Summer Reading

A hand reached up from the rocky cliff dangling over the ocean. The fingernails from her right hand dug deep into the drying mud on the planted rocks. And slowly the rest of her emerged… Eliza was back… after falling off the face of the earth. She was hungry, cold and after a few weeks of recouperating was ready again to return to WrenKraft.

This summer as you seek for a vacation from the heat, or want to keep your kids brains in shape during the break or seek a rare read as you lay out getting sunburned consider “choosing your own adventure” and making a comic book.

Here’s how I did it:

Of course there is more to it than simply drawing on pieces of paper folding them in half and stapling them together. Of course you could technically do just that, have yourself a comic and stop reading this… But let me break down a few creative recommendations to help you make a true treasure.

Comic creation isn’t as hard as it seems and really the only place you can go is up. It may be the cheapest hobby (literally the cost of a few sheets of paper and the allotted loss of ink or graphite from your medium of choice). Compare this to other crafts. And if it stinks toss it (don’t really- as least first scan a copy- you may find it humorous in the future).

Content: For a first comic write about what you know. Be it something you are familiar with (an office environment, raising kids, or sweaty bandmates). This doesn’t mean you can’t write for the fantasy world but be sure it’s a subject you’ve spent enough time with. Keep your first story very simple. I’ll go ahead and stop here as my confidence in myself as a literary teacher is quite low. If you’re here for fruitful writing content advice – my advice is to get it elsewhere – this is a craft blog and English was one of my worst subjects in school.
Moving onto actual dialogue: the dialogue in many graphic novels is sparse and filled with exclamations (my first instinct was to write expletives – which maybe that too – but it’s just a shining example of my grammar skills – that and for years believing it was called an explanation point). Buy back to my point, film school 101 teaches that it’s best to write with as little (if any) dialogue as possible to get your point across. I feel that’s healthy advice for comic writing as well.

Art: This is where it’s best to embrace what you have. No need to be Stan Lee.  If you’re in that ball park terrific, but stick figures can be just as engaging if done right. The concept should go hand in hand (or in comical contrast) with your visual style. This is what will make your book entertaining. Black and white (as I did) is a safe bet and can make your book double as a coloring book. If you chose to use color consider the feel of your scenes. One idea would be to pick 1-3 colors per page (even if a different set of three colors every other page). Use cool colors (blues especially) for darker/sadder scenes and warms for happier funnier ones. I’ll stop here with the art advice – as once again this is not the purpose of my blog.

Now that you supposedly have your story and visuals in mind let’s get to creating. No matter what you plan to use as a final product I would suggest beginning on plain paper. Films begin with storyboards and storyboards are basically comics, but whose to say your “storyboards” can’t have “storyboards” of their own. This is where you decide your final definite texts and who and what will be pictured in each frame. And who knows you may just like these prep copies enough to use them as the real thing. Once you have this mapped out pick your medium and work on transferring the work. Either mentally sketching all over again, tracing onto new paper, or scanning and working digitally. This is a great project for kids. If they have the patience and drive they can jump on the full project or if they would better handle a more focused role have them pick one. Let your 4 year old come up with a story then you make it come to life or maybe let your 2nd grader do the art.

I highly recommend and basically DEMAND that you scan (300 dpi+) your finished product. You could then use the digital version to make multiple copies, wrapping paper, or let your book double as a coloring book with no loss to the original. If nothing else, you put all of this work into it, you should preserve and digitize your work. Scanning is one of my “basic needs” when it comes to projects.

And finally Here are my creative platform ideas to add to or alter the above instructions…

-don’t forget your cliffhanger leading to a potential sequel- an ingredient in any good comic story.

Novel concepts

-trace over photos or images from magazines for your basis

-use old greeting cards (cut them all to the same size and use this as your base/background you draw over

-have your pages increase and decrease in size as they go

-for a baby friendly comic consider basic images using felt.

-if you’re really ambitious consider making it a pop up book, nothing says, “Pow” or “Whamm” like 3D

-create a great personalized gift for someone by making them the lead.

-for extra durability consider laminating or utilizing my Portable Laminating Technique.

How To Do Life

I’ve been away a while… for good reason as I’ve been working on something big… growing and raising humans! (I couldn’t resist – but I have seriously been working on something big in the WrenKraft realm) Stay tuned…
But if your interested in a fun spring project consider growing a kid! All of the instructions are included in this video and for more details may I recommend Dr Spock’s handbook as he goes into a bit more  detail on the subject. It’s a bit messy and not a discount project but it has a pretty cool result. Give it a try!


Fortune Telling

I opened my cookie and read… “You will receive a fortune…
True story – and how right it was. I must say though that cookie tasted especially bitter.
Fortune papers are one thing I hate to throw out. They seem to carry some superstition with them or maybe hopefulness and I have yet to see a home on Hoarders that is overrun by fortune papers.

For these examples I chose to cover a journal (this felt very appropriate in a Fortune Teller sort of way) and a mysterious box (this box is mysterious because I never know what my kids have removed and put inside of it). You could however apply this idea to anything big or small depending on how much you like Chinese Food. Cover a table for all I care… after spending $4000 at Panda Express…
The technique is pretty simple but first begin with an optional and time consuming method of organizing the fortunes by either subject, positive/negative energy or in this case: color. I created a loose pattern of red, black and blue so they were spaced fairly evenly. I think color organization is worth it and creates a more beautiful product while content ordering seems like a waste of time but to each your own. Once you have them laid out use a glue stick to stick them on to your surface. Next and finally use my Portable Laminating Technique, a familiar phrase to my readers. And there you have an awesome personalized product for yourself or if you’re not superstitious for someone else.

A Hole in the Head

When I was a kid I thought Mt Rushmore was one of the 7 Wonders of the World (there are several unofficial lists out there & even today I am pretty sure it’s in one of them). Only thing was that I thought it was one of the seven NATURAL wonders (not modern wonders). I remember being so amazed and thinking, “why aren’t we talking about this more… it’s beyond amazing… I mean, those four guys HAD to be president – right?!

Mt Rushmore was not the first “Stand-In” I made but it’s probably my favorite. It was crafted along with The Statue of Liberty for my son Roosevelt’s birthday. Liberty was his favorite- ever since his Halloween costume he’s been obsessed. The obsession will not end until he sees her in person.
Around bedtime on the day I revealed it to him he pulled me aside and whispered “a secret” into my ear, “I love the Statue of ‘Liver-ty’ you made for me so so much! I am so very happy… I love you!” This is one of the favorite moments of my time here on earth… Anyway, where was I?

I should mention – this was actually not the first birthday party for a brown eyed, bowl-cut, tan-haired, son of mine that I made Stand-Ins for. Django had a circus theme a few years back. You can see how much fun we had with them. They were pretty easy and really fun to make.

Here’s how I did it:

First I got a very large box with an unprinted and uncut side large enough for a decent cutout. If need be you can always go to a place like Sears or Lowes and ask for a refrigerator or dryer box. Cut out a rectangle as big as possible.

Next, sketch your design with a pencil. This may take a few tries to get the proportions decent for something so big but don’t worry about mistakes and extra lines everything will be painted over. Once it looks good trace the outlines with sharpie.

Then color it in with craft paint like a coloring book.

I could have filled the whole space on most of these but liked the cardboard color as a background. It fit well with the circus theme. Django painted the sky, trees and snow on Mt Rushmore. Finally I used a box cutter to cut the head shape. Some worked better than others. While I liked the idea of adding features such as the mustache and the clown nose they didn’t fit the human head too well. And even if it fit one person, you are going to have little and big heads so the simpler and smaller the cutout the better.

For Mt Rushmore I took it a step further… trying to offer a variety of combinations and also thinking it would be a difficult request to always have four people available for a photo. So I painted the full mountain, faces and all then carefully with a boxcutter sawed the faces out. They pop in and out like a puzzle so you can do any combination really.

Mapping Paper

Somewhere between South Carolina and Wisconsin lay all my family photos, video edits, scripts and entire music library…whether your drab furniture is in need of a makeover or you’re a warlord and you need a new “attack planning table” this is for you!

I had maps sitting around that were ripped but I hated to throw them out and I had a desktop that kept chipping paint and was in need of a covering…. hence the mother of invention… that’s me! This is only the beginning when it comes to “exploring” all of the possibilities with map crafting though. I will get into other examples a bit later…

Here’s how I did it:
First of all you need to measure your map and see if it fits. If it’s too large simply cut it (be careful what you cut off though). Keep the content spaced as you would like it. If possible keep land masses intact. If it’s too small simply center the map and paint the edges of your desktop the same color as the map edges.
Next get a glue stick and hopefully a fairly powerful one. You can use regular squeeze glue but will need to be careful to even out any bumps and from experience your arms can get quite tired doing this. Set your map on your desktop as you would like it to be place and hold it there with some heavy objects or masking tape. Then start with the farthest edge of your desk lift the map just in that spot and begin to spread about 3 inches of glue stick. Firmly press the map down over the glue and move onto the next 3 inches to cover in glue and so forth until you are finished. If you have a roller (even a cooking roller) run it over the map one more time to flatten any bubbles.
Now get some packing tape and using my Portable Laminating Technique cover the entire map and any edges you may have painted. For this project symmetry of tape pieces is the key to a nice looking work. You can use the latitude and longitude markings on your map for guidance to help keep these tape strips evenly spaced.
For the edge you will want to fold the tape all the way over and under your desktop for the right finish. And there you have it!

As I mentioned, you can use this same technique one many other projects. Here I converted my purchase box for my laptop into an explorer’s briefcase. Basically any flat surface works great for this concept.
Have fun and try not to take over the world!


The Science of Paper Dolls

Those of you who know me outside of this blog may be familiar with my music and those who know further may be familiar with the paper dolls I make for my albums. While these may seem cute and cuddly they are a furious mess to make, but in some weird way totally worth it!
The funniest thing about them is the REAL reason I wanted to make them… I was tired of trying on several different articles of clothing to decide on an outfit and wanted an easier way…easier…ha! Only thing was that it took me so long to get around to figuring out and finishing these little stinkers that by then the clothes either didn’t fit anymore or went out of style…but now they are immortalized in a carefree one dimensional world of a perfect fit and limitless fashion possibilities unreachable in the human realm.

I later ended up making a set for my entire band as seen here.

How I did it:
Trust me I’m saving you a lot of pain and suffering here. It took me several sets of photo sessions and dolls to figure out the best aesthetics and efficiencies.

You begin with a photo shoot:
Get some masking tape and mark exactly where your feet will stand. Set the camera up on a tripod and be sure it’s in focus and ready to go. Pick a comfortable pose that you can execute as precisely as possible. Don’t freak out about every millimeter but know that the better you do, the less work you will need to do in Photoshop.
Select your base outfit, assuming you don’t want to be naked that is. If you’re comfortable try a swimsuit or old fashioned underwear. If you’re not as comfortable get creative like a set of red long johns. (I used them in this set because: 1. He did the shoot in a t-shirt and shorts so I had to improvise. 2. I was trying to think of period undergarments to match the theme of the set – but whatever your reasons… Just know that  whatever is in your “undergarment” photo will have to reside under every article of clothing you chose to offer your paper doll to wear. In this case “less” is easier to work with.

Pick all of the articles of clothing and accessories that you would like to be included in the dolls and lay them out. Keep in mind that any wearables that are touching each other will be connected in the final piece. If your t-shirt hangs over your jeans a bit then they will be a combo. However, if your top doesn’t quite meet your pants then they can be cut into separate articles. Also, try to double up items and consolidate your shapshots as it’s a real time saver. So if you are wearing shorts and a tank go ahead and put on those snow-boots, sombrero and mittens along with it. As long as they are not touching each other they will be cut out as separate articles. This makes for some hilarious “behind the scenes” pics too.
Once you have your clothing set out and your pose, take a mental note of where your fingers are, how your head is tilted, etc. then snap your first picture. Next go run and change into your first article(s) of clothing and come back into your pose, snap your pic and run and change into your second and so on until you are done. This is the fun part.

Editing the product:
(insert instant Photoshop knowledge into brain of crafter) The easiest way to get a great product is through a photo editing program and here are the steps:
-trace/select every item of clothing
-test the fit on the base (underclothed) model
-make adjustments to fit
-move separated items to new page and arrange spaciously
-create small white rectangles (surrounded by dotted lines for added awesome)
-add rectangles to the sides of each article where it will need added support.
-depending on the quality of your photos consider color adjustments or even adding a cartoon filter to the whole lot of them.
-add a background and decoration if desired
-save as a pdf – HORRAY!
Hardcopy Only:
If you don’t have photo editing software and your model held true to their pose throughout the session then technically you could print out all of the photos and cut out each article individually. Next cut out small rectangles and glue them onto the back edges where support is needed.

New Years Image Resolutions

Making resolutions for the New Year can be disappointing and stressful… especially when you don’t have a macro camera lens…
Whether you know what that is or not you are probably familiar with this wicked guessing game: Look at the close up image and try to guess what the object is.

I did the best I could with what technology I had and have a few suggestions for you on how to achieve this feat. More importantly, check out these variations of the game you can play with (or on) your friends and family.

Achieving the close-up effect:
Best: If you own a macro lens snap it on your camera and have at it!
Good: Hold a magnifying glass over your lens. This is what I did and why a few of my images are lovingly vignetted. The above in an image of the lens I used and how I used it.

OK: Take two photographs: one as close-up as possible while staying in focus then zoom in as much as you can without compromising your pixel ratio. Then take a 2nd photo of the entire object (with the same lighting and angle) attempting to look as if it is the same image at full resolution.

Here are the game variations… Enjoy!

Gift Giving Guessing Game:
When giving a gift prompt the receiver to guess what’s inside by including an impossibly close shot of the contents.

Pressured Looker:
Prompt cleaner habits by taking a photo of a disgusting object or corner in your kid’s or roommate’s room. Maybe they would think twice before sleeping in such a pigsty.

Nesting Smalls:
Similar to the “Gift Giving Guessing Game” consider layering objects inside of each other. Include a puzzle image for each coming container in your procession.

Prenatal Pixels:
Make the big announcement with your child’s first extreme close-up! May I suggest using your already illegible ultrasound image?

It’s Not You It’s Me…Literally:
Get up close and personal with yourself and find something gross (maybe a mole or your dirty socks). Snap a detailed pic, fungus and all, and share it with that soon not-so-special someone as a catalyst for a painless break-up.

Tiny House:
If you happen to have a dollhouse full of miniatures consider photographing these seemingly normal objects only to reveal they are actually quite small.

Group Photo:
Snap some shots of items that fit within a group or category. First your guesser can take a stab at the theme, then at each individual photo.

Just Eat It:
Promote healthy eating habits in yourself or perhaps your child by snapping some extreme close ups of foods. Be sure to make the junk food look as unflattering as possible and the healthy snack beautiful. (And do a better job than I did on this one…the effect on this example was admittedly a fail on my part)

Consider playing the game backwards and simply taking photos to learn about your subject. Or even better, try guessing the close-up from a far away shot instead.

Trick or Petite:
Go ahead and amp up the confusion with seemingly guessable starting images that instead lead to weird of off objects you may have.

Minuscule Masterpiece:
Create patterns, line up objects or create art on a small scale with images aesthetically pleasing enough on their own in both their near and far shots.

It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad Christmas!

Twas just nights before Christmas and all through my mind not an idea was stirring, the circuits were fried…  The nouns were verb by the noun… adjective adjective noun adverb verb…

I must be going Mad.. Lib… that’s what happens when I’m confined to my house for an extended amount of time as my boys and I have been lately. Being cooped up inside is underrated though I must say. For cooped-up-ness is the mother of DIY games.

The famous fill-in-the-blank party game is understandably one of the easiest to recreate. You don’t need to be a writer. Your core text can be anything from lyrics to historical speeches, to textbooks or super boring assembly instructions or on a more personal note: try your journal, or really freak someone out (and consequently never speak to them again) and use theirs.

How To – Physically: If the document is digital all you need is your copy, paste, delete and typing skills. Fill it out on your phone as you go. If your original is a hard copy you could either 1. Scan it in as is and in Photoshop or a similar program erase the choice words and type in a blank with a ( ) containing the type of word you are seeking. 2. Cut out little blank rectangles from the sticky portion of Post It Notes and finely write your word category on the bottom of each piece. These shouldn’t  damage your paper (unless you took me literally when I mentioned historical documents and you have an original copy of the Declaration of Independence) and can be removed later to reveal the original words used.

How To – Mentally: Here are some guidelines to building a proper game base:

  • Match the form of word to the original (noun to noun, verb to verb)
  • Take advantage of times when you can be more specific. If there is a person mentioned in the original document use “person” as opposed to just noun.
  • If you are working with a rhyming work ask that they rhyme with whatever the word they need to rhyme with. This shouldn’t spoil it. If you want to mask a bit reference a word that rhymes with that word instead.
  • Think of all of the subjects you would find in a Mad Libs game: numbers, adverbs, exclamations…

You could stop right here unless you like reading other people’s Mad Libs. Here is one that my boys filled out. The words they chose are highlighted in green. I used the guidelines listed above but have a few things I should mention – this may be applicable when working with any kids of this age. Kids may give multiple words when one is expected. For example, instead of “a part of the body” being the “brain” they may say “talking brain”. Also, the younger one didn’t always get the concept of a rhyme. Furthermore, some of their nouns are people or places located here in Austin that you may not be familiar with. Finally, the grammatical accuracy of say a “verb” may be compromised. But I find these imperfections charming and in some ways reaching beyond the corners of the trained adult brain: Enjoy & Merry Christmas!

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through H.E.B.
Not an iPod was stirring, not even a Baby.
The Monster Trucks were hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that Octonauts soon would be there.

The children were nestled all snug in their UFOs
While visions of The Letter J danced in their Stomachs
And Rody in his Tutu and I in my Onesie
Had just settled our Skin for a long winter’s nap.

When out on the lawn there arose such a Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I Skipped like a Puzzle Piece,
Tore open the Earth and threw up the Pizza.

The Owl on the breast of the Rotton, Smelly snow
Gave the lustre of Aliens to Cups below.
When, what to my Missing eyes should appear,
But a miniature Diaper and Half a tiny reindeer.

With a Happy Sad driver, so Pokey and Warm
I knew in a moment it must be John French!
More Yellow than Marshmallows his coursers they came,

And he Jumping Jacked and Used the Potty and called them by name!

“Now Gogo now Roosevelt now Peppa Pig and PeeWee
On, Dinosaur On Miles on, My Friend Ghosts and Me

To the top of the Amp to the top of the Snowman!

As Pinwheels that before the Painted hurricanes fly,
When they meet with an Elephant mount to the sky.
So up to the Toy Joy the Fargo they flew,
With the Bike full of Heads and Mickey Mouse too.

And then, in a Decade I heard on the roof
The Hiccuping and Doing Homework of each little Phone Booth
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the Kitchen the Trash Man came with a Clown.

He was dressed all in Legos from his Bum Bum to his Talking Brain,
And his clothes were all tarnished with Corn People and Candy Canes.
A bundle of Safe Computers he had flung on his back,

And he looked like The Letter S just opening his pack.

His Fingers how they Played with Legos his Blood how Shiny
His Eyelashes was like Popcorn his Skeleton like Macaroni.
His Hilarious little mouth was drawn up like a Cupcake
And the beard of his chin was as See-Through as the Sea Snake.

The Wheel of a pipe he held Sleepily in his teeth,
And the Spoon it Changed its Diaper like a wreath.
He had an Outer Space face and a Electronic belly,
That shook when he Did Math like an Ice Cream Sandwhich!

He was Copper and Complicated a right jolly old elf,
And I Caroled when I saw him, in spite of myself!

A wink of his Tooth and a twist of his Hair
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to Watch TV.

He Karate Chopped not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the Boring News then turned with a jerk.

And laying his Shoulder aside of his Liver
And giving a Sit up the Kitty he rose!

He sprang to his Baby Bjorn to his team gave a Aw Man!
And away they all Crawled like the Thanksgiving Day Parade.

But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he Tap Danced out of sight,
Gingerbread Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!”

Seasons Greeting Cards

“Everything is Awesome” when it’s Christmastime in our home: perfectly posed, behaved and smiling ; ) For those of you who know my children you understand the importance of Legos and those of you know me understand how meaningful Fried Chicken is. This is our Christmas Card for the year. If you still need to make yours here are some utterly rough images to give you some utterly smooth ideas.

Also: For My Subscribers: Get Your Free Gift HERE!

Draw on Existing Christmas Cards:

If you are mailing out physical cards get ready for twice the amount of work (but at the same time twice the awesomeness). Although I originally envisioned doing this with cards you received for past Christmases to keep it more spontaneous as opposed to purposefully buying cards with a concept in mind. If you do then use just the covers and they would have to be digital this time around, obviously. The person who should get the most out of this, whether they are flattered or offended, would be the original giver.

Whose Line Is It Anyway:

Take lines from Christmas carols or poems and match them with photos: If you are creating a physical card to send may I recommend having the picture on the cover and the text on the inside like a store bought card.

Santa Baby:

Ever since Babies-R-Us decided to start making kid Santa suits this concept was begging to be done. What if you were bigger than Santa and crushed him? I found it difficult though to accomplish some “baby-sitting” that looked realistic enough. I can assure you that no babies were harmed in the making of this card. Not the best or most patient models but hopefully you get the idea …also, Django is showing off his hair-cutting “skills”.

Recreate Famous Movie Images:

I don’t want to say anything about these, just hope you can guess… remember they are not perfect… I really wanted to do Ernest Saves Christmas but didn’t have a khaki hat…

List failures:

This time of year is about making others feel good and warm. What makes people feel better than hearing other people’s failures. Now, as a HUGE disclaimer I mean this in the lightest of ways. Don’t go confessing your sins, turning yourself in for murder, or spiral into a Debbie Downer dungeon of despair. Instead take a look at the gloating, exaggerated letter you were going to write featuring your Pulitzer Prize Winning, String-Theory-Proving, Olympian, Jedi children (unless those are all true in which case forget everything I just said and write whatever you want) and consider writing about something different. Consider the qualities that make humans charming and not “super”.  Oh I do hope this doesn’t come across wrong…should I have stuck to the visual ideas? I mean to point out the entertaining factor of reading about ice blocking down a hill and crashing into the Governor, falling asleep and spending the night in a movie theater and answering your old Craigslist ad (just a few of my personal goofs) as opposed to a more typical letter. I could put my description of this concept in my own list of failures – right? I’d better move on…


Computer Photobooth:

This is a great extreme last minute, little effort idea. The best thing about it is that opposed to those stagnant, posing, itchy sweater shoots it’s actually really fun. The only problem is getting everyone to take the fun down a notch or several notches.

Make a Caroling Video:

Or if your timeline is the opposite of “last minute” and you have no holiday preparations or stresses and you have hours or days to kill try making a music video like one of these! I should inform you (since it’s completely undetectable) that these were not done as family Christmas cards but more as I was learning the necessary ropes of music video making for my band. If I were to find myself in a heap of time I would love to kraft a family MTV masterpiece… one day. A way though to apply this to a simple card would be setting up your camera on a tripod, hitting record and having your family sing a Christmas carol. If you’re gonna avoid the physical mailing of a card (as I always do anyway) it’s best to have a technical reason why too.

As I mentioned a few of these were roughly photographed… so go do it better (and post yours in the comments)! Whether physical or digital, sweet or savory don’t go idealess this year!


The 12 Hacks of Christmas

*note: this photo is not of a hack but just serves as a reminder of who you are taking decorating and celebration advice from.

On the first day of  Christmas my true love said to me… 12 days is way to much work can we just do it all on the last day?! And right then and there the first Christmas hack was born!

I make absolutely no guarantees to the historical accuracy of the above statement. But I can make suggestions for hacks of Christmases Yet-to-Come! These are ideas I personally use and they were born out of moments of creative necessity. Enjoy responsibly!

1. Alternative Tree Skirt:
How could something be so obvious and so unconventional at the same time. What better item to make a tree skirt out of than an actual skirt! I remember one Christmas when I was pregnant and couldn’t wear any of my clothes I got the idea. I pulled out one of my gothic lacy skirts and it worked beautifully. This was in part because it had a circle-skirt cut but was also so decorative. Now I use an old favorite plaid skirt of mine that is too short for me now. Since this is a pleated skirt (as opposed to a circle cut) I need to cut the skirt – meaning I can never wear it again. But what a better life for it – much better than a garage sale! I just cut straight down, all the way through where the zipper is (feel free to even pull out and save the zipper). Then it lays out perfectly.

2. Watch Past Christmases:
I remember my sister complaining that we kept taking videos and photos during the holidays but never went back and watched them. That’s why we did it in the first place – right? I like to pull up home movies for family viewing during their matching occasion. This can be a chore to get pre-iPhone dated files organized and accessible but once you do this it’s awesome. This is fairly effortless for anything  since the digital age. You can automatically upload them all to YouTube as a private file and access them from your Smart TV. Or just pull out your old VCR. Either way, this is what (and when) those dusty videos have been waiting for!

3. Advent Calendar Nativity:
I like this idea since it’s reusable, tells a story and sticks to the basics of Christmas 101. Our nativity happens to be the Fisher Price Little People edition. This is very much in part because it is indestructible. It’s cute, fun and matches other toys we have, but almost any nativity will do. You need to separate your scene into 24 pieces. In my case there were exactly 24 figures so this was easy. But if you have more than 24 figures consider adding a group (such as all of the shepards or livestock) in one day. If you have too few pieces have your figures take a journey – the Kings didn’t make it there in a day you know.

4. Newspaper and Paint:
Historically newspaper and packing paper were the original holiday wrapping choice so this wasn’t too much of a stretch. And even though the organic colors of packing paper and the news can give your tree a swell modern look (assuming you don’t have a neon green tree) adding a little bit of paint makes it oh so festive and fun.  Simply look at the pictures above I took from several Christmases ago. The plain news looks pretty drab. I had a lot of fun… oops, I mean Santa had a lot of fun… painting stripes and funnies on the paper. You can even mix the receiver’s name into the art.

5. Let Kids Make Presents as they Want:
I think teaching kids about giving on Christmas is important and in the past I’ve just bought gifts for them to give each other. This can feel a bit fabricated. Just like the loving pet cat that leaves you a mouse – they want to give others what is important to them and that is often things they make. Making a kid craft gift is nice too but can also end up being more about a preconceived design and adult intervention and less about something they create 100%. My boys love to make gifts out of legos, toys or household objects. For Christmas they wanted to wrap them up. At first I had the thought, of ‘no’ that’s not what they are intended for… you may need that piece later… we should keep these things together and in their place. But this year both of them created Lego art for me. I accidentally found Django’s unwrapped in my stocking and Roosevelt’s wrapped under the tree (both pictured above). They were both so proud of this and I believe this is what kids giving on Christmas is about. Even if you have to take it apart to use the pieces afterword.

6. Decorate a Wreath Naturally:
Though I have been guilty of this a few times, I normally find it strange when people buy found objects at a craft store. For example, I can understand if you have never been to a beach and want some shells but if you have ever (and I mean ever) been then it should be pretty easy to have a lifetime’s worth of shells. My sons keep every nature item they found over the years in a big box. Django wanted to decorate his own wreath. There are so many suggestions of how to do this online but most of them suggest buying items from a store to attach. And these items are not as sentimental as something you already have in your home, like my son’s nature collection. He designed this wreath completely on his own.

7. Don’t Give Sweets:
I’m not being strict here and saying all sugar is evil. But when the holidays come around we find ourselves wanting sweets so we buy them. But an array of gifted sweets inevitably makes it to our house for Christmas regardless. Then we are overwhelmed. Even in stockings… at first I thought that was what belonged in stockings but it only added to the Big Rock Candy Mountain we had to climb in the next few months. The only plus side is it helped us not want treats for an extended amount of time afterword. But is that really a plus side? For alternative stocking stuffer munchies consider fruit or divvying up one of those multi mini cereal boxes or chip bag packs (just as unhealthy as candy – I know).

8. Kids Tree Toy Ornaments: Growing up we always had a little tree in our room. I feel like this is probably a common thing in the classic American childhood but I guess I’ve never had a conversation with another person about this to see if anyone else has this tradition. So if I’m the only kid (besides my siblings of course) with this memory maybe the idea of a small personal kids tree could be a hack in and of itself. Otherwise- ignore all of that and here we go… what better thing to use as ornaments for a kid’s tree than that kid’s favorite toys? You could mix and match – but sticking to a theme can be more pleasing. To turn toys into ornaments simply tie some string around the waist of an action figure, wedge the toy on the branches or snap thread between a couple of bricks.

9. Go Tree Dumpster Diving:
As a kid I remember taking home the branches the Home Depot guy sawed off of our newly bought Christmas tree. We would place them here and there around the house as a natural air freshener and easy decor. But I was not aware until recently that entire trees get thrown out too! This is similar to the ugly fruit never making it to the produce shelves at your local grocery store. Ugly trees are bad for business (and note – the tree in my childhood photo at the opening of this post was a bought tree! I guess things get fancier over the years). Be it holes of missing limbs, or being too lopsided or simply having a previous buyer change their mind after it was cut. Now many of these trees (or partial trees) are probably not what you would pick for your main Christmas tree but whose to say you can’t have some fun kid trees, a backyard forest or natural air fresheners. The closer to Christmas the more stores give up and the better the selection. My kids were thrilled when I brought home a van load of Charlie Brown worthy pines on Christmas Eve last year. I wish I had better and more normal photos… but then again I wasn’t planning on having a blog and needing a proper photo. Ignore the odd, posing Santa in the first photo.

10. Make no Plans:
Similar to the “Don’t Give Sweets” suggestion, making no plans is a way to attempt to simplify and end of with the right balance. Partly because this is basically impossible. Plans will come and they will knock at your door, climb through the window or inevitably drop down your chimney, so they have no need to be made. If you’re deciding wether or not to plan to go to an event, plan not to. This doesn’t mean that you can’t, but only do things on the fly – when you are feeling, rested, energized and strong. And you never know when this will be this time of year. Have no fear of boredom for either you or your children as it will never come. There is something sweet about have a free family moment and just taking a walk or doing nothing.

11. The Limited Color Palette:
There’s a common film production design method of using only 2-3 colors in a scene. This can make a big impact and help you focus… on whatever you need to in the story. This idea is also affective in interior design. You see it all over those brochures available by the paint chips at hardware stores. But this can have a beautiful and simple impact in holiday decorating. Don’t get me wrong, if done right you can use 30 different colors, but for a fairly fool-proof win try limiting your decor colors to no more than three. Of course this does not include the green of a tree or the snow on the ground etc.

12. Neighborhood Lights:
If you live in a city or town or just not in the middle of nowhere you most likely have access to holiday lighting events. While these can be awesome and sentimental they can also be a pain. For example, here in Austin we have a “Trail of Lights” you can walk through. This has been around since I was born and I have fond childhood memories of walking, driving or even riding the park train through it. Slowly Austin’s population has suddenly exploded… ha ha. And now you have to park miles away, pay and wait in tram lines, ride school buses converted into public trams to the entrance, reserve time frames and battle unruly crowds. Yet the sentimental tiny angel on my shoulder made me feel obligated every year. Until finally I realized I could just… not… go… and a weight was lifted off of my shoulders (approximately the weight of a tiny angel). But how could I keep the spirit of Christmas Lighting going in my family? Turns out there are some real finds when it comes to residential lighting. It’s even worth a bit of a drive; just pop in some carols and bring your blanket for a holiday car ride. In our case though we just happen to live right next door to one of the most lit-up houses in all of Austin! So if you happen to be their other neighbor, enjoy your own private ‘Trail of Lights’ every night, free parking, go in your Pjs…