He says he wants to be Hercules for Halloween, so I say let's start the lionskin. Lots of heroes wore lionskins, I tell him. Samson wrestled a lion with his bare hands. Gilgamesh killed lots of lions with his friend Enkidu and when Enkidu died he said, "I will grow my hair long for your sake, and wander the wilderness in the skin of a lion." Lionskins and long hair, those are things for heroes, I say. But Hercules, now there's the best hero of all. We have James Riordan's retelling of the Twelve Labors and he is old enough to read them himself now, but we still read them together. He likes this version because unlike on all those pots at the museum, that Hercules wears something to cover his you-know-what. Don't worry, I say. We'll make something to cover your you-know-what.
Can I use this old baseball hat? See we'll cover it with foam, then cover the foam with strips of wool fabric. Now's the fun part: we'll sculpt the lion's head with bags and bags of wool stabbed a million times to form the shapes we want. How does the story go again?
Before he had his lionskin, Hera made Hercules go crazy and kill everyone he ever loved. It's very sad. So the Oracle at Delphi said he had to go to his half-brother the King of Mycenae and do everything he said. First he had to get rid of the Lion of Nemea with skin that no sword or spear could pierce. So Hercules killed the lion with his bare hands. How? Oh, he probably choked him.
Then he turned the skin into his new armor. It made him look pretty tough.
Did I mention the club? Hercules used a club instead of a sword most of the time. His was probably olive wood but just bring me any log you find and we'll make it into a club. I need to put this hipster axe to use, bub.
Next the King sent Hercules off to kill the wold boar of Erymanthus. Before he found it he got into a fight with some nasty centaurs and accidentally killed his old teacher, Chiron.
Yes, Hercules kills pretty much everyone he loves. Why didn't he just kill his nasty half-brother forcing him to do all these ridiculous things? You're not supposed to ask that I think. So he climbed into the mountains to kill the boar. No, I'm not going to lift you up on that wall to club the boar. We'll just have to pretend.
The next task didn't involve any clubbing or killing. There was a lazy king named Augeas who had thousand of animals but never cleaned up any of their poop, and his stables were full of poop as far as the eyes could see.
Hercules had a single day to clean up all the poop. This is why I sometimes call cleaning your room a Herculean task. I wish I could dam and divert a couple rivers to clean out that barnyard.
Next he had to bring back the white bull troubling King Minos in Crete. Try to just ignore the naked butt up there. I know it's embarrassing. I'll try to crop it out.
In his next labor Hercules had to tame the man-eating horses of King Diomedes. No, not Diabetes. Diomedes used to feed his horses people until they developed such a taste for manflesh they wouldn't eat anything else. Hercules fed them with King Diomedes and then cut their chains and bound their mouths so they couldn't eat him.
Next his half-brother sent Hercules to get the golden belt of Hippolyte, the Queen of the Amazons. Yes, they are the ones who cut their boob off so they could shoot a bow better. I can't believe I told you that. Hippolyte was smitten with the hunk in the lion's skin so she just gave him the belt. Wasn't that nice of her. After that they got into a fight and he killed her.
I don't know, Hercules just kills everyone who is nice to him I guess.
Next he had to kill evil King Geryon and rescue his special cows. Geryon lived out beyond the sea so Hercules had to break two cliffs apart to get to the Atlantic Ocean. They call the cliffs the pillars of Hercules even today.
Next Hercules had to go get the Golden Apples from the Garden of the Hesperides and he tricked Atlas into doing that but I forgot those apples we painted gold, so let's just skip to the next one: Hercules had to descend into hell to bring back the three-headed hound Cerberus.
When he got there he asked Hades if he could take Cerberus and Hades was like, "Sure, he needs a walk, if you can catch him. But be sure to bring three poop bags." Hercules was like, "No problem. Have you heard about the Augean stables?"
Thanks to the security guards at the Cranbrook Educational Community for completely ignoring us while we did all this on an unseasonably warm Saturday.
It has become our tradition to commission an artist every year to do a family portrait for our holiday card. Part of the fun is looking at the portfolios of so many amazingly talented illustrators out there and then working up the nerve to ask for the commission.
I don't know where I first came across the work of Yinfan Huang, but I started following Yinfan on Instagram months ago and I really grew to love the playfulness and joy in her work. She is originally from Guangzhou in China, but now works in New York City and you should visit her website, blog, instagram, and etsy shop to see more. We LOVE the card she made for us this year, and those of you following me on instagram will recognize some of the hats and clothes she chose. My son is getting so big I don't know how many more years he will be able to ride on my shoulders like that, so I will cherish this image forever.
As the kids have grown older and the blogging world has become so different, I've shied away from sharing as much as I once did here. But I hope this year to write a bit more. I do appreciate this opportunity to check in and let everyone know we're doing great and I hope everyone else had a wonderful year as we look forward to the next one.
Happy Holidays, to all of you out there. ---Jim
[see our previous portraits from 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014]
My daughter wanted to be a witch for Halloween. Not a striped-sock witch, she said. A real-looking witch. A creepy one. The classics are classic for a reason, I said (and got to work).
We found a Victorian mourning jacket with puffed shoulders on eBay that was all ripped up and perfect for a witch. It was so creepy she didn't even want to try it on at first. I made a wrinkled leather mask and a necklace of a fake hawk's claw with a magic crystal glued in the talons. My wife made the cloak and I added a collar of crow's feathers.
My favorite part is the staff: while hiking I found an old stick with a big vine twisted all around it and attached what I think is a dog skull to the top. It's super creepy and pretty disgusting (the skull still has a bunch of hair attached to it). On Halloween night we put orange lights in the eye sockets. Shudder. I even carved a hole for a taxidermy glass eye right under the dog skull.
The skirt is a few thousand strips of black cloth and scrap leather all attached in layers. I cut the top ones to look like raven's feathers. The whole skirt weighs more than she does.
The hat was a felting project. I found a half a pound of purplish-gray rovings for a song and we experimented with wet felting (which is different from the needle-felting on her brother's werewolf costume). You basically layer strips of wool in opposing directions over a form, keep it wet, then beat the crap out of it until the wool fibers all stick together. Here's a picture of it in progress:
With some supplementary needle felting, we were satisfied with the results. It looked like the sort of hat a witch living in the woods by herself would have. We beat it up some more and added patches to make it look less new once the felting was complete. As we worked on this costume she came up with more and more ideas about who this witch was and what her motivations were and I realized this was a form of storytelling. Every year the time we spend taking pictures in the costumes before Halloween is a huge part of our ritual, and this year we came up with a story of an old ugly witch hunting through the forest for ingredients she needs to make a potion that will make her young and beautiful again.
She continued searching for all the necessary ingredients, you know, snakeskin and wormwood and mandrakes and cricket legs.
Then she returned to her ramshackle house in the old city and tried to lure the final ingredient into her oven:
The only little boy nearby refused to climb inside to clean it, so she had to shove him in herself. Luckily the potion worked. But when the beautiful young witch looked around, the land was empty of people, and she was only one left. And so she wanders still, looking for anyone who is left. Anyone who doesn't ask her if she is from that movie Malfeasant, that is.
She's already turned them all into mice.