Making Allowances

Long before October rolled around, Ella knew what she wanted to be for Halloween: Eliza Hamilton (from, um, Hamilton the musical). After scouring the internet for the perfect dress, she fell for a beautiful replica in an Etsy shop.

It was expertly made, exactly like the one worn in the musical – and, therefore, cost more than double what we would normally spend on Halloween costumes. Seeing how an 18th century gown isn’t exactly something one wears to school or while running errands, we told Ella that spending so much on a costume to be worn once was simply out of the question.

Enter: her allowance.

Ella inquired how much we’d be willing to spend on a costume. Then she inquired as to whether, if she chipped in more from her allowance, she could get the dress. We agreed. As soon we placed the order, Ella forked over the cash and waited impatiently eagerly for the package’s arrival. When it finally came, she was in heaven – and more than a little pleased with herself for deciding it was worth the money.

This, really, was the point of her allowance: to give her the opportunity to learn how money works, and more specifically, how it works for her. What does she want to procure? Does she want it enough to spend her own money on it? What is a fair price? Is she willing to wait for a bargain or does she want something immediately, so she’ll willingly pay more? When is something worth saving for? Does it feel better to blow through money to buy things that make her happy or to let her stash accumulate?

Every family handles money differently. Some folks give kids an allowance on a case by case basis when it’s earned for chores (or something similar). Others give a set allowance that is contingent on children doing certain tasks. Others base it on grades.

When the girls were little, Nick and I decided we wanted their allowance to mean something else. We wanted Annie and Ella to learn the value of a dollar, to learn how to spend and save money, and to have an understanding of how economics work. We both know kids who, upon graduating college, hadn’t ever had a chance to figure out how to save or spend money, and the results weren’t pretty; we didn’t want that for our girls.

An allowance was also a way of giving the girls a little autonomy. I remember how frustrating it felt being completely dependent on my parents for absolutely every purchase, from a pack of gum to the latest fashion trend (Benetton shirt, anyone?). Nick and I wanted to give the girls the ability to purchase things they wanted, when they wanted to, without relying on us.

I hadn’t expected that ability to garner so much ownership and pride.

Sometimes, of course, we say “no” even if they spend their own money; there are just things we don’t allow. But more often than not, if the girls want it and can afford it, it’s theirs, whether it’s a tin of Pokemon cards or sugar-laden gum or an Eliza Hamilton dress.

This is not, in any way, to say that Annie and Ella are not expected to do chores; they are. But Nick and I decided ages ago that we didn’t want to tie together chores and money. For one thing, we didn’t want to make it an option to just skip chores if the girls decided they didn’t feel like earning their allowance that week.

Even more importantly, we wanted to instill in them the idea that being part of a family means helping one another out, pitching in, and making things work together. That means everyone is expected to do their age-appropriate share; it’s simply what we do as a family, period, and no one gets paid for it.

If you’ve been reading here for any length of time, you know I love me a good chart or whiteboard, and we’ve used a lot of different chore-type charts over the years. This seems to be the earliest…

chore-chart-extrasThese are circa 2009, when they were 2.5 and 4.5 years old; we start ’em early ’round here!

A couple years later, a chart and red stamp were used. Teeth brushed? Stamp. Bedcovers pulled up? Stamp. Trashcan carried to the hall the eve of trash day? Stamp. Within a couple of months, the girls were incorporating the tasks into their daily routine and no official chart was needed, so it and the stamp were retired.

(To be fair, Ella also got ahold of the stamp one day during rest time and stamped her wall and stuffed animals and bedsheets and clothes and I was so upset about the sea of red I encountered when I went into her room that I had made her shower fully clothed to prove the point that everything was so ink-stained, the only solution was to soak it. Not over-the-top at all. Good parenting times.)

Sometimes, the charts were very specific, with points to be awarded for checking items off the list and “prizes” to be redeemed after accumulating enough points.

screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-2-10-06-pmI believe these are circa 2013.


More recently, we’ve employed a system  where they earn points for being kind, helpful, etc. (putting away groceries without being asked, feeding the dogs without complaint, offering a favorite chocolate to a sister…) and can then “spend” those points on things that hold meaning for them. It’s far from perfect, but it does a good job of encouraging them to not act like schmucks.

As for their “regular” chores, like doing their laundry, clearing their dishes, making their lunches, and the like? They still have to do those – but there’s no tangible reward, unless Not Making Mom Irritable counts. It’s just part of being a family. There are no salary negotiations on these matters nor can anyone decide to skip the labor and forego a paycheck.

Their allowance is still doled out every week, regardless of how cheerfully they followed through on tidying the bathroom or how many points they earned. Because the point of the allowance is to teach fiscal responsibility and give them some autonomy, not to offer them an incentive to pitch in.

I’ve heard it said before that the reason allowances and chores are tied together is to give kids a realistic sense of how life functions. People get paid to do their jobs; if they work, they earn money and if they don’t work, there’s no money. I absolutely appreciate that for adults; money doesn’t just fall from the sky. Neither does it for my kids.

But see, that’s the beauty of the auto-allowance: it takes me, the Mommy ATM, out of the equation. If Annie and Ella desperately want Target dollar section Halloween socks, the money for that will not rain down upon them from mama’s purse so they can wear pumpkins on their toes. Even “just a dollar” adds up, both monetarily and otherwise. No; they’ve received their allowance. If they choose to spend it on jack-o-lantern fuzzier, so be it, but I’m not involved.

We do think it’s important to (try to) instill in them a healthy work ethic, to make them aware of the connection between doing a job and getting paid for it. Hence, the girls frequently have the opportunity to earn additional money to pad their allowance – by helping out with things around the house that are usually outside of their responsibility. Mowing the lawn, weeding, mopping, etc. are all “extras” that are rewarded monetarily. When they’ve got their hearts set on particular items they can’t afford, the Jobs For Hire are completed daily. Other times, the jobs go undone for weeks and the money just lingers, but that’s okay because these were just bonuses; the mandatory family chores have already been completed (for free).

I have no illusion that this is a foolproof system, but it does seem to be accomplishing what we’d hoped – which is to say, Annie and Ella have a pretty decent understanding of how money works, what’s important to them monetarily, and how/when to save vs. how/when to spend. Considering I barely learned these until I was a young adult, I think we’re off to a reasonable start.

I think the chore thing is doing what we hoped, too: creating a sense of ownership and pride in our family, and helping foster the idea that we’re in this together. Because the girls have been learning basic household tasks for so long, they’re also fairly competent and capable at most of them, so fingers crossed that when they, like, head to college, we won’t have any last-minute Oh My Gosh You’ve Never Done A Load Of Laundry panicking. Or not as much, anyway…

Last night was the school book fair. I happily bought the girls a couple of novels, but when it came to the crap trinkets near the checkout, I drew the line. Receiving that news, Annie calmly opened her purse and handed over the cash – her own cash. She walked out feeling mighty fine that she’d been able to get exactly what she wanted… and I walked out feeling mighty fine that I hadn’t shelled out for a periodic table bookmark.



Halloween Bingo! Drink!

Halloween has changed since I was growing up. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, you had two choices for your costume: something that you put together quickly at home (likely with the help of your mom) or something that you picked up at the drug store on the way home from the bank, after you got the lollipop which you ate while sprawled completely across the backseat of the paneled station wagon (unless you were in the “way back” and were just sliding around as your mom took the turns extra-wide to give you more momentum with which to smack, giggling, into the sides of the car).

If it was the former, it likely involved a paper bag, some string, and some makeup – and maybe your mom even broke out the sewing machine. If it was the latter, it a) had a full-face mask that smelled terrible and attached with a stretchy string behind your head with eye slits barely wide enough to see out of that made you look like super creepy even if you were something totally benign like Holly Hobby, and b) had a “costume” that was made out of a single enormous piece of weirdly flame-retardant plastic (you can still smell that plastic, right?) and slipped over your entire body and also tied in the back.

Your costume options were, obviously, wide open, but tended to fall into one of three categories: something popular/current (Strawberry Shortcake, Smurf, G.I. Joe), something timeless/classic (firefighter, cop, cowboy, doctor/nurse, ghost, vampire), or something just a bit outside of the mainstream (mailbox – that would be my brother, Christmas tree – that would be me; these were homemade, of course… by our mom…). You took your Unicef box with you and a plastic bag or a pillowcase and, by God, you trick-or-treated — up and down streets, ringing the doorbells, gathering the candy, with your parent standing back and you doing the legwork, groaning whenever someone gave you an apple or a pencil and complaining that the change in your Unicef box was too heavy.

And when you got home, you ate that candy! You sorted it and counted it and, except for that year or two when there was some odd news story about something being stuck into the candy (pins? I honestly don’t remember) so your dad made you float the candy in a bowl of water (to see if there were any telltale holes from pin insertion, I guess), you ate it. You took your glow-sticks and your flashlights and your parents gave you the talk about not being a moron and running in front of cars. You learned how properly say “Trick or treat!” and “Thank you!” and how to avoid roving bands of teenagers who were out with silly string and eggs. It was wild, but man, it was fun.

These days, it’s a much more managed affair, from the costumes to the trick-or-treating to the candy consumption. Our house is far from immune. The girls begin looking for their costumes months in advance, scouring catalogs and the internet. Once they’ve decided, they then scour the internet for ideas on how to make their costumes even more fabulous. We shop in person and order things online. I have an entire Pinterest page devoted to Halloween and happily spent an hour last night making the girls’ Halloween-themed lunches (I know, it’s insane, but it made me smile). It’s become a freakin’ off-Broadway production.

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Practicing for Annie’s Medusa and Ella’s Bellatrix.

When it’s time to trick-or-treat, children are accompanied by parents, often right at their sides (instead of, say, at the base of the driveway). We are warned to be vigilant and extra-cautious and to look out for predators (even though, statistically, kids are safer on Halloween; they’re also safe in general, but that’s another story for another time…). Kids grab candy and race off without a thank-you, and then that candy is examined and categorized and rationed. I know that, at my house, the girls are not allowed to have a free-for-all; they eat their couple of pieces of candy, save some for the coming weeks to be eaten as dessert, and either donate the rest to needy kids (there’s a candy drive at their school) or save it to decorate our Christmas gingerbread houses.

Halloween 2014 is WORK, y’all.

Thankfully, in our neighborhood, the actual trick-or-treating really does feel like it did when I was a kid. As I’ve mentioned before, we live in a wonderfully kid-friendly area with parents who do not hover, with neighbors who trust one another, with kids who play outside unattended and run gleefully from yard to yard. This means that, on Halloween night, once kids hit middle school (or so), they’re on their own, walking in groups from house to house – and being polite about it. Parents do accompany their younger children, but they hang back in packs, allowing the kiddos to do the trick-or-treating.

Oh. And they drink.

Sometimes, it’s coffee. Tonight, it may be hot cider or hot chocolate because gross, cold, rainy weather is predicted (NOT COOL, MOTHER NATURE). But more often than not, the parents are walking around with flasks or spiked cider or beers in their hands and more in their pockets (one in each jacket front pocket, to be precise). It makes for a far more festive Halloween. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND IT.

Last year, for the first time, I was the one to stay behind and hand out the candy. I’d grown a bit tired of following the girls around; it had become rather the same each year, and frankly, a bit boring, so I thought I’d give candy passing-out a try. We do our garage up each year for Halloween and hand out donuts, cider, etc. (and we offer hard liquor for adults; this year, we’re creating a cider sangria – do come by) so it was really a lot of fun to just kick back in the cozy warmth and watch as the kids came by. Still, there were times when, frankly I got bored… when there weren’t any trick-or-treaters for a stretch, when the same costumes came by again and again, when I got a little tired of saying, “Take two!”

Surely there has to be a way to spice this up.

And so, to that end, I have created Halloween Bingo! Because Halloween is a family affair, it is meant as a family-friendly game; you need not drink alcohol in order to play it, and your kids are welcome to join in. You can also play it whether you’re the parent taking the kids around or the one doling out the goods. Halloween Bingo is for everybody!
(Side note: the items in Halloween Bingo aren’t necessarily cringe-worthy or bad – we’ve got some going on at our own house! They’re simply things you might see this year.)

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(Click on it to see it bigger and clearer.)

If you are drinking, there are some additional rules* to be followed:

  • Drink every time you see someone dressed as Elsa. (I know, “Let it Go” and the long white hair and the blue dress and all, but really, Anna is the much more fun sister. Why are there not more Annas??)
  • Drink every time you hear another parent say, “Don’t forget to say ‘Thank you!'”
    Drink twice if that parent is you.
  • Drink every time you hear someone say, “What are you dressed as this year?”

* Most important drinking rule: don’t be an idiot. Drink responsibly, especially when costumed children are running around.

Beyond that, it’s just straight up Bingo.

Some basics: As always, Bingo is five in a row. If you get Bingo, you need to call it out loudly – “BINGO, SUCKERS!!” – and the other players owe you a piece of candy. Once someone has Bingo, continued playing is encouraged; each subsequent Bingo should be treated the same. (If you’re drinking, take a drink for each square you mark.)

You can also adjust this and play Four Corners Bingo, Outside Edge Bingo, Plus Sign Bingo. If you do, you need to create your own shout-out and prizes; my time is limited here, people, because I’ve got a garage to decorate. (If you’re drinking, drink twice for each weirdo Bingo you get.)

If you manage to complete the entire card, you are clearly the Bingo Master. Shout out, “I AM THE BINGO MASTER!” and do an awesome dance move. Bonus points for The Worm. (If you’re drinking and you complete the card, finish your drink. And then get another.)

By doing this, I am fairly certain that Halloween will be completely un-boring. And delicious. And maybe also a bit competitive, which makes it more exciting because now my girls can argue about something more than just candy.

Happy Halloween!




elsa costume

don’t forget to say thank you

what are you this year

Pumpkins, Cider, Frangelico, and Candy

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a thing for pumpkins. Not necessarily pumpkin-flavored stuff – although I do love me a good Pumpkin Spice Latte… and Trader Joe’s pumpkin butter is fabulicious… as is their whipped pumpkin cream cheese… and the pumpkin chocolate chip cookies we made earlier in the week were delish… Okay, so I just like pumpkins. Round, squat, tall, skinny, tiny, red, white, golden, gourd-shaped, oval, with stem or without… Pumpkins are basically the squash of multiculturalism and world peace.

Plus, they’re awfully festive.

In the past, we’ve made do with simply carving pumpkins (ALWAYS FROM THE BOTTOM, people. THE BOTTOM!!), but somehow this year the girls were looking over my shoulder while I was browsing Pinterest and several decorated pumpkins caught their eye… And suddenly, we found ourselves at Michael’s at 5 p.m. on a Sunday filling our cart with acrylic paint, Mod Podge, oodles of fake pumpkins in all shapes and sizes, glittery spray paint, and even my mortal enemy, superfine glitter.

Over the course of the next ten days, we took some much-needed down time and decorated pumpkins till our fingers were practically glued together. The dining room still looks like a craft store exploded in there, and we will be finding bits of glitter dust in every one of our belongings until Valentine’s Day, but it was worth it.

Although Nick may disagree. Sorry, honey.

They first decorated pumpkins with glowing puffy paint. It was a good thing they chose the particular pumpkins they did, because only a few days later, they’d rotted through and left a layer of pumpkin-y mold on the table. Yay! I love pumpkins!
This one says “Annie”, although it’s a bit hard to read…

Annie’s is on the left; Ella’s says “BOO”, but again, hard to read with the lights on.

Unfortunately, with the lights OFF, I could’t quite get the photos to come out. Ah, well. Trust me. They were cool.

They painted and glued and glittered their hearts out.

The artist, very serious about her work.

Annie’s I-Spy pumpkin

What’s a painter’s palette without a hole for the thumb?

I may hate it, but superfine glitter makes for mighty cute punkins.

This was one of my favorites; you may notice it missing in later photos, because I gave it to my grandma. I’m a giver – what can I say.

I think I’ve mentioned this, oh, 438 times or so before, but we absolutely love our neighborhood. Kids everywhere (actually playing outside! In all weather! Without parents around! Riding bikes! Making forts! Sledding! BEING KIDS!!), wonderfully generous and kind neighbors, loads of families. It’s just a great place to be.

We really, reeeeally lucked out, though, because we knew nothing about Rochester when we moved here six years ago – in fact, I’d never even seen our house before we moved into it. Nick had seen it, and he emailed video, but still… I’d never set foot in it. Turns out we moved to the best place, ever, but man… Lucky.

Our first year here, although we’d liked everyone we met, we hadn’t exactly gone around door to door and said, “Hi! We’re new here! Want to be friends?” As Halloween approached, we decided that one way to meet people would be to offer up more than just candy. If we, for example, provided donuts and cider, perhaps people would have a reason to chat for a minute, and we’d actually come to know our neighbors. Plus we’d be known as that cool house that gives out free food.

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007… the beginning…

As the years have gone by, the basics have remained these same – the garage is open for candy, food, drinks, and fun – but we’ve changed and added things here and there. We’ve learned that if you don’t order Munchkins from Dunkin’ Donuts ahead of time, all they’ll have left at noon on Halloween are the cinnamon ones, and then the neighborhood kids will avoid your house, not flock to it. We now have both hot and cold cider, coffee, and a few years back Nick began offering *ahem* adult additions to the coffee and cider, too. Some years, we’ve brought the fire pit around on especially chilly evenings.

Screen Shot 2013-11-01 at 12.39.00 PM
Mickey and Hello Kitty enjoy getting warm.

This year, inspired in part by my Pinterest searches, and also looking for a way to distract myself and stay busy (my therapist says this is called “grieving” – who knew?), I decided to spice things up a bit. Instead of just exposing everyone to the junkiness of the garage, I hung sheets and curtains to enclose the space and hide our crap. I strung lights (to create the mood, you know), and, because the two tables we’d been using in the past had grown crowded, I added a third one.
halloween garage9

I saw this (again, Pinterest – holla!) and thought it would be awfully fun, but even though Ella is a Harry Potter fanatic, she thought it was a bit too dramatic. Instead, the girls opted for this, specifically with the question mark, “Because that makes it funny, mom.” Thank God no one asked for a trick.
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I’ve had the awesome light-up marquee for years, dating back to my earliest days as a music teacher. I don’t pull it out too often these days, but it always makes an appearance on Halloween.

In years past, the only decorations have been our carved pumpkins, but since we’d spent so much darn time decorating our gazillions of pumpkins, I thought it would be festive to haul ’em out and put ’em on display.

I have no idea when we started handing out things like tattoos and stickers – maybe one year when we had extras leftover from Ghosting? – but the girls were adamant that we still do so this year. I found some cheapo glow bracelets on Amazon, which turned out to be a surprise hit – even the pre-teens were asking me to help put them on their wrists. Go figure.

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The black pumpkin? Chalkboard paint. How fun is that?!

Ready for their close-up…

I-Spy makes his debut…

The candy table held still more of our creations, from Ella’s meticulously decorated flowering vine pumpkin to Annie’s purple and green creation.
halloween garage6
I was determined to make the glittery stack of pumpkins in the back. The BOO letters came un-glued as I was setting them outside, but they still looked fun. Plus, those pumpkins are fake, so I can add them to the stash of other Halloween decorations I’ve hoarded lovingly collected over the years.

The real draw: food and drink, yo. This year, I’d found a yummy homemade hot chocolate recipe and decided to add it to the mix – turns out, even on a warmer night, hot chocolate is super popular. Especially when you add Frangelico to it. Just saying.

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All set to go…

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Still more pumpkins! The eyeball one was a nice touch.

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You can just barely make out my very favorite pumpkin we decorated – the glittery,
drippy paint one at the back.

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The girls decided that they wanted to add food labels – and used their mini pumpkins to do so.

halloween garage2
Quite clever of them, no?

Pretty much every other year, Nick has manned the garage and I’ve been the one to take the girls house to house. I’ve never minded; I enjoy chatting with the other parents we find along the way, and I love seeing their delight as they bound off from door to door, amazed that people are just giving away candy. GIVING. AWAY. CANDY.

Last year, I probably lost weight while pushing Ella over the river and through the hordes of neighborhood kids. The sacrifices we parents make. SACRIFICES, I SAY.

This year, however, Nick requested that we switch roles. At first, I was hesitant, but he seemed genuinely eager to share the actual treating experience with the girls, so I agreed. And then I posted the following to Facebook:


First year ever that Nick – at his request – is taking the girls around while I man our candy / donuts / cider / hot chocolate / coffee / glow bracelets. Was originally a bit bummed to miss the girls’ excitement – but it’s sprinkling… The garage is warm and dry… Four trick-or-treaters have asked, “Is this Halloween heaven??”… And I’m looking through Christmas catalogs while stealing candy and drinking hot chocolate spiked with Frangelico. Seems to be a fair trade after all!!

Frangelico aside, the best part of the night was watching the faces of the kiddos – and their parents – as they approached the tables. More than four trick-or-treaters really did ask if they were in heaven (come back tonight when it’s time to shower and you’ll see just how hellish this house can be), and at least a dozen adults took photos with their phones to “show their friends” what was set up. Weird to think that our garage may be appearing on other people’s Facebook and Twitter pages, but at least it’s not because we were caught streaking or anything. Yet.

The worst part of the night was the fact that I was sitting right on top of our candy (okay, not literally, because that would be really, really gross), which meant that I felt free to reach out and take a piece whenever the mood struck. And it struck often. I’d never had an Almond Joy before, and it turns out I think they’re delightful… but they’re less delightful when you’ve consumed three of them alongside at least two dozen other pieces of candy.

No, I’m not kidding (although I wish I were). At least two dozen. I’ve been pretty careful with what I’ve been eating since the week of agony our juice fast, and apparently I decided to blow that out of the water last night. Which is not only kind of stupid, but really, really painful. Literally.

Oh, well. Halloween only comes once a year, right? Plus, surely I burned off some of the Almond Joys by carting all of the pumpkins back into the house.

Next year, no matter who mans the garage and who takes the girls out, it’ll be a good time. I’ll just sit a little farther away from the candy bowl. Like maybe in Ohio.

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Throwback Thursday: from angel to witch and everything in between

Okay, I can’t resist. Halloween brings out my nostalgic side, and looking through old photos makes me all misty. Plus also I’m so hopped up on sugar, everything seems super shiny and amazing. So I’m sharing these.

Nine Halloweens and counting.

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Angel Ella. Or, as I called her, Ange-ELLA. Get it? *cough.sorry*

Carving the pumpkin FROM THE BOTTOM.

Pumpkin guts are nasty, no matter from where you scoop ’em.

Tinkerbell. Or… TinkerbELLA???

Oh! Those teeth!

Tiger girl.
Or perhaps… TigerELL… Never mind.

She’s the same size as the pumpkin!
Well, the big pumpkin, anyway. Not the one in her hand. That’s just weird.

Fall fairies.
They’d worn the tutus in their aunt and uncle’s wedding a few weeks prior, so poof! Fall fairies it was.

See? I love me some pumpkins.
And we always open up the garage for the neighborhood. With booze.

Photo shoot with a “cute cat” (who’s being a little suggestive with the pumpkins) and a witch, version 1.0.

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Looking slightly more disheveled – and giddy – on actual Halloween night.

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The year that Ella eschewed ALL COSTUMES because they itched.
Thank God for skeleton pajamas and fun hair accessories.

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10.31 ready to trick or treat
‘Twas a bit colder on Halloween eve… Poor Minnie’s in a turtleneck…

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Some singing girl from some famous movie, and Maleficent (aka Witch 2.0), from ‘Sleeping Beauty’.
First time ever, I sewed both girls’ costumes (not Ella’s hat, though).
Last time, too. I don’t sew. No, really.

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Ado Annie (okay, she was a cowgirl, but I’m calling her Ado Annie) and a Winter Fairy.
With a broken foot.

Unexpectedly needing a wheelchair on Halloween? TOTALLY GETS YOU BONUS CANDY.

Okay, they’re not “throwbacks,” but I’ll include these anyway…

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The size of the garage display has grown.
So has the number of pumpkins we decorated and carved. More on that later.

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Presenting… the Ice Witch and a Candy Corn Fairy Princess.

And… As long as we’re talking throwbacks – here are some REAL throwbacks…

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Yep, me on the left and my forever BFF, Kiki, on the right.
Circa 1978. Gotta love the yarn “wig.”

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Circa 1982.
Yet again with the witch thing. Now I know where Ella gets it.
Not sure if my brother was officially the Lone Ranger, or just a cowboy, but we rocked the Unicef collection boxes.

Cut out the butt, save the world

This isn’t really a post. I mean, it’s a post. But it’s not saying anything.
Well, it’s saying something, but it’s not really telling a story.

What I mean to say is, this is just another post to link to my Pinterest page, because there is something incredibly important that I need to share with the world and it is this:

Carve your pumpkins by cutting a hole in the bottom, not by removing the top.

Phew. I feel better already.

But seriously, people. It’s a well-known statistical fact* that 98.43% of people cut a hole in the top of their pumpkin, scoop out the insides, carve their squash into a fabulous jack-o-lantern, and then fit the missing top piece back in, like a little pumpkin puzzle hat. That’s all well and good, except for a few very important things:

  • carved pumpkins tend to shrink a bit, including the top puzzle piece, which often becomes smaller than the original opening and slides right back inside
  • the cutting lines on the top can interfere with the creation you’re making, especially if you want to carve anything near the stem
  • you practically sacrifice a finger every time you have to reach inside and light the candle (unless you’re using a battery-operated one, but where’s the fun in that?)
  • when you go to move the pumpkins, you risk knocking over the candle, resulting in singed squash; it’s really difficult for kids to rearrange your awesome Halloween display

* I invented this fact.

Way back when we first began carving pumpkins with our kiddos, I’d read a tip in a magazine (yes, an actual magazine – a publication that I could touch physically, not just read on a screen) that said carving out the BOTTOM of the pumpkin — just removing a square — is way easier. So we tried it… and we’re officially converts. Because it’s 765 times better, that’s why.

See, it’s very simple.

You just tip the pumpkin butt-up and carve a square or rectangle in the bottom (or, really, whatever shape you’d like – I promise not to tell).
No, I don’t normally hold the knife so strangely, but it’s hard to take a photo of oneself holding a knife properly when you need your right hand to both operate the camera and grab the handle.

Voila! Remove the bottom! No need to save it — you won’t be stuffing it back in there. We’ll leave that to Fifty Shades, thanks very much.
Another fun fact: without the bottom piece, the finished jack-o-lantern is much lighter than it would have been had you cut off the top and then put it back on, which means your little minions can cart around their own pumpkins. Winning!

But wait! Isn’t it difficult to remove the seeds and stuff with the pointy stem still on?
Nope. Exhibit A:
Seeds in the strainer were being saved for snacking later.
After they’d been baked. Promise.

But wait! Isn’t it harder to carve the pumpkin with the pointy stem still on?
Nope. Exhibits B, C, D, and E:
Annie‘s not prematurely graying; her hair had been colored a la candy corn earlier in the day. Duh.

Which also explains why she chose to make a candy corn pumpkin.
Yes, she really carved the whole darn thing herself. Even the shading part. ‘Cause she rocks.

Ella originally wanted a snowflake, to go along with her ice witch theme, but she – mercifully – gave up on that and decided to go with a witch hat.

 Yep. she carved her own pumpkin, too. ‘Cause she also rocks.

So… After they’re carved, if your offspring can’t quite decide where they’d like to put the jack-o-lanterns and want to try out 482 different locations before you pull out every one of your hairs, your kids can just carry the pumpkins around all by themselves, holding onto the stem if it’s really strong?
Sure can. No candle-spillage worries necessary.

Don’t we just make a happy little threesome.

But what about the candle and stuff? Where do you put it if the pumpkin’s got a hole for a butt?
That’s the best part. You just set the candle down wherever you want it (or use the battery-operated kind if you’re afraid of fire), light it, and then set the pumpkin over it. No burned fingers necessary!

Bonus: you can carve as close to the top of the stem as you want, because you don’t have to avoid the cut-out top. And also, there’s no weirdo light emanating from the creases of the puzzle piece. Instead, moody Halloween lighting comes from the bottoms of the pumpkins, which is oh-so-cool.

Ta da.

So there you have it, world.
Carve your pumpkins from the bottom.
You’re welcome.

It might not solve the healthcare crisis or end strife in the Middle East, but it will make your Halloween oh so much more awesome.

Or at least save you a few crumbled-in, singed pumpkins.

Fifty Shades Meets Third Grade

Ella has always had a bit of a difficult time deciding what to be for Halloween. Whereas Annie can just jump onto the first idea that pops into her head, Ella prefers to take her time and weigh her options very, very carefully (not unlike when I took them to the dollar store). Over the summer, the girls talked about being a team, with Ella being a baker and Annie being the oven with a cake inside of it. Cute, cheap, and clever, until Ella decided that she would “feel stupid” walking around for the school’s Halloween parade wearing a chef’s hat.

Because it’s one thing to enjoy being a baker while begging for candy under the cover of darkness, but it’s quite another to actually have people see you in broad daylight. Such is your dilemma when you’re eight.

Next, Ella was determined to be Missy Franklin, the highly-decorated Olympic swimmer from the 2012 games. Having become fully immersed in the world of the swim team, she and one of her best friends thought it would be grand to strut around the school parade in their bathing suits and swim goggles and caps (with a weather-appropriate warm-up suit for cover, naturally), gold medals dangling from necks. I was all for it, considering that we already had the accoutrements, and I thought it was pretty cool that she wanted be a kick-ass female role model for Halloween. When Ella was informed, however, that she wouldn’t actually be trick-or-treating with said friend — and would have to go solo as Missy — she dismissed that idea, too.

Because it’s one thing to waltz around the school parking lot in your Sharks swim suit with your BFF at your side, but it’s quite another to actually wear lycra all by yourself on Halloween night. Such is your dilemma when you’re eight.

At last, Ella arrived on her (final) costume of choice: an ice witch.
Because of course.

What is an ice witch? SO GLAD YOU ASKED. Well, to begin with, it’s a witch – but not just any witch. See, Ella has been a witch of various iterations on at least two previous Halloweens, so she certainly didn’t want to just repeat that this year. Nor – naturally – could she incorporate any elements of her previous costumes into this year’s outfit.

Which makes sense, because an ice witch – or, at least, Ella’s vision of an ice witch – doesn’t just slap on any old black dress and pointy hat and call it a day. No, an ice witch’s dress has a black top (long-sleeved) and a jagged bottom. But not regular jagged — irregular jagged, with asymmetrical triangles pointed downward and then sticking out just so. It is also not just a single layer – no simply cutting a piece black fabric into triangular points – but is multi-tiered, with each triangle layered on top of another. But staggered. It must fall below the knee, but not all the way to her calf, and not just touching her knee. Below it. Slightly. The jagged points, below.

And then we’d attach icicles to it and it would magically transform itself into an ice witch costume. DUH.

We scoured every corner of the internet for such a dress, Googling every combination of words I could think of. Child’s witch costume. Long-sleeved black dress. Jagged witch costume. Layered witch dress. Raggedy black dress. Black pointy witch dress. Long-sleeved black witch dress with jagged tiered triangles at the bottom.


The internet was empty. THE ENTIRE INTERNET WAS EMPTY. Such a dress simply did not exist, and there was just no way that I could make one. To say that Ella took the news well would be sarcasm outright lying. Many tears were shed; many feet were stomped and many doors were slammed. Perhaps we could find a skirt and then pair it with a black top? What about a regular witch costume that we could jazz up? Maybe an ice witch just isn’t in the cards this year? No, no, NO. She swore angrily through her tears that I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand her vision. Why was this so complicated??

To be honest, I didn’t know. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t find the perfect dress for an ice witch, but I couldn’t. We searched for WEEKS – in and out of stores and online – and could find absolutely NOTHING that met the description. It simply didn’t exist. She was heartbroken, and although I was exhausted, I was pretty bummed to see her so sad.

And then, completely by happenstance while I was scrolling, blurry-eyed, through a page of Google images of possible (wrong) dresses, I spotted one that looked somewhat similar to Ella’s vision… so I clicked on it… And found myself in a world I didn’t even know existed.

The world of the Gothic Lolita dresses.

What? You’re unfamiliar with the Gothic Lolita culture? LET ME INTRODUCE YOU.

According to the Wiki page, “Lolita is a fashion subculture originating in Japan that is based on Victorian-era clothing…” It is not, so says Wiki, an attempt to dress sexually to attract older men (as the “Lolita” name might suggest), but really the opposite — a rebellion against over-sexualization, where the wearers revert back to more modest styles that make them feel empowered.

Like these Wikipedia folks.
Screen Shot 2013-10-28 at 10.24.00 PM
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Um, right.

The “Gothic Lolita” style combines Lolita clothing with, you know, Goth (albeit generally without the pale-faced makeup and dark lips and eyes). Colloquially, it’s also called GothLoli. OBVIOUSLY.

There are even entire websites dedicated to teaching people how to properly be Gothic Lolitas. THIS IS A VERY REAL THING, y’all.

So, okay. I get that the entire point of this subculture is to dress more modestly, to cover oneself up quite dramatically, and to be “elegant” and “innocent” rather than “sexy.” And a lot of the dresses that appeared in my search did, indeed, support these claims.

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 Like this one. Full coverage, FTW!

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Or this Victorian delight
But don’t you think the sleeves would get dirty while you ate? Could you really ride a bike wearing this? Or update your Facebook status? Perhaps it’s a bit impractical… 

Others… not so much.

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“Devil inspired” indeed.
SO EXACTLY how I envisioned my third-grader in the Halloween parade.

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How do you say “Hit Me Baby, One More Time”
in Japanese?

I’m not sure that this is what Nabokov envisioned, but do they resemble nymphettes or what?!

Because I wasn’t particularly interested in the Gothic Lolita subculture as much as I was in simply finding a damn black dress with a jagged bottom, I wasn’t exactly poring over sites filled with historical references and images of exceptionally modestly-clad Japanese schoolgirls. Indeed, the American sites seem to focus as much on the literary Lolita references as the fashion Lolita references, filling my computer screen with images that eerily resembled the ones I discovered while trying to find out just exactly what was going on in Fifty Shades of Grey.

I had to erase my computer cache at least three times and also maybe say a few novenas. And I’m not even Catholic.

At long last, I found this dress on Amazon – one matched Ella’s description as closely as possible – and placed the order, texting an immediate apology and explanation to Nick (who, because we share an Amazon account — Prime, of course, holla! —  would receive confirmation of the order on his cell phone).

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So, okay, it doesn’t have long sleeves, but the skirt is oh-so-jagged.
Not pictured: the black fingerless lace gloves that came with the dress, like Madonna would have worn in her Gothic Lolita days.

Nick was really pleased to learn that such an “elegant” and “innocent” item would be arriving in the mail. For our eight year-old. Because nothing says “innocent” more than something that is CALLING ITSELF INNOCENT. And also has fingerless black lace gloves.

Nick was even more pleased to discover that the above dress was being shipped from China, and was not slated to arrive until November 7th. Which, for those of you playing along at home, is a full week after Halloween.

And so I decided that we’d return the original dress when it finally arrived, and quickly ordered a second Gothic Lolita dress, this time from California.

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Again, no long sleeves… but the jagged skirt i
s just perfectionno?

The second dress was able to be rush-shipped, and arrived last Thursday. The first dress – the one from China that was scheduled to arrive on November 7th – arrived on Friday.

Meaning that we are currently the owners of not one but TWO Gothic Lolita dresses.

Ella decided that she preferred the second dress – it fit her a little better (it’s amazing how corset strings can really cinch you in!), and because the lacy halter top is capable of being untied (“innocent”!!), it also is easy to take on and off. (No worries, though; she’s wearing a black shirt underneath, because an ice witch costume absolutely requires long black sleeves, COME ON, MOM. How I ever obtained a Masters Degree is beyond her.)

There were still more tears when it was discovered that the plastic icicles we’d ordered on Amazon were only about 1.5″ long, rather than the dagger-like 6″ Ella had envisioned… But when I finally found some longer icicles at Michaels and Ella realized that she could drape the shorter icicles from her earrings to create the illusion of dangly earrings (something she’s not allowed to wear yet), she was officially in ice witch heaven.

ice witch1
To the right is her ice wand and her ice witch hat, complete with icicle garland hanging off the brim. Annie commented that, because the hat contains a large square buckle, it looks a bit like something a Pilgrim would wear. Personally, I think that the dangling icicles give it a slight sombrero feel, but whatever. It’s art, people.

The (properly long) icicles were easily attached to the bottom of the “elegant” dress with some black thread, and Ella cut a length of the icicle garland and glued the ends together to create an icicle necklace. Those, along with the icy earrings, icicle hat, her wand, some sparkly black leggings, and a pair of black heels that I’d never normally allow her to wear out of the house (unless she was in a Nabakov production) have completed her look. She IS an ice witch, y’all. Just like she’d said.

ice witch2
Yes, the top of the dress stretches out nicely. It breathes beautifully. We do strive for comfort around here.

With the icicles sewn to the bottom of the dress, it looks a bit less Nymphette and a bit more Gothic Elf, which has helped Nick (and me) breathe a sigh of relief. The other dress is back in its packaging, awaiting a return trip to China.

In the meantime, I half expect every knock at the door to be from CPS. If the German Chancellor can be monitored, who knows who’s seen my computer searches.
November 1st cannot come soon enough.

Ready to Lead, Ready to Follow, Never Quit… Especially while Ghosting

I am writing this from the couch. With a glass of wine. While sitting on an ice pack. After having already taken two Tylenol. All because we tried to covertly spread a little joy to the neighborhood.

Note to self: we need more ice packs.

You see, it all began in October 2007, only a few months after we moved here. We’d come from a perfectly nice area about an hour outside of New York City, just a stone’s throw from the Metro North line, a lovely spot, really, except we didn’t have a neighborhood, per se. We had neighbors, and they were friendly and welcoming, but only a few houses nearby had young families. There were almost never any children ringing doorbells, nor roaming the sidewalks, nor leaving their scooters for you to trip over on the sidewalk, nor shouting joyfully from their backyards – not because it was a bad place, but because there just weren’t many young families. We had no idea what a true “neighborhood” felt like.

And then we moved here.

When we first met the neighbors in our cul-de-sac, we were told three things: that there was an annual block party coming up in a month, that our neighbors across the circle put on a really impressive Christmas display (with lights so bright, the next-door neighbors’ son actually switched bedrooms during the holiday season), and that, because our front yard has a slight upward slope to it, our driveway was home plate. Which meant that, not only were there boatloads of kids near the area, they were actually using our yard to play baseball. ROCK. ON.

When the doorbell rang that fateful October evening, I was a bit perplexed (despite living in a super kid-friendly neighborhood, we weren’t exactly in the habit of receiving after-dinner guests), but didn’t think much of it. When I opened the door to discover no one there, nor any hooligans cackling in the distance, I was officially stymied (ding dong ditch is infinitely funnier when you have to run, giggling, for your lives, y’all). Then, I noticed the two little plastic pumpkins on the doormat – each filled with Halloween trinkets that were perfect for toddler Ella and baby Annie – along with a drawing of a ghost and a note.

We’d officially been Ghosted.

You bet your sweet patootie we put that ghost on our door.

Okay. I know that for some of you – many of you? – this would be akin to having the mark of the plague drawn on your door. Having to actually participate in neighborhood tomfoolery – and within a specific time frame, no less! Plus spending money! And going all covert-op-crazy! – is asking waaaaay too much. Black Death would officially have descended.

But for me? Being Ghosted felt like having someone drop off steaming mugs of Starbucks on my doorstep, alongside puppies and unicorns, and then asking me which I’d like more right now, the massage or the pedicure. Given by Johnny Depp.

In other words, being Ghosted was like meeting Jesus (or what I imagine that would be like), and I could not wait to share the good news. As I drove to Target the next day (for the Halloween loot! The Ghosting loot!! Stickers and candy and pencils, oh my!), I noticed – for the first time – just how many houses in our neighboring streets had Phantom Ghosts attached to their doors. The Ghosting had spread so far and wide, it was actually difficult to find a house full of children who had yet to hear the good news. Happiness was being passed out around the neighborhood, one secret mission at a time. A little Halloween pay it forward.

And to think we’d moved here without me even having seen the house (true story). Hot damn, how we lucked out! I was giddy.

As the next few Halloweens passed and the girls grew older, they began to anticipate the Phantom Ghost’s arrival with ever-increasing glee. I began to gather goodies preemptively so that we could sneak about the neighborhood as soon as the buck had been passed our way. Each Ghosting night was filled with a mixture of wicked delight and abject terror, lest our honorees spy us dropping off the bounty. On one such occasion, as we crouched behind a large pine tree after ringing the bell and running like heck, the neighbors’ large and extremely exuberant Golden Retriever slipped out of the door as soon as they’d opened it. Not only can bees and dogs smell fear, they can also smell cowering Ghosters, and I had to swiftly pick up both Annie and Ella and kick at the panting, jubilant hound who was all too happy to tell his owners that here they are! I’ve found them! before I limped with the girls back to the car. Another year, Annie neglected to inform me that she had to use the bathroom before we left, and between her Ghosting anxiety and her desire to not miss a minute of the action, she opted to pee right on her carseat. Ah, well. That’s why they invented washing machines. There was only one more house, anyway. The Ghost must go on.

The Phantom Ghost graced our doorstep for four delicious years… until two years ago, mere days before Halloween, when we realized that he’d yet to appear. Cruising the neighborhood, I discovered that no houses bore the tell-tale Ghost on their doors, and it finally became clear: whoever had been the Ghost starter had opted out. Whether they moved away or simply outgrew the antics (or got tired of buying random crap from the Target dollar bins), I don’t know, but the end result was the same: the Phantom Ghost didn’t show.


And so I made the only sensible move I could: I Ghosted us. Having saved the little poem from previous years (okay, let’s be honest: I’d long ago re-typed it, because there were a couple of small grammatical errors in the original), it was easy enough to drop trinkets off at our door and feign ignorance when the girls heard the doorbell. From there, we went Ghosting as usual, and as the Phantoms appeared throughout the neighborhood. And children’s choirs sang and Johnny Depp smiled and all was well with the world.

Neighborhood togetherness, one Halloween pencil at a time.

Last year, rather than wait until it was nearly Halloween to see if the original Phantom Ghost starters would get the ball rolling, I decided to take it upon myself to be the official Ghosting initiator. The girls were all too keen to oblige, and we took off through the blackened streets, approaching each house like the SEALS from Zero Dark Thirty.

See, Ghosting is not for the faint of heart. First, you have to sneak up to the doorstep like a ninja, careful not to alert the occupants of your approach. Secondly, you have to drop off the bags with the agility of a Stealth Bomber, making sure not to make a sound and set a dog barking before you’ve had a chance to make your escape. Third, you have to ring the doorbell… and wait to be sure it’s actually gone off (because, unless you’re a traveling salesman or selling popcorn or on your Mission trip, you might be unaware that loads of people have for-show-only doorbells). If the doorbell fails to emit any sound, you then have to summon your courage and knock on the door hard enough to let them know you’re there – which basically means banging with enough force to karate-chop a block of wood – but with lightning speed, so you can zip out of there before anyone actually comes to the door. And finally, you have to make your getaway, running to the pre-determined safe zone with speeds usually reserved for Usain Bolt or people being chased by knife-weilding murderers.

Like I said: Navy SEALS. Just like that.

Ella and Annie had chosen tonight to start the annual Ghosting ritual, but they’d decided to change one detail: instead of driving from house to house, we’d bike around the neighborhood. I was game because, while faster, driving hadn’t exactly worked in our favor. A) We had to drive with the lights off, so as not to draw attention to ourselves, B) driving without lights is a bit like driving blindfolded [not that I’d know], C) we had to turn off the inside car lights so as not to give ourselves away when we opened the doors and climbed inside, which always resulted in frantic, hissed admonishments that no one could find their seat belts, and D) it was kind of a losing effort anyway because our neighbors recognized our car. Plus also, see above, E) Annie peeing in her carseat. So we happily strapped head-lamps to the handlebars and were on our way.

Stealth. Silent. Deadly.

Except… turns out, I must have skimped on the SEAL training this year. Without a car to hide behind, we chose to park the bikes a few houses down the street from our targets and find another spot to conceal us. Most of the time, our bikes were the chosen spot, with us figuring that no one would be on the lookout for marauding hooligans on bikes at 8 p.m. on a Tuesday. At one house, however, I failed to make it to the bikes on time – the door had opened and the owners were looking out – so the only possible solution was to throw myself to the ground. And by “throw myself to the ground,” I mean instantly and violently throw my entire body flat onto the ground. Like avoiding a land mine. Or sliding into third. ‘Cept that there was no third, there was only ground, and I’ve still got dirt on my palms three hours later.

The girls found this particularly hilarious. I hope they find it equally hilarious when I short-sheet their beds tomorrow.

Also, there’s the running. Evading detection requires fleeing like banshees from the doorsteps to the safe spot, and then collapsing in a heaving, out-of-breath heap until the door has been safely closed again. Because the bikes were parked a considerable distance from our intended recipients, tonight’s missions required a ridiculous amount of not only running, but flat-out sprinting.

There’s a reason I was terrible at track in high school, and it wasn’t just because the shorts gave me a wedgie. I don’t sprint. Or, at least, I shouldn’t sprint… because this body just isn’t meant to move like that. Not even to avoid being spotted by the enemy.

Bike helmets make awesome disguises.

Once we’d Ghosted our final house, I managed to ride home, but the moment I stepped off the bike, I knew that the sprinting had been a terrible mistake. (Okay, I already knew that sprinting had been a terrible mistake, but the dismount confirmed it. The throwing myself to the ground probably didn’t help, either.) I have pulled not one but both hamstrings, tweaked something in my lower back, and can’t feel my legs from my knees up.

Was it worth it? You bet your (sore, sprained, aching) butt, it was. WE WILL NEVER QUIT* IN SPREADING HALLOWEEN JOY, PEOPLE. Pay it forward. RIGHT NOW.

The Tylenol seems to be doing some good; the wine, even more good. The ice pack has made me numb, but I already couldn’t feel anything, so the verdict’s out on that one. Tomorrow, I’m going to be paying a visit to my chiropractor to see if there’s anything he can do about this little sprinting mishap of mine.

Good thing the reason for my visit isn’t completely and utterly embarrassing or anything.

I’ll just tell him it was a combat injury. But I’ll keep it vague; when you’ve got a covert op going on, it’s better not to share too many details.

* for the record, I think SEALS are some of the most awesome, bad-ass, incredible, awe-inspiring, strong, and inspiring individuals, anywhere, ever. I am profoundly grateful for all they do for our country, and could not admire them more. Not even if they looked like Johnny Depp.