Thursday, July 29, 2010

Skywatch Friday: Midwinter Night

I took these late one night in midwinter last year. We were passing through Athens, GA and stopped for coffee and a stroll around UGA North Campus and downtown.

I loved the mysterious quality of the night shots, full moon and streetlights glowing against wintry tree branches and scudding clouds.

It was a magical evening.

P.S.- I did not adjust the color or contrast in any of these shots- the odd green-golden (or reddish, in the last shot) quality is all from the streetlights.

See more Skywatch photos from all over the world! Visit

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Make A Father's Day Picture Frame!

So this is a little belated, but I do want to share the fun craft we did for Father's Day this year. We made this for Billy:

It was simple and really fun to do!

You need:
- Fimo, Sculpey or a similar polymer modeling clay in whatever colors you and the kids prefer. Babyman chose green. We used about 3 1/2 packages for three handprints.

- A suitable unfinished wood picture frame- it needs to have a wide flat surface for decorating. I found this one at a craft store for a few bucks.

- Liquid Nails Small Projects adhesive glue, or a similar permanent bonding agent.

- Thin strong wood scraps- I used a paint stirrer.

- Utility knife or small saw to cut the scrap wood (paint stirrer).

- Rubber stamps in designs suitable for layering. I found a set of 4 stamps that depicted pinecones and evergreen branches, perfect for overlapping and layering. The set was on sale, plus I had a coupon. Score!

- Stamp inkpads in whatever colors you want. They can match or contrast with the clay colors. Also remember that the stamps will be overlapping, so keep this in mind when choosing ink colors. Some blending will occur.

- A rolling pin, small knife and a baking sheet. (Optional: baking parchment paper)

- Some fine sandpaper, if necessary.

- A permanent marker and a pencil.

Ready? Let's get started!

First, the polymer clay needs to be softened up.

For the Pirate's, we tried blending equal amounts of light and dark green, thinking we'd get a nice medium green. Instead the dark green was much stronger than the light, so The Pirate's handprint looks the same color as Littleman's dark green one. Oh, well!

The kids pushed, rolled and squished to their hearts' content. It's really hard at first!

But soon it was ready to be rolled out.

We rolled the clay to a thickness of approximately 1/4". Try not to get bubbles! Then one at a time, the kids pressed their handprints into their color of clay. The clay is still hard, so I helped by holding their hands still and pressing them down firmly to get a good clear impression. Next, I cut around each handprint carefully.

Next it was time to bake the handprints.

I used parchment paper on my cookie sheet, and followed the Fimo package instructions for baking. Meanwhile, we cleaned up our clay mess.

When the handprints were baked hard and cooled, I sanded a few edges that I'd missed smoothing out before baking. Then, we arranged the handprints on the frame until we liked the arrangement.

Try to keep as much of the handprints on the actual frame as possible, without obscuring the place where the picture goes. Some overlap off the outside edge is OK. Lightly trace the hands with a pencil.

If the handprints hang off the outside edge of the frame much, they will need to be reinforced. You don't want to lose a finger sometime later! This is where the paint stirrer (or other strong, thin scrap wood) comes in. Cut small pieces of the paint stirrer and glue them strategically onto the picture frame, where they will support the outside edges of the handprints but remain hidden beneath them.
Like this:

Be sure to rearrange everything just the way you want before gluing, so you can be absolutely sure you've got it right!

Once all the supports are glued securely and the glue is dry (it takes awhile- you might want to leave it overnight) then you are ready to decorate the frame! Give the kids the stamps, inkpads (and some scraps of paper for blotting in between colors) and let them go to town.

Remind them that a lot of the decoration will later be covered up with the handprints, but it's OK to stamp in the hidden spots just for fun.

"Wait- why are we doing this, again?"

Once the stamping is completed to everyone's satisfaction, it's time to glue the handprints on permanently! Again, leave plenty of time to dry.

Next the kids get to sign their handprints with a permanent marker (well supervised, of course!) and "Happy Father's Day" is added with the year. Finally, put your chosen picture into the frame and voila! A fun little gift for Daddy on Father's Day.

(Of course, this can be modified as a gift for anyone- Mom, Grandma, Grandpa, Aunts, even from one friend to another.) Enjoy!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Music Monday: Michael Franti & Spearhead

I just love this. I love you! Beautiful, happy faces. Dance a little. Feel good.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Our Plan for Household Chores

Like lots of parents, I have struggled to find a good way to get my children to help out with household chores. Sometimes I felt like I was expecting too much, other times like I was being too lenient. Almost all the time there was resistance, arguing and resentment over doing chores. It gets very old very fast. (I hazard a guess here, that you know exactly what I mean.) I have been feeling my way along for some time now, looking for a system that will be effective: that will get my kids doing necessary chores with a minimum of fuss but without violating some of my parenting philosophy. I have recently implemented a plan I've been brewing for some time, and so far I am very pleased.

First of all, I wanted the boys to have some chores that they simply must do. There is no reward, it is simply their responsibility as members of this family. I wanted the chores to rotate, and to be spread out as fairly as possible. However I did not want to spend a lot of time each week writing out a chore schedule. At some point I stumbled upon Chore Buster, which I have been using ever since. It takes care of the "have to" chore charts automatically, and even allows me to key in all sorts of variables that refine its methods for our family. (For instance, I can mark chores as only for certain people, I can rate the relative difficulty of each chore, and note which family members should do more or fewer chores in general.) I tweak our system often so the computer generates just what we need.

So, each day at breakfast (except Tuesdays, their day off) I look online and see what the kids' chores are for the day. Generally it's just one or two things for each older boy, besides "brush your teeth". (Babyman doesn't really participate in chores yet.) As soon as breakfast is done the boys are supposed to complete the day's chore list. We've been doing this for some time, so by now the whining is minimized. We are still struggling with focusing on the job at hand, so it can be completed in less than oh, say, all day long. Two things have helped speed things up a bit: first, that there will be no computer time until chores are complete. Second, they cannot earn any points for extra chores unless their daily "have to" chores are completed first. These are the only two positive incentives I've found that actually have motivating power.

Now, on to those "extra" chores. I created a long list of chores that are within the abilities of the boys. Each chore earns a certain number of points. For instance, "Pick up and sweep the kitchen" is worth 12 points, and so is "Sweep the deck and porch". "Dust the bookshelves" is 10 points. "Brush the dogs" is worth 5 points, "Fold laundry and help put away" is worth 5 points per 1/2 load, and "Clean your bathroom sink, counter and mirror" is 10 points. "Comb your hair" is worth 3 points, and "Pick up and vacuum your room and the hallway" is 10.

I chose points based on how much the kids hate the chore (thus hated sweeping is worth a bit more than fun vacuuming), how difficult or time-consuming the chore is, and how much I will need to be involved- the more I have to be involved, the less the chore is worth. (Thus folding laundry isn't worth a lot because I have to "help" so much- but it's on the list because they need the practice.) I tried to keep each chore of a manageable size, breaking them up by room or task when necessary. Also, some tasks are worth less but can be repeated several times to earn more points- brushing the dogs and folding laundry, for instance, and also "Pick up toys".

Underneath each chore is an explanation of what needs to be done for it to be completed to my satisfaction. For instance, to earn 5 points for brushing the dogs, the kid has to fill the dog brush with hair. "Clean the bathroom floor" means pick everything off the floor and put it away, shake out bath mat, sweep well, put all dirt and hair in the trash and replace bath mat. (It's an easy job, worth 5 points per bathroom.)

I pretty much stuck with just household chores. "Comb your hair" and "Read a book to Mommy or Daddy" (5 points for Littleman, 10 for the Pirate) are the only exceptions. This is because personal hygiene is not optional, and I don't want to tie our "school" tasks to a rewards system.

Finally, I made a list of rewards that the boys may redeem their points for. Here it is (subject to plenty of future revisions, I'm sure):

* Play with Play-doh - - - - - - - 15 points
* Get one fruit roll-up - - - - - - 20 points
* Make popcorn - - - - - - - - 20 points
* Earn $1.00 - - - - - - - - - 25 points
* Go to Sonic for a slush - - - - - - 30 points
* Go to the library an extra visit - - - - 35 points
* Get 30 minutes of computer time - - - - 40 points
* Watch a movie of your choice - - - - - 50 points
* Make cookies with Mommy - - - - - - 60 points
* Go to our favorite playground - - - - 70 points
* Buy a book at the bookstore - - - - - 80 points
* Go out for ice cream - - - - - - - 85 points
* Visit a new park with [their Grandmothers] - 90 points
* Have a friend spend the night - - - - 100 points
* Go play mini-golf with Daddy - - - - - 165 points
* Get a family field trip to the aquarium! - - 200 points

So far this seems about right- some things may be more or less "expensive" than they ought to be, but we will see. I tried to keep the list heavy on the "activity" rewards as opposed to "give me" rewards. This puts a greater burden on me, but I feel better about it. As you can see, earning money is still an option. If one of the boys wants to save money to buy a toy (or whatever), they may do so by earning dollars. However if they want to buy a book, they only need to earn 80 points and I will purchase a book for them. I wanted books to have a distinct advantage, here. :) Each boy has a chart with days of the week, in which I use tally marks to record how many points they earn each day. They've been using a lot of math skills keeping track of their points, and figuring how many points they still need for various goals.

Obviously if you choose to try something like this in your home, the lists can be customized every which way to fit your family.

I realize this is a bit complicated, but it combines a lot of elements that I really like:
- there are daily chores that are not optional, but the list is short
- there is an incentive to complete non-optional chores quickly (so they can have time to earn points afterwards)
- if they choose not to do any chores beyond the daily list, it's OK. The burden does not fall on me to force the issue
- if they choose to do extra chores they are rewarded
- the more they do, the more they are rewarded
- they can earn money, but the focus is not on money in particular
- saving points and patiently working toward goals is encouraged (a good habit), but there are faster rewards if needed
- they practice their reading and math skills (and more!) while interpreting the charts
- the system is very flexible for our busy schedule
- it is also easily edited as our needs change or problems arise
- I now have the ability to occasionally reward points for unrelated things, at my discretion
- other family members can get involved by offering prizes or outings the kids may choose to earn
- and probably more benefits I'm not thinking of right now :)

The boys are actually enjoying it thus far (though we've only been doing the "extra" chores and points system for a few days, so we'll see how things progress in the future.) The Pirate has only earned a few points, but Littleman has enthusiastically racked up 31 points in a couple days. His goal is a trip to the bookstore to buy a book about Legos.

Sorry for the long explanation- I know several of you were interested in finding out more, so I hope this helps! :)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Cloudland Canyon Campout: Days 5 & 6

Day 5 (Friday) was set to be another scorcher, leading to possible rain later on. I'd intentionally left this day open for everyone to decide what they'd prefer to spend time doing. My Dad left early to go to work. Most of our group piled into one big van for a little road trip to nearby Chattanooga, TN. Billy took all the kids up Lookout Mountain to watch the flyers at Lookout Mountain Hang Gliding, then to McDonald's (a special treat). Others chose to relax or go hiking. My brother had returned,

and I got to go hiking with him, which was really nice. Since he'd not been down to the waterfall yet, we headed into the canyon.

It was great being able to hike along with my brother, no kids or anyone else. That hasn't happened in a long, long time. We chatted or just walked in blessed, companionable silence, listening to the birds and the far-off creek and our footfalls sliding in sandy, rocky soil. The air was close, heavy and hot. Wild blueberries provided an occasional burst of flavor. The sun shining through the leaves was pure magic.

Before long, we found our destination. My brother remarked that it reminded him of a similar waterfall he'd seen in Costa Rica, except there the locals had been diving off the top of the waterfall! (This swimming hole is not nearly deep enough for such a dangerous stunt.) We cooled our feet in the water, just taking in the day.

Before we left, I just had to stand under the waterfall. I was cautious, because I didn't want to encourage other visitors to take the risk if they weren't up to the challenge. Finally, the moment seemed right. It really wasn't that difficult, and some views can only be experienced from a closer vantage point.

I can hardly describe the wonder of sitting beneath a waterfall in such a beautiful location. The guys who had tried it all said the water hurt a lot as it beat down on their skin- I guess I was lucky to be wearing a shirt because to me, it felt absolutely wonderful. I could have sat there much longer than I did. This was the crowning moment of the whole campout for me. I will ever be grateful that I did it, and did not choose to sit on the sidelines and just observe.

After awhile, we decided to hike over to the other waterfalls in the canyon. They were nice, but I didn't really think they were nearly as lovely as the first waterfall. We headed back up the many, many stairs to the trail, and back to camp. On the way, my brother talked me into driving to a roadside grill for sandwiches and a milkshake. It was a longer trek than we'd intended, but DAMN! That fried chicken sandwich was good. I wish I remembered the name of the place, because it's worth a visit. I plan to go again sometime. On the way back I could clearly see the storm clouds rolling in. It looked like a big one, with heavy threatening clouds, flashes of lightning on the horizon, and a quickening breeze. Between sucking down my milkshake and feeling the wind on my still-wet clothes, I was actually shivering a little. It was bracing! I love a good summer thunderstorm. With full tummies, tired muscles and the wind in our hair we raced the storm back to camp.

My brother headed home, and Billy and I began preparing for that night's traditional yearly group campfire. Once ready, we lay plastic over the wood to keep it dry in the intermittent sprinkling of rain. We were worried the imminent thunderstorm would rain out the campfire plans altogether, but at least we had a nice big area sheltered under our tarps, lit beautifully with Christmas lights. It would be fine.

As it was, the storm skirted right on by us, and never dumped any real rain on camp at all. By nightfall the fire was lit, and friends and family (including some kids from a nearby campsite that Littleman had befriended) began wandering over with chairs and drinks. We toasted hot dogs, then marshmallows (for the traditional s'mores, of course!) and played story games until everyone had arrived. We closed out the night with our yearly round, everyone offering a favorite thing or a particular memory about this year's campout. We took a moment to miss Billy's Dad, who died in May. And we simply enjoyed the moment, watching the sparks dance up toward the stars emerging from the dissipating storm clouds. I read local ghost stories as the moon emerged and the barred owls added their nightly chorus.

Finally, we gathered up the sleeping little ones and everyone bid each other good night. Time to go to bed.

Saturday we packed up and drove on home. The kids slept all the way. Another year's family campout completed!

Now to plan next year- I need a good coastal location!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Cloudland Canyon Campout: Day 4 Cont. (Thanksgiving in June)

Billy's Mom, her friend (Billy's sister's mother-in-law, to be precise) and our niece were staying in one of the park's many nice cabins nearby. They had invited us to a potluck dinner for the night, so everyone wandered off to prepare supplies and drive over. My Dad arrived to stay for the evening, too. Billy's brother-in-law was frying a turkey, and the rest of us provided appetizers and side dishes. It was like Thanksgiving in June!

I threw together some potatoes, cooking them in the microwave first (because I was short on time) and cutting them up, then tossing them with olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic and fresh thyme. Finally I browned them in the oven before serving. Yum!

Some of us sat on the screened porch to eat and chat, and everyone else had fun groaning and offering commentary on some terrible TV movie. Billy's brother had brought their little dog, who was leashed with us on the screened porch. (Dogs were not allowed in the cabin.) One of my nephews' friends sat under the stars and practiced some songs on his acoustic guitar. It was a mellow, relaxing little family gathering.

As we were clearing up and washing dishes, there came a knock on the cabin's door. Yes, it was a park ranger. Yes, we were breaking rules again. What was the problem this time? Apparently we had too many people in the cabin. We weren't making too much noise, we hadn't bothered a single soul, and we weren't damaging any property or otherwise causing a disturbance. The fire regulations limit cabin occupants to 8 people, so apparently that means no more than 8 people can be physically inside the cabin at any given time. The ranger had stopped because there were several cars in the cabin driveway. Bonus for him: we had an illegal dog leashed on the porch. (Who had behaved beautifully, by the way.) Such was the end of our little family gathering. Luckily, we'd been preparing to leave anyway. Oh, well. We returned to camp that night mostly without incident (Except for my sister-in-law, who missed a turn and ended up outside the park gate. Can you believe, they totally lock the park down at 10 pm? It took her 5 phone calls to get the code to get back in. Every time we turned around we felt like adolescents getting caught: breaking rules, having illicit parties, breaking curfew. . . It was a bit ridiculous.)

As a special treat, I made ice cream, and served it up cold and soft with strawberries and syrup. We shared it out under our tarp lit with glimmering Christmas lights, as the barred owls hooted and called all around. A cat came visiting, and I gave it a few licks of half and half and some good ear scratches. It was another pleasant end to an adventurous day.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Cloudland Canyon Campout: Day 4

The next day I was excited to hike down into the canyon and see this waterfall everyone was so thrilled with. Billy carried Babyman down for me.

The hike was pretty as it criss-crossed back and forth down into the canyon, but the trail itself was often very eroded. I loved the rock formations we passed.

Cloudland Canyon's geology is interesting, in part because all the layers of rock are still horizontal, much as they were laid down in ancient times. The flaky shale sometimes yields interesting marine and plant fossils- Littleman has unearthed some in nearby Chattanooga TN before. However (of course), removing fossils from Cloudland Canyon State Park is strictly forbidden.

Littleman climbed up to a ledge for a portrait

(one of the only shots I have of him- he was hardly ever near me long enough for a picture, and he never stopped moving)

and The Pirate just had to climb up for his turn as well.

I caught cousin "Dashi"

before the Three Muskateers trooped on down the stairs toward the bottom of the canyon.

The deeper we went, the cooler and shadier it got. What with all the boulders, and mosses, and dappled shade, I felt as if we were walking into a fairy tale, or stepping back in time.

Billy remarked that it was like being in the Lord of the Rings, which I guess is to say that it was something like New Zealand. ;) I hope one day to visit there, to see what wonders I can behold, and find out if there is any real similarity to certain more familiar landscapes.

Finally we came to the first waterfall (there are a few in the canyon), and it was a sight to see.

The light was so gorgeous, and the colors so vivid, it seemed like we'd stumbled on a tiny tropical paradise hidden in unassuming NW Georgia. The waterfall tumbled approximately 90 feet from a cloudless blue summer sky to an emerald green pool that stretched across the distance to the rocks we were standing on. Several signs were posted forbidding "climbing, wading, swimming or rappelling" but hardly any of the many visitors seemed to care about that. The order of this hot summer's day was a cool wade in the gorgeous shallows, and a few folks swam all the way out to stand under the falls. Our group did a great deal of rock building,

leaving several interesting formations behind for later visitors to enjoy and destroy.

(this last one belonged to Littleman and Dashi. See their "alligator rock"?

Everyone was having a wonderful time.

Littleman got some lessons from Daddy on skipping stones,

and a few of us went swimming. Never have I seen a more perfect swimming hole.

Babyman especially enjoyed the shallow water and the gorgeous day.

It was a perfect afternoon.

It really is a remarkable spot.

We returned to camp by late afternoon, because we had special plans for dinner. I'll continue that story next post.