Monday, August 19, 2019

When You Have Your First Day of School at the Zoo

I don't think it's uncommon for homeschoolers to celebrate the first day of public schools in their district in a way that's a little anarchic. 

It's kind of smirky, sure, to brag about whatever you're doing that's not going back to school on the day that everyone else is showing off their first day of school photos, but whatever. It's fun!

I don't usually make a big deal about pointing out the date to the kids, but I always note it for myself, and yes, I try to make it something extra unusual or extra fun. Last year, the kids' first day of seventh and ninth grades began at 3 am on the top of Cadillac Mountain. The year before that, Matt and I surprised the kids with a day at Holiday World. One year, when they were small, I made it a holiday and we ate doughnuts and watched movies and skateboarded in the street all day.

This year had a good first day of school, too: we spent the night at the Cincinnati Zoo, sleeping with the manatees!

This is the third zoo overnight that I've done over the years (the kids' FOURTH!), and honestly, if I never do another one I'll be fine, because my sleep schedule is messed up enough without further testing it in a sleeping bag on a vaguely-carpeted concrete floor next to whispering strangers who won't shut up all freaking night and I'd murder them/wake up their chaperones and tell them to murder them if I wasn't too exhausted and depressed to fight my way off the floor, but the kids like them, so there you go. 

And they're crazy educational, so there's that.

And at 5 am, when those horrible whispering children by my head had finally fallen asleep (and yes, I'd scolded them numerous times, and I have very low expectations for the future success of children who'd be scolded by an adult for Doing a Thing and then carry on Doing the Thing over and over again) but by then I'd completely given up on the idea of slumber, myself, I sat up in my sleeping bag and had a lovely, quiet, magical, miraculous time watching the manatees swim and frolic about. They're all orphans who are being fostered by the zoo, and someday they'll be back swimming and frolicking in the wild.


The kids also really like the behind-the-scenes tours that you get during an overnight, as well as the animal encounters--

--as well as the chance to be up bright and early and exploring while many of the animals are also up bright and early and exploring. The kids and I marveled, because I don't think we'd ever before seen a red panda actually AWAKE!

We even got our own private bird show:

After the overnight, the kids and I spent the whole day at the zoo, exploring:

Somehow, wherever we go, Syd always manages to find herself a kitty!

And another kitty:

And, yes, yet another kitty:

We were out early enough to see some of the animals eating breakfast:

We got about double the mileage that I'd liked to have gotten for this day, on account of spacey children's somewhat spacey map-reading skills. Experiential education in action!

My favorite animals were this pack of African painted dogs. They're all the grown puppies of a single mother, and they acted like a giant, bratty schoolyard full of rowdy children. It was super fun to watch them play:

There were other opportunities for animal encounters throughout the day--

--as well as another bird show that we worried was going to be super lame, compared to the private one we'd had earlier, but actually it was the best part of the entire day! The keeper who'd done our first show in a straight, informative style was, in this show, a bumbling, inept zookeeper who did tricks with a chicken and kept losing one of the macaws. Every now and then, when he was looking the other way, someone behind the scenes would send the macaw out for a stroll behind his back, and the packed crowd, chock-full of children, would lose their collective minds. Normally that kind of stuff annoys the heck out of me, and maybe it was the sleep deprivation this time, but it was off-the-hook hilarious.

At one point, two keepers are talking about litter and disease and whatever, I don't even know because I wasn't paying attention, because rats just started running back and forth along the top of the scenery. The audience flipped out with shrieking excitement. It was bonkers, I can't even tell you in words.

Part of the premise of the show is that they had perches all along the edges and back of the audience area, and they'd have birds free fly to and fro. At one point, the bumbling zookeeper falls to the ground and pretends to be a corpse so that the trainer can show off the vulture flying over to do its part in the circle of life. As the bird's flying, I'm thinking, "Wow, that guy sure is coming in hot," and it does not reduce its speed one iota before absolutely barreling directly into the prone zookeeper's crotch. He curls up and wallows, the trainer winces and keeps going. It's one of the best things that I've ever seen in my life.

This is the first time that we've been to the zoo post-Harambe. We saw Harambe the last time that we were there, and I just want to tell you right now that in the blog post that I wrote about that trip to the zoo, I described in detail watching a small child climb over the safety fence and I noted exactly how easy it would have been for her to take two more steps and fall through the shrubbery and into the gorilla habitat.

Rest in peace, Harambe.

Thanks to not having the map and instead being navigated by a couple of bickering kids, I was a little disoriented in this area, but I did note that the gorilla habitat, or at least the public's access to it, is different. I didn't see that open-air area at all, or at least I didn't find it if it's still there. Instead, we had access to this glass-enclosed area:

We admired the zoo's other famous inhabitant, Fiona, and I spent an excessive amount of time feeling sad at the passenger pigeon memorial:

THIS is why I take the kids places. Look--they've stopped bickering for a minute!

Even when they're bickering as hard as they can while dragging me fourteen times around the zoo because they haven't mastered efficient map-reading, I treasure spending these days with my girls. It's especially poignant as they grow older, knowing that in just three years Will will be having her own adventures in college, and just next year Syd may very well be taking advantage of the host of excellent art classes in the local public high school by becoming a full-time public schoolkid.

With such big adventures on the horizon for the two of them, it's all I can do to concentrate on enjoying my small adventures with them right now.

Happy first day of eighth grade, Syd!

Happy first day of tenth grade, Will!

Whatever else this school year holds, we spent the first day of it exactly as we most want to homeschool: together, happy, having an adventure, and learning what we like:

And eating an excessive amount of peanut butter. Because tradition, after all, is tradition!

Friday, August 16, 2019

Make a Mason Jar Foaming Soap Dispenser

My tutorial was originally published here on Crafting a Green World.

Foaming soap is so much fun to use, but store-bought foaming soap often is either made from super-shady ingredients or is ridiculously expensive. 

If you've ever experienced either of those scenarios, then you are going to be STOKED at how easy it is to make your own foaming mason jar soap dispenser, and your own totally natural, totally good-for-you foaming soap to go in it. Although I prefer Mason jars for all of the foaming soap dispensers in my house (I pick antique Mason jars out of a 1950-s era dump that the former owners of my home didn't tell me was in the back of the six-acre property--good times!), this tutorial will work just as well for any glass jar whose mouth is the right size to fit a canning jar lid. Some spaghetti sauce jars, for instance, are actually really cute, and some even have the embossing to make them identical to canning jars. 

 Here's what you'll need to make your own Mason jar soap dispenser:

Supplies And Tools

  • Mason jar or any jar with the correct mouth size
  • Foaming soap dispenser lids. You can buy these for either a regular mouth or wide-mouth canning jar. Before these started to be made commercially, I'd buy just the foaming soap dispenser parts and hammer an opening into a canning jar lid to fit them--what a stinking pain in the butt! This is the one case in which I am THRILLED that I don't have to DIY every part of my project.
  • Dr. Bronner's liquid soap. I was obsessed with peppermint for at least a decade, but now nothing will tear me away from almond.
  • Water.


  1. Cut the foaming soap dispenser to size. You'll need to do this if you're using a pint jar, but not if you have a quart one. Fortunately, the plastic dispenser can be cut with kitchen scissors, so all you have to do is measure the height of your jar, then mark that same distance from the top of the foaming soap dispenser's lid. Cut the excess off of the dispenser, making sure to cut at a slant.
  2. Make your foaming soap. My favorite recipe is 1 part Dr. Bronner's liquid soap to 4 parts water. For a pint jar, that means that I use 1/3 cup of Dr. Bronner's and 1 1/3 cups of water. If you want to make your foaming soap even more special, here's a recipe for an antibacterial hand soap that has only one additional ingredient.
  3. Attach the foaming soap dispenser lid. All you have to do is screw it on, then pump it a few times to get the soap going.

Now with your very own mason jar soap dispenser, you have no excuses not be as clean as a whistle!

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

How To DIY a Large-Format Clipboard

How many years can you be vaguely annoyed by your kids' Girl Scout cookie order forms never fitting properly on a clipboard before you do something about it?

Six years. The correct answer is six years.

And you also need the impetus of an imminent Girl Scout meeting at the local farmer's market (the Tuesday one, NOT the Saturday one), for which you have created a scavenger hunt that requires the girls to annotate a large-format map of Indiana while running around and talking to growers and producers, making large-format clipboards also obviously necessary.

So here's how to make your own large-format clipboard! It's super handy, I love it, and you're going to like it a lot, too.

You will need:
  • MDF or hardboard, or a similar wood type. You want something that's higher-quality than particle board, although still within the same approximate .5cm-.25in thickness. You can go thicker, keeping in mind that you're going to have to tote this bad boy around with you, but I wouldn't go thinner, because if the wood is so thin that it flexes, then it's a crap clipboard and you'll be sad. You can also use real wood, of course, not the weirdo particulate nonsense that I'm advocating here--the best case scenario is to dig around in your garage until you find a piece that works for you for free.
  • measuring tools.
  • saw. I used a circular saw, but use whatever you've got that works for you.
  • sandpaper or grinder. You'll use this to round the edges of the clipboard.
  • (optional) paint, stain, and sealant. You don't have to decorate the back of the clipboard, but why lose out on an opportunity to be extra?
  • binder clips. Generally, it's bulldog clips that are used on a clipboard, but we're going for something different--and more versatile!--here.

1. Measure the clipboard. Since I essentially used scrap wood for this project, the proportions of my clipboards are slightly strange in order to use as much of the wood as possible. However, 12"x16" or 12"x18" make little difference--they're both good sizes to fit a Girl Scout cookie order form.

2. Cut the clipboard. Go play with power tools!

3. Sand all the edges and grind the corners. Especially since kids will be using these clipboards, you don't want them to be sharp or have splinters, so round all of the edges with sandpaper, then use a rough grit--or a grinder, if possible--to round the corners.

4. (optional) Embellish! The trick here is to embellish and seal ONLY ONE SIDE of this clipboard. That's because it's going to be secretly multi-purpose! I'm just going to tell you right now that when the kids were young I was super into Waldorf-style stuff for well more than a hot minute. 

I wasn't into Waldorf-style learning, mind you--just the stuff! I loved beeswax crayons and tree blocks and hand-sewn dolls stuffed with wool roving and wet-on-wet watercolor supplies and rolled candles and gnomes and shit.

Anyway, all the wet-on-wet watercolor aficionados always used these super-awesome wooden painting boards, which really are super awesome because they hold the paper still, don't get water all over, and are wipeable. I don't think you even need the beeswax polish, because I think it ruins the tooth.

So I never made the kids one of these painting boards (although I highly suspect that I originally bought this particular piece of wood in order to make painting boards and then never did that project and instead just hoarded the board in the garage for several years--I may have even moved house with it!), BUT by leaving one side of this large-format clipboard completely unembellished and unsealed, you know what you get?

A Waldorf-style plain wood painting board! Yay! Syd has been really interested in watercolor painting this summer, so this painting board is particularly nice for her. I also like that it's lap-size, perfect for sitting against a tree trunk and doing some outdoor art.

But back to the back of the clipboard, which you're free to embellish and is a nice size for it. To embellish these particular Girl Scout cookie order form clipboards, I stained them, stenciled a large trefoil onto each, painted the trefoil green with three coats of craft acrylic, redrew the border with Sharpie to neaten it, and then painted polyurethane sealant over the whole back.

Don't seal the front!

5. Add clips. The secret ingredient for this project is this exact type of binder clip:

Instead of screwing a non-removable clip directly to the clipboard, I have four of these binder clips clipped to it. We can use or move them as desired, which makes the clipboard highly versatile.

We've already used these clipboards a bunch, and it's not even close to Girl Scout cookie season! I love how handy they are, and how easy they are to store. It wouldn't be unreasonable to make one for every girl in a troop, or to have them make their own (Hello, Cadette Woodworking badge!), or to have them embellish their own before you seal it.

You guys, these kids are going to sell so many Girl Scout cookies this season!

P.S. Like weird (and wonderful!) projects like this? Check out my Craft Knife Facebook page, where there's lots more!

Monday, August 5, 2019

July Favorites: Anti-Heroes Who are Actually Heroes, Talking Animals, and Australian Reality TV

What did Will and I read and love and loathe this mid-summer?

All of THIS!

My absolute favorite book of July--and of the entire year, so far!--is this beautiful gem:

I LOVED this book,  you guys. I LOVED IT.

Mind you, I started off hating it, and came close to simply pitching it in the library returns crate before the first chapter was finished, but I hung on because Will highly recommended it to me, and I wanted to at least be able to talk about it with her.

So I soldiered through the first chapter, and then got hooked on Elliott's machinations, although my skin crawled at how mean he was to everyone in his life. I hated him and wished that the book would focus on someone more pleasant.

But then, you know, Elliott started to grow on me, too--he was so clever, and he did some heroic stuff, and even though he appeared hateful to everyone, his actions started to give him the lie. And then, almost in spite of myself, I started to love him, and as the years in the book went on, I loved him more, and cheered him on as he took brave little steps towards decisions that would change his ugly little unused heart for the better, and oh, my goodness, you guys, I cried more than once on his behalf! Damnit, Elliott! Why are you so horrible to everyone?!?

It's because everyone has always been horrible to him and he doesn't know how to love or be loveable and he thinks he IS horrible so he's like a feral cat that scratches you before you can pet it! It's touching and endearing and painful to watch, and I want to wrap him up in blankets and let him hide on my couch as long as he wants!


And yes, I have realized that this main character is quite similar to the main character of my OTHER favorite book this year, The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue. Stop psychoanalyzing me!

Remember how much I liked The Boys in the Cave last month? Well, this month I read another account, and I also liked it!

It was interesting to read two separate books on the same event, because of course they each told details that the other didn't. If you read one, you should definitely also read the other, and THEN I think you'll have a thorough understanding of all that went on. And yes, it's still amazing and intense and practically beyond belief.

And here's what else I read in July!

My goal for August is to try to find some more interesting non-fiction to read--the non-fiction on my library shelves right now is mostly guidebooks and recipe books, which aren't exactly made for cover-to-cover binge-reading.

Will, as usual, read voraciously in July. She surprised me again this month by having a sci-fi book as one of her favorites:

I think that she has to stop claiming that she doesn't care for science fiction!

Another of her favorites is an old favorite, one that Will has probably read a half-dozen times since she first learned to read:

We've read all of those Chincoteague books several times, watched the movie, visited the island, and every now and then we talk about how fun it would be to go to the pony swim. Maybe next year!

Will's next couple of picks for her favorites are especially interesting, I think, because they demonstrate what it looks like for a kid to read whatever she likes. Especially in the homeschooling community, I'm always seeing parents worry about what books to offer their kids to "challenge" them, or fretting that their kids only read "easy" books. I don't think it's hard to figure out that Will has some exceptional academic abilities, and yet this silly little children's novel was one of her favorite books that she read in July:

And here's another book that she said was one of her favorites:

Yeah, that's my Seamus Heaney Beowulf, with the Anglo-Saxon on one side of the page and his modern English translation on the other side. Will reads what she likes, whether it's an upper elementary adventure novel or translated Anglo-Saxon poetry.

Funny tangent: a few days ago we were listening to something on the radio, I don't remember what, but the speaker made a reference to "Beowulf following Grendel back to his lair and defeating him," and Will and I both gasped in outrage. It's Grendel's MOTHER that Beowulf chases down into the depths, not Grendel! The very IDEA!!!

Will also really likes the HIVE books, and these three were also July favorites:

Will didn't set aside any of her books this last month for me to read--something that she does if she thinks I'd especially like them, too--but nevertheless, I'm going to re-request these two from the library, because they sound sweet and magical:

Here's some more magic, combined with another of Will's favorite themes--talking animals!

Speaking of talking animals, Will re-read this and couldn't stop talking about it. We've had a LOT of conversations in the past month about rabbit Nazis and the Black Rabbit and the fact that, you guys, all of that roaming and adventuring and wandering? They're rabbits. That whole book probably took place in the space of something like two square miles.

And here's what else Will read in July!

Our binge-watching, now, has been mostly TV series, mostly non-fiction. We rented Netflix for exactly one month so that Matt and I could watch Stranger Things, because, you know, of COURSE we did, and the first thing Syd did was watch the entire run of Nailed It. And then she got super into reality shows, only 23 years out of fashion by now, and somehow convinced me to obsess over the entire first season of some Australian reality show, Yummy Mummies. It's about these three rich, self-entitled, but still kind of charming pregnant women in Melbourne, and the tacky, vulgar, over-the-top, selfish pregnant woman who stalks them from Adelaide. It's SO WEIRD, and Syd might be developing a permanent bias against the upper classes.

And then, fine, *I* got super weird into another very strange Australian reality show, this time about lifeguards on some popular beach in Australia that frankly looks like the most dangerous place on earth. It's basically a giant urban beach with two tiny safe swimming areas between a couple of huge riptides. And there's a rocky cliff to one side where people cut themselves when they're not getting swept out to sea in the riptides.

And then Will started fighting us for the remote because she found a British reality show about a group of people who rescue wild animals and bottle feed a bunch of baby foxes and badgers and jackdaws.

It's been a very educational month, y'all!


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