To Mabel, who is nine tomorrow

You are my dragon girl. You are fierce; you breathe fire.

You see injustices that others gloss over, you speak up for equality. You demand equal rights for mythical creatures and humans alike.

You create. You make worlds and homes, families and cities. You write declarations, you draw scenes, you set up tableaux, you assign everyone to their clan. You have notebooks filled with the work of your busy pencil, always multitasking while I read your bedtime story.

You are funny; funnier, perhaps than the deep, wise dragons of old who hid their dry humour far inside and scorned the silly. At their peril. You find kindred spirits in those who get the joke, who see the tiny curve of your mouth and know you’re waiting to see what they say, that this was a test. Those who pass are honoured.

You do not always sheathe your talons. But you can be caught unawares in moments of tenderness, looking out for small children, loving the stupid fluffy cats, snuggling up.

You are strong and skillful and brave. You walk the high wire, you ride on one wheel, you keep trying. You work hard for what you want, ignoring bruised shins and bumped elbows until you have mastery.

You speak in tongues: dog, Russian, nonsense, hieroglyphics. You are a linguist. You want to learn more words, more ways to say it. You obfuscate. You calculate. You want more, bigger, harder math. You burn with the desire to know more.

You know your mind, and you know who you are. It’s hard being you sometimes, but nobody else is so much, so magnificent.

You are my dragon girl: hard to decipher, challenging to guide, a delight to be in league with, an honour to love.

Happy birthday.


Express summer update

It’s not that I don’t love you, it’s just that I keep starting posts and then something in our ever shifting summer dynamic shifts again and I can’t finish them.

So herewith, some bullet points, with photos of times we went outside:

  • I have a new phone, so that small children will no longer remark on how tiny my phone is. It was getting embarassing. My new phone is still an old phone, (Samsung 6s) but it has a good camera and it’s a lot smarter than my old one. There will be Instagram. (But not Snapchat because who do you think I am.)

    Girl on bike, boy on scooter, on path between grass under trees
    A trip to the park! On wheels!
  • What you know by the time you turn 44 is that if you want a nice birthday you are responsible, at least somewhat, for making it nice yourself. So I bribed the children and took them to the beach, which was slightly easier than it had been the week before, so I think they actually like it. I told the husband what I really wanted (the new phone), so I got it. I booked the babysitter for tonight so we can go out to dinner.

    Boy and girl on swings in playground
    A protracted discussion on the swings
  • The summer break began with nothing but screens and fighting, but we are all shaking down into a routine of sorts, where the children are constantly watching something and demanding food, and I spend a while working, a while trying to persuade one or both of them to leave the house with me, and a while wondering why I’m doing all this laundry.

    Boy with giant homemade bow and arrow.
    For about two days Dash was obsessed with making bows and arrows.
  • So far, Mabel is learning Spanish on Duolingo, I’m brushing up on my Italian, we’ve started rewatching the Great British Bakeoff, and Dash has discovered that he does like Minecraft when it’s in survival mode and you can blow things up with lots of TNT. We’ve also moved all the furniture around in Mabel’s bedroom and baked a few things.

    Boy and girl wading at the beach
    Cooperation at the beach
  • The pace is slower, and we’re learning not to freak out about it. We’ve gone to two different beaches. We’ve gone to the pool, but not a lot. We’ve baked fancy biscuits. Some of us have done some reading. Next week Mabel starts camp and everything changes again. We’ll work it out.

    Sandwich biscuits on a blue plate
    Viennese Whirls (not quite up to Mary Berry’s standards but they tasted excellent)
  • The cats continue to cat. They’re very good at it. I feel like I’ve really accomplished something since my last birthday, because now we have cats.

    One cat.
    Exhibit A. Or B.

Some birthdays are better than others

I don’t know whether I’ve documented every one of Dash’s birthday parties here, but I know I’ve done a lot of them. Last year, the big One-Oh, seemed like the culmination. Dash had been planning it since before he turned nine, all the kids I thought wouldn’t be able to come showed up, and it was a giant, crazy, over-the-top ball of mayhem.

“No more!” we said, spent, forgetting that Dash would continue to have birthdays every year. This April rolled around and we realised that we would not get out of hosting some sort of party, because he is the polar opposite of his sister who really only wants a trip to Build-a-Bear with one or two friends. I tried to convince him to do a destination event – the really cool climbing wall place, perhaps, that he’s wanted to go back to for ages – but no. It had to be a party at home.
“I’ve always had a party at home, except that one year when we went to Pump It Up and I didn’t like that. It has to be at home.” He was not for turning.
“But Daddy and I are exhausted. We can’t come up with more party games. Your friends don’t want to play lame party games made up by you and your parents. It’s chaos. It’s anarchy. And it’ll probably rain. We can’t do it,” we said. Impasse.

Then, salvation arrived in the shape someone who mentioned that they’d had a laser-tag birthday party at their house. A guy had come along with a van full of laser guns, showed the kids how to use them, and then run the games for two hours. All I’d have to do was feed ’em. (I can do that. Though I always underestimate how much other people’s boys can eat.)

I was sold. I got the contact details and booked it. We capped the invitees at a smaller number than last year. Everyone was happy. I forgot to obsessively monitor the weather forecast because I was busy being busy with other things, and we just threw a party two weeks ago (for B’s birthday). Suddenly, the day before the day was upon us, and I had to plan the party food, shop for the party food, make the party food, clean the house (a very little bit), and make sure the sun was going to shine.

The weather forecast was not good. In fact, there was a 65 to 85% chance of rain during the time of the party. Dash and I went to the supermarket on Friday after dinner and bought everything we could possibly need – except butter and chocolate chips, which I had to send B out for as soon as we got back – and I made the cake.

On the morning of the party my luck was in and Mabel’s soccer game was cancelled because of all the rain on Friday. Dash went to baseball practice and I sandwiched the three layers of chocolate cake (as requested) together with lovely chocolate buttercream, and dredged some icing sugar on top. As, I thought, requested. Then Dash got home (practice cut short due to rain) and announced that it was meant to be vanilla icing, and it was supposed to be on top as well. It was ruined. I was the worst party mom ever, he said sadly. I always get something wrong, he told me, neglecting to remember all the things I got right that he didn’t even notice. I felt somewhat under-appreciated, though it was true that he’d said vanilla and I’d forgotten.

Three-layer chocolate cake with chocolate icing in between
Cake: first incarnation

We both retreated for a little while to lick our wounds, and then I suggested we could make some vanilla icing and put it on the top, since the icing sugar that was there already wouldn’t hinder that. He agreed it would be better than nothing. (I thought it would be just that bit more cloying, but it wasn’t my cake.) He helped, and did all the spreading. (Exhibit B, below.) Then he helped make lemon scones too, since there was still plenty of time. He’s a man of tradition, and if a party doesn’t have chocolate cornflake buns and lemon scones and pigs in blankets, it’s not a party. (Actually, he just likes plain blankets, with no pigs.)

Triple-layer cake with white icing on top and some smeared messily down the sides
Cake: second incarnation. I didn’t know he was planning to put the vanilla on the sides as well, but then he did, and here we are.

The rain had been coming and going all morning, but mostly coming. I thought it might let up in time for the party. The guests were a little late and the laser-tag guy was late too, because the Beltway was chockablock of people driving to or from or to avoid the March for Science in DC. It didn’t matter. He got them all fitted out with their guns and they ran around playing various games of team-based laser tag for an hour and a half, mostly in the pouring rain. I looked out the window and was mildly concerned, hoped their mothers wouldn’t hold the weather against me, and went to find a pile of towels.

Four boys with laser tag guns in front of houses
Trying out the guns. Once they started playing there was a lot more running and hiding. Also more rain.

Eventually they all came in, shedding muddy shoes and towelling off their wet hair at the door, and descended on the table like the proverbial locusts. Dash got to light his candles – at least the first few – and blew them out in one go. Parents arrived and removed their damp progeny, leaving behind nothing but tumbleweeds of tossed-aside wrapping paper, the tracks of wet socks, and tortilla-chip crumbs on the floor, and everyone said they’d had a good time.

Dash blowing out his candles
Eleven candles.

I would have liked some wine at that point, but first I had to take Dash down to the urgent care, because he’d managed to bump his chin off the laser-tag gun right at the start and give himself an oddly deep cut. It needed three stitches, which was a first for both of us, but there was no wait and the tetanus shot was much better than he was anticipating. The doctor asked me about my brogue, which is never a good word to use to a suburban Dubliner, but she didn’t know any better. I distracted us all with stories of Dash’s birth in Texas eleven years ago tomorrow, and if he does have a scar it’ll be a handsome one that makes him look like Kirk Douglas (if you like that sort of thing; my mother would frown and say “Oh, he was never my cup of tea”).

The doctor said he can’t do gym or sports and has to stay away from situations where balls might fly at his face (yes, she actually said that, but I didn’t point out that she was quoting Clueless). He’s very miffed that he’ll miss baseball all week, including his team’s first two games – but on the bright side, all the rain also caused them to postpone today’s season opening day ceremonies, and the big game between the winning and runner-up teams from last year, until next week, so he’ll be able to play in that.

I got my wine when I got home, but it wasn’t very nice and it gave me a headache this morning anyway. Tomorrow he turns eleven. It wasn’t the best birthday celebration day ever, probably; but the big day is still to come. There’s a giant Nerf gun and some Lego Technic waiting for him, which I think he’ll like even if it isn’t a Playstation. We’re not the greatest birthday parents, but we try, every year.

Just another day

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.


Wildflowers in yellow, blue, and some red

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.

Mabel sitting on a rock looking at the water


In conclusion, it being my birthday doesn’t stop it from being a perfectly ordinary day. It never really does.

Children on a wooded trail

We went for the walk. It was lovely. I bribed them with ice cream.

Mabel with her ice cream

That was lovely too.

Dash enjoying a cone

Deconstructed Quidditch for a Harry Potter Party

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.

Deconstructed Quidditch

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 in Harry Potter costume
Old photo, but the Harriest I have.

Making impressive Harry Potter wands out of paper

Six finished "Harry Potter"-style wands in a variety of sizes and natural wood colours
Are these not mighty impressive? Made by me, out of paper, glue, and paint. You can do it too.

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:

  • copy paper (as many sheets as you want wands, and a few over for messing up)
  • double-sided sticky tape (you could use a glue stick, but the tape really does make it easier)
  • a few different colours of thread, foil, or maybe a tiny feather for the inside (nobody sees this, but you know it’s there; makes all the difference)
  • paper glue, like Elmer’s (liquid is better than a glue stick here because you need some smushability)
  • kitchen paper or tissues for stuffing the wand to make it more rigid
  • a glue gun (fun!)
  • spray paint, any colour, but brown is ideal
  • acrylic paint (or any non-water-soluble paint – apparently it’s emulsion in the UK/Ireland) in a couple of shades of brown and a black
  • metallic markers or paint for the finishing touches

    Three acrylic paint pots, a small clear spray paint, Elmer's glue, and double-sided sticky tape.
    Most, though not all, of my supplies.

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.

Page with sticky tape diagonally across it and red thread on the tape
Dragon heartstring this time

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.

Two-thirds rolled with glue on the rest of the paper
Be careful at this stage to keep rolling tightly

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.

Rolled paper wands
See how they’re all different?

[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.

Rolled kitchen paper inserted in the end of a wand
Stuffing with small pieces of rolled kitchen paper

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.

Hot-glue pattern on the paper wand
Glue close-up
Wand with glue resting on a ceramic shape to dry
Mabel’s abstract ceramic masterpiece comes into its own as a glue-drying rest

[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.

Three silver wands
Primed with spray-paint (and a bunny, for interest)

[Take a break here too. See why it’s best to do it over a couple of days?]

Three paint pots from above, showing the labels: metallic coal, satin camel, and satin chocolate
Two browns and a black

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.)

Wands drying on newspaper
Painted wands drying

[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.

Wands drying on newspaper
The five on the left are pre-black-wash; the six on the right are post. You can see the difference, right?
Close-up of wands
Close-up of the black-wash

[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.

Bic metallic markers in gold, bronze, and silver
Fun markers

Finally, astound your friends, amaze your enemies, and cast spells with aplomb. Stupefy!

Finished wands close up.
Detail of wands