research paper on "any topic we wanted" just so I could write about Mt. Rushmore. I am sad to report that I have retained nothing from my fascination at the time but it was fun to finally see the monument.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Wedding Day!

Today was the big day. Our good friend, Rene, was married today and her wedding was most of the reason for our visit to Colorado. It's nice, of course, that we got in some visiting with my Dad but we see him pretty regularly on the East Coast. Joseph was the ring bearer and Margaret the flower girl for this wedding and they have been looking forward to this day for months.

But before I get to the kids, I have to gush a bit about this wedding and the family that hosted it. I've known Rene for several years and heard lots about her family. They always sounded wonderful and creative and resourceful but nothing prepared me for this wedding. Rene wanted to be married at home so the first step was to build a barn. That's right. That beautiful building at the top of this post was built by her family in the last month. Her father owns a sawmill/lumberyard but, still.

The upstairs is a loft room that was used for out-of-town guest housing. The bride and groom exchanged vows on the deck there and Joseph is trying out the boardwalk that was built this morning. And lest you think that a wedding in a barn can't be wonderfully elegant, wonder no longer:
The entire setting was lovely. In addition to building the barn Rene's family also self-catered the reception (delicious Cajun food), made Margaret's dress and about a million other things that many people would have hired someone else to do.

Margaret was a lovely flower girl. After getting dressed and getting her hair done she spent a long time meticulously pulling apart roses to fill her basket with petals.

At the rehearsal Margaret had refused to walk down the aisle alone. She insisted that once she had her flower petals she was going to do exactly what was expected of her. But as anyone who knows Margaret could probably guess, she froze at the prospect of walking past lots of strangers so I had to personally walk her down the aisle and get her into her seat. Everyone loved her anyway, of course.

The ring bearer, on the other hand, performed flawlessly.

Joseph took his job very seriously, wheeled down the aisle beautifully and looked quite dapper while doing it. I was not at leisure to take pictures of the kids actually going down the aisle.

My favorite part of the day was after dinner. Margaret was in a bit of a funk, I think, and asked if we could go find her flower basket. We retrieved it from the house and she asked me to come with her back outside. She walked back to the end of the aisle and proceeded to walk slowly down the aisle scatter flower petals the whole way. The photographer caught it all. Then she walked back and forth up and down the aisle until her basket was empty. Then she asked to find Rene who was only too happy to take another trip down the aisle, hand-in-hand with Margaret, this time over flower petals.

Shortly after Margaret had completed her appointed task the dancing began and the shy flower girl became the life of the party. She wouldn't sit down.

She danced with me:

With the maid of honor:
With the bride:
The boys got in on the fun, too. Joseph raced across the room to ask the maid of honor to dance as soon as the dance floor was open to everyone.

And William, who is a dancing fanatic, couldn't get enough. We couldn't quite capture the sheer delight on his face while he bopped around with us. But William spent a good deal of time trying to get as dirty as possible. He spent the ceremony chucking fistfuls of mulch, most of which landed on himself.

He spent the toasts playing around this beautiful spot tossing stones at the Adirondack chairs.

And staring, entranced, at the huge dogs which he loved as long as they remained a safe distance away.

A lovely day for our family and a beautiful start to a marriage for Rene and Bob. Margaret is sleeping in her dress next to me.