Sunday, July 23, 2017

Garden Variety Lifelong Learning

The busy never stops in our yard this time of year. On the one hand is the weeding, mowing, and watering. On the other hand is the photographing. I take a lot of pictures as the local wildlife starts coming in to enjoy the garden. Lately, a hummingbird moth and a hummingbird have come around to sample the bee balm blooms. It's frustrating and shows me how much I don't know about photography. And the hummingbird harasses me by hovering in front of me, daring me to get a good shot. Every time she returns I experiment with my camera. Lesson one: make sure the battery is charged. Here is a sample of my work from the past four days. Click on the picture to enlarge.

The moth was easier since I could get closer

I have a birdwatching setting. It works except the wings can disappear in the blur of flight

Similar issues with the moth's wings

Getting better. Nothing like a full charge on your battery!

I can almost see the wing. Almost.

Luckily, even hummingbirds need to rest

She stretched and flew off again

Day 4, I learn about the shutter speed setting
I hope to continue improving as long as she comes to my yard. And as long as I can hold out against the mosquitoes.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Hall of Justice Cake

For my husband's birthday, he asked for a cake that was DC themed.

Okaaaay...

It's never a good idea to be so vague with me. I decided to go retro and make a cake that looked like the Hall of Justice, from my childhood memories of the Super Friends. Why? Because the Watchtower looked too involved and it was hot. Really hot. And humid. It's not fun to bake in hot and humid weather.

I started with my buttermilk chocolate cake recipe and made one and a half recipes. The method of using chocolate ganache as glue worked so well in May, I figured I would do that again. FYI, it doesn't work when the temperature is in the 90s. I spent a lot of time waiting for parts to set in the freezer.



The front part of the Hall of Justice was decorated with buttercream frosting. The back section I used whipped cream frosting. FYI, whipped cream is also hard to work with in hot and humid weather. I think I fought this cake from beginning to end.

I used a Pirouette cookie for the columns on the front. Next time I will just pipe them in with frosting. Apparently, nothing sticks to these cookies. Or maybe only melted chocolate does, but I didn't buy white chocolate for this cake. 

 The sculpture in the reflecting pool was made from broken pieces of sugar cone. I was happy with how the sculpture came out.


Birthday season is now over for the year. I'm thinking I should try to make a cake or two in the fall, just to keep in practice. It would be fun to make some designs without the pressure of a birthday deadline.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The 2017 May Birthday Cakes

My father's birthday is usually the kickoff to our May celebrations. With Easter so late, and a second cake to bake at the end of the week, I pitched an idea for the kids to make for their abuelo. I present to you the Scone cake. It's one and a half batches of Buelo's favorite treat, drizzled with chocolate ganache. It actually made a very light tasting cake.




The second cake would be a challenge. My youngest requested a cake that depicted a scene from Steven Universe: The Strawberry Field which was the Gem Battlefield. I baked a chocolate buttermilk cake and used buttercream frosting for decorating. Marina baked chocolate sugar cookies to use for the background mountains and shrubs and the Warp Pad (their transporter). I also skewered strawberries with little plastic cocktail swords. It looks like a stage scene. You really can only look at it from the front.


 Marina's birthday was next. I think she knew I really wanted to try making Lion from Steven Universe. Lion is a velvet cake decorated with whipped cream frosting. Melted chocolate was my glue to hold the pieces together and to detail the eyes and nose. I think the face is a little too flat. I baked a smaller cake for it and I should have sliced it on more of an angle. I also almost forgot to give him ears. Good thing I had plenty of cake scraps to work with! The eyes are slivers of marshmallow decorated with melted chocolate.

The final cake would come five days later for my son's birthday. I used both a velvet cake and a chocolate buttermilk cake for this one. He planned to play D&D that night and go out for his first drink, so I made cupcakes for him to bring to his friends. The base cake is a layer of chocolate cake and a layer of velvet cake frosted with whipped cream. Then I made buttercream frosting to decorate Aku, the main villain from Samurai Jack. My son had actually requested Scaramouche's head, but I thought Aku would add some color. (Who wants a gray cake?) Scaramouche is a cyborg that was cut apart by Samurai Jack. He's made with one and a half cupcakes frosted with buttercream. His spine is made from a Pirouette cookie. (Yes, I bought a whole tin of Pirouettes so I could use a piece of one cookie. It was a very hot week and I didn't want to do any more baking than necessary.)

In all, it was an incredibly busy May, between birthdays and work and some meetings. I'm glad I have a month's break before my husband's birthday. And just a note, I have come to depend upon those two cake recipes. When you have to bake so many cakes in quick succession, you want to rely on a recipe that is tried and true. Save the experiments for low stress baking!

Monday, May 15, 2017

Happenings: Sculptures by my Son

In case you were wondering, May is still hard, except now it starts in April.

I will post the May cakes after my son's birthday. He turns 21 this year. I haven't figured out what his cake will be yet. He just finished his spring semester at the community college. I think he has a bit of me in him. He always thinks he's doing worse in some classes than he actually is.

He also tends to surprise me with a conversations like this:

Him: So the student show opening is 11:00 to 1:00 tomorrow.
Me: And you're telling me now? (The time is 8PM)
Him: I told you I had a piece in the student show.
Me: But you didn't say when it would be.
Him: I just did.

OK.

So we went to the student show, and luckily it wasn't at the same time that I work. It's nice to see his work recognized when I had to "nudge" him a bit to take the sculpting class. I've watched him create sculptures from the time he was two or three. Here he is with his sculpture, made out of 100 plastic forks.



He also worked hard on this arm for a performance art piece for the same class. The fingers on the hand and the arm are rigged so he can move them with his hand and arm. I asked how he learned to do that. He recalled seeing it done on a short-lived reality series where contestants vied for a position at Jim Henson's Creature Shop. You never know where you are going to pick up a new skill.




Saturday, April 8, 2017

Seasonal Changes

I think spring is finally starting to stick. We had a flush of crocuses in the yard that lasted about a day before a deer came and ate the largest bunches.



The pussywillow is coming to the end of its bloom. Snow delayed it twice. This is a valuable first food for the bees. I was happy to catch a few in action.

The goldfinches are throwing off their winter feathers. Their showy, bright yellow plumage is a welcome bit of sunshine at the feeders.


When my children were little, it was my greatest pleasure to take them out in the early days of spring to look for the signs that winter was almost over: tree buds, red-winged blackbirds and grackles, first flowers, early insects, spring peepers and birds singing. All tell the story of the season and the promise of life's renewal.

May you enjoy the longer days in the northern hemisphere.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Purple Mane

I colored my hair.

Really. I colored it purple. This was the first time I ever did something like this. My youngest wants to try a semi-permanent dye, so she researched some natural vegetable dyes and I ordered the color she wanted. Then I saw the purple (plum) and figured we could both do it. Except only I've tried it so far. She did try to dye a lock of her hair, but we aren't sure she used enough color.

My hair took the color better since it is now shot with white strands. (When did that happen?) After watching a few YouTube videos and being in possession of a quiet morning, I decided to take the plunge. My hair sectioned off, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and learned some valuable lessons about hair coloring:

  1. Don't shut the bathroom door. If you need help, your family won't hear you and you won't be able to open the door with your purple dye covered gloves.
  2. Clips would work better than hair bands to hold up the sections I'm not dyeing.
  3. Maybe I should have ordered that tint brush. The comb doesn't seem to spread any color at the hair line.
  4. Patience is a virtue. And I am not. After ten minutes of trying to squeeze color through one of my sections of thick curly hair, I questioned the sanity of anyone who colors their hair regularly.
  5. I probably needed more oil or petroleum jelly on my ears. 
  6. It's a good thing my husband works from home so I could call to him as he passed the bathroom. Also good that this is the only bathroom. He would have come this way sooner or later. He got my oldest daughter to come and check my work and wrap my hair in plastic wrap.
  7. Hair dye sticks to everything, including porcelain sinks and tubs. When I rinsed, the shower walls looked like a scene from Psycho, if the girl had purple blood. A friend later told me I could use a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser to get that out.
  8. The gloves are necessary for rinsing too. Oops.
In the end, the color looks pretty good. I'm also glad that the dye smells of grape candy. I've heard that the henna dyes are not as pleasant. It wasn't the best dye job, but it looks fun for now and it will wash out after a few shampoos. Would I do it again? Ask me when my hair is completely white.
My adventure with Jerome Russell Punky Colour
Interesting side note: Many people have told me they love the color and wish they were brave enough to do this. For the record, I am not brave. I am spontaneous. The real trick is to do it before you can think it through and talk yourself out of it.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Flashcard Fiasco

Like her sister, my youngest has test anxiety. She's also indignant about the whole need to test, because of the randomness of what examiners think kids should know at a particular point in time. I don't know where she gets these ideas. (Who, me?)

Test anxiety is especially a problem with math. Every year I try to prepare her for her tests and every year we face meltdowns because she wants the reassurance of knowing her answers are right. At the same time, she fights me about learning the facts because she doesn't understand how they relate to the real world. I was also bad at math in school, so I'm probably not the best person to explain how irrational numbers help us. 

This year I asked if she would like a workbook to practice with before I ordered the test. She agreed. I then discovered that the company that makes the test we use only makes test prep booklets up to eighth grade. For high school age, they had test prep flashcards.

I usually like flashcards. Question on the front, answer on the back, sometimes with an explanation of why it works It sounded like a good solution, and even though I thought they were a bit pricey, I ordered a set.

I have never seen flashcards like these.

If the test didn't provide enough test anxiety, the flashcards did. Most of them are set up where they ask you to explain a concept, rather than a straightforward question. I was at a loss to explain half of them, and that was after I looked at the answer on the back. I had to enlist the help of my college graduate oldest child to help her with them. Tears have been shed. Tempers have flared. I've wondered if it's too late to move to a state that doesn't require testing. 

I'm kidding, of course. I don't want to move. And as much trouble as the flashcards give her, she keeps doing them. I don't think I ever saw her work so hard on a subject she dislikes. Every day she sits with a few cards, scrap paper, and a box of tissues and she tries. She  tries something that she thinks is hard. Really, no matter how she does on the test, I feel like we accomplished something here.

And when she needs to blow off steam, I completely allow the destruction of a flashcard. They make adorable little hats.


Sunday, January 8, 2017

Cold Weather Learning

This morning there was a layer of snow over the front yard. The cold was biting, but it made for a beautiful scene.


There are so many things to do in snow and cold weather. In the past, we've spent short spurts outside in subzero temperatures to do experiments. We toss hot water into the air to make instant snow. We bring out the soap bubbles and watch them freeze and drop. I couldn't find my bubbles this time, but I did notice some tracks in the snow.


Looks like a raccoon walked by last night. That's my boot print next to it.The smaller prints are from the sparrows that came to the feeders this morning.

White Throated Sparrow
There were also several juncos about.


This one is sitting on our rhododendron. Did you know you can tell how cold it is by looking at rhododendron leaves? The tighter they curl into tubes, the colder it is. It was 1 degree this morning with the wind chill. I'm surprised the bush wasn't shivering. At this point, my fingers were feeling frostbitten, so I moved inside to continue taking pictures through the window. They don't come out as clear, but you need to make some sacrifices for warmth.

Chickadee by the feeder

A Cardinal right before he carried this peanut away

Red-Bellied Woodpecker watching a House Sparrow land on the suet feeder
I hope you spent some time outdoors today!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Card Designs for 2016

Each year I say I'm not going to do this. There are so many other things that need doing -- cleaning, decorating, baking -- designing cards should be a luxury for more relaxed years. It's so easy to buy cards, after all.

And then I get an idea. I can't really help it, it just happens. And I tell myself one is enough, no one will mind if I only send one design. Who would know?

And then I get another idea.

Nurturing my creativity is important. I want my children to see me do this so they nurture their own creative spirits. No matter how old you get, you need to exercise your talents and indulge your imagination.

I hope your celebrations are full of love, hope, happiness, and peace!



Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Gingerbread Carousel

The girls put this together. My oldest designed it and did most of the building while her little sister did most of the decorating. The actual gingerbread baking was a team effort. They crushed lollipops to get the glass effect in the cut-outs and used Pepperidge Farm Pirouettes and pretzel sticks for the poles and supports. I tried to help at the start, but then realized it would be better if I backed off (emotions were high during the roof raising.) Sometimes you need to let your temperamental artists work through their process.
Click on a photo to enlarge.







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