Monday, July 31, 2006

set your Tivo

As he delivers the last blueberry pancake to the table, still in the skillet:

J: I'm going to have my own cable food show, "Cooking With Residual Heat."

NOTE: The blueberry pancakes depicted in this post are representative of weekend brunches in the ao neko household. Individual pancakes may vary.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

sandal farm

It's getting ridiculous. We have a front hall the size of a roller rink and nowhere to store our shoes. (Our household observes the Japanese custom of having separate inside and outside shoes, to be exchanged at the front door. J and I even have basement shoes. You would too if your laundry were in our basement. That's one – no, several – corner(s) of my home you'll never see. No, don't beg. We're not going to the basement and that's final.)

On the subject of shoes, I would like to make a pair of Bitty Booties from Heather's pattern for a baby that is going to be born soon. This babe is known to be a boy, which I think makes the embellishment aspect of the project a little more challenging. With a girl, it is so easy to fall back on the never-fails, ever-malleable botanical theme for something cute, in the pretty sense of the word. Not that there's any reason a boy shouldn't enjoy flowers, too, in my world – and any boy we might produce will certainly have plenty of opportunity, since we have no intention of redoing the nursery just because Someone flashes a penis during the ultrasound.* But you can't count on others to share this view. And I am constitutionally opposed to the generic boy motifs of cars, trucks, trains, and reptiles. Also, whatever I do has to work with the colors of felt I have in the house because the Gargantuan Fabric Superstore closest to here has tragically closed and getting to the next-nearest one involves a driving expedition way out into suburban nowhereland.

So, I guess I have just set myself some parameters. Now the creativity comes from working within them. Hmm.

*No, I am not pregnant. Just in a contemplating state of mind.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

belated birthday postcard

I keep thinking I wish I had set up this so-called blog a couple months earlier so I could have posted about the things J and I made for Iris's second birthday. Our house was a hive of creativity leading up to the day – sometimes there's nothing like a deadline to get the sandpaper and paintbrushes flying. Well, today I'm thinking, why not just post about it now? What's a few months among friends?

First there was the rehab of this vintage toy crib. A family in our neighborhood put it out for the trash when they moved away. It was pretty beat up – a couple of the spindles were missing and it was covered in nasty old contact paper and Disney stickers. I razored them off, painted the scarred-up end panels, and covered a piece of foam with flowered fabric for a mattress. J cut, stained and installed new spindles and voila! A bed for Baby Ute! (Funny how she still sleeps there and Buddy still sleeps with Iris even since their marriage.

Next, I tarted up a toybox from Ikea with a two-tone paint job and decoupaged birds. If you know Lotte Jansdotter, you know where I got the inspiration for these birdies. Decoupage was so easy, I wanted to paste paper shapes on everything in sight. I'm surprised J was able to restrain me. How can you keep your hands out of something called Mod Podge?

Finally, the big event, the kitchen. Iris's kitchen, that is, which is actually in our dining room, the most unfinished room in our house – and that's saying something. But it was the one room with a big-enough corner for this play kitchen set my mom got her for Christmas, and J stayed up late nights spackling the walls and putting up apple-green paint, shelves, even a baseboard, which the rest of this corner lacks (the previous owner had made this area a closet), so she would have an un-grungy place to cook her wooden food. My part in this endeavor was ordering bushels of said wooden food from eBay, which is all stored in a cabinet just outside the frame.

How happy I would be if our real kitchen could be as pretty as Iris's! So okay, hers doesn't have a refrigerator... but I could really relate to Stephanie's post about her un-remodeled kitchen. Not that we're having an Ugly Kitchen Contest, but believe me, ours is unlovelier by a lot. That's a saga for another day.

Friday, July 28, 2006


So those pants from H&M? Yeah, they fit in all the right places, but they're too long. And since I am a seamstress of limited, or perhaps I shoud say sporadic, skills – I can make a dress or duvet cover a cloth book for the baby but I don't know how to make that invisible stitch that's used to sew up trouser hems – I took them to Rocky, our neighborhood tailor/dry cleaner.

Rocky has loomed large in Iris' life for some time. I used to bundle her into her stroller and take her with me when I had things to drop off or pick up at his shop. One night, last year around Thanksgiving-time, I was trying to lull her to sleep with a litany of loved ones who were also sleeping. The truth was, some of them were making merry downstairs in our living room even as I spoke, but I didn't want her to fight sleep because she thought she was missing out.

Me: Grammy is going night-night and Grandpa is going night-night and Opa is going night-night and Oma is going night-night and Aunt Ronica is going night-night and Aunt Amy is going night-night and (yawwwwwn)...

Iris: Wocky? Wocky go nigh-nigh?

Maybe we should have invited him over for Thanksgiving dinner, too.

Then one fine spring morning, I announced that a trip to Rocky's was on the day's agenda. "No Wocky," she declared, frowning. Whatever, I thought, this will be forgotten by the time we get there. But she commenced inconsolable crying the minute we set foot in his shop and since then, when she insists she doesn't want to see Rocky, which is every time we mention his name, we believe her.

This is all a long way of saying that I went to Rocky's by myself today, and my favorite thrift store being only a couple blocks away – how convenient! – I stopped in there too. I found a dress and some books for Iris and some pillow forms and another vintage sheet. The colors of this one are more or less the colors I am contemplating for Iris's big-girl room, so I think it will end up as curtains or something else in there.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

stop me before i stencil again

Tote-oro bag (ahem):

My favorite invertebrate on a thrifted skirt:

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

self portrait as a torso about town

87 fun-lovin' degrees.

Coolest cotton sundress doing the trick.

Brooklyn Industries bag (love).

Sandals (not shown) on the sidewalks of the South Side.

Headed home. Happy.

More self portraits here

Tuesday, July 25, 2006


Some mornings, J gives Iris and me a ride downtown, and we pass this warehouse with a T missing from its sign. Lately I feel like I have stopped in and topped off my tank on the way to work. It's been a rough, roller-coasterish couple of weeks at the office. Months, in fact. Maybe we should find a new route, one that goes past Contentment Discounters or the Have a Nice Day Café (no, wait, that closed). But then I'd probably be late, causing my boss and coworkers to dispense more ire and you know what? I'd rather just get it from the pros.

On the brighter side of this long and labored consumer metaphor, a side that is not actually metaphorical, Marijke and I went to H&M and found cute pants. That fit. Adding to my delusional (or is it?) conviction that life would be sweet in Sweden. There's no National Ire Service there. It's been regulated right out of existence by benevolent bureaucrats in flatteringly-tailored trousers.

Monday, July 24, 2006

guess who's coming to dinner?

The handsome fellow on the left is Buddy. He's Ursa Major around here, even if his behavior is, how shall I say, irrepressible. Iris is always having to put him on time-out for hitting and not yistening.

This is Baby Ute. Like my father, she hails from Bregenz, Austria. She recently underwent an emergency appendectomy performed by a two-year-old with a knitting needle on the bathmat, but she seems to be pulling through with her usual pluck.

Yesterday, Iris announced that Buddy and Ute were married. I can't say I'm surprised. I've had my suspicions about those two for a long time. I just can't believe they went and eloped. No invitation! No pictures! No ice sculpture! After all we've done for them!

Sunday, July 23, 2006

the dawn of reason

Behold the ponytail!

Iris takes after my side of the family in her slowness to sprout a full head of hair, but now that she has just enough to gather into a tiny tail on the top of her head with one of those teensy-weensy rubber bands that remind me of the ones I used to wear with my braces, she asks for one every day.

She has also begun asking "Why?" about everything, including her hairstyle.

"Why I have ponytail?"

"Because you asked for one, so we gave you one."

"Why I asked for one?"

"I think because Anya and Amanda have ponytails, and you would like your hair to look like theirs."

"Why Anya and 'Manda have ponytails?"

And so on. Gone are the days when we could read her a book in the time it takes to simply recite the text. Now it takes us an hour to get through Madeline because we have to reveal the mysteries of every figure of speech, cause for tears, and quaint French medical custom in answer to her constant queries: "Why they break their bread? Why they were very sad? Why the man have a broken leg? Why she say 'pooh-pooh'? Why she have scar on her stomach? Why they said 'Boo-hoo'?"

And those are the easy questions. This morning we were talking about our friend's pet duck, which lays an egg every day, and whose eggs the friend gathers and gives us.

"Why he give us the duck's eggs?"

"Because his family doesn't want to keep the eggs themselves, so they give them to us instead of throwing them away."

"Why they don't want them?"

Having wondered this ourselves, J and I both answer, "We don't know!"

Iris, pouting and sincerely disappointed: "But I want know it!"

Yes, darling, so do we, but there are some things we will never understand, like where the stomach bug came from that Mama got last week, and why a totally punk rock guy like Bill married a woman who rejects eggs not laid by factory-farm chickens and packed in a supermarket carton.

Let's read Madeline again.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

corners of my home: speaking of stencils

If we had a different house, it might be painted white. That would be our clean, uncluttered house. Our airy beach house filled with tropical light, in which the only decorations are the views of sky and sea….

Earth to Amber Street! The house we have does not wear white well. It is an urban Victorian full of woodwork and paneling and molding and the moody light of a fickle northern clime. Also, it contains us. Us and all our clutter. Me and my mania for pattern. I just don't know when and where to stop.

The previous owners had painted the stair treads brown (why? why, when they were already stained?) and also glued down a hideous vinyl runner with a pebbled surface. If its purpose was to trap dirt, it succeeded all too well. The few times I attempted to scrub it, I managed only to stir up and disperse a foamy, muddy slurry.

Did I mention it was hideous?

So we pulled it up. To get the industrial-strength glue off, the wood had to be sanded down to the bare grain. Replacing the vinyl runner with a carpet runner was out of the budget, so I painted a runner instead, using deep red deck paint over the bared wood in the centers of the treads. One of these days I would like to detail it, give it some pattern, too.

The design on the risers is supposed to give the impression of a decorative grille. It was adapted from one in a Jocasta Innes book and made into a stencil, which I painted while eight months pregnant, crouched over my ginormous belly on the stairs, supremely uncomfortable but motivated by the knowledge I'd never finish the project once the baby was born. I had just begun painting when I found out about the pregnancy several months before and abandoned the project, thinking that if I wanted to see the right number of fingers and toes on the baby, I shouldn’t coop myself up in an unventilated staircase with volatile organic chemicals. But as my due date approached, I went into a manic nesting mode. Thus did baby Iris (ten fingers, ten toes) come home to a stenciled staircase. And after all, isn't what every mother wants for her child?

Our vestibule had a pretty tile floor but plain plaster walls, unlike some of the other houses on our street, whose vestibules had the traditional Victorian thing going on, wood wainscoting with wallpaper above. Since I am not really very traditionally Victorian in my tastes, I painted the lower third of the walls in a solid tomato red. Above this, instead of real wallpaper, the walls have a repeating stenciled pattern of a skeleton key and keyhole. I made the stencils using one of our bedroom door keys as a model.

And speaking of bedrooms, here is a corner of our guest room, which I sometimes think we should have made our own bedroom because somehow all the serenity in the house seems to collect here. Is it good feng shui? Who knows? But the pattern around the top of the wall is one of Chinese gates.

More corners here

Sunday, July 16, 2006

fast forward freezer paper stencils

Now that I've finally gotten going on this project, I can barely bring myself to put down my X-acto long enough to post about it.

Here are a couple of shirts I did for Iris who, thanks to her mother's compulsion to spend her naptimes playing with fabric paints, now officially has more T-shirts than she can wear between laundry days, especially since she is in a phase where every day she demands a dress. No matter. Her wardrobe is my first line of crafty experimentation since she will inevitably grow out of it, making any imperfections in the end result seem a lot less permanent.

The horse is from an Andy Warhol drawing, always one of my favorite sources for wonderful and whimsical graphic design. He looked a little lonely floating on the T-shirt all by himself, so I gave him a little bird on his back. Speaking of imperfection, don't look too closely there. (Does anyone know how to use the Jacquard Super Opaque White? I tried to use it as a base coat under the yellow since the shirt was a dark color, but the texture was like peanut butter.)

Much happier with how these birds turned out on one of my thrifted Ts.

These onesies will be a present for our friends' new baby, due any minute. Thanks to Tracy for the frog design, which she posted on the freezer paper stencils Flickr group and I shamelessly copy-catted. The fish was drawn from one of the koi lanterns that hang on our front porch, and the owl – whose head I grafted onto more of a penguin body – was inspired by a stone carving on an H. H. Richardson building in North Easton, MA, that I saw during Victorian Society Summer School. (links on parade!)

Me: I want to do some onesies for Jeff and Paige's baby.

J: I think you should do some shirts for Jeff and Paige.

Me: Oh yeah? What would I stencil on theirs?

J: Spit-up.

Friday, July 14, 2006

our little librarian

After that last epic post, I think something short and sweet is in order. Oh, I know! How about an Iris anecdote?

Me (reading a new-to-Iris book at her daycare): "The Day It Rained Hearts," by Felicia Bond.

Iris: We have Felicia Bond. At home.

Me: That's right, we do. Do you remember which book we have that is by Felicia Bond?

Iris: Big Red Bown.

By gum, she can't pronounce "barn" but she's right – The Big Red Barn is illustrated by Felicia Bond. How soon can I enroll her in an English major program so she can follow in her mother's footsteps?

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

self portrait as a bureaucrat

I know! Sexiest self portrait ever!

Now that I've lured everybody into my salacious web of red tape....

I hasten to begin by saying that this is not my ultimate image of myself, not what I want on my tombstone. But I do work as a public servant – by choice, even – and it is such a large and complex part of my existence, I feel I should say something about it and why I do it.

When I was in my 20s, I was in the market for a calling. I had realized, or more accurately acknowledged, that my college English major was not going to lead to any career, or even job, that I dreamed of. Aside from being a writer, that is, and that didn’t look like it was going to pay the bills anytime soon.

I was and am not a businessperson; I could not imagine working for anyone else's bottom line. I had a do-gooder streak so deep it could be called a fault. And I kept coming back to a whole set of questions I had had for a long time, but was only beginning to be able to articulate. Questions about urbanism and suburbanism, about historic preservation and urban renewal, about why some places are packed with memory and texture and others are empty and vapid, about why some design decisions foster community and safety and desirability and others, the opposite.

As I began to ask these questions out loud, I learned that the answers were not as unknowable as they had once seemed. There was no wizard behind a curtain decreeing whether the yellow brick road would lead to the Emerald City or to a soulless, cookie-cutter suburbistan. There were people in offices, people like me but with more degrees and better computers. They had studied City Planning and become – are you ready? – city planners! They did research, wrote reports, and made decisions. And their decisions had a concrete (literally at times) effect on the environment around them. There was cause, there was effect. It appealed to me. I applied to graduate school.

And that is how I became a city planner and preservationist. In other words, a public servant and bureaucrat. In other words, a person who wakes up in the morning to go to work for the things I care about in the community I live in. At least, that is how I like to look at it. I know some people do only see me as a red tape dispenser – believe me, I meet a lot of them in my job – but I truly believe in the power of good government to improve communities and lives. Cue sunshine and birdsong.

I have now been working in the City Planning department for over seven years. What’s more, I still care about the work. Maybe too much. At times, it is as rewarding as I imagined it would be. Other times, it is aggravating. And then there are the days, too often, and I can see that tomorrow is going to be one of them, when this work is truly draining, emotionally and physically. I wish I had more left over at the end of the day. Of time and of myself.

Especially now that I have a child. I am torn between being grateful I have a job I care about and feeling that I don’t have the capacity to care as much, to give as much, as I used to. A mom-friend who is a teacher recently put it this way: “Sometimes I fantasize about becoming a cashier.” I know what she means (although I don’t doubt for a minute that being a cashier is aggravating as all hell sometimes).

Sometimes I fantasize about being a full-time mom. But the fact is that I do not have a choice about whether or not to work. My job provides most of our family's income, not to mention our health insurance, since J has become a freelancer. Also, I like to think that Iris benefits from seeing me work for what I believe in, and that it is good for her to hear her father and I discuss our work over dinner at the end of the day.

I do not really think that I would like to quit work completely, just – like so many other working parents – adjust the balance. I am trying to sow some long-term seeds of change, but I don't know when or if or how they will sprout. I hope for a path to open sometime while my daughter is still young which will be a little more relaxed.

Wow. If you've stuck with me this far, I’ll send you a lollipop – something that lasts even longer.

More self portraits at self portrait challenge

Saturday, July 08, 2006

sweet saturday

We rarely go out for brunch, but this morning we treated ourselves to Coca Cafe. The place has bottled a magic potion which makes it hip without being pretentious, a rare and wonderful quality. I just hope Iris didn't break the spell by pooping on the floor (in the bathroom, at least, not the dining room). She's at that stage where being out and about in panties, not a diaper, is a thrilling but risky business.

After brunch, thrifting paid off in some fabulous fabric finds:

Pretty flowered vintage sheets, supersoft from a million washings. One has irises on it, so how could I not? Beneath them, acres of olive/avocado green corduroy, just begging to be made from a bedspread (gack!) into winter pants and jumpers, probably several seasons' worth.

This fabric is everything I love and then some – can you tell there is lavender in the pattern too? – but there is an odd amount of it (46"x48"). The proportions will not work for a skirt, I don't think. Pillow(s)? Bag(s)? Upholster a chair? It's heavy. Any ideas?

Aprons are not really my thing, but I did pick this up for $1 at my favorite thrift store. I could not resist the pretty pattern and western-style pearlized snaps. The fabric is a bit yellowed and damaged in the front, but maybe I could make it into a littler smock for Iris, or cannibalize the back, which is in better condition, for something else, something small and sweet.

Tonight, J is making sushi. Can't wait.

Friday, July 07, 2006

she just can't hide it

Putting Iris down for her nap, I ask, "Do you know what we're going to do later today?"

Iris: No....

Me: Go to a carousel.

Iris [grinning and giggling] I'm excited!

And knows it and can name it! Can you stand it? Oh sure, you can, but I about burst with pride and joy.

And so round and round we rode, one animal after another camel seahorse lion dolphin pig, until the scenery stood strangely still when we got off.

And Iris got a pink balloon.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

guiltless in new jersey

No pictures today, though I have lots to show. I will have to download and post them when I get home. [July 6 – edited to add Fourth of July Weekend Foto Spectacular]

We are whiling away the long holiday weekend in New Jersey, where the living is easy. Not exactly the state slogan, but that's how it feels here at my father-in-law's in leafy suburbia. No, I don't romanticize suburban life – I have been there, done that, and I know it is not for me. But maybe that's precisely why it is so lovely and luxurious to visit: it is an ordinariness that is not my own.

J brought his bike and I brought some crafty supplies in case I should be inspired to be productive while Iris romps around, barenaked, loosely supervised by my sister-in-law's dog... but somehow, here, being productive is the last thing on my mind. It's like another dimension, one with a wide-screen TV and Tivo and a hammock on the deck beneath the backyard trees and gin and tonics at cocktail hour (and cocktail hour starts really early) and staying up past midnight playing Ticket to Ride at the dining room table. I am loafing as hard as I can, and I seem to have left self-reproach at home.

Iris has become obsessed with Kirikou et la sorciere. Have you seen it? Oh, you really should, even if you don't have kids. Yesterday morning we held a mandatory screening for all family members so that J and I would not have to be the only ones on call for her incessant demands of "pease talk about the wild boar... pease talk about dat skunk... pease talk about Karaba have big owie in her back..." and on and on.

Hope everyone else is having as relaxing a weekend.