Today is my last day to have a seven year old. Tomorrow, I will have two tweens in the house.
I love seven because it’s a magic number. But eight sounds so composed, so balanced, so very sensible. I think I’m going to love eight too.
Today is my birthday. Forty-three is okay, I’m here to tell you. It’s not significant – it’s neither a new decade nor a new demographic bracket. It’s practically the same as 42, but with fewer Douglas Adams quotes. I feel about 37, which is a nice age to feel, and I look… oh, I have no idea what age I look. Let’s not worry about that. It’s irrelevant, because I’m on the inside, not the outside.
Anyway, right now I don’t have any deep thoughts about another passage around the earth. I feel like I should just enjoy what I’ve got because this is the youngest I’m going to be, and anyway, age is meaningless, it’s what you do, and who you do it with, that matters.
That said, right now I’m on my laptop writing a blog post while each of my children stare at another device and I slowly try to convince them that we should go for a picnic in the park. The weather’s beautiful after a very hot, humid, day yesterday and big thunderstorms last night.
Enthusiasm for the picnic has dwindled to an all-time low (that is, the one child who was vaguely up for it is no longer) but now one of them is making things with sticks (and magnets and batteries, causing me to mutter things like “Don’t electrocute yourself” and “Don’t short out the house”) so that’s a step forward. I suppose.
I always feel compelled if not to have my best possible day on my birthday – because that’s beyond my control – to at least be my best possible self. Even if I’m doing the laundry and making my own cake, there’s a spring in my step and I’m all whatserface Amy Adams in Enchanted, flitting around domestically and imagining woodland animals (less of the vermin, thank you) helping me with my work.
That was then. Now my kids are fighting, I have nothing nice for lunch, I can’t get a babysitter for the weekend, Wednesday’s the worst day for a birthday (well, Tuesday isn’t great either), and apparently if I ever want fresh air and exercise for myself this summer I’ll have to to outside and walk up and down our street because nobody’s leaving the house ever. Even to please me on my birthday. Maybe I have to bribe them with ice cream but to be honest I’m not sure if even that’ll work.
I have a cake to make, because if not me, who; and this evening is Dash’s baseball playoff which willen haven been the final if they win, or the penultimate game of the championship if they lose, because it’s the best of three and they won the first.
In conclusion, it being my birthday doesn’t stop it from being a perfectly ordinary day. It never really does.
We went for the walk. It was lovely. I bribed them with ice cream.
That was lovely too.
This is going to be one of those “Do as I say, not as I do” posts, because I will now tell you about how I envisaged Dash’s party games, not how they actually went. There were reasons why things didn’t go exactly as planned, mostly (a) too many kids, and (b) SOMEONE insisted on getting pool noodles so everyone could decorate foam swords, so of course they spent the whole party whacking each other over the head with them instead of playing elaborate themed games, and (c) way too many kids; but let’s not go into that just now. Dash had a good time and if your worth is measured by the percentage of invitees who show up at your birthday party, his stock is high.
But I had this idea, which was really all my own (unlike the wands, which I totally copied from that guy on Instructables), so I’m going to tell you about it in case you have a more modestly attended event, without pool noodles, in which case I really think this would work pretty well.
So you know that Quidditch is a flying game of three balls: the quaffle, the bludgers, and the snitch. The players, on broomsticks, try to score goals with the quaffle, the bludgers try to knock them off their brooms, and at some point the snitch magically appears and must be caught by a team’s Seeker to end the game. Not entirely practical for real life, though I know people do, somehow, play it now. I decided that for a kids’ party it would be better broken down into its component parts. This also stretches the whole event out nicely so that time passes before you get to the cake.
Part 1: Quaffling
Prop up two (or four) hula hoops as goals at each end of your playing area. You might need to stake these on either side to be secure, and they might have to be based at ground level so that nobody breaks a window. Divide your players into teams (five a side sounds good, though if you’ve a big playing field you could do more) and either have them stand still, spread out on the area, and throw a ball or a foam lawn dart or a frisbee from one to the other and finally through the goal, trying to intercept the other team, or let them take it at a run if you’ve lots of space. Something like ultimate frisbee might work well here.
Part 2: Bludging
I initially thought we’d use something like hard round paddles or bats for this, and maybe balloons, which could work (indoors, not on grass), but then we found a couple of sturdy foam cricket bats in Five Below, so we made it a bowling and hitting game. We used a foam ball that was larger than a cricket ball but smaller than a soccer ball, so it was pretty easy to hit with the bat, and the aim could just be to hit it as far as you can, or to defend a wicket if you have a wicket, or whatever seems right for your participants’ skill level. A parent could bowl/pitch or the kids could take turns at it. We had a cricketer and a few baseball players, so they were happy to pitch.
Part 3: Seeking
We have two snitches in our house: one nice metal one that’s actually a pocket watch, and one larger plastic one that came as part of a HP costume. But even if you had no official snitch you could use a small bright ball like a golf ball for this. As this part is a seeking game, you could hide it and let everyone search, or you could blindfold each player in turn and give them hot/cold directions to it. Alternatively, you could go for the catching aspect of getting the snitch and have it be a throwing/catching game. (Be careful if you’re throwing a golf ball around, though.)
Then you go and eat cake and congratulate yourselves on a party well themed.
Dash’s party is Harry-Potter-themed this year, with elements of Percy Jackson. Don’t ask me how all this will work out; planning is ongoing and involves a lot of negotiations because the type-A child has two type-A parents and everyone wants to run this thing.
But wands will be needed, obviously. I noodled around Pinterest for ages and found a good tutorial for wands using chopsticks and a glue gun, and then I procrastinated on ordering the chopsticks because deep down inside I had a vague notion that providing twenty ten-year-old boys with sticks to poke each others’ eyes out with was maybe not the best idea.
I mentioned this dilemma to a friend, who said her daughter had made paper wands at a party. Paper wands didn’t sound great – I imagined long floppy tearable things – but I googled it anyway. And lo! Instructions for wands made with paper that looked really great, and seemed achievable even by such crafting-averse people as me, given enough time and a modicum of preparation.
So, here’s the thing. This is not a craft for your party guests to do themselves. (Sadly, because that would be great.) It’s best to give yourself a few days to make them, so you can let each stage dry well and not stress yourself out over it. But, that said, there are some great things about it:
Children can help you, if they’re over about six, or maybe even younger. I’d advise you do the first one yourself to get the hang of it, but in general neatness is not important, so it’s an ideal way to let your kids help prep for the party.
Each wand really does turn out unique, because you never roll exactly the same way twice, and with a couple of paint colours you can mix lots of variations on “wood brown” (I kept thinking it looked like poo brown instead, but really it’s all in the eye of the beholder).
Enough blathering. I found the instructions on Instructables from CaptinSkarlet, who is clearly very clever indeed. You you should definitely read them too, for completeness, but I’m going to tell you my version, because I have photos, and it’s slightly different. Prepare to be amazed.
You will need:
Step 1 – Tape
Stick a length of double-sided tape diagonally across a page of copy paper.
Step 2 – Add magic
Cut a length of thread (red thread is dragon heartstring) or some very thin strips of foil (unicorn hair) or take a feather (phoenix, of course) and stick it to the tape. This is the magical core of your wand.
Step 3 – Start rolling your wand
Roll the paper tightly from the bottom left corner if you’ve taped as above, lengthways, so that it’s roughly parallel to the tape. Once you reach the tape it will stick well. Make one end slightly (or a lot) wider – this will probably happen without your even trying, and wands the kids rolled were much fatter and shorter than the long narrow ones I made. Variety is good, though you might have a personal preference.
Step 4 – Finish rolling
Put paper glue (Elmer’s or similar) all over the last third of the page and finish rolling. The glue will smush out to the edge so that it seals up nicely. Leave to dry for a while.
[Take a break at this stage.]
Step 5 – Cut and stuff
Cut each end across in a straight line (as pictured above). Then stuff each end with small pieces of rolled-up tissue or kitchen paper, using the end of a small paintbrush (or whatever you have to hand) to push it down as far as you can. You might not be able to stuff the whole thing, but whatever you can do will help it be more rigid.
Step 6 – Add decorative hot glue
Plug in your glue gun to heat up. Fill in the ends of the wand with glue, and then artistically drizzle bands or lines of glue on the wand to define a handle (the wider end) and make patterns. My 10yo is a glue-gun master, and I let the 7yo have a go (with supervision) and they were both fine with this, though they did go through the glue sticks at a greater rate than I would have alone. Again, more variety is a good thing, so this is fine. And accuracy is not the aim. Leave it for the glue to dry.
[Take a break at this stage.]
Step 7 – Spray paint for rigidity
Spray paint time. This is not something you should let the kids help with. I did it outside on the deck and made them watch through the window while I held my breath: inhaling spray paint is no fun. The spray-paint step is just to make the wands more rigid – you’ll be painting over it, so it really doesn’t matter what colour you use. I got clear paint the first time, which basically just put a sheen on the paper. My small can ran out after about 18 wands, and I bought silver the next time, which looked uh-may-zing and was also more rigid. It was also easier to see where I’d missed with a colour, and in hindsight brown would minimize touch-ups later, so if you can, get brown. Let dry, turn over, and spray the other side. Let dry.
[Take a break here too. See why it’s best to do it over a couple of days?]
Step 8 – Paint it “wooden”
I got some acrylic paint in Target, and mixed the dark brown, the light brown, and the black in different quantities as I went along, so that each wand was a different shade. The trickiest part is doing the ends and finding somewhere to put your fingers, and then propping them to dry so that the paint doesn’t touch. I went back and touched up the smudged parts when I painted my next set of wands; it doesn’t matter if your touching-up shade isn’t quite the same as your base shade. Leave to dry. (This needs to be a non-water-soluble paint because the next coat will be watery and you don’t want it to wash off the paint you’ve just put on.)
[Take a break! Yay for breaks!]
Step 9 – Black wash for fake aging
This is when you make the wand look old and yucky, because those are the best wands. Dash didn’t like the sound of this at first because he wanted his wand to be shiny and new, but in the end he let me do this for all of them. Mix some black acrylic paint with a few drops of water so that it’s thin and easy to swish on quickly. Swish it on to part of your wand quickly with a fat brush, and then wipe it off straight away with kitchen paper or a rag. (The black paint I got was accidentally a metallic black, which I really liked for this part because it left a sheen even where it was rubbed off.) You want the black to stay in the crevices of the glue bumps, to make it look aged and worn. Keep brushing on and smudging off until you’re happy with how it looks. Leave to dry.
[Take a break. Though they dry pretty fast.]
Step 10 – Final touches
Decorate your wand! The most fun part, I think. I had some cool metallic markers that have probably been in the house since pre-kid days when I would buy fancy markers to write schmoopy love notes in B’s Valentine’s cards, and they proved to be perfect for this job. I really enjoyed deciding whether bronze, gold, or silver would look best with each “wood”, and then I just traced over the glue blobs with the markers. You could use metallic paint here too of course. Let dry.
Finally, astound your friends, amaze your enemies, and cast spells with aplomb. Stupefy!
“You need to put on your socks and brush your shoes,” I said. “No, your hair.”
Too late. She’d run off with a grin to grab a shoe and her hairbrush.
Sometimes inertia is really hard to beat. I feel like that at the moment: my writing has fizzled because – as always – I have an interesting setup and characters I like, but I don’t know what happens. And I lack motivation because nobody’s exactly knocking my door down looking to publish me. With the whole world open to me, I can only see the obstacles in the way of doing anything, and so I languish in doing nothing.
We woke up to pretty snow. The best sort, two inches deep on the grass and none to be seen on the roads. There wasn’t even a school delay. I took my camera and booted myself out the door for a walk to the lake, where everything looked like an unseasonal Christmas card, but the coating of snow was already melting and it barely showed up in photos.
I’m obsessed with capturing moments. I want to pin it down before it floats away, with words or in pictures: the mundane, the quotidian, the unexceptional. I want to take arty black-and-white documentary-style photos with my fancy camera, but my children either pose dramatically or run and hide, depending on how they’re feeling. They won’t just keep on keeping on, unless I happen to sneak up and get a lucky shot.
It might be something to do with the upcoming birthday. The tenth birthday. I’m not so overwhelmed by the fact that I’ve been a mother for a decade: sometimes it seems much longer, always, perhaps. But the fact that ten years ago there was nobody and now there is somebody: that’s astounding. And all the moments he’s gone through, we’ve gone through, to arrive at this point, all behind us, already. How can we not just dive back into a minute when he was two, or four and a half, or even eight? Where did it go?
My husband’s 25-year school reunion is tonight. He’s not going, because he’s here, but if he’s 25 years out of school this summer, then so must I be. I was sure it was still only 20, and that was bad enough. I feel as if I should have done more, and yet surely a degree, a move to another continent, and the making of two whole people is quite a lot, whatever about sundry paid employments I’ve had in between times.
I have to go and buy shoes now. Call it therapy.
Instead of a birthday party, Mabel opted to take two friends to Build-a-Bear. So on Sunday I set off with three in the back seat and was astounded by how great they were – or maybe not astounded, because the other two are lovely and I knew they’d be no trouble. Mabel could have gone either way, mind you, since she’d been so keyed up about her birthday and the celebration that the actuality might have been too much to cope with.
But instead of anyone going off the rails, they happily read books to each other all the way there, did a conga line through the parking lot, and chanted happy Russian chants at me. (Have I mentioned that all the first graders are learning Russian? It’s hilarious.) They were thrilled to pick out their bears (actually, two dogs and a cat), watch them be stuffed, add the doo-dads, and pick a couple of accessories, and I tried not to gasp as the cash register gobbled up all my money.
The price you pay for an off-site party substitute is an actual monetary price, that’s all. Sometimes it’s worth it to not have to clean the house or bake a cake or think up entertainment or deal with screaming kids; and sometimes it’s worth it just because it really is exactly what they’ve always wanted.
And really. Ever since they were old enough to toddle inside, my kids have been obsessed with Build-a-Bear. They’ve gone in and looked around and basically played the poor orphan with face pressed up against the glass of the sweetshop while the rich children prance around actually making toys instead of pretending. And Mabel is a very gratifying present-receiver. She loves her new dog. His name is Bounder. She kisses him and talks to him and puts him to bed in his kennel box that he came with – and in a week he’ll be at the bottom of the giant barrel of soft toys but she’ll always love him just as much, and maybe even a tiny bit more, than her sixteen other dogs who all have names that she can tell you.
Not that she’s dropping any hints about what she’d really like for a present, or anything.
Mabel. Oh, Mabel mine. Happy sad girl. Puppy lover. Your fringe is in your eyes again and your shins are scraped. You still don’t go much for shoes, especially if there’s a pile of leaves to be jumped in. You’re a natural teacher, a committed animal-lover, a linguist. You speak fluent opposite, excellent gibberish, and your command of Russian is impressive. (Seriously.)
You hate princesses but you spent half an hour surfing Frozen clips on YouTube yesterday. You don’t like girly things, but you haven’t thrown out the pink half of your wardrobe yet. You don’t want to be limited, that’s all: you’re an equal-opportunity lover and hater of pink and blue, of bracelets and beyblades. You complain that your brother gets all the best stuff, but then you pick out the American Girl doll and know exactly which outfit she should have.
You think you can have everything. Keep believing that.
You’re a fun lunch date, even if you do only want fries and ketchup. You and your brother, when not fighting tooth and nail or driving us nuts staving off bedtime, can be the most hilarious double act around. You’re a serious goofball, a crazy gorilla on Broadway, and did you know that meatballs are very rare in Australia?
You’re seven. Seven is the most magical age I can think of. Remember your magic. Use it well. You will always make me proud, no matter what you do, because I struck it lucky when I got to be your mother.
Dash nearly demanded yet another Star Wars party this year, but I put my foot down and tried to interest him in other types of parties we could maybe half-ass our way through activities for. He jumped at the idea of a Percy Jackson party as he has LOVED the five Olympians books that his dad has read him over the past year. (Actually, his dad and I loved them too, and his sister was quite partial as well.)
There are some great and creative ideas for Percy Jackson parties on Pinterest, should you want to look there. But if you read on, I can tell you what you might consider doing and what we did.
Always the best way to start off a themed party. Print up a personalised invitation and you’re halfway there. I went to Canva and made something that looked like this, except with a name and address where I have so expertly blurred them out. You can too.
2. Decorating shields (and swords)
First you need a nice crafty activity to do while people arrive. I ordered pizza pans on Amazon for about 1.50 each, at the last possible minute. I got B to put holes through and attach duct-tape handles with nuts and bolts.
I didn’t pay attention to the size I ordered and ended up with personal-pizza-sized shields rather than bigger ones, but the kids didn’t seem to mind too much. We put some symbols around the deck with names of gods/houses in case they needed inspiration, but mostly they went with their own inclinations. We used acrylic paint, but be warned – it doesn’t wash off clothes easily. Also some washi tape and electrical tape, which was a quick way to make one that didn’t have to wait to dry.
We also had swords, because my experience of past parties is that while girls might be content to paint stuff, boys really just want to whack each other with foam objects. Pool noodles make better light sabres than swords, but they don’t care. They painted and taped the halved noodles too.
I bought two bow-and-arrow sets in the party store for 1.99 each (score!). We set up two targets and had the kids compete in teams. Most of the PInterest ideas tell you to assign or get the kids to pick houses to belong to, but Dash wanted to make it a battle of Olympians versus Titans, even though we tried to persuade him that nobody wants to be on the baddies’ side if they’re going to lose. So we had the kids pick “Titan” or “Olympian” out of a hat and none of the Titans seemed to care about being the bad guys.
4. Fighting Medusa
You could get, or make, a pinata for Medusa’s head, but I didn’t really want to provide a whole lot more crappy sugary stuff, so I used a punch balloon (the ones with elastic attached that are made of slightly stronger rubber). Dash drew a scary face on it and we stuck on some multicoloured leis that I’d found in the dollar store as snakes for hair.Not exactly scary, but fun – especially if you make a big deal of covering her up and telling them all to shield their eyes because she’ll turn them to stone if they look at her as you do the big reveal. The idea was for the kids to take turns looking in a mirror and hitting it behind their backs, but they all just set upon it. It was good for a few minutes anyway, until some young entrepreneur found a pointy object and made Medusa go pop.Then we had food (not themed, but you could easily do a blue-food thing if you wanted to), and then a complicated maze thing that had been Dash’s big plan but didn’t really work out very well so we’ll gloss over that. We didn’t get around to “Pin the Eye on the Cyclops”, though we had vaguely intended to do that. And then they just all happily whacked each other with foam swords, or got in some extra archery practice, which was mostly why they’d come.
Finally, they all got to take home their swords and shields and I printed out some certificates at the last minute, because what’s demi-god training without a certificate? And that was it. Birthday number nine, in the bag.
I think I need to eat a whole head of broccoli. Raw. Dipped in cucumber and enveloped in green beans and slathered in lettuce. As soon as I polish off the last of these chewy cornflake cluster thingies, that’s what I’ll be doing. It’s lucky I’ve already eaten the last of the caramel-and-cheese popcorn (don’t ask) and finished the birthday cake. Washed down with a glass of vino, por supuesto.
Our weekend, it was somewhat cake-oriented. It began on Friday morning when I bought 30 supermarket iced cupcakes and delivered them to Dash’s class and teachers. (You can’t bring home-made stuff to school because of ingredients lists and allergies.) The gym teacher was absent, so even after I’d kept one for Mabel, there was one left for me. I scraped off the two-inch-high dollop of buttercream – because I’m not a pig, you know – and had it with my cup of tea as a reward for a job well done. Handing out cupcakes to third graders is hard work.
On Friday afternoon I baked a single, fat, layer of Victoria sponge to put cream and strawberries on for the block party (the Americans thought it was a strawberry shortcake but I know it’s a fruit flan); but because I felt bad about making a cake Dash wouldn’t like when it was after all his birthday, I also rustled up a batch of cookies. That’s my new go-to recipe. It does everything it says on the tin. Eat them warm and gooey.
On Saturday Mabel and I made some vanilla cupcakes, because people who come to our parties sometimes don’t like chocolate (I know. As if.) and then I made another batch of cookies because that seemed like a good idea, and I wanted something to go with my cup of tea. I also threw together the aforementioned chewy cornflake bun things, because they’re a birthday party tradition now. (This is the recipe but I use a lot less butter and if you’re in America you have to use Milky Ways because they’re the equivalent of the UK/Irish Mars Bar. A UK/Irish Milky Way is entirely different, more akin to an American Three Musketeers bar. Did that clear everything up? Now I want a Bounty.)
On Sunday morning it was time for Dash to bake his cake, because he insisted on doing that himself even though there’s nothing I want less on the morning of a party than a nine-year-old (or anyone, for that matter) inexpertly cluttering up my kitchen and making a mess in an unsanctioned manner. But, you know, have to be nice to the birthday boy, so I made an effort. I typed up the recipe more simply and printed it out in 14-pt font, because trying to navigate 8pt font on a screen is not good for someone with dyslexia. We made half the quantity given in that link, and it filled two 9-inch round cake pans.
Once it was in the oven I reasserted my dominion over the kitchen and quickly whipped up some vanilla buttercream for the cupcakes, and turned the scrapings into some sort of hacked chocolate sour-cream icing to put in between the cake layers. (Loosely based on the filling for the Nigella Lawson cake recipe here.)
The cake turned out beautifully, as the other adults who tasted it can attest. (Never believe a child.)
Nine candles is practically a conflagration. I’d never seen so much fire on a cake before. Now, where’s my broccoli?
As we left a birthday party last weekend, Dash totally pre-empted my reminder to say “Thank you” by spontaneously thanking his friend’s mom.
Yesterday I asked him to bring the washing in off the line, and he went and did it. Just like that.
He wrote a long list of the food he wanted for his birthday party, but when I brought his desires down to earth by telling him what I was planning and how it wouldn’t be quite the three-cake extravaganza that had been his opening gambit, he said “Okay.”
He’s also planning on baking his own birthday cake.
He got 100% in his spelling test today. Spelling’s hard when you have dyslexia, because nothing “looks right” on the page.
He goes to poetry club and plays baseball. He’s a Renaissance boy, y’know.
You’ve come a long way, Baby.