Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Around here














As far as I'm concerned, October is a season. To me, there is no prettier time of year where I live. The weather is turning now, almost with the calendar page. The low temperatures will dip into the forties this week for the first time since last spring. The light is changing, inside and outside. Nights are drawing in early now; it won't be long until it's dark before dinnertime. Mornings are cool, chilly even, afternoons are bright and warm. The summer monsoon has ended; now the storms blow in with cold fronts, bringing blustery wind and brief bursts of rain. I smelled pinon smoke in the early morning over the weekend, the first hint of the winter to come.

Around here, we're gearing up. I've got the kids' fall clothes sorted, washed and folded. They sit in a laundry basket in the hallway outside the bedrooms, waiting for the break - that moment when the afternoons aren't so warm anymore, when a long-sleeved shirt is wanted, when a cardigan is suddenly a good idea. I've been pleased to see that many of their clothes from last year still fit them. It's a relief to have them both in middle childhood now; they don't grow nearly as fast as they used to, or will in the future, it's been pointed out to me. 

We're just starting to winterize. The swamp cooler is still hooked up, and still comes on some afternoons. It takes until two o'clock or later now, though, so the cooling days are definitely numbered. As soon as its safe, the Bear will go up on the roof to disconnect it and then the furnace is free to switch on as necessary. Usually, we'll need it a handful of times before the month is over. They've predicted below-average temperatures during October through December for my area. I would love to see this come to fruition. Already, I'm using an afghan in the evenings and sleeping under the duvet again. Cold weather agrees with me. I don't mean to romanticize it; winter has its downsides, for sure, but I would much rather be cold than hot.

Want hours of fun for your kids? Make them a parachute toy to play with. Cut a big, round circle from a plastic trash bag (the thinner and filmier, the better). Then attach lengths of kite string in six or so places around the edge of the circle. Tie the strings together at their other ends and attach a weight (a small metal keyring works well). Take it outside on a breezy day, throw it up in the air and watch it catch the wind. It helps to have a big, open space to play - or you could end up like us, hopping the garden wall to retrieve your parachute from the arroyo. It was worth it; the sun shone, the children laughed and ran and tumbled in the grass.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Nine







My happy, sweet boy turned nine last week. We celebrated numerous times - once with his grandparents, once as a foursome and again this weekend with his friends. He enjoyed himself thoroughly, as the man of the hour (or week). His party was a blast (thank you for the birthday and good-party wishes!). I was on food and hospitality duty; Daddy was in charge of scientific fun, just like last year. This year's experiments included creating hydrogen in a wine bottle with Drano crystals, aluminum foil and water (and exploding a balloon filled with said hydrogen, using a sparkler on the end of a long pole), drinking punch made super-creepy with the addition of dry ice, pouring a glass of water from several feet away (through the miracle of surface tension), and hitting targets with a laser and mirrors (a repeat from last year's party, since it was a rousing success).

The LB and his friends had a really good time, I think. We kept the party small and I tried to make things a little easier on myself by letting the boys make their own pizzas (we rolled out the dough and sauced it, they put on toppings of their choice). I don't know that it saved time, necessarily, but they enjoyed themselves and it wasn't difficult to prepare or clean up. Instead of cake, we had ice cream sundaes (I'd sent Rice Krispie Treats to school during the week). I didn't have the chance to take many pictures during the party; there was too much going on. I know he had a good time. He got some amazing gifts from his friends, including a carnivorous plant! We have to feed it dead bugs. Yikes. We gave him the kinds of things he loves - mostly things that plug in, flash or beep. He loves his new LED reading lamp and circuit components. But he had also asked for more books from the Boxcar Children series and has already devoured them all. I'll be happy to buy the next set for Christmas.

I have a nine-year-old. How weird and wonderful. A friend pointed out to me this week that he's halfway to eighteen now. After I suppressed the urge first to kick her in the shin, then to burst into tears, I started thinking about how far we've come in nine years, and how far we still have to go, and how quickly it's all going to pass if these first nine are any indication. He's my first child, the one I learned on, the normal stuff made more difficult by the fact that I was seriously ill after he was born. I couldn't hold him until he was seven hours old and couldn't be alone with him; I was very sick and on heavy anti-seizure medication. He was four days old the first time I changed his diaper. I was on bedrest until he was six weeks old. He had health problems too, congenital ones as well as some caused by my difficult pregnancy and his early birth. I just couldn't seem to get better. His first months were a blur of doctor's appointments and tests - mine as well as his.

What a time we had. I lay on the couch with him all day. I wished we could be normal, that I could take him for a walk in the new stroller then collecting dust in the basement. But it was a precious time too. I had all the time in the world to get to know him, to master that very tricky breastfeeding thing, to watch him grow and get fat (motivating me to keep breastfeeding). I read to him, sang to him and told him stories. We watched the big maple tree change outside the window, green to flaming orange to bare and black. We lived in a cold, snowy place then; there was snow on the ground by the time I had a clean bill of health in November. I couldn't take him for a walk outdoors, so I took him to the mall. In my inexperience, I started toward an escalator with that big stroller, a security guard shouting behind me that it was dangerous and therefore not allowed. I listened, of course, but I couldn't stop laughing. I laughed until my stomach hurt. The security guard was probably ready to call for backup. But with everything we'd been through, the idea that an escalator might be our undoing was really kind of hilarious.

This boy is so good. I mean that. He was the calmest, most docile baby I'd ever seen, which did make it easier to parent for the first time under adverse circumstances. He rarely cried. He never had a tantrum as a toddler - not one. He was a late talker, quiet and calm even when he could have been frustrated. Today, he's a peacemaker among his friends and with his sister. He is scary smart, probably a lot smarter than I am, but he's humble. He accepts his health issues with courage and equanimity. He's funny! Just like his father, he makes me laugh all day long. He is a joy. I'm so deeply, wholly glad he's here.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Friday Happies

I'm glad to have a reason to post today, thanks to Gillian, whom I'm joining. I just need to be in this space. I've had a whirlwind week, which sometimes felt like the week from hell, but it's Friday now, and I feel like I can breathe a little.

We had a birthday this week (with the party still to come tomorrow). We had lots of other things to do and it all kind of passed in a haze. I wasn't sleeping well for several nights. Today, I made a stupid navigational decision and ended up being late to pick up my kids from school. Has this ever happened to you, where you're driving and confused and you know you're going to be late and your emotions just take over? I'm the world's most cautious driver (actually failed a road test for being "too cautious" at age seventeen, how often does that happen?!). I don't speed and I'm not aggressive on the road. No, I just panic and start crying when driving stresses me out. That's what I did today. I was about ten minutes late, which isn't terrible, and the GB's teacher had both kids eating their lunch in her room when I got there, but I was a mess. We have to go back to school soon for a family dance, which should be fun, but there will be cold adult beverages when we return tonight.

Right now, I'm watching the small Bears play with one of the LB's birthday toys, an elaborate building set with hundreds of pieces all over the floor, and listening to the GB sing a Dropkick Murphys song, which is not my first choice for children's music, but she seems happy. It's kind of wild here at the moment. And I'm blogging because I severely need to chill out, man. (I changed my blog template a little bit this week; I'd been using the same one since I started blogging almost two years ago. I like this, it's a little fresher).


Our backyard mums are blooming. We have two, a white and this yellow one above. Actually, now we have four, because I bought another yellow one and a maroon one this week, but they aren't in the ground yet. They're decorating the front entrance along with a pumpkin for now. I like mums; they're my birth-month flower, and they're really hardy and faithful - they come up every year and always look cheerful.


We found a praying mantis in the backyard this week. She's on my hand in the photo, but we all took a turn letting her walk on us. We think she was getting ready to have babies, since her abdomen seems so large. She was fascinating to watch, especially because her head and eyes move in a very expressive way.


 He loves hugging the chickens...


 she loves hugging the chickens...


 even I love hugging the chickens.


The LB received a very special birthday gift from his grandparents (the Bear's mom and dad). Grandma refinished this old sewing machine bench for him, creating a new bargello needlepoint cover for it. It's for him to use when he practices his guitar. The lid comes off and he can store his music books, metronome and tuner inside.


Isn't it beautiful? She's very good at this kind of needlepoint. She also made us a bargello cover for our piano bench, and she covered the lids of an old sewing basket in bargello as a gift for me too. I wrote about my special basket a while back. Our living room doubles as a "conservatory" for music practice, so this new bench will stay in there. It makes a lovely addition to the room and we're glad to have it.


The weather is just beginning to cool down. This week we had some hot afternoons, but nothing like the summer. It's nice to sit out there when we're done with homeschool tasks. They play, I read or crochet. This week, the sidewalk chalks had an outing on the concrete patio.


I treated myself to a croissant this week. I actually sat down in a chair to eat it, along with my cup of tea. I'd been racing through the days and had been in the grocery store Thursday morning, buying birthday-party provisions, and decided I would buy myself a croissant and eat it after I put the groceries away and before moving on to the next task on my list. It was just what I needed. I ate and drank in silence and it felt good.


Oh, and I finally got that candy I was craving.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Color Collaborative: September: Stitched


image via metmuseum.org

"The Unicorn in Captivity" is one of seven Medieval tapestries in the series known as "The Hunt of the Unicorn" or, simply, "The Unicorn Tapestries." Most of these tapestries, once owned by John D. Rockefeller, are now part of the permanent collection of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art; the tapestries are exhibited in The Cloisters, a sort of annex of the main museum. The Cloisters is the home of the museum's extensive Medieval art collection.

Like the other tapestries in the series, "The Unicorn in Captivity" is mysterious. Not much is known about these tapestries. Art historians think they were made between 1495 and 1505. They were probably created in the Netherlands region. Scholars and historians have been at odds for centuries as to the symbolism depicted in them, with theories ranging from romantic love to Christian allegory. There are letters, probably A and E, present in all of the tapestries, but their meaning has been heavily debated too. What we do know is this: the tapestries were created from wool warps with wool, silk, silver and gilt wefts, making them quite luxurious. We also know that the botanical designs in each tapestry have been identified as real species found in Europe at the time, tens of thousands of miniscule stitches creating a vibrant field of plants and blooms. 

"The Unicorn in Captivity" is my personal favorite tapestry in the series. I saw it in person when I visited The Cloisters as a fifth-grader from the suburbs. We had studied Medieval tapestries in art class for awhile before the field trip, even making our own hand-stitched versions of the tapestry of our choice. I wish I still had my unicorn "tapestry," but I don't. I remember well the day I stood before the Unicorn tapestries in the museum, though. It was thrilling. Later, I studied the era's tapestries in college, and the fascination continued.

I suppose I'm cheating a bit writing about this tapestry; technically, it isn't "stitched," it's woven. But tapestry weaving is special; weft threads are twisted and manipulated freely, hooked and looped around the warp one tiny section at a time, to create intricate designs on the front of the fabric - much more like stitching than basic fabric creation.

image via metmuseum.org

What strikes me is the detail. Every flower, every leaf and fruit, has been artfully depicted in colored threads on a deep black ground. Leaves contain various shades of green, flowers are realistic, bearing the colors they would in nature. There are pale purple irises, yellow calendulas and pink lady-slippers. There are strawberries, snowdrops, bluebells and thistles. The backs of the tapestries, protected from the ravages of sun and time, are said to contain brilliant colors. The fronts are incredible enough. Do you see the frog in the above detail photo? He's tiny, but his coloration is perfect, and you can even see eyes and individual toes. 

This tapestry is made in the late-medieval millefleurs tradition: countless tiny flowers and plants densely arrayed throughout the work. This style captures my imagination. I've always been drawn to designs which depict intricate, brambly botanical features on dark backgrounds, whether in paintings, tapestries or even calico fabrics. I think of fairy-tale forests - the leafy domain of silent rabbits and deer, secret thickets of flowers and berries, patchy sunshine splitting the darkness. When I saw this tapestry at age eleven, I couldn't stop thinking about it for days.


image via metmuseum.org

Can you identify the fruits in the above detail? Those are pomegranates, rosy-gold and delicately crowned. They have long been known as a symbol of fertility, which is one reason for the romantic-love interpretation of the tapestry. Though the leaves of this pomegranate tree are botanically inaccurate, according to art historians, they are finely detailed, well-rendered in subtle shades of green.





In closer detail, the Unicorn himself is beautifully rendered too. He is a rich, creamy-white color, with a swishy tail and delicate hooves. His face is startlingly human-like, I think. He is believed to be symbolic of Christ. He is chained to the pomegranate tree with an ornate collar around his neck; the collar is rich with gilt threads, the chain's links are finely rendered in silver. There are droplets of blood, or perhaps pomegranate juice, on his snowy coat. The Unicorn's corral looks like real wood, as the brown threads create a subtle shaded effect. The Unicorn is surrounded by flowers and plants of every kind and he is resting comfortably in his corral. His collar is loose and the fence is low; he doesn't look unhappy to be in captivity, which is perhaps the greatest mystery of all.



The above video, made by the remarkable Khan Academy, offers a fascinating analysis of the symbolism and masterful artistry of "The Unicorn in Captivity." Two historians offer their opinions on these subjects and more. I learned a lot about this mysterious and beautiful tapestry from their discussion. You may also enjoy this interactive tool from the Google Cultural Institute, which allows the user to zoom in for a very close observation of the tapestry.

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 Don't forget to visit the other Color Collaborative blogs for more of this month's posts. Just click on the links below: 

Annie at Annie Cholewa 
Sandra at Cherry Heart 

What is The Color Collaborative?
All creative bloggers make stuff, gather stuff, shape stuff, and share stuff. Mostly they work on their own, but what happens when a group of them work together? Is a creative collaboration greater than the sum of its parts? We think so and we hope you will too. We'll each be offering our own monthly take on a color related theme, and hoping that in combination our ideas will encourage us, and perhaps you, to think about color in new ways.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Slowcooker tortilla soup


You have got to make this soup, and I'm not just saying that because I invented it myself! Well, maybe I didn't really invent it, but I didn't have a recipe. It's one of those things I made as I went, with a general picture in my head, and it worked out great! I can't wait to make it again.

I'm a huge fan of slowcooker soups. They make life so much easier, especially during the school year. But I use the slowcooker year-round, usually once or twice every week. I love being able to send the Bear to work with leftovers for lunch. My slowcooker soups often contain leftover roasted chicken, since I typically make one of those every two or three weeks as our Sunday dinner. I roast my chickens very simply, with just lemon, butter, salt and pepper, so they'll be versatile for any soup I feel like throwing together. This tortilla soup is based mostly on pantry items I always have on hand, so it was quick and cheap to make, as well as tasty and healthy.



You'll need: 

1 small onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped or put through press
2 cups cooked chicken, diced or shredded
1 14.5-oz can diced tomatoes
1 10-oz. can enchilada sauce (red or green)
1 15-oz can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 15-oz can corn kernels, drained
6 cups chicken broth
1 packet dry taco seasoning
1 cup instant rice
Limes
Shredded cheese
Tortilla chips

In slowcooker liner, mix all ingredients except rice, limes, cheese and chips. Stir well. Cook on HIGH setting for 4-6 hours (or do as I do, which is to cook on HIGH for about 3 hours, then reduce to LOW for the rest of the day; my slowcooker is old and has a dial with only HIGH and LOW settings).

About an hour before serving, stir in uncooked instant rice and the juice of one lime. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper if desired.

Serve with lime wedges, shredded cheese and chips at the table.




I was so proud of this soup! Everyone enjoyed it, though I might use half the packet of taco seasoning next time, or look for the "mild" variety because it was a little on the spicy side. The Bear and I didn't mind, but the kids found it a little spicy. The lime juice really made the dish, though, I have to say. The whole flavor changed dramatically, for the better, with the addition of lime juice. We crumbled a few chips over our bowls, but you could put chips in the bowl and ladle the soup over. We used a Mexican-blend shredded cheese, but plain cheddar or even a Mexican cotija would be great here. We loved our soup on the night I cooked it, but it was even better the next day. The flavors blended more and it reheated nicely, a little thickened by the beans and rice. It was really good and couldn't have been easier. I hope you like it too.

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Thanks for your comments on my Sunday thoughts and other recent posts. It feels really good to know that others share my thoughts, especially about blogging and why we're doing it. I'm glad people appreciate me for who I really am. And I hope you know how glad I am that we're here together.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sunday thoughts


I need to bring a plant-identification book to my kids' school because I want to figure out what this plant is. I wonder if I could just look it up on my phone.

I think of it as the "Laura Ashley Bramble" plant because I had bedding with similar leaves and berries once upon a time.

The chickens are making a racket in the backyard and there's a road-runner in the front chasing a lizard round and round a Russian sage. Birds, man.

I don't usually blog about my thoughts but I should do it more. It's not all homemaking and homeschooling every minute around here.

I've got new-clothes fever at the moment, like I do every fall, but I don't like anything. I tried one of those puffy vests, thinking they'd be good for keeping warm while having my arms free. I looked totally ridiculous.

I spent most of a day alone at home yesterday, doing laundry, sorting kids' fall clothes, baking brownies and watching movies. It was unbelievably restorative.

Somebody just tracked mud through on the carpet and I feel kind of irrational about it.

I wish I had candy.

I can't wait until it really feels like fall on a daily basis. I'm so tired of being hot.

It seems like blogging isn't so cool anymore. I worry that if I don't join Instagram, I'll be left behind. But I have no interest. And so many blogs are just trying to sell stuff now. Lately, I've been missing the old days.

I'll just keep on keeping on. I don't want to regret my time on the internet.

I have another birthday to celebrate/get through this week, and it will be fun, but I'm looking forward to finishing Birthday Season (barring my own in a couple of months).

I'm tempted to crochet some "boot cuffs" for myself, but I'm not sure I can justify bulkier ankles in the name of fashion.

One of the movies I watched yesterday had an unexpected sex scene and I think maybe I'm still too young for movie sex scenes.

I also watched two "Brat Pack" movies. Girls' clothes were so pretty then. I fully expected to wear lacy blouses and double-strands of pearls when I got to high school. I couldn't have been further from the mark.

I know a lot of angry people. Sometimes I think I might be "simple" because I can't see what there is to be so angry about. I feel like I'm missing something. But I also realize that optimism is a valuable gift. Thank goodness for optimism.

But maybe I'm also kind of simple too. That's not off the table.

Sometimes I worry that people only like me for what I can do for them. This is due to unfortunate experience. Optimism helps there too, because maybe they don't even realize that they're complete jerks.

I have to pick the last of the apples that I can reach and do something with them. I think I should try apple butter.

Cottage cheese mixed with apple butter is one of my favorite things to eat. Really, it's delicious and you should try it.

I think I'll go to the library tomorrow. I got a bagful of duds last time. Except for a Nigella cookbook that I don't think I'd read before. I read her cookbooks as if they're novels.

That's enough thinking for now...time to do something think-less, like cleaning the mud off the carpet.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Home/school









Every afternoon, our home becomes our school. We think of ourselves as part-time homeschoolers. We have a unique opportunity, through our local public school system, to provide 50 percent of our children's schooling. The other 50 percent is provided by an alternative school within the city system. The students attend school for about 16 hours each week, and we are responsible for an equal amount of homeschool each week as well. Our children attend school in the "early morning" session, and are home in time for lunch. The afternoon is for homeschool - teaching and schoolwork.

This situation has its challenges as well as its rewards, as you might imagine. I never set out to be a homeschooler. I used to be a high-school English teacher, in a state where education was a top concern, and am a strong proponent of public education. But like a lot of communities today, ours has certain educational difficulties and shortcomings. These are not insurmountable, and we'd do whatever we could to mitigate them for our kids. The partial homeschool approach is one way to be more involved with their learning and to be sure they are receiving a more personalized experience. There are so many good things about this situation. We straddle both worlds, and it usually works well. For one thing, we have enough time in a given week to do supplemental activities, like trips to the zoo, botanic garden or aquarium. We qualify as a homeschool group for discounted tickets to "school-time" dramatic performances. We can spend lots of time together and plan lessons around things we enjoy, focusing on art, science, music and anything else we like.

On the other hand, it seems like we're always "doing school"; we have a set number of hours to log every week. Our children still have to take state- and district-based standardized tests (which are becoming more numerous and arcane with every passing year), and there is no school-bus service for students who attend our school, since it's considered an "alternative" program. So I spend lots of time in my car, driving fifteen minutes each way. Fortunately, the Bear can drop them off on his way to work some days, and I don't have to do the round-trip every day. And now that they're both in school together, I have three, sometimes four, mornings alone every week (and every other week, we have a child-free Private Friday together, which has been so much fun).

We don't have a homeschool room in our house. There just aren't enough rooms. Instead, we take an organic approach. Mostly, we centralize our activities in the family room. It's my favorite room in the house, and I think theirs too. There are big windows on two sides of the room, as well as a large skylight. The room is always bright, even on an overcast day. It's also open to the kitchen, with a bar-counter in between, where they can sit on stools to work. The LB likes to work there, but the GB sometimes prefers to sit on the floor in front of the coffee table. We have our "homeschool cart" in a nook sort of between the family room and kitchen; here, we keep all our books and supplies. I'm pretty strict about the cart; we keep it neat and organized. I like to be able to grab things quickly as I need them. Sometimes we spread out to other rooms. This happens most often when someone is creating a distraction. Then, I send someone to the living room, or home office (our fourth bedroom). I don't tend to encourage schoolwork in their bedrooms; they still need a lot of direct guidance, though the LB has started to enjoy quiet reading time on his bed.

A typical afternoon for us looks like this: I pick them up from school around 11:30, and we go straight home for lunch. After lunch, we listen to an audiobook for awhile. I like to give them time to settle down before we get to work. For my kids, a gentle read-aloud session is just the ticket. Then we get to work. We usually "do school" for two or three hours and then we pack it in. I try to keep the afternoons free for walks, outdoor play or lounging in the backyard, though we do have the GB's ballet class and the LB's guitar class on two of the days each week. I love our afternoons together. I  fortify myself with tea in my favorite giant "cappuccino" mug. I often have something cooking for dinner in the crockpot, especially now that it's cooler. This gives me so much more time in the afternoons. This week brought several cloudy afternoons and I lit my new candle. It's homey and school-ish at the same time, with tea, bubbling soup (that one in the photo was an improvised chicken tortilla concoction) and a pumpkin-spice candle on the stove.

I do enjoy teaching my own kids, which I didn't necessarily foresee when we started. These days, the LB is largely independent; I can brief him fairly quickly and let him work alone, checking in as necessary. The GB needs much more from me, and we work closely most of the time. This is partly due to her young age, but I've also realized that they are very different learners. The LB is very smart, but he hates to be wrong. Oh, it's a terrible thing and there are tears and self-recrimination. For such a mild-mannered cool-cucumber, he can be very emotional when it comes to school work. His sister is perfectly happy to be wrong and will work without complaint until she figures it out. This surprised me, given that she is generally much more fractious than he is. But she's more patient with herself, which is an important difference. We work on it with him, and I think he's starting to turn the corner lately.

There are squabbles and they don't always settle down to work as I'd like them to. Some days, I feel a little distracted or impatient myself. It's not easy. I know it wouldn't be for everyone and I've had plenty of days when I've been sure it wasn't for me! I doubt those days are over. But it's working. We're in our fourth year now and I feel like I'm hitting a stride. I didn't expect that in my first year with both in school, but we have excellent classroom teachers and I feel much more confident and in control with the homeschool. It helps immensely that I have such a willing co-teacher in the Bear; he's fully on-board and always does his share. I'm thankful that I'm able be a stay-at-home mother indefinitely, and I feel good about using the opportunity this way. I think we have pretty good thing going here and I'm proud of us.
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