Monday, July 21, 2014

To Do: Make a Lounge Chair Appointment

One of our cats has a daily need to go outside. She follows me out when I tend to the garden. Her routine is pretty simple these days. I suppose her eleven years have slowed her down some. The first stop is at the tree, where she stretches up and digs her claws in, scratching with all her strength. Then she strolls onto the lawn and pulls at some grass until I take pity on her mostly toothless grip and break off some leaves for her to chew on. After that, it's time to head over to the lounge chair. Yes, lounge chair. I suppose when you reach a certain age, you want comfortable support under you, not the gritty, rocky surface of sidewalk or lawn. She lays there, alternating between sleep and nature watching, until she realizes we forgot about her and went inside. Then she begins to mew. Depending on her mood, that means she wants to come in, or she wants us to come out and enjoy the day with her.

My cat has a routine.

My own routines are scattered to the wind lately. I think it started last summer when my son got his internship and things have only gotten worse since I started working in June. My husband could at least pick up some of the pieces--grocery shopping, making dinner, driving the family around--but then he landed some temporary work the beginning of July (YAY!) and suddenly life became a whole lot more complicated. He works from home, but he can't always leave when he wants, or make time for cleaning dishes or making dinner.

It doesn't help that I don't yet have a regular schedule at the library. There are days when I feel like a Minuteman, ready at a moment's notice to head in. And I know that is a good thing. I must be doing well if they are calling me in so much. This month, I also had the stress of doing juggling and balloon workshops. The library asked me to add in some science facts to align the workshops with the summer reading game's theme for this year.

Some have asked me how I will manage homeschooling now. The fact is, that is the easiest part of my life. I only have my youngest to report, and she is always learning. Come September, I will need to check in with her to find out what she's been up to so I can write it down.

So much to do. I know some things must fall to the side or be given to others to do. I have trouble giving up control. I still handle the wash and I'm still hanging it all to dry since our dryer is useless. Honestly, I miss making dinner regularly. I also miss having a clear living room to exercise in. My hope is that once my workshops finish up this week, I will be able to establish some new routines in August.

Maybe I can even set aside some time for lounging.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Late and Last: Looking at Words

I believe that two of the most overused words in the English language are "late" and "last."

Think about it. So many ads in print and on TV blare out the importance of coming in to their stores before it's too late! It's your last chance to save big! These savings won't last! The sense of urgency spills over into other areas of life. These summer days won't last! Better enjoy them now before it's too late. We can't be late or we might miss the most important part of (fill in the blank)! And who ate the last cookie?

There is finality in these terms. It appears as if nothing will come after.

As a homeschooler, I try to remember that nothing is final. It's never too late to learn something new. There is not a last chance for anything unless I choose to give up. Just because a child doesn't read before kindergarten doesn't mean they are doomed to fall further and further behind. Just because a child doesn't grasp basic calculations the first time doesn't mean they are doomed to never do well in math. I learned to understand the beauty of math by teaching it to my oldest. I thought history was boring until I learned it alongside my children. There is not one good time to learn something, there are several opportunities over a lifetime!

There are last chances in schools only because there are fixed schedules there. You must learn x, y, and z in a particular year because the teachers for the next grade don't have time to go back and teach it. They must always move everyone forward on the assembly line. That is what it is: linear education.

As a homeschooler, I don't need to follow that straight and narrow path. I can allow my children to have a relaxed and more purposeful education. Learning is meandering. They can wander off after an interest, look back, jump ahead, and sometimes walk beside me. It doesn't make it easy for me in a state where I must report, but I knew what I was getting myself into. I chose this. It won't be the last time I choose to choose it.

And I can bake more cookies.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Van Gogh Tardis Cake

June has been a month of learning new things for me, as I settle into my new position as a library clerk. Suddenly I was days away from my husband's birthday and half of the house was coughing from an icky cold. I almost let the day pass. I was too tired to come up with a theme for the cake.

I sat down in front of the computer Googling cakes based on various sci-fi shows he enjoyed. We are currently watching the fourth season of Babylon 5, and he loves shows like Star Trek, Supernatural, Grimm, and Dr. Who. Dr. Who finally gave me the inspiration I needed. I love that Van Gogh was featured on Dr. Who, not only because of my artistic background, but also because nothing is as forgiving in cake decorating as Post-Impressionism (edited for accuracy by art history minor daughter).

I admit, I was going for quick and somewhat easy. I made the square buttermilk chocolate cake from the Fannie Farmer cookbook the night before. One layer became the base, the other was cut into square sections, smeared with melted chocolate and stacked. Some slanted cuts created the roof of the police box. Whipped cream frosting in different colors painted the cake and box. In hindsight, I should have made the orange and yellow blast bigger. It looks like it landed on an octopus. Cocoa in the blue frosting might have helped to get a darker blue. It was a little too bright for universe and Tardis blue. Notice how close it matches the tablecloth. I used some sugar wafer cookies to create windows and to square off the edge of the roof. Then I put the whole thing in the freezer to let the frosting stiffen a bit.

At some point, the Tardis became wibbly wobbly. I had no patience for another issue like the cupcake goblets, so I speared the entire police box with a wooden skewer and clipped off the excess. That succeeded in keeping it in place. Next came the finishing touch, the light on the top of the box:

Half of a blue candlestick, lit just before singing, gave it that old timey-wimey feel. Again, looks do not mean as much to me as taste, and this was tasty. The Tardis was like a Ring Ding with the cream filling on the outside, if Ring Dings were made with fresh ingredients.

And thankfully, everyone was healthy enough to eat cake on the big day.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Eaglets, I've Seen a Few

Have you ever heard the story of the sun and the wind? The sun and the wind make a bet to see who can make a man remove his coat. Wind blows and blows but all that happens is the man pulls his coat more tightly against his body. Sun, on the other hand, shines and shines until the man gets so warm, he takes off the coat.

When I do something outside on a windy day, it's a struggle. My hair blows into my face and I feel like the breath is being pulled out of me. I need to brace myself simply to walk around. By the time I come inside, I'm tired from fighting gusts.

Lately, we've been spending time watching the Decorah Eaglets. At this point, the eaglets are starting to spread their wings and practice flapping, preparing for flight. It's interesting to watch. Today was a windy day at the nest. Watching the wind flutter through their feathers, I noticed one and then another do something interesting:

They faced the wind and spread their wings.

The eaglets know the wind is nothing to fear. Someday, that wind will lift them up and they will soar.

Wind is not an obstacle to moving, it is a benefit for flying.

Monday, June 9, 2014

So How am I Doing?

May was hard. So, so, so hard. Trying to adjust to financial changes while at the same time trying to celebrate all of my miracles took an emotional toll on me. I still find myself avoiding quiet moments. Reflecting seems to bring out the depression and self-doubt in me and I start to panic and tear up. I don't have time for tears. I need to be action-oriented.

My action from the start was to let both libraries we go to know that I was available for work, any work really, so that I could at least slow the drain of finances. We've lived frugally, so we do have savings to help us through the short term, but without knowing when my husband will find work, I knew I had to do whatever was necessary to keep us in the black.

And that was scary. I haven't looked at my resume in twenty years. Since my last full time job, most of my work has been sporadic. I occasionally teach crafts or circus arts at schools and libraries. My main focus has been on my kids, homeschooling them and taking them where they needed to be.

Homeschooling has been a godsend for me. I know most of us do it because of what our kids get out of it, but we take for granted what we, as the educational facilitators, get out of it. I love learning as much as my children do. I know how to think creatively and out of the box to figure out how to accomplish things. I know how to seek advice and help from others who are more knowledgeable in areas where I feel uncertain.

One great piece of advice was to use my volunteer experience on my resume. You know us moms, we always downplay the things that we do purely out of love. But all of that time I've spent running the homeschooling storytelling workshops and helping out sorting book donations and helping run the bookstore for the library friends was valuable experience. I pass this advice to any homeschooling parent reading: if you have the time when your kids are older, you should definitely find some volunteer work for yourself doing things you love. That experience counts toward a future after children are grown and homeschooling is finished.

At the beginning of June, I started training as a library clerk. It's only part-time work, but at least we have some money coming in. I hope it won't be too much longer before my husband can find work as well. These changes happen for a reason. I know I'm blessed that I had as many years as I did being able to stay home with my kids, and let's face it, they don't need me as much as they did when they were younger, and not in the same way. I hope I'm showing them how to be resourceful and not just lay down and curl up when challenges come their way.

Full disclosure here, I did lay down and curl up a bit. In my defense, we've faced a lot lately. At least I waited until I had the job before I let everything get to me. I'm pushing it down again, because if it doesn't help, it needs to get out of the way. I'm trying to take care of my family here.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The League of Legends Poro Cake

Hard to believe my son turned 18 last week. I was relieved when his cake request wasn't too complicated after trying to make cake goblets. Heck, this whole month has been complicated enough. He wanted a "Poro" cake, a character from League of Legends' Howling Abyss map. They are cute, fluffy creatures that look like a cross between Tribbles and Hyperbole and a Half's Alot.

Using my chocolate buttermilk cake recipe, I made a square cake and six cupcakes. Marina helped out by making the features--tongues, horns, feet and mustaches--out of almond cookies. I was tired of making buttercream frosting, so I did a simple whipped cream frosting for the cake and Poros. This was probably an error on my part. Buttercream would have held the pieces in place better. I had hoped to stack the six cupcakes in a pyramid, but I quickly realized there was no way they would hold their position. Without stacking them, only three cupcakes fit on the cake. The Poro on the right kept sliding off the side. I finally stuck a toothpick through it to hold it in place. That was my biggest problem with the cake, so I think I did alright. My final touch was a sprinkle of silver sugar over the Poros.

Here it is all lit up. The candles were extremely drippy.
The sad Poros that didn't make the (ahem) cut.
I dipped the mustache cookies in melted chocolate to color them. The eyes are just large chocolate chips.

I think it was a good end to cake baking season. If I don't get too busy in June, I hope to make a nice cake for my husband at the end of the month. I will see how things go. I'm awaiting official word on a part-time postiion. I should know that today or tomorrow.

I'm thankful I was able to give my kids nice birthdays in such a difficult month of changes.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Battle of Wits Cake

My oldest child turned 21. This is a momentous occasion. I wanted an equally splendid cake to mark it. It's funny all the things you are allowed to do at 21 that she is not interested in doing, like drinking. I happen to be a teetotaler as well. I never liked the taste of alcohol because most alcohol smells icky to me.

But drinking is the theme I went for in the cake this year. I wanted to make cupcake goblets. The idea was in my brain, and it wouldn't leave unless I tried this out.

She originally gave me the idea because she was working on her own copy of The Robber Bridegroom for her Book Arts class. If you don't know it, this is one of the gorier of the Grimm fairy tales. There is a scene with poisoned wine and a heart exploding. But I didn't want gory, at least, not that much. My solution was to use The Princess Bride. We've always loved the battle of wits between Westley and Vizzini. And bonus, I get to make a vial for the iocane powder. Here is the cake:

I decided to make a cake book as the base. I used the Lady Baltimore cake from my Fannie Farmer cookbook and buttercream frosting again, since it is the most dependable for decorating. Unfortunately, after portioning out the batter in my square pans, I only had enough left for two cupcakes.Had it not been 11:30PM the night before her birthday, I might have mixed up extra batter, but I was tired from a long day and she had just gotten back from college so the living room was full of dorm room.

Anyway, all went well until the second cupcake. I used Pepperidge Farms Pirouette cookies for the wine stems and the iocane vial. The vial was simple. I spread chocolate and silver sugar over most of the cookie so that it looked like there was a cork in the bottle. I cut the tops off the cupcakes and used them as the bottoms of the wine goblets. Then I slit the bottoms of the cupcake liners to stick the cookie through and into the cupcakes. It worked fine for one, but the other crumbled. If I did this again, I would not have cut of the tops, since the frosting would have been enough to depict the base. It's such a simple design for a cake, but it took about two hours to decorate because of the issues I had.

I think I could have made this work if I had glued cookies to the Pirouettes with chocolate. That would have given the cupcakes a solid base to sit on. I try to always learn from these experiences. Here is a close up of the iocane powder vial and my happy family:

Still no luck for my husband in the job hunt. Thank you to all who have sent us their thoughts and prayers. I may have some part time work soon (fingers crossed). Every little bit helps!

Two cakes down, one to go.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Minecraft Cake

I admit, I have wanted to do a Minecraft cake since last year, so as soon as Sierra made this request for her birthday, my mind was turning about how to make it happen. After our bad news on Monday, I wanted to make it as special as I could. She had requested ocelots. Every time she builds anything on Minecraft, there a lot of cats.

This was probably one of the simpler cakes I've done. I used my dependable Buttermilk Chocolate Cake from the Fannie Farmer cookbook and froze it for an hour after baking to make cutting easier. If I did this again, I would level the tops. Even though the cakes are relatively flat, once you start stacking that third and fourth layer it starts looking tilted from even the smallest rounding. I asked Marina to make a brownie layer for the bottom to raise the cake up a little more. I think that gave more of a Minecraft feel. For frosting, I made chocolate whipped cream to use between the brownie and cake, then buttercream for the rest, since it has a flatter look and takes color easier.

I figured the best way to make the animals and tree would be to use sugar wafers. What I didn't know was that it is hard to find sugar wafers. Are customers that scared of sugar in our area? I finally found some in the international foods aisle after having no luck in the cookie aisle. These were Bauducco chocolate wafer cookies and Manner milk-vanilla sugar wafers. I used a sharp serrated steak knife to gently saw cookies to size and glued the pieces together with melted chocolate to form the cats. I applied eyes and noses using a toothpick dipped in the melted chocolate. For the ear, muzzle, and tail details, I split off layers of wafer so they wouldn't be as thick. I had limited success with the tails. I broke a lot of tails trying to cut out an angle, so some cats had shorter tails than others.

The tree was hard because it was top-heavy. I used buttercream frosting to glue it together and make the leaves green. Chocolate would have worked better. The buttercream would only stay solid for so long and then the tree started falling apart. I ended up keeping it in the refrigerator until I needed it and I used a toothpick to anchor it to the cake. A wooden skewer might have worked better.

In all, I think it was a success. Tricky figuring out how to cut it, but tasty.
After cake, Sierra and her friends played Twister. Dusty joined in for one round, but got bored.

It was nice to end the week on a happy note.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Reconstruction Ruminations

I don't really like construction sites. They should call them destruction sites, because they usually involve a lot of tearing down and ripping out.

That's how I'm feeling right now. There seems to be a lot of tearing down and ripping out in our family's life.

It's the loss that hurts when I look at construction sites. Seeing the ground turned over, trees cut down, the deep holes like bites out of the earth, all makes me feel crying inside. I am a nature lover through and through. The loss of one tree makes me think of every creature that might have used that tree as a home or source of food. 

My husband was laid off on Monday.

Nature herself helps me to put the loss in perspective. Over the past several years I have seen areas in the parks I wander that have lost massive trees to violent storms, hurricanes, and even a tornado. Loss is part of life. It makes room for new growth and new generations. Leaves drop in autumn as some trees go dormant and nourish the soil. Those trees that were uprooted allow light into the forest, and suddenly sprouts appear in the warmth of spring. I realize there is never nothing after loss. Seeds may be hidden, but they are there, waiting for the right opportunity to grow. Where there is life, there is hope.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Active Education

Here are some of the activities that have kept me busy lately:
  • Books! I finished reading Lockwood & Co. by Jonathan Stroud (writer of the Bartimeus series). I then handed Stroud's book to Sierra and she finished it in two days. Imagine a teenage Sherlock Holmes with his own Ghostbusters agency and you have this book. Except with scarier bits. I also read The Giver by Lois Lowry. Lowry's book is about a boy living in a dystopian society where there is no choice. I would call it a junior 1984. I considered letting Sierra read it, but some of the subject matter is intense. 
  • Sewing. I found this pattern for a Minecraft Creeper doll, thanks to Once Upon a Family. Sierra loves Minecraft, so we decided to try to make it. Let me just say right now that I am sewing machine challenged. Helping Sierra make this was a "blind leading the blind" situation. I think her skills have improved as we pieced this together. Mine have not. I kept having issues of the thread getting stuck and pulling out of the needle. We broke two threaders (my sewing machine is not self-threading) and Sierra became my threader after that. She gained lots of experience threading the machine as I lost the thread regularly. I did about half of the cutting and sewing for her, usually when she started getting bored. It's almost together now. We just need to sew on the legs.
  • Yardwork. The weather has started to warm, at least enough for the crocuses to put in an appearance. We had so much snow this year that it compacted the leaves. I needed to gently lift my leaf mulch away from the shoots where they couldn't spear through. And then the flowers started blooming. And then deer started eating them. Or was it the squirrels? Maybe both. I pointed out deer tracks and scat to Sierra and we talked about how the deer usually shear off the vegetation while the squirrels pluck the flower blooms. I did manage to get a few pictures before the carnage.
    Next year, I might leave the leaf litter alone. Maybe the deer won't eat what they can't see.
  • Nature. We visited Cranberry Lake Preserve to see if anything was wriggling in the vernal pools. Unfortunately, the day we picked was cold. We heard plenty of spring peepers, but nothing was visible in the water. The nature center has several animals. One of the latest is a hedgehog. Sierra took photos of her. The hedgehog growls a lot, so the curator is thinking of naming her Monster. Have you ever felt a hedgehog? They are as prickly as they look. I poked myself trying to remove a scrap of wood shaving from her head.
  • Testing. Blah. But it's time to prove to our district that Sierra is surviving her unconventional education.
That's it for now. I hope life slows down soon, but since we are heading into Easter and then birthday month, I doubt a slow down will come any time soon!
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