Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Party at Maybelle's

Five and a half months on, Maybelle is still in progress. I'm getting very close to being finished now, though, with just 28 squares left to make. I'm still enjoying the work - these squares are easy and fun to crochet - but I have to admit that I'm starting to get a little antsy. I want to be joining them and watching the blanket take shape. But as I keep reminding myself, I'm almost there, it won't be long now. Maybelle will be a blanket before I know it. (Maybelle is made with this pattern from the blog My Rose Valley).

I think this angle gives a good idea of the sheer quantity of squares. There will be 169 when they're all finished. I've made more than that for a blanket before, but they were smaller, and faster to make. I've been bundling the squares when I've finished with each center color. This has really helped me keep track of everything as I've worked. I'll do this again with the next blanket that has individual motifs. I've come to appreciate this kind of blanket more lately. I generally prefer stripes, for the soothing back-and-forth crochet. I still love that, but I'm realizing that the instant/delayed gratification of individual squares is not to be underestimated. Me working: there, I made a square...45 minutes later...there, I made another one.

I like all of my nine center colors (all my yarns are Stylecraft Special DK), but I think the squares made with Parma Violet are still my favorite. I like the softness of this color. Sometimes I think my color aesthetic is sort of stuck in the early to mid 90's, when I was a teenager and really started noticing such things. I loved the lived-in, casual, semi-preppy look - washed-out jeans, rugby tops, button-down Oxford shirts, cotton sweaters. I often bought boys' or men's clothes because they were even more worn and faded-looking. Everything I wore was blue, teal or purple. Those have always been my favorite colors. Looking at this blanket, as well as the past few I've made, I see now that those will always be my colors. Even now, it's almost everything I wear too. I'm happy with it - to be frank, I'm kind of old, soft and faded myself.

I'm so excited to have this blanket on our bed. For one thing, it's cold back there in the winter, our bedroom being at the northwest corner of the house, with little sun exposure and plenty of wind. But also, I can't wait for the colors and the visual interest. Our room is boring. That's deliberate - we both feel more relaxed in a very neat, lightly-decorated bedroom - but I think this blanket will go a long way toward making the room a little more interesting. I still might want to replace the duvet cover and pillow shams; I'm leaning toward plain off-white, just crisp and bright. Right now, we have a small floral pattern. I had told myself that when I finally finished an afghan for the bed, I'd treat myself to a new duvet set, but now I think I'll wait and see how my blanket looks with the current one, which I really like and is still decent. Decorating is fun to think about, not to mention all the online cart-filling-up (the online cart-deletion is decidedly less fun).

Grape and Petrol are numbers eight and nine. I'm halfway through my Grape squares, and after that, it's just Petrol left. Then it's a-joining I will go. I'm still thinking JAYG, because I like the lacy look. And would you believe that I'm already thinking seriously about my next blanket. I know...cart before horse and all that. But I have a good-sized stash of worsted-weight I Love This Yarn that I need to pare down. I'm thinking about large solid-colored grannies joined in cream. I really thought I'd want to run back to the comfort of stripes after making squares all these months, but I'm feeling the love for squares now, thanks to Maybelle.


I'm starting to think about my Winter Project Link Party for 2017-18. I hope you'll want to join in! You can read more about my link party by clicking on the photo in my sidebar. The first party will be in early October. I'll be partying with Maybelle, at least at first. Thanks for your consideration!

Friday, August 25, 2017

When life gives you peaches...

This year, the local apple crop has been pretty poor; I have only a few apples on my own tree and they're small and shriveled. There were very few blossoms in the spring. Few blossoms equals few apples. It seems like this happens every other year, based on my experience as an apple tree-owner. In the good years, there are more apples than I can use. I frantically peel, cook and mash apples for fruit leather and applesauce. I make pies and crisps. We eat apples in hand all day long. One year, I tried making apple jelly, which was pretty to look at but completely terrible to eat (it was syrupy, like honey, and tasted just like rotting apples...mmm).

I'm disappointed not to have more apples, but there's always next year. In the meantime, a neighbor who often gives us some of his apples (which are way better than ours, especially for straight eating), gave us peaches from his backyard instead (his apples haven't done well this year either). He has one large tree, which he started from a seed, and his are the nicest homegrown peaches I've ever seen. Not perfect - he doesn't use any chemicals - but very good, and even nicer for the neighborly gesture. We ate some of his peaches as is, which was lovely, but I also decided to try out a recipe for peach ice cream that I'd recently come across. I've been wanting to make peach ice cream all summer, but the peaches in the store this year were pretty blah. The homegrown ones were just right.

I found a really interesting recipe on a blog called Stephie Cooks (click the link to have a look). The blogger, Stephie, calls this The Best Peach Ice Cream. I was intrigued. I've had homemade peach ice cream before (not made by me), and found it to be somewhat bland. Mostly, I tasted the cream and vanilla flavoring in it, but there wasn't much peach flavor to me. Sometimes fruit ice creams can be very bland because the fat takes over. You need stronger flavors in the fruit, particularly more acidity. I thought Stephie's technique of macerating the peaches in sugars and lemon juice seemed like a great idea because it would really bring out the peach juices, making a stronger flavor in the ice cream. This ice cream contains some surprising ingredients, including the juice of a whole lemon, brown sugar, vanilla extract and a tiny bit of almond extract.

(Stephie got the recipe from her friend; I'll refrain from reprinting it here because I don't have their permission to do so, but please have a look at the link if you're interested in making some incredible peach ice cream yourself).

I sliced the peaches thinly, and mixed them with the sugars, lemon juice and flavoring extracts in a large bowl, leaving it all to sit for 15 minutes. By the time I came back, the peaches were soft and there was a lot of juice in the bowl. I could smell the change as much as I could see it - the peach scent had intensified greatly.

The peach mixture goes into a food processor next, to be pulsed until it's a chunky semi-liquid. I don't have a food processor, so I used my Osterizer blender, which worked fine.

I poured the fruit mixture back into the same bowl I'd macerated the peaches in (after rinsing it out), because it has a tight-fitting lid, and stirred in the heavy cream. Then I put the lid on and stuck the bowl in the fridge overnight. The next day, it was thick and creamy, almost like pudding. We processed it in our electric ice cream maker and froze it in plastic containers for about four hours before serving.

The ice cream was smooth and creamy, with lots of little bits of peach in it. I loved the texture; it wasn't icy at all (something I'm always trying to troubleshoot with my homemade ice creams). The flavor was so interesting, not what I was expecting. The brown sugar and lemon gave a slight tartness, almost a back-of-the-throat sensation of acidity, while the almond extract heightened the peachy flavors without really being noticeable as almond - it wasn't like eating marzipan, in other words. It was like a deep-rooted peachiness that you could smell and taste. Peaches and almonds are closely related botanically, so it was a really good idea to combine both in this ice cream. It isn't health food, to be certain, but the whole effect is of fresh, bright fruit and mellow cream, light and clean. We enjoyed this delicious and surprising ice cream very much, and we'll make this recipe again for sure.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Clock and corona

Hello from the house of scientific discovery! Yesterday's eclipse was big excitement, wasn't it? Around here, preparations were ongoing for days in advance. We were expecting a fair view here in New Mexico, somewhere between 50% and 75% of totality. Not too bad. The only catch was the weather forecast, which was for cloudy conditions and a good chance of rain. It's still monsoon season, of course, but what are the odds for having thick cloud cover in this climate AND an eclipse on the same day? Probably pretty slim. I mean, I'm no statistician, but come on. We kept our fingers crossed all weekend.

The day dawned dark and damp, but the small Bears were determined to watch the eclipse, come rain or shine. When they went outside to set up and start watching, it was raining lightly. They sat under the patio umbrella with the radio and some craft projects and waited. Amazingly, the clouds started to break up a little at just the right time! We were able to see the eclipse for about half an hour before it got cloudy again, blotting out the view.

Equipment-wise, it was pretty basic. We had eclipse glasses already; we bought some a few years back for viewing the Transit of Venus. The LB was interested in building a pinhole projector. There are several ways to do this. His consisted of a paper plate clamped onto the end of a long stick standing up in a bucket, with a pinhole through the top edge of the plate. Then he put another plate on the ground in a position where light from the pinhole would fall. Voila, a pinhole projector made from things found around the house and backyard.

Our view of the eclipse was not great, since the clouds remained fairly thick and only a little sunlight shone through. But can you see the eclipsed sun in the shadow of the plate? It's faint, but it's definitely there! We were really excited when the clouds broke up enough for the projector to work, like, dancing on the patio excited.

When the sun was out, you could see how much darker than normal it was, even without a total eclipse here. It looked like roughly 7 PM in the backyard around 11 AM, I would say. Normally, the sun is kind of blasting us in late morning, but not so much during the eclipse.

I wore my eclipse glasses, of course, but by the tail end of our viewing ability, I couldn't see through them anymore. I took this photo of the sun just before it went totally under the clouds, around 11:00. I think this was around the peak of the eclipse anyway, so we lost our view at just the right time. We were glad to have been able to see anything. It was really interesting and we had a good time preparing ourselves, with lots of great learning activities, reading about eclipses and watching videos to get ready.

Yesterday, which happened to be our full homeschool day, we also spent some time learning about Big Ben, the famous clock tower in London. Many of you already know, I am sure, that Big Ben will be silent for the next four years while restorations are made to the Victorian-era clock and tower. Yesterday was the day Big Ben fell silent. They had to stop the mechanism, and the bell and chime system, because it would be deafening to the men working on it if it remained operational during the project.

This is really interesting to me, from a cultural/daily-life standpoint. I've never been to London, so have no experience of life with Big Ben, but I am sure it will be very strange to have the "bonging" absent from daily life there. I've had a few experiences with regular sounds in the world around me - routine operations on a military base being one example - but never something like Big Ben.

The LB is very interested in Big Ben because of how it is operated. A couple of years ago, we read a book together called Longitude by Dava Sobel, about the invention of the chronometer by John Harrison in the eighteenth century. His invention solved an age-old problem: the inability to determine one's longitude at sea. Celestial methods work for latitude, but there was no good method for measuring longitude. Many ships (and lives) were lost as a result. Harrison's clock was designed to keep precise time at sea. Basically, the clock could withstand motion, temperature and atmospheric changes while sailing to a destination, carrying accurate time as the ship traveled. The time in the home port is the reference time. This, combined with knowledge of lines of longitude, allowed the navigator to convert time into distance and therefore east-west location. Harrison's clock was revolutionary, causing much controversy and political intrigue but eventually, it became indispensable. This is a fantastic book, even if you're not into marine navigation, astronomy or engineering (I am into none of these and I loved it).

After reading this book, the LB became very interested in clockworks, and is very well-versed in the topic now, so we spent some time yesterday reading about how Big Ben works. The LB understands a lot about complicated clock mechanisms like escapement. The GB liked learning about the stack of pennies helping to keep time correctly. I never knew that it's really just the bell which is named Big Ben, though the whole building goes by that name. We listened to recordings of the "bongs," as heard on the BBC's news reports and on New Year's. I'm really fascinated by the idea that people who live near Big Ben, and are listening to the New Year's broadcast, can hear 13 "bongs" instead of the actual 12. This is because the sound travels faster through the radio than it does the air. Isn't that amazing? I loved reading about Big Ben, what an interesting historic landmark, and one heck of a cool clock for those who really enjoy that sort of thing.

Did you get to see the eclipse where you are? How dark did it get for you?

Have you visited Big Ben, or can you hear it from where you live or work? Does it have significance in your daily life, or has it ever? If you have facts or tidbits you'd like to share, could you please leave them in a comment? I'll share them with the LB and the GB, who are very interested in Big Ben right now.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

A big birthday

This past week, the Bear celebrated an important birthday - his fortieth. We had a low-key family evening, befitting his relaxed personality. He doesn't like to have a big deal made over him, so while I contemplated a bigger party, I decided that home was the best place to celebrate his birthday, with just us and his parents. That's how we have always celebrated his birthday. He chose to go out for dinner - at Paisano's, a good local Italian restaurant - with dessert back at home. He asked me to make tiramisu, which is what he usually asks for every year. We had dessert and he opened his presents. My present to him was a beer-of-the-month club subscription. He's somewhat difficult to shop for, so I usually try to go with something very safe. I know he likes beer, so that's always a good choice. I'm already thinking about scotch for Christmas, also a safe and welcomed option. Really, when you think about it, his being hard to shop for makes him easy to shop for.

We had a nice evening. No rainbow, as in years past; the skies were rather dark. I didn't take very many photos, regretfully, but we did have a very nice time. The GB spent a while examining Grandma's bracelet, which is a family heirloom she wears on special occasions. It's a "grandmother's bracelet," passed down in my father-in-law's family through three generations of grandmothers so far. The bracelet is gold, with dangling flat charms in the shape of children's heads. Each is engraved with a name and date of birth. There are five boy charms and one girl charm. The girl charm represents the GB, who is the first girl born into the family in three generations - nearly 100 years. She loves to look at the only girl on the bracelet and see her name there.

The Bear's parents gave him a wonderful birthday present - three albums filled with photos from his childhood. Every single photo is carefully annotated - who, when, where - and every page has stickers and decorative bits to represent the season or holiday, or the place, such as beach or zoo. They did so much. These albums are incredible. I have absolutely loved looking through them with him. He was such a beautiful baby, and such a fun-loving boy, and I can see a lot of my children in him as he grew up. I only have a handful of photos of myself as a baby or child, which is why I've always tried to take pictures of my kids doing just about anything, special or ordinary, and why I'm glad to be blogging. I like having a record for them to enjoy. I hope I'm creating a family life they can look back on later and feel good about.

So far, 40 has been good to him, he says. I told him to keep me posted; he's fifteen months and one week older than I am. It's hard to believe he's 40. He was 21 when I met him, a smart but impulsive kid. He had already been hired for his first job (which became his career, in the military-industrial field, with the same employer today), at a salary which seemed absolutely astronomical to both of us at the time. He was moving into a one-bedroom apartment of his own, in the basement but nicely appointed, which seemed fabulously adult after the shared apartment in a crumbling three-decker. I think there's a wonderful benefit to having known your spouse from a young age. You get to see the transformations over time, the growth from young adult to full-fledged grown-up. We've had an important year together - 15 years of marriage and his 40th birthday - milestones in two places. I'm proud to be with him, side-by-side in a rich and happy life. Here's to at least 40 more!

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Summer simmers down

Today is the first day of school. I sent them back, to sixth and third grades, respectively, with smiles on their faces and nutritious snacks tucked into their lunchboxes. I hope they have a wonderful year. There are some big changes at school this year - new faces and new routines - and I have some serious apprehensions, but I'm trying to stay positive. We chose our school situation - which requires 50% home instruction combined with 50% traditional classroom time - because we know we can do a good job for our kids. I think they're both resilient enough to make it all work, I just hope I am. I can't believe how big they both are, my son almost as tall as I am and not quite twelve years old yet. But then I look at the pictures I took this morning and remember that they'll never be this little again.The first day of school always gives me a giddy, woozy kind of feeling, even now when it's been many years since I was a student.

The last few weeks of summer passed in a blur. We didn't have much to do, and yet we had plenty to do, what with buying school supplies and shoes, getting haircuts and figuring out the new stuff at school. But there was also lots of time to laze about the house and backyard, watching clouds, playing with hens, baking, reading, crocheting - whatever we could find to pass the long days. Twelve weeks of summer break is just too much, I'm sorry. It's not even having the kids at home that bothers me. I actually like having my kids around. No, it's the sheer quantity of time. Twelve weeks is just a very long time. It's nice to have a little time alone too, of course, and I can't complain about that; I can count on two hands the number of hours I've had alone since the end of May.

We really did have a good summer, though. The weather mostly cooperated. It was only beastly hot for a short time, in mid-June. I would say the rest of the summer was just regular hot, nothing too awful. The monsoon has been very good this year, with several big storms and many inches of rain all told. There were lots of coolish nights and mornings, which I always enjoy. Now, the days are getting noticeably shorter and the mornings are not nearly as bright, to my great relief. I love this time of year, summer sliding into fall. Soon, we'll have the scent of roasting green chiles in the air. Fall is my favorite, hands down.

This week, I've been keeping a Radio Diary for Nielson, a company that tracks how people use media like TV and radio. They contacted me a couple of weeks ago to ask if I'd like to participate in their radio-listening ratings and I jumped at the chance! I listen to the radio every single day. They chose me at random for the radio diary. I've also been asked to participate in their TV ratings in the past. Yes, we were a Nielson Family! It was about five years ago. It was actually really fun. You make a little bit of money (no, it's really just a little), but I don't care about the money. I love writing things down. It's also interesting to examine my daily habits. For the radio diary, I have to write down all the radio I hear every day for a week, whether at home, in a car, or someplace else, along with the times I listened and the station or program. Then I mail it back to them when I'm done. I like helping with things like this; I'm also currently participating in an extended study of household spending habits through the US Census Bureau. I was chosen at random for that too. They ask questions about grocery shopping, household budget, debt, banking, and similar topics. I don't know why they want to talk to me, but it makes me think a bit. And it's easy; I can go on and on about myself with no trouble at all.

My plans for these first few weeks of the new school year include:
  • walking more often on the mile-long path in the park 
  • finishing my Maybelle squares (I have about 40 left to make) and starting to join them 
  • reading the rapidly-accumulating pile of books on my desk 
  • keeping my desk cleared enough to see the top of it more often
  • clearing out my closet a little, to get rid of things I haven't worn in years
  • shopping for new socks for myself, since all my socks have holes and threadbare heels
  • getting Christmas shopping done early, as soon as all the September-birthday shopping is done
  • starting a new cross-stitch project for the family room
  • getting back to regular blogging, which I miss

I think I can. Ambition is my middle name! Well, not really, but my middle name does begin with A. Let's pretend.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Summer, this week

In our tenth week of summer break, there was rain almost every day. Amounts ranged from just a little to quite a lot - almost an inch during one afternoon storm. We've had a good monsoon this year, especially in my neck of the woods, which saw more than three inches of rain during July.

The afternoons are still hot, but the sun is starting to feel just a little less intense. The evenings draw in just a little earlier, and it's starting to feel like summer won't last forever. On the stormy evenings, I've been lighting candles in the kitchen again, just a tea light here and there.

I tried a soup recipe from the terrific CopyKat Recipes, a website devoted to recreating restaurant dishes at home. This is CopyKat's version of Olive Garden's Chicken Gnocchi Soup, which is my favorite kind of soup served there. It's a definite dietary splurge, but I really wanted to try making it at home. Copykat's recipe was easy and quick, and it tasted just like the real thing! Yum.

When it isn't raining, we try to spend time outdoors, since it's not quite so blazing hot anymore. Aside from the LB's guitar lessons, which run year-round, all the activities have ended for the summer - with more than a week still to go before school starts. We find plenty to do, though, even if it's just sitting on a blanket in the backyard.

I've been reading Prime Suspect 1973 by Lynda La Plante. I enjoyed the recent TV show on PBS (renamed Prime Suspect Tennison in the US) so much that I just had to get the book. It was weird though; the book, also published as Tennison in the US, was much less expensive to buy from the UK, even with shipping, so that's what I ordered. This is fine with me; I always love having things that come from far away. Anyway, it's a really good book. I've had the original Prime Suspect TV show recommended to me many times, and I will definitely watch it soon.

I was gazing out the kitchen window one morning this week, and a swatch of color caught my eye in the pyracantha hedge along the back wall. It was an area of berries turning orange! This is their color in ripeness. The change always happens over the month of August, but I wasn't really paying attention, I guess. As the week progressed, I saw a few more areas take on an orange tinge as well. There's still plenty of summer left, but orange pyracantha berries are one of the earliest signs of fall in my little patch.

Finally, our hens have become egg-laying machines! Holy cow. Three eggs most days, now that all the young hens are laying. The eggs are still smallish, so I usually use one extra in any recipe (these became egg salad for three). The eggs from Ginger, the Buff Orpington, are darker brown (that's hers in the middle), with a perfect deep-golden yolk. They're almost too pretty to eat. Meanwhile, old Betty has adjusted, mostly, to having whippersnappers about, which may be due in part to the fact that Ginger has grown to be intimidatingly huge. Betty, for all her cantankerousness, knows when to quit. Coop life is fascinating, like a poultry-based reality show. The Hendashians, if you will.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Camping in the Jemez

After almost eleven years in New Mexico, I'm happy to say that we're still discovering new places all the time. Last week, we spent a few days camping in the Jemez Mountains at the San Antonio Campground, situated along the small San Antonio River. San Antonio Campground is within the Santa Fe National Forest, which is a huge area. This was our first time camping in this region of the state, though we have often camped within the National Forest; normally, we have camped further east, toward the Santa Fe (city) area.

This campground is set in ponderosa forest, shaded and cool. The river rushes quietly past the campground. You can fish in the river (it's stocked), which we did, but the fish we caught were tiny so we threw them back. It was nice to wade in the shallow pools and watch fish and water-striders go by. We saw hawks and gigantic crows, as well as copious hummingbirds, squirrels and chipmunks. We walked and hiked around the area, and left the campground to check out other local attractions a couple of times; I'll show you more another time.

Unfortunately, there was on-and-off rain the whole time. This was expected, though, as New Mexico is currently in the grip of monsoon season. We went prepared with tarps, ropes and poles, which we rigged up all over our campsite, sheltering our tents and our living/eating area as well as we could. It wasn't so bad. Rain when you're camping is actually kind of exciting; you have to draw on your reserves of creativity. Can't build a fire in the pit? Use the Coleman stove under tarp-shelter instead. Need to dry clothes dampened by a fall in the river? Rig up a clothesline over the picnic table, using your tarp poles, instead of between two trees. My only real complaint is the cold dampness in the tent at night, but that's what zero-degree sleeping bags are for, right? Camping can be a real-life adventure.

I cooked a foil-pack dinner one night, which turned out great. I tried this recipe for BBQ Chicken Foil Packs from Pillsbury. So delicious. And EASY. You can't go wrong with a good foil pack recipe. I assembled them at home and transported them in the cooler inside large Ziploc bags tucked down in the ice.

One of my favorite things about any campground is the plant life. San Antonio is at lower elevation, and is also wetter, than some places we've camped. The wildflowers were all different there, including several varieties of coneflower, blanket flower, evening primrose, campanula, blue flax, fleabane, yarrow and more. Do you like to look for wildflowers? I really enjoy it. I use Peterson's field guides, but I also like websites like this one to match up my flower photos when I get home. I spend a lot of time strolling around with my camera during the days, when I'm not cooking, straightening up the campsite, or relaxing with a book.

I'm so glad we tried San Antonio, it was a fantastic place to camp, perfect for families. There is room to roam and plenty to do, and we will definitely go back. Camping together is a great way to bond, learn new skills and spend time away from the stresses of regular life - even when it brings its own little annoyances, which are mostly just puzzles to solve. With plenty of hot cocoa and M&M-containing trail mix to think on.
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