Happy Trails, Camping, the Zoo, and Pie

Summer’s finally here, and that nmeans finding new ways to enjoy the great outdoors while tryinhg to stay cool at the same time.

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I had a fun time getting to know Omaha’s bike trails a bit better this week. I took a ride up the South Omaha Trail by the abandoned grain silos, which travelers can see clearly near the 480 interchange on I-80. I took a trip by Trader Joe’s the next day, and then I rode up to Esther Pilster Park for a lovely picnic lunch (and a nap) under some tall trees the following day.

It’s been fun being able to explore some of the hidden trails and parks in Omaha that you can’t exactly see from the main roads. I also seem to have gotten bit of a farmer’s tan, with a nice white outline of my Fitbit, in the process.

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Over the weekend, Vivian and Hannah went camping together with the American Heritage Girls down at Lake Manawa. Hannah learned how to sharpen a knife and whittle soap, tie some knots, paint some rocks, play UNO with some friends, and practice hitting a volleyball.

She also got to find a “gooey” frog or two, something she’s always enjoyed doing while camping, and she also got to have pizza baked in a cast-iron Dutch oven for dinner (along with s’mores, of course).

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Aaron and I got to have some “guy time” in the meantime. On Saturday morning, we visited grandpa to help clean up some of the things he’d used to smoke the brisket we had on Monday. Then I helped to get the water turned back on for their lawn sprinklers, which Aaron immediately used to cool off while outside. He wanted to play some video games, and he eve found Uncle Jonny’s giant collection of old NES titles, but we were able to get him to draw out what he’d like to build in Mario Maker sometime on paper instead.

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Then that evening, I grilled some burgers and fries for dinner (with avocado) and then took Aaron for an evening at the Omaha Zoo. We went to see the new Sea Lion exhibit first, which had some lovely viewing windows underground where we could see them swimming about. We got a bit sidetracked by the mazelike “Children’s Adventure Trails” on our way to the aquarium, and Aaron had some fun there climbing, sliding, wading, and hanging in a chrysalis as a few monkeys climbed overhead and prairie dogs ran about. Then we finished our visit seeing some puffins, penguins, jellyfish, and other sea life in the Scott Aquarium before things began to close down. Of course, no trip to the zoo would be complete without a visit to the wet, spinning globe or the lion statues, where Aaron got a few obligatory photos before we headed home.

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Vivian and Hannah returned home the next day. I took the kids by Grammy’s house to have some lunch as I trimmed some hedges. Then that evening, I went by Wildewood for Praise and Pie Night. We had about an hour of worship songs with a performance by the South Sudanese church singing Amazing Grace in one of their native languages (and garb). It felt like a spiritually cleansing time for myself, with the weight of trouble and turmoil in the world being ripped away in the light of God’s presence there in the sanctuary.

We had a bunch of pie afterward, and I got some peach and cherry for Vivian and the kids, along with some all-American apple pie for myself (with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, of course).

Lee Greenwood and Memorial Day Weekend

We had a beautiful Memorial Day weekend here in Omaha, with perfect weather for food, family, and some patriotic outdoor activities.

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I kicked things off Friday night in downtown Omaha for the Memorial Day parade and concert. I’d never attended as something so fun and festive on such a solemn holiday, but it seemed quite appropriate, with veterans and gold star families taking prominent roles.

There were a few giant balloons of an American flag and a Purple Heart, as well as several trollies and buses full of veterans riding along. There were a handful of politicians, such as Gov. Ricketts and Congressmen Bacon and Fortenberry who lead the parade (with a few Grand Marshalls). A few other participants wore historic costumes, and there was a troop of nurses handed out candy. The Budweiser Clydesdales came toward the end of the parade, followed shortly by the Omaha Jitterbugs, who I nearly missed seeing.

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Afterward, in the Durham Museum parking lot, there was a gallery of fallen heroes and also free hot dogs and apple pie served by Hy-Vee. Hal Daub played emcee before the concert, introducing opening act Camille Metoyer Moten and recognizing a few politicians in the audience. Then Lee Greenwood took to the stage, bringing with him a few people to lead the crowd in singing happy birthday to a little boy and his grandmother. Then he sang his signature song, “God Bless the USA,” inviting the crowd to stand and sing the chorus with him, which gave me legitimate goosebumps.

After Greenwood’s performance, we got to hear some more patriotic music from the Omaha Symphony Chorus, who sang the anthems of each branch of the military. The evening concluded with the Grateful Hearts gospel quartet, who sang a medley of patriotic and gospel songs to finish off the night. It was an uplifting event that didn’t seem a bit tainted by political partisanship — something I wished I could see a bit more often these days.

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I had a nice long walk with Hannah bright and early the following morning, going all the way down to Chick-Fil-A for breakfast together. We stopped by the Sandy Park on the way back and then swung by my parents’ house to say hello before returning home. I kept busy the rest of the day cleaning gutters, mowing the lawn, and getting some groceries for our Memorial Day Dinner.

Then on Sunday, we got T-shirts at church for their new sermon series, “Not Today, Satan,” (which I wore over my patriotic shirt and tie afterward). I went by my dad’s house to help set up his smoker for our Memorial Day brisket, and the kids came along to climb a few trees and play with some branches. Then we returned home to have fresh-ground burgers for dinner with frozen bananas for dessert.

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On Memorial Day, I took a nice long walk up to Bellevue Boulevard and back, just to burn a few calories in anticipation of a big brisket dinner. Vivian made two delicious kinds of potato salad at home as Hannah celebrated Jane’s birthday and made a doll out of string.

Then at four, I walked over to grandma and grandpa’s house with the kids, where they played with some trains and blocks as grandpa finished up the brisket. Grammy and Pop-Pop came with bakes beans and a patriotic dessert, and Nathan dropped in with a bunch of tomato plants, which he helped plant after dinner. We had a lovely, beautiful evening sitting outside and eating way too much together, and Pop-Pop finally got to use the steps my dad installed back in 2019 for him to use, which was nice to see.

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We had some gorgeous weather on Tuesday, which was Aaron’s last day before heading off to summer school, so Vivian and I took them to Elmwood Park around noon for one last park visit. We had some burgers for lunch and then let the kids swing for a bit. Then we took a nice walk along the trail, finding a fairy house on our way to the grotto, where the spring water was flowing once again. We hiked further into the trees and encountered some painted trees and fallen logs, as well as a bog. We also found the brick remains of an old sewer pipe, which was quite picturesque somehow.

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Then that evening, my Uncle Tom and Aunt Barb came by to visit — the first time we’d seen them since Ben and Carol’s anniversary back in 2014. We had some ice cream and cookies together and caught up with them about family, jobs, and life in general. Then before we left we got a few group photos. Barb took one of my whole family, and I realized afterward it was the first time the whole Johnson clan — grandma, grandpa, uncles, wife, grandkids, and me — had all been photographed together. Ever. That was something.

Happy Memorial Day, everyone!

Lee Greenwood sings, “God Bless the USA”

Tender Heart, Super Thinker

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Another school year is winding down, which means a few end-of-year events with the kids. Aaron had a “virtual” concert at his elementary school, which I was able to tune into online. Naturally, it wasn’t the same as seeing it in person, but it was nice to be able to attend right from my office at work (and I even snapped a few pictures).

Aaron also won an award for being a “Super Thinker,” a rainbow slinky (which I hope lasts longer than ten seconds), and a tiny Octopus Sprinkler, which I set up for him and Hannah to use in the driveway to get a little wet on a warm evening. He also got to pick a book to bring home and naturally chose the most gigantic picture book I’d ever seen. (I suppose bigger is better?) Then the next morning, Aaron helped decorate a card to give to his teachers on his last day of Kindergarten.

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Hannah also had an end-of-year event with the American Heritage Girls. She’s only been attending for a month or two (and doesn’t even have a uniform yet), but she won a few patches as a “Tenderheart” and got to receive them at a little ceremony on Wednesday night.

Then with both of the kids out of school, we had a fun little year-end lunch at the park. I got some sushi from Ponzu around the corner, some of which I shared with Hannah. Then we let the kids play on the playground for a bit before a cold front started blowing in that afternoon.

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In other news, the rain let up just long enough for us to enjoy the outdoors a bit. I rode my bike for the first time this year, pushing through some gusts of wind for a decent ride (and workout) along the Keystone Trail. I’ve also been enjoying some regular walks during the day, stretching my legs with a walk down to Chick-Fil-A for lunch, just for the heck of it.

We also had another lovely dinner on the deck at Vivian’s parents’ house. Jack and Vivian made smoked some ribs and chicken, and then we Aaron had some fun in the sprinkler and Hannah played with a lawn ornament or two before we headed home.

Next up: Memorial Day weekend!

Soaring wings and life in the gutter

The rain seems to have been almost non-stop over the past week, but we’ve been able to find a few dry spells here and there to enjoy.

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On Friday evening, we headed out to Soaring Wings with the kids to enjoy some live music for the first time in a while. The “Swampboy Blues Band” was performing down at Soaring Wings, so we joined a handful of our friends (Jenny and Kody, Venche and Anya, Phil and Jen and Gabriel, and Jon Paper) on a blanket or two on the green. The kids seemed to have a great time — they happily danced to the music before finding some kids to play tag with (and lots of nearby dogs to pet).

It was also nice to catch up with our friends a bit, and we never even got around to sampling any beer or wine on site as the sun went out. It was the perfect evening for such an outing — and probably the only rain-free day of the past week or two.

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While it was raining, Hannah and Aaron had some fun drawing in their sketchbooks. Hannah has been making her own comic book about her and her friends, stapling the pages of copy paper together to make it, while Aaron has been designing video games in his sketchbook.

It’s been warm enough to warrant a little pool time as well, so Aaron got to get nice and soaked when we dropped by the Lenarts’ house for dinner on Saturday.

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Then on Sunday, I managed to get up and clean out our gutters a bit as the kids played in our wading pool down below. They’d become completely filled in debris, despite our gutter guards, so I scooped them out just in time for a downpour an hour or two later.

Hannah’s been having fun with a teddy bear she’d named “Bowie,” taking her swimming, to Aldi, and to church, and also creating her a house in our linen closet. In the meantime, Aaron played a game with his Sunday school teacher that was very much like creating one of his “levels,” getting her to walk through a pylon cones while blindfolded.

Thanksgiving in May

It’s been a rainy week in Omaha, making some flowers bloom in our yard (and Grammy’s) but keeping us indoors. That means watching for the dry days and making the most of them.

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I took Friday off last week just to participate in a peaceful protest with a few friends down in Bellevue, specifically over a new sex education curriculum the school board is trying to impose on the state.

At the same time, I also participated in Hannah’s homeschool education in a more direct way by helping do a math assignment that involved stacking stacks of nuts and magnets together while blindfolded. I’ve also been helping Aaron do his daily homework, which includes pages from his math book and reading on the school iPad. It keeps us busy, but it definitely feels good to be involved!

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On Saturday, we had a full clear day to plant our garden in the backyard. Vivian had a handful of tomato plants as well as basil, cilantro, and oregano to plant in our backyard. I was able to bring the kids along to participate in our family horticulture, but afterward they seemed far more interested in just getting wet with the garden hose, which was fine by me. We were looking at a full week of rain coming up in the meantime, so the m ore time we get outside, the better.

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We had another clear evening on Tuesday, when Vivian spent the entire day with her folks helping to cook a whole turkey on the grill (“just to use it up”). As such, we got to have a full Thanksgiving dinner — stuffing, potatoes, cranberry sauce, and even apple pie — out on the deck among the blooming things in Grammy’s yard.

Afterward, the kids decided to get wet running through the neighbors’ sprinkler spray on the sidewalk, but we corralled them back long enough to try out a badminton set that Grammy got from the Dollar Tree.

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We spent the rest of the week with almost perpetual rain, and I wasn’t able to take so much as a daily walk without getting at least a light sprinkle. One reprieve came on Thursday, when I grabbed some sushi for lunch (courtesy of my generous employer) and ate it picnic style at the park.

Hannah and I weren’t quite so lucky that evening, when she and I went for a walk together and it started raining halfway through. That didn’t stop our initial plan to make a 2.8 mile round trip hike to Chick-Fil-A and back just to grab some ice cream. It was quality daddy/daughter time, and she still enjoyed the ice cream (despite being a bit cold on the way home).

It happened next door

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An unthinkable thing happened at the house next door to my parents’ last week — it was the sort of thing you might hear on the news, but never about people you’ve actually met. If you live in the area, you’ve probably heard this story already, but if you haven’t, I’ll spare you all the details and let you read them elsewhere. Suffice it to say, the family next door had two kids, a boy and a girl, who very much reminded me of Hannah and Aaron at a slightly younger age. I’d seen them frequently when I would come by to mow my parents’ lawn. They seemed like any other happy kids I’d seen playing outside in the area — of which there were many.

Then on Sunday afternoon, I was out for a walk when I got a call from my mom. They’d seen me walking past their fence and warned me that I wouldn’t be able to come visit, if I were headed to their house. I’m glad she called, because the sight of a police car blocking their street when I came by — and police tape all around — might have sent me into a panic. She told me later that the children next door were found “deceased.” The news hit me like a punch to the gut. Deceased? I remembered seeing the girl just the other day riding her tricycle. She had talked to my mom and shown her her sparkling unicorn. Their dad — who I remember borrowing my dad’s lawn mower on one occasion — was being charged with their murder.

Making this world seem even smaller, the cop on the case was Andy Jashinske, who used to go to Twin Valley Church with us (and was on the finance committee with me). The day after, the police tape came down and was replaced by a makeshift memorial (by the metal post I would mow around). There was a vigil held for the children at a park Tuesday night, and a GoFundMe shared widely online to help with funeral expenses. I was just mostly in shock. I had been thinking these two kids could be friends with Hannah and Aaron when I brought them by for a visit. They weren’t just names in a news story — they were literally our neighbors, and the idea that they could be taken in such a horrific way was unimaginable.

It’s also reeling to see my parents’ street, specifically their house and the one next door, on the news nearly every day. We live in such a lovely, quiet little neighborhood that I already assumed — hoped, rather — that something like this wouldn’t happen. But I couldn’t do another update to my typically happy, light-hearted blog without acknowledging this event. It’s the sort of thing that shakes you to your core, but there’s very little you can do in response other than grieve and pray.

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Goodbye, little ones.
You will be missed by so many.

Together Again

It’s been a busy couple of days preparing for Mother’s Day at our house — a gathering that included all four grandparents and Uncle Jonny, which hasn’t happened since before the pandemic.

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On Sunday, I got up bright and early to put together some eggs benedict for breakfast, which I served up with the kids before getting them ready for church. Then we went to Wildewood Church together, which has some special things for all the moms in the congregation. There were some fancy little cupcakes in the foyer for the moms to take with them down to the café to enjoy, and the kids in Sunday School made a couple charcuterie trays, all decorated with Happy Mother’s Day messages.

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That afternoon I stayed busy getting everything ready for our big family meal together, as well as a table of snacks beforehand. I prepared two legs of lamb, which I seasoned and roasted, followed by a tossed salad, potatoes and vegetables (that Jack and I prepared), and some chocolate liqueur cake for dessert.

We had some fun afterward passing around the Story Elf that the kids got for Christmas. Then we broke out a few presents in the living room. Vivian gave her mom a basket of goodies, and I got my mom a basket with her favorite candy inside. I also had a handful of cheese and chocolates for Vivian, which included a block of Limburger, which Hannah got a whiff of (and said it smelled like poop). The kids also had a painting they painted together, which I helped them do when Mommy was out of the house earlier this week. Aaron also made a story about Mommy while at school, which he got to show her at the end of the day.

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Vivian also got her mom and mine some tomato plants for their gardens. Then on Tuesday, she went over to my parents’ house with Hannah to help and get them planted — giving her a little horticultural education in the process.

In other news, Aaron has dubbed his plush hedgehog “Chippy” and pretends to feed him Doritos. Hannah has also been giving her own toys rides up and down the street via a sleigh fashioned from a plastic sled and a tricycle.

Trampolines, fossils, and enchiladas

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On Friday last week, I joined Vivian and Hannah up at Altitude Trampoline Park for some quality bouncing around time. They have a weekly special for homeschool kids, so Hannah was able to run, slide, and bounce on the various trampolines, climb on a wall, and take a few dives into a pit of foam balls. She even got to have a bit of a sparring match with me on the balance beam. I got her a blue raspberry Icee when we were done, and then we had some lunch down at the Dodge Street Chick-Fil-A — with enough food left over afterward for leftovers on Sunday. (Is that sacrilegious?)

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Hannah got to have some more fun with her American Heritage Girls’ troop as they went digging for fossils and fishing for wildlife out at Schramm State Park. She also got to see some bees, pet a sturgeon, and go on a bit of a hike in the warm afternoon.

Aaron and I spent some quality time with Harold in the meantime. Then we took a walk to grandma and grandpa’s house so I could mow their lawn and he could spend an hour or two telling them all about the “maze book” he’d created. Then that evening we got some roasted street corn pizza from Aldi and watched Zootopia for an impromptu Family Movie Night.

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We had some more fun Sunday after church as I got our two Raspberry Pi computers networked together so Hannah and Aaron could have a game of tag in a virtual, blocky world. I got a little yardwork done, and then we broke out the wading pool so the kids could have some fun with our new hose as temperatures pushed into the upper 80s. They took their plush monkeys for a swim as well and had to bundle then up afterward to dry off.

Then on Wednesday, we celebrated Cinco de Mayo with an assortment of tasty food. I got some Mexican coffee and made a breakfast burrito in the morning. Then for dinner, Vivian put together some enchiladas (courtesy of the Stay at Home Chef) with some refried beans, chipotle black beans and corn, “Crispy Taco” potato chips, and homemade guacamole. We even had churros for dessert, which Aaron ate hot out of the oven — with sleeves for potholders. I even made a margarita once the kids went to bed — and I even put salt around the rim. ¡Muy lujoso!

Birthday buddies, spare ribs, and an end-of-year ceremony

We’re having some lovely spring weather with everything in bloom, and I’ve been taking advantage of them with some daily walks throughout the day. It’s given me the chance to see such interesting sights as sidewalks lined with petals like the world’s longest wedding procession, as well as two funeral processions within minutes of each other on Center Street.

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On Saturday, we celebrated birthdays for August and Jonah down at H.W. Banner Park (without the water features, unfortunately) with a bunch of their little friends. Grammy baked a delicious Mario birthday cake, and the kids had fun picking with parts they got to eat. Mostly, it was a couple hours of the kids getting fresh air on a windy day playing and picking dandelions together before opening presents.

Then on Sunday, our kids learned they’d brought their bibles enough times to earn a couple candy bars in Sunday School. That led to a long and sugared-up afternoon for them.

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On Monday night, Hannah had her fourth annual “end of year” ceremony with her Classical Conversations homeschool here in Bellevue. Grammy came along to watch Hannah get her certificate along with the rest of her class, and each group recited what they’d learned in the form of songs that they’d memorized. Jake in particular earned a “Memory Master” award for memorizing an obscene number of lines from their “timeline song,” along with writing a paper that he recited to those of us in attendance.

The kids had fun playing together afterward, having a few sugary snacks before playing outside and then having an impromptu “glow stick party” down in the church basement when no one was looking.

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Tuesday night was the last Men of God dinner for the season at Wildewood. I went along and brought a few $2 bills for the collection basket just to be funny (and I was out of “normal” cash). Woody brought along his portable grill again and made ribs for us, and then Pastor Ron had us make a list of our “social” contacts and rank them according to which “chair” they sat in, according to the book “4 Chair Discipling” by Dann Spader.

Then on Wednesday, Hannah had a monthly meeting with the local American Heritage Girls troop, where she got to learn how to lead a horse and brush its hair with a few other girls. We’d been looking for a new social group for Hannah to be a part of, since she’s outgrown Prims at BCC, and this seems to be a very good group — more like the Boy Scouts than that other group with all the cookies. We also got her activity book with all the badges she can earn. I’m particularly looking forward to helping her with the ones on the Constitution and Graphic Design.

Medical Emergencies

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It’s been a busy few weeks since Easter for us, partly because of a few medical situations with my mom and dad. First, my mom had Covid, which eventually infected my dad, who had to be hospitalized in the ICU briefly with some breathing problems. It was a scary couple of days, but he’s since been doing better (after many prayers all around), and I was able to take him home last week.

Meanwhile, after having Covid, my mom had an emergency with her right eye, which had to have an emergency surgical procedure to relieve pressure on the retina. Her retina had fortunately not become detached, but without surgery, the eye could become permanently blind. I took her to the hospital bright and early on 5:30 AM on Tuesday, where the operation apparently went well. In the meantime, I had a lovely breakfast of Chick-Fil-A while reading Jordan Peterson’s new book, “Beyond Order” (and discovering their Chick-Fil-A sauce now comes in convenient 8 oz. squeeze bottles).

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In other news, spring has sprung once again, with tulips and daffodils popping into bloom in our front yard. Our kids have been making good use of the nicer days, getting outside and finding such things as an actual four-leaf clover in our yard. We’ve also gotten Harold, who’s been enjoying his new hammock, out to explore the kids. Vivian and I are always trying to make sure he’s not just stuck in his cage all day.

Then on Saturday last week, we took the kids down to Memorial Park to have some McDonald’s for lunch and get some fresh air. Hannah found her way to a “secret” playground across the creek by St. Margaret Mary’s School.

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We’ve given the kids some fun culinary experiences as well, including German food from Aldi, French toast, cheesesteak sandwiches, “snowball cheese,” and a take-and-bake pizza, which I thought Aaron would have fun decorating with us.

Hannah’s been rather crafty in the meantime, putting together a dollhouse with bits of scrap cardboard one day, and then creating a paper doll with its own set of clothes the next (along with a teddy bear with its own set of clothes).