Friday, September 30, 2011

How much is too much?

Is it too early to talk about holidays? I don’t know about where you live, but here, stores have had Christmas candy on display for weeks now. And I like an early start. Also, since posting my goals, I have been thinking. How much is too much?

Last year, as I read more and more blogs, I found so many neat ideas for handmade holidays. I loved being able to give homemade presents. Not that I did any major projects, just some felt fortune cookies, some homemade chai mix, printed hankerchiefs, framed subway art, and about six batches of toffee and chocolates. Oh, and like five different kinds of cookies. And spiced liquor. And of course the advent calendar for the kids. My traditional photo book as Christmas gift to the grandmas & grandpas. Designed Christmas cards. Oh, and homemade dog biscuits, double batch, no less. Ok, maybe it was too much. Just a little.

I was always proud of fitting it in, getting it done. To me it’s important to add a homemade touch to any holiday. Much nicer than just buying everything. Much cheaper, too. And I was so happy to find ideas and tutorials that I could actually do and add to my list of traditions (which contains things like cookies, dog biscuits and photo books). I already pictured myself sewing all these great things for all the kids on my gift list. And tote bags for all female friends.

It’s slowly dawning on me that while there are a million nice things do to out there, I could also just do: nothing. Play with the kids. Read stories. Or (gasp!) sit on the couch and read a book (you know, one without pictures in it). Simply enjoy the season. Go for a walk and look at the lights. Drink hot chocolate with whipped cream - the German (European?) way of doing it, no marshmallows for us. Although I actually do make my own marshmallows every year (a friend of mine likes them). And I cut little stars and snowflakes from them. Uh yeah, maybe I am overdoing it. Just slightly.

There’s a fine line between doing  things you enjoy during the holiday season and doing so many things that it feels like chores on a way too long list. There are a lot of good posts on the topic. Such as this one from Remodeling this Life or this one by Aby from Simplify 101.

So it’s not like this is groundbreaking news in blogland. Just news to this I-want-it-all perfectionist. After all, it’s holidays. And they have to be just perfect, right? Right? Hm, maybe perfect refers to how much you enjoy them and not how much you got done. Talk about revelations here.

What are your plans? How much is too much for you and how do you know the difference? I’m still struggling with this one.

I do plan to pick the things I do carefully this season:

My fall decoration is chestnuts and leaves the kids collected. For Halloween I’ll do a little decorating the hallway (it’s tiny, so that takes like 10 minutes), maybe make a ghost garland or bat mobile since big brother needs to practice using his scissors a bit. We don’t usually dress up for Halloween here, we have Carnival early in the year and the whole trick-or-treating thing has just recently become popular here. This year, big brother decided he needs to be a magician. Of course that made me look at these great tutorials for sewing a cape and making a hat. A double sided-cape with collar and applique, no less. I think I may need a reality check here. So not sure about costumes yet. We will make ghost cookies and carve pumpkins. We always do jack-o-lanterns, it’s just so much fun. This is the first year little brother is going to get one, too. He was a bit annoyed last year when he was left out of it.

We don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but we do have lots of things to be ready for at the end of November, since Advent starts early this year (the first Advent Sunday is actually November 27 I think, and I hate when that happens. To me Advent is December. Oh well.) and I like to have my decorations up by then including the Advent wreath and calendars. Does it sound crazy if I tell you that I already got stuff to fill the Advent calendars with? I got a big bag of Playmobil figures at a fleamarket that I thought were perfect for the purpose. Add some of those tiny books and some small candy and I’m almost set. Anyway, last year I was forced to really sort through my Christmas decorations since some of it got moldy being packed up too tightly in that basement. So I only kept those I really loved, cleaned them and stored them in the attic. I don’t do much, I love the wooden pine trees I’ve collected and I do some pine cones and tiny red, white, green and brown ornaments that just go in a bowl with simple white candles and pine branches. Done. I do the tree about a week or so before Christmas. And I usually take it all down before New Years, since I don’t like starting the new year with pine needles and dusty ornaments. I leave only some simple lights, pine cones and white candles out.

I will, however, bake cookies. I always bake cookies. I start end of November and do at least my traditional ones plus maybe a few new recipes. I don’t do the elaborate ones that require much decorating, like my mom does. For me, they have to be done when they come out of the oven. My favorites are pecan crescents, fig swirls and stars topped with plum jam and crumbs. Yum. My mom does about a gazillion batches of the most complicated cookies. And no matter how early I would start, I could never catch up with her. So I’ve given up, do my signature Christmas cookies and try a new one if I feel like it. The biscotti we did last year could be a keeper.

Gifts. I looooooove giving gifts. I do not understand at all how some people can be so uninspired about this one. I do need to watch how much time I spend here, though (um, yes, and money). And how much stuff the kids get. That’s the hardest part to get under control: grandparents and their idea of how many and what gifts to get for the boys. I make lists. I assign things to each grandparent. They still find a way to buy some sort of cheap crap that fills my house. “Why,” they say, “the kids like it!”. Yeah. For about a day or so. The worst offenders (preferably the plastic ones that make noises and require batteries but do not have wheels) get packed up and disappear asap. Or get send to live at the grandparent’s house.

I love books as gifts. Or bigger toys that require several parties to chip in, therefore reducing overall gift clutter. Or sets that everyone can contribute to. Like a tool box. The best gift ever was when big brother was two and shortly before little brother was born. Having just decided to build a house, we didn’t want to spend a lot of money. My mom had saved (and moved with her twice) my old play store that my dad had built. My husband gave it a fresh coat of paint. My in-laws bought some small boxes for the shelves and I got some wooden fruit and a cash register. Everyone had a part in it and my son was absolutely thrilled. There were some other presents (sigh), but he didn’t even look at them. It’s still sitting in his room and gets played with a lot.

Gifts for the grandparents are easy: they each get the annual photo book. They actually get two, one on their birthdays in Fall (my mom and dad get one each as my parents are divorced, so my father-in-law is the only lucky one to get a different birthday gift in May), and the second part for Christmas. I put a lot of work in that throughout the year, it’s something I enjoy and it’s a great way for me to preserve memories. And it does make a great gift. In addition to that they only get something small and personal.

Then there are friends. I usually pick something handmade, either by me, or by someone way more talented on platforms such as Dawanda or Etsy. Last: neighbors and all those people like kindergarten teachers, coworkers and so on. I usually pick one thing to make and then make batches of it. The toffee went well last year, so maybe it’s that again. You can call it boring and predictable. I call it a tradition.

Now here is where I’m not sure. Should I just skip the toffee and dog biscuits? After all, it’s not like we need to exchange gifts with all the people on that list. But I do like showing our appreciation. And I love taking the kids and delivering our gifts around town. The last two years we actually got to take a sleigh in the snow. It was magical. And we enjoyed it. And I want to show the kids that it’s fun to give something, even if it’s something small, but something you have made with love and give without expecting anything in return.

So I’m thinking we’ll do it again. Just make it simple. Pick one recipe, not three different kinds. Pick some great packaging that requires minimal effort (I love the ones here). And make sure to start early and enjoy the process.

And you know what? If the stuff on my goal list doesn’t get done by December, it’s just not going to get done this year. It’s me who made that list in the first place. I might just as well change it.

So do me a favor here. When I start posting complicated projects, long holiday to do lists or anything that requires sewing: stop me. Just stop me. Thank you.

Oh, and btw: all pictures in this post are from last year. I might be crazy, but not that crazy. 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Need a thick skin?

This is actually more a post for my German readers (wow. Sounds like I have readers. Haha.) Anyway, when you guys say someone has or needs a thick skin, in German we say "ein dickes Fell", which translates to a thick fur. Don't ask me where that comes from, maybe something stone age?! Just try to follow along for a minute here, anyway. The advantage of our way of saying this is, that we get to give these cute little guys as gifts:

These cuties are "dicke Felle", little pieces of thick "fur" that you can add to your own "skin" so to speak when you most need it. Or give it to someone who is in need of a little extra protection. They come complete with instructions (recommended use is to put them on your shoulder) and cute packaging. Aren't they great?

You're probably thinking I'm crazy, but I love these so much that I just had to do a post on them. Even if this makes no sense at all in English. They are made by the very sweet and creative Dana. So if you're from Germany or agree with me that they are an amazing gift, you can find them here in Dana's Dawanda Shop. They even got their own website recently:

And no, this post was not sponsored. I just love these and gave one as a gift last week and since I have a blog now, you will just have to suffer through this. Maybe you should get your own thick skin...

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Look what I found!

As I said in a previous post, I'm sorting through the basement. Don't worry, no badly lit shots of piles of cardboard boxes today. I just wanted to quickly share some stuff that I found going through some of the memory boxes stashed down there and some that my mom started digging up from her closet.

These are children's books I read when I was little (long time ago).

 Here's another one. Can you tell I was obsessed with teddy bears?

This one I don't even remember, I think it used to belong to my mom. It's quite battered, but I still like it.

Finally a drawing book. Much better than the current ones if you ask me...

What are your favorite basement or vintage finds?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Fall lanterns - or why I need more hands

We have a lot of birthdays to celebrate in Fall. First up is my dad, a couple days later my mother-in-law and then my mom. I sometimes find it difficult to think of something the kids can do for their grandparents' birthdays. As I said before, I am just not good at crafting. Never been. I have a lot of ideas, just that for some reason they don't usually turn out the way they looked in my head. Or on those gorgeous pictures those talented bloggers post.

That's the good thing about doing crafts with little kids: nobody expects the results to be perfect. So I gave it a chance. I found this tutorial online (it's in German but there are lots of illustrations) for leaf lanterns and thought that would be easy enough for me, uh, for the kids, to do. 

First we went in search of pretty grass, taking the go-karts for a spin. I took my bike and tried to keep up with the kids plus cutting the grass, so I didn't bring my camera. But this is what we brought home:

We found some pretty poppy blossoms, too. And lots of different kinds of grass. Small leaves would also work well here, but it's too early for that here. We pressed our finds overnight in my cookbooks, piling more cookbooks on top. Ideally you should do that a week ahead so it's all nice and dry and all flat. Yeah, well, guess I didn't plan ahead that far, so overnight had to be enough for us.

Next day we made the lanterns. It's simple, really. Find some jars in your recycling bin, clean and dry them. Then you cut out strips of glassine paper to match your jars. You stir some of that wallpaper paste into water until you have a custard like glue. Let it sit while you gather the rest of your supplies and try to keep the kids from cutting up all the pieces of grass and spread them all over the table.

Now onto the artsy part. Put the grasses or leaves onto the paper until you like the design - or your two-year-old decides he has done enough decorating and wants glue. NOW. While your five-year-old is still cutting up pieces of grass.

Have the kids dip one finger (or hand...) into the glue and spread it all over the outside of the jar until it's evenly distributed. Do that with two kids and two jars in parallel while trying to keep their other hands out of the glue and taking pictures for your blog at the same time.

Once your jars (and the rest of the table and kids) are covered in wallpaper glue, carefully place them at the beginning of the strip of paper with your grass and roll the jar until it's covered in paper. Press onto the jar and let dry. Repeat with more jars and paper if you still feel like crafting. Or if your kids still feel like crafting. Now try to get your kids to the bathroom to wash their hands without getting glue all over the house. Done!

Send the kids over to grandma for some chocolate, clean up the mess and relax with some coffee. Ahhhhh. Better. It's a nice project, really. Just maybe next time I'm going to get myself some extra pair of hands. Or skip taking pictures.And I'm definitely going to make more than four lanterns.

Leave the jars to dry overnight and voila, you have some pretty fall lanterns.

 What are your favorite Fall crafts?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

And this mess is so big and so deep and so tall...

When we moved into the house, everything that was didn't find a home just got dumped into the basement. Before we moved, I had 15 m2 organized basement. That somehow morphed into 100 m2 pure mess. Remember that mess the Cat in the Hat makes? This one's worse. Much worse. And I don't have that wonderful machine that picks everything up. Sigh.

Not sure I want to post any pictures. You might never talk to me again. So only some detail shots. And "after" pictures. I think I'll save sharing the whole mess for some other time...

I guess it didn't help things that my mom also moved into the house with us (which BTW was planned from the start and which we're very happy about) and she downsized from a bigger apartment (and basement) and didn't really do any sorting through or decluttering before. Ugh. So for the past two years, I've mostly just run down there to do laundry or quickly pick something up and then close the door again. Fast.

I like to believe I am an organized person. Ok, fine, stop laughing, will you? Those of you who know me KNOW that I am an organized person, so much that I drive everyone crazy with it. So having a basement like that and no time (really small kids, job, other things to finish around the house -  can't think of any other excuse right now) or energy to fix it is bothering me. A lot. Unfortunately I realized at some point last year that I was not going to be able to do much about it. So I decided it was going to be a priority on the 2011 list. 2011 came. We made a plan how to tackle the basement. I waited for my husband to take some time off from work, my mother in law to come watch the kids and to really start getting things done. And waited (ok, nagged). And waited some more (ok, nagged some more). May. June. July. Nothing.

With the little one starting Kindergarten in August, I started my basement project. My husband started laying tiles in the one basement room where the washer and dryer are. Well. He's a busy guy. He started a month ago. The room is about half-way done. And has been in that state for three weeks now. Complete with a huge dresser sitting right in front of the washing machine. Anyway.

After decluttering that room (which was basically just a huge wardrobe with a ton of old winter coats I quickly tossed), I went for the worst offender, the largest storage room. One shelf at a time.

You see, I like getting things done. DONE. But waiting for large blocks of time and lots of help just didn't get me anywhere and I decided to simply start. So I have a recurring task on my to do app that tells me to go clean out the basement for 1 hour every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. I might not get an entire area done in that hour. I might not even get that one shelf done. But since I can just go back upstairs and close the door and since things down there are a mess anyway, it's OK to just leave it the way it is when time is over. Usually I don't do this for exactly an hour, the one-hour thing is more to motivate (trick) myself to get it started and focus on making progress rather than finishing a particular shelf. I usually end up cleaning down there until I need to go (run) to kindergarten and pick the boys up.

This is what I did last week - starting with all the holiday stuff, organizing Easter and other decorations. I'm going to add real labels and yes, I will make sure stuff doesn't get crowded - but for now I just tackle on shelf at a time and put the plastic bins with what gets to stay back in the same space. When it's all sorted through, I will re-asses what goes where and needs how much space.

Below is what I'm dealing with next: Christmas decorations. All in cardboard boxes - the boxes all have to go. Need to buy some more plastic bins though. Might be a good idea to stop blogging and get back to work... Nah.

I wish I could tell you the basement looks any better now. But I'm afraid it's still a mess. With all the birthdays and visits lately, it hasn't been every Friday that I managed to get to it since I spent a lot of Friday mornings cooking and cleaning. But that's ok. I AM making progress: Friday afternoon we took a huge load to the German equivalent of Goodwill. Most things I sort I find that I actually end up tossing/donating close to 80% of the stuff. Such as:

  • a ton of winter coats that didn't really fit or were from the days when I could get away with wearing nice, light colored coats that are neither water- nor windproof. Nothing for life with small kids.
  • old clothes saved for painting and other messy projects. How many outdoor jackets for that do you really need? It's not like I'm going to spend the winter painting the house or so. I kept one warmer and one lighter jacket for myself and my husband for these purposes and tossed/donated the rest.
  • 9 out of the 10 footed glass bowls I got for our wedding reception 10 years ago. They were bought on sale back then and I got them to hold floating candles at the party. Am I really going to throw another party involving 10 footed glass bowls? With floating candles? I doubt it.
  • any memorabilia from my year as an au pair in the US back in 1994 that did not bring back a special memory. NYC subway map and bus schedule from NJ to the city? Keep. Museum flyers for exhibitions in 1995? Toss. The application letter my host family wrote? Keep. My passport with the visa in it? Keep. Lots and lots of hardly readable receipt for whatever stuff I bought back then? Toss. OK, that's not 80%, but I did toss that much, I just don't remember every thing I tossed. Which is a case in point that it shouldn't have been there in the first place.
  • anything that is broken or just plain ugly and does not have any sentimental value attached to it
  • most recently: dusty Easter grass. LOTS of it. Maybe next year I'll walk into my newly organized basement and check supplies before buying more... Also: Ugly wrapping paper nobody's ever going to use. Weird self-help books from the eighties (don't ask).

Progress is slow sometimes. I plan to have the larger storage room done by the end of the month. Then on to the smaller one. Or maybe finish the one first where my husband is planning to keep all his tools and which currently looks like a tornado gone through a home improvement store? He says it's not that bad. I say I can't even get to the window anymore to open it. But we have different standards when it comes to organization... If he can find what he's looking for within like 15 minutes of looking then that's organized. I adore those basement/storage rooms in Ikea catalogs or Benita's posts at Chez Larsson (go look at her laundry room)

You know, the ones with the nice, matching storage containers with clear or white lids (no mix and match of purple and blue lids - why do so many household product come in blue or purple? Why can't they just do neutral or clear lids?!), white walls and neat rows or stacksof everything from water bottles to potting equipment and Christmas ornaments. The ones that make you think that everything you need should fit neatly into such a room and wonder why your own stuff is such a mess and why you own so much STUFF in the first place. I used to tell myself that it's fake. Advertising. But there are bloggers such as Benita who prove me wrong.

Now my basement will never look like that. Although I would like it to. I console myself with this post from Rachel about when to stop organizing. I just want to make sure the things I keep down there are the ones I truly love (like keepsakes that actually mean something to me) or use. I don't want to keep anything "just in case" or because "it's still good". And I want those things organized in a way so they're easy to access and easy to put away.

That still means we (uhmm, my husband) have to take everything out, take down the shelves, tile, finish painting the ceiling and put everything back in. For. Every. Single. Room. I try not to think about that. And I know it's not going to get all done this year. But at least some serious decluttering so I can show you some after pictures!

Anyone out there who survived one of these projects from hell?

What I was going to do this year

Today I want to share my goals for 2011 with you. What, you say, doesn't one do that in January? True. But, you see, I didn't have a blog to share anything on in January. Partly because starting a blog was one thing on the goal list (of course there is a list for this. Come on, what did you expect?).

Anyway, the advantage of going through the goals now is that there isn't much time left to 2011 and it makes me evaluate which of the ones on the list I still can and want to do. So here we go, in no particular order:

1) take the kids to the library
My kids love to read. Well, not that they're actually reading yet, but they love being read to and looking at books. And it's not like we don't have enough books. We have a lot, both in their rooms and downstairs in the living room. Still, I thought it would be a good idea to show them how a library works and getting all sorts of different books on many different topics. This was the first thing I started with in January and we've been going most weeks, it's part of our Wednesday routine. Sometimes we get bigger books so we skip the weekly trips for a bit until we've finished the book (biggest one so far has been Astrid Lindgren's The Six Bullerby Children).

2) try a new recipe each week
I've actually been pretty good about that one, although I tend to cheat a little and take the easy way out with a new cake or muffin recipe on the weekend rather than cooking a new dish for weeknight dinner. Still, I found some recipes that are added to the dinner rotation, such as Ina Garten's Garlic and Olive Oil Mashed Potatoes (I just love Ina's cookbooks. I have every single one. And I didn't even realize until just now looking for a recipe link that she also does a TV show. Oops), Chicken and Broccoli with Brown Sauce, Spinach and Chickpeas with Spiced Yoghurt, Chicken Satay Stir Fry (from Real Simple), Salmon Grilled on a Cedar Plank (based on a Fine Cooking recipe but not using the sauce), a mascarpone cream that turned out to be the kids favorite dessert, some first tries at cupcakes (all Hummingbird Bakery recipes), Hummus (so I haven't made hummus before. I know. Hey, I did start!) and Chicken with Cantonese Light Sauce which ended up our favorite stir-fry.

I think I'll continue this one next year. I have a ton of cookbooks but I always end up making the same recipes. And even for this I usually ended up making something I saw on a blog or elsewhere on the Internet. For next year I think I'll pick a cookbook per month (or maybe by week, otherwise I'm never going to get through the collection...) and try recipes from it.

3) start a blog
Done! Yay! 

4) save some money and get better about how I spend it 
Working on that one. Separate post I'd say. After all, we (ok, I) want No. 3 to also include "maintain blog", so I need to save some post material here... 

5) learn to sew
Yeah... well. I do have a sewing machine, a cheap thing bought at the end of last year.  I love handmade things and I buy a lot of handmade stuff for the kids as well as gifts from Dawanda (a platform similar to etsy but more common here in Germany) - Kindergarten bags, hats, scarfs... I also keep seeing all these great ideas and tutorials on other blogs. And I really, really would love to be able to sew at least a couple basic things, you know, like tote bags, lunch bags, little pouches, kids' hats, pillow covers. Maybe even new Kindergarten bags. I just haven't had the time yet and I don't really know where to start. I tried registering for a class, but that was full. Yeah, lame excuses, you're right.

Looking at all the stuff I wanted to accomplish, I decided I'm moving this to the bottom of the list. If it doesn't get done this year, which it very likely won't, then so be it. I've been reading a lot of posts lately about setting priorities and balancing all the things in your life. And I've come to realize, finally, after five years of being a mommy, that maybe I can't have it all and that maybe that's perfectly ok. There will be a time for sewing classes and handmade Christmas gifts for everyone on my list, but maybe that time is not 2011. Maybe not even 2012. Last time I checked sewing machines didn't have an expiration date...

So I ended up buying new Kindergarten bags for the kids. They're still personalized and homemade - just not by me. And to be honest, they turned out much cuter than I could have ever done it. I still smile every time I see them. And I'm fine looking at my sewing machine sitting on my desk gathering dust. Maybe next year...

6) be more relaxed with the kids
I'm still working on that one, and I don't think I'll ever be done. I'm just not a very relaxed person. Stop laughing, will you?! OK, I'm NOT AT ALL relaxed. More like a perfectionist who needs everything to be done just so. And ahead of time. And planned. According to my list, of course. Hence my migraines...

Anyway, I've read a lot of good posts about this (one of my favorites is Greta's post over at Lilly and the brothers: Are You a Yes Mom?) and I'm working on it. Because I know it works. If you're relaxed, the kids are much more relaxed, too. Stuff will still go wrong, the kids will fight or throw a temper tantrum. But it won't be as bad. What I also find is that it helps soooooo much so just get outside once you start getting grumpy or the kids (literally) run around the dining room table screaming and chasing each other. Groundbreaking revelation. But it works.

7) finish that basement.
Don't even get me started on that one. It's a project from hell. And it's definitely a separate post.

8) declutter the house and add some more personal touches
I could start telling you how pregnant I was when we designed the house or how little the little brother was when we moved in. I could tell you how busy my husband was with work and the house or how busy I was with kids and my job. And how we put our money towards the most energy-efficient house we could afford and not the most stylish furniture because you can always replace furniture later on but it's hard to upgrade the house.

But the truth is that no matter why, we simply have a lot of Ikea furniture and that there is a lot of clutter left over from not getting organized enough before we moved and that I didn't spend much time decorating the house. So there you have it. Don't get me wrong, I love this house and it turned out exactly the way I wanted it (well, except for some small details here and there maybe...). But the first year I was just glad we made it through. Baby, house, back at work: all within three months. And enough for me.

Then came those projects you don't really think about too much when you make plans for the house but that take up a surprisingly high amount of time (and money). Like a garden. Porch. Fence. Oh and the projects you do because you're just plain crazy (or your wife is plain crazy and you're nice enough to do them anyway...), like a playhouse for the kids. With a second story and a sandbox, of course.

That leaves you with a million small projects left over from when you moved in - you know the ones: unpack that last box. Find and install a light fixture in the hallway. Hang some art. Organize your closets instead of just stuffing things in when you unpacked those boxes. Combine that with someone who just discovered blogland and all those great decluttering and DIY projects (8-step home cure, anyone?) and you have my goal No. 8 for this year:  1) find the things we truly love or use and toss/donate the rest and 2) make it look less like a bad remake of an Ikea showroom and more like our home.

And I'm happy to report there's been progress on this one. Mainly because it can be broken up into so many small projects and steps. Ahhhh, opening a drawer or cabinet that you have just organized last week: bliss. Yes, I do realize I have to do this again like six months down the road. But keep that to yourself right now and let me enjoy the moment, will you? I actually keep a running list of all the things I've accomplished within the note section of this task on my to do list. Don't worry, I'm not going to share. Well, not all of it at least. Also I'm really, really bad at taking before shots. Anyone else here doing projects and realizing halfway through that you forgot to take a picture of the mess / blank wall / baby crib you just organized / hung some art / sold and replaced with a big boy bed? So you'll have to believe me when I say it really did look worse before... I'm currently doing a lot of organizing (and selling!) of children's clothing, more on that some other time.

9) learn to take better pictures and learn to use my camera
So IF I remember to take pictures I want to take better ones. Let's face it, there is no lack of inspiration for really great photos in blogland. Most (all?) of my favorite blogs post really, really nice photos. Like Yvonne. Amazing, isn't she?

They're all different, but they're great. And I have a lot to learn. So far I have made a point of taking more pictures that actually have no kids in them (gasp!) and shooting some more detail. And I have just started taking pictures of things I cook. For my birthday I got two books that are hopefully going to help: From Plate to Pixel by Helene Dujardin and the Shutter Sister's guide to Expressive Photography.

Haven't had a chance to read much yet, I think I have to make an effort to reach for one of these instead of my laptop once the kids are asleep. I also want to actually read my camera's manual. Might help, don't you think? And try taking pictures without the auto-everything setting. For practice I plan to start on non-moving things, you know, like flowers or landscape or cake (although that does sometimes disappear...). For next year I think I'm going to challenge myself to participate in one of those photo projects floating around the Internet, not sure I can do a 365 one like Benita did but I'd like to find something I can do. I'll keep you posted!

So there you have it, my list for 2011.

At the start of the year I wanted to cross stuff of my list asap. Like everything at once. So I ended up running around like a crazy, getting way too many migraines and being grumpy when I didn't really accomplish anything that day. Or week. Or month. Eventually I decided to pick things to work on and leave the rest for later. Good old prioritzing. It sort of worked. I decided to push some stuff like sewing and the blog to when little brother would start Kindergarten. August. By August I would be SO productive. Three hours a day for three mornings a week - that has got to be productive, right? The first week was great. Then reality started to set in. A house to be cleaned. My coworkers pushing me, uhm, no, convincing me, to stop complaining about my post pregnancy No 2 belly and do something about it. Like exercise. Oh, and then my favorite: scope creep. Adding things to the list while you go. Like that belly thing or finally adding some style to my wardrobe (hey, I can try, right?).

Suddenly I had a lot of those free hours gone already. But you what? That's ok. Because as I said, I've also come to realize that I need to keep in mind that my kids are still small. You see, I need something productive, something crossed off my list to stay sane and keep me from being grumpy. And cleaning the house doesn't count, because that gets undone faster than you can cross it off a list. Besides, there are just so many things I find interesting - and a lot of things that just need to get done.

When big brother was born I remember walking around the neighborhood looking at other people go about their lives and wondering when I would get mine back. If ever. My baby was not one of those who would peacefully nap in his crib. He preferred to nap with mommy. And when little brother was born I was a lot more relaxed about the whole thing - but I also had a toddler and a new house. For quite I while it was like playing catch up and never winning.

It still is somewhat. But my attitude has changed. Because I've realized that my life will keep changing and that time with my kids is not only precious, but also won't last forever. What seems like forever when you have a newborn in reality goes so fast. Too fast. You enjoy seeing them grow up but you also can't help wondering where your little baby went. They learn to walk, talk and go to Kindergarten. Soon enough, they'll go to school. They'll have friends. And one day they will rather play with their friends than with their mommy. So I'm enjoying the time I have with them, I play Legos or go to the park. I don't look at my inbox, I don't try to squeeze in projects. I do sometimes take them grocery shopping when I don't get that done on the way home from work and I will let them help cleaning the house or doing laundry because I think they should learn that this things don't miraculously do themselves (unfortunately).

What also helps is realizing, that you don't necessarily need to have big blocks of time to get something done. I'm not good at leaving something unfinished but I'm getting much better. Especially on projects like the basement - just close the door ;) But also with other things, like my annual photo book or organizing closets, I just start and work on it for as long as I have time and then continue some other time.

Changing my attitude and yeah, those free three hours for three days a week have made things much more relaxed. I can choose what I want to get done during the morning and if it doesn't get done by noon, then it's simply not going to get done. And, surprise, my migraine attacks have been fewer, too!

Recommended reading:

If you haven't read enough by now (goal for 2012: stop babbling and write shorter blog posts!), I thought these posts were really helpful:

Lilly and the brothers: On Being Perfect
Lilly and the brothers: They Just Want to be With Me
Small Notebook: The Lost Rule of Organizing
Small Notebook: The Jam Jars
Small Notebook: How to Protect Your Time from Too Many Good Ideas
Simplify101: You don't need an extra hour a day

And, if you have lots of free time or energy and are NOT trying to cut down on your to do's, I'd say read all of Benita's posts at Chez Larsson. Most. Organized. Space. Ever. And the whitest space ever.  

I already have a few things on my 2012 list. More cooking. Photography. Sewing (try again). Although I will have to think hard about what I put on that list. Less than this year, for sure. Maybe that's a good one: do less. Shorten to-do list. What about you?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The fishing cake & party wrap-up

Finally. All kids‘ clothes sorted. All outgrown stuff packed up and ready to be sold. Time for one last post on the fishing themed birthday party we threw last week! So here are the last details and a roundup. I promise I’ll write about other topics after that.

Of course you all read the previous posts about the party, right? Right? Ok, fine, if you insist on having a life other than reading this blog, I’ll do a quick recap for you (scroll down to the cake if you actually managed to read all previous posts and can still bear to read more about this):

It started with some Internet inspiration and the fishing theme, so first up were the invitations. I found this cute handmade fish stamp and used that on everything that couldn’t move. I really love it, even though it feels like I spent two weeks stamping a million fish.

Next I personalized some water bottles with laminated tags using the fish stamp and letter stamps for the guest’s names.

For his actual birthday a week ahead of the kids’ party I made some garlands, ordered ballons and made his favorite raspberry mousse cake, which ended up a huge pink mess on the plates. A yummy mess though. I also made fish-stamped shirts for the occasion. Of course they were long sleeve (hello, September!) and it ended up being really nice and sunny that day so the brothers only wore them in the morning – enough time cover them in cake, dirt and anything else available to make a mess. Exactly why did I choose white shirts again? Nevermind, we had a great day and I was exhausted.

Then it was time to get ready for the party, so I prepared fishing rods and “fish” to catch. I also stamped (you saw that one coming, didn’t you?) paper bags, added fish tags and filled them with goodies for the kids.

And then it was time for the party! Weather was great and the kids had fun running around the yard. We still had the garlands and balloons up. As I said before (just once… or twice maybe…), while I admire those beautiful parties with the grand dessert tables and every little detail matching down to the cupcake wrappers, that was just not for me. Yeah I know, I am such a bad mommy, I did not make a giant dessert table. No cupcakes, no cake pops, no cookies. Somehow having more sweets in addition to cake, muffins and the candy the kids would be “fishing” did not appeal to me. I mean, do people really eat all that? And while I like the look of those tall glass container with colorful candy matching the party colors, that also did not seem such a brilliant idea considering half our guests were under age 3.

So anyway, what I did end up making was a fishing trip cake.

 It’s actually the birthday boy’s favorite cake recipe, using Ina Garten’s chocolate cupcake recipe and tweaking it a little by adding chopped dark chocolate (how can you bake anything called chocolate without using any real chocolate?!). We do this cake for all sorts of occasions, usually baking it in a Fleur-de-Lis pan. I had the idea for the cake one night while waiting for Max to fall asleep: a fishing trip cake. Inspired by an image seen on the Internet (and of course forgetting to link or clip it) for a camping themed cake, I decided to make dirt using cookie crumbs and water using – no idea what. But it sounded like a plan. So I ordered this Lego Duplo fishing trip set that came with a tent (which ended up not fitting on the cake), a bear, a fire and of course father and son with a canoe, fishing rod and their catch.

I first considered doing a layer cake, but since I wanted to have most of the things done in advance, filling a cake plus trying to frost and decorate it shortly before the party seemed a bit daunting. On another night waiting for Max to fall asleep, I decided I’d simply use our favorite chocolate cake recipe and a springform pan. It might not be fancy, but the cake is delicious and very moist and chocolatey. How can you not like a cake recipe with buttermilk and sour cream in it? The recipe actually makes quite a bit of dough, so in addition to the springform pan I did a small Bundt pan and three cupcakes. When the cake didn’t come out of the Bundt pan, that at least eliminated the need for cookie crumbs – I had enough crumbs already, although I really had to be careful not to eat it all. It’s just soooo good.

Once cooled, I added a thin layer of melted chocolate to one side of the cake and pressed the crumbs into that. Dirt? Check. Water? Ummmmm…. I am not a big fan of buttercream (too heavy, too sweet) or cream cheese frosting (too much cream cheese), but maybe I just haven’t found the right frosting recipe (suggestions, anyone?!). I ended up simply using whipped cream tinted with blue food coloring, which unfortunately looked a bit turqouise rather than blue, but oh well. Add the bear, canoe and the “fire” with five candles and I had a fishing trip cake. And a yummy one. Honestly, I’m still surprised my plan worked and didn’t turn out looking like it was hit by a hurricane.

After cake, some more running around and before I was able to even have a bite of my piece of cake (let alone more than a sip of my coffee), the kids decided it was time to go fishing. Of course I couldn’t just let the kids fish. You need a fishing licence for that, after all. I did the licences trying to match the look of the real ones, complete with fake stamps and kids’ photos, then laminated them to make them last a little longer. To earn their licence they had to pass a text, answering questions about fish and identify different fish. They all got the shark right. And nemo. Identifying a trout was a bit more difficult apparently. Not that I would be able to do that… But I my boys are quite the experts. They were all very proud to get their licence!

Once they got their licence, we put a pop-up on the porch and filled it with gummybears and chocolate candy attached to cards that had, you guessed it, fish stamped on. We also had some plastic fish, lobster and turtles (hmmm) that came with the fishing rods. I made some buckets using paper cups and wire and the kids filled them up with all the goodies they caught. For pics go see this post.

Dinner was pasta salad with fish-shaped carrots for the kids and two other pasta salads for the adults, one using a vinaigrette and arugula, the other one a greek salad with orzo and chickpeas from Gourmet magazine. I love that recipe, it has olives, tomatoes, chickpeas, feta cheese and lemon zest and the layers look really pretty. Now, if I were an expert blogger, I would have filled the salads in pretty jars, tied with some ribbon maybe and arranged just so for the photo complete with a nice napkin, some fresh oregano and an antique fork maybe. Oh well, since it’s just me I tossed it in a glass bowl and forgot to even take a picture. Oops. Oh, and there was my all-time favorite dip, the one I seem to have been making for every party for years now: Ina Garten’s Sun-Dried Tomato Dip. It’s great with bread or just veggies. Can you tell I have every Barefoot Contessa cookbook? Every single one...

The house was a mess, my kids were still running around the yard catching imaginary fish long after everyone left and the fishing licences still get carried around the house. I’d call that a successful party!

Maybe I’ll do an airplane party next. Or a circus one with elephant stamps and popcorn. Or a music themed one with cardboard guitars. Ok, fine, I’ll stop here. What are your party plans?