Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Pug Love: A Birthday and Books for Koko, My Faithful Fuzzy Friend

Koko Acrylic Painting by Sara Baicker-McKee

I was never a dog person.

Except for a neurotic collie that my parents gave away when we moved from California to Virginia when I was a year old, my family always had cats, not dogs. Thanks to Diddle, Mittens, Lucy, and Jelly Bean, to this day, I am sucker for purring, sandpaper tongues, and the way a cat rubs against your legs. (Okay, this is completely off topic, but that reminded me. Let's say you're working on an illustration and you need a photo reference of a "kitten rubbing against someone's leg" - let me give you a tip. Do NOT do an internet search for that phrase. The images that come up do not bear much resemblance to young felines.)

Anyway, I always figured I'd have a cat someday, but when my oldest son turned out to be allergic, we opted instead for a series of little caged critters: mice, a hamster, a guinea pig, a chinchilla, a whole mess of roly poly bugs.
Mini-beaded Koko. By Sara, age 10 or so.

Life was good, right? Only not for my youngest, my daughter Sara. Almost from the moment she was born, she had A Thing for dogs. As a tiny infant, her eyes widened and her whole body quivered whenever she spied a dog. "Woof" was one of her first words. By the time she was a preschooler, she preferred her cousins' threadbare hand-me-down doggy costume to even the sparkliest princess getup, knew the distinguishing characteristics of dozens of dog breeds, and she and her best buddy got in trouble at preschool for only speaking in dog and preferring to consume their graham crackers and milk doggy- style. (By that I mean no hands! And don't do an internet search for that term either!) When Christmas and her birthday rolled around, every year Sara's wish list contained just one item: a real, live dog. If she couldn't have that, then nothing, thank you.

Despite this pressure, I did a pretty good job of remaining canine-free. I had three closely-spaced kids, a menagerie of critters in cages, and the occasional uncaged "visitor." Plenty of mess and noise and walks and poop to deal with already. And despite the promises of my daughter and other family members, I knew who would end up taking care of any dog that entered the household.
Puppy Koko. By Sara at age 8

Then I made a deadly error. For the first time since my kids were born, I went away by myself on a just-for-fun girls weekend.

And came home to find myself a dog owner. Well, a dog-owner to be, since the puppies were too young to leave their mother.

For the twelve years since then, as predicted, I've had even more mess and noise and walks and poop to deal with. And yes, I've been the primary caregiver for Koko.

And I've loved it. Koko captured my heart from the moment she entered our house, a round-bellied, wrinkle-faced pug puppy who charmed us by wearing an old sock with holes cut out for her head and legs, wrestling Big Kitty, the huge stuffed animal sent home with her, and chewing everyone's shoelaces to shreds.

For the first few months, we regularly debated who was smarter, Koko or a post, and the post usually won. But over time, thanks to being very strongly motivated by any remotely food-like substance, she has proved herself to be a fair bit sharper than the post. She easily learned the usual tricks like "Sit!" and "Stay!" and "Roll Over!" and "Bang! You're dead." But she also learned trickier tricks, like how to balance a cheerio on her nose and wait a long time until you say "okay!" to toss it in the air and catch it neatly in her mouth, and how to jump through a hula hoop like a circus dog (though no longer so high as she used to), and, perhaps trickiest of all, how to walk around a treat just lying there on the floor ripe for the gobbling when ordered to "leave it!" Plus she learned the commands in French, as well as English. Pretty good, huh?
Miniature Koko in polymer clay, by Sara around age 10.

Perversely, for twelve years, she has refused to learn the command "Come!" - but breaks land-speed records to be at your side if you even spell the word "treat." (For that matter, she recognizes several dozen spelled words, for some reason, all food-related...). She even figured out how to shove a chair around the kitchen to get on the table or counter if someone foolishly left food up high, only giving up the practice once arthritis got the better of her joints.
Koko. Illustration in cut paper, polymer clay and wood by me (Carol Baicker-McKee) from unsold picture book, Little Dog
She has her flaws too. She snores and snorts and never stops obsessing about food. She loves people - but other dogs not so much. She whines without stopping when she goes for rides in the car. She sheds - way more than a dog so small should, and all year round to boot. If there's a dog, horse, giant squirrel, bad guy, scary music, or loud singing on TV, she attacks the set so ferociously we had to build a fence around it and get a DVR so we could replay the scenes we missed. If you're petting her and stop, she puts her paw on you to remind you to continue. And repeats the next time you stop. And the next time. She has perfected the head tilt and sigh that makes everyone feel guilty about not sharing their food.

But somehow, none of that matters to me, the cat-lover. (Though it all drives my husband, a lifelong dog guy himself, absolutely batty. Go figure.)

We celebrated her birthday this year with a tea party by the fire. Nice and cozy for all our aging bones.

The visiting cat was invited but declined.
She had some work to get done on the computer.

And then she needed to wash her hair.

I'll polish off the celebration with a few of our favorite children's books featuring pugs (though of course, none is as cute as Koko - who even made this week's "Pets on Furniture" feature by Kim on the addicting design blog Desire to Inspire).

Eloise and Weenie by Hilary Knight for Kay Thompson's Eloise
My family has loved the Eloise books by Kay Thompson and illustrated by fab Hilary Knight that were favorites of my own as a child. They co-star Weenie, Eloise's "dog who looks like a cat." Hmm. Maybe that's why I like my pug so much.
Say Hello to Zorro by Carter Goodrich is a relatively new book (2011) and is as suitable for families welcoming a new child as it is for pug lovers or dog lovers in general. Mister Bud has his life all figured out - until the usurper pug Zorro shows up and wrecks everything. (Fortunately it all works out. Phew.) Goodrich does a great job of capturing the big-dog temperament of pugs, as well as their stocky physique and no-nonsense expressions. Love!
Jennifer Sattler's Chick 'n' Pug is another relatively recent title (2010) and tells a tale of mistaken impressions. Chick, having read books about a superhero pug is ripe for disappointment when she finally meets a real live pug - who is more like the typical couch potato of the breed. But again, all works out!

For older readers, I recommend the Molly Moon books by Georgia Byng, beginning with Molly Moon's Book of Hypnotism. Molly is a quick-witted orphan, and the pug is, uh, the bad-tempered sidekick of the villain - but it's all lots of fun for middle-grade readers.

One final note: my dog-loving daughter Sara is all grown up now and paints wonderfully sensitive dog portraits like the one that opens this post in her smidge of free time. If you're interested in a portrait of a beloved pet, you can contact her here through me. Just shoot me an email at baickermckee[at]gmail[dot]com or leave a comment here with info on how to contact you.

Friday, February 10, 2012

More Homemade Valentines: Quilled Hearts and Flowers

For those of you more interested in making pretty Valentines with your kids than the humorous bodily-noises variety I featured in yesterday's post (here), I bring you a technique that's:
  • relatively easy (though a tad time-consuming),
  • relaxing (a good project for while you watch TV or chat with friends/family),
  • versatile,
  • inexpensive, and
  • impressive-looking
It also goes well with chocolate! What more can you ask for?

(I apologize for the blurry photo above. It was the only one I had of a quilled Valentine I made for a friend last year. I nearly always forget to photograph our Valentines...)

Although I'd fooled around with quilled pictures as a kid, it was an article on breathtakingly beautiful quilled Valentines in a February issue of  Martha Stewart Living a few years back that sparked my interest in trying it again. You can still find step-by-step descriptions of the how-to, as well as suggestions for an assortment of quilled Valentine crafts on her website here.

I'm not going to repeat the full how-to since I don't think I could do it better than Martha, but I'll outline the materials and basic steps I used to make the Valentine above. Then you can make your own version - one of the great things about this craft is that you don't have to be a confident artist to come up with your own lovely designs or make something that looks remarkably polished.

Materials and Tools
  • Paper To make the Valentine above, I cut strips from bright copier paper and lightweight cardstock. (You can purchase special strips in different widths intended for quilling, but they tend to be expensive. Since uniformity is not crucial for this project, I'd go cheap.) You'll also need a piece of heavyweight cardstock or a blank card for the background. If you don't have colored paper, don't fret: white-on-white quilling looks elegant.
  • Paper cutter Or a ruler and steady hand to make your strips. (Or quilling paper already in strips.)
  • Scissors For adjusting length and fringing. It's nice to have decorative scissors that scallop the edge before you fringe, but they're not essential
  • Glue Ordinary white glue is perfect. (I apply it sparingly with a toothpick.) A glue stick can work too, but may not hold some of the heavier blossoms.
  • Curling tool You can buy commercial quilling tools (see here), but a skewer or skinny knitting needle works pretty well too. (Inna Dorman on her interesting kids and craft blog Inna's Creations  also has instructions for making a simple but effective quilling tool here.)
  • Tweezers (optional) Help keep glue off your fingers and creations, but not essential unless you're working very small.
  1. Make a heart "frame" I used my paper cutter to make a long strip of 1/4" cardstock, folded it roughly in half and then curled the loose ends toward each other, glued them together, and bent them into a loose heart shape. I applied glue to the edges with a toothpick and arranged the heart on my blank card. (I deliberately made mine assymetrical, but you could use a heart template to make yours more perfect if you prefer.) Hold down for a minute or so until the glue sets up.
  2. Make an assortment of fringed flowers These will look kind of like daisies or asters. Cut strips of different colored papers in an assortment of wider widths. (Mine varied from about 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch.) I didn't bother to scallop mine, but you can. I speed up the fringing by first folding the strips and cutting through 4 layers at a time. Be careful not to cut all the way through! Roll the strips into a coil and then bend and ruffle the "petals." I used tight coils for the centers, but loose coils work too.
  3. Make some bell flowers The Martha site has step-by-step instructions, but basically you make a tight coil and poke in the middles, adjusting until you have a smooth "cup."
  4. Make a few other shape flowers I did some iris-like flowers from quilled teardrop shapes. Martha shows how, plus she has instructions for roses, which I didn't use here but have incorporated in other cards. (They're a bit more fiddly, especially for beginners or young kids.)
  5. Arrange the flowers within the frame I do this first to make sure I've got the space reasonably full but not overcrowded.
  6. Make stems and leaves No firm right or wrong way to do this. I mostly bent and loosely curled narrow green strips for the stems. Teardrops make nice leaves. Try varying sizes, with smaller leaves toward the ends of stems. Also, varied shades of green can look attractive
  7. Glue everything in place It takes a little time for the heavier flowers to "stick."
Obviously, these do not mail well in a regular envelope...

If you enjoy this craft and want more ideas for projects, here are a couple of good sites for inspiration and tips:
  • Ann Martin's blog All Things Paper (while you're there, check out  her beautiful quilled marriage certificates)
  • Inna's Creations (which I mentioned above) Lots of ideas for "flat" quilled projects for both kids and adults (see here) and also cool 3-D projects (see here) to try once you master the basics.
  • And if you really want to see how these techniques can be used for real art, check out the work of master quiller Yuliya Brodskaya here and here. Her stuff just blows my mind.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Homemade Valentines (of the Borderline Inappropriate Sort that Boys Might Be Willing to Make)

Valentine for his classmates. By my son at age 7
The Valentine above almost got my son kicked out of school.

Long time readers of my blog as well as my unfortunate offspring will know that I have rather rigid rules for school Valentines. (See this previous post for example.)
  • First, you must give Valentines to ALL your classmates so as to avoid hurt feelings.
  • Second, and this is the even more important one: no crap TV character ones from Walmart. You have to make your own.
These rules resulted in my children creating exquisite works of art that I will treasure forever.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha HA!

Okay. The truth. What they resulted in was a bunch of crap "homemade" Valentines. Usually wonky construction paper "hearts" slathered with strange assortments of stickers, stained with tears shed during the inevitable frustration tantrums, and finished with lollipops taped to the front obscuring their signatures. If they bothered to sign them. But at least the cards didn't have TV characters on them...

That was until I discovered the six secrets to getting boys involved in public declarations of love (or at least sort-of-liking).
  1. Let them use normally off-limits equipment in my studio, like the fragile light table or dangerous xacto knives
  2. Encourage them to incorporate their current passionate interests
  3. Assist with the boring parts like signing their names, putting the cards in envelopes, and addressing them (by "assist" I mean "do it for them")
  4. Incentivize frequently with samples of the candy included with the cards
  5. Maintain low quality standards
  6. Have them write love poems
The first five secrets I figured out on my own. The last one, though, is thanks to their wonderful kindergarten teacher, Ms. Frey. She introduced them to classics of love poetry like:

"I love you,
I love you,
I love you divine.
Please give me your bubble gum.
You're sitting on mine."

The Valentine featured here took my fine-motor challenged child hours and hours to make. Not to mention the ages he spent creating the verse. In the process:
  1. I let him use my light table (which is how the writing is more or less in a straight line). Also I let him use the xacto knife to slice a piece of scratch paper to shreds, even though that had nothing to do with his project.
  2. I let him incorporate his current and longstanding interest in loud burping.
  3. I allowed him to sign his name only once and then photocopied it. And I did all the stuffing and addressing.
  4. I fed him lots of lollipops while he worked. Lots.
  5. I mentioned the lack of rhyme in his rhyming verse and the half-finished border around the heart only once and didn't say another word when he insisted he was done.
  6. I laughed - genuinely - at his funny poem and drawing. Actually I rather liked the absence of the expected rhyme. It was another little touch of humor (though I'm not certain it was intentional).
Then I sent him off to school with his packet of Valentines. Where the room mother at the class party saw his card and then expressed her shock at its inappropriate "potty" humor and attitude toward females to the longterm substitute (the original, beloved teacher had just started a sabbatical). Where the new teacher then confiscated all my son's Valentines. Where my son then dissolved in tears but fortunately waited until he was outside the school to call the teacher many, many mean names of the sort that might get a kid kicked out of school.

We actually resolved the incident amicably (after I had my own temper tantrum in front of my husband). The teacher apologized and let Eric distribute his cards another day, and they were great buds the rest of the year. And I had a pleasant chat with the room mother (who obviously had no sons of her own), and although we were not exactly best buds after that, well, we weren't best buds before either.

On second thought, maybe you should just to a run to Walmart for some TV character Valentines after all. But don't forget the extra lollipops. You'll still need them for the signing and addressing part. (Though perhaps you prefer high quality dark chocolate like I do.)

P.S. This is my favorite Valentine's Day book. All my kids loved it too, even though there is absolutely no mention of farting or burping in the whole story.