Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Color Collaborative: October: Halloween

It's almost Halloween! I look forward to this day every year. Halloween memories run strong for me: orange and black jack-o'-lantern buckets, popcorn balls, enough candy to last until Christmas. My first costume was Tweety Bird, one of those vinyl pull-overs, printed with the bird's yellow body, worn with a plastic mask that made me sweat and sweat. Later, I was a witch for a few years and after that, a "bum," or a "punk rocker," which were basically the same costume - old, ripped jeans, a big, baggy top, crazy hair; smudgy cheeks for the "bum," smudgy eyes for the "punk rocker." In college, Halloween was party after party, dorms and ancient walk-up apartments, dark and smoky, Michael Jackson's "Thriller" played on a hundred different stereos.

I haven't outgrown my love for Halloween. I love carving pumpkins and decorating the house (we like a cute, fun Halloween these days, not so much a scary one). And candy - oh, candy. Weeks before the day, we buy our first bag of candy corn. We are snobs: Brach's only! Candy corn is comforting in its sameness - sturdy yellow base, orange in the middle, teeny white wedge on top, familiar vanilla-honey taste. The Bear and I eat it at night, nibbling slowly, joking morbidly about what it does to our bodies. But we can't resist - to me, Halloween is candy corn. Overly sweet and garishly bright, it only appears once a year and it holds strong memories. We had count-the-corn-in-the-jar contests in school, back when you could still hand out candy in a school. The winner got a big handful, but the rest was saved and handed out piecemeal, two or three pieces at a time, over the remainder of the school year. Sometimes it was a prize for learning our spelling words or "times tables" (especially those darn 9's and 7's).

Halloween costumes are on my mind by August. Now that my children are older and I have more time, I try to make their costumes. They can usually wear them for a couple of years, with minor adjustments for growth. I wear a costume too - I'm a black cat every year. I wear a black shirt and black leggings and clip on a black, furry tail. Then I paint on some whiskers and don my black cat-ears headband. Meowwww! My GB and I go together - she's a little gray mouse, all soft and fuzzy in a thick gray sweatshirt with her mouse-ears headband and a black mousy nose and whiskers too. I chase my little gray mouse and eat her up in a hug. My big black spider boy falls prey too. This year, he'll wear a mask with silver glitter and red and blue lights - spooky futuristic spider is watching you!

On Halloween, we wait for that slice of the night just before dusk, late enough but not too late, and then we're off! We leave our glowing jack-o'-lanterns behind on the front walk and we hit the streets in search of Halloween adventure. The streets are full of neighbors. There is pinon smoke in the air; it's cold enough for fires now. We circle the blocks, greeting costumed friends - sometimes we need to guess at who is underneath. We stop to say hello to the couple who serve hot dogs in their driveway. We pet familiar dogs and sneak a peek into foyers and living rooms - kilim rugs, lighted lamps, dinner smells. The streetlights switch on; the space between them feels dark and empty. We hurry through the dark stretches, scurry past dark houses. We feel like we're flying up and down the streets, laughter and sugar carrying us aloft. The western sky fades gradually, blazing pink and orange at the horizon, pinprick stars appearing one by one. City lights sparkle on the black-velvet mesa. Laden with candy, we finish our circuit. There's a crisp breeze at our backs as we turn east and head up the hill toward home.


 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 
 and October's guest poster, Steph at Woolythyme

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.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Hens in the family

Raising chickens has been a happy adventure. Though there have been bumps - in particular, discovering that one of our hens was actually a rooster - this has mostly been a really pleasant experience. I can only speak to my own little flock of two hens, of course, but they're easy to care for and fun to have around, and they provide food for us. Maybe we would have a different relationship with them if the flock were larger, or if we didn't interact with them so much. People have told me that the chickens they've known were mean, that they bit and chased kids and wouldn't allow themselves to be picked up. This hasn't been our experience. Maybe we're just lucky, but I suspect that our hands-on approach with them has helped. We held them from their first day with us. I think it made them gentler and more sociable with people. That's my theory anyway.

I tend to think of the hens as pets, though of course that isn't precisely accurate. They're more than pets; they give us food, they help control pests and they help us compost. They could be food themselves, and we've made sure that our children understand this. We observe them carefully, looking for behavioral patterns and monitoring physical growth and changes. But we also treat them as animal friends, and we have come to learn the features, and quirks, of their individual personalities. Betty, the Barred Plymouth Rock (black/white speckled) chicken, is sweeter and more interactive. Penny, the Rhode Island Red, is more shy and less likely to follow a person around the yard. But she's also noisier. It's hard to tell which is the dominant hen, though I think Betty is the likelier candidate. She seems bolder and is usually the first to investigate something new, with Penny following her. But then again, Penny usually leads the chorus of cackles and chirps, and even crows a bit, so it might be a basically equal relationship.

We're trying to savor these last few weeks before winter sets in, when we might see changes in their egg production due to diminished daylight. We plan to try a light inside the coop to see if that helps keep them laying, but we're prepared for a slowdown. In the meantime, we're enjoying their eggs as often as possible, while they're still producing an egg each most days. I've found myself enjoying eggs much more since we started eating theirs. I wasn't really an egg person before but their eggs taste better to me. I mostly eat them hard-boiled or poached, but the rest of the family eats them any which way. We usually have no fewer than a dozen eggs on hand so I always have plenty for baking. Last week, on a rainy afternoon, the small Bears and I made a loaf of pumpkin bread. I'm still working on the egg content in baking recipes; our eggs are somewhere between "medium" and "large," on the official designation scale. Sometimes I use an extra white or yolk, depending on the recipe; this loaf was a bit dry and I'd use another yolk next time, maybe. But it was very good; I enjoyed a slice with my afternoon cup of tea and thought about how nice it is to have those pretty little hens and - for now - fresh, pure eggs whenever I need them.

Pumpkin Bread (from my trusty old Betty Crocker's Cookbook)

You'll need:
1 can (15 oz.) pumpkin
1 2/3 cups sugar
2/3 cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla
4 large eggs
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon baking powder

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease bottom only of loaf pan, 9x5x3 inches.

Mix pumpkin, sugar, oil, vanilla and eggs in large bowl. Stir in remaining ingredients. Pour batter into pan.

Bake 1 hour 10 minutes to 1 hour 20 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes in pan on wire rack.

Loosen sides of loaf from pan, remove from pan and place top side up on wire rack. Cool completely, about 2 hours, before slicing.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Friday Happies

I'm so glad it's Friday. This was a long week and I'm not exactly sure why, but I'm glad it's drawing to a close. There's a lot going on, but it's good to be busy. It's also important to take time to stop and pay attention to the simple, happy things and I'm glad to be making this a habit in my life. I don't write a Friday Happies post every week, but I assure you that I'm noticing the happy things every day and it feels good.

I'm so proud of this guy. He revamped his Halloween mask from last year (it goes with the spider costume I made for him, which he will be wearing again). I made the mask too, it was just a simple felt mask with an elastic strap, but he decided to make it spookier and more interesting by adding lights! He did most of it himself, with a little help from the Bear. He hand-sewed these little LED lights (and wiring) onto the mask. We see now that the eye-holes could use a little adjusting, but how cool is this mask now? He's very pleased with himself, as he should be. The Amazing Spider-Man indeed!

Do you remember when I shared a link to this fabric a few weeks ago? I had come across it while looking for fun, retro-style fabrics to use in making new kitchen curtains. This one is by Moda, from their Milk Cow Kitchen line of 1930's and feed-sack reproductions fabrics. I was watching for a sale, which never really happened, so I went ahead and ordered four yards. It came the other day and I was so excited. I love it. I think the red is really pretty. I'm making two simple valance curtains for the kitchen windows, stayed tuned because I hope to share them soon.

I've been making roasted butternut squash this fall. It's so delicious. I make it simply, with just some olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast in the oven at 400 degrees for about half an hour. This photo was taken before roasting, but it does get nicely browned. It's too dark at dinner time to nicely photograph my finished dishes! Fall is really here.

Fall being here also means more blanket forts. They build them in the summer too, but not as often. Now, they can often be found burrowed under blanket-draped furniture. They had their legs outside of the fort and I thought it was funny. They've also been digging a hole in the backyard big enough that they can both get inside and sit down. They're a very creative team, these two. When they're getting along - which is most of the time, thankfully - they have a good time. 

I was being all virtuous showing you my roasted butternut squash up there, but I also ate this baby recently and it was GOOOOD. It's a Samoas doughnut. Samoas, as in Girl Scout Cookies. Oh my. It really tasted like one too - a plain doughnut with caramel icing, topped with toasted coconut and chocolate icing drizzled over that. It must have weighed a quarter-pound. The Bears brought it to me; they went for a hike and stopped for doughnuts afterward. They thought Mommy might enjoy this one. They were right.

I reached a milestone this week. It will probably sound silly but I'm proud of myself. This week, I celebrated a whole year since I last logged into Facebook. I know that many people really love it, and I'm certainly not saying they shouldn't. I used to be a firm fan myself. But it had become a negative part of my life in the year or two before I stopped using it, for various reasons. It just wasn't fun anymore. Or healthy - I worried a lot when I saw certain choices made by loved ones. I've discussed this problem often, and it's something I work on every day. It was bringing me unnecessary stress. So I decided to walk away. I still have an account; maybe I'll go back someday. I do miss interacting with old friends. But for now, it's good to have the distance from the situations that were bringing anxiety and worry into my life. Focusing on blogging instead has been so very good for me.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Looking out

My friend Leanne had to stay home the other day, waiting for her car to be returned after repairs, and she spent some time looking out the window. She wrote a fascinating post about what she saw, in her own garden and beyond. At the end, she asked what we saw out the window at our own houses. Since I stay home a lot (as you know), and often spend my time gazing out the windows, I thought this seemed like a good exercise for me too.

On Monday, I stayed indoors all afternoon because it was raining. The clouds were threatening for much of the day but the sky really darkened after lunch and then it rained on and off into the evening. Monday is our all-homeschool day. We went to the feed store and the library in the morning. I made quesadillas for our lunch. We listened to our audiobook after that. There was a lot of arguing between the small Bears in the afternoon; among other topics, they were fighting over correct abbreviations for names of things (smart kids, dumb argument). They fought quite badly, actually, and were sent to their rooms for awhile. Everyone needed a break. I took the opportunity to sit with my tea in the living room to watch the rain fall and observe my front yard, inspired by Leanne.

In my front yard, there are mostly low-water plantings, in addition to our plum trees down by the street. We have Russian sage, yarrow, winter jasmine, Spanish broom, lavender, rosemary, thyme and other plants whose names I don't know. That yellow tree in the above photos is a small olive tree that is planted in a little raised bed at the side of the yard. I love that tree. We have a lovely view of it from inside the living room. It's almost at its fall-color peak, and it casts a golden glow in the living room on sunny days. The olives are tiny and hard, not edible as far as I know, and we occasionally find them on the ground. It's a good climbing tree because the trunk branches into multiple slender parts, easy to brace against for a quick upward scramble. Not that I climb it myself, you understand.

The plum trees are just starting to change color, but they don't really change much; the leaves just get darker, more of a rusty brown than the burgundy of summer. I was so proud of those trees this past spring and summer, when we harvested a good eight or ten pounds of tiny plums. I made jam and the Bear made lots of fruit leather. We're eating the jam now, it's popular around here. The flavor, and the little bits of plum-skin throughout, remind me of cranberry sauce and I'm considering serving a jar of jam with our turkey on Thanksgiving instead of my usual cranberries. I can't decide whether this would be fantastically resourceful or profligately wasteful.

Across the street...oh, across the street. I like to think the best of people, I really do. But I'm worried about that place. The upkeep is sliding. There are four generations living there. The great-grandpa died a couple of years ago. He kept the yard looking neat. His survivors have not carried on the torch. It's all looking a bit shabby now. But they did decorate quite spectacularly for Halloween. I would have preferred to see a good weeding...

I love watching the rain fall in the yard. We don't get a lot of rain here, but everything looks better in the rain and I look forward to it. Everything smells better too. The doorbell rang (it was the UPS guy) and when I opened the door, a little breeze blew in, bringing the scent of wetted lavender and sage. I need to sweep the front entrance; the leaves are falling onto the walkway and covering the doormat. They blow into the house when I open the front door, or get tracked inside on our shoes, sticking to the rug in the foyer. If I don't sweep outside, I have to vacuum inside more often. It's one of those constants of life, isn't it? I have to vacuum a lot anyway because of the goat heads. Do you have those where you live? Goat heads, I shake my fist at you!

I can't leave them in their rooms forever, and they won't want to look at the window for very long with me, so I need to plan some sort of activity for the afternoon. I know - we'll bake something. Who doesn't love baking on a cool, rainy fall afternoon? Even the most cantankerous, weather-limited little people love to bake. I leave my big bay window and retrieve my children from their rooms: back to it. I'm glad I had a chance to concentrate on the details of what I see when I look out the front window.

Edited to include a link to information about goat heads, for the blissfully uninitiated.

Monday, October 20, 2014

A stitched rose

I've had the sprucing-up bee in my bonnet lately. Nothing fancy, and certainly nothing expensive. But I am enjoying it more since finally letting go of the idea that my house should be decorated a certain way. I think I'm finally figuring this out: your house should be filled with things you like, period. Maybe I didn't trust myself to do it right; this isn't just my house, after all. I think I tend to go overboard with a trend, and then I have to backpedal: black wrought-iron everything, in the early 2000's, as one example; way too much kitschy Southwestern-style stuff as another. I'm learning, though; I like things eclectic now - a little bit of everything, in all different styles.

One part of my home that I've been trying to get right, decor-wise, is the long wall in our family room, the one behind the couch. It's an open room and this wall is really the only one we have in the room. It's been an expensive wall - we had to have a leaky pipe repaired inside it last year, with accompanying Sheetrock and woodwork repairs too. That's all over now and I've been building a "gallery" display, with family portraits and knickknacks. Every time I go to Hobby Lobby or World Market, I look for something interesting to add, but I've felt uninspired lately. I want small, delicate things that look like they're old. I decided to make small counted cross-stitch items. I made my first one this weekend, a pink rose on black 14-count Aida cloth, framed in the same little wooden hoop I used to stitch it.

I have a few old cross-stitch pattern books that used to belong to my mother. She gave them to me when she stopped cross-stitching years ago. They're from the eighties and are filled with country-style motifs - teddy bears and geese figure heavily. Cute as they are, I wanted something more vintage-style, and went looking online. Did you know that there are lots of free patterns online? You can just Google for them, it's pretty amazing how much is out there. You can find a lot on Pinterest too. I print them and hand-color them (largely because I don't have a color printer, but also because I like choosing my own color scheme). This rose pattern came from Pinterest, but there was no source credited, unfortunately. I liked the size and shape of it, though, and it went into my small library of printed patterns.

It was quick and easy, but so pleasant to stitch. I didn't finish the edges, I just trimmed it as close to the hoop as I could. It's cheap Aida cloth and it doesn't even fray. Good enough, I think. I don't do a lot of embroidery (I'd like to learn more), but I've always loved cross-stitch. It was one of the first crafts I ever did seriously, beginning when I was about nine years old. I learned to cross-stitch in Brownies, and took to it immediately. I don't remember anyone else enjoying it as much as I did, though; I also remember feeling like it made me a little weird. But I liked making things and I still do.

I think it looks good in the gallery display. I like how it looks on black; I think it saves it from looking too cutesy, and it picks up the black in the other items too. Roses and matryoshkas certainly go well together. Eventually there will be a Midsummer Sprigs sampler up there too, but that's a long way off. I do love having something handmade and now I'm looking forward to making a few more; they're so quick to do and there's still plenty of space up there. I'm on the hunt for patterns with a retro-modern feel. Birds and mushrooms are catching my eye in particular.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Sweet science


The small Bears' school has a focused-learning theme for the year. The theme is water, with everything that encompasses. Science, social studies, art and even math can be taught around this theme, which has been interesting and challenging for everyone. We're focusing on water in our homeschooling too, building on the lessons they receive in school and creating our own projects as well. There's a lot to learn about water. A few weeks ago, the GB was intrigued with crystal formation after we watched a video about the subject. We decided to make some crystals of our own and boy, was it fun! They were just simple sugar crystals but it was my first time making them and I think I learned as much as the kids did. It was easy, but patience is necessary while you wait for the crystals to form. Ours took about three weeks to reach what we thought was a good size and shape; the bigger the crystals, the more there will be to study and observe.

If you want to give it a try, I'll share what we did. Sugar crystals should be made with a ratio of 1 part water to 3 parts sugar. For simplicity, we measured our sugar and water in regular kitchen 1-cup measures. We heated the water to boiling in a saucepan, stirring in the sugar to dissolve. The syrup created is funky! It's unbelievably thick and gooey. I'm not a candy-maker but I imagine there must a similar stage in that process. We poured our syrup into a large glass jar (ours came from Ragu pasta sauce, I think it's a 26-ounce size? It was an old jar already missing the label). We weren't sure what would work best for a "base" on which the crystals could form, so we used two options: a couple of long, thin wooden skewers, and a few lengths of monofilament (fishing line-type stuff) tied onto a set of child's plastic chopsticks, which could lay across the mouth of the jar. We left the jar in a quiet place on a metal baking tray for about three weeks, checking it periodically and making observations.

When the crystals seemed big enough, the steady-handed Bear chipped them out of the hardened syrup with a fork. We pulled out the sticks and strings and there were lots of sugar crystals! The sticks formed much larger structures but the strings looked prettier, glittery like glass beads. We dug out as much as we could and left it to dry on waxed paper on a plate. We made observations and we ate some too! They dissolved quickly in our mouths but they sort of crackled on the tongue first, like mildly fizzy Pop Rocks. It was exciting! And messy - you should have seen my kitchen counter. But it was for a good cause and ant season is just about over anyway. We all loved this experiment; the crystals worked great and were fun to taste, and we all learned something. Sweet.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Autumn posy

Fall is definitely, gloriously here. The nights are cold now, the daytime sun is lower in the sky. It's only a matter of time before the furnace switches on, warming us in our beds some early, frosty morning in the near future. Afghans are back on the beds, I'm wearing slippers at home (there's a lot of chilly tile in our house). I wore a cardigan to go shopping yesterday morning and bought myself a cup of coffee, partly for the hand-warming.

Our yard is changing quickly. I haven't had a really nice rose in weeks; they're small and tightly furled, as if guarding themselves from the nip in the air. Russian sage is still doing well, at its most beautiful in fall, I think. The color deepens and the flower petals seem more prominent. But the yarrow is dry and crispy-brown now, the yucca flowers are spent. There's still plenty of color out there, though; Jupiter's beard is having a second wind after a dormant period in high summer, my mums are blooming prolifically and berries are ripening all over the yard.

I love making seasonal posies but they're more challenging in fall and winter. I enjoy the creative endeavor of it: bringing together the blooms and growth of the season and making it pretty and interesting. Half the fun for me is in the artful arranging; choose a vessel, create a shape, find the right angle for display (everything I know on this subject, I learned from Ina Garten). But I also love that I can make a posy for free, from things growing right out there in my yard. There's a time for store-bought flowers (I'm a total sucker for cheap bunches of hot pink or lipstick-red tulips in late winter), but when I can, I like to gather what's in season right outside my kitchen door.

My autumn posy brings together the last flowers in the yard - our late-bloomers and our three-season workhorses - with the berries that slowly ripen and brighten from summer into early wintertime. The colors faded quickly after I made the posy; they were at their brightest and freshest right after they were clipped, when I took these photos. Within a day, they darkened. I took the photos on a stormy afternoon, when the wind was whistling across the roof and fat raindrops were splashing east-facing windows. I was wearing a light sweater (and my slippers). I arranged my flowers and berries in a cheerful ceramic jug, savoring one of my last posies before the brown desert winter.

My posy includes (clockwise from top left in collage photo): 1. Russian sage; 2. Pyracantha berries and leaves; 3. Yellow chrysanthemums; 4. Burgundy chrysanthemums; 5. Nandina berries and leaves; 6. White chrysanthemums; 7. Jupiter's beard (red valerian).

Monday, October 13, 2014

Good and plenty

Life has been busy but happy lately. I love being back in the school routine. After two months back in school, everyone seems to be doing well with the daily schedule and expectations. I've been particularly proud of my GB. I was anticipating more bumps as she adjusted to her new life as a kindergartner but she's doing great. Both small Bears are learning a lot and having fun, at home and in school. I don't think I can ask for more than that. We just finished the kids' fall break. We enjoyed the first taste of real fall weather with two different storms rolling through. I wore slippers! It was cozy, the kind of family time we like - cooking, crafting, listening to NPR and just hanging out.

I'm doing better with my resolution to chill out about things I can't control - the drama and chaos in other people's lives. It isn't easy for me - I'm a fixer by nature - but I'm learning to focus more on the things I can control - the ones I enjoy and treasure in my own relatively untroubled life. It's an ongoing journey but I know I am getting there. There is so much to love! That includes all of you, and the kind things you say. Thank you for being supportive. I'm glad I'm not boring! I strive for peace and predictability in my own life and I'm proud to share this here. I have simple wishes. I don't really wish for things I don't have (well, not often). I like to stay home. I enjoy domestic pursuits. I finally feel really good about these aspects of myself, and blogging has been an important part of that. So, lately...

We've been enjoying our portable fire pit - a warming blaze in the backyard, complete with s'mores.

The small Bears and I visited the local aquarium. We all love the coral reef tank. I really could spend all day looking at it. I feel mesmerized and drowsy. I would curl up and sleep there, if it wouldn't make me seem all vagrant-y.

It's the season when my kids want to drink tea. They have their (decaffeinated herbal) tea in their favorite cups while I drink my high-octane Irish Breakfast tea.

It's soup season too. I made this minestrone, my own hodge-podge recipe, in the slowcooker and enjoyed the leftovers for lunch. I love soup.

We've been playing a lot of "store" lately. Both small Bears need the play-money practice.We sell everything in our store, from magazines to play food to stuffed animals standing in for food. Come on down!

We gave the GB a set of string lights for her birthday and they've been a major hit.We ordered them from IKEA after seeing them on our famous visit to the store this summer. We hung them on the wall just recently, and she enjoys them before going to sleep at night, but before that she was happy to lie under the bed with them.

I had a really fun opportunity to attend a local retail/media event. Lakeshore Learning invited me to attend their new store's opening here in Albuquerque. Our new store is their sixtieth location, opened in honor of their sixtieth anniversary as a company, and is the first of their stores to open in New Mexico. I was invited as a local blogger. There were local state and city dignitaries and people from the Lakeshore company, as well as local educators and media representatives. There were light refreshments, crafts for the invited kids, and a ribbon-cutting ceremony (with giant scissors!). The store is bright and colorful, filled with fun, interesting teaching and learning materials. I was given a very generous gift bag full of games and toys to take home. This store is sure to be a great addition to our city and I was honored to be part of this special event.

And finally, a scary sight just for you. Pretend vampire teeth + Elmo doll = Draculelmo.
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