Halloween 2014: Cyrano de Bergerac

Posted by jdg | Friday, October 31, 2014 | ,


This past summer my son wanted to learn to fence. At six he was still too young for most of the area fencing classes and camps taught by people who actually know what they're doing, so all he had was me. We bought some used fencing gear, watched a ton of old swashbuckler movies, read a lot of really old fencing manuals, and poked at each other with practice foils just about every day all summer long. You can enough from youtube to have a lot of fun. What we lacked in actual skill and professionalism we made up for with panache. We backed each other up tower staircases and knocked over Louis XIV chairs and brought chandeliers crashing to the floor. We got into arguments over who were the greatest swordsmen of all time. Scaramouche? Zorro? The Scarlet Pimpernel? Inigo Montoya? No, no, no, I said. All great swordsmen, true, but have you heard of Cyrano de Bergerac? He once defeated one hundred enemies with nothing but his rapier and his wits. (I might have waited to mention the nose. And all the unrequited love. And the poetry recited by hunky proxies under balconies). That story of one hundred enemies defeated in combat caught fire in his brain like a Flemish tapestry under a spilled candelabra: Cyrano de Bergerac fought off a hundred attackers as though they were ants! Did I mention he has a huge nose? Who cares! Do you think Inigo Montoya could fight off one hundred enemies all by himself? Inconceivable. 



So, when Halloween costume time came, the decision was easy. Explaining it to people would prove the difficult part. It was awesome to hear him explain to random people that he was going to be "a famous French fencer with a long nose" when they didn't know who Cyrano de Bergerac was.


We went to the amazing Colonel Hecker house on Woodward Avenue to take some pictures. It's one of the only true French Châteauesque houses in the city, and I couldn't resist.


There is a very short window in a man's life when he is willing to dress like a seventeenth-century fop. For most men this willingness probably peaks at about six-years old. For the rest, well, I suppose that is why there are renaissance faires. I was not going to let this moment in my son's life pass without exploiting it. When it came to the actual costume we did a lot of research. We visited art museums and actually paid attention to the Dutch paintings. I was always very nerdy about seventeenth-century history and literature so I excitedly showed him pictures of Charles I and we pinned details of Rembrandt's Night Guard. I bought lace. He let me buy him tights.



Other than those tights, that latex nose, and the wig, every part of the costume is hand made. I was going to go to a costume shop to buy him a wig, but then I remembered I live in Detroit. We walked over to the neighborhood wig shop and none of the wigs had prices. The lady asked me how much I wanted to spend. I said $20 and it turned out every wig cost $20. I wish I had said $15! We chose the LaToya. Seriously.



I enjoyed making every piece of this costume. I sewed the quilted tunic, the breeches, and the wool cloak. The tunic sleeves are made from leather I get from Cadillac upholstery remnants. I added some scrap leather to his old shoes to make the boots. I made the hat out of some really thick oil-tanned leather I had sitting around and he actually found those pheasant feathers in a field where we were playing baseball. Talk about panache.


I made that sword last summer on a whim. I had this beautiful piece of purpleheart sitting around and I wasn't sure what I was ever going to do with it and I saw a picture of a rapier that belonged to some German prince and decided it was so beautiful I had to make a wooden version for my son as a reward for all his hard work learning to fence (he really did practice every day). I wanted to learn how to do wood inlay so I crushed some lapis lazuli and figured out how to inlay it around the hilt.



Yeah, I went a little crazy on this costume but I figured most of it could be used for all kind of imaginative play well after Halloween. He will a well-dressed pirate, a musketeer, Zorro, Inigo, and whoever else he can imagine himself to be. But today he was Cyrano. At one point while I was taking these pictures he stood on the sidewalk looking up at the "French castle" and he said (in a very serious voice) as the rush-hour traffic buzzed behind us: "I just really feel like I am Cyrano de Bergerac right now!" And he was.


Halloween 2014: The Big Friendly Giant

Posted by jdg | Friday, October 31, 2014 | ,



My daughter is a tiny thing. There's no use denying it. At school recitals and other events we see how the top of her head hardly reaches the chin of the next shortest kid in her class. She doesn't seem to mind too much and by now it's become a part of her personality. There are things she likes about being little. When she plays flag football with the hulking, sweaty boys in her class, they can't reach down far enough to grab her flags. It takes longer to outgrow her favorite clothes. And there are things she doesn't like about being little. Younger kids try to pick her up. People often ask if she and her six-year-old brother are twins.

Halloween is still a huge deal at our house. The planning begins early. I go way overboard. It is the great holiday of childhood, when for a few magical hours scattered over a few days in late October, a kid can become whoever or whatever they want to be.

Leave it to the tiniest kid in class to want to be a giant.


I have already written about how much my daughter loves Roald Dahl's magical book The BFG, and how much joy and comfort that book has brought her. For the last seven months, it's been pretty much a given that she wanted to be the Big Friendly Giant for Halloween. I would throw out other suggestions but her responses were tepid at best. This was what she wanted. I just needed to figure out a way for the nine-year-old girl who still can't go on most of the rides at the county fair to tower over all her friends.

So I built her some stilts.

I was pretty sure this was going to be a disaster. My wife had no faith in the stilt option. I cobbled some foot-tall peg stilts from leftover wood, leather, and velcro that I had in the basement. I cut up an old bike tire for the bottoms. I wasn't super confident that this would work myself, but half an hour later she first found her balance and I couldn't get her out of them. I think she really liked the view from up there.

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The next morning there was an event at school and she walked up to her entire class wearing them and I don't think I've ever seen her smile like that. She walked an entire mile in those stilts. I felt confident at that point we could incorporate them into her costume.


Her mom made her some super long pants. The head was tricky. I thought about using a bald wig and some fake ears on a headband, but I have so much scrap leather it was simple to cobble together a hat with gigantic ears and rabbit-fur eyebrows. There's even some rabbit fur in the ear canal and some on the back of the head.


It was a more permanent option than a bald wig, so if she wants to play BFG in the future all she needs to do is slip on her hat.

One of the kids' favorite Halloween activities (even more than trick-or-treating, I think) is the photo shoot where we try their costumes on for the first time and go some place magical that really brings them to life. The BFG is a very large gentleman with questionable English who farts a lot and lives in a cave he only leaves to catch dreams he blows through a magical trumpet into little houses and he eventually visits the Queen of England in her palace. We don't have a Queen in Detroit, and the closest thing we've ever had to a king is Henry Ford. So went out to his personal fiefdom of Dearborn and took some pictures near his palace at Fair Lane, where there is also a cave and a tiny farmhouse where the Ford children played.



If you see a big-eared giant towering over you this Halloween, don't worry. I can guarantee he's friendly.


(Just stay back a few feet in case he needs to whizpop).

Literary Giants

Posted by jdg | Friday, April 11, 2014

Hello all. Most of my blogging energy has been absorbed by another project for quite some time now. Otherwise things are pretty much the same here.  I've really been enjoying the liberation that comes from never worrying about what the next blog post needs to be about and just making dozens of things that I haven't shared here. But if there are folks out there still interested, I may pop in from time to time to share a few of the things we've been up to.

If there was one thing that got us through that winter, it was chapter books. We rearranged the shelves and boxed up hundreds of picture books and just started binging on more serious reads at bedtime and through those long cooped-up winter days. To all the parents of younger kids out there dedicated to reading those picture books to babies and toddlers every night, let me speak to you from your not-too-distant future: it gets so awesome when you finally put down the picture books and start sharing more demanding stories. That's especially true when you start tearing through your own favorite books from childhood, watching them in their beds painting their own pictures with those words coming from your lips. My wife has read them dozens of novels---new and old---at bedtime over the past few months. And I always end the night with poems to remind them that words can be beautiful even if they don't always make sense, so we've been on a steady diet of Hopkins and Frost and Yeats.

My daughter's favorite book is Roald Dahl's The BFG, which I never read as a kid but she has now finished eight or nine times. It's about this massive-eared "Big Friendly Giant" who comes to kids windows at night and blows dreams into their ears with a long trumpet-like horn. For a girl who has always had some anxiety about sleep, there seems to be comfort in the story of a goofball giant who brings sweet dreams and banishes nightmares and who farts (whizpops) a lot after drinking his favorite drink (frobscottle) and speaks in a hilariously confused English. For her birthday I decided to make her a BFG doll for her bed just to make sure she always has good dreams. I did some research about how dolls are made and taught myself to use my wife's sewing machine, and it took a great deal of courage to overcome my fear of losing whatever shred of masculinity I had left. I think it all drifted away like silvery waves of gossamer while I crouched over that machine sewing pants for a naked bald-headed man doll.


That black-hooded thing is the invisible cloak he wears while delivering dreams, which are kept in a little glass bottle in his pocket (I used glitter rather than actual dreams). Yes, I bought glitter to put in a dainty glass bottle. Why am I admitting this to the world?  My favorite part are his sandals. There's a good story surrounding those sandals. When Roald Dahl originally wrote the book, he described the BFG wearing tall black boots.  When Quentin Blake did the original illustrations Dahl thought the boots made him look "too fierce." So for inspiration he sent Blake one of the actual Norwegian sandals that Dahl was known for. I imagine it smelled. Dahl then changed the text, describing the BFG's footwear as, "a pair of ridiculous sandals that for some reason had holes cut along each side, with a large hole at the end where his toes stuck out." You can see the actual sandals at the Roald Dahl museum. I cobbled mine together out of scrap leather.

The doll was a massive hit with the birthday girl. He even greeted a few friends she invited over for a simple BFG-themed birthday party. We made snow BFGs outside to surprise the guests and just let everyone run around with whoopee cushions, cucumb. . .I mean, snozzcumbers, and "frobscottle" they made from various fruit syrups they carbonated in our soda thing. I also made her a BFG cake.

She got her own sewing machine for Christmas this year, one of those beautiful oldfangled cast-iron, golden-lettered Singers. I showed her how to make dolls and together we made a Sophie (the bespectacled orphan protagonist of Dahl's novel):

She did most of that work herself, including the dress.

My son wanted his own literary-themed birthday and giant doll, so when his birthday came a few weeks later there was no question about his favorite book: Canadian author Mordecai Richler's 1975 children's novel Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang. I loved this book as a kid, but I still haven't met anyone else who remembers it. I haven't even encountered a Canadian who remembers it. It's about a boy named Jacob who is "two-plus-two-plus-two years old" and has to say everything twice because he has so many brothers and sisters that no one listens to him the first time. His repetitive nature gets him into hot water and he finds himself in front of a merciless judge and jury in children's court before they send him off to children's prison, where the warden is the notoriously cruel ex-professional wrestler The Hooded Fang. He is magnificent in Fritz Wegner's illustrations:


Without giving too much away, the Hooded Fang doesn't quite live up to his reputation and by the end of the book my son loved him very much. So I sat back down at the sewing machine and made him a Hooded Fang. Yeah. . .


It was pretty awkward making that, even before I finished his silk wrestler's robe. I basically made my son a doll who looks like the vampire attendant of a 1970s San Francisco bathhouse. Did I really want him sleeping with that thing? Sometimes I set him up so The Hooded Fang looks like he's watching him sleep, and the next morning I find that my son has knocked him down. But he still loves his Hooded Fang, even if he doesn't want him watching him sleep. I made his sideburns, hairy chest, and monobrow out of rabbit fur. The wrestling boots are real leather. I painstakingly painted the design on the red material from Wegner's original illustrations.  He may be unnerving, but I'm pretty sure he's the only Hooded Fang doll on earth.

2013 Sweet Juniper Holiday Card by Phoebe Wahl

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, December 24, 2013


This year we had the pleasure of working with the talented Phoebe Wahl [portfolio, blog, tumblr, etsy] who created this custom family portrait for our annual holiday card. We've been fans of her work for a long time and we were thrilled when she agreed to do a painting for us. Her illustrations capture so much of the magic to be found in family, the outdoors, and the doing of simple things. She saw some of the pictures of the snow creatures we create and delivered this amazing image of our family rosy-cheeked out in the snow while our creations seem to come to life around us. I love it so much. Phoebe also did all the artwork for the 2014 Taproot calendar and it is really lovely.

I know things have been quiet on the blog for the last couple of years, but we're grateful for those who still check in from time to time and we hope everyone out there enjoys these last days of this year, with the hope that the next one will be even better. Happy holidays, everyone.

[see also 2009201020112012]

Up North: Seen (summer & winter)

Posted by jdg | Thursday, December 12, 2013 | ,

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Like most Michiganders we try to go up north every year and this past summer we rented a little farmhouse in one of the nicest corners of the state and we liked it so much we rented it again for the Thanksgiving weekend and headed up into the snow for an early and cozy little glimpse of the winter to come. It was a treat to see all the heavily-touristed areas more subdued. We walked (and sledded) along empty, ice-encrusted beaches and hiked in the woods while the old snowmobile tracks we followed filled with fresh powder. And we ate a lot of good food.

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When we got back I remembered I took a bunch of pictures last summer that I never shared. . . and after looking at all the pictures I took over the holiday weekend I thought maybe I should share just a few to show how beautiful it is up there in Leelanau County all year round. 

Halloween 2013: Anubis and King Tut

Posted by jdg | Friday, November 01, 2013 | ,


The kids decided to go with an ancient Egyptian theme this year. I loved the idea of taking a Halloween classic like a mummy costume and adding a bit of craftsmanship and educational quality to it (while keeping it super creepy, of course). After they made their choice in September we started reading all the books we could find about mummies and we reread old books I loved as a kid like The Egypt Game and The House on Hackman's Hill. My daughter chose to be Anubis, the jackal-headed Egyptian god of the underworld. I thought she might prefer one of the female Egyptian deities like lion-headed Sehkmet or cat-headed Bastest, but she had her heart set on Anubis. We read that the Egyptian priests who made mummies wore jackal masks just like the god, so I made her a leather Anubis mask that sort of sat on the top of her head. The giant ears are my favorite part. The taxidermy lizard eyes have LED lights behind them that made them glow after dark.


Her mother furiously knit her that beautiful beaded collar in the days leading up to Halloween. We ripped up some old linen fabric we found in the basement and boiled the strips in tea and then cooked them in the oven until they looked about 3,000 years old, and the skirt is scrap leather that I never used in the dragon costumes we made this summer. I also made her a hefty gold-painted oak ankh to carry around. The weather had been pretty lousy for pictures the last few days, but I couldn't resist making a trip up Woodward to the Dodge brothers' Egyptian revival mausoleum in Woodlawn cemetery to take some pictures. 


My son wanted to be a mummy rather than a god and when I told him all about the boy King Tutankhamun he jumped on it right away (apparently the kindergartners sing a song called "King Tut had a butt.") Man, I was so fascinated by King Tut's tomb and Howard Carter when I was a kid. The big Met/National Gallery exhibition of artifacts happened right before I was born and I remember the image of that golden funerary mask having such an impact on me from the earliest age. It really is one of the most beautiful things ever created by human hands and when my son and I were envisioning how to do this costume (by drawing together) we came up with the idea of wearing that mask over mummy wrappings, as though the mummy of King Tut came to life to take revenge on the mortals who dared to steal his stuff and put his image on $5 t-shirts. My daughter wove stories about the god Anubis aiding Tut in his quest for revenge and there was a lot of wide-eyed talk of curses. I really had my work cut out for me, but here is what we came up with:


He likes to stand there with the crook and flail crossed over his chest and slowly come to life and stumble forward. Of course, he calls them his "mummy weapons."


The real challenge in the construction was making it comfortable and easy to put on and take off. He had to be able to breathe easily, see, and tolerate the weight. I used a very light leather. And I was so excited about making this mask that I even carved all of the hieroglyphics from the original on the back part. The Pharaonic headdress (the Nemes) is also detachable, with a snap hiding behind the little vulture and cobra at the front. It was a cool way for him to take it off and just become the boy mummy:



This was one of the most fun costumes we've made yet, probably because the kids were really into it. They've been interested in Egyptian stuff for years (remember the pizza-box pyramids, or our mummy hunting adventures?), and to prepare for this we made more trips to the Toledo Museum of Art, the Kelsey Archaeology Museum in Ann Arbor, and the Detroit Institute of Arts just to look really closely at the Egyptian artifacts, trying how to figure out how they were made, what they might have happened to them in the intervening years. My daughter was really interested in the canopic jars where the guts where placed after they were removed from the mummified body and it was her idea to make clay canopic jars to hold their candy while they were trick or treating! We have spent the previous weeks working on the costume and watching clips from old b&w mummy movies, reading old books, repeating Brendan Fraser's greatest line over and over again, watching Steve Martin sing "King Tut," and of course, we have been walking like Egyptians.


Attention West Michigan Folks

Posted by jdg | Friday, October 04, 2013

I always feel awkward promoting stuff, but here goes: I will be giving a talk at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts next Wednesday (October 9, 2013) at 7:00 p.m. to launch the Kalamazoo Art League's 59th lecture season. I'm excited and honored to have the opportunity to do something like this in my beautiful hometown and would love to meet anyone who's interested in coming down there to hear it.

I'll be talking a bit about the blog, but mostly about the photos from the Disappearing City series you can see here.

More information here.