Category Archives: birthdays

Percy Jackson party

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.

1. Invitations

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.Percy Jackson party - invitation

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.

Percy Jackson party - shield

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.

Percy Jackson party - decorating shields

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.

3. Archery

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. Percy Jackson party - archery

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.Percy Jackson party - MedusaNot 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.Percy Jackson party - Medusa 2Then 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.

Percy Jackson party - swordfights

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.

Baking for Nine

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.

IMG_0768

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.

IMG_0788On 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.

Dash baking

Genius at work

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.)

Dash laughing and candles on cake lit

Those are the cornflake buns in the foreground

Nine candles is practically a conflagration. I’d never seen so much fire on a cake before. Now, where’s my broccoli?

Nine

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.

Dash as a baby

Baby Dash, 5 months

 

In which I have a heart of stone

Our friends two doors up had a very old hamster. A few weeks ago Hammy the hamster moved on to the big hamster wheel in the sky and mere days later the neighbours had a new hamster, and a bunny as well, for good measure.

Mabel, her birthday fast approaching, came home from meeting the new bunny and sat down and wrote an entirely fictional book about a girl called Olivia.

Cover page of Mabel's book

“Olivia Wants a Kitten.” No pressure.

Olivia lying in bed dreaming of a kitten.

[Olivia loved kittens.]

Olivia and her very tall mother.

[Olivia’s mom said she has to wait till she’s older.]

Happy Olivia contemplates her birthday.

[It is almost her birthday.]

Happy party picture, with presents.

[Olivia got the present she wanted.]

Christmas is coming up. I’m not sure how long I can hold out against this sort of psychological warfare.

Six

Mabel turns six tomorrow. I can’t tell if six is very big or still pretty small. When Dash turned six, of course it was very big. It was the biggest I’d ever had a child be. But now, as with all her ages, Mabel has so much expected of her, and yet is still the baby.

Five is able; six is sturdy; seven is whimsical, etherial, the dreamer. Eight is practical. Nine… I don’t know about nine, it remains to be seen. But these aren’t things I’ve seen, these are just notions I have, word associations. Six is so much more than five was, because five was only just after four.

Mabel has taken to school like the proverbial duck. I had no way of predicting this, because it wasn’t very true in nursery school, but it turns out she’s just as much a rule-follower as her brother, now. She wants to get everything right. She tries so hard to remember all the things she’s meant to do. She’s enormously motivated by the points system they run which allows them to buy things in the school store. She comes home and starts playing school again, except this time she’s the teacher and her hapless brother is the student. (She has a special teacher accent, which bears no resemblance to any actual teacher she’s ever had, but adds verisimilitude, apparently.) She makes worksheets for him and sets him math problems.

She’s starting to read, as if by magic. I can see it happening so much faster for her than it did for Dash* – she has six months’ advantage over him because of her November birthday, for one thing; and she has the probably-not-dyslexic advantage too, I’m pretty sure. She has always been more attuned to words than he was, more willing to pick up a pencil and draw; letter shapes are coming so much more easily and neatly for her, and she’s noticing all the words that are strewn in front of her in this literate life, in a way that I despaired of him ever doing. (He still rarely does.)

I went on her class field trip last Monday, to a pumpkin patch. She was so good she couldn’t be gooder, the whole day. No wonder she comes home and picks a fight with her brother over sofa space – that much being good has to balance out somewhere.

She brushes her hair and brushes her teeth and dresses herself and is very self-sufficient in many ways. The biggest development of all, though, is that I can put her to bed and walk away, at least some nights, now. It took six years, but the baby is finally learning to self-soothe.

I’m pretty sure I don’t have a baby anywhere any more.

Mabel as Snow White

*The funny thing is that, while it’s happening faster in school terms (as her birthday is closer to the start of the school year) she’s the exact same age as Dash was when he first read Go, Dog. Go!, which I was very impressed by her reading to me last night for the very first time. She does it with more ease, but it’s only in my mind that she’s doing it earlier.

Birthday cobbler

The good thing about turning 41 is that I’ve got that whole awkward 40 thing over with. I’m not 40. Who cares whether I was 40 or I have not yet been 40; I’m not 40 now. Probably my birthdays should start working backwards from now on. Or they’ll just be birthdays, without any particular number associated with them.

I’m sure it’s very gauche to post on your actual birthday, thus guilting your readers into posting birthday wishes, but here we are. It’s quiet and I feel like posting, so post I shall. You don’t have to comment, I promise. (I will be making a list.)

One should always have birthdays at the weekend. And this has been a particularly good one to have a birthday on because entertainments have been laid on without my having to lift a finger, organizationally. (OK, I had to provide two different pot-luck dishes, but that was fine.) On Friday we had a block party, which is always great for letting the kids run wild with others in the neighbourhood while the adults stand around chatting and, um, supervising. (I brought sweet potato mini muffins and pasta sort-of-salad with semi-sundried tomatoes.)

Yesterday we went to a friend’s party on the bay, where there are kayaks to try out and paddling pools to sit in and bouncy houses to jump in and food and drink to help yourself to and friends to chat to while you take turns being the parent in the water. (I brought broccoli slaw.) It was hot but not too hot, with a gentle breeze rustling the leaves of the shady trees, and it was just idyllic.

 

Mabel asleep in the car

Catching up on some z’s on the way to the party.

B and Dash in a kayak

You can see what a terrible time we were having.

B and Mabel in separate kayaks.

Awful. We just had to grin and bear it.

Sadly, all that excitement has taken its toll on Mabel, who is now a banshee in 5-year-old form, picking fights with everyone. By the time I finally carted her off to bed last night she was yelling that nobody else in the world except her was allowed have a birthday, ever, and she is even now, this moment, hanging out of my arm asking me if she can get a present for my birthday. Even though they both had ice cream earlier. Sigh.

Today was more low key, with our usual Sunday morning trip to the farmers market for pastries and iced coffee (adult beverage only), and then a jaunt to Silver Spring where I had 40 minutes to myself to wander round the shops. I ogled beautiful handbags (I have very good taste in handbags; the ones I fall in love with are invariably $150 even in the discount store) and bought myself presents of expensive perfume and Urban Decay eyeshadow. Then we had low-stakes lunch in the noodle shop (pad thai for me) and the aforementioned ice cream for them.

Now I have made a peach cobbler for desert, there’s wine in the fridge, and I’m sure some sort of dinner will assemble itself. It’s been a good day. And I can still hope that Mabel will fall asleep early tonight.

Holy Crap I’m 40

I’m 40. Actually, I’ll be 41 soon, which is almost comforting, except for the way it’s not. But hey, I’m used to my forties now. I’m practically desensitized.

You know what the worst thing is? It’s the phrase “middle-aged”. I’ve made my peace with the fourth decade at this point, but I’m still very very much railing against any notion that I’m middle-aged. I think we need to ban those two words in that particular configuration. They have nothing but sad, dowdy, pathetic, or downright panic-ridden connotations.

My age is just a number, right? I don’t care that the number starts with a 4. Four is a nice digit, actually. Other numbers are much more important:

2: The number of children I pushed out of my ladyparts (also the total number I have).

1: The number of wine glasses right beside me as I write this, because I can refill it as many times as I like.

5: The number of cupcakes whose continued existence I have carefully shielded from my two (2) children today.

0: The number of fucks I give about what someone else thinks about how I look. (Most of the time).

10: Almost the number of years I’ve been married to the man who is exactly the perfect man for me.

30: The SPF I wear every day, because wrinkles are just laughter lines but skin cancer is no fun.

5: How many cheesegraters I own. (Just throwing that in there.)

I’ll survive. As my dad always tells me, getting old is better than the alternative.

How to totally half-ass your way to a successful children’s party

You may remember last year, when I made a Yoda cake. Or the year before, when I made a light-saber cake. Or both years when I made an actual effort and had plans and lovingly hand crafted pool-noodle lightsabers for Dash’s birthday party.

This year, I totally half-assed it. I tried to plan, I really did, but we had no cohesive theme (he wanted Star Wars again; I put my foot down) and somehow my vague searchings on the Internet weren’t bearing any fruit. And yet, things came together. Here’s how you can duplicate this amazing feat of lassitude:

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Forget to buy fruit. Have some clementines at home. Decide they’re nice and colourful and some kids might even eat them. Be vindicated as you see at least two boys (lovely, wonderful, fruit-eating boys) happily helping themselves.

Fail to consider the need for party favours or goodie bags until, while vaguely wandering in Target, you spy some foam cutlasses. Buy just enough, without having any sort of pirate theme in mind. (Mabel exclaimed dramatically, “A foam cutlass of my very own! I’ve never had one before!” I had thought that with all the swords floating around our house at least one must have been hers, but apparently not.)

Make cupcakes three days earlier and freeze them, so you only have to pull them out and ice them on the morning of the party. (This is a bonafide actual helpful tip.) (“Bonafide” always makes me think of George Clooney in Oh Brother Where Art Thou.)

Fail to buy “pigs” to go in the “blankets”. Make the blankets (crescent rolls from a tin, half sized) anyway. The kids prefer them this way.

Party table with food

Before the deluge. Cake not included. Note the clementines. And salsa! Salsa is totally vegetables.

Invite too many children. Be miffed when half of them aren’t coming. Be even less motivated to plan anything in particular. Invite a spare sibling to make up numbers. End up with just the right amount, enjoying themselves perfectly well.

Be really lucky with the weather so the kids can run around outside.

Make a round cake, not any sort of fancy shaped one with icing that requires food colouring. Put chocolate icing on it. Hear no complaints whatsoever because they are perfectly happy with it and anyway it’s delicious. (Nigella’s sour cream chocolate cake, if you want to do it yourself.)

Tell your husband his job is to set up an obstacle course of some sort. The kids will spend most of the time watching/”helping” him faff around the garden. The course, when it is finally completed, will be a roaring success and manage to bring in the totally off-the-cuff pirate theme when he orders them all to do the whole thing with their foam cutlasses in their teeth.

Like the Pied Piper, leading them through their paces.

Like the Pied Piper, leading them through their paces.

Make sure a few convivial parents stay to drink wine with you while you all watch your husband caper in the garden from the safety of the pleasantly removed kitchen.

Enjoy a self-congratulatory cup of tea/more wine after everyone goes home, safe in the knowledge that you don’t have to do this again for a year, and that once you’ve cleaned up your house will be marginally cleaner than it was this morning.

Dash blowing out his candles

Round cake, chocolate icing. Done and done.

Three paragraphs in search of a theme

Growing up, my bedroom was the cosiest, safest place on earth. Lying cocooned in my bed under the eaves, listening to the wind howl outside or the rain lash against the window, nothing could harm me. I felt all the warmer for it. I may have had the usual childhood preoccupations with how I would jump out the window if there were robbers or a fire, but storms never bothered me. Our house was sturdy. My daddy had built it, so it couldn’t be moreso.

Really. My dad bought a leftover plot of land in the 60s, awkwardly shaped because someone had miscalculated the spaces for houses in that cul-de-sac, and built a house on it. He had a contractor lay the foundations but the rest he did with his own hands, a little at a time. I don’t know how long it took him, but it was a work in progress for my whole life, and he’d probably say it still is. There are always little modifications, little improvements and updates to be done, a shelf here, a window there, even a big project now and then. He even outsources the work sometimes these days, now that he’s 84.

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Dash decided to give his bedroom a makeover recently by moving the bed to a different wall and changing everything else around accordingly. Where before he had a window just beyond the foot of his bed, now he has one right beside him and at just the height of his mini-loft. He can gaze out at the lights of the houses below us twinkling in the darkness all night, if he so desires. (I told him it would be colder by the window, but I suppose that won’t really be an issue till next winter now.)

Of course, Mabel had to move her bed around her room to match, and now she can see out her window by standing on the bed. So long as nobody’s climbing out their windows, I’m fine with that.

———

Dash will be eight tomorrow. Eight years ago tonight I was, well, the same person I am now. But so much was to come. So much has happened. It feels like a lifetime ago to me, but it’s his lifetime, not mine. He’s totally a person in his own right now. He’s the one snug in his bed, gazing at the lights, just beginning.

Doing the "final bump" picture on the day I would have been 40 weeks pregnant but instead had a two-week-old baby already.

Doing the “final bump” picture on the day I would have been 40 weeks pregnant but instead had a two-week-old baby already.

Other children

Last night I stood at the top of the stairs and identified with nobody so much as Mrs Doyle on the windowsill, because it seemed for a moment that the best way to get down would probably be just to launch myself skywards and hope for the best. Which is to say that my thighs are only slightly less painful today and I’ve given myself a rest day from exercise.

(Skip to 0.11 if you don’t see how this is relevant. I couldn’t find a shorter clip.)

I’m quite pathetic. You’d think I’d run a marathon at the weekend instead of done the teensiest bit of exercise. And of course my lovely husband who had actually run a 10K race on Saturday was being very kind and not taking the piss out of my situation at all. But lunges really are evil.

I am out of inspiration for writing other places so I’ve come back here to blather more personally for a while. Thank you for being the people who let me blather. It’s nice to have my own blathering space.

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I find other people’s seven-into-eight-year-old boys quite terrifying. They’re bigger than mine, they’re more sophisticated than mine, they know about Minecraft and pop music and a lot more swear words than mine does, and they seem inclined to do all sorts of dangerous things. (I know you’re thinking mine knows the swear words and just isn’t telling me, but I’m pretty certain he doesn’t. We’ve talked about it.) In comparison, I tend to think that mine is really remarkably sensible and at least listens when I tell him something’s dangerous.

Maybe other people’s children are always unnerving when you’re used to your own. It’s nice, really, because it makes you appreciate what you’ve got when they go home. I can think, “Well, he won’t eat dinner, but at least he likes my cookies.” Or whatever.

It being now just about April, it’s time to think about his birthday party. He wants to go to laser tag, which he’s done just once before. I think rather than a whole (expensive) birthday party at the laser tag place, we’re going to let him take two friends to laser tag and then have a party separately at home, so he can invite whoever all his best friends are and I don’t have to worry about numbers and no-shows and RSVPs and transporting cakes and children and … and all I have to worry about is feeding and entertaining an unknown number of scary eight-year-old boys in my own home… how hard can it be?

Dash posing

Don’t answer that.