Saturday, December 1, 2012

What to Expect When You're Expecting on Reality TV


As Amelia’s birthday approaches, I always think about the flurry of activity that preceded her birth. Some of this activity was normal – I painted a toy box, read the What to Expect series, and obsessed over cloth vs. disposable diapers. But, some of this activity was downright bizarre. For example, we were the subject of a reality television pilot. The show was called The Family Makers, and it was a “documentary” about open adoption.
You can see clips here
It wasn’t how I wanted to spend my 15 minutes of fame, but Amelia’s birthmom, Amber, had avidly signed on to the project, so Pete and I reluctantly agreed. In the end, I’m glad we did. Not because of the fame and fortune, which were nonexistent, but because it gave me a unique window into how reality TV shows are made.
Occasionally someone will ask about my experience, and I take the opportunity to debunk a few myths about reality shows. I thought it would be interesting to do that here as well.
I don’t know if every show is like this. Different producers and studios might have different modes of operation. But, here was what we learned from our brief stint on reality TV:
1. The money is good. Pete and I refused payment to appear on The Family Makers. Since the show documented our journey to become parents, we felt wrong accepting money. We also wanted an easy out in case anything went wrong with the adoption. But we were offered $500 for three days of filming. That’s roughly $170 per day for a pilot episode of an unproven show that probably wasn’t going to become a runaway hit. (Similar shows like Adoption Story were popular, but they never reached blockbuster level). In addition, every time we were filmed buying something, the show picked up the bill. When they filmed Amber grocery shopping, she filled her cart on the production company’s dime. When I took Amelia’s brother, Bryce, to the video arcade, we were provided with a never-ending supply of quarters.
2. You are given a role before filming begins. Creative editing makes sure you fill that role, whether you want to or not. The show featured three couples who were adopting from three different birth families. If you watch the show, it’s clear that we were pegged as the “sad childless couple.” Both of the other couples already had kids. They were shown taking their children to picnics and to the park. We were shown in our empty nursery.
In hindsight, the empty crib looks creepier than sad, especially with the doll mobile going at full tilt
 The director of the adoption agency, a woman we’d never met, was filmed talking about how a previous adoption had fallen through for us. This segment came close on the heels of another couple talking about how a birthmother had taken back custody of their adoptive daughter, implying that we’d had a baby taken away from us.
The producer frequently coached me to “look sad” or “see if you can cry.” I usually ignored these requests, but there were two or three times when my voice naturally broke and that ended up on TV, probably in lieu of 25 shots of me smiling and happy. In fact, the show begins with a long shot of me crying on the day Amelia was born. They were tears of joy but, out of context, it looks like I’m genuinely upset.
I'm happy I tell you! Happy!
In reality, we weren’t particularly sad to be childless. It was an emotional time, but we’d come to grips with our infertility and had been open to adoption from the beginning.  Furthermore, we’d never had an adoption fall through. We’d been matched with a birthmother and had decided on our own to pull out of the relationship after she’d become indecisive. Less than two weeks after that, we were matched with Amber. The entire adoption process took nine months from the time we were approved to adopt until Amelia’s birth. It’s true that there are some couples who wait years to adopt, but that wasn’t us. However, if you watch the show, you’d think it was.
Also, Amber was cast in the light of a good mom who was devastated to be giving up her child. I don’t want to diminish her decision to place Amelia. It was a hard decision, and she didn’t make it lightly. But, facts were left out. The show omitted the information that she was homeless, and would have likely lost custody, at least temporarily, if she’d decided to parent. They frequently asked her to rub her stomach, to make it look like she had a bond with the baby. (After a few takes of this, she started outright refusing). The even offered to pay for a second ultrasound, providing we all cried when the technician showed us the pictures. (We refused that as well).
At one point, they wanted to show a baby picture of Bryce. Amber didn’t have one, so they asked her to borrow a picture of a friend’s baby, and they showed that instead, implying that it was a photo of Bryce. 
Not Bryce. Not even close.
 
3. The production company sets the mood of the show. Waiting to adopt was generally an upbeat time for us. We were doing all of the normal things a couple does to get ready for a baby – furnishing a nursery, buying onesies, and taking parenting classes. But, if you watch The Family Makers, you’d probably conclude that we were devastated to be taking this route to parenthood. Sad, ominous music played in the background, and shots of an empty playground were shown between every segment. I don’t know if the empty playground was supposed to represent our childlessness or Amber’s decision to place, but it did the trick. I got a lot of calls after the show aired asking if I was okay.
I think I'm supposed to have phantom limb pains in my uterus when I see this.
4. The production company wants you to fail. Early on in the process, I asked if they’d keep the cameras rolling if the adoption fell through. The very honest producer said that they would. In fact, she said it would make “better television” if that happened. It was creepy knowing that the crew was secretly rooting for our misery.
It makes me think twice about the feuds and drama that routinely occur on other reality shows. I often wonder if there’s a producer in the background, silently pulling the strings or, at the very least, gleefully rubbing their hands together as things go awry.
5. There are things they can’t show. There was a very minor flurry of message board activity the day after the show aired. Quite a few members of the adoption community were concerned that Amber had signed the papers to give up Amelia on TV. They feared she had been coerced. This wasn’t the case. You can’t sign legal papers on television. She was signing a blank piece of paper hours after she had privately signed the real documents.
Pictured: Amber signing absolutely nothing.
The hospital also refused the crew access to the actual birth, so some of the hospital footage is stock footage that was spliced in later. In fact, the hospital eventually kicked the camera crew out of the maternity ward. When that happened, we were secretly relieved.
When the hospital found out they'd gotten this close, they banned all of our cameras, including the one on Pete's cell phone.
6. None of it is real. Remember the shot of me crying in the hospital hallway? That was one of only two shots where the camera crew used the first take, and it was still taken out of context.
The crew asked for second and third takes on everything, including a scene where I change Amelia’s diaper.
To be fair, my kiddo was more than happy to comply with second and third takes on diaper changes.
At one point, something went wrong during Amelia’s birth and the doctor unceremoniously asked me to wait in a supply closet. I had no idea what was happening, and I started to have an anxiety attack. Pete brought me a glass of water to calm me down, and the doctor eventually reappeared to tell me that everything was okay. Ten minutes later, the producer asked me if I could “recreate” the panic attack, because she didn’t get it on camera the first time. (I told her, in no uncertain terms, where she could put her camera).
There were scenes where we were “candidly” caught in our kitchen or living room, talking about the adoption. This wasn’t candid. In fact, we were being fed questions.
Actually, we have awkward side-by-side conversations all the time.
The first day the crew came to our house, they asked if they could film us eating breakfast. I explained that we don’t normally eat breakfast, which posed a problem – they had already filmed one couple at lunch and another at dinner. They needed us to be their breakfast couple. So, I fried up some French toast at noon, and we pretended it was breakfast time. During the meal, they coached our conversation. They wanted us to talk for a couple of minutes about our parenting classes. When we’d said enough about that, they asked us to talk about Bryce.
Also, they ate all of our leftover French toast. True story.
Even when we were unscripted, things still felt awkward. There’s no way to act natural while you’re battling bumper-to-bumper traffic with a camera aimed at your face.
Aimed directly at my face. And I'm already a nervous driver.
In the end, I'm glad we did the show. For one thing, it gave me a different perspective on reality TV and TV in general. I still watch reality shows. In fact, I have a inexhaustible supply of Comic Book Men sitting on my DVR right not. But, I look at it with an eye toward what's being faked, what's being coached, and who's being cast in what role. It's made the viewing process more enjoyable for me, not less. I'm also trying to teach Amelia not to believe everything she sees on TV, which is an important lesson to learn.
But, there's a much more personal reason why I'm glad we did the show. Remember when I said the shot of me crying was one of only two shots that was a first take? Here's the second:
 
That's me, meeting my daughter for the first time. It was a very personal moment and, since everyone in the room was riveted on the new baby, nobody thought to get out a camera. The cameraman with the television crew was the only person who got this shot. That was the best moment in my life up until that point. It couldn't be faked, it couldn't be retaken, and I'm glad I have a visual record of it.

 
Plus, there's that video online of the diaper change. That should come in handy when the boys start sniffing around.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

How To Sell On Etsy: My Top 25 Tips

A few years ago, I started making bottlecap bows to put on my family's Christmas presents. At the time, I didn't know that bottlecap bows were a trend - I was simply looking for a fun, inexpensive way to dress up the holidays. I bought the bottlecaps en masse from a brewer's supply company and matched them to ribbon I found at Target. The results were gorgeous, even if I was still treating hot-glue-burns well into the new year.
 
After the holiday season in 2010, I shyly showed my work to a friend who had her own, very successful bottlecap bow business. She suggested that I try selling my work on Etsy. Encouraged, I listed my first item, and it sold within 15 minutes. I ran down the hall, high-fived my husband, and eagerly awaited my second sale. It didn't come for 33 days.
 
In those 33 days, I delved into research about Etsy, learning everything I could about how to generate sales. I've been an eBay seller since 2001, but I soon found that Etsy is a completely different ballgame. I learned a lot from my trial and error (mostly error), and eventually brought myself to the point where I average at least one sale a day. On my best day, I've had 16 sales.
 
I wouldn't say that I've become an expert on Etsy. I'm still much more knowledgable about eBay (a post about that is sure to follow) but, in the past two years, I've learned a lot. I've also expanded my shop, selling bottlecap designs, birthday invitations, embroidery designs, custom seam binding, personalized clothing, and jewelry. I haven't become fabulously wealthy, but my shop runs smoothly, and I'm happy to be a part of the site, meeting customers from around the world.
 
Sometimes, someone will ask me how to sell on Etsy. I don't always know. There are still days that confound me. But I have learned a few things. Here are my top 25 tips to selling on Etsy, plus one adorable bonus tip:
 
1.       Perfect your product. If you have an idea for a fantastic product, make several prototypes. Gift them to your friends and family and check back often to see how the items are holding up. Work out all of the kinks before you create a listing.

2.       Create a product you would want to buy. There are lots of fads that go in and out of style, but trying to follow them will only end in frustration. Think about what you, your friends, and your family would want. Chances are that other people will want it too.

3.       Having said that, pay attention to your shop stats. They’re located on the left-hand side of the page after you click “your shop” on the upper-right corner of the page. This is valuable information that shows how people are finding your shop and your items. If people are finding your shop after searching for something very specific, like “green sweater,” you might want to make sure you always have at least one green sweater listed.

4.       Shop stats also show you the time at which you have the most views (for me, it seems to be consistently 10:00 a.m.) Try to list new items and relist existing items when you have the most views.  

5.       Take clear photos that show your entire item. I purchased a few yards of black and white cotton knits to use as a backdrop for my items. I take photos with several camera settings and “play” with my photos on Photoshop until I have a picture that best represents my item. Sometimes, it takes a few hours to get the right photo, but it’s worth it.

6.       Tag carefully. Etsy offers you the option of “tagging” your items so they’ll show up in in searches. You have the option of creating 13 tags. Use all of them. Carefully think about what searches you want to lead to your items. And, if you create a new listing by copying another listing, remember to change the tags so they reflect the new listing.

7.       List at least one new item a week. Every time you list a new item, the new item briefly shows up on the front page of Etsy under the heading of “recently listed items.” This is valuable publicity for your item and your shop. Quite a few shoppers go to the recently listed items first. The new items will be considered first for treasuries, too.

8.       Unless an item is literally flying off the virtual shelves, list only one of each item at a time, even if you have more than one available. This seems a bit counterintuitive, and it does mean more work, but you’ll get more sales in the long run. Every time you relist an item, it shows up on the front page, just like a new item would. This means a larger audience for that item and for your shop.

9.       Price your items fairly. It’s easy to overprice your item on Etsy. After all, you made it yourself, owned it for years, or hunted it down and restored it. To you, it’s priceless. But, to a potential customer, it’s worth the going rate of similar items. Check and see what that rate is and price accordingly. Better yet, price a few cents lower. Competitive pricing drives buyers to your shop.

10.   Accept direct pay as well as Paypal. It’s easy to do and the money is deposited directly into your bank account. You can still refund and offer discounts, too.

11.   Ship internationally. There’s no reason not to. You’ll have to fill out a bit more paperwork at the post office, and possibly adjust some of your shipping prices, but that’s a small price to pay for increased sales.

12.   Sell items that are easy to ship. Some customers are going to be scared off by the cost and logistics of shipping something large and unwieldy. Consider offering a few smaller items as well to bring customers to your shop. Once they see how quick and fair your service is, they’ll look at the bigger items, too.

13.   Be clear about shipping and turnaround times. I know very few people who don’t have Amazon Prime and aren’t used to one- and two-day shipping. This doesn’t mean they’re unwilling to purchase an item that won’t arrive for two weeks, but they’ll expect this to be directly stated in the listing. It’s also a good idea to send updates and tracking information when it’s available. I send updates via convo, which is more personal than Etsy’s standard shipping update. It allows my customers to convo back, asking me for more information, or letting me know when the item arrives.

14.   Avoid cutesy item descriptions. This is in direct opposition of what Etsy will tell you to do. Etsy even offers description-writing workshops that tell you to write whimsical descriptions in the voice of your item but, the truth is, most customers don’t even read the full item description before they buy. Make sure you have a concise description that puts the important details like materials, size, and color up front.

15.   List your shop policies in every description. This is a hassle but it keeps buyers from having to leave your listing to read your policies. The longer they stay on your item, the more likely they are to buy it.

16.   Create an internet presence outside of Etsy. You can’t directly link to your blog, facebook, or twitter accounts from Etsy, but you can allude to them, and you can place a link in the follow-up e-mails you send your buyers. Online shoppers do miss having a personal connection with the person they’re buying from, and the more they know about you, the more likely they are to become repeat customers.

17.   Treat Etsy like a business. Set aside hours. You don’t need to keep a 9-5 schedule, but you should have a time each day when you answer your e-mails and convos, pack and ship items, and create new products. The four hours after my daughter goes to bed are my “business hours.” It’s a little unconventional, but it works.

18.   Print business cards and hand them out. You can find customers offline, too.

19.   Follow up each sale with a convo, checking to make sure your customer received and is enjoying the item. Don’t ask directly for feedback (nobody likes to be hassled), simply offer service.

20.   Leave prompt feedback. Etsy isn’t as feedback-driven as eBay, but it pays to be courteous.

21.   Create complimentary products. I try to offer as many complimentary invitation/favor designs as I can, but this works for almost every product. If you make a bracelet, also offer a matching necklace and earrings. If you’re selling a sweater, consider knitting and listing a matching cap. Better yet, offer combined shipping or a quantity discount.

22.   Track how you do each season and plan accordingly. Halloween is my “busy” season. From October 1 – October 31, I can get up to 14 sales a day. So, I try to list more items in October, and make more connections with my customers, keeping in mind that more people will be viewing my shop during that time. When things are slower in the spring and summer, I try to work on making more items and making more offline connections.

23.   Be patient. I’ve gone up to six days without a single sale. It’s discouraging and my first reaction is always to leave my computer and neglect my Etsy business. But things turn around, and you don’t want to be caught off-guard the next time you do have sales. Keep your business hours, convo your repeat customers, and create more items, even during the slow times. You’ll be rewarded if you do.

24.   Create custom listings for custom work. If someone sends you a convo requesting custom work, you can set up a listing just for them. That way, you’re paid in advance, and they know exactly what they’re receiving. I also set up listings that can be purchased in advance by someone who needs a personalized product. If I start receiving too many requests for custom work, I can easily take these listings down so I don’t fall behind. It’s a very easy way to manage your work.
 
25. Be brutally honest. If you need to put your shop on vacation mode, explain why and tell customers exactly when you'll be back. You're more likely to retain customers if you say "I'm taking some time to visit family and I'll be back promptly on the 15th" than if you simply say "I'm on vacation." The same applies if you're going to be late shipping or need extra time to complete a custom order. More than customers on other sites, customers on Etsy are looking for a human connection. They're buying your art, which is a part of you. They expect a relationship that goes beyond a simple business transaction.

Adorable Bonus Tip: If you create wearable art, wear it! This sounds so simple but it’s true. You’re the best advertisement for your shop. Unless you have a six-year-old. Then, she’s the best advertisement for your shop.
Pictured: The best advertisement for my handmade seam binding.
Kid not included.
 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What I've Been Reading

You might have noticed that I haven't blogged in almost a week. Part of that is thanksgiving prep. I've had one hand in a mixing bowl since Tuesday. But I've also been reading.

I read a lot. In fact, my avatar is a picture of a woman surrounded by books.
This is pretty much what I really look like. Excpet my hair isn't this long and luxurious.
I was recently asked what I've been reading lately, and I wasn't sure how I should answer. First of all, I don't know how to count comic books. For example, I've been reading Invincible since 2005, but I'm not sure if I should say I've "read" it. Is it one long book that I've been reading for six years? Or does each individual issue count as a single book for a grand total of 97 books? I really don't know.
At 97 issues, that's a full day of my life spent reading Invincible. Time well spent.
Also, I'm a little hesitant to count books that I read with my book club. Unless it's my month to pick, I didn't really choose to read these books. I'm reading them as part of a group activity, and I'm taking notes. It's more of a project, albeit a fun and exciting one, than a means of experiencing literature.

Last month, we read The Descendants. Then we watched the movie starring George Clooney.
I love my book club.
The same applies to books I read with Amelia. I've read The Lorax hundreds of times, but it's not one of my books. Besides, I'm not really "reading" it any more. I've practically memorized it by now. I can tell the story of the Lorax in my sleep.
Yes, he speaks for the trees. I get it. Can we please read something else, honey? Mommy is tired of this one.
Finally, there are some things that I'm just plain old ashamed to admit that I read:


Don't judge.
 
I came across that last one by accident. Really. I'm not saying that I don't like a good love story. In fact, I used to have a regular gig reviewing woman's literature for a few websites. It was fun, but I eventually started to hate romance novels with a venegance. I hated the couples who met in an adorable fashion due to a mistaken identity or a misplaced dog. I hated the big misunderstandings that, in real life, would have been cleared up with a simple text message. I hated perfect heroes and over-emotional heroines. Most of all, I hated secret babies. When I quit reviewing, I vowed to never again read a book with a secret baby.

Then, I bought a couple of religious books and, before I knew it, Amazon thought I would like even more religious books. Soon, all of my Amazon recommendations were for books by people who had started their own religions in their garage or who thought the world was ending in 2012. And, to skew my recommendations in the opposite direction, I started downloading every free romance novel Amazon had to offer.

Most of them were horrible. The one above, The Best-Laid Plans by Sarah Mayberry, is the only one I finished reading from start to finish. And it wasn't bad. It wasn't going to win the Pullitzer prize but, as romance novels go, I enjoyed it. The heroine was 38, not a supermodel, and not overly emotional. The hero acted like a jerk at times. The couple met at work. There was no mistaken identity. There was no big misunderstanding. The baby wasn't secret.

I kept the book hidden in my cloud drive for a couple of weeks before I worked up the courage to buy another one of Sarah Mayberry's books. Then, I bought another. Before long, I was a regular romance reader again.

That was over a year ago, and now I've worked out a plan. When I've been reading too many serious books or too much Lorax and I need something fun and light to read, I grab a romance. I still stick exclusively to books by Sarah Mayberry. And I still keep most of them hidden away on my cloud drive. But, the next time you ask what I'm reading know that it's either this:


 
 
Or this:
And I'm going to try not to be ashamed of either one.




 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Best Doll Stroller Ever

Amelia loves her babies:

And, for the longest time, she has wanted this:



That's the Joovy Doll Caboose Tandem Stroller, the Rolls Royce of doll strollers. It's a miniaturized real stroller with plenty of storage space, room for two dolls, and an ample canopy to shield dolls from the sun. (According to Amelia, dolls need to be shielded from the sun. Otherwise, they'll burn. Duh). It's slightly bigger than an average doll stroller, which is nice, since Amelia is slightly taller than the average kid. She has to stoop to push her babies in her old doll stroller.

I have hesitated from buying this because, at $80, it's almost the cost of a real stroller. Even when Amelia was a baby, we didn't spring for the expensive strollers. We had a Graco travel system from Target and an auxiliary umbrella stroller from Wal-Mart. By the time Amelia turned four, they were both completely worn out from overuse. The Graco had travelled with us cross-country more times than I could count. It rolled like a demented shopping cart toward the end and, in its last few months, it refused to fold. I had to throw it into the back of the SUV fully extended and hope for the best with my rear visibility.

There's nothing wrong with buying a top-of-the-line stroller system. There were times when I wished we had done it. But it wasn't where our parenting dollars went, and something in me balked at spending $80 on a doll stroller. After all, Amelia's almost seven. I don't know how much longer she'll maintain the illusion that her dolls are real people who need real care. That phase lasted a long time with me, but she cycles in and out of fads quickly. Yesterday it was princesses. Today, it's ninjas. The days of the dolls might be numbered.

Then, we went to the Rose Bowl Flea Market last Sunday.

This is an official photo from the Flea Market website.
Yes, it's really that crowded.
I love the Rose Bowl Flea Market. It has three shopping areas. The first area forms the "outer circle" of the swap meet, and it's filled with new stuff - boutique clothes and pet supplies, mass-produced artwork, and gourmet beef jerky. Walking away from that area, you'll find antiques - grandfather clocks, high-end cowboy boots, Eames chairs, and vintage advertising. Both of these areas are nice for browsing, but they're nothing compared to the final, inner circle of the swap meet - an area known as the "white zone."

Pete calls this area the "used socks zone," and it's where you'll find anything and everything. It's like browsing through 100 garage sales at once, and there's always something interesting. Once, we saw a vendor hawking disposable underwear like he was an X-rated carnival barker. This week, we saw a jar of human teeth accompanied by a hand-lettered sign reading "I'll Buy And/Or Sell Any Teeth." ( Please forgive me, but I was too creeped out to ask to take a picture). There are ventriloquist dummies that look like they'll steal your soul, patches ripped off of old mechanic's uniforms, and piles and piles of chewed-up Happy Meal toys. And, this week, there was this:


Baby Not Included
That's a genuine Jeep stroller. It's big enough for a four-year-old, which means that it's big enough for at least two dolls. It has more storage than the average mom would ever need, a three-point harness system, a canopy with a sunroof, two cupholders, and an mp3 jack with two speakers. Amelia spotted it while I was sorting through vintage Atari T-shirts, and immediately settled Jacob inside and started fussing over him. By the time I'd turned around, she was ready to plead her case.

"I need this," she said. "Jacob needs this."

I shook my head. "That's a real stroller," I told her. "Wouldn't you rather have a doll stroller?"

Amelia pulled the stroller closer to her chest. "Jacob's a real baby," she said. "He doesn't want a doll stroller."

So, I spoke to the saleslady and pleaded my own case, asking her how low she'd go on the stroller. She quoted me $15. Before I knew what I was doing, I pulled out my wallet.

So, now, after four years of being without a stroller, we have another travel system in our entry. Sometimes, Amelia will walk Jacob through the neighborhood while I sit on our front porch, watching her. Sometimes, we'll go on walks together, and she'll push Jacob to Target or Kohl's, magnanimously offering to hold my purchases in the storage compartment. And, sometimes, she'll just plug my mp3 player into the stroller, and dance with her dolls in the living room.

I hope the baby doll phase lasts long enough to take plenty of pictures of my daughter playing with her babies in the Jeep stroller. I hope we'll go on lots of walks together before Jacob is relegated to a high shelf in her bedroom. As far as bargains go, this is possibly the best $15 I ever spent. Sometimes, it pays to look at everything at the flea market. And, sometimes, it pays to be open to the possibility that the best toys aren't really toys at all.

And, if you see a little girl pushing a huge Jeep stroller around the neighborhood, please stop and tell her how adorable her baby is. All moms love that.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Disguising a Turkey

I have a confession to make. I fail at family-participation school projects.

The classic example of this was the 100th day of school last year. Amelia had to glue 100 of an object onto a sheet of provided posterboard. As assignments go, this should have been a no-brainer. We could have chosen any object to glue, and it would have turned out great - buttons, ribbons, pennies, hard candies - they all would have been fine. But, we chose marshmallows.

If we had purchased mini-marshmallows, I still might have been able to save the project. But, we walked to Von's after dinner only to find out that they were inexplicably out of mini-marshmallows. Not wanting to walk home, get in the car, and drive all the way to Target, we bought three bags of the full-sized kind and called it a night. That was our first mistake.

Marshmallows are huge. One hundred of them simply didn't fit on the tiny piece of posterboard Amelia had brought home from school. We kept having to squish them together to make them all fit. When we did that, we lost count. And, when we lost count, we started eating the marshmallows. Naturally, that made our count even worse.

Adding insult to injury, marshmallows melt when they get wet. So they started to disintegrate the second they were glued down. Like a genius, I decided to use my hot glue gun so the glue would dry faster. That was my third mistake. Marshmallows swell and burn when they get hot.

In the end, I wrote a note to the teacher explaining that the posterboard was probably full of 100 marshmallows, but we weren't really sure. I took full responsibility for the failure, and hoped for the best. Fortunately, the teacher was either very sympathetic or didn't want to double-check our count of 100 burnt, melting marshmallows. Amelia got an "E" for effort, and I vowed never to glue marshmallows onto anything ever again.

She had to carry the project in a box top because she didn't want to touch it.
Most of these no longer legally qualify as marshmallows.
.
Fortunately, family-participation projects have been few and far between since then. Until now.

Last week, Amelia brought home an outline of a turkey with instructions to disguise him so he'd get through the Thanksgiving holiday uneaten. (Is anyone but me more than a little creeped out by that concept?) The provided instruction sheet informed us that past turkeys have been dressed as "football players, farmers, hula dancers, and Elvis."

In fact, this seems like a fairly common assignment. There are entire web sites devoted to disguising your turkey. Hilariously, a lot of them disguise the turkey as a food product, which defeats the purpose of the disguise. We immediately rejected dressing him as a hamburger, a corncob, and a slice of pie.

Naturally, Pete latched onto the concept of "football player." I seemed stuck on puns, and suggested disguising him as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turkey, a time TURner, and the Turkish flag. But Amelia was determined to create (drumroll, please):

Spider-Turkey!

Spider-Turkey, Spider-Turkey. Does whatever a
Spider-Turkey does.


Here he is without his mask:
Is he strong? Listen bud, he's got radioactive blood.
Look out, here comes the Spider-Turkey.
Amelia's favorite medium is fabric markers, so I made a pattern out of the turkey outline and stitched a little turkey out of felt. Amelia stuffed him, leaving his legs unstuffed so he could sit. Then, she drew a turkey face and a Spider-Man costume with Crayola Fabric Markers.

His mask is a patch I made on my embroidery machine, although we could have easily made him a paper or felt mask. I helped Amelia sew an elastic loop on the back of the mask so he could wear it through Thanksgiving.

If you even mention Spider-Man, she starts to climb.

She brought Spider Turkey to class today. I don't know how she'll do on her assignment, but I have a feeling it will go better than her last family assignment since nothing was melted or burnt. Although, I do miss pigging out on marshmallows.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Yep, I'm real

I know I usually blog about crafting, but I got one of the big questions this week.

As an adoptive mom, there are about 15 or 20 questions and comments I routinely hear. They range from the ridiculous (Does she know you're her mom?) to the downright insulting (How much did she cost?), and I get at least one of them at least once a week.

This time, the question came from a doctor. I was seeing him for a first-time consultation. About halfway through the appointment, he turned to me and asked whether I'd ever want children of my own.

"I have a child of my own," I said patiently.

After that, there was an awkward silence until I handed him his co-pay and politely left the building.

I wish I could say I was always that nice. I try to be. Most people see our family as different, and difference always invites curiosity. Intellectually, I realize this. But, emotionally, it can be another story. And the doctor this week awakened me to the reality that it's not going to stop. I rarely think of the fact that my daughter is adopted. Much like the fact that my husband is from New Jersey, it's an origin story that exists in our lives, but is inconsequential to our day-to-day existence. (Unless we're actually in New Jersey, of course. Then, I'm the foreigner).

But, if a respected (and highly Yelp rated) medical professional could ask one of the big questions, it occurred to me that it might be helpful to list them in a public forum, along with my answers.

These aren't the answers of every mom. Every family is different, and everyone has their own way of dealing with the curiosity of strangers. And, of course, I've taught Amelia that she can always politely decline to answer a personal question unless it's being asked by a teacher, a police officer, or her pediatrician. But, for what it's worth, here's what I usually say. And, yes, I've actually been asked (or told) every single one of these. Often more than once.

Q: "Are you her real mom?"
A: "Yep, I'm real. Unless we're living in the Matrix."

Q: "You're a saint for taking her in."
A: "No. we wanted a kid, just like anybody else. That was actually kind of selfish of us."

Q: "Her mother is a saint for giving her up."
A: "No. Her birthmother is just a woman who made a very smart and difficult decision."

Q: "Her mother must be a horrible person for giving her up."
A: "No. Her birthmother is just a woman who made a very smart and difficult decision."

Q: "Do you plan to tell her that she's adopted?"
A: "Well, since she's biracial and we're white, it's hard to avoid. But, seriously, it's been part of her story since day one."

Q: "What is she?"
A: I usually let Amelia answer this one, since she's more than happy to tell people that she's an "invisible ninja princess." That's always funny.

Pictured: Invisible Ninja Princess


Q: "How much did she cost?"
A: "She's priceless. But, honestly, you can't buy a baby. That's illegal. And, our adoption fees are none of your business."

Q: "Was her mom on drugs?"
A: "I'm her mom. You're referring to her birthmother. And, I wouldn't ask that about your child. Please don't ask that about mine."

Q: "Did you get to name her?"
A: "Yes, but if her birthmother had wanted to name her, we would have been cool with that. The important thing is that we've given her about 20 cutesy nicknames that will haunt her through adolescence."

Q: "Can her real mom take her back?"
A: "I am her real mom. And, no, her birthmom can't take her back. Our adoption is final and she's going to live with us until she goes off to college. Even then, I'll probably still be doing her laundry on the weekends."

Q: "Was adoption heartbreaking for you?"
A: "Not really. It was difficult, but so is pregnancy and labor."

Q: "How far did you have to travel to adopt?"
A: "About 30 miles. Adoptions are domestic as well as foreign." (I blame Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt for the frequency of this one).

Q: "Was it hard to get a healthy newborn?"
A: "It always is, even if you have biological children. There are no guarantees in life."

Q: "Don't you think it's your responsibility to adopt more?"
A: "Adoption isn't charity work. And, I think it's our responsibility not to adopt more than we can handle." (Again, I'm blaming the Jolie-Pitts)

Q: She's lucky to have you.
A. "We're lucky to have her."

Pictured: My amazing luck




Thursday, November 8, 2012

How To Create a Layered Die Cut With Sure Cuts A Lot Software

Amelia is heading into the second year of a major Wonder Woman obsession. So, I create a lot of Wonder Woman scrapbook pages. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of scrapbook supplies featuring everybody's favorite Amazon princess. That's why I love the Sure Cuts A Lot software. I have version 2 of the software, which works with the Cricut machine. The newer version 3 software doesn't work with Cricut, but works most of the other die cutting machines. (You can still get version 2 on eBay for about the same cost as two regular-priced Cricut cartridges). On its own, it's really amazing software. It allows you to cut all of the fonts you already have on your computer. But, it really shines when you use it to create layered images. For example, if it's 11:00 P.M., and I absolutely need a die cut of Wonder Woman, I can fire up my computer and create this in about an hour:
In order to create a layered image with Sure Cuts A Lot, you'll need Photoshop or similar photo editing software, and a bit of patience. Each image is a process of trial and error. But the results are often nothing short of amazing.

First, you'll need the Sure Cuts A Lot software. If you're working with a Cricut, you'll have to do a bit of bargain-hunting. But, if you have a Silhouette, a Boss Kut, or an USCutter, you can download it here for only $60.

Next, choose the image you want to cut. I always try to choose an image with very crisp, clearly separated colors. If I can't find an image like that, I'll often trace the image I need and scan the traced image directly into Photoshop. That's what I've done here, with this image of Bowser, from Super Mario Bros.

Once your images has been scanned into your photo editing software, save it with a distinctive name. I've chosen to call this image "Bowser." Then, choose your favorite selection tool (I use the magic wand in Photoshop), select the entire image and, using Photoshop's paint bucket or a similar fill tool, fill it in with black or another dark color. (One of the quirks of Sure Cuts A Lot is that it won't trace a light-colored image)

Save this filled-in image as a separate file. I'm calling mine "Bowser Blackout." When you're ready to cut, it will be the background on which you assemble your image.

Next, decide which color you'd like to cut first, and select every portion of your image that is that color. I've chosen white, so I've used my magic wand tool to select Bowser's white fangs and the whites of his eyes. Once those are selected, I'll fill them in with black so they're easy for the software to trace.
Now, press ctrl+c, or choose "copy" from your menu to copy the selected portions of your image. Once they're copied, open a new file, and press ctrl+v or "paste" to paste those selected portions on your new page.
Once you've got your new file, you'll want to save it with a distinctive name. I'm calling it "Bowser White," so I know I'll need to cut this portion of my image on white paper.

Now, you'll need to repeat these steps for every separate color in your image. When I'm done, I'll have six files titled "Bowser Blackout," "Bowser White," "Bowser Yellow," "Bowser Green," "Bowser Orange," and "Bowser Peach." Wow - that's a lot of Bowser! You'll notice that I haven't created a "Bowser Black" file for his mouth and pupils. That's because the blackout background will serve as the color black.

Once I'm done separating the colors, I'll close out of Photoshop and open Sure Cuts A Lot. There's a little icon of a tree on the top of my page. I'm going to click on that, and the software will ask me what image I'd like to trace. I'm going to ask it to trace "Bowser Blackout" first, so I have a good base for my image.

Once I've traced my blackout background image, I'm going to trace my other colors. When I'm done, I should have Bowser's entire face on my screen.

You'll notice that Bowser is a little bigger than my cutting mat. I'm going to fix that now by using my cursor to draw a square around his entire face. That will select the entire image so I can resize it. You can resize an image by dragging your cursor and pressing "shift." Or you can resize the image using the menu at the right side of your page.


Once I've resized the image to my satisfaction, I'm going to select the different colors, cut them, and paste each one on a new page, so I can cut them separately. Once each color is on a separate page, I'm ready to cut.

Here's my finished layered die cut of Bowser:

Isn't he fabulous? I've used this technique to create so many different images. Here's Spider-Man
And, of course, I had to create Bowser's nemesis, Mario:

The sky really is the limit with this software. It's well worth the price.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Skinny Chocolate Chippers

I have a six-year-old who gets hyper when she eats sugar. And, at this time of year, it's especially hard to avoid sugar. After trick-or-treating last week, she came home with a full bucket of chocolates and lollipops, and she wanted them all at once.

I made a deal with her. If she gave my husband all of the candy, she could have a toy. It was an expensive deal for us, but it got the sugar out of our house, and got her to calm down a little easier post-Halloween.

I felt a bit heartless, though, and started looking for a tasty, low-sugar snack we could bake together. After a bit of searching and tinkering, I came up with this recipe for chocolate chip oatmeal cookies. I started with a Mr. Food recipe, and kept working at it until I cut out a little more sugar.

Here's the end result:
These cookies aren't sugar-free, but they have half the sugar of our usual recipe. And, by using miniature chocolate chips, I was able to use fewer chips. As a bonus, they're also much lower in fat and much higher in fiber, so I haven't felt too guilty letting Amelia sneak an extra cookie here and there. In fact, I've been snacking on these, too, and it's almost time to make another batch.

Here's the recipe:
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup plus two tablespoons firmly packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup Splenda with fiber (you can get it at Target)
1/2 cup low-fat margarine
1/2 cup all-natural applesauce
1/4 cup egg substitute
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups quick-cooking oatmeal
1/2 cup miniature semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 375. In a small bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, and salt; set aside. In a large bowl, beat the brown sugar, Splenda, margarine and applesauce until smooth. (It won't be one uniform color, but it shouldn't have any lumps). Beat in the egg substitute and vanilla. Gradually beat in the flour mixture until smooth. With a large spatula, stir in the oats and chocolate chips. Drop by rounded teaspoonfuls on a baking sheet that's been coated with non-stick spray. Bake for 10 minutes, or until the edges are golden brown.

These are very soft at first, so you'll want to let them cook a bit before taking a bite, unless you prefer soft and gooey cookies.

I was a bit worried about baking with the Splenda with fiber, since I'd only ever used it in coffee before, but the cookies taste great and have a very nice texture. They're not crispy, but they're very good for dunking in milk. I'll probably go through some more of my recipes, and see what else I can substitute.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Glow-In-The-Dark Ninja Costume

Amelia got two Halloween costumes this year. She trick-or-treated as Robin but she wanted to dress up as a Ninja when she went to parties and her school's annual Halloween carnival. She was very specific as to what she wanted. She wanted a full jumpsuit, rather than a dress, and she wanted to glow in the dark.


For a pattern, I used McCall's 4951. I made the basic jumpsuit, the mask from view C, and the tabard from view D.
 
This was a tricky pattern. First of all, it's a boy's pattern, and boy's sizes run different from girl's sizes. I made a size 10, which corresponded to Amelia's measurements, and is the size she usually takes, but it was WAY too big. I could have worn it! I ended up having to alter it quite a bit.
 
The pattern also doesn't specify that you have to use quite a bit of ease when you're making the hood and attaching the sleeves. I used my seam ripper more than once.
 
But, when I finally put it together, it looked good.  Amelia thought she looked like a "real ninja," even though she quickly abandoned the mask and boots.
To make the costume glow in the dark, I used glow-in-the-dark thread to embroider the details. I absolutely love glow-in-the-dark thread. When you expose it to light, the effect is so good that it almost glows in the light. The only downside is that it's expensive at up to $5 for a very small spool. I usually wait until there's a thread sale at JoAnn's before I stock up.
 
Since glow-in-the-dark thread is a little bit weaker than standard embroidery thread, it wouldn't stitch through the vinyl, so I used glow-in-the-dark tape to trim the boots. They glowed a little less brightly than the rest of the costume, but it was still a nice effect.
 
I found some great abstract Asian designs for the front of the costume and the sleeve bands, and the back of the costume was embroidered with a ferocious-looking dragon.


Some people did mistake her for a boy in the costume, especially since the hood hid her hair. But that's okay. All Amelia cared about was that she looked fierce and stayed warm. She's a girly girl 364 days out of the year, and disguise is the entire point of Halloween. 

 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Holy Halloween, Batman!

For years, I've been trying to convince Pete that he should go as Batman for Halloween. Before Amelia was born, I wanted to go as Robin, but my dear husband thought  it was a little weird that I wanted to dress up as a 14-year-old boy again (I've been Peter Pan for Halloween twice). By the time I convinced him that there have been female Robins (at least three, by my count), we had Amelia and I thought she should go as Robin, with me as Catwoman. By that point, Pete was convinced, but Amelia wasn't too sure.

This year, all the stars aligned, and everybody thought Batman was a wonderful family theme for Halloween.
I made Pete's costume using an out-of-print Simplicity pattern that I had used when we went as the Wonder Twins a few years back.
There have been "official" Batman patterns over the years, but this one worked nicely, since he wanted to go as a Michael Keaton-era Batman in all black with the classic black-and-yellow logo on the chest. The only modifications I made were to the belt, which I turned into a utility belt with upholstery vinyl, and to the cape, which I lengthened and scalloped at the bottom.
I added the bat logo to the cape and chest with my embroidery machine.
 
Pete has an unusual hat size, so I had to make a Batman mask from scratch. I considered making one out of felt, but I wanted it to look shiny and hold its shape. Fortunately, I found a  great Batman mask tutorial on instructables. The entire mask is made out of duct tape and newspaper. It was very hot for Pete to wear, but it fit perfectly and looked authentic. I based it on the Batman art of Alex Ross. If you look closely, the eyebrows aren't in exact alignment, but it works, and it got the seal of approval from all of Amelia's friends.
 
I wanted to go as a 1966 Julie Newmar-era Catwoman. I used the women's top from the same pattern for my costume, but made stretch pants instead of a skirt by copying a pair of Vera Wang leggings from Kohl's. I made the belt thinner and made my own mask pattern "in the hoop" on my embroidery machine. The ears are simply a headband with triangles of felt glued on. The necklace started out as a Big Lots find that I kept attaching more findings to until it "looked right." My "claws" are press-on nails super-glued to a pair of evening gloves.
 
I wanted to make a Stephanie Brown Robin costume for Amelia:
Stephanie Brown was Robin in 2004, and I always liked the costume. As a Halloween costume, I thought it would be appropriate, since the leggings and tunic would allow a lot of freedom of motion, and I could modify it to be a little less revealing. Unfortunately, Amelia hated the idea. She nixed the costume as "not girly enough," and requested something "prettier." After flipping through every pattern book at JoAnn's, I came up with this:
I made very few modifications to the pattern. All I did was add the Robin logo and the laces.
At first, the tutu was a full, knee-length skirt, but after she wore it to a few parties, it became obvious that the longer skirt made it hard for her to move around, and I trimmed it to make it a fuller, ballet-like tutu. When she wore the costume to Halloween carnivals, she took off the tutu and put on a pair of bike shorts before she hit the bounce houses.
 Her cape was the same cape pattern I use every year:
This cape has been a Wonder Woman cape, a Princess Peach cape, and a Queen of Hearts cape. All I had to do was shorten it a bit to make it a Robin cape. I'll probably find a use for it next year, too.

Amelia's gloves are simply tubes of Lycra. I was glad I didn't work too hard on them, since she promptly took them off and lost them. Pete's gloves were store-bought, as were my shoes. I actually wanted to make shoes for Amelia, but she's in love with her sparkly shoes, and I agreed that they'd be more comfortable for trick-or-treating.

It was a lot of fun to go trick-or-treating in these costumes. We got a lot of instant recognition from kids who loved seeing an adult Batman on the streets, and a Amelia got a lot of comments on how cute she looked in her Robin costume.

I'm glad we waited until this year to break out the Batman theme. The fact that "The Dark Knight Rises" is in theaters meant that there were a lot of Batmen, Robins, and Catwomen on the streets this Halloween, and it was exciting to be wearing such popular costumes. And, Amelia wasn't the only female Robin out there. In fact, Robin seems to be a popular costume for girls.

I'm already thinking about next year's costumes. I'm wondering if Supergirl would ever wear a tutu?