Sunday, August 4, 2013

Lessons from BlogHer '13

Wren at convention

BlogHer '13—my first blogging convention—was last weekend. And I learned a lot! For example:

#1 No Russians are reading my blog.
When I look at the statistics for who's looking at Smalltropolis, it's very impressive. For example, today I have 43 pageviews from Latvia. Switzerland is represented, as is France, Denmark, China. Just a world-wide appeal I have goin' on. (Gloat.) Thing is, as I learned at BlogHer, that's almost certainly because the analytics I'm looking at aren't very accurate. Lots of spam is included. To get the real numbers, I need to sign up for Google Analytics. Блин!

#2. Great photography doesn't come from the womb.
The kick-off keynote speaker was Ree Drummond. I'd certainly admired the beautiful photography on her blog, The Pioneer Woman multiple times, so it was pretty enlightening when she showed some of her early photos. They were, quite simply, dreadful. It really drove home how good writing and good photography aren't talents people are born with. They take work, which gives me hope, because this blog certainly isn't where I want it to be yet. I mean, what is going on with the photo-shopped quality of the pic above? And if no Russians are reading this, how funny is it really to throw in a (mild) Russian swear word that few American readers will get? No question, I have a lot of work to do. (Блин!)

#3 Make the small feel big.
At the "Newbie Breakfast" we were given thoughts on how to network: Be curious about people, initiate conversation, be the one who notices those hovering on the edge of a group and invite them in. Make people feel important—it's good advice. I vowed to try it.

Towards the end of the day, I was walking down a fairly empty hall. Lisa Stone, one of the co-founders and CEO of BlogHer, was walking towards me. As we came closer to each other, she said hello. Nothing surprising there, except in the way she said it. It was as though she knew me, as though she cared, as though, well, as though I was somebody.

"That's why she's the CEO!" I thought to myself. I need to learn how to do that. "Hello!!" I said back to her.

She smiled. My technique wasn't quite there. I guess it's something else to work on. (Блин!)


Sunday, July 28, 2013

A blogging convention? You'll need business cards!


Blogher 2013 was this weekend. It was the first blogging convention I've ever attended (I'll post more reports in the coming days.) Though I was excited, I wasn't exactly at my best about getting ready. I knew I needed business cards for it but I waited until, oh, uh, the night before to make them. And then I was super tired, having gardened like a maniac all day. I woefully asked Jay to help me.

For a few minutes we silently sat cutting. (Well, OK, I was lying on the floor. What can I say, I'm pretty adept with sharp objects.) Finally (irritated) Jay said, "How many did you make?"


"You're not going to need 200 business cards!"

"Alright. This stack will make 100. We'll stop there."

"I think that will be plenty."

"And I could take my scissors and cut up the rest while I'm there."

He stared at me for a moment, then—adopting a fake voice—"Yea, there was this really weird woman who sat in the corner all day, cutting up business cards."

Ah, the funniest lines cut so close to the bone, don't they? I mean sitting in the corner, cutting something up is...well, this wouldn't be a precedent.

So the next morning I headed to the convention center with my hand-cut, mildly-embarrassing but perfectly serviceable, xeroxed business cards. And no scissors.


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Garden project: strawberry bed!

A better return on investment that tech stocks in the '90s, the six 50¢ strawberry plants I purchased five years ago have yielded probably a hundred pounds of strawberries.

They've also created a wild, unpickable bed.

In the photo below, you can see the bed in 2009. The strawberries are just above where it says "Smalltropolis".

Strawberries 2009

Here's what the bed turned into:


Time to show these things who's boss! I'm reigning this mess in, and and adding some paths for access!

IMG_2619 Day One:

I mark out the borders of the bed and where the paths will go. I clear the first section. It kills me to throw perfectly good strawberry plants away but I have a bazillion of them and trying to move them or give them to neighbors will make a big job even more monumental.

Globe arborvitae will make a little hedge in the back section, which will mirror the boxwood hedge at the front of this bed (not shown in this picture.) I mark out where the plants will go.

By the time I get them in the ground, it's way past lunch and I'm exhausted.

I come back after lunch, mulch them in, take the tags off, and I'm done for the day!

Day Two:
I get the bottle edging put in and add more mulch.

Day Three:
I get the second section cleared.

More bottle edging. More mulch.

Flagstone pavers go in and Elfin Thyme ground cover.

So, that's as far as things are at the moment. I'll post more updates as it gets further along.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Are we there yet?


There are three robin fledglings in the garden. When Jay and I noticed them (probably one of their first days out of the nest), they were each hiding in a different shrub. The mother was nearby, making a very loud, very high-pitched sound, over and over.

It was the highest alert sound for a robin—what they use when a predator flies overhead. Jay was quite amused that we were on par with a hawk, but to me it was interesting that the sound clearly meant: "Be very still!" And the little fledglings did exactly that.

Perhaps it was how motionless they were, but they seemed terrified. So small, so fragile, they were both beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time.

That was only a few days ago. Now they fly up into the giant tree in our neighbor's yard and come back to land on the telephone wire with a whoa-oa-oa…as it swings back and forth. It's funny to see them, frantically flapping their wings, trying to keep their balance. They've come so far, and yet they clearly have a few things to learn.

I can relate. Last year I decided to become a fitness instructor. After six months of aerobics teacher training and studying for the certification test, I still feel, well, ridiculous. I'm too old. I'm not athletic enough. I feel horribly insecure about it all. Maybe I'll just stay right here in my little spot and hope nobody sees me.

But that's not how it works, does it? At some point, you have to make your move...even if you're not ready. Or as Jay tells me, "You've got to give yourself room to be bad for a while."

I don't like that. I want to be a great teacher. I want to be confidant. I want to fly to the treetops and then land gracefully! And I want it now.

Isn't that the worst part of learning something new? The time it takes, the patience it forces? Ugh.

With hard work and perseverance, I know I can be a good teacher. Just not today, little bird. Just not today.


Thursday, June 6, 2013

It's my blog and I'll post if I want to.

Wren helps with a post

Over two years now I've been blogging. No, that's not right. Over two years now they've been blogging: the dolls, the puppets, the opinionated inanimate objects that populate my world. That's how I set up the "rules" of Smalltropolis. Readers never see or hear from me. It's all them: their diatribes on pollution, their how-tos on baking, their musings on the world at small.

But now, increasingly, I want to speak. It seems some of the most interesting, funny, even enlightening thoughts are not from them, they're about them. Or maybe they're about me. Or maybe I'd just like to think I'm at least as interesting as a tiny version of myself!

But what about my readers? Will they be confused? I mean, all along we've been pretending there are no adults home, there's no meta in my micro, right? Why the sudden shift? Will it put people off?

My husband, (you'll know him as "Jay") got an earful of this over breakfast: "I'm starting to have followers! It's not into double digits or anything but there are people out there, reading what I write. And some of them aren't even related to me! So is it wrong to change my "rules?" Maybe I should start a new blog. But would dolls post on it too, or just humans? "

"What's Rule Number One?" he sighed.

"Do what you want."

"And Rule Number Two?"

"Pay attention to Rule Number One."

"OK, then." He got up to carry his bowl to the sink.


"Just pretend you're Wren and write a post about it."

….and that, dear readers, is how Smalltropolis just got a little bit bigger.

Jill Holly

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

You are not a Jedi yet, young gardener

Wren in the garden
Corner house + double lot + 10-foot parkways = whole lotta lawn. And that lawn had been ignored for years when we bought the house. Moving in, we admired the pretty white flowers covering the grass.

Uhhh. Yea. Those would be bindweed flowers. Bindweed, nicknamed "Devil's Guts," is an invasive weed with roots 20 feet deep and 30 feet wide. Or more. Even the tiniest bit of root propagates a new plant. Not that that's necessary: the seeds are viable for 60 years.

Once I realized what a monster it was, I knew I had to get rid of it. So, being a devout organic gardener, I tried heavy mulching, black-plastic solarization, clear-plastic solarization, hoeing, tilling, pepper spray, vinegar spray, weed torches, salt, soap, hand pulling, and ultimately hair pulling. I kept reading cheery accounts of how these methods worked on any weed, but my 7,500 square feet of heavy, well-established infestation gave not an inch.

So I began reading up on chemicals.

It's a classic tale of how one goes to the dark side. I was desperate and both 2,4-D and glyphosate, ingredients in common herbicides, lured me with magic bullets — they supposedly killed bindweed. So I dutifully researched what these chemicals do once released into the environment and decided it was OK; I could indeed bed down with Monsanto.

One trip to the hardware store later, I was suiting up in full haz-mat gear. In the flower beds (I wasn't yet growing veggies), I delicately painted Round-up on bindweed leaves with a brush. The lawn I sprayed.

Bindweed leaves started turning brown within hours. And, after a couple of applications, the plants died. They DIED. Jay dubbed Round-up "Die Mother F*%#@~*!," which I shortened to DMF.

DMF became a big part of our lives, and our vocabulary. It could be a noun: "I need to buy more DMF." A verb: "I just DMF'ed that." An adjective: "The DMF'ed leaves are already brown." You get the drift. It got to the point where I forgot the actual name of the product. When friends asked how I was finally winning the war on bindweed, I just went blank. "My ally is the force and a powerful ally it is?"

I started this fight over ten years ago. Almost all the bindweed is gone. Yea, "almost all." I don't think I'll ever be completely free of it and I don't think I'll ever be completely organic again. But I'm OK with that.

Perhaps I'm older and more mellowed or perhaps I've learned that gardening, like life, offers little perfection. You get things as good as you can and you try to enjoy the process. You know, when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. And when life gives you bindweed, you get our your rubber gloves, your raggedy foam brush and your jar of DMF.


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Michael Pollan lecture

Wren with Michael Pollan

"Lean in!" That's the new catch phrase, isn't it? And here I am doing exactly that as Michael Pollen talks about his new book, "Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation."

I've long been a fan of Pollan's, starting with his very first book, which was about his discovery of gardening. Of course, once he got on the topic of food, he really had me, since it's one of my main interests.

His new book, as the title suggests, is about cooking. I haven't read it yet, but in the lecture, he offered a few tidbits. The book covers some of the history of cooking and its effect on the development of human beings. It also talks about what impact cooking has on your health. He said whether or not you cook is more of an indicator of your overall health than the types of food you eat. He also said that, on average, Americans spend more time watching TV shows about cooking than actually cooking. Hm...interesting. And surprising. I can hardly wait to read the book!


Friday, February 15, 2013

Presidents' Day Party...decorations

Presidents' Day party decor

The invitations, the food, the food labels, even the extra food labels are all done. How about some decorations?

In addition to red, white, and blue dishes and napkins, I've got balloons and streamers to put up. Maybe you'll even want some bunting for your table.

Then, for extra fun, I searched the internet for presidential campaign posters, glued them to colored paper and strung them up on giant red rick rack. It was easy and you can find tons of posters on-line. Here are a few to get you started.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Presidents' Day Party...more food labels!

My RSVPs are coming in and fast and furious and people are offering to bring food! My food will all have fun, crazy labels on it. It just seems polite to have labels for what other folks bring.

So, I've created a few more general labels to have ready for other dishes. These would also work if you have a favorite party dish you want to serve but it didn't fit in with any of the labels I gave you already.

Oh, and Happy Valentine's Day!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Presidents' Day labels

Presidents' day party food labels

You've sent out the invitations and made all the food, now here's a way to let people know what they're eating at your party. Just print and cut out these labels. They can be attached to bowls with clothes pins or stuck right into the food with kabob sticks. Maybe just use ribbons to tie them to serving baskets.

For bonus points, decorate them with stickers, fringe or other trim!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Presidents' Day

Are you throwing a Presidents' Day party with me? We've sent out the invitations, now we're deciding the food.

You could go with recipes that Presidents and their wives actually used. Here's a link to a few of those. There's even a cookbook you can get for some more.

But I've decided to go a bit wackier. Here's my menu:

Buchanan Bourguignon
Theodore Rollsevelts
Washington Redskins
Lincoln Logs
Millard Filberts
Chestnuts A. Arthur
Calvin Coolwhip Cake
Ford Model Tea

Although I want the food to be fun and definitely tasty, I've tried to choose things I can either purchase pre-made, make ahead, or just aren't too labor intensive.

For the Buchanon Bourguignon, you can use any Beef Bourguignon or beef stew recipe and throw it in the slow cooker. Here's an example on

For the Theodore Rollsevelts, go easy by purchasing some nice bakery rolls, or get crazy ambitious with something off the King Arthur Flour site, like these.

For Washington Redskins, these from Domestic Fits sound delicious, but you could just as easily top boiled baby red potatoes with a store-bought sour cream dip.

Lincoln Logs? Go easy with store-bought cheese logs. Or try this one from Martha Stewart.

FDROs You could go way simple and just get a bag of Funyuns or make something like this Cheerios snack from

Bushmeat? Think deli tray. I'm getting some delicious sausage from our local Lithuanian bakery.

Filberts are another name for hazelnuts. Here's a great-sounding recipe for spiced hazelnuts from

For Chestnuts A. Arthur, I'll have to find a place to buy chestnuts so I can make this from If not, there's no shortage of recipes on line for bacon-wrapped water chestnuts.

LBJ PBJs will be peanut butter and jelly cookies. offers this chocolaty one with blackberry jam or here's a more classic one from Martha Stewart.

Your Calvin Coolwhip Cake could easily be a whipped cream cake from the store, or one of the many recipes on-line. Or try something more subtle (with no apparent whipped cream!) like this Martha one.

Ford Model Tea can come in many colors, as long it's black. To keep it caffeine-free, think blackberry. Make your own, go easy with teabags, or spice it up a bit, ala the mayo clinic!

Lots of ideas there. And soon I'll post some fun labels you can print out and put next to each of these items. I'll also post some decoration ideas.

Happy party planning!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Super easy, super dark curtain liners

How dark is your bedroom at night? Lots of studies show that the darker it is, the better you sleep. So if your curtains are too thin to block much light, here's a tutorial for you!

I choose black ripstop nylon for my liners because it really blocks light and it's lightweight. (Just make sure your curtains are heavy enough that you can't see the black through them.) I then lined the liners with muslin because I didn't want it to look, from the outside, as though I have black curtains!

To get the width of your liner, measure the distance on your curtains between the side hem stitching lines. (So not quite the full width of the curtain.) To get the length, measure from the bottom of the rod pocket to about half-way down the bottom hem. Add 1/2 inch seam allowance on all sides. This is how much ripstop nylon you'll need. Now add 4 inches to the width and 4 inches to the length. This is how much muslin you'll need. I was making two curtain liners but I got them both out of really wide muslin.

4 inches from bottom
Cut a 4 inch strip off the length of the muslin and pin it (right sides together if it matters) to the nylon 3 1/2 inches from the bottom. Sew at the 1/2 mark. (You're sewing 4 inches from the bottom of the nylon.)

Press down
Flip the muslin over and press. If you've sewn a little inacurately and it doesn't quite line up, just trim off the longer piece, whether it's the nylon or the muslin. You want them the same length.

Pin muslin
Pin the large piece of muslin (which should now be the same length but 4 inches wider) to the nylon, right sides together.

Stitch 1/2 inch from the edge.

Sew 1 inch from edge
Now stitch 1/2 in from your first line of stitching.

create pleat
Take the muslin and pinch it over on the edges to create a pleat of about 1/2 inch. Do this on both sides. What you want is to take up that extra 4 inches of width so that the muslin is the same width as the nylon. Adjust the pleats until the muslin is nice and flat across the width of the liner. Pin in place and stitch the bottom of the liner with 1/2 seam allowance.

Do the same with the top of the liner as well but leave a gap of about 5-6 inches for turning.

Turn the liner right side out.

Press liner
Press. The nylon side of the liner will have about a 3 1/2 inch band of muslin at the bottom and about 1 inch on the sides. At the top of the liner, the muslin and nylon are even. At the gap you left for turning, press under 1/2 inch. You'll be stitching over this in a minute so you don't need to sew it closed.

Pin in place
Find the center of the curtain and the center of the liner by folding each in half and pinning. Line up the centers and pin the liner, nylon side to the wrong side of the curtain, just under the rod pocket. Work your way out to the sides, pinning the liner in place. If the widths aren't exact, try easing in the fullness as best you can, so that the liner comes just to the edge of the side hem. It's your choice whether to pin from the liner side or from the front of the curtain but it's much more accurate to sew from the front. (I first pinned from the back, to make sure the liner was right up next to the pocket edge. Then I moved the pins to the front.)

Stitch ontop
Turn the curtain over and sew about 1/4 inch lower than the rod pocket stitching line. Make sure you use the right color top and bobbin threads. If you're using two different colors, like I did, make sure the tension is correct on your machine, so the thread doesn't peek through.

From the back of the curtain, you'll have just caught the top of the liner, just below the stitching line for the rod pocket.

Tack edges
Hang up the curtain and tack the liner in place, about half way down the sides and at the bottom corners.
Wren sewing
Enjoy your nice dark curtains!

Monday, January 28, 2013

Presidents' Day Party...Invitation

Picture 1

I'm throwing a Presidents' Day party and you can too. I'll help you out! We still have a couple of weeks to plan it, so check back often and see what I've posted to help you get ready. Today I'm giving you the invitations. Better print them out and get them sent off soon!

P.S., In the coming days, look for posts on food and decorations for the party!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Released back to the universe

Shabby chic table
Sometimes you know you should get rid of something. But you don't. You hem. You haw. You put off. Never mind that you don't seem to have a space for it. Or a need. Or even a good excuse. You know you ought to move it along and yet you just don't do it.

These are the times I remind myself of secondhand treasures I've found. They are things that are meaningful to me, things I love, but I have them only because someone else released them.

I found this table in an alley, brought it home, and have moved it from corner to corner in my basement...for several years now. I love its character but it just doesn't fit in my house, or my life.

Today I let it go.

I was almost certain no one would want it. It's too chippy, too beat up. But I couldn't bear it to go in a landfill, so I put it on Craigslist. I figured it was a very long shot, but with a low asking price, who knows?

It didn't even take five minutes before I heard from Kris. She (I figured it was a woman. Don't men usually spell that name with a C?) would swing by after work.

Turns out it was a Kris-Kristofferson-type Kris: longish hair, big laugh, even bigger parka. He had a cottage in Wisconsin to furnish.


I took his five dollars and ran (ran!) upstairs to tell Jay. Talk about perfection! A cottage in Wisconsin!

I know it's just a table. But I found enough generosity in my heart to let go of something I didn't need and in return, it felt like the universe righted itself, just a little bit.

Or at least it brought its table home.


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Annual sugar consumption...what's yours?

I've always loved chocolate chip cookies, or as my best friend and I called them, CCCs. We could eat a bag in one sitting. "Chips Ahoy!" Yes, matey, even the name seemed to call to us. We'd wash them down with a gallon of milk and then lay around in our hot, sticky dorm room, lounging off the sugar coma, not even remotely sorry for what we'd done. Uhhhhh, even now I'm feeling the craving coming over me. I don't do crazy things like that anymore.

Well, maybe it's a little crazy to keep track of how much sugar you eat in a year. But that's what I'm going to do. I read in an article that the average annual sugar consumption in the U.S. is about 150 pounds. Maybe it's some tiny scrap of competitiveness finally surging within me, but I'm curious as to how I measure up.

Picture 1

In this chart published by the USDA, you can see that Americans, on average, consume 65.6 pounds of cane and beet sugar. I'm not sure how I'll compare to that but I can make good guesses about the other two categories. I'm pretty allergic to high fructose corn syrup so I do everything I can to avoid it. Honey, on the other hand, is an important staple in our household. I think I'll go well over the pound and a half average!

So how am I going to do it?

First, I'll break it into two categories: at home sugar consumption and outside sugar consumption.

I bake a lot so, for me, the first category is as important, if not more so, than the second. It will also be easier to measure. I'll simply take note of how much sugar I have in the house currently, keep track of how much I buy during the year, and subtract what's left in my pantry at the end of the year. Of course, Jay will eat some of what I bake, so I'll divide this in half. (Or take 60%? Do I eat more of my baked goods than Jay?)

For sweets consumed outside the house, I'll just have to keep a record and make my best guess as to how much sugar is in the item. At the end, I'll also round up a pound or two since sugar is in so many things you wouldn't suspect: sauces, breads, etc.

I think this should give me a reasonably accurate estimate of my annual sugar consumption. Plus, I'm hoping that, by being more aware of it, (and having to note it!), I might lower my consumption a bit outside the house.

So, let's see what happens! At the moment, I'm in the middle of my annual New Year's six-week sugar fast, so consumption is almost zero. (I say almost because there's been a few cheats. Fortunately, there have been few enough that I can remember them all and will record them!)


Friday, January 18, 2013

Fabric Magnet Tutorial

Fabric Magnets

Writing your New Year's Resolutions or goals for the year is great but almost as important as writing them down is remembering them! So to help you stick them up where you'll see them often, I'm going to show you how to make magnets out of scrap fabric and free advertising magnets.

  Free magnets

Start by collecting some magnets. You could also use magnetic tape.

 Remove coating

 Peel back the plastic-y coating on the magnets. Use your fingernail or an X-acto to get it started. I had better luck with some magnets than others. You don't have to get every tiny scrap off but get as much as you can, while leaving most of the paper coating on.

Cut magnets

Use the magnets full size or cut them smaller or into interesting shapes. Using regular white glue, put a fair amount on the paper side of the magnet. Use your finger to spread it smooth.

  Glue magnet on

 Glue the magnet to the wrong side of some scrap fabric. Cut along the edges of the fabric to finish your magnet. (With the more intricate shapes, I had to use tiny craft scissors and even an X-acto to get all the threads out of the tiny corners!)

  Wren with new magnet and goals

Now, stick up those lists of goals! I put mine on the side of the fridge.

Friday, January 4, 2013

How to set goals

Wren writing goals

 Do you write New Year's resolutions? Here are a few tips for making successful resolutions or setting goals at any time of the year:

Goals should be:

1. Measurable
The very best goals are measurable and specific. The reason for this is simple: how will you know when you've achieved your goal if there is no clear finish line? It seems obvious and yet this is one of the biggest problems most people have when they set goals. Here are some examples: "Lose five pounds" is better than "Lose weight." "Be able to run three miles and do five pull ups" is better than "Get in shape." "Spend fifteen minutes a day studying" is better than "Learn French."

Furthermore, if you just write a goal like "Enjoy life more" or "Be healthier," not only is it hard to know just when you've achieved this, it's hard to even know where to start. It takes more work to write a measurable and specific goal but just by defining your goal, you're closer to making it reality. For example, what does "Enjoy life more" mean TO YOU? What activities truly bring you joy? Maybe you love being outdoors. So, "Go hiking twice a month" would be a good, measurable goal. By December, you'll know if you did that and right now, you start looking for good trails and buying a new pair of hiking boots.

2. Realistic
Being ambitious is good but if your list of goals is just too big, you may end up focusing on all the things you didn't do instead of all you achieved. I actually do this a lot so I've learned to scale back a little, or give myself more time.

Also recognize if you're considering a major life change. "Stop drinking" or "Get out of credit card debt," are certainly measurable and achievable goals, but they involve drastic change in many areas of life. With goals like these, it's important to break them down into short-term goals: "Attend AA meetings once a week" or "Don't spend any money on clothes this month."

3. Important
Are your goals really important TO YOU? Personal goals aren't about pleasing others. They're about discovering your life's path and defining who you want to be: not an easy task! It takes a lot of self-reflection to truly know what you want out of life. It also takes experimentation and the wisdom just gained by living.

So take the process seriously and once you've set your goals, really commit yourself to them. Writing your goals down helps you be accountable. Some people even make a "signed contract" with themselves. Others find that telling friends and family about their goals helps them stay committed. Whatever it takes for you, find a way to hold yourself responsible for your own progress.

4. Flexible
Keep in mind two things: we all change, and sometimes life throws us curve balls. The goals you write in January may be no longer applicable or possible by the middle of June. And that's OK. Review your goals often and keep them up to date. As long as they are measurable, realistic, and important,  it doesn't matter when you came up with them!

So good luck, and have fun!