Everything’s a Toy

I’m not trying to suggest we should all go out and buy a toy, but that is one of about four “life lessons” my husband liked to share with our kids when they were growing up. I believe the full version was “everything’s a toy – except a car.” This may or may not be true, or a good lesson, but in combination with some of things I said to them such as, “be careful!” or “urine is a sterile bodily fluid,” I can see now that we barely scratched the surface on what they really needed to know as they headed out the door and into the world. 

As our kids grew up, there were definitely times they toyed with our words and any hope of imparting a lesson was lost, but thankfully, we gave them some other things to play with, like siblings and actual toys. There were toys that came in boxes, made noise, spread glitter around the house, and had tiny parts that were easily lost which caused massive meltdowns (of the sibling, not the toy). Sometimes the toy itself didn’t impress our kids, but the box it came in did. And the packaging! They loved those big sheets of paper and bubble wrap even more than the box, and could spend an hour (or two or an entire afternoon) crumpling paper and jumping on or squeezing the plastic bubbles to create grating, I mean joyful, constant popping sounds accentuated by shrieks of “no-it’s-my-turn-give-it-to-me-I-didn’t-get-a-piece!” One time, probably to distract them from the bubble wrap, I converted an old Cool Whip container into a toy (maybe my husband was right?) by cutting a slot in the lid so they could drop some old red and blue poker chips through it. I think I had read somewhere it was supposed to help them develop hand/eye coordination, but now I wonder if it was just part of my husband’s elaborate everything’s-a-toy-scheme to help them hold the chips so they would eventually learn how to play blackjack or poker.

Last month, we spent some time around Christmas with our grown-up kids and even though they all know how to play Texas hold em, all their toys are gone – either donated, sold at garage sales, or stored in boxes in our house until they have enough closet space of their own. But being together and watching them open gifts made me think about my husband’s “lesson” and all the toys our kids used to play with. I forgot to ask them if they had a favorite, and I conveniently forgot to ask them if any of our advice has ever come in handy, but I remember one toy as the best one we ever gave them: the ball pit. 

It’s hard for me to forget the ball pit because its time with our family spanned two decades. In fact, it spanned two millennia because we bought that thing in the middle of the last decade of the 1900’s and it didn’t wear out until late in the first decade of the 2000’s. The ball pit was nothing more than a big, six-sided, cylinder made of yellow, red, and blue nylon and some sort of black mesh-netting. The top and bottom were the yellow nylon part, and the only way you could tell one end from the other was that the top had a large, circular opening in the middle. The sides were the black mesh part and two of the sides had large, zippered doors. It always reminded me of a lunar landing module without the legs but with all the escape hatches. 

Our daughter, and middle child, Maddy, finally had a toy all to herself. 

The ball pit originally came with 100 or 200 or 300 (I don’t know, I lost count) red, blue, green, and yellow plastic balls and when they were all inside the pit, it transformed into something like an indoor pool. Our preschool aged-kids spent hours “swimming” in it or standing in it while they threw all the balls out of the top. They sorted the balls by color and unzipped and zipped the doors. When they got bored inside the ball pit, they emptied it out, stood outside it, and threw all the balls back in – or threw in anything they could find like their clothes, kitchen utensils, and snacks. It’s really hard to find Goldfish crackers once they are scattered on a piece of yellow nylon. And I know at least one time I found a used diaper as I searched for all those flaky, golden, fish-shaped crackers. Even though the ball pit was a toy, it was reasonably well-ventilated, so they occasionally napped in there, too.

Until the first part of the first decade of the 2000’s we only had two kids who played with the ball pit, but then we had another baby. As soon as our new baby girl could sit up, her older brother and sister put her in the ball pit to see what she could do.  They were disappointed to find out that the extent of their baby sister’s ability to “play” was to topple over into a sea of primary colored plastic. Still, they tried to include her in their games. They worked hard to get her sitting up and gumming a ball inside the ball pit so they could stand outside of it and throw balls through the hole in the top trying to (gently) hit her on top of the head. My husband forgot to tell them that everything’s a toy except a car…. and your baby sister. 

By the end of the first decade of the 2000’s, the ball pit was gone. The nylon ripped, the mesh sides got holes in them way bigger than toddler-sized fingers, and the zippers broke. The only thing that remained were all those brightly colored balls, and every once in a while, our son and his friends used them to pelt each other while playing tag in the basement. But that game ended, too, and I eventually rounded up all of those plastic balls and donated them.

We moved last year, and when I cleaned out under the basement steps, I found one last blue, ball-pit ball. I didn’t keep it, but with our recent time together as a family, I thought about how many memories one toy can hold and how much entertainment some nylon, plastic, cardboard, a snack, or even a sibling, can provide. My husband might be right after all: everything’s a toy.  

P.S. Do you share my husband’s “everything’s a toy” philosophy? Or do you, or your kids, if you have them, have a favorite toy? Let me know! Send an email to contact@crabwise.blog or leave a comment.

How Long Will This Last?

I don’t know about you, but I ask myself this question a lot. It’s usually as I’m anxiously awaiting something: the end of a congested crawl through the Lincoln Tunnel in a minivan with no air conditioning, the words “you’re all done” signaling it’s finally time to slide out of the MRI tunnel or the unwrapping of an 8 oz, 62% dark chocolate cocoa bar with little nubs of crunchy raspberry scattered throughout the creaminess.   

Today I’m not nervous, I’m just asking “how long will this last?” about two things. 

  • 5,000 staples 

My husband bought a stapler and a box of 5,000 staples in August of 1986 and took both things to college. I know he used them frequently when he stapled together term papers he wrote for a Marriage and Family class and maps of constellations he created in an astrology class, but that barely put a dent in the supply. 

So, when we got married in June of 1990, he brought the stapler and box of staples with him. Back then, I predicted we would run out of staples in 18 years. I used a lot of staples during that time AND in 2008 we had just emerged from an intense preschool “crafting” era with our three kids. They liked to create works of art by stapling together two pages of brightly colored construction paper, ripping that into 1,000 pieces, and then stapling the whole thing back together to create a beautiful, crumbling metal and paper mosaic. Yet at the start of year 19, we still had staples.

My next guess was that 5,000 staples would last a full 22 years. Every day in those four intervening years, our junior high-and high school-aged kids stapled together several pages of math and French worksheets, field trip permission slips, and quizzes peppered with a match-the-sexually-transmitted-disease-to-its-symptoms game. Surprisingly, that didn’t use the rest of the staples. 

Then, in July of 2019, I cut out the front of nine of my daughter’s old concert t-shirts and stapled them onto nine different 12 X 12-inch square canvases and used the last staple. I finally know how long 5,000 staples last: 33 years, 11 months and a few days, give or take.

  • An LED alarm clock-radio

My husband received this 6 X 8-inch metal rectangle with faux wood paneling and red LED lights as a gift in 1987, and it has been glowing ever since he plugged it into an outlet in his college dorm room. I predicted that alarm clock would never survive living with six guys for four years, especially when the engineers-in-training rewired the room to their specifications and altered the electrical supply. But it did, and he brought the clock with him when we got married.  

Every time we moved from apartment to apartment or house to house, that clock came with us. It taunted me when I glanced at it in the middle of the night without my -6.5 diopter glasses on – all I saw, instead of segmented numbers, were three red, blurry globs. I know I dropped that clock with each move, yet it continued to last.    

When the power goes out, that clock powers right through and instead of blowing a circuit, it simply starts to blink “12:00.” It’s possible to reset the time by holding down two buttons and looking for the tiny red dot that indicates AM or PM.  But I can never remember if the red dot “on” means it’s AM or PM or if the red dot “off” means it’s AM or PM, so even when the power comes back on, I have no idea if it’s morning or night. And when a 6 AM alarm beeps continuously through our 6 PM dinner, everyone asks, “How long will this last?”

This alarm clock also has AM/FM radio capabilities and over the years I have tuned into local FM stations to listen to music. My husband tends to tune into and set the alarm to AM talk stations. When I wake up to loud voices and yet another wrap-up of Monday Night Football, I find myself wishing that alarm clock-radio would just give out. 

But after 32 years, those little red numbers refuse to dim, the “wood” refuses to fade, and the sound quality is still pretty good. I can’t say for sure, but I have to assume that this LED alarm clock-radio will, unfortunately, last an eternity. 

P.S. I figured out how to add email to my site! If you have something in your life that you wonder “How Long Will This Last?”, I’d love to hear about it! Please send a short description to me at contact@crabwise.blog and I will put some of your answers in an upcoming blog post. If you have a picture, please include that, too.

Have a great weekend, Lisa


There wasn’t usually much going on, aside from waiting out winter, in the trailer I lived in on County Highway B, in Shell Lake, Wisconsin. Not much, that is, until the day I heard the words “pre-fabricated construction” and that we were going to move into town. Suddenly, there was a lot of activity. My dad explained that were we going to have a brand-new house, and it would be built in a way that was also brand-new. It would be “pre-fab.” He said there was some outfit in Wausau, Wisconsin, called Wausau Homes, that sold what was essentially a very large model kit. When this model was assembled, instead of having an airplane or train to play with, we would have a house to live in. Unbeknownst to me, my parents had already put money down on one of those pre-fab house kits, and as soon as the ground thawed enough to dig a basement, the project would start.   

I was seven and not yet familiar with any outfits in Wausau, but I grasped the basic concept of pre-fab and wanted to help. I thought I could buy some parts for this “model” we were about to build, but I didn’t know if we needed flat or semi-gloss paint and I had no way to bring shingles home from the hardware store. Plus, I didn’t know how to build anything other than a snowman.  

So, in the fall of 1975, instead of checking to see if the house dimensions on the blueprint corresponded correctly to the plat of survey, I monitored the progress of construction. I watched in amazement as a cement foundation was poured and then four individual, rectangular walls were somehow lifted in, attached to the foundation, and then attached to each other. The roof was delivered in sections, attached to the walls, and eventually shingled. Some redwood siding, which still needed staining, arrived and was used to create the final protective layer of the exterior walls. And after a “goddam whichamacallit,” manufacturing delay at Wausau Homes, the windows and doors were delivered and installed.  

Luckily, we always had enough of the two main things that seemed to miraculously hold a new house together, nails and swearing, and before an inch of snow could accumulate, our particular style of pre-fab house had been fully assembled. It was a was split-level design, which meant that after coming through the front door there was a landing and a choice: you could go up one short set of stairs to the main living area or go down another short set of stairs to the basement. But we didn’t move in right away because the entire interior, upstairs and down, was unfinished. My parents explained that this is how it is with a pre-fab home, you finish it as you have the time and money.  

My parents also explained that since my dad was really, really handy he would do the work himself when he wasn’t at his day job, with occasional help from assorted relatives who had varying degrees of home building skills. Because my dad did the finishing work in the evenings and on the weekends, there were several months where there was a landing and stairs going up, but no stairs going down. And then there were a few more months when the unfinished, pre-fab basement had walls that were half cement and half exposed 2X4’s with pink R-15 insulation poking out from between the ground level windows, but nothing else, only large piles of dirt where some kind of flooring would eventually go.

I wasn’t really confident we would ever have enough time or money to finish this pre-fab model, but I thought it was great to have a house where I could jump from the front door into a pile of dirt. I’m not sure my parents were having as much fun because they spent all their time in the upstairs unrolling linoleum in the kitchen, laying parquet flooring in the living room, bricking the fireplace façade, putting up sheetrock to form interior walls, installing appliances, cutting baseboards, painting and staining. I spent most of my time with my sister and our dog, Muttley, playing in the basement and doing small jobs like hauling boxes, taking out the trash, finding my dad’s thermos of coffee, and handing my gramma some cotton balls so she could soak them in fingernail polish remover and then use them to scrape the stickers off the inside of the upstairs windows.   

Out of all the small jobs in the construction zone, the most important one was to stay out-of-the-way, and I was very good at it. One afternoon, I was in the basement imagining which pile of dirt I would clear to make my bedroom, when I suddenly had to go to the bathroom. Badly. I might have reasoned that I was standing in the exact spot where a toilet would someday be so it didn’t really matter or I might have stayed out-of-the-way just a little too long, and I couldn’t get up out of the dirt, onto the landing, and up the stairs to the only bathroom quick enough, but I dropped my JCPenney jeans, squatted down and did my business. 

It’s possible the smell got his attention or that he was about to take a break from pounding nails anyway, but before I could start to figure out what to do next, I heard footsteps thundering across the finished part of the upstairs floor, coming toward the basement. My dad jumped from the landing into the dirt and demanded to know, “What the hell happened down here?!”  My dog’s ears perked up and I ventured, “Muttley did it. He pooped in the dirt.” My dad looked at me and then looked at our dog. A familiar cascade of Italian language that I never spoke but definitely understood, ended with a vague “well, someone clean that up,” and as quickly as he had jumped down, my dad climbed up out of the dirt, onto the landing, and went back to work hanging sheetrock.  

Keeping up with an erratic construction schedule and not using a toilet were very strange, but getting away with lying to my dad was downright baffling. I wondered if that was just how things were going to be from now on. Maybe everyone who ordered a model home kit from Wausau Homes lived like this? I didn’t know. I just knew that it seemed like a step up from living in a trailer and I was already enjoying my pre-fab conditions. 

New Kid – Two Crabs Meet

My husband and I are both 51. We were kind of shocked when we realized that we have now known each other for 42 years, but that’s what can happen when you meet your future spouse on the playground in 4thgrade. 

P. S. A few details of this story are made up. These pictures, however, are completely factual.

If you’ve ever moved to a new town and had a first day at a new school, then you know what a big deal it is to be the “new kid.” It’s an even bigger deal when that new school is in a new town of 1,100 people because, as my mom used to say, “everyone and their brother” knows who you are. 

 I was that kid on my first day of first grade at Shell Lake Elementary School. But in the summer of 1977, the rumors started to fly in our tiny town about another new kid who would join our 4thgrade class. What we knew was that he was tall for nine-years-old, had a good tan from playing Little League baseball in Yankton, South Dakota all summer, and most amazingly, he had already kissed a girl. We couldn’t believe a new kid could bring that kind of excitement and sophistication to Shell Lake, Wisconsin. The first day of 4thgrade did not disappoint. Pat Quenan was everything he was rumored to be.

 The love bug flew just as easily as those summer rumors and it seemed that by lunch time on that first day all twenty-two 4thgrade girls, including me, had a crush on the new kid. I surveyed my chances. Even though I matched his tan skin melanocyte for melanocyte, I was rather round and wore large, plastic framed glasses. I hoped the cute, little gold stick-on butterfly I sometimes wore in the right corner of the right lens might entice him, but I was pretty sure he’d prefer a girl with 20/20 vision.  

I worked up my nerve to make a move for the new kid during after-lunch-recess and waited impatiently to be released outside as the lunch ladies inspected my lunch tray for any stray morsels. Out on the playground, I bypassed the boys I usually played with and avoided the girl who occasionally picked up a garter snake and chased me with it. When I spotted the new kid standing alone on the blacktop, I took a few steps toward him. But as soon I saw a sea of swooning nine-year-old girls also herding in his direction, I got that sinking feeling that I should have just stayed inside with the lunch ladies and picked at my tray. 

 I back-tracked off the blacktop toward a dusty field that was partially-rimmed with a partially-collapsing chain link back-stop fence.  The boys I had bypassed were already there and arguing about which game we should play that first recess of 4thgrade. Suddenly, over their shouts and possibly from over near the monkey-bars, the news broke: Jolene Harmon, with her perfect vision, liked the new kid. It was over. There was no way any of us, especially me, could compete with the most popular girl in the class – if not the most popular girl in the whole school. 

Since my chance of landing Pat Quenan had reached zero, I picked up a red, rock-hard playground ball that had rolled my direction and headed onto the field to do something I knew I was good at: kick hard and run fast down a base path that was covered in patchy grass. Then, to my surprise, and to the obliviousness of the boys who were now knee-deep in another argument about which team had to take the girl, the new kid came over and asked to play.  The arguing stopped and we carefully factored in that because he had baseball experience, he could probably run bases and throw as well as the rest of us, plus we were already short a fielder anyway. We decided the new kid could play.  

Welcome to Crabwise!

Hi! My name is Lisa, and like you, I was born. Specifically, I was born on June 29th which means my Zodiac sign is Cancer. I don’t know much about my sign­ except for what my Gemini-Cancer-cusp sister tells me and that the Cancer sign is represented by a crab. I appreciate the crab not so much for its “crabbiness” (although I can definitely be crabby) but for its ability to skitter through life sideways and easily backwards, carefully balancing a house on its back and using its pincers to hold onto things – even the things it should probably drop. 

What I didn’t learn from my sister or a Zodiac chart is that most crabs constantly scan their surroundings (with immoveable eyeballs on moveable eye-stalks!) and when they sense something is awry in their environment, they close their “eyes,” scurry back to their burrow and dive for cover into the sand. It’s comforting to know there are other creatures who live like that. 

So, if you ended up at this blog because you were looking for more information on crabs or wanted to learn how to classify crustaceans, my apologies, because you won’t find that here. Honestly, I don’t even enjoy eating shellfish or any seafood for that matter. Instead, what you will find here at Crabwise are stories. These stories (most of which are true and a few of which are made up) are from and about my life, which admittedly, is not a particularly glamorous one. Don’t let that deter you from giving Crabwise a try. 

I hope that no matter your Zodiac sign, your interest in crabs (the ocean-faring or astrological kind), or your burrowing tendencies, you will find a something at Crabwise that you’ll enjoy. Maybe, like the pincers my crab friends and I have in common, something will reach out and grab you, but won’t really hurt. I invite you to come on over to Crabwise, read, and return for more stories whenever you like!