Saturday, November 30, 2013

OBJECT #25: Shrunken Apple Heads

    My great aunt gave me this jar of shrunken apple heads well over twenty years ago.  And I know they were already many years old.  So these apples have to be at least 30 years old, and probably older.  They have survived two decades in various basements and attics in all the houses I have lived in.  I rarely take them out, which has probably helped in their preservation, but still, I can hardly believe what terrific condition they are in after all these years.  

    My great aunt Bea lived in California, and since I grew up in Pennsylvania I only got to see her a handful of times.  She was talented in various arts and crafts but also taught academic subjects in middle and high schools.  She and I shared a number of common interests including the making and collecting of miniatures (finely crafted items for “doll houses”) and other off-beat crafts.  At the end of her life she sent me a box of items ranging from miniature baskets to human bones.  She had also chosen me as the person in the family most likely to appreciate the apple heads she had carved.  I think my aunt would be pleased to know that I am now “sharing” them with the world at large.  I hope so.

    I recently had occasion to pull out this jar and show it around at a social event.  I also provided a bag of apples and some carving tools so people could try this craft for themselves.  It didn’t take very minutes of carving for us to appreciate my aunt’s skill!  (This craft, however, is somewhat goof-proof in that however you carve the features, they improve with age.  As the apple shrinks and dries, the facial features look more impressive.)

    I surfed YouTube for some how-to videos and found that you don’t have to core the apple.  Some people cut out the core and others leave it in.  These heads were cored.  The white stuff peaking out of them are some tissues my aunt stuffed into them to absorb any moisture that might seep out during storage.

    The nice thing about his craft is that it does not produce trash that will end up in a landfill;  they can be eaten or composted if and when you get tired of looking at them or having them take up storage space.   However, I think I will have to keep mine for as long as they will last.  They have become sort of an heirloom item at this point.  I don’t have any jewelry or expensive furniture to hand down to my kids.  But I have a jar of apple heads.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

OBJECT #24: Brown Marmorated Stink Bug

    Do you have these in your house?  They show up in my basement occasionally.  In some parts of Pennsylvania they have become a plague. I feel fortunate that I only get a few once in a while.
    Rumor has it that someone brought these from Asia (probably China or Korea) to North America to be a remedy for another pest.  The bug was first collected in September of 1998 in Allentown, Pennsylvania, but probably arrived several years earlier. Now these bugs are pretty much all over PA and there are reports that they have been spotted in Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin.  

    We Pennsylvanians are used to seeing these bugs pop up randomly in our houses.  They seem to appear from nowhere.  You’ll just suddenly notice there is a bug crawling across the wall or sitting on the back of a chair.  You can’t track down where they came from.   You’ll never find a nest of them.  You’ll never catch one sneaking in through a crack in the window.  It’s like they’ve mastered the science fiction concept of teleporting.

    Fortunately, the bugs are pretty much harmless.  They don’t bite or sting.  They do stink a bit if you squish them, though.  (Found that out from personal experience.)  The only real problem with them is that they love to eat fruit and veggies.  They are wasteful in their eating and go about taking tiny bits here and there, ruining the surfaces of as many fruits as they can.  Not such a big deal if you are just picking your own apples in your back yard.  But if you are a professional grower, even the slightest blemish can make a fruit unsaleable.  

    The university in my back yard, Penn State, is one of the centers for research on these pests.  They are still trying to figure out their life cycle and personal habits and other information needed for finding a way to control them.  They are trying to find a chemical-free way to control them but so far have not found any good solutions.  I think they’ve ruled out bringing in yet another predator.  (“She swallowed the cat to catch the bird, she swallowed the bird to catch the spider...”)
     If you want to know more about stink bugs, you can try this link:

Sunday, April 14, 2013

OBJECT #23: Handel and Bach statues


   These pieces of junk have been with me for about 40 years.  They’ve somehow avoided getting pitched during the course of about 10 moves.  They are just cheaply made little plastic statues of Handel and Bach.  Nothing really valuable or outstanding about them, but they’ve been sitting on a shelf in my house (or lurking at the bottom of a junk bin) for four decades.  I got them at a time in my childhood when I had a strong interest in classical music.  Between my participation in orchestra and my private oboe lessons I played a lot of Handel and Bach.  I remember Handel being my favorite composer during that time because I found his musical phrases predictable enough to be easy to play and easy to memorize, yet not too boring.   

    The amazing thing about these statues is their survival.  How in the world they have managed to not get lost or ruined or pitched in a household that sheltered four “active” (i.e. “hard on things”) kids, and four dogs (some of whom had bad chewing habits) is a mystery.  (To a dog, Handel and Bach much look remarkably like nylon bones.)

    It’s just funny how you can try so hard to preserve some objects and despite your best efforts they end up meeting an untimely/unseemly fate, yet other objects can be ignored, tossed into toy boxes, lost under couches, within reach of pets, etc., and yet manage to survive for decades.

    I confess, I almost pitched Handel and Bach this summer when I was cleaning out my basement.  Yes, they almost went into the trash can.  (Plan B was to donate them to Goodwill, but honestly, who would want them?  They’re really not worth anything.)  I think I actually did put them into the trash can, then felt so guilty seeing them there that I had to put them back on the shelf.  That’s how you end up with Junk in Your Basement!

Sunday, March 31, 2013

OBJECT #22: “Scary-nut Owl”

    This simple craft project has been around since my oldest kids were little, which is longer than I want to admit.  When my oldest daughter was 2 or 3 years old she was afraid of dark holes, no matter how large or small.  Even a tiny crevice was threatening because you never could be sure what would come out of it.  One day she found some black walnut shells that had been spit open and the nut removed by either squirrels or insects.  She began talking to me about “scary nuts.”  I could not fathom what she meant so she had to take me to see them.  I chuckled when she pointed to the walnut shells.  I tried to show her that the holes were empty and therefore harmless, but logical reasoning doesn’t get you very far with a toddler.  Perhaps she did see a worm crawl out of one of them?  At any rate, black walnut shells have been known as “scary nuts” in our house ever since them.  Unfortunately, our present property has a plentiful supply of scary nuts.  They get dumped onto the outskirts of our lawn every fall.  If they fell down looking like these, it wouldn’t be so bad.  But they come down as huge green balls (the size of tennis balls) and ooze out smelly brown liquid if you let them sit too long.

    Not long after we discovered the “scary nuts,” someone pointed out to us that they look like an owl’s face.  We learned how to put two half-shells together to make a pretty convincing little barn owl, especially with a dab of white paint to accentuate the owl’s facial features.  Of course, after that, the nuts were never scary again, but we still jokingly call them by that name.  We made a few of these owl craft projects (whether to sell or to give away I can’t remember) and I think this is the last remaining craft from that batch, years ago. 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

OBJECT #21: C3PO Talking Pen

   I’ll bet I’m not the only one who has semi-vintage Star Wars paraphernalia sitting around the house.  We acquired this pen around the time that the first of the new movies came out.  Which is now a shockingly long time ago if you stop to think about it.  (Shocking for those of us who lived through the original Star Wars craze, anyway.)   

    My two oldest kids were in elementary school when we bought this pen.  They loved to scare their younger sister with it because it talks.  Tiny talking robot pens can be very scary to a 2-year-old.  This pen has four sound options: “I am C3PO,” “Let the Wookie win,” “This is madness!” and their favorite, “We’re doomed!”  (Even worse than the pen was the walking, talking version of C3PO perched on top of a piggy bank alongside R2D2.  My toddler was terrified when the figures lurched into action and slid forward.  My son used this device to keep his sister out of his room.)

    Another favorite activity they did with this pen (writing with it was never even considered) was to play these sound bytes in front of the cockatiel’s cage, hoping the bird would learn to say them. I don’t think it worked.  I remember him saying “Peekaboo,” and “Where’s Cecil?” but not any of C3PO’s quippy phrases.

    My kids outgrew this toy years ago but I can't bring myself to pitch it.  So I guess I am stuck with it on my desk until I can give it to a grandchild some day. 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

OBJECT #20: Giant “Thumb Guys”

 (as some people in my household call them)



    These are huge versions of those little fingerprint people that show up in my science books.  I made these large fingerprint people to take along to a curriculum fair a few years ago.  I thought two of these guys perched on my table would be eye-catching.  They don’t usually sit on top of my cabinet doors.  I just propped them there for the photo.  They usually lie flat somewhere.  (Though they did sit on my mantel for a year.)

    I’ve never had names for these things. “Thumb print people” is usually my default term, but to be more accurate they are prints of my index finger, not my thumb.  So why do I call them thumb print people?  I don’t know.  (But talk about leaving your fingerprints all over your work...)

    They were originally invented during my teen years, and I think my sister gets credit for making the very first one.  She’s a writer now, not an artist, so this could be her biggest contribution to the world of visual arts.  I picked up on the idea right away--so quickly that we remember it as always being something we did together.  About the time I went off to college, I tucked those early cartoons into a drawer and didn’t think about them for a number of years.

    When I began to write “The Elements” I knew I had to make the subject of chemistry seem friendly, and maybe even silly, to prevent kids from being afraid of it.  I decided that I needed some silly cartoon people to sit in the margins and say funny things.  I also knew I didn’t want to draw complicated cartoon people over and over again.  What could I use that was ridiculously simple, yet very effective?  I immediately thought about those old fingerprint cartoons I used to make.  They turned out to be perfect.  Once I started using them I couldn’t stop.

    I’ve had lots of feedback from parents about how much their kids love these fingerprint characters.  In fact, some parents have told me that their kids will go through and read all the cartoons first, before they even read the lessons.  (Bet they peek at their Christmas presents, too. ;)  I decided not use the fingerprint people in the “Mapping the World with Art” curriculum because I wanted to pitch it to older students.  However, my friends in France (who translate my curricula into French and sell it to francophone homeschoolers) decided that even “Mapping the World with Art” had to have the fingerprint people, so they borrowed pictures from other curricula and created captions for their French version.  (I studied enough French in college that I can basically read the French curricula (with a little help now and then from online translation programs) and I love to read how they translate the many idiomatic phrases used by the “bonhommes.”)

    They’ve never had names and I’ve tried to avoid thinking of them as two separate characters with different personalities.  I’d like them to stay similar enough that they are both equally capable of being intellectual or silly. In the “Cells” curriculum I did make one of them the official complainer, however.  That’s the only book where there is a basic scenario that is consistent all the way through (one of them has a remote control and can pause the book).  When just one thumb guy shows up on a page, you are never sure which one it is.  That’s because I don’t know which one it is!  But that’s intentional.  I like to keep myself guessing, too.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

OBJECT #19: Paper Models

    This is the paper ship model that comes with the “Mapping the World with Art” curriculum.  I found it as a free download from an obscure online source.  I printed the pattern on white card stock and used toothpicks for the masts.  It measures only about 4 inches high (10 cm).
    I tried doing this project last fall with a group of students ages 11-14.  It was a bit tedious for most of them.  I think I was the only one who ended up actually finishing my ship.  Part of the problem may have been that they were doing it while in a group situation.  It they had been doing it as an at-home project they might have been less distracted.
    I have a love/hate relationship with paper models.  I am childishly mesmerized by the fact that mere paper can be shaped and glued into incredible 3D shapes.  Paper models can become an addiction.   The Canon company has a website with amazing downloadable patterns.  They have buildings, animals, vehicles, famous statues, cartoon characters, dioramas, and much more.  What has stopped me from downloading and assembling dozens of them is that “hate” part.  My first experience with the downside of paper models occurred years ago when I built Dover’s cut-and-assemble carousel model.  My daughter was in love with carousel horses.  I made a large wooden cut-out for her wall (sensibly durable for a 5-year old), then felt compelled to make the paper carousel (stupidly delicate for a 5-year old).  I can’t remember how it met its final end.  What I do remember is how hard I had to work to delay that ultimate demise.  The most amazing part of its survival is that I don’t think it was eaten by the guinea pigs.

    I have several paper automata (little gizmos that move when you turn a crank).  Two of them are silly pirates, one of whom wobbles back and forth on paper crutches.  Behind the pirates lurks a paper Egyptian tomb with a mummy who pops out of a sarcophagus, making the attending priest shiver with fear.  I was so taken with this one that I tried to make a larger wooden version.  I discovered how tricky it is to scale up a design, adding not just size but weight to the pieces.  I had to make many modifications.  The end result was okay, but didn’t run quite as smoothly as the paper model.

         The biggest paper automata I have is a cartoon version of St. George and his dragon.  (He has to share the mantel with part of my skull collection.)  The motion is quite complex.  The horse rears, the knight raises and lowers his sword, and the dragon snaps his jaws.  I believe this one is still in print, but I think is only available from UK sites.  I am tempted to upscale this, but I think I’ll wait until I get some of my other automata ideas done first. 

    If you like paper models and have not yet discovered paper automata, go to and type in “paper automata.” 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

OBJECT #18: Brain book ends

    Brain anatomy seems to be a theme I can’t get away from.  The download-able brain hemisphere hat on my website has become the most popular free download item on my site.  It’s been used at science fairs from San Diego, CA, to Cambridge, England.  School teachers have used it in their classrooms then posted the pictures on their blogs.  An international publishing company discovered it and asked me to design a hat that was half brain/half elephant, for one of their advertising campaigns.  A neuroscientist emailed me about getting some printed to use as “microgifts” for his interns.  And, most recently, a brain imaging company in Boston had me do a mouse pad design using a modified version of the brain hat.

    This set of brain book ends was given to me by a former student who is now a young adult.  When she saw this item she said it just screamed my name, so she had to get it for me.  So now I have brain hemispheres between which I can keep all my books about brain hemispheres.  Works out nicely.

    I had to consult one of these books recently to do some fact checking for the left hemisphere brain mouse pad project.   According to this fairly scholarly book, the hemispheres are not quite as dissimilar as most popular science articles would have you believe, although language does seem to be solidly on the left side for about 90 percent of the population.  To date, there are no good theories as to why this should be so.  It just is.  (The same for handedness.  Why most people are right handed is a complete mystery.)  The unlucky 10 percent, whose brains have decided to use the right side for language, will almost certainly have issues with language processing, though in most cases the problems are mild enough that the affected persons can overcome the problems or learn to work around them.  (Many people who have this condition are unaware of it.)

    The left side of the brain has two special areas that the right side does not have--areas devoted to processing words.   Both areas bear the names of the people who discovered their significance.  Broca’s area is where we construct sentences before (or as) we say them.  Wernicke’s area is where we process the language that we hear, turning sounds into meaningful ideas.  These two areas connect to other areas of the brain, also.  No part of the brain functions independently from the others.

    This is the right hemisphere brain mouse pad.  The right hemisphere is usually non-verbal.  It is the center for creativity, music, and art.  It sees relationships between things, and understands “the whole picture.”  It is from the right hemisphere that those “Eureka!” moments come.