Saturday, October 31, 2015

Martha & Me - October



This month, I tried a cookie idea from the October issue of Martha Stewart Living, making these cute and playful Dia de los Muertos cookies with the small Bears (click the link to see a post about them on Martha's website). Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a holiday celebrated throughout Mexico, on November 1 and 2, to honor the deceased. I've always been drawn to its traditions, such as the creation of sugar skulls, which are delicate skull shapes made of sugar and decorated with candy flowers and other designs. Martha's cookies are meant to mimic this style, using icing, candies and baking decors to create interesting designs. Our cookies are somewhat less precise than Martha's, but we had a lot of fun making them.



Martha suggested a recipe from her website for the cookie dough, a chocolate-cinnamon one. This sounded really tasty to me, but I wasn't sure how the rest of the family would feel about it. (Probably just fine, I've realized in hindsight, but I would never want to stand in the way of cookie-devouring). I decided to use my old faithful sugar cookie recipe, from the Betty Crocker cookbook. I know it well; it tastes good and it always works. We mixed up our dough and left it in the fridge for a couple of hours as directed.


Martha wanted me to bend an oval-shaped metal cookie cutter at one end to create a narrow face shape. I don't have any cookie cutters like that, and I'd balk at altering one if I did, so I had some help from the Bear in the form of a 3-D printed skull-shaped cookie cutter. He jumped at the opportunity to use his 3-D printer to make a special item for me. He designed the shape himself and it printed up nicely. My lovely Bear.


The cutter did a good job on the dough. I liked the general shape but I had some concerns about the side pieces on the cheeks. I had a feeling they might not stay in shape during baking...


I was right. The side bits didn't come through well in the baking, but the cookies still looked skull-like. He plans to make a new cutter without the side pieces; I'm ambivalent but I'll take any custom cookie cutters he feels like producing. It's just too cool to pass up.


I put the cookies on a sheet pan with sides to help contain messiness, and we got to work. I made icing from powdered sugar and milk, put it in a bag with one corner cut off as a piping tip, and iced the cookies one at a time. I couldn't do more than that because the icing dried so quickly, but it was a quick and easy job. I piped around the outline of the cookie, then did some squiggly lines across inside the outline, then used a spoon to spread it all around. I'm not especially good at icing but I enjoy doing it, so I liked this part.




The small Bears and I raided my big bag of baking decors, coming up with sugar flowers in two sizes, blue gel icing, and chocolate and colored sprinkles. For noses we decided on Red Hots, which are small disc-shaped cinnamon candies. The eyes are chocolate chips. Martha's skulls were a little fancier, but I think we found a good assortment of things to use. I considered getting out some tools - hemostats, tweezers, etc. - for decor-placement, but in the end I let them use their fingers and I did too.


I really loved how they turned out. The cookies were delicious and they were so festive and fun to make. My kids were so proud of them! I had them on a pan in the dining room to finish drying and they dragged the Bear to see it as soon as he walked in from work. I liked that we all had a part in making them; it's the best kind of creative adventure.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Color Collaborative: October: Blue

Image from Nomadic Pursuits, via Pinterest

Here in New Mexico, we are fortunate to enjoy beautiful blue skies almost all the time, with 300 sunny days per year. I show you our sky pretty often; I'm a sky-watcher and I love to share what I see. There are other beautiful blue sights to see in our state, part of a proud cultural and architectural tradition that I enjoy just as much - the brilliant blue-painted doors and wood trim on many New Mexican homes (including my own). This is often referred to as Santa Fe style, or Taos style, but it can be seen all over the state. Doors, window trim, flower boxes, vigas and canales might be painted in some shade of blue, standing out against the earthier tones of the stucco that covers most homes here. The stucco blends into the high-desert landscape; the blue shines boldly.

Image from Flickr, via Pinterest

Why blue? There are numerous schools of thought on this subject. Some say that the color blue wards off evil spirits, keeping them from entering one's home. This tradition probably began with the early Spanish settlers. Or maybe the color is connected with Our Lady of Guadalupe, who appeared to Juan Diego, a Native American peasant, in 16th-century Mexico City. Also known as the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe is associated with sky blue, the color of the robes she wears. The tradition might also be traced to the beliefs of Pueblo Indians, for whom colors are indicative of directions, with blue symbolizing southwest.

Still others cite the blue doors on the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, a compound built in the 1600's as the seat of Spain's colonial government, as a source of inspiration. And then there are the theories about spirituality and connections to heaven. Nobody seems to know exactly why blue doors are such an important tradition here. There are as many reasons for blue doors in New Mexico as there are blue doors, I think.

Today, we see blue doors as a sign of welcome, a symbol of peace and tranquility within, an extension of goodwill to those entering. I like this theory best; it's why I've kept blue on the exterior of my home, a shade somewhere between slate and royal. My doors are not blue (they're carved natural wood, too pretty to paint), but the wood trim on my home is blue, and I decorate the yard with blue pottery and blue glass marbles in the xeriscaping gravel. I love the tradition and I'm proud to celebrate it.

Image from 500px, via Pinterest

The most interesting part of this tradition is the variety - there is no set shade of blue to use. Walk the Canyon Road in Santa Fe, or stroll the Plaza in Taos, and you'll see many brilliant shades of blue on houses, shops and galleries, ranging from palest aqua and soft powder blue to bright turquoise, clear azure and deep indigo. Set against earth-toned stucco and stone, the windows, doors, courtyard gates and other architectural features really pop. But they're a calming influence too, signifying protection and peace, welcoming visitors, drawing them in.

Image from Flickr, via Pinterest

Blue doors, with all their mysterious and much-debated origins, are one of the best things about my beautiful state. This is a diverse place, one of the oldest in the Americas, with deep and varied cultural roots. The unique tradition of blue doors is one that ties together some of the most important parts of our heritage - the beliefs of ancient native peoples, the influence of Spanish colonial rule, and our collective relationship with the endless sky.

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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 
Sarah at mitenska
 
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, October 27, 2015

Yarn Along


I haven't crocheted much this past week. I've been very busy with school and other commitments. I did manage to finish the body of my Sly Fox hat, adding the cream-colored section that forms the fox's face and gives a neat edging around the bottom of the hat. I really enjoyed making the main part of the hat; the pattern is well-written and easy to follow, and it starts looking foxy very quickly; you can really see it shaping up.

I've been reading more than I've been crocheting. I'm still working on Silas Marner; although I have read it numerous times, it isn't exactly fluff reading, so I'm taking my time with it. I've also started reading Hope and Other Luxuries, by Clare B. Dunkle. This is a memoir about her experiences with her daughter's anorexia. It's such a good book. The subject matter is heavy, obviously, but the writing is excellent and the story is so compelling. I can't put it down.

Thanks for your comments on my last post. My computer seems to be okay now, and it's working fine for videos as long as I don't have it sitting flat on the desk; I think that was why it overheated, not enough ventilation underneath as it churned and whirred itself toward becoming a fire hazard. Now I can watch my trashy shows in relative safety.

I appreciated reading your thoughts on shopping and spending too. I want to point out that I was never a spendthrift; it just goes against me to spend a lot of money deliberately and I wasn't really doing that. (Nobody said I was, I just want to explain myself). I've always been very responsible with money - a tightwad, really - and it's mostly a good thing. But I do get into patterns where I think I'm able to save even more money by shopping differently - visiting numerous stores for the best deals, clipping coupons and matching them with store sales, buying in bulk. I think all of these are fine when you do them in moderation and when they make sense, but it takes a ton of effort to do it right. I used to be in awe of "extreme couponers" until I really thought about what it would take to live that way, and in my opinion, it begins to look a lot like unhealthy hoarding at some point. Since I already tend toward mental panic about running out of things, having had a very lean upbringing (which is how a lot of hoarding problems begin, actually), I can see myself really going over the edge. It's better this way.

Today is an in-service day at the small Bears' school so they're home with me all day. We're caught up on all our work, so we're going to buy pumpkins today! We'll carve them into Jack-o-lanterns later this week. I'm so excited! I love Halloween.

Joining in with Ginny's Yarn Along, a little early

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The heat is on









I've been having computer problems this week, where my laptop spontaneously shuts itself off and doesn't always start up again. This has made it very difficult to keep up with blogs (I'm sorry). The resident computer whiz tells me there's nothing wrong with my laptop, which is only a year old, but that maybe I should stop trying to watch full episodes of Teen Mom 2 on it. Apparently, it's overheating and shutting off to protect itself. I think this might happen with any long video, but maybe it's all the fighting, cheating and getting arrested that's doing it. My laptop just can't handle the drama.

It finally feels like fall here and I'm so happy! Oh, I can't even tell you. I'm doing all the fall things. I never really stop making soup in the summer but it feels so much nicer to do it now, to know that my crockpot is perking away all day with something hearty and warm inside for dinner. I've been baking a little more too, all the fall-ish things we like; a pumpkin pie is planned for tomorrow. You know me, all about the warm cozies. The furnace ran once this week, for the first time this season. We'd had a very cool, rainy couple of days and by the second one, the temperature never made it out of the forties. I had a feeling we might need the heat so I turned on the furnace during the day. It didn't come on until early the next morning but we really needed it by then. I always like to keep a mental note of when we start needing it each year. This year was a bit later than most, maybe a week or so. It seemed hotter than ever through September and the first half of October, and it probably really was, but I'm sure some of it was my own attitude. I was sick of it and that made it seem worse. In any case, we're in it now, full-on fall is definitely here.

We watched the movie Philomena last night, on Netflix. (The Bear and I, not the kids). Have you seen this movie? I thought it was such an interesting story. A sad and somewhat shocking one, but really good. I would recommend it highly, but be prepared to cry a little. Do you cry when you watch movies? I do, pretty often. Everything makes me emotional, even Teen Mom sometimes, if I'm honest. We also recently enjoyed watching a documentary about Bob Weir, of the Grateful Dead. It's called The Other One: The Long, Strange Trip of Bob Weir, and it's also on Netflix. I realize that the Grateful Dead and their music may be an acquired taste but I've always been a fan, since I was a little kid (my dad liked them), and it was a really interesting film.

I've been trying something new since August, with my "free time" while the small Bears are in school. They're in school four morning a week; the school day is short because we spend at least as many hours homeschooling, as part of their school's unique program. I used to use this time to run errands and generally race around town trying to find the world's greatest bargains. I've stopped doing this and I'm a lot happier. I just shop once now, on Saturday morning. I've cut back on my shopping in general, just because we really don't need so much stuff, and I'm doing almost all of my shopping in a well-stocked supermarket, instead of dividing it up between a smaller market and a big store like Target or Walmart. I was finding that I spent more money that way, because there was always something extra to buy, like clothes from the clearance rack or extra shampoo or a fun new makeup item. At the big supermarket, I might spend 50 cents more on shampoo, but I'm not also buying cheap shoes and backups for my backup pantry items, so I'm spending a lot less overall.

I'm using the school time differently, just staying home most mornings and doing housework, reading, crocheting, catching up on blogs, and enjoying the quiet before I have to pick up the kids. I feel much more at peace now, having quiet alone time in my days and having all the chores done early in the day. I'm fortunate to be able to stay home and I knew I needed to use my time more efficiently, but wasn't sure how to do that. I think I've found the right balance for me, and that feels good. I feel better and I can do better, which helps everyone.

I need to make lunch now, and then take the LB to his guitar lesson. The GB had hers earlier this morning. I think we might have a fire in the backyard pit later this afternoon. The Bear and I are having shrimp scampi for dinner, just an easy recipe I've been making for years. Tomorrow's an at-home day, to finish some yard work. I'll be doing the laundry too. I hope you're having a good weekend, whatever you're up to!

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Yarn Along


I've started another crocheted holiday gift (I'll show you the colorful little purse another time, now that it's finished). Now I'm working on a hat for a little one, using the Sly Fox hat pattern from Goodknits. I love this design! It's simple and it crochets up really fast. I have a couple of little guys in mind for this hat, so I may be making more than one.

I gave up on my girl Olive this weekend. I wasn't enjoying it. I've never been one to quit a book but I've been giving myself permission to do it every now and then for the past few years. Life is just too short, you know? I used to hang on until the bitter end no matter what, but not so much anymore. I put Olive in the "donate" box and picked up a book I really do love - Silas Marner. I first read it in high school and I reread it every so often. I just bought this new paperback copy a few weeks ago, to replace an old one I'd given away. It's nice to have a copy again, and a fresh, clean one at that. I tend to find myself rereading this book as we approach the holidays, because of the Christmastime setting. I read a lot more Eliot later on, as an English major in college, but this is by far my favorite of her books (and one of my favorite books, period). It's a lovely, touching, human story.

Thank you so much for your sweet comments lately. You're such a nice bunch of people and it makes me so happy to know you enjoy my blog and the things I share here. What's new with you? We're getting ready for Halloween and we're all very excited, even the Bear who devised a "mountain man" costume for himself this year. He's been growing out his beard and everything...it's quite a get-up. Finally, it feels truly autumnal here, with real cold at night and lots of rain (this week, anyway), and I'm enjoying my blankets and candles as much as ever - or maybe more, since autumn was a long time coming this year. I hope you're having a good week!

Joining in with Ginny's Yarn Along

Monday, October 19, 2015

Swamp thing!


Have you ever wondered what I'm talking about when I mention the "swamp cooler"? I have offered a link to read now and then (here it is again, if you're interested). That's our swamp cooler in the photo above. It sits permanently on our home's flat rooftop. The swamp cooler is our home's cooling system. It's an integral part of our lives between May and October each year. Earlier this summer, the Bear had to do some work on the swamp cooler and I asked him to take a few photos for me. I know you're simply dying to learn more about this contraption. Close your browser window now if you came for coziness; today we're talking machinery! Ha.


Our swamp cooler is a MasterCool* which is considered a very good brand. (It came with the house). "Swamp cooler" is a colloquial term; the formal term is "evaporative cooler," but people call it a swamp cooler because it can make your house sort of...swampy. To work well, it depends on the driest of air. On dry days, it works beautifully, but on wet days, it's pretty much useless. Monsoon season happens to also be swamp cooler season; you can imagine how effective these coolers are when it rains all afternoon and evening. But generally, it's very dry here and they work great. I'm not a swamp cooler salesperson, just a happy user-owner! I'm not a swamp cooler mechanic either, so I can't offer really good technical discussion. I can tell you the basics, though: there's a pump that sprays water (from the regular household plumbing system) onto a cardboard-like mat. At the same time, a fan blows air across the wet mat. The air is cooled by this process. The cooled air travels through the duct-work and blows into the house.


Some people prefer regular air conditioning, and we probably would too, but the swamp cooler is much less expensive to operate. Swamp coolers are ubiquitous in the southwest because they do generally work well in this climate. I happen to like the moisture it puts into the household air; it can be so dry here that I have minor nosebleeds sometimes, and my skin is always dry and flaky. The slight dampness in the house feels good to me. I like the sound of the air through the vents too; it's a gentle whooshing sound in the house day and night (once the cooler comes on, it tends to stay on until late evening).

One negative is that the swamp cooler can't really be programmed with a thermostat and it is limited in how cool it can make the house. We set the controller (inside the house, near the furnace thermostat) for the indoor temperature we want the cooler to come on (usually 74 degrees) and we can expect the indoor temperature to stay at about 15-20 degrees cooler than the outdoor temperature, though that depends on the dryness of the outdoor air. It can't cool wet air, though it will often continue running during a rainstorm, which makes the air in the house humid. Sometimes papers and fabrics will feel damp (especially bedsheets, and oh, how I hate a limp bedsheet...yuck). Dry foods need to be sealed well or they'll get slightly dampened too. Also, in order for the swamp cooler to work effectively, you have to keep a few windows cracked open when it runs. Then, you basically have wind blowing through the house, out through the vents into the rooms and out of the house through the windows. This keeps the air moving and helps the house cool. But it can be a bit windy indoors, which isn't always welcome.


This is a water reservoir inside the cooler. It has a floating valve, just like a toilet. Actually, the entire mechanism is a little like a toilet. A very cool toilet, hee hee.


Here is the back of the swamp cooler, where the air intake occurs. This is the cardboard thing I mentioned earlier; we have to replace it every few years for good performance. There is other maintenance too; the cardboard can become moldy and can also develop mineralization from the water unless you "bleed" the water mechanisms periodically. The Bear does all of this himself in the spring and fall each year (I don't get up on the roof, thank you very much). I had been meaning to share some tidbits about the swamp cooler for a while and was inspired by his recent ascent to the roof to shut down the cooler for winter. He disconnects the power to the swamp cooler and also disables the water and closes the vent that lets cool air into the house; if we left it open, the hot air produced by the furnace would escape. It's a bit of work to keep it all working well, but after seven summers in this house, he's a swamp cooler aficionado (well, for this swamp cooler, anyway).



So there you go, a glimpse into our HVAC life. I really should get up on the roof sometime...just look at the view!

*This is not a sponsored post, I just really like my MasterCool! :)

Friday, October 16, 2015

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Yarn Along


I'm back to working on the little bag I started a few weeks ago. I think I'm finished crocheting the body of the bag (it's big enough for what I have in mind), but I'm not sure what else I want to do with it. There's no set plan, and I won't be heartbroken if it doesn't work out. I'm just making it up as I go along. It's experimental. Sometimes you just need to play around with yarn and hook and see what happens.

I'm still reading Olive Kitteridge. I like it. I don't think it's as good as Strout's other books, but it's an interesting story. As long as we're discussing books, though, I need to come clean. Over the weekend, I indulged my secret shame: I read a collection of short true-crime cases by Ann Rule. Have you read any of her books? Suffice it to say this is not Pulitzer material, but I've read just about every one of her books and I love them all. I was very sad to hear about her recent death. I'm going to miss her writing. I'll just have to re-read her books...again.

This week, I feel wishy-washy, distracted, agitated. My stomach has been bothering me. I'm breaking out. It's probably all the candy corn. I try to ration it but I always end up eating too much. It's mostly the weather, I'm sure; I'm waiting for it to cool down again after our latest round of record-breaking heat. I feel deeply unsettled when the wrong weather happens. I check the forecast obsessively throughout the day, noting the slightest changes. They say that "big changes are coming soon!," with an El Nino-influenced pattern developing for the rest of fall and winter. That means cool and wet. Bring it on, say I.

Joining in with Ginny's Yarn Along

Monday, October 12, 2015

Balloon crew, briefly


On Friday morning, we watched the Shape Derby event of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. We're fortunate to have the world's largest hot-air ballooning event right here in our city every year, with nine days of ballooning events and a sky full of balloons every morning, weather permitting. The Shape Derby event is meant to highlight the hot-air balloons that are designed to look like something - the shape balloons, if you will. There were more regular balloons than shaped ones, which is always the case, but the shapes are always interesting - a scarecrow, a pig, a chicken, a cartoonish policeman. Darth Vader and Yoda often make appearances. We like to watch the mass ascensions from a city park on high ground. Come along with us!


It's usually pretty busy in the park. We arrive early and stake out a place to stand. It's cold in the early morning so we wear sweaters. The crowd grows quickly, as people fill in on the soccer fields and along the ridge at the highest point of the park (we have our backs to it in this photo). We like to stand sort of in the middle, close enough to the field in case a balloon lands there, but high enough to see everything. We bring cameras and binoculars and we walk (or run) around to keep warm while we watch. We're facing west here; the balloons launch from Balloon Fiesta Park, which is located near the Rio Grande. The balloons come up toward the east, for the most part, but they can spread out in any direction and can land just about anywhere. During Balloon Fiesta, balloon chase crews are a common sight all over the city, usually large pick-up trucks pulling trailers where the balloons are stored when they are not in use.


Some balloons will float right over us as we stand watching. You can see the flames and hear the gusts of hot air. This one was low enough that we were talking to the people in the basket!


This balloon had been traveling eastward when it started descending. It doubled back to land in the park and we were amazed to watch it sink lower and lower, aimed at the soccer fields in the park, just a few hundred yards from where we were standing. We were soon able to wave to the people in the basket. We could see them crouching low as it came down...


 Going...


 Going...


Gone. We all ran down to check it out. Everyone in the park ran toward it from different directions and there was soon a crowd on the field.


The basket landed on its side, which is normal. Everyone got out just fine, and the pilot took some time to talk to kids who had gathered around, explaining how he made the balloon land.


These are the burners that create the hot air to inflate the balloon. They gave off a lot of heat, even after landing.


This is the balloon as it looks deflated. It's basically a big bag made of thin fabric. Look at the background; there was another balloon landing just beyond the soccer fields at the same time. I think it was the pirate balloon you can see in this balloon's landing photos (scroll up). We left the crew to pack up their balloon, having seen another balloon getting ready to land at the top of the hill. We started running up there, but I was too slow to get a photo.


By the time I got up there, this is what I saw: the balloon had landed and the crew was letting the hot air out of the "bag." My Bears were all up there and they were all talking at once, telling me what they'd seen with this landing. They'd been within feet of this one, which was pretty thrilling.


We were all just standing around checking out the balloon when the Bear, who helps everyone, asked if he could help the crew. They said yes! They handed him the balloon strings to help release the hot air.


I took the opportunity to walk around and see what the balloon looked like as it deflated. It reminded me of a sail, or sheets on a clothesline. It was billowy and swishy as it deflated. The crew members were working hard to get it emptied of air and flattened out for storage. It basically gets sucked into another bag that goes into a big carrying basket. The Bear helped with this too; the carrying basket was heavy enough to require six or seven strong people, who carried it to the crew's waiting truck. Next, they carried the passenger basket, which took even more hands. He helped with that too; they gave him a very nice enameled lapel pin, a replica of their balloon, to say thanks.


This man is the pilot/owner. He is British, and comes to Albuquerque every year for the Balloon Fiesta. He was a very talkative and gregarious person who was delighted to talk about ballooning. We learned that his balloon is called "That One."


The LB held his dad's camera and a set of binoculars while the Bear helped pack up the balloon. He took about a million photos. They say the Balloon Fiesta is the most photographed event in the world; might as well start early.


Before they left, the crew gave this card to any children standing nearby. Every balloon crew has these cards for their own balloon and kids like to collect them. The small Bears added "That One" to their small collections of balloon cards, which they display on their bedroom bulletin boards. They were excited to get so close to a balloon and to watch their dad help with it too! We all agreed it was our most interesting Balloon Fiesta experience yet.
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