Saturday, November 20, 2010

Getting a new perspective through the eyes of an eight year old

If someone would have told me ten years ago that I would have two athletic kids I would have thought they were nuts.  There isn't an ounce of athleticism in my body, and very little in Bob's, but for some reason both Katie and Ethan have an incredible amount of endurance and generally decent athletic ability.  My son seems to be  the more athletic of the two, as we received several complements this past soccer season on his ability.  He was a crazy, head butting speed demon that was always playing the middle because he could so quickly run up and down the field to cover both offense and defense. So it was with great anticipation that we had Ethan try out for the travel soccer team for the first time this year.  Katie had already enjoyed a year of travel soccer, and I was really looking forward to getting Ethan on a team and developing his skills.

The tryout process is an extensive one, a total of four hours over two days where the kids are put through a number of drills while the coaches do some sort of evaluation on the sea of kids.  We had already experienced the process the previous year with Katie (see this post), so I knew what to expect, and knew that in most cases the kids would not get cut.

Once the tryout process is over there is a two month wait before you hear anything in which you have to keep telling your kids to be patient when they frequently ask "When are we going to find out about soccer??"  Finally, at the beginning of this week, we received notification that Katie would be on the U-10 team.  Once that news came in, I waited with impatient anticipation to find out about Ethan, obsessively checking our email and running to the mailbox as soon as the mail arrived. Days went by with no email, no letter.  I suppose you know where this is going.  On Friday we received an envelope in the mail, only it wasn't the fat congratulatory letter, full of registration forms and due dates.  Instead, we received a very thin envelope which contained our returned registration check and a form letter stating that "Unfortunately, Ethan was not selected for the travel team for the 2011 season."

I was dumbfounded.  How could this be?  The kid is a good athlete, and as good as any of those other boys trying out!  Knowing that I was working on very little sleep after a week of bronchitis, I went back to our bedroom and shut the door so the kids couldn't see me losing my mind in front of them.  Waves of anger and frustration went through me as I burst into tears, thinking about how Ethan will once again have to tag along to Katie's games, sitting on the sidelines in complete boredom and knowing that he did not make a team while his sister did.  It wasn't fair.  It wasn't right!  I felt myself turning into "crazy parent", the kind that wants to fight back with complaints about the system and its politics.

Once I calmed down, Bob and I had to let Ethan know he didn't make the team.  It is quite a difficult thing to deliver bad news to your son.  I didn't want to see his spirit crushed by this stupid process.  But we just kind of flat out told him:

"Sorry buddy, but you didn't make the travel team".

"Aw, darn!" says Ethan.

"You know, you can still play rec league next year, and I'll even let you try baseball if you want".

"Yay!" he says, "Can I go play now?"  and with that he ran back out of the room.

I am always overanalyzing my son.  He is not a verbal communicator, and sometimes I feel I have to hound him with multiple questions and observations to figure out what is going on in his head.  "He must be so upset he doesn't want to show it." I thought.  After a few minutes, I went back to talk to him again and make sure he was alright.

"You know, buddy," I said, " it's alright to be sad.  Are you feeling sad?  Do you want to talk about it?"

Ethan stopped what he was doing and looked at me.  "Mom, this doesn't make me sad.  If we lost our house, then I would be sad."  And he returned to playing with whatever little toy gadget was in front of him.

If we lost our house, then I would be sad.  I had just been put in my place by an eight year old.  That's right, kid.  There are far worse things to happen to you than to be cut from a soccer team.  Bob and I are very blessed to both be employed at the moment.  We are all in good health.  Our kids are doing well in school and staying out of trouble.  So many other families are not nearly as fortunate as us.  It took an eight year old to remind me that relative what other friends are dealing with right now, not making a soccer team is pretty insignificant.

This Thanksgiving I will certainly be counting my blessings, for I have many.  I am particularly blessed to have a son that doesn't take disappointment very seriously, and seems to have a better perspective on life than his crazy, over-reacting mother.  Thank you, little man.  You taught your mother a valuable lesson.

Monday, October 11, 2010

All you need is love . . . and cardboard, newspaper, flour, and water

Every once in a while there are reminders of past events in your life that make you sit back and think, "Wow, we did that, and it was actually pretty amazing!"  Recently I was reminded of one of those events.

This December marks the 30th anniversary of John Lennon's death and the start of a Beatles obsession that has stayed with me and some of my childhood friends throughout adulthood.  Our craze peaked in the summer of 1981, where countless hours would be spent traveling between my house and those of my friends (Linda, Carla, and Jan) carting Beatles albums back and fourth, listening to different songs on our record players and analyzing the lyrics as best as almost-14-year-old girls can do.  

That year also marked another important milestone, because my friends and I realized that we were pushing the age limit on Halloween trick-or-treating.  The start of high school meant you stopped asking for candy and either stayed home to hand out treats, went to a halloween party, or participated in "corning", the act of throwing dried corn on porches or at cars as they drove by.  (I tried to explain corning to my Upstate NY students, and they looked at me in disbelief).  Still, we wanted to do something to proclaim our Beatle love, so we decided to forgo proper Halloween etiquette and dress up as the Beatles.  Now, this was not going to be any lame, last minute project.  If we were to properly demonstrate our adoration, we had to make it magnificent.  

Our goal was to re-create their early look, with the collarless suit and skinny tie.  However, the outfits would be secondary to the most important part--recreating the instruments.  

We actually started planning during the summer, where I distinctly remember working in my friend Carla's garage, laying out guitars with large pieces of cardboard.  We used the front cover of the Something New album and actually attempted to scale the guitars using a proportion. 

 I would measure the height of John in the picture, then the length of his  guitar, and use that ratio to scale up our own guitars.  Our accuracy was a little off, and the guitars ended up being slightly oversized, but once they were taped, slathered in paper mache and painted, they really looked good!  We even found some wierd looking thumb tacks in that garage and used plastic thread to string them.  Linda used a similar process to make the drums, and by mid October it was all coming together. 

Mom made my suit because she loved to sew, so mine didn't exactly match the rest of the group.  In the end I guess it didn't matter.  I don't know where we found the wigs, but I do remember Linda's mother finding the material to make the skinny ties.

The final process was recording our Beatles albums onto a tape.  We painted a large cardboard box to look like a speaker, and another friend carried a tape player while wearing that box for the music.  It was really quite a project!

Had we dressed up like that today, there would have been ten cell phones out, taking our picture and sending it to friends, relatives, facebook, etc.  But back then, no one had a camera handy.  If we did have one there wasn't any film in it, or we needed a flash, or we just didn't think about it.  Luckily Linda's Dad took one photo of us, slightly damaged from a future car fire: 

This was taken at the Bedford Halloween contest and parade, where we should have taken first place.  Unfortunately the judges must not have been Beatles fans, because the award was given to someone dressed up like an upside down man.  

For 29 years the memory of that halloween had been foggy in my head, but the picture brought so much of it back.  I had forgotten all of the detail and planning we put into it, just four almost-14-year-old  girls, with very little parental help.  

After talking with Carla and Linda now, we can't find anything about this event in old yearbooks or other writings, and it was difficult for us to believe we would have done this freshman year.  I think we didn't write about it because we were ready to move on and felt this challenged our maturity, and our "coolness".  

I look at these 14 year old faces and realize how transitional that time period was for us.  After this event, we put away the Beatle albums and started watching a new cable channel called MTV.  We stopped chasing boys on our bikes and started trying to date them.  We spent hours after school playing fancy new video games like Pac Man and Galaga.  The paper mache instruments were stored in rooms and closets, and we moved on.

All of us would go through different challenges in high school, trying to fit in, trying to figure out who we really were. I wish I could tell those 14 year old girls to enjoy what they did, to embrace the nerdiness of this project and if you didn't quite fit in, it would be alright.  Twenty nine years later the awkwardness is gone, and only the memory of "Wow, we did that!" remains.  It will be cherished as much as our love of the fab four.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Whoa, where is the time going

School has started and I have not had any time to write.  So many thoughts in my head, but right now we are busy with homework, violin practice, and sports.  K is at a stage where she's trying different things to see which one she likes, so every week night we are at lacrosse, soccer, or swimming.  E is soon to follow, as he just tried out for the soccer travel team.  So, basically I am taking time to write this to say I don't have much time to write this.  However, in the next week or so I do want to write about this most awesome picture my friend found:
This definitely deserves a post, and I will get at it soon.  

Monday, September 6, 2010

When perfectionism crosses frugality, I am in a lot of trouble.

Last week started a vacation week for Bob, which translated to a long list of things he wanted to accomplish.  What wasn't on the list was our bedroom closet system falling down.  (I was going to post a picture but didn't want to press my luck with my husband, who just realized he has lost a half day to this mess.)  I guess you really can have too many clothes hanging in a closet, or perhaps we were in need of stronger supports, but either way Bob's schedule completely changed Monday morning when we were faced with a large pile of clothes on the bedroom floor.  

We took this opportunity to clean out unwanted items (it was really out of necessity, because obviously there were too many items in the closet!).  While Bob secured the wire shelves, I started sorting.  So many items we had stored, though they were way beyond even donation stage.  After an hour or so we had the donation pile, the hang back up pile, and, finally, a huge bag of clothes to be thrown away.

I looked at that bag, mostly full of old sweatshirts and sweatpants (circa 1995), and the frugal perfectionist in me started to think.  "I could turn those rags into something useful, say, a rag rug!"  You know, just like our grandmothers (or perhaps great-grandmothers) used to do.  Oh dear.  You see, I used to do things like that.  When I was home full time with a newborn and a toddler I would attempt every frugal project listed in The Tightwad Gazette (a nice book series, by the way--just don't try to do everything in the book!).  One time I took all of our old jeans, cut out several squares, and made a rugged jeans quilt.  It did come in handy as a picnic blanket, and the damn thing was indestructible.  I guess at the time being able to work on a big project helped maintain my sanity while caring for two infants.  However, when I think of making a rag rug now I can make a list of things that would be a better use of my time:  
read a book
play with the kids
walk the dog
cook an amazing meal
work in the garden
pet the cats
write a blog
watch a sunrise
mop the kitchen floor

Sometimes you have to realize that time is valuable--more valuable than recycling old sweatpants.  

I watched Bob carry that bag out into the garage, and I let it go.  A wave of relief went through me--I didn't have to do anything with that bag, just watch it go out the door.  I was free from committing myself to another endless project, and the closet was free from that clutter.  I did however decide to sit down and watch an episode of Hoarders, just in case the desire came up to retrieve the bag from the garage at the last minute.  Oh yes, letting that bag go was definitely the right thing to do.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

What to do with that eggplant

Many people shy away from eggplant, that very strange vegetable.  My kids take one look at it and run.  Bob and I love to slice, coat, and cook it in a little oil as an appetizer, or even grill large slices outside.  It is the steak of the vegetable world.

This year the garden yielded an incredible amount of eggplant--the largest amount it has ever delivered!  I started out making eggplant parmesan and frying the slices like I normally do, but that wasn't using up the amount being produced.  I peeled, sliced, blanched and froze a gallon bagful but was still searching for more ways to cook up my supply.

Today I found this delightful recipe from Smitten Kitchen.  Her recipe uses zucchini but it works just as well with eggplant.  I salted and drained the eggplant slices for quite a while (two hours, probably) just because it took that long to get back to cooking after chasing kids around the house.  Make sure you take paper towels and soak up as much liquid as you can from the eggplant slices after they sit in the salt for a while.  This keeps them from being bitter and soggy.  I also used half white flour, half white whole wheat flour (King Arthur Flour sells white whole wheat) for the dough, and it passed the Bob test (he hates anything made from whole wheat flour--says it "tastes like dirt".  I think next time I'll top it with thinly sliced shallots or caramelized onions.  

Sunday, August 29, 2010

T double E double R double I . . .

It's feeling like fall in Upstate NY--nights are cool and morning dog walks require a sweatshirt.  The days will still warm up to the low eighties, but it just doesn't feel as muggy as June or July.  The garden is dying down while the apples and wild grapes are ripening.  I love this time of year.

When walking the dog the other morning the laneway looked like it was ready for Halloween.  We started out having to break through a few single web strings that crossed our path, but then I saw this:

I don't know if it is just timing--I'm walking the dog at the right moment when the sun shines through the dewey webs--or if spiders work like crazy when the temperature starts to drop.  These were along the brush next to our path, all the way down the path.  

If you didn't get too close, the spider would be sitting in the center of their masterpiece.  Otherwise as soon as you approached they would drop out of sight.

This picture has two webs with a spider in each if you can see them
We have a healthy respect for spiders in this house.  It must be from growing up seeing the original Charlotte's Web in the movie theatre.  The kids are told not to kill them (our nemesis is the cluster fly) but also not to get too close.  I have witnessed what a spider bite can do, thanks to a coworker's unlucky encounter.  So, as long as these guys keep in their spot and do their job, we can coexist.

This morning a line was crossed.  As I was walking the dog, looking for webs, I found a Monarch butterfly motionless, seemingly suspended in the air.  A closer inspection revealed its wings being stuck in a web.  Luckily it seemed the spider had not yet approached its prey.  I had a Wilber moment, took a stick and broke the web.  The butterfly quickly flew away and I was elated.  Sorry Charlotte--you'll have to try again for a more ugly dinner.  Meanwhile the dog and I continued our walk, looking for more webs.  I have yet to find one that spells "Terrific" but I'm still looking.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Shrimp Fra Diavolo

This is a wonderful way to use up that half bag of frozen shrimp in the freezer, if you happen to have shrimp in the freezer.  If not, go out and buy some because shrimp cooks so quickly it makes a nice work day dinner.  I made it this week, using up my last jar of whole tomatoes from last year's garden.  However, you don't need home grown tomatoes to make this.  It will still be delicious with store bought canned tomatoes.

-1/2 to 1 pound of shrimp, or whatever you have in the house
-5 tablespoons olive oil
-1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes (this makes it a little hot--adjust the amount to the level of heat you like)
-4 to 5 cloves of garlic, minced or pressed (even more if you really like garlic)
-1 (28-oz) can diced tomatoes (drained), or whole tomatoes (drained and cut up), or crushed tomatoes, it really doesn't matter but it is good if the tomatoes are still chunky, as opposed to tomato sauce
-1 cup white wine if you have it, or 1 cup chicken broth, or water really
-1/4 cup fresh cut up parsley leaves, or a tablespoon of parsley flakes
-linguine or spaghetti

Cook the pasta in a large pot of water while you are cooking the shrimp.

For the shrimp:
Heat a large skillet over medium high heat.  Toss the shrimp with half of the pepper flakes and 2 T oil.  Cook the oil and shrimp in the skillet until shrimp is opaque, maybe about two minutes, stirring to get both sides done.  Transfer the shrimp to a medium bowl and take the pan off of the heat to cool it down for 2 to 3 minutes (you want it cooler so the garlic doesn't burn when you put it in).  Have the tomatoes, spices, and wine ready to go.

Put the skillet back on the burner and turn the heat to low.  Put in 3 T oil and the garlic and cook while stirring until it is aromatic (maybe 4 to 5 minutes).  Watch the garlic so it doesn't burn.  Burned garlic will look brown and taste bitter.  Now put in the tomatoes, wine, sugar, 1/2 t salt, and the remaining pepper flakes.  Turn the heat up to medium and simmer until thickened slightly, about eight minutes.  Dump in the shrimp and heat through about a minute longer.

Serve the shrimp and sauce over the cooked pasta.  Yum!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

One Man's Trash . . .

Between birthday parties and Christmas I spend a lot of time sorting out toys and getting rid of clutter.  It is such a comfort to me to see a tidy bedroom and a playroom with everything in the proper bin, on the shelf.  Sometimes I have to sneak the old toys out of the house to get them to the donation box.  My kids tend to want to hang on to everything--even broken old McDonald's toys.

As much as I enjoy a de-cluttered house, I a have a huge weakness--rummage sales. I can't hold back.  There is an adrenaline rush when walking in, wondering if or when you will find that awesome item, only for a dollar or two.  K & E feel like they are in toy heaven--who cares if the toys are used, they are still cool.

So, with a little trepidation, the three of us (Bob was out of town, the poor soul) went to the 40th Annual St. Mary's Lawn Sale.  Yes, it is quite an event.  A month before the sale they park a full size semi trailer on the lawn and collect donations.  Usually after a few weeks people are turned away because they run out of room for all of the stuff.  It runs over two days and I typically wait until the second day because everything is half price and most of the treasure (and crowds) are gone, preventing me from going crazy and bringing home a bunch of junk.  However, the kids and I went on the first morning because we had a mission--E desperately needed a bigger bike.  I wasn't sure if they would even have bikes, but who was I kidding?  This was the 40th Annual St. Mary's Lawn Sale--they had bikes of all sizes and colors!  Our mission was complete in five minutes and E was the proud owner of a spiffy if slightly rusty 20 inch Huffy, complete with two flat tires.  Now, if only I could find a bike pump . . .

K and E went to look at toys and were soon bouncing back with their treasure:  a Mousetrap Game (complete with instructions) and a skateboard, both for $1. 
I haven't played Mousetrap in 30 years, but it looks cool

 Bring on the clutter!  I worked my way through the crowd to peruse the toys with them.  Here is where I get into trouble.  I have this compulsion to want to purchase anything remotely connected to my childhood.  So, when I saw the box covers to the Capsela 1000 and 500 and saw their late 70's grooviness, there was no holding back.  
Bubbly building tools with motors for land or water.  Awesome!

Seven dollars later those kits were mine, baby!  With those came another groovy robot kit, a Jotto word game (circa 1972, never used, and only a dollar!) and E found an old Etch A Sketch (says patent pending on the back, so I assume it's and older one).

This robot guy looks like a Star Wars Imperial Walker, so we were psyched!

Look at those people.  They are having so much fun playing Jotto.  Who says the  70's wasn't cool.

A few Barbie and puzzle items later I was lugging around a box full of our junk treasure.  The kids took a break for hotdogs and I used that time to stroll through the tent--the main part of the sale, full of old plates, decorations, appliances, and my favorite--old electronics.  Now, I don't buy anything from that table, but I love to look through the items and reflect on how much and how quickly technology has changed.  This year the table was full of cordless phones (it's been years since we've had a regular phone in our house, so those looked strange to me), CD Walkmans, and a few Kodak slide carousels (OK, I admit it.  I was tempted to buy one of those just for nostalgic purposes, but held off).  To the left of that table was one labeled "Items for Men", and the curiosity got to me.  This was a table full of tools, and it took not two seconds for me to spy a not-so-rusty bike pump for $2!  I was winning!  If that bike pump actually worked then our morning outing could be considered a huge success.

We took our loot home and the kids spent the afternoon assembling mousetraps, puzzles, and building mechanical machines from our treasure.  
E bought a bag of these puzzles, eight of them for a dollar.  Win!

I used the pump to air up the bike tires and it worked splendidly--the little locking mechanism even functioned so no one had to hold the nozzle--and I also used it to air up the several deflated soccer balls around the house.  Success!  I gave Bob a call and told him about the triumphant bike mission.  "And I found an awesome bike pump!"  Pause.  Bob, the neat freak, doesn't get quite as excited as I do over used treasure.  "Um, we have an air compressor we can use for that."  Oh.  Well, what I didn't tell him is that I'M DEATHLY AFRAID OF THE AIR COMPRESSOR AND THIS LETS ME FIX THE TIRES USING NOTHING BUT MY MUSCLE STRENGTH.  So there. Besides, it was only two dollars!

The awesome bike with the more than awesome bike pump

Alas, as I looked around the basement last night, it is once again a cluttered mess. The toy shelves, newly sorted and cleaned of old puzzles and games, will be once again stuffed full of the day's booty.  And so the declutter cycle repeats.  I don't know if I'll ever be able to resist the St. Mary's Lawn Sale, or that rush of finding a most useful (or totally un-useful but exceptionally groovy) item for only a dollar.  And I guess in the end if the worst thing that happens is a little mess, I will trade that for a few days of K & E ( and me) having fun with the things they found.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


I started gardening back in 1992 after buying a house in Rochester.  It already had a vegetable garden space, so all I had to do was figure out how to plant.  Knowing nothing about gardening and not having the internet (how did we survive without it?!) I bought gardening books to help me out.  

There are many things you obtain throughout your life that are pretty much tossed aside.  Then there are the few items that actually become so useful you would freak out if it got lost or broken.  One of the first garden books I purchased back then was called Vegetables by a guy named Derek Fell.  I just googled it and found it available as an ebook on a website, and this is what my book looks like:
This dude really looks like he knows what he's doing.  I also like his grooviness.
Turns out this little paperback book was the only gardening book I ever needed.  Its corners are now tattered and the front cover is about to rip off, but I still refer to it every year.

Garden books are good at telling you all of the things to do to have that perfect garden.  Between laziness and lack of time I've chosen NOT to do several things, but the garden still survives year after year.

Things I don't do:
1.  Test the soil.   Every gardening book tells you to test the soil and adjust for nutrients.  I know darn well that even if my soil is tested I will never make adjustments, so I don't bother with that.

2.  Turn the dirt over every year.  I used to till, back when we started with all nasty clay.  However, most of the Mother Earth News types today say that tilling isn't necessary and could actually mess up the soil structure.  I just don't do it because it takes time.  Instead, just keep piling compost on top of the old dirt.  It's so much easier.

3.  Weed, very often.  I will weed a little here and there when the weeds are easy to pull, but there is a dead zone between where the garden ends and where Bob stops mowing that is full of some giganta-weeds.  
giganta catnip weed
scary giganta weed with giganta leaves

If they don't pull out easily then I just step on them to smash them down.

4.  Spray with chemicals.  At the beginning of the season and maybe once in August I will spray plants with Pyola to get rid of flea beetles--they will totally destroy eggplant.  Other than that, I don't spray.

5.  Plant the plants with the recommended spacing.  My plants are crowded together.  This actually blocks out some weeds, but the tomatoes become a crowded mess by August.

6.  Wait until the frost free date.  For Upstate New York this is usually around Memorial Day.  This year I planted a month early because it was so warm.  I lost plant tops due to a freak snow / frost storm, but the plants recovered and now I have tomatoes in early August.  This lets me process them when I am home full time, well before getting ready for the start of school.

Things I will do:
1.  Plant in compost.  Every year I get a load of compost and apply two to three inches on top of last year's dirt.  You have to make sure the compost has set out for a few weeks so it isn't too hot, but my plants have really thrived. 

2.  Use a drip irrigation system.  I won't water by hand, so a simple drip irrigation system has been wonderful.  I've used one for fifteen years.  Irrigro is very easy to set up, although it takes some tweaking to make it work right.
The white line in the middle is the drip line.  You can see the darker dirt around it from the water.

3.  Put cardboard down between the garden rows.  Thick cardboard helps reduce the weeds between rows and creates a great walking area.  It degrades within a season so every spring I put more down.
Hooray for big fat cardboard!

4.  Start plants from seeds.  You can't get the variety of plants from the local store as you do with your own transplants.  I have had tremendous success with Pinetree Garden seeds.  Their seeds and shipping are dirt cheap, which was why I went with them, but the sprout rate and strength of plant is wonderful.  They are an excellent find!  

5.  Use an automatic watering system for starting seeds.  Eighteen years ago I bought a few seed starting systems from Gardener's supply and I still use those same ones today.  I love them!  They are perfect for a lazy gardener like me who forgets to water seedlings.  They do seem expensive, but like I said, I've had mine for 18 years and only replaced the capillary matting once or twice.

As you can see by the pictures, my garden is not pretty!  I'm blessed to live in the country so no neighbors are affected by the ugliness of my garden.  However I also think the ugliness is due to the fact we live in the country and being surrounded by fields of giganta-weeds.  

So, if you have a little piece of unused yard, you can easily start growing a few things on your own.  You don't have to follow all of the gardening rules.  Just grow some stuff and delight in picking your own tomatoes!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Why change the name?

I had originally called this blog The Imperfect Gardener, but wasn't really happy with that because there were soooo many other blogs, books and websites with that title. I didn't want to steal anyone's idea.  So, I considered the general topics in my head that will get out by writing and two thoughts came to mind.  I get my ideas while walking the dog, so Staring at the Dog's Rear-end was one, but there was no way I would use that.  The other thought that is frequently in my head is with kids, gardening/cooking/canning and pets, my kitchen floor is almost always sticky.  Five minutes after I mop, someone will go into the kitchen and spill something on the floor.  I googled sticky kitchen floor and ha! no one uses it for a website or blog (most results were people asking how to clean a sticky kitchen floor.  I'm amazed that people need to google that question, but oh well).  So, there you have it.  Perhaps to celebrate I'll go clean that floor.  Then again, I do have email to check.  And Facebook.  And Twitter . . .

Sunday, August 8, 2010


Some people scrapbook for a hobby; others might fish, or sew, or read.  When I find myself with an empty Saturday what I like most to do is cook.  I'll peruse my supplies, or collect treasure from the garden, then surf the net to find recipes to try.  Sometimes what I make is a complete flop, but often I'll end up with something new and delicious.

My kitchen skills have evolved slowly over the past twenty years.  I started out as a terrible cook.  Granted, in eighth grade I was awarded "Homemaker of the Year", but I believe the home economics teacher took pity on me as I frequently would enter her class in tears over some middle school drama.  (That is a story for another time, if I choose to write it at all!).  It certainly wasn't because of my fine cooking skills.  During high school the most I could make was chocolate chip cookies or food from a box (Party Pizza, frozen disgusting stir fry, Steakums--eek!).  In college, if it wasn't dorm food or pizza then ramen noodles ruled.  Eventually I was bold enough to try grilled cheese, but often I would just eat Cheerios for dinner.

It took a few years of living on my own for me to finally develop an appreciation for cooking, and without detailed instructions my skills were still mediocre at best.  I remember one attempt in my early twenties of making pumpkin pie from scratch.  The recipe I used called for pumpkin, but did not go into specifics on how to use a fresh pumpkin.  Back then I thought the pumpkin pulp was the stringy stuff you got when you scooped out the seeds.  That pie was pretty much the scariest item I have ever attempted. 

What finally worked was practice and a decent cookbook.  Between a Cook's Illustrated subscription and the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook I was able to learn a little more detail behind the recipes.  Don't overbake chocolate.  Don't cook garlic too hot or it will brown and get bitter.  Cook the pumpkin in the oven for 45 minutes, then puree it in a blender before you make the pie (or, better yet, just buy a can of pumpkin).  With the detailed information and lots of practice I can now take pride in the dinners served.

I tell my students that one skill they need to learn before they go on their own in this world is to cook with real food.  That means starting with fresh ingredients--leave the boxes on the shelves.  Those boxes are filled with so many preservatives and salt that it would be difficult (and expensive) to live a healthy lifestyle by cooking from them most of the time.  A vegetable garden is helpful but not necessary--there are plenty of farmer's markets and decent produce sections around.  Start of by simply stir frying some vegetables in a pan, or make a salad.  Eventually you will gain experience and confidence in the kitchen.

This week I was into baking, and really into chocolate!  A few days ago I cooked up the tomatoes into spaghetti sauce and made some Italian bread to go with it.  I use Dominique's Italian Bread recipe which has worked out well.  The key is when you roll up the bread to roll it tightly so your bread will have a height to it.  Too many times I didn't roll it into a tight log and ended up with very flat and wide bread.  Here's what my tightly rolled bread looks like in the end:
It's great for dipping into spaghetti sauce or eating with roasted garlic.

To deal with my chocolate cravings I made chocolate bread.  Not everyone will appreciate chocolate bread--it's not a sweet bread, but is great with cream cheese or marscapone.  My kids ended up liking it:

The chocolate bread ended up giving me a craving for chocolate cake, and it just so happens this week someone on Twitter posted a link to a nice recipe for everyday chocolate cake.  This woman has a beautiful blog with lovely pictures.  My cake turned out delicious, although I can't take food pictures the way she does:

It didn't sit around very long before we inhaled quite a bit of it.  Yum!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Invitation

Earlier this week I took K to her end of the season party for her soccer team.  It was a pool party at the coach's house, and I enjoyed watching her squeal with delight as she jumped, swam, and acted generally goofy with the other nine to ten year old girls.  It felt good to see that she was accepted by her peers, and could run right up and join in the fun.  Her first year on travel soccer has turned out to be a positive experience.  I wasn't so sure that was going to be the case on the day of tryouts.

The tryout process started in early fall where the girls gather on two separate days to kick the ball around at different centers and be ranked by coaches.  We had missed the first tryout session but attended the second at a friend's suggestion.  I wasn't at all sure I liked the process and really wasn't confident that K would make a team.  When we arrived it was obvious that most of the other girls knew each other from the previous season--they were dressed in their uniforms from the past year and chatted and giggled together in a tight knit group.  While the coaches were getting organized they told the girls to find a partner and kick the ball back and forth.  K enthusiastically grabbed a ball and skipped over to the one girl she sort of knew from school.  When she asked the girl to be her partner, the girl shrugged, told her she already had a partner, and left K standing alone.  By that time all of the girls were paired, kicking the ball to each other.  K stood there ball in hand, head turning side to side, watching everyone else kick and not really knowing what else to do. 

At that point I walked back to the car and burst into tears.  This wasn't just about K being turned down by a group of nine year olds--this was compounded with memories of my own nightmares about fitting into social groups.  Had I been put in that same situation I would not have even approached anyone for fear of the rejection that K experienced. 

Before I continue, I should add that K's discomfort was only momentary, and soon she was giggling and running with the other girls.  I also believe the girls' behavior was completely normal for preteens and I probably would have been shocked (and delighted) had the tight knit group embraced K as soon as she arrived.

However, it reminds me that we are increasingly living in an "it's all about me" world and often fail to see who is being left out.  We like our little groups, our circles of comfort, and sometimes adults behave much like the preteens.

The issue for me is fitting into the large social gathering, whether it's a seminar, a party, or the lunch table.  I can't walk up to a group of people and join their conversation.  I want to be invited in.  Being invited tells me that my existence is acknowledged.  Sounds strange, doesn't it?  However, over the past 20 years of starting new jobs I've tried the other way of just sitting down with a group of people at lunch, or walking up to a group at a party, only to be completely ignored.  So, whenever I am in a social setting, particularly when I'm surrounded by my circle of comfort, I look around to see if there is someone sitting by themselves, or standing against the wall because they don't know anyone, and I'll invite them in.  I know for me that is all I need for the anxiety to go away.

I don't get nearly as anxious at social gatherings as in the past, although the assertive route is still not an option for me.  If I do wind up in a situation that feels particularly awkward, I now turn it into a social experiment.  How long will I sit eating lunch by myself before someone invites me in?

When walking up to the soccer party a wave of anxiety came over me.  Bob was not there to be my anchor, so I would be faced with a group of parents, all comfortable with each other from the previous season, and I would have to socialize.  It was OK, since I knew these parents enough to have one on one conversations.  But when they gathered in larger groups, I chose to sit by the pool and watch the kids play.  Maybe someday I will once again be bold and try to approach a group; however, for now I think I'll wait for the invitation.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Today's Bounty

Not too bad, considering the blight is ravaging the tomatoes.  Not sure what to do with this batch--probably tons of salsa.

Yesterday I logged 13K+ steps--whoohoo!  

What I really need to be doing is curriculum work.  It's just so hard to get started when I stare at the pile:

The five minute rule doesn't quite work with curriculum writing--you really need at least a two hour block of time.  I suppose it could be achieved if I stopped spending time on these intertubes and moved over to the table.  So, that's what I will be doing. As soon as I check my email.  And facebook, and twitter.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Cleaning Out

My main project for the summer is to clean out certain areas of the house.  While the kids were at camp I successfully overhauled their bedrooms to help maintain some order.  It took four full days, but now they both have desks and a cleaner room to help them.

We have a bedroom in our basement that is used for guests.  It also doubles as my sewing room.  Unfortunately this room has de-evolved into a dumping ground for anything I wasn't able to get rid of.  Over the past ten years I had collected quite a bit of fabric, notions, patterns, and other items that were filling the room with clutter.  This summer I decided to deal with it five minutes at a time (a philosophy learned from The Flylady--if something is overwhelming then tackle it five minutes at a time to whittle it down).  It worked!  I went through the room, repeating in my head "if you haven't used it, you don't need it!" and "let it bless someone else".  This works for me.  I ended up donating a lot of fabric and notions to the music department at work, which really cleared out tons of space.  I felt good knowing that a costume mom could actually use all of the fabric that would otherwise sit in a box collecting dust in the closet.  I was also able to let go of tons of items most people would consider junk.

Last night I finished up by going through my "organized" file cabinet.  You see, ten years ago I started reading organizational books, and I spent a huge amount of time creating a filing system where I could file all of those magazine articles about craft ideas and home redesign, because, you know, I just HAD to keep them since I would use them someday.  The system included me assigning a number to each item and cross referencing the information on hand-written index cards.  I had up to 200 different items filed in that cabinet.  Last night I went through and threw out approximately 190 of them!  I kept my teaching certification information and a few recipes, but really, what was I doing with those magazine articles?  How much time did I spend organizing that garbage, and couldn't I have been doing something much more useful with my time?  Ugh.

The room looks great now, with plenty of open closet space and an entire empty dresser for guests to use when they visit.  However, I have to admit one downfall--I found my old Martha Stewart Living magazines and I couldn't throw them away.  They are just too gosh darn--beautiful!  So, for now, I've sacrificed a huge dresser drawer to hold the magazine of perfection.  Perhaps some day in my spare time I'll peruse those magazines and create some beautiful crafty Thanksgiving centerpiece . . .

Monday, August 2, 2010

Sad Tomatoes

Last year I lost all of my tomato plants very quickly to blight.  It was such a cold and rainy summer and I had planted only heirloom tomatoes, so I wasn't surprised.  This year promised to be different--lots of warm days and sun, so I wasn't very concerned when this tiny bit of yellowing showed up:

I thought it wouldn't do much harm, because the rest of the 14 plants were beautiful!

Alas, three weeks later, I have this:

It's difficult to see because there is still a lot of green, but everything is withering away.  I'm grateful that for now I'm picking plenty of tomatoes, and I was even able to freeze three gallon sized bags for the winter, but the plants are going quickly.

I think I'm going to stop growing tomatoes for a few years to let this burn out.  Ugh.  I'll miss those beauties.


Logging dinners cooked is helpful to me--I can keep track of what was successful and apply a little pressure on myself to get cooking.  Tonight was cube steak cooked with onions and peppers (green peppers from the garden) in a sauce made with the ketchup I canned last year.  Served that with mashed potatoes and a swiss chard salad, both from the garden.  Everyone enjoyed it except of course E, Mr. picky eater.  He ate a few potatoes and had some tomato slices.  At least he ate a vegetable.  I struggle with E's pickiness--he would live off of McDonald's and pizza if I let him.  As it is, he settles for grapes, tomatoes, and home made pizza.

I guess cube steak doesn't sound very healthy, but I buy my beef from a local farmer and it is mostly grass fed.  I purchase my chicken, eggs, milk and pork from local farmers.  I think it has been over eight years since I've purchased ground beef in a grocery store.  There is just too much I've read about industrial meat for me to trust eating it.  Local meat really tastes better, anyway.

So, we are far from vegetarians.  I do know where my meat comes from, and that the animals are treated humanely up until the end.

On another topic, I logged 11,000+ steps today.  Bought a pedometer a few days ago and have been trying to log over 10K steps a day.  So far it hasn't been difficult but that will change when I go back to school.

So, this is my blog

I'm trying this out, this blogging thing, because I have a lot of thoughts in my head that I would like to share somewhere.  So I thought if I wrote a blog it would be out there, and even if know one read it, I still had a place to move the ideas out from my head.

Let me start out by saying that I am a math person, not a writer, so I will use far too many commas than are legal, and I will struggle with sentence variation, grammar, spelling, everything.  After all, my main idea is that we don't have to be perfect to accomplish things.

I used to want to be perfect.  I would spend hours reading through my Martha Stewart magazines, striving to achieve that perfect household.  It never worked out.  Now I repeatedly tell myself that things do not have to be perfect in order to be good.  And I've discovered some really really good things.

My main interests in life other than family are:
1.  Educating people on how to cook and eat real food.  Next time you are at any public place look around and see how many overweight people are around you.  I find that number increasing every year, and it breaks my heart to see children overweight.  I believe all parents want the best for their kids but so many don't understand how much damage the standard American diet can do.

2.  Gardening and homesteading.  My garden looks terrible--I don't have time to weed.  Even though it looks awful I can still grow some great food!

3.  Lots of nerdy things like math and science.  Star Wars and Star Trek are very much in my universe.

I also follow national politics very closely, but am keeping those ideas off of this blog.  There are plenty of other outlets to sound off politically.

And there you have it, the imperfect gardener geek, sharing thoughts on the interwebs.