2015 Sweet Juniper Holiday Card by Yinfan Huang

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, December 22, 2015

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 20092010201120122013, and 2014]

Eye of newt, and toe of frog

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, November 03, 2015

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.

In the old cemetery she found a toad from an infant's grave:

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.

Werewolf in Sheep's Clothing

Posted by jdg | Monday, November 02, 2015

My son decided to be a werewolf for Halloween. So I made him this mask out of felted wool. Then I made him those arms out of felted wool. Then I made him wear his wool suit and take some pictures in front of a flowery wall.

We go to all these fiber festivals every year and in the past there was nothing for me to look at unless the weird hippie who braintans his own sheepskins is there. But this year I had something look for---cheap wool rovings. The kids and I started needlefelting last year, which is an exhausting hobby where you sculpt lumpy things out of carded wool using a single barbed needle. If you stab the wool enough the fibers lock up and it felts and you can make just about anything with it. We make lumpy toys, mostly, but this year I bought a ton of gray roving to make this mask. I terrified the neighborhood children for weeks sitting on the playground stabbing this decapitated wolf's head with a needle.

It had to stab that thing a million times probably. It's very therapeutic. Well, get yourself an apple if you're still hungry. STAB STAB STAB STAB STAB STAB. I ordered a $6 coyote jaw and the glass eyes from the taxidermy supply house that sends me 625-page full-color catalogs twice a year. It's basically vegetarian taxidermy. I would say it's vegan taxidermy but then I googled to find out if vegans believe in wool and I learned that many vegans do not believe in wool to which I say enjoy that technicolor petroleum-based shiny plastic wardrobe for the rest of your life because you don't believe in animal haircuts, vegans. It's not really vegetarian either because I found a tiny scrap of stingray leather that looked exactly like that weird canine nose texture and I stuck that on the end, but I figure most vegetarians wouldn't shed a tear for a stupid stingray. It was a stingray, you may recall, that murdered Steve "The Crocodile Hunter" Irwin, and he loved all animals, probably even the stupid stingray that murdered him. He also swam in his full ranger uniform, including socks and shoes. If God knew how much awesome that stingray would take from the world, I'll bet he never would have let a pair of them flop their way onto Noah's ark.

So I have all these shots of my werewolf son casually walking down the street in a suit and tie. I thought that was going to be the whole costume but then I had a bunch of extra wool so I started stabbing it into an old sweater to make him a werewolf chest and legs and a tail. Wool socks too. 

By Halloween night it was all dreading up with lots of leaves in the hair, just like that hippie who brain tans his own sheepskins at the fiber festival. The mouth opens and closes but he likes it open so he can howl at the moon. Twenty years ago in Dublin I lived across the street from a basement nightclub called Howl at the Moon that you had to enter through the jaws of a giant fiberglass wolf. I walked past it a thousand times and one night my roommate and I went down there and it was full of women as old as I am now who esnared us in their fetid shewolf-lair and fed us Bushmills and tried to get us to dance to "How Bizarre." I can't believe I forgot until now just how narrowly we escaped with our lives that night. 

There was supposedly a full moon last week and every night we went out in costume to find it but stupid clouds. It wasn't exactly the most unique or original costume but it was what he wanted and he had so much fun growling and howling around Halloween night.

I think I might take the head and sew all the pieces together to make a wolf-skin rug to go on his wall. A vegetarian wolfskin, of course. Not a vegetarian wolf though. He eats hot dogs and chicken nuggets.

2014 Sweet Juniper Holiday Card by. . . sweet Juniper

Posted by jdg | Thursday, December 25, 2014

This year our daughter asked if she could draw the family portrait for our holiday card. She worked very hard and we're proud as heck to share the result.

Hiring a favorite illustrator to do a family portrait has become one of our favorite holiday traditions, and we feel lucky this one offered to do the job in 2014. She chose to draw her favorite moment of the holiday season, when we return from Eastern Market with a tree and pull out the ornaments. She also drew the inside of the card (I took out the names):

Be safe out there, and enjoy the new year.
[see also 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013]

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 learn just 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 wit. (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. Right now there are law law offices there, and the lawyers just scurried away when they saw him.

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 Watch. 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. Detroit is not a wig desert. We walked over to the neighborhood wig shop but 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. It turns out all wigs have names. Together we (the wig shop lady, my son, my daughter and myself) agreed upon a model called "the LaToya."

I sewed the quilted tunic, the breeches, and the wool cloak. I sewed those freaking doilies on the sleeves. 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 over the 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. Now I want a lathe.

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 spend many hours as 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.


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).