Later I Crashed Into Some Toddlers Myself

I don’t go outdoors in winter, except for the length of time it takes me to get from a building to my car. That’s why even though my friend V has been hounding me to take up skiing, I’ve always refused. What is the point of it? You go up a hill, you go down a hill. Up, down, up, down. An exercise in futility.

But my friend V is nothing if not persistent. And persuasive. Every time I turn around, it’s, “I know you’re going to love skiing, JJ! (that’s my nickname). You have the coordination and core strength, not to mention you’d look great in a helmet!”

I do have core strength, in that if you give me advance notice you’re about to punch me in the stomach, I can tighten up my abs in such a way that your fist will bounce off them like a tennis ball. And I look good in a helmet.

Not my natural smile
Not my natural smile

But there are still many reasons why I can’t possibly ski – Sonny Bono, Natasha Richardson, my stance against winter sunshine, and my inability to tolerate wearing two layers of pants at once, just to name a few.

My friend V, who has a law degree, managed to shoot down all of these so that before I knew it, I had signed myself up for a ski getaway in Colorado with her, even though I don’t even know how to mount a chair lift.

Since our Colorado ski trip is coming up in less than a week, there was nothing for it but to test out the slopes right here in Northeast Ohio first. That’s why if you happened to be at Alpine Valley on Sunday, you may have seen me on the bunny hill for a morning lesson with about a hundred kids, my instructor Jim, and a guy named Suri.

Neither Suri nor I had ever been skiing, so we had to start with the basics, like popping your boot in and out of your ski and side-stepping up the slope.

It was a piece of cake.

Next, Jim wanted us to jump up and land with our skis pointing toward each other, which, in case you’ve never attempted it before, is not humanly possible.

Still, Suri and I complied, but afterwards he left for several minutes and we weren’t sure if he was going to come back. Next Jim showed us how to stop and turn and said something about pizza and french fries. Then it was time to hit the (very small, very crowded) slope. I knew as soon as Suri careened into a group of toddlers on snow boards that I was going to quickly surpass him, talentwise.

Jim had to spend a lot of time helping Suri stand up and disentangling him from groups of felled children, so I whiled away the minutes practicing all the fly moves I’d just mastered. Up and down the bunny slope I went, weaving in and out like a regular Picabo Street, if Picabo Street was about five feet tall in a leopard print jacket and skied at a pace of .1115 miles an hour.

Before ditching Suri and Jim entirely, I bade them farewell, and in order to make Suri feel better about himself, I explained that I thought it helped to have a low center of gravity. Then I moved onto the intermediate slope, where I totally busted.

I’m not ready to say that I “love” skiing yet, because even with a handsome total of four hours of ski time under my belt, I still feel like I could lose control and seriously injure myself at any minute. Also, I’m terrified of the ski lift and spend the entire time I’m riding it with my legs sticking straight out, mentally preparing for my dismount.

But I will admit that you don’t feel the cold so much when you’re actually skiing, and you can almost forget that you have on multiple layers of pants.

It just pains me that all the people who ever told me to “get some fresh air” keep turning out to be right.

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Posted in good times, My Friend V, nature, Stayin' Alive | 1 Comment

How To Make Lithuanian Straw Ornaments

As promised, here are steps to make a very basic Lithuanian straw ornament with a four-sided base (šiaudinukas).

Okay, these are made from copper tubing, not straw. But the steps are the same!

We are going to use paper straw instead of the traditional rye straw because it’s easier to work with and easier to find, and we’re going to use fishing line instead of thread because when you use fishing line, you don’t need a needle.


  • White paper art straws (you could use plastic as well, but I would judge you)
  • Clear monofilament fishing line (not braided)
  • Ruler
  • Scissors

First, cut twelve pieces of straw so that they are all equal lengths. I recommend anywhere between two to four inches per piece for this first attempt. Be very precise in your measurements because even small differences in length can make the final product lop-sided.

Now cut about and arm’s length of fishing line and string four of the straws onto it, threading them to almost the very end of the line.

Bring the two loose ends of fishing line together and tie them in a knot so that the four straws you strung on the line form a square. From now on, we’re going to call this our “foundation square.”


Tuck the short end of the fishing line into one of the straws in the foundation square to hide it.

Now string two more straws onto the long end of the fishing line and tie a knot at one of the corners of your foundation square so that your shape looks like a house with a roof:


From now on, we are going to call that roof part an “ear.” (Just go with it.)

Tie another ear onto your foundation square by stringing two more straws onto the end of the fishing line and tying a knot at the next corner of the foundation square. Your shape should look like this:

cat ears

Repeat this process until your foundation square has four “ears.”

A foundation square with four “ears.”

(When you run out of fishing line, just tie more on making sure to hide the knot you use to secure it within one of the straws.)

When you have four ears around your foundation square, run the fishing line up through one of the ears so that it comes out through the pointy end.

Then tie the ear out of which the fishing line is protruding to the ear opposite from it to form a pyramid. Your shape should look like this:


Now thread the end of the fishing line back down to one of the corners of your foundation square and through one of the remaining “loose” ears.

Tie the ear out of which the fishing line is protruding to the ear opposite from it. Your shape should look like this:


Cute, but not very exciting, is it? This form is the basic building block that, once mastered, makes creating elaborate variations possible. Here are some simple ways to add interest to a basic four-sided ornament:

Use longer straws for two of the four sets of ears:

Use longer straws fro two of the four sets of "ears" to make a teardrop shape. (This is an ornament I made using brass straws.)
Use longer straws for two of the four sets of “ears” to make a teardrop shape. (This is an ornament I made using copper straws.)

Nest a smaller ornament inside a larger one:

Here's a small three-sided ornament nested within a larger one.
Here’s a small three-sided ornament nested within a larger one.

Hang a smaller ornament to the end of a larger one:

An ornament I made using copper straws and pieces of amber.
An ornament I made using copper straws and pieces of amber.

Or use longer straws for the foundation square and shorter straws for the ears:

himmeli ornament closeup 4

You can also hang smaller ornaments from the corners of a larger one:


The instructions I’ve provided are for making ornaments using a four-sided foundation square, but more elaborate ornaments can be made by making the foundation square five, six, seven, and even eight sided. Alternately, a simple triangle/pyramid shaped ornament can be made using a three-sided foundation.

Good luck.

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Posted in Christmas, crafting, decorating, Lithuania, Lithuania, Lithuanian traditions, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Come Swing from my Sodas

This year the P-Dawg and I are hosting Kūčios, the traditional Lithuanian Christmas Eve meal, and one tradition I really want to incorporate is the hanging of a sodas - a large geometric straw ornament – over the table where we will eat our meal (which will consist of twelve cold, vegetarian dishes made from ingredients readily available to the ancient Balts in midwinter, which is to say fish, nuts, berries, mushrooms, beetroot, and potatoes.)

Small straw ornaments have been popular in Baltic and Nordic countries for a long time as tree decorations, but what I’m talking about is a construct so ginormous and elaborate that it could knock over a small child (if it wasn’t made out of straw.)

Here is a Sodas we saw in Vilnius last year
A Sodas we saw in Vilnius last year

Sodai, or “gardens,” were geometric ornaments made from the rye straw that was so readily available in the farming culture of Lithuania, and hung over the table where the family gathered for Kūčios. Though pretty to look at, sodai were also rife with meaning. I probably don’t even have to tell you that the larger your sodas, the better the next year’s crop and the more prosperous your farm. But a lesser known fact about sodai is that they were a symbolic link between the heavens and earth (the Finnish and Swedish word for them – himmeli - is derived from the word “sky” or “heaven.”)

Those of you who read my original post about Lithuanian Christmas Eve traditions will know that in Lithuania, the heavens and earth mingle on Christmas Eve. On this night, not only do we remember our dead, but we also set a symbolic place for them at the table. According to master sodas weaver Marija Liugienė of Vilnius, the sodas must have a very specific shape that includes a pinpoint at the top to channel energy from heaven and a pinpoint at the bottom to pass it down to earth. In her estimation, the properly constructed three tiered sodas is a close approximation of the Tree of Life. And Mrs. Liugienė is not impressed with the recent trend in making sodai all willy-nilly, like in a decahedron. These, she contends, are not true sodai, but just ornamentation, and Design Sponge, Anthropologie, and Apartment Therapy can all take their decahedron sodai and shove them.*

It is imperative that the sodas have natural perpetual motion when hung. Some sources say this is so that spirits would not get trapped inside, others say the motion is a natural result of the spirits having a good time swinging from the sodas. If the sodas I made does not swing naturally, I am just going to have to blast a fan at it during our Kūčios meal. And speaking of the sodas I made, I have to tell you I’m not sure that Mrs. Liugienė would 100% approve of it because although it does have points at both the top and the bottom, it is a far, far, cry from the elaborate sodai that the ancient Lithuanians and some current ones made.

Look, I don't have time to make a sodas with five hundred equilateral pyramids. I still have to roast five pounds of beets and peel just as many potatoes.
Look, I don’t have time to make a sodas with three hundred equilateral pyramids. I still have to roast five pounds of beets and peel ten pounds of potatoes.

My sodas is not made from natural rye straw, but from white paper art straws that I ordered from Amazondotcom. I have made straw ornaments from actual straw in the past and for the most part it has been a disaster because I don’t know how many of you are aware of this, but real straw is quite brittle and not particularly conducive to being cut into equal parts with a pair of child safety scissors wielded by a lefty.

In my next post I will show you how to make a basic Lithuanian straw ornament, and that is not an empty promise.

* She didn’t really say that.

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Posted in Christmas, Lithuania, Lithuania, Lithuanian traditions | 1 Comment

Kitschy, Kitschy Kristmas

If you are looking for a totally over the top, Hollywood nostalgia themed indoor Christmas extravaganza and can get past the fact that it is staged within a former church building, then have I got the place for you!

Castle Noel in Medina, Ohio is the brainchild and all-consuming passion of one Mark Klaus (real name). Mister Klaus bears an almost uncanny resemblance to Santa himself and he really, really loves Christmas.

He has turned the former Medina United Methodist Church and its adjacent buildings into what is nebulously billed as “America’s Largest Indoor Christmas Entertainment Attraction,” full of vintage toys, holiday window displays from New York department stores, and props and costumes from Hollywood Christmas movie sets.

The tagline would almost be comical, if it weren’t so appropriate. Because Castle Noel is kind of a museum, but also kind of an amusement park (if you count the giant slide down “Santa Claus Mountain” and the walk through the polar vortex and the squeeze through the simulated chimney.) And starting in January of 2015, it will also feature a miniature golf course.

I don’t want to give too much away, but inside Castle Noel you can see cousin Eddy’s RV from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Will Ferrell’s Elf costume, and Tim Allen’s head.

This Year's Christmas card. Better with red eye!
Totally Unedited
Will Farrell's Elf costume. Really not that impressive without Will Farrel filling it out.
The Elf costume. Not that impressive without Will Ferrell to fill it out.
Tim Allen's Head
Tim Allen’s Head

I really liked the animated window displays from Bloomingdales, Macy’s, and Lord & Taylor, and though they were not as magical as I remembered holiday window displays being, I could see, watching my own kids take them in, that they are still amazing through the eyes of a child.

Moulin Rouge Window Display
Moulin Rouge Window Display

But I think my favorite part of the whole deal was the “restoration room,” where piles of old costumes and movie props await their turn to shine.

Restoration Area Doll

Restoration Area Headless
Something very bad happened to this elf.


 Headless bodies and bodiless heads seem to be a recurring theme at Castle Noel.

Even though I just recently dismounted from my “Christmas can be secular” soapbox, I will say that it felt a little weird to walk through the displays that are in what obviously used to be the chapel and main sanctuary. Just something a bit unsettling about sitting in a church pew watching clips of vintage Hollywood Christmas specials while fake snow sprays from overhead nozzles. Or, for that matter, about sliding down Santa Claus Mountain with a view of a stained glass window that has been covered over with glitter paper in shades of Whoville pink and green.

If you live in Northeast Ohio and decide to go to Castle Noel, I recommend making an advance reservation for a guided tour slot through their website. Castle Noel is, after all, “America’s Largest Indoor Christmas Entertainment Attraction.”

Christmas Mountain Santa Photo Op and Slide
You can slide down Santa Claus Mountain just like Ralphie in the Christmas Story! I think this is where the pulpit used to be.
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Posted in Christmas, Cool Cleveland | Leave a comment