“I watch my kids cover themselves in duct tape and use whole rolls of wire to wire their siblings together,” says Kyra Matsui, proprietor of Iron Lace Design, “and I can see who I was from the beginning.”
“I was an isolated child, hiding in my room, making stuff. I remember when I was six, there was this plastic dollhouse stool. I figured out if I wove Kleenex around it and wet it, then when it dried, I could slip it off, and I would end up with a little basket. I started painting Kleenex with food coloring and hanging it all over the ceiling. My parents were so patient!”
Kyra, 39, who is separated, has boys ages seven and nine, and five-year-old twin girls. She recently got a diagnosis of autism for her oldest son, who also has diabetes. Kyra uses a combination of homeschooling and public school.
“My own public school experience was pretty bad,” says Kyra. “I didn’t really learn any kind of work ethic, or how to concentrate, but I did learn how to be quiet so I could get away with anything.
“What I wanted to do [with my own kids] was give them a space to socialize with people not just in their own grade level, but who were interested in the same thing. To give them the space to figure out what they were interested in.
“For me, that was making stuff. I remember reading Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Warrior Scarlet when I was nine or so, and teaching myself to weave on a little loom I made out of a cardboard box. I was supposed to be doing schoolwork. Instead, I pulled stuffing out of a pillow and figured out how to make a spindle.”
Here’s the rest of the conversation I had with Kyra about her current work:
How did you get started making jewelry? What is it about chainmail that appeals to you?
It’s because of my Japanese cultural heritage, plus historical interest, plus fantasy. When I was fourteen and hiding in the school library, they had a couple of really good costume history books, and I devoured those.
I was briefly in the Society for Creative Anachronism doing costuming, and some friends were doing chainmail. The kind I do, Japanese, is the simplest. Usually what you see in movies is European. It runs in one direction, almost like snake scales.
What I like about Japanese chain mail is you can hang it any way, like fabric.
You can attach dangly stuff to it and incorporate it into the construction.
You also have some jewelry made of watch parts on your page. Tell me how you got your hands on that.
It all belongs to my father, whose parents emigrated from Japan in the 20’s. He was eight or nine when the Japanese Canadians were interned. His family ended up in Toronto after they were relocated. He trained as a watchmaker and repairman and jeweler, and he had a workshop in the house I’m sitting in now, the house I inherited.
When digital watches came, he became a tool and die maker, but did watch repair privately. He had a workshop that was floor-to-ceiling tiny drawers full of watch movements, gears, springs, some of them almost microscopic. You need tweezers to pick them up.
After he died, I was clearing out all his stuff, and thinking, ‘This is beautiful stuff. ” I’m not going to learn to do watch repair. I tried to sell it, but I didn’t get any takers.
What would he think of the jewelry you make with his watch parts?
He would be appalled!
Well, he would be happy it was being used, but perturbed. He wanted me to go into fine arts and into jewelry-specific programs, metalworking, gemology. But I’ve always come at things more from a costuming and textile end.
Chainmail is a lot more like working with fabric then metalwork. I’d like to learn to solder, but that requires a lot of precision. Chainmail is more like knitting.
How long does it take you to make one of those necklaces or rosaries?
A rosary takes about four or five hours of intensive labor. Because I make them out of stainless steel, it’s really hard on my hands, so I split it up over two or three days.
I’ve ended up with carpal tunnel from doing too much! I made a Mexican wedding double rosary over a weekend, and that was a bad idea.
It’s very intricate work.
And I’m extremely myopic. I was told by an ophthalmology student that my close-up vision is excellent. I can see much finer detail than most people, as long as I hold it an inch and a half from my eye. I also have a jeweler’s visor loupe.
You have four kids, you’re completely renovating your house, you exclusively homeschooled up until recently, and you’re a single mom. So in your abundant free time, what do you do?
When I was in my early 20’s, I did about ten years of belly dance classes. Then I had four kids in four years. But I love to dance. I found that goth clubs are the only place you can go and belly dance for the entire night without being hassled. My friend Cynthia and I found this lovely place that has industrial goth night once a month.
It’s the same people from twenty years ago. We’re all older and tireder. We have a few drinks, thrash around on the dance floor, and then go back to our lives as attorneys or whatever. There are some really terrified-looking twenty-year-olds who turn up, too. Half of them embrace it, and half of them sidle quietly out the door away from the scary, old people.
[Below: Kyra in her Halloween costume as Jadis, Queen of Charn:]
If you had unlimited time, energy, and resources, what would you make?
I was looking around Etsy and found this chandelier thing you hang between your nipples. This . . . is not what I’m going to be doing.
If time and money weren’t a factor, I’d love to be working in precious metals and gems. I’m learning how to solder and make my own findings. I’d love to do some sort of elaborate fantasy set, with headpiece, necklace, hand flowers, and neck piece, and make a dress that goes under it. I’m not watching Game of Thrones, but the costuming is fantastic. I’ve been looking up jewelry for the Southern Kingdom. Very East Indian-Ottoman Empire-Persian stuff.
If people want to order from Iron Lace Design for Christmas, when should they order?
If they want a special order shipped before Christmas and they’re in the states, get the order in by early December. Regular mail tends to be a week. Priority mail is faster, but pretty expensive. But if I have to source material, I may have to order it online.
[Two special order stainless steel rosaries, one in lapis, one in garnet:]
Today I feature MY FAVORITE CATHOLIC ARTIST IN THE WORLD, MY OLDEST DAUGHTER LENA.
Lena’s just opened a Redbubble store, and would like you to know that you can order today and still get your stuff before Christmas. Lots of quirky and oddly elegant stuff here, mainly geeky, including fan art featuring Naruto, Big Hero 6, Psychopass, Metroid, Teen Titans, Gorillaz, Star Wars, X-Men, Ruroni Kenshin, and some other stuff that just fell out of her fevered brain.
Because I’m a big, elderly poop, I’m encouraging her to add some of her lovely outdoor watercolor scenes. She is uploading more art as I write. Here’s a few more images than I’m partial to. Far and away my favorite:
We have ten kids, ages eighteen to almost two. We buy . . . . a lot . . . .of gifts. Here’s a list of fifty that our kids tried and liked this past year. They’re mostly under $50, and are in order from cheapest to most expensive, so it’s a little book-heavy in the beginning.
I’d also like to apologize for the graphic.
Most of these items are from Amazon. I’m an Amazon Affiliate, and all of the Amazon links in this post have my code embedded, so I earn a small percentage of the sale price, which is how we buy more presents for ten kids next year, and on and on it goes.
“I’m meeting you halfway, you stupid hippies!” Possibly specific to the needs of my family. For the right person, it could be the best $4 you ever spent. When people ask how my kids deal with being one of the few Catholics in a giant public school, this sums it up pretty well.
This book came highly recommended by trusted friends for kids grade four and up, and it lived up to the hype. Original, exciting, and the author actually wrote it with care and wit, rather than just assembling a plot with the right keywords. Kids and I both enjoyed it. It’s part one of a series of four.
Another book my friends have been lauding forever. My first-grader just adores this series, which has ten books total. I admit I haven’t read it yet, but my daughter doesn’t put up with a lot of nonsense, so I respect her opinion.
This is the one of two items on this list that I haven’t actually bought yet, but it’s on my list — in this case, on my wish list. If someone gets it for me, I plan to grow ivy in it. Ivy will grow easily in water. I need green in the house to tide me over until spring!
This was a gift for the six-year-old, but everyone loves it, from the baby on up. Those orderly little drops, marching up and down the steps, hurrying or strolling, as you choose. Endlessly fascinating, miraculously never mixing. (There are any number of liquid motion toys to choose from. Great for babies, older kids who need calming down, or adults who need calming down. I once spotted a few of these toys in the waiting room at the washing machine repair shop, and I’ll be darned if I didn’t mind waiting.)
Matthew Alderman’s new offerings this year. Alderman’s style is so fresh and inviting, reminiscent of Trina Schart Hyman, who drew heavily on heraldry and illuminated manuscripts, nodded at the pre-raphaelites, and then opened the window to let some air in. Great stuff. Kids (and others) soak in knowledge as they color.
Corrie got this last Christmas, when she was teething hard, so it became known as the Corrie-o. The little ridges are perfect for sore gums. It’s bigger than a real Oreo, so not a choking hazard. Super cute, still a favorite after a year of gnawing.
How I adore this movie. It shows, without comment, everyday scenes from the lives of four babies, from just before they’re born until they’re learning how to stand. The families live in San Francisco, Tokyo, the Mongolian steppe, and Namibia, and their lives vary widely, but some things are always the same. Sweetness and a little melancholy, but mostly sweetness. I always feel restored after watching this short, gentle, agenda-free movie, and the kids love it.
Ben Hatke’s first installment in a new graphic novel series. It’s a reimagining of Jack and the Beanstalk, and it’s wonderful. You care about the main character right away; Hatke is generous with understated details that tell you what you need to know about the world they live in; and I have no idea what is going to happen next. Some serious themes — serious money troubles, danger, a younger sister who is autistic, and a difficult friendship — but suitable for kids age 7 and up, if they’re not highly sensitive.
We loved The Pirates! Band of Misfits movie so much (made by the same folks who make the excellent Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep), and recently discovered that it was based on a series of books that are even odder and nuttier than the movie. These books do include some bawdy jokes and some violent details, but I feel that the most inapwo-pwo stuff goes over the little kids’ heads, and it’s just edgy enough to give the older kids a little thrill, without crossing any lines.
My fashion-minded ten-year old would wear this every day if we let her (which we do). Pair it with the TARDIS hat (which she does) and and maybe the TARDIS dress, and you have a themed ensemble. The scarf is a stretchy rayon, machine washable.
This toy distracts the baby from your actual smartphone for maybe ten minutes. Worth every second. I like B. Toys because they make sounds, but they are intentionally soft; and they have an off switch. This one has held up well, and doesn’t gobble batteries too badly. Also records your voice, so the older kids are always pranking each other.
The large wooden balls are linked with elastic, so you can wear it like a bracelet, or you can roll and twist them to make all kinds of lovely clusters of color. Each ball is painted a slightly different shade, it’s pleasantly heavy, and it makes a soft clacking sound. Fine, I bought it for myself, and sometimes I let the baby play with it. We’ve had good luck with this brand, Manhattan Toy.
Whenever my kids put Calico Critters on the list, I grumble and complain about how stupid and pointless and expensive they are; and then I start shopping, and then I go, “AWWWWWWW.” They really are adorable. These are very small toys, so not great for kids who lose stuff; but they are sturdy and sweet, and come in dozens of different species. We also have the pool and sandbox set.
I actually resisted buying this kit, because it seemed dumb (ALEX toys are hit or miss) but one kid desired it greatly. It turned out to be quite good. The headbands haven’t broken after a year of use, which is almost a miracle; and she had a surprising amount of fun making different combinations.
My current favorite read-aloud. This book has an unusual focus for a children’s book: a very old couple, so poor they have to share everything, including a chair, a blanket, and the one last potato in the garden — or so they think. A simple and hilarious story of unexplained magic, but so much to unpack about what you really need in life. The illustrations are understated but extraordinary.
My ten-year-old daughter worked to earn her very own ice cream and candy dress, but maybe you’d prefer beetles, constellations, or cute ghosties. More varieties, some of them truly bizarre, than you can shake a stick at. These dresses are on the short side for adults of average height, but work fine for shorter folks. They come with or without sleeves, and are made of a stretchy rayon material.
Oh, I lied, this is another thing I haven’t bought yet, but friends say it’s lovely. I’m a sucker for little worlds under a dome, and I love how this comes with a hanging hook. Friends say it’s brighter than you might expect. We recently redid the little girls’ room with two sets of bunk beds, so we may be investing in individual lighting for individual preferences.These come in three different colors, and you can get either the rabbit thing, or a plump little bird.
By far the nicest instructional ballet video I’ve ever seen. The music is pleasant, there are no bizarre mascots or intrusive animation, the teacher seems to actually like kids, and you will learn some true, basic ballet. We put a broomstick between two chair backs to make the required barre.
The premise is that, when night falls in the village, a werewolf comes out and kills someone; and everyone else has to figure out who the werewolf is and what to do about it. Everyone closes his eyes, and the leader instructs one person at a time to wake up, take a look at the card that reveals his role (werewolf, bodyguard, witch, villager, etc.), and then go back to sleep. There are several rounds of play, in which the players anonymously decide to kill, save, protect, or silence each other.
Quilling is making a comeback! A lovely, old-fashioned craft where you roll up thin strips of paper, loosely or tightly, then pinch them into various shapes. No end of possibilities here. You can make free-standing 3-D ornaments, glue the paper to eggs, make cards, or even jewelry. A very pleasant way to spend time. My nine-year-old needed a little help to get started, but she caught on fast.
With eight daughters, we’ve tried a number of jewelry boxes. A number. This one is by far the sturdiest, but it still looks delicate and dainty. The ballerina still pops up, the music still plays, the hinges still function, and the box is still a box. Pretty, silver-satin quilted design. Plays “Fur Elise.”
Probably the most-used piece of furniture in our entire house. This lived in our living room for at least five months, and saved my sanity while Miss Insano clambered up and threw herself down hundreds and hundreds of times. Folds for storage.
This is the absolute last untested item on this list! We’ve bought many items from The Little Dress-Up Shop, and have always been completely delighted, so I’m confident that this sweet, poofy ballerina skirt with rosebuds will be well-received.
42.Portable Bluetooth speaker, about $37
Exactly what we needed. It works with my kid’s phones, and lets them blast music while slaving away in the dirty dish mines or cleaning up the yard after the last raccoon garbage party. Easy to use, and a good value for the price.
It wouldn’t be Christmas without at least one sword. This one is long, shiny and seriously heavy. Not sharp, but you definitely could kill someone if you tried. Not meant for heavy fighting, but good for stage or costumes or just swaggering around with a big-ass sword.
Greatest inspiration I’ve had all year. We now have two sets (they come rated for different weights), and they are adjustable. First kid went from zero skill to wobbling across the floor in a few minutes, and now she can jump, run backwards, spin, and do all kinds of terrifying stunts. Good exercise, good for improving balance, and great for building confidence. Excelsior!
Yes, this is the second trampoline we’ve bought. We finally destroyed the mat of the first one, and after several unsuccesful attempts to replace it (we kept buying the wrong size, the wrong spring size, etc. etc.) we just threw in the towel and bought a new one, upgrading to fifteen feet. I know all about the horrible stories of mangled faces and splintered tibias, but we are still a trampoline family all the way.
Baby loves it. Kids love playing with the baby on it. It’s instant entertainment at birthday parties, with or without water balloons and a sprinkler or Easter dresses.
Grouchy or sullen teens discover that life is worth living after taking out their troubles on the trampoline. And it’s a perfect spot for stargazing or sunbathing or lying down while the kids run around you, blissfully under the illusion that you are playing with them.
You really need a trampoline. (And if you happen to have a spare trampoline frame, you can wrap some chicken wire around it and make a garden fence, or maybe a chicken coop.)
Okay! That’s it for this year. Happy shopping! Thanks again for using my link when you shop on Amazon.
Catholics on Etsy! Mostly! Here is a selection of handmade goods by Catholics, so we can all support each other when we shop for Advent and Christmas. Some these goods are religious, some are not. Some of the stores sell all kinds of items, and the featured one is just the tip of the iceberg. It was painful to narrow down this list to a manageable size!
Today, I’m showcasing jewelry, because I like jewelry, and art and prints, because I like art and prints. Here we go:
I think everyone knows by now how much I adore Kyra’s chain mail jewelry. It makes your neck feel strong, cool, and beautiful. Elegant and powerful designs, including earrings and chainmail rosaries, too.
This isn’t an Etsy site, but Katrina Harrington was kind enough to send me one of her “Offer It Up” mugs, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t actually work. It makes morning better when I get that reminder. It is a nice mug, too, large and sturdy.
Along with mugs, Hatch Prints also has watercolor and hand-lettered art prints and tote bags inspired by the saints.
SPECIAL OFFER FOR MY READERS: Use discount code LOSINGMYMIND15 for 15% off purchases of $20 or more.
Breathtaking. Look at her beautiful face. This is just a detail; the full work includes the entire image of Our Lady of Guadalupe supported by an angel, painted on rough wood with a laquer finish. Lots of variety in this store, including matrioshka dolls, beeswax goods, and very cozy tea cozies.
HA. This is kind of perfect. Heather says, “Because sometimes I need to just gather up my fragile little buttercup feelings and OFFER IT UP, nah mean?” For when your prayer life isn’t all thees and thous and “vouchusafe unto us” this and that. Sometimes you just need to offer it up, buttercup.
That’s all for today! Tomorrow: Rosaries and rosary accessories; knitted and crocheted and fabric items; and a bunch of wonderful goods I couldn’t categorize but couldn’t stand to leave out. See you then!
A trip last weekend to my childhood home has made me nostalgic. It’s far too early to share a list of Christmas present ideas, so how about this list of toys I remember from my childhood? Many are still popular, in one form or another. Here’s ten of my favorites, most for under ten dollars:
1. Sparking wheels!
The ones from my yoot were made of tin, and were very sturdy. I liked to sit at the bottom of the stairs, at the darkest spot in the house, and just crank that wheel, watching a mesmerizing little red and blue galaxy flash in and out of existence in the palm of my hand. The scratch and catch of the mechanism was very satisfying for the hand and ear, too.
Shopping around for a sturdy version that didn’t cost a million dollars, I came across this sparking toy:
If you haven’t seen one of these in action, it’s hard to explain what it does. The axles of the wheel have little magnets in them, and if you hold it by the handle end and flip it around the right way, the wheel goes whizzing around and around the frame, and, I dunno, it’s fun.
3. Siren whistles!
My migraine-plagued father had an inexplicable drive to buy us wonderful toys that drove him crazy. One perennial favorite was siren rings, which (like everything in my childhood, it seems) used to be made of metal. You could wear them like ordinary rings, and whenever the time seemed right, you would blow into the round window in the top and it would go “wwwweeeeeEEEEEEEEeeeooooooooooo,” and it never ever ever ever got old.
The closest I can find is siren whistles built into lips or mustache, or just in little tubes.
It’s from the Acme company. THE ACME COMPANY. Wile E. Coyote c’est moi. The description also points out that it’s “a useful and unusual warning signal for small boats.”
4. Chinese drums!
Oh, my gosh, these are fun.
You roll the handle back and forth between the palms of your hands, which makes the balls swing on their strings, whacking the drum on both sides. Very satisfying! These are about $7, and they will send you a randomly-chosen design.
5. Clacker balls!
Did I ever get the hang of these? No, I did not. But they were enough fun that I tried for years and years; and I liked walking around the house looking at the world through the transparent balls with their tiny captive bubbles, too.
The trick is to loop the middle of the string around your finger and sort of jerk them in a rhythm so they smack together at the end of their strings until they start arcing up and down, clacking against each other high and low. (One of the reviews here shared a video, so you can get an idea of how it goes.)
Okay, so these are plastic (about $5 a pair). We had dark blue glass ones when I was little. Nostalgia aside, I can’t shake the idea that maybe it’s okay that today’s kids are pampered and coddled and aren’t generally encouraged to make glass balls crash against each other. Old ways are not always the best ways. Either way: not recommended for kids with short tempers.
6. Magnetic scotties
I’m not gonna lie to you: these are magnetic scotties. That is, they are two plastic dogs with magnets in them. See?
They put farm animals on this item (about $8) to make you think it’s a toy for children, but it’s actually for anyone who just needs to hear a little moo from time to time. I believe it works with a weighted rubber membrane inside, and when you tip it over, it creates a suction that pulls air through the . . . you know, I don’t know how it works. But it’s hilarious. If you shake it really fast, it sounds like the cow is hysterical!
8. Color paddles
The one I had just had the three primary color, but kids these days are lazy, so get their purple, green, and orange handed to them on a platter.
The perfect toy to feed into an introspective child’s Heraclitean confusion.
About six bucks. I understand how it works. Really, I do. The ribbons hold it in place, and the thing flips over, and I understand how it works. But damn! How does it do that?
I should note that all of the links are to Amazon products because I have an Amazon Associate’s account. If you buy any of these products, or if you buy anything at all on Amazon after getting to the site after clicking to one of my links, then I earn a small percentage of the sale. This is so helpful to my family, you wouldn’t believe it.
If you shop on Amazon, won’t you consider using my link? I’ll have a button on the sidebar here soon. In the meantime, here is Simcha’s Amazon Link. Be a peach and bookmark it for me! Thanks!
And now tell me about the toys of your childhood, especially the lovely, low-tech ones that keep on going through generations.
Robin’s soaps are just beautiful — especially the multi-colored bars. They are like little works of art.
They smell wonderful, they are creamy and lush, and they last much longer than any soap I’ve ever used. The ingredients are great for people with sensitive skin.
I have my favorites (I’m partial to Sunshine Yuzu — so cheerful! — and my husband likes the plain goat milk bars for his winter dry skin)
but I’ve never hit a bad soap from Robin’s workshop. Here’s a list of the new varieties:
1.) Cedar Bay
2.) Spiced Mahogany
3.) Sunshine Yuzu (a favorite of many!)
4.) Eucalyptus Mint (100% essential oils)
5.) Lemon Cake
7.) Blackberry Sage
8.) Chocolate Orange (LISTED 2 November)
9.) Frankincense & Myrrh
10.) Lemongrass (100% essential oils)
11.) Mahogany (is like the Men’s Cologne)
12.) Chocolate Mint
13.) Rosehip Jasmine
14.) Patchouli Lavender (100% essential oils)
15.) Summer Lilac
16.) Home Sweet Home (was my #1 best seller among friends and family between 2002 and 2012, before I opened up Robin’s Soap Shoppe. I finally made it again, after several years)
17.) Lavender Madonna & Child only
18.) 100% Goat Milk Madonna & Child
Robin’s a single mom who’s treading a long, difficult road. She’s a hard-working, proud Army vet who really wants to support herself, despite her many health problems. Please consider checking out her Etsy shop. Her soaps make wonderful stocking stuffers or little gifts for friends, family, teachers . . .
Doing your back to school shopping online, maybe? Do me a big favor and usethislink.
It will take you to Amazon, and you’ll have the exact same shopping experience as you always do — only my code is craftily embedded in the link, and every time you buy something, I get a percentage. Easy for you, super super super helpful for us!
We are still in denial about school shopping, but there are a few items that caught my eye – things that will help ease the pain when we can’t put it off any longer.
25 Back-to-school Items Your Kid Can’t Geek Without
Message in a Bottle flash drive – about $6. An appealing mixture of old and new storage techniques. 6GB of storage corked away inside a little glass bottle. Perfect for kids who tend to drop things in the toilet a lot.
12 large beeswax crayons – about $7 Yarr, $7 for crayons. But what crayons. Silky, velvety, brilliant. Everyone should color with these at some point in their lives (and they come in a nice case).
Totoro messenger bag – about $10 Note that the model is a weensy weesny Asian model. For the typical causcasian American kiddo, this is more the size of a purse than a messenger bag! It’s not exactly sophisticated looking, but for the right kid, it’s the best ten bucks you’ll ever spend.
Little Alchemy – free Just a neat little game that you may actually want to play yourself, or at least it won’t make you feel horrible when your kids play it all the time. All you do is put stuff together to make more stuff, until you have all the stuff. It’s just difficult enough to be fun, and the breakthroughs are very satisfrying. I meant to type “satisfying,” of course, but they are also sometimes satisfrying.
Robot pencil sharpener – $13 Nicely made. You wind him up by sharpening your pencil (or by using the key), and his little head fills up with shavings. He can hold your pencil in his robot hands as he marches along, too. Sturdy construction; nice and small so you won’t feel the need to assert your human primacy.
I had to stop myself from linking to all the Peter Pauper journals. Dozens of gorgeous styles, and very reasonably priced for the quality, according to the reviews. Here are a couple that caught my eye:
Luffy T-shirt – about $15 For those kids who are – *sighhhhhhhhh* – really, really into One Piece, especially that one time when they were all in a ship, and Luffy was sitting on the figurehead, and he ate the gum gum fruit, and if you eat any kind of devil fruit, the price is that you can’t swim, and everyone was telling him he shouldn’t sit there because he might fall in the water, and he was like, “No, it’s my special seat, you can’t have it!” And then one time Luffy fell off into the water, and there are two other devil fruit users on his crew, and they’re the ones who jumped in to save him! Also there was one part where he was trying to get this guy who was a shipwright to join his crew, and this guy only wears a Speedo and a Hawaiian shirt, and he wanted to join, but he also wanted to stay where he was, so Luffy stole his Speedo and told him he couldn’t have it back unless he joined his crew, and it was the only one he had, and so he was running through the town to get his Speedo back, and . . . it was just great.
Super Mario earrings Oh my gosh, are you kidding me? – about $10 (Note: these are from China and will take forever to get to you unless you pay extra for fast shipping.)
Zelda ocarina and songsheet – about $8 You certainly won’t regret buying this for your kid so that you can hear those Zelda songs all the time even when they’re not playing video games; you certainly won’t. (There are a great number of Zelda ocarinas available on Amazon. This plastic one is the one my kid happens to have, and it’s fine. I started to plow through the reviews of the higher-quality ones, thinking I would find a better product, but I started to feel kind of sad about humanity.)
Terrifying owl backpack – $49 Whoa. If you are worried about your kid being a little bit frail and puny and maybe not ready for the wilds of the hallway, it might help to send ‘em out wearing one of these.
Zita the Spacegirl graphic novel series – about $9 each. I’m getting my kids to write a proper review, but in the meantime, I can’t say enough about these books, which are clearly a labor of love, written by a dad who really knows kids. So funny, weird, sweet, and exciting – and fairly back-to-schoolish, if you kid feels like she’s been catapulted out of her familiar world onto a strange planet on the first day of school.
This ring helps you transpose musical notes into different keys! It is a simple way to pick the number of steps or half steps you’d like to change for any musical sequence. Want to move a score up a major 2nd? Just turn the top band two position over. Works for any transposition you need. You can also use it for more complex variations such as descending 5ths root movements. One example is ii-V-I’s which are the basis for most jazz tunes.
Lovingly handmade bags and pouches in awesome fabrics from Door Number 9 on Etsy. A few samples of the pouches, wallets, and mini bags for sale:
My daughter has this one: the One Ring Tea Wallet. Gorgeous, one-of-a-kind.
Last year, we gave a bunch of people homemade vanilla extract for Christmas. Was it appreciated? I have no idea. But we kept a bunch for ourselves, and it is wonderful. Here’s our current personal stash:
It was quite cheap, and you can really taste the difference in recipes over store bought vanilla extract. (The boys also add a bit to their mice’s drinking water a few times a month, to make them stink a bit less. In theory.)
Best of all, it’s SUPER EASY. The only hard part is thinking ahead a bit. It takes a month at the very least, but the longer you let it sit, the nicer it gets. All you have to do is buy some cheap liquor, split or chop a bunch of vanilla beans, throw them in the bottle of alcohol, and wait. (More detailed directions here, but there’s really not much more to it.)
We used Smirnoff Vodka, but you can use rum or bourbon. Buying expensive liquor won’t make it taste any better, so go for cheapski or middleski.
You can make it in individual bottles,
or make it in one big bottle and then decant it into something more decorative when you’re ready to give it to people.
We bought bottles like these (8 oz. each, case of 12 for about $20), but there are many lovely varieties to be found online. If I had time, I’d scout out thrift stores and find some pretty, old fashioned bottles in interesting shapes. Just make sure they have a tight cap or cork!
plus labels like this, so we could personalize the bottles
or you could go with tags. Lots of possibilities here, to make it as cute or elegant or artsy as you like.
I just bought a bunch of cheery red bows and tied them on with jingle bells from the dollar store, and it made cute little packages. This would also work for wedding or party favors, depending on how you decide to dress the bottles up.
Just a reminder! My links are to Amazon products. If you buy anything from Amazon after getting to the site through one of my links (even if you buy a completely different product), I get a small cut of the purchase price. This adds up over the month and helps tremendously to support our family. So if you buy from Amazon, I’d consider it a great favor if you’d bookmark this link and use it any time you order. Thank you so much!
How about vidya games? My kids play games on the Wii, PS2, and occasionally the iPad and PC. We have tons of the Lego Wii games, and they were all the rage at our house for a few years. These are cute, clever, and not too noisy or violent (people just turn back into separate pieces when they get killed). Have’t found a bad one yet.
Here are some of my kids’ other current favorite games. I asked them to give a quick description, plus their favorite and least favorite aspects of the game. Then I added my take, as someone who doesn’t especially like video games, who worries about bad influences on the kids, but who isn’t especially restrictive. We don’t have any particular interest in very violent, scary, or gross games like Resident Evil or Call of Duty. Bracketed comments are mine.
17-year-old girl says:
It’s a Zelda-type action adventure, but everything looks like a Japanese sumi-e painting. You are Amaterasu, the sun goddess, incarnated as a white wolf, and you use celestial brush techniques to paint symbols. You draw symbols in the air to manipulate the world around you — like, you draw a swirly thing to summon a gust of wind. You can fill in gaps in bridges, trail fire from a torch to a pile of brushwood, stuff like that. The goal is to save Japan from evil spirits, which, you know. [I don’t actually know.]
Best part: The best part is that it’s a serious, hard-core adventure game that also rewards you for feeding animals and caring for plants. You collect praise points for helping to restore nature, or helping people, or just being nice, like feeding a kitten. That’s not the main point of the game, but I like that it’s this elaborate adventure, and you get points for being nice to kitties.
Worst part: I hate the sidekick. I want to kill him and I want him to shut up.
My take: Looks weird and gorgeous. I don’t mind having this one in the house at all.
11-year-old boy says:
It’s about a raccoon thief who beats people up and steals stuff, but he’s a good guy. Sort of. In the first one, he’s trying to steal back his family’s guide for how to be a sneaky thief.
Best thing about it: The graphics are great. The characters are very well thought out, and there is good voice acting, except for when they’re supposed to be surprised.
Something I don’t like: it’s kind of annoying that Sly always smiles, even when he falls off a cliff and dies.
My take: The voices are really obnoxious, and the few female characters strike me as unnecessarily sultry. I would just as soon see these games go away, but both boys (the other one is 13) love these three game to pieces, so there must be something there. The fighting isn’t too graphic. It’s fairly flashy and the sound effects are kind of grating.
9-year-old girl says:
It’s a game where you pick a song to dance to, and you can earn points by dancing like they are dancing on the screen
Best thing about it: I’m not too good at games where you have to fix up a problem, and I’m pretty good at games where you just follow the moves of what is on the screen. It’s a good, easy game for all ages.
Something I don’t like: It doesn’t have Taylor Swift. Some of the dance moves areinapwo-pwo, and we have to skip some of the songs, like “Toxic,” “That’s Not My Name,” and a few others, because they’re sassy and weird and dumb, and sometimes the dances are just inappropriate.
My take: Silly, active fun, except for that one kid who discovered that you can get a perfect score while sitting in a chair and moving your wrist around. Great for an ice breaker at parties, because it gets you moving but everyone is looking at the screen, not at you. Most of the songs are just goofy; a few are too sexy (lyrics and dance moves), so we just skip those. (I actually prefer having the kids get used to the idea that you have to pick and choose and say “no” to some things and “yes” to others, rather than just flat-out forbidding anything that might be, well, inapwopwo, because eventually they’re going to have to tell themselves how to spend their time.)
15-year-old girl says:
It’s made for Gamecube, so if you’re using the Wii, you have to use a Gamecube controller instead of a Wii remote. You also need a memory stick for the Wii. There is also an HD version for the Wii U.
It’s an adventure game and a puzzle game, and you have to defeat puzzles and dungeons and bosses, to get different items. The point of the game is to defeat Gannandorf, the evil bad guy, and save Hyrule and your sister, and make your grandma proud of you.
Best part: It’s an exciting game, but the graphics are absolutely adorable, and the characters are all really funny. I like the Snot Kid, and the way all the characters look.
Something I don’t like: It’s set in a sea, and it takes a while to get from island to island, and you get lost really easily.
My take: I honestly don’t get what the big deal is about all this Zelda stuff, but it doesn’t bother me. A few of the videos are quite pretty. The music isn’t too loud or annoying, and it’s not one of those awful frenetic games. Just a lot of running and hopping, as far as I can see.
15-year-old girl says:
It’s a sort of dark twist on forgotten old Disney cartoons, but in a cool way – not a stupid emo hipster kind of thing. [You know. Stupid emo hipster.] You play as Mickey, and get sucked into a world called “Wasteland,” where all forgotten cartoon characters live, and you have to defeat the Mad Doctor and the Blot Creature. You have the power of ink and thinner so you can paint and erase things to your advantage.
Best part: It’s kind of dark and scary at times. It’s got this great morality thing, and sometimes you have a choice of helping a gremlin or getting money, and if you help, you get even more money, or a reward, and you also get the gremlin’s reward later in the game, so it’s got that going for it. It’s not a serious gamer game, but it’s still fun.
Don’t like: It encourages you to use paint more than thinner when defeating bosses, but it’s really difficult. It’s just frustrating.
My take: She’s not kidding about dark twist! Some parts of this game scare the three-year-old. I hear a lot of frustration when they are playing this game, so it’s best for kids who are persistent. Graphics are super detailed and imaginative and have a lot of depth, and it’s fun for the kids to spot obscure cartoon characters.
14-year-old girl says:
It’s an action adventure game in the style of the Tomb Raider series, but it’s Indiana Jones. The goal is to get an artifact from the tomb of an emperor, but it’s really convoluted. (We have the PS2 and Windows versions. Apparently this game is “backwards compatible, which means that if you have a PS3 or 4, you can play this PS2 on it.)
What I like: Nice detailed graphics, and the combat is a lot of fun except for when you blow yourself right after Indy says, “Hope I don’t blow myself up.” It has good voice overs. You have to solve puzzles and beat up Nazis.
Don’t like: This is pretty much the only game I’ve played besides all the Lego games. I would make a setting for people who have never played video games before so it’s for them. [There is an easy mode. She may not be aware of this.]
My take: Meh, I’m not crazy about this one, but they’ve been playing it for years now, and no one has turned into a felon yet. My husband likes it.There is so, so much punching, but it’s not bloody or anything, and it seems like it takes a long time to beat all the levels, so that’s a plus. We have picked up a lot of family catch phrases from this game. The voice really does sound like Harrison Ford, and I get to wow the kids by putting my high school German to use (“The American! Kill him!”).
17-year-old girl says:
It’s my all time favorite game. It’s my first ever Zelda game, and you always think the first Zelda game you play is the best one. But objectively, I firmly believe it is the best one in the series. The main plot is that you’re trying to rescue Hyrule from this evil, alternate dimension that is trying to turn everyone into ghosts. It’s a very Japanese game.
Best part: It creates such an elaborate world, you can really get lost with everything you can interact with. It has a great plot and great characters. There’s one scene where one of the characters is dying and you have to bring her to the castle, and it’s the most concerned I’ve ever felt about a character. You get really emotionally involved. Also, it’s just gorgeous and the game play is crazy. It really feels like you’re doing these things. It makes me feel cool. Link does things I could never do. He has all these crazy abilities. That sounds lame, but that’s what they’re trying to do: get you immersed in rhe game.
Don’t like: Uh, I thought I mentioned that this has no flaws whatsoever? Probably the best cel shaded game I’ve ever seen, kind of crazy gorgeous, and so creepy sometimes. It sets you up, introduces you to this world to make you feel secure, and then changes the world suddenly. It really throws you off your balance. It has this innocent fairy tale vibe, and then really strange, creepy things happen.It has some really dark elements to it. The creepiest thing is when it kind of changes the rules on you, and shows you things that don’t belong. Unsettling in the best way.
New baby gifts! Fun to receive, fun to give, almost impossible to get wrong.
The only truly unwelcome baby present I’ve ever gotten was tucked into the bottom of a “welcome, new baby!” basket from my church: it was a pamphlet titled something like, “So, Hear Me Out, Now. There’s This Thing Called NFP That You Might Maybe Want to Try. . . “. And yes, this was after I had literally written the book on NFP.
I really can’t complain, though. I’m horrible about giving baby gifts, myself. I almost always just bring a fuzzy wuzzy outfit or an adorable bonnet, because it’s fun to shop for those things. But I’ve been on the receiving end of dozens of much more thoughtful, memorable gifts over the years. Here are some of my favorite ideas, which new moms seem to universally appreciate:
1.The tried and true meal. I never manage to prepare freezer meals ahead of time, and I always think, “Oh, we can get by with chicken nuggets and pasta for a while.” But nothing beats having the whole thing taken care of by someone else — whether it’s something elaborate and gourmet, or just a bunch of sandwiches ready to eat.
Best practice is to contact the new mom first, find out when the best time would be to drop by, and don’t plan to stay long — or, if you’re friends and know this would work out, offer to come over with groceries and cook a meal at the new mom’s house (and do the dishes afterwards!). Always ask if there are any allergies or preferences in the family.
And be specific.”What would you guys like to eat?” is great; but to a fuzzy-minded postpartum zombie, even better is “Would you rather have Specific Meal X, Y, or Z?” If you are feeling super helpful, include disposable plates and utensils, and don’t put the food in containers that you need back.
A variation: a gift card for take-out delivery. No matter how well a day starts out, things are guaranteed to look pretty bleak by dinner time. It’s a happy mom who knows that all she’ll have to do at 6 PM is open the door, open a pizza box, and call it a day.
2.The gift from the heart: cash (or gift cards). Not every family needs money, of course, but paternity leave is rare and many moms are losing income while they recover. There are always extra expenses when a baby is born, and nothing eases stress and speeds recovery like knowing, “Oh, I can pay for that.”
Also welcome are gift cards for Amazon or other stores where the family can pick out what they really need, whether it’s a frilly newborn dress, diapers and wipes, toilet paper and dog food, or a treat for the rest of the family when everyone’s stressed out. A friend once gave me thirty dollars, and I still remember how fabulous it felt to go out and splurge on a de-frumping postpartum haircut.
3.The favor that lightens the load. At our school, there is a monthly lottery for “Rock Star Parking” right next to the door. I will never, ever win this, because you get entered by being on time all month. But my punctual friend Angy did win, and she donated the spot to me (as did another friend, Patrick, last time I had a baby). It may not sound like much, but when it’s icy and muddy and I’m lugging a baby in her seat and dragging an unwilling toddler in snow boots and an Elsa dress, a good parking spot makes my life significantly easier five times a week. Score!
Other possibilities in this category: an offer to pick up and drop off other kids at school, or an offer to do the weekly shopping — or maybe an offer to be a shopping companion, on those first difficult trips out with a baby. Think back to when you had a new baby in the house. What did you really struggle with? Is there any way you can lighten that load for a new mom and dad?
4. Treats for other young kids. The non-newborn kids can feel a little lost and overlooked in the first weeks. How nice for them (and for an over-extended mom) to find a few little (non-messy!!!) activities to keep them busy. Sidewalk chalk, new crayons, coloring books, picture books, small stuffed animals or dolls, or a DVD (something you know the mom approves of) can cheer up siblings and give mom a needed respite.
5. Treats for mom (or dad). No matter how happy we are to welcome a new baby (and not be insanely pregnant anymore), it’s a bit of a shock to suddenly stop being the pampered patient, and suddenly start being the round-the-clock caretaker. Most moms appreciate a thoughtful little token present to make them feel pretty or cared-for. A bottle of wine or a box of tea, some fancy chocolates, or something pretty for her hair or skin — or maybe a gift certificate for a manicure or massage — is a nice gesture that says, “You’re more than a diaper-changing machine.”
Something nice for the new dad would probably be welcome, too. They’re often nearly as worn out as their wives, but nobody’s fussing over them.
6. Sincere, specific offers for cleaning, babysitting, or other practical help. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do!” is a pleasant thing to hear, but a thousand times better is, “I would like to donate my teenagers for a couple of hours, if you need help with laundry or cleaning the bathrooms and kitchen, or if you’d like me to take your other kids to the library so you can nap. We are available on the following dates, so let me know if you’re interested.” Or even, “I would love to offer you a couple of weeks of housecleaning service. Would that be helpful to you, or would that be weird?” (Some families are too private for this kind of gift.) Lawn care, snow shoveling, or some credit with a diaper service might also be welcome.
7.Handmade, personalized, or heirloom items (with no strings attached). Hands down, handmade gifts are my favorite in the long run, and older kids love knowing that someone made them just for them, back when they were just a baby. A few that stand out: two blankets made by my sister (one crocheted with intertwined trees and a lovely shell pattern, cherished by the now three-year-old, and one quilted with upcycled denim and flannel, complete with pockets that delighted my son when he got older), and a life-changing co-sleeper built by my brother-in-law and sweetly painted with dancing dandelions. We also love the patron saint icons and medals that various godparents have sent.
Just remember, even if you spent a lot of time and thought on a gift, the new parents are not obligated to display it on their wall or dress the baby in it at Easter time. A gift is a gift, so give it with love and then let it go!
8.Photography session. If you are good with a camera, a newborn or family photography session could make a lovely gift. Just be clear that it’s just an offer, and you won’t be offended if the new mom isn’t up to getting everyone brushed and dressed right away.
9.Used or new baby clothes or equipment IF the mom confirms she really needs and wants them. Mothers of big families may have more baby stuff than they know what to do with, so another bag to sort through may or may not be helpful. On the other hand, mothers of big families have often completely lost track of their stash, or rashly given it all away, so don’t assume that she already has what she needs! The key is to ask. And be clear whether you’re offering a loan or a gift, and if you’d like any unwanted items back, or if she should just dispose of them however she likes.
Baby equipment I’ve found most useful, besides a carseat and stroller: a Boppy pillow,useful for nursing, for propping up a baby’s chest, and for supporting a wobbly baby who is learning to sit; a Bumbo floor seat is a clever, portable, washable seat that we’ve found to be very handy. An extra-large and soft receiving blanket is also very useful for swaddling, as a sun cover, or for some privacy while nursing.
10.Prayer and words of encouragement. A Mass card or enrollment makes a nice keepsake, but Catholic moms also appreciate prayers of any kind. “We’ll offer Mass for you this week” or “We’ll remember you in our family rosary” is a gift that anyone can offer. If you’re not a pray-er, words of encouragement or admiration can also make a huge difference in those first exhausting, sometimes isolating weeks.
11.Gift certificate for a restaurant or hotel — with no expiration date. Some couples are dying to get away, but some would rather hunker down at home until baby’s much older; but most parents like to know they at least have the option to do some non-infant-related activity together at some point.
12.And you don’t have to wait for the baby to arrive. For some women, the last few weeks or months of pregnancy are physically and emotionally harder than the postpartum time, so any of the ideas above would probably be gratefully welcomed by an exhausted preggo who is starting to feel like her baby will never, ever come.
What’s missing from this list? What’s the best baby gift you’ve ever gotten?