Valentines, Bruel style

If there is a spectrum of Valentines, with store-bought Star Wars/Dora cards at one end and perfect Pinterest-worthy works of art at the other, I’d say our family’s fall right in the middle.

I do give the kids the option of buying them every year, but they really enjoy making them (yay!). And the timing works out perfectly, because there are always multiple snow days or sick days in the weeks leading up that let us get them done. So let the mess begin…



Rule number 1: Mommy keeps her hands off and mouth shut. Aside from cutting hearts on request and separating doilies so we don’t blow a whole stack on one card, I stay out of it, even if the Valentines end up looking like this:

Kate, age 3 (left) and age 5 (right)

Kate, age 3 (left) and age 5 (right)


I confess, at first I was a bit traumatized that my children were not making traditional, beautiful cards, but now I’ve come to appreciate them, especially as Charlie gets older and his style has become less avant garde:

Charlie, ages 5, 6, and 7 (clockwise)

Charlie, ages 5, 6, and 7 (clockwise)


Rule number 2: No writing required. As you can see, I make tags on the computer that the kids can stick on, allowing them to save their energy to make masterpieces like these:

Kate, age 4

Kate, age 4


Valentine’s pencils are a dime a dozen, but how many cotton balls do you usually get? Our Valentines are like fuzzy, deranged snowflakes… no two are alike.

So Happy Valentine’s Day from the Bruels. May your day be one-of-a-kind!

Wallpaper for Wimps

Do you ever have an idea for a project, totally obsess about it, but when you finally do it the results are sort of… meh? That’s usually how it goes for me. But I just finished a project that turned out SO amazingly better than I hoped (“Epic!” in the words of my sister), that I feel like I have to tell the whole world — or at least the five of you who still read my almost-defunct blog.

This is what I was obsessing about:

These steps have been making the rounds on Pinterest — all of us drooling, but nobody executing as far as I can tell. When I clicked through on these (though the link is now broken), it turned out they were done with stencils. I don’t know about you but — despite having a fine arts degree and completing a painting thesis — I know I am NOT qualified to do anything as exacting as stencils. Plus, although I loved the mix of patterns, this still felt a little subdued for me. So on to plan B: wallpaper.

The prospect of hanging wallpaper terrified me, but I figured it WAS the best way to get a fabulous pattern, and if I did something less geometric it would still look OK even if it was crooked. But wallpaper is sort of expensive, and I wasn’t finding any patterns I liked, let alone a series of three or four that would look great together. So I gave up on the dream for a while (much to my husband’s relief!).

Then I had a thought… wall decals! (Disclaimer: this is NOT a step-by-step tutorial, and you DO need a little design know-how to do this, but it may still inspire you).  I went to Dali Decals, and sure enough, they can make custom decals from whatever art you provide. Next I went to iStock Photo, my go-to royalty free stock artwork site, and found these gorgeous repeating patterns for about $20 (total!):

I figured out the size of each riser, how many I needed in each pattern, and the cheapest way to print it on Dali (one piece using maximum width of 48″ and unlimited length cost me about $150). I set up the file in Adobe Illustrator, repeating the patterns to get enough length, and tweaked the colors a bit to go with my decor.


The decal arrived in one sheet, and I measured and cut the pieces I needed. Peel, stick, and about an hour later… voila!


I wish I had taken a “before” picture of my sad little staircase so you could see the TLC-style dramatic transformation. Who would have thought my tiny entryway would end up being one of my favorite spots in the house?

Blinded by Love

We FINALLY got a new car. Between our 2000 Volvo (handed down from my grandmother) and 2004 Subaru Forester, there was a LOT of squeaking, banging, and rattling going on around here. It was getting a bit embarrassing to pull out of the driveway.

I am not a fan of large cars, but for carpooling and play dates my beloved Suby is just too small. I decided I needed a vehicle where I could strap in three kids in car seats without sweating and cursing for 10 minutes… or even — dare I dream? — four kids.

It turns out, there is exactly ONE car out there that will seat more than five people (even small ones) without being the size of a small truck: The Mazda 5.

My first reaction when I saw it was “Good lord, that is ugly!” But now I am so enamored of all the features on this little guy that I have actually started to think it is attractive. It seats six, gets over 20 miles per gallon, and has built-in Bluetooth. Yes, I am still grabbing a metal bar and scooching around to adjust my seat (always with Van Halen’s “Panama” running through my head), and I also have to turn my head and actually LOOK out the rear window when I back up. But compared to the old Suby it feels downright luxurious.

I do believe that form should follow function, and this baby is all about function. But isn’t it cute, too? Please tell me, because I honestly have no idea.

Sweet design!

On a recent dreary, rainy day, I decided what the kids and I needed was an adventure — and mid-afternoon munchie —  so we headed over to check out the latest addition to our little downtown area: Treat Cupcake Bar.

The basic idea is that for $4.50 you can either pick a beautiful pre-made cupcake OR design your own, picking cupcake, frosting, and toppings that range from you run-of-the-mill (sprinkles) to the somewhat gross (gummy worms). Basically, a gooey, sticky sugar-bomb.

Downtown Needham, though home to some great little shops, is fairly design-deficient — we’ve got a lot of Zaph Chancery signage going on here! — so I was completely entranced when I walked through the door and found this little corner of design heaven.

Everything from the logo (a stylized bird’s-eye view of a cupcake) to the color scheme (a bizarre combo of yellow, pink and maroon which somehow works) to the decor (a wall covered in shiny muffin tins) was just perfect. The cupcake was served in a little square box (pink or purple, to match the tables and striped floor). All of the employees wore T shirts that say “I like my cupcake with:” and had a blank area to write in their favorite topping. Every detail was cuter than the last. What a treat for me!

…and the homemade butter cream frosting wasn’t too bad, either!

Um, does that come in pink?

The other day I went online to find Charlie a backpack for his first day of kindergarten (!!!). I went on to Lands’ End, one of my favorite sources for kid gear, and began my search for the turquoise blue backpack Charlie had requested. I was a bit surprised to find backpacks sorted into “boys” and “girls” sections, but I dutifully clicked on “boys” and found an assortment of colors: red, navy blue, royal blue, green, and orange. Nothing quite as bright and sassy as my little guy was expecting, though.

So, never one to shy away from cross-dressing my kids a bit, I clicked through to the girl’s page and did indeed find the perfect turquoise. But before I could zoom in and try to determine if there were any ruffles, flowers, or bows that made this a specifically GIRL backpack — and would therefore get Charlie’s ass kicked (or at least laughed at) at school — I got completely distracted. Through past experience I had expected the girls’ offerings to be the same as the boys but with additional pink and purple options thrown in. But no, it appears Lands’ End has determined that girls are ONLY allowed to wear pink, purple, or turquoise:

Since when did all of the other colors in the world become “boy” colors? Say what you will about fashion in the seventies, but my mother was able to buy a full wardrobe of girls’ clothing in brown, beige, orange, red, navy… you know, BOY colors. And somehow everyone could still tell that my sister and I were girls (well, except when we had those pixie haircuts… but that is a story for another time).

Yes, all little girls seem to love pink and purple, but maybe that’s because those colors are shoved down their throats as “girl” colors by adults. I mean, why in the world do we need separate “girl” versions of classic toys like Legos, TinkerToys, and Lincoln Logs?

It’s not the kids who are buying this junk — it’s us, the adults.  So I say it’s time to fight back. No more pink! Who’s with me?

Whose stupid idea was this?

Today I found myself with a few minutes to kill in the thriving metropolis of Wellesley, Massachusetts, and decided to pop into the Gap to check out the sale items. I found a stack of khaki pants that had been marked down, but the first pair I picked up had bunch of white gunk on the seat of the pants. I scraped a bit with my finger, but it was definitely firmly affixed. I checked the next pair — spots, too. And the next, and next, and next — all splattered with… white paint!

At first I thought maybe some disaster had struck this particular Gap and they were stuck with a bunch of damaged merchandise, but the spots appeared in basically the same place on each pair, which seemed suspicious. Deciding to investigate further,  I checked out the Gap website when I got home. Lo and behold:

I am the first to admit that I am no style expert. Even at my most fashionable, while working in New York City at Hearst Magazines in the late ’90s, my boss had to tactfully suggest that I brush my hair and apply a touch of lipstick before going into meetings with big execs. In fact, the shoes I am wearing right now were purchased when I worked there — about 10 years ago — and anything more recent was most likely bought at Target. But even I know that it is a dumb-ass idea to take a perfectly good pair of paints, splatter them with white paint, and try to sell them for 50 bucks.

… or even $17.99. Good luck with that.

Cake decorating for amateurs

Well, we successfully made it through another birthday party for young Charles. Aside from the fact that I spent last night collating 25 goodie bags that I forgot to give it out, it went rather smoothly.

I find that each year I’ve gotten better at streamlining the process — life is too short to be stressed about a kid’s birthday party, right? The source of my angst tends to be the cake. I have always baked a cake for the kids instead of buying one. This is not because I’m some sort of baking snob — I use a box mix — it’s just that a) I have wonderful memories of the gumdrop-decorated cakes my mother used to make for us as kids, and b) I am kind of a control freak. Plus, making pretty things is, y’know, MY JOB, so it seems sort of lame to outsource it. But it always takes longer than I expect, leads to a lot of cursing, and never turns out the way I envisioned it.

Coming off today’s triumph, it seems like the perfect time for a little retrospective of Bruel birthday cakes and what I have learned along the way.

Here is this cake that launched them all:

You CANNOT imagine how much blood, sweat and tears — and icing — went into this friggin’ cake. But I learned a lot about cake decorating making this thing:

  • plan on applying two (or more) layers of frosting, because the first one gets all filled with crumbs
  • use only vanilla cake (chocolate cake crumbs + white frosting = disaster)
  • do NOT wait to frost the cake until 2 hours before the party, in case you need to go out and buy more frosting to cover up the horrible mess you have made
  • sprinkles hide a multitude of sins

Needless to say, the next cake I made went much better (could it have gone worse?), but it was TOTALLY tedious:

Yep, those are all mini M&Ms that I sorted by color. I don’t think the one-year-old fully appreciated my effort.

The next one was for Charlie’s 4th birthday, at which point he was old enough to put in requests, hence the bright green train:

I made my own buttercream frosting for this one, but thinned it with too much milk, so it looked a little funky up close.  Everyone raved about the taste, though, which I think was due to the combo of homemade frosting and Duncan Hines cake mix. Note the liberal use of sprinkles once again. (By the way, not so easy to put sprinkles on the SIDE of a cake…)

Next was Miss Kate’s second birthday:

Those are mini-chocolate chips, a last-minute substitution when I decided I was not up to my original polka-dot design concept. As you can see, the outline of the “K” got a little wonky and sort of looks like an “H.” Oh well.

This year I tried to steer Charlie towards something not too complicated, like a rocket, but he decided on a CHINESE DRAGON (inspired by the goodies Daddy brought back from his trip to China). Grrrreatttttt… I’ll just whip up one of those. I did some research on both dragon designs and decorating techniques, but in the end I winged it, and I think it actually came out pretty cool:

Perhaps I’m hitting my stride on these things. Kate’s birthday is not until December, but she has already decided that HER cake will be a butterfly. Stay tuned…

Feelin’ smug about my mug

I don’t know how it happened, but I have developed a serious Starbucks habit. It’s not like I’m a hard-core coffee drinker. In fact, I think the reason I am so loyal to Starbucks is that I can order a ridiculous “grande non-fat no-whip two-pump mocha” and still sort of feel like I’m drinking something for a grown-up.

Anyway, in addition to racking up ever-increasing charges on my Starbucks card, I have also been accumulating a disturbing number of paper cups on my counter awaiting recycling. I decided it was time to get a reusable mug — one that I WOULD actually use. And then I found these for the bargain price of $8.95 at Whole Foods (of course!):

They are made by a company called DCI. Aren’t they pretty? My first instinct was to grab the green one, but I thought it might be too much to have my cup match both my coat AND iPhone cover. So I opted for the blue. But I kind of want them all… they’re just so cheery and bright.

So far I have been very happy with my cup. There was a moment of panic the first time I used it fresh from the dishwasher and I kept SMELLING the lid… a weird, sweet chemical smell that did NOT complement my mocha. But I have determined that it’s the dishwasher, not the lid itself, that makes it stinky. So I hand wash the lid and it is now seasoned with a nice coffee smell. I get compliments on it wherever I go, and also 10¢ off each cup of coffee I buy at Starbucks. Plus I get to feel superior to all of those folks with their wasteful paper cups.

But here’s the burning question: Is it okay to drive five miles out of my way to a Starbucks if I use my own cup? I think I know the answer…