Archive for August, 2012

Making Time by Making Toys: guest essay by Mark R. Brand

We managed to construct our own custom action figures, which, speaking as someone who lived through the 80s–arguably the best decade ever for action figures–is pretty goddamned cool.


It seems like everywhere I look there are dad–writer dads in particular–staying home with their kids this summer. My north shore suburban pal Jason Fisk (, who teaches middle school English, is home with his son and daughter, as is Patrick Wensink (, who recently made the top 10 sellers list in books at, and my good friend Paul Hughes (, Executive Editor of Silverthought Press, who is the main event in a summer-long festival of fun for his own two toddler boys. The list goes on, and in all sorts of variations. Some of us are in it for the indefinite future, and some just till school starts again, but we’re in it, and (if Facebook statuses and photo albums are any indication) doing it up right.

One of the biggest challenges is just finding something to do, day after day, with energetic, enthusiastic, attentive, inquisitive, and seemingly tireless little people. So far as I know, none of us are made of money, so even the indulgences we do allow ourselves have to be carefully spaced out and controlled so as not to Chuck E. Cheese our way into financial problems. And how exactly do you do that during a Chicago summer like this when the mercury regularly tops 95 degrees for most of the afternoon, marooning you indoors almost as effectively as a blizzard?

Customizing your toys.

Let me explain. Around Christmastime last year I discovered that I worked right around the corner from Rotofugi Chicago (, which is one of these new “Art Toy” stores that sell the peculiar fist-sized vinyl toys (sometimes called “Urban Vinyl”  popular in Japan and increasingly popular in the US in various places. I’m coming way, way late to this party of course, but there’s evidently a whole movement started in the mid 2000’s by musicians, artists, and street-art creative types who made their own custom limited toylines. A company called Kidrobot ( eventually brought this to the rest of us by making small, blank vinyl dolls (which I found at Rotofugi but can also be had at places like Barnes and Noble) called “Munny”s. (Munny, presumably because the original doll was shaped like a miniature cartoon monkey.) They have all sorts now, a cat, a bear, a crocodile, a giraffe, a kangaroo, a bunny, and all of them come with some sort of random equally cartoonish accessory you can use to make your own custom toy. I got one for John at Christmas and made him one, and we’ve made three more so far this summer.

We happened to get a Mini Munny (which is what they call the 4″ ones, they come in several sizes) named “Bub” who was shaped, as far as I can tell, sort of like a little bear. Bub came with a little plastic spear, and of course John immediately said “let’s make him a knight, no wait, a knight that’s a castle guard.” Why a castle guard seemed preferable to a knight, I’m not sure, but we went about it anyway. First I took the blank and added some armor and details to him with bakeable Sculpey clay. Then we baked him on a cookie sheet to harden everything and went about painting him.

Here’s john working on the spear with some basic acrylic paints, which have the dual helpfulness of being both very cheap and easily washable.




I put two coats of spray-on Krylon Matte Finish on him, and he’s ready to play with, alongside the other Munny (a secret agent I made from a blank named “Foomi”).





After creating the secret agent and knight, I brought home two more blanks, a crocodile named “Kracka” and a cat named “Trikky”. I consulted John about what we should make them into, and he said he wanted a viking and a ninja. Specifically a brown-colored ninja. “Trikky” came with an axe as his random accessory, so that was easy enough, but I thought the cat would make a better ninja, so first we made “Kracka” into the viking.

I got a bit more adventurous with the sculpting this time, adding the helmet, horns, beard, and the shield that had to be baked separately. All of these of course are meant to be regular toys mixed in with John’s other toys, and I wanted to see how the Sculpey clay would stand being played with, so I glued everything down and double-coated the whole figure with Krylon matte finish. So far, a week later and even after being played with by John’s younger cousin Gabriel who is three and a half, I’ve only had to glue one horn back on this one after I accidentally knocked it off of a high shelf.

With the cat one, I decided to go for broke. John was firm on wanting a ninja, and my thought was that it wasn’t going to look cool unless I added a bunch of details and sculpted stuff to it. Here’s the cookie sheet with him in pieces right before we baked all of the Sculpey on. The figures are soft vinyl, but they’ll survive 15 minutes in the oven at 275.

Then I re-attached the arms and head and glued together all of the separate hardened pieces and made sure that his arms and head could swing freely without breaking anything off or rubbing against each other.

 John helped paint the body a light brown and decided that the bird on his head (“Kracka”s random accessory) should look red like one of the Angry Birds. I did the detail work after it dried. With these, you have to do lots of coats of thin, watered down acrylic paint in order to get a nice even tone that doesn’t look brushed-on and lumpy. It takes a while, so be patient if you try it. As you can see from the picture we painted it right in front of the air conditioner to help it dry quickly between coats.

 With all the extra stuff I added to the blank figure, the ninja cat (John and I named him and his bird Twitchy and Richelieu) is the most fragile of the four. I’ve had to repair the sculpted ends of his mask ties several times, and I’m kicking myself now that I didn’t find some way to use a cloth mask instead of sculpting it. Sculpey is relatively springy (like hard plastic), but when it’s thin, it’s easy to snap off if you push on it too hard. Otherwise, though, these toys are surprisingly good to go in terms of play. Once they’re Krylon-ed, they can withstand water and pizza sauce fingers and being put in a toy box with each other without chipping or losing much/any paint. John hasn’t taken any of them into the bathtub yet, but I suspect they’d survive it.





So at the cost of about a day’s work each, we managed to construct our own custom action figures, which speaking as someone who lived through the 80’s–arguably the best decade ever for action figures–is pretty goddamned cool. The blanks are $10 and can be bought at Rotofugi ( Chicago,, and Barnes and Noble. If you’re in the Chicago area, I highly recommend stopping into Rotofugi just to see what the whole Urban Vinyl craze is about.

Mark R. Brand is a Chicago-based science-fiction author and the online short fiction editor of Silverthought Press. He is the author of three novels, The Damnation of Memory (2011), Life After Sleep (2011), and Red Ivy Afternoon (2006), and he is the editor of the collection Thank You Death Robot (2009), named a Chicago Author favorite by the Chicago Tribune and recipient of the Silver medal 2009 Independent Publisher Book Award (IPPY) in the category of Science Fiction and Fantasy. He is the producer and host of Breakfast With the Author and lives in Evanston, IL with his wife and son.


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Summer pickings: making the most out of austerity

Day ten of not eating out. August means austerity. It’s not bad if you plan ahead, at which the frugal are adept. I am neither. The hardest part is the thoughtfulness of it all. Eating out, I know the kids are going to order from the kids menu, I know it’s going to be crap, and I know it’ll make them happy. There’s a pleasant surrender to it all, a break from trying to sneak nutrition into something they’ll enjoy. Eating out means I don’t have to puree shit.

Even for an adult there’s a complex compromise when you’re going out to eat, your sense of entitlement (“I’m paying for it”) butts against good sense (“I’m gonna pay for it”). Steamed broccoli I can make at home for cheap, those hand cut fancy fatty french fries, well, sure, I can’t get that at home. Cause I won’t make it. Cause I know better.

I guess we’re eating healthier. Lazy nights I call frozen nights, and throw in a pizza, or corn dogs, or veggie rolls. At least it’s not deep fried. We’re saving money. No, we’re not spending as much money. About $10/day on food. One of the problems with eating out, as a retired service industry schlep, is that I know we’re getting ripped off. The ambiance, the place, is worth it only with my wife. As in my wife only. Without kids.

Sure is easy, though. Cooking is work. Actually, cooking is fun—the cleaning up is work. It’s the opposite feeling of eating out. A big effort for an unknowable reward. Earlier in the month, before full austerity set in, we were low on food and I was low on energy and ideas. Then I remembered the juicy red globes on the vine in our new garden. Childhood. Grandma’s gravy. “We’re having pasta,” I told the kids. The boy whined. Gravy, or sauce as he knows it, is textured too inconsistently for his picky ass.

I googled. There was a recipe calling for a “mixe roux”, sautéing butter and olive oil with carrots, celery, and garlic, then putting deseeded tomatoes in there. It was such a longshot I didn’t bookmark it, and since the boy wasn’t going to eat it I made it how I wanted it, adding onion, Italian seasonings, and a baby pepper from the garden. Then I dumped in four skinned and deseeded tomatoes. Added a small can of paste. Some water. Sauteed it. Kept it bland, just in case. Pureed the shit. Made sure the kids were starved. Poured it over angel hair.

They ate every bite. No refills, but they ate all that was served. It was all vegetables. Organic and homegrown. Pretty good too with a sprinkle of crushed red. They’ve had pasta twice in the past ten days. Tomato vines have been plucked free, which is good, cause the kids were going to get sick of it.

What a simple joy of getting dinner from your backyard. Probably wouldn’t have happened if not for the austerity measures. For everything that sucks about being tight—and there is a lot—it at least demands ingenuity. And complaints.

Here’s the recipe:


Some olive oil

Some butter

1 carrot

1 celery

some garlic

1 small pepper

1 onion

Italian seasoning (oregano and basil and salt and shit)

4-5 tomatoes

6 oz can of tomato paste

some water

  1. Whisk oil and butter together over med-low heat. Saute chopped veggies (except for tomatoes) and garlic until limpish.
  2. Boil tomatoes for 3-5 minutes, then take them out and put em in a bowl of ice so you can peel the skin off. Deseed. Put skinned and deseeded maters in the mix.
  3. Add paste to desired consistency, same with water. Seasonings. Stir and cook til it smells good.
  4. Puree the shit.

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Day trippin’ and sand surfing: a family day at the beach


Even on its windiest days, Chicago’s stretch of Lake Michigan doesn’t have the kind of rolls you need to surf. It has waves, choppy, intermittent, and oftentimes violent. It is a reflection of its environs, sometimes majestic, sometimes menacing, reliably unpredictable, never surfable. Lake Michigan is so much greater than Chicago.

On the other side of that shapeshifting mirror, there was surfing. So she was told. For a girl who surfed both coasts and was now a landlocked Midwestern, the grail of this mystical third coast was worth pursuing.

She awoke at four a.m. to load the van, whip up her slumbering husband and her wayward mother, rouse her two kids, and inspire her teenage brother with tales of the surf, and take us all around the southernmost tip of the Great lakes to a lone surfshop in New Buffalo, then on up the shore to Warren Dunes State Park in Michigan.

A mere eighty-five miles from Chicago, the Dunes rose more than twenty stories above the shore, a massive mountain of sand set against a clear blue shoreline far removed from any industry. Yet there was a strange calm, an anomalous unwindy day, presage for the storms to come, perhaps, creating conditions for surfing in the imagination only.

The fish in her would not be deterred.  She rented a paddle board, essentially a wide flat surfboard to stand on and to be navigated and propelled with a paddle. And she rented two sand boards, snowboards for the sand, so she and her brother could surf down the dunes. By this point, the lack of waves didn’t matter: everyone was made happy by the balm of the beach and the panacea of wide open water, which the boy referred to as “the pool.”

And it was lovely, clean, clear, cool, a baptismal font that washes away your workaday worries and returns to the state of grace of existing in the moment. The beach was crowded but because it was so expansive it was not Chicago crowded. You had your own space right on the shoreline, and there was no one jostling, bumping, jumping, or thrown into you.

We played Frisbee on the sandbar, monkeyed in the middle, kick boarded, paddle boarded, body boarded, swam with the fishes, her husband took a nap, her kids slid down a three-story bounce-house water slide, her mother frolicked and boarded, her brother and her surfed the grudging dunes. Then the sky went black, the wind whipped umbrellas and gear, horizontal fingers of sand and storm strafed the beach, and everyone ran for cover. The PA warned of tornadoes. There was flash flooding. An hour later it passed. Night came. Ninety minutes later we were home.

In a summer full of highlights, three generations got to have a day at the beach. We’ll be back, surfboards optional.





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The kids’ first Sox game; a first for a Cubs dad

No pictures of the kids with Wrigley’s mascot, Drunk Bro

Took my kids to their first White Sox game last night. At the Cell. They’re six and almost five. This is the first year we haven’t been to Wrigley.

We bought them Sox t-shirts. I wore my Cubs hat. We were giving them a choice.

We brought my mother- and brother-in-law, who we’ve never taken to Wrigley.

Tickets were half-price. There were $7 seats. We went big: bleachers for $17. We would’ve paid the same for our six Sox tickets as one Wrigley bleacher ticket. We tailgated with Izzys and Shandys. We supped at Freddie’s in Bridgeport.

Four solo home runs were hit to our section; two were followed by fireworks. I spent fifteen minutes effusing how awesome pitcher Chris Sale’s play was by stuffing the go-ahead suicide(safety?) squeeze attempt by the Royals in the 8th. I cheered for the Sox. Multiple times. I accepted the jeers at my hat.

Though the kids were not allowed to play in the awesome kids FUNdamentals area (they were wearing sandals—rookies!), they were engaged the whole game and did not ask to leave once. The White Sox were not the only winners.

We were home by 10pm.

Still, I prefer Wrigley.

I am a Cubs fan. Surprisingly, last night I rooted for the Sox. Can you cheer both? Sure. Can you love them both equally? No. These are not your kids.

I respect the Sox and appreciate the park, and as a father The Cell is a better all-around experience. But as a baseball fan, Wrigley is better. All the criticisms Sox fans have about Wrigley could be said about the Cell, so let’s move beyond that. Because it’s so old, so outdated, Wrigley is about the baseball. It is less amusement park than modern parks. This is not always a good thing, especially with young kids. The only thing to do at Wrigley is watch the game. (And for many, get hammered in the sun.) Because the seats are so tight, because there’s nothing to do but watch baseball, because there is full and necessary immersion in the park and its neighborhood, games at Wrigley are more intimate, are more of a shared experience, than at places like The Cell. For good or bad, you get to know the people around you, the fans (ideally). That, and the game itself, the great green spread of grass, are the main reasons you go. While the experience at the Cell was great, a game at Wrigley is better. Purer. I admit this while also admitting that the Cubs will not win a world series until they obliterate Wrigley.

There’s nothing simple about being a baseball fan in Chicago.

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