Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Lost Books

I can't be the only reader constantly in search of her latest read. Loving husband says I need a beeper for my book and one for my coffee-- if I'm not searching for one, I'm searching for the other. Where do they go? I finally found my coffee this afternoon (in the gents' closet) and sat to watch them play. My mind wandered to books. What better way for a mind to wander on a chilly afternoon when you just can't bear to play Legos again, and you can't find your book, or your other book, and your other book is in the car? Which led me to ponder lost books in general, and all the different kinds of "lost" a book can get.

Books that are lost because you haven't looked very hard. You know the ones. Maybe a book you thought you should read so you started it but it's just not your cuppa. Or maybe a book that you don't hate, but you don't particularly like. As a matter of fact you can't seem to summon up any particular feeling about the book at all, certainly not enough passion or interest to look for it hard enough to find it once you have the good fortune to misplace the darn thing. I may have glimpsed a book like this on the floor of my closet behind the laundry hamper. But I haven't really looked, so it still counts as lost.

Books you seem to keep losing even though you think you want to finish. Mental block, anyone? I can't even remember how long I've been reading C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters. It's charming and amusing and insightful. It provokes deep thoughts. But I can't seem to finish the book because I never know where it is. Last time I found it, I put it aside in a safe place so I wouldn't lose it. You know the safe place, right? The book is safe all right, tucked cozily away in the safe place along with the spare housekeys, tickets to an event long past, a couple gadget parts that absolutely cannot be lost or else, and a few dozen phone numbers on scraps of paper.

Lost on the bookshelf. Some enterprising soul decided to put your book away. Who might have done such a thing is anyone's guess, especially since no one else in the house picks up their own belongings so why in heaven's name are they putting away your stuff? You've got a double whammy here. Bookshelves are for storing books we're not reading. You already know that you left it out, so out is where you look. And it's like hiding a straw in a haystack. A book is noticeable on the coffee table, on the nightstand, the back of the toilet or the side of the tub, in the hammock, under the bed even. Now it's hidden in plain sight. You won't see that book again until you're combing the shelves for something else entirely, or until you winnow your book collection.
Off on a tangent...what about finding books that belong on the shelf but simply aren't there? I can't be the only one who, in lost book frustration, finally finds the book I'm looking for on the fifth or sixth try when I resort to standing in front of the bookshelf I've been staring at for the last twenty minutes, saying the name of each book out loud as I touch the spine. Or try this helpful hint: Make sure that while you're looking there's someone else in the room. Maybe someone who you want to impress. Or someone you've just met. Or a person who loves to rub it in when you goof up, like your sister. Look for the desired book on the appropriate shelf. Look again. Look on all the other shelves. Look in the other bookcase. Go upstairs to look at the bookshelves up there. Come back downstairs and start over on the original shelf. Swear and ruffle your hair. Give up. The by now amused bystander will walk over to the shelf, pull off the very book and hand it to you with a casual, "Is this the one?"

Lost library books. You comb the house top to bottom. You take every single book you own off the shelves one at a time. You even look under the ladies' and gents' beds, and really really wish you hadn't.You look crazy places, like in the pantry and sock drawers and the drawer under the stove. On library day your stomach flops like you're in second grade and you have to tell the teacher that you didn't do your homework. Unless you get the crabby library lady, it's all right, though. Only the crabby library lady acts as though you are the only patron who would be careless enough to lose a library book. Usually it turns up before the next visit anyway. And if it doesn't you smile and apologize and pay for the book. But while you're paying, well, underneath that casual "my bad"smile there's nothing quite like a lost library book to bring that anxious little kid feeling to the pit of your stomach.

You'd rather read than look for your book. You know it'll turn up. You could probably find it if you actually looked. You just don't know where it is at the moment, and the bookshelf is handy. How many people actually read just one book at a time anyway?

Library book mix-up. I wonder how many inadvertent donations the library gets each year.

Got kids? Kids will do the weirdest things with a book. Books are so handy! Flower press, weight for fort blankets, writing surface, booster seat, Hot Wheels ramp. Last fall I lost a book for about three weeks because the fine young gents decided to use it for a stepstool while rummaging in their closet.

Book thieves. Not burglars in black with excellent taste in literature who creep silently into your home in the dead of night. These sneaky book thieves are usually our nearest and dearest. "Oh, I didn't know you were still reading it." Ha! I can see how you could get confused by a book splayed face-down on the arm of the recliner, really. Give it back. A slightly less blatant variation on this theme: One of the lovely ladies might forget entirely that she picked up this cool-looking book from the table and took it upstairs, just for a while. The lovely and contrite young borrower meant to put it back, honestly she did.

Sometimes a book is just plain lost. Books fall in cracks. They get left behind. Slide under the bed. Fall out of the bookbag. Sit in the suitcase. Maybe the book fell in the trash can or the Goodwill box or the donations to the library sale.

Oh well. If you want to finish a lost book, there's always the library. Unless you checked out the library's only copy.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Tuesday Ten: Busy Busy Busy

Ten Things I've Been Doing Instead of Posting on My Blog

1. Visiting. We piled everyone in the van and headed to beautiful Eastern Oregon to visit family. The kids look forward to visiting with Grandma and Grandpa. Nearly every day from the first time I mentioned that we were planning a visit, the gents asked, "Are we going to Grandpa's today? Tomorrow? Can we wake up at Grandpa's?" The day finally arrived and off we went on a trek across the state.

2. Packing. "We piled everyone in the van and headed to beautiful Eastern Oregon" makes it sound like we just tossed the kids in the back of the car with a few pillows and roared away. I packed clothes, toothbrushes, medication, winter things, sleeping bags, breakfast and lunch, and bags with small toys and books for the car ride.

3. School planning. My poor children. They couldn't escape my evil clutches entirely. I planned to make them learn and stuff, even at Grandpa's. Which meant I had to figure out exactly which books and such we'd need to bring along. My diabolical plans knew no bounds. The lovely ladies even had to do school in the car. I made them read. Read books that they had not planned to read. The horror. (Actually they were pretty good sports about the whole thing.)

4. School. Here's what I want to know: How is it that the kids can get the same amount of work done in half the time at Grandpa's? One of the lovely ladies even remarked to me how nice it was to have a light load for our visit. Ha! It was exactly the same work she'd have done at home.

5. Birthday. Sweet January gent turned four. When I told him he'd get to have his birthday at Grandpa's house, you'd have thought I'd told him we were going to Disneyland. I can't believe my middle guy is four. It seems like it was just a few months ago he was snugged up in the sling everywhere I went.

6. Playing in the snow. The gents had planned on a fishing trip with Grandpa. But we got to do something just as cool.....

7. Riding in a hay wagon to see the elk (pictured above). This was a pretty neat expedition. Of course it would have been even neater had the woman standing in the very front of the wagon not acted insulted that I wouldn't let my two year-old ride standing on the front rails of the wagon with her. Or had said two-year-old not grabbed my handwarmers out of my gloves and jettisoned them over the side of the hay wagon in an attempt to help feed the elk. The handwarmers were joined shortly by a lovely lady's hat, the precious one lovingly hand-knit by her grandma. The woman telling us all about the elk had to get down from the wagon to retrieve our things. I would have pretended I had no idea who those unruly children were, but I couldn't get them to stop calling me Mom.

8. Playing tooth fairy. Six-year-old gent finally lost the tooth he'd been wiggling for what seemed like forever. It seemed like forever mostly because he kept on talking about his wiggly tooth and insisting on eating only soft foods. I kept trying to convince him that crunchy things would make his tooth fall out, but noooooo. He'd have none of it. I've never been so happy to see a damn tooth fall out in my life. Too bad the one right next to it is starting to wiggle. Seriously, he was so happy that it was a delight to play tooth fairy. I did convince him that since we were at Grandpa's house, the tooth fairy might not know where he's sleeping, so we should leave it in a glass of water on the table. Good thing I caught a glimpse of the glass right before I went to bed and whipped a dollar bill underneath with a note from the tooth fairy. Usually I stink at playing tooth fairy. My kids think the tooth fairy is either really busy or really flaky-- little do they know it's a bit of both-- because she never makes it on the first night. Oh wait, I did slip a dollar bill under the eleven-year-old's pillow a couple weeks ago while I was waking her up. Veeerry crafty, eh? She still believe in the tooth fairy and Santa even though I've told her the truth point-blank twice.

9. Driving.....

....and driving.....

....and driving some more.

10. Laundry. There's no escaping it. As a matter of fact, that's what I should be doing right now, laundry. Folding the mountain of laundry waiting for me. I really need to get folding before it's large enough to swallow a small child, seeing as there are a few small children around here and I'd sure hate to lose one of them. Yup, I should really get on that right now. Too bad I'm really really busy finishing my blog post. Sheesh, if I type any longer then it'll be far too late to fold the laundry. So if I don't post for a few more days, it's because I'm digging through socks and jeans and mittens and sweaters trying to find one of the gents.

While I was having fun, Cristy drudged through her week. I know, playing with a new camera and fooling around with Photoshop is so hard. Boo hoo.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Tuesday Ten: Those Darn Kids

If I've said it once, I've said it 500 Times....

1. "Close the door." Sheesh! I can understand having to keep reminding the 4- & 6-year-olds, but you'd think that by the time one is thirteen it would sink in that the door doesn't magically close.

2. "A cheerful willing helper is worth her weight in gold." This works best when you say it with a sappy grin, like my Mom did.

3. "I love your cute little face." Yeah, well. I think this one is pretty self-explanatory. "You are lovely" or "I like what you've done with your hair" has kind of replaced this one with the girls. But I still love their sweet faces.

4. "Is it honest? Is it kind? Is it fair?" I'll bet my kids mimic this one when they get older. "Remember when Mom (read: "annoying clueless Mom"-- sometimes the tone says it all) used to say..." Kind of like when my sisters and I get together and make fun of Mom. Only we say, in that nah-nah-nah voice: "A cheerful willing helper is worth her weight in gold." Bleah.

5. "I am not magic." I cannot simultaneously attend to all of the varied and multitudinous needs of five young people. Really. You will have to wait for thirty seconds for a refill of juice. Speaking more loudly, by the way, does not magically make me move more quickly.

6. "STOP HITTING YOUR BROTHER." And when I say "hitting" you may not quibble with me over the finer points of punching versus poking versus kicking versus "but-Mom-I-was-just-doing-this." Stop. Keep your hands to yourself or lose them. (Sigh...not really.)

7. "Close the door." I know, but it bears repeating. Obviously. Otherwise the damn door would be closed.

8. "Please let me be the Mom." I don't need an echo, thanks. Unless you want to be responsible for the laundry, dinner, and bedtime, please let me do the parenting and you be the sympathetic sibling. You can all go play by yourselves and complain about how mean I am-- sibling bonding. As long as you're quiet, I don't care.

9. Does a big *sigh* count?

10. "I love you."

Read what Cristy has said at least 500 times here.

Lesley, at Offerings to the Goddess of Domesticity, has to repeat herself too, and she's challenged some friends to make their own lists. Read her list here. While you're there, poke around her blog a little. She's got a lovely family.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Artist Study: Mondrian (Part I)

Mondrian, Piet~ Composition A: Composition with Black, Red, Gray, Yellow, and Blue (1920)

Part I of our new art study, Piet Mondrian and his work. Mondrian was a Dutch painter with a very distinctive and recognizable style. It was difficult tracking down information about Mondrian, though at Kinderart (a great site for all kinds of art studies for preschool through high school) we found a Mondrian lesson plan which was the springboard for this study. Our best source for information about Mondrian and his art was The Annotated Mona Lisa, which explain succinctly and clearly about Mondrian and his art well enough for all of us to grasp the general principles. Mondrian noted that straight lines do not exist in nature, and set out to create an abstract representation of universal harmony and order. Vertical lines represent vitality; horizontal lines, tranquility; the angle created by the meeting of the lines create a balance between the two. Lovely lady and I had a sort of "Aha" when we read this. It made viewing the compositions more interesting, more than simple lines and shapes.

For me the main attraction of Mondrian from an art education perspective is that his art is different from some of the other art we've done so far, and it's easy to imitate. A fascinating aspect of Mondrian's art has been looking at his progression as an artist from this:

To this:

To this:

(In order, Red Tree, 1908; The Blooming Apple Tree, 1912; Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue, 1921) For a nice overview of Mondrian's development as an artist, try this site.

My favorite Mondrian:

Broadway Boogie-Woogie, 1942-43. It seems more dynamic and vibrant without those stern black lines holding everything so still.

Today we tried our hands at some Mondrian-inspired art. We plan to brush paint on canvas soon, but yesterday I got a flash of inspiration and decided to try something fun. A batch of sugar cookie dough, black shoestring licorice (which loving husband was kind enough to drive all over town to find), some cookie paint, and the neighbors to play along....Voila! Edible Mondrian!

Edible Mondrian

You need....

A double batch of your favorite sugar cookie dough. If you don't have a favorite recipe, try this one.

Black shoestring licorice (optional)

Light corn syrup

Red, blue, and yellow food coloring

Paper square for a cookie template

Cookie sheets, rolling pin, extra flour for rolling, spatula

Small containers for mixing the paints, clean scissors and paint brushes (and not the cheap-o brushes, either, unless you like bristles in your cookies)

Make the cookie dough. Before you roll out the dough, cut a paper square to the size you'd like your cookies. (Ours was 6"x6") You'll use the square for a template. Roll out the dough. When rolling, use just a bit more flour than you otherwise might so that the dough will be easy to handle. I found that it was easiest to take a piece the approximate size I wanted, finish rolling it on the cookie sheet, then use the template as a guide for trimming the shape into a square. Trying to transfer the large squares intact was nearly impossible. I also cut smaller squares, 3"x3", which were easy to pop onto the sheet using a spatula.

Use your clean scissors to cut the licorice into the desired lengths so that you can make horizontal and vertical lines on your cookie. Appreciate the dynamic balance at the intersections of the lines. (This is an art lesson after all.) Gently press the licorice into the cookie to help it stay in place. It may curl a bit while baking, but who cares? You're going to eat it, not hang it on the wall. (If you can't find shoestring licorice or can't abide it, you can use black cookie paint to create lines.)

Cookie paint: In your little containers mix some light corn syrup with several drops of the desired color. (No idea exactly how much corn syrup, we didn't measure. Maybe 1/3 cup? You'll have to use your common sense.) Make red, blue, and yellow cookie paint. To make black, mix a lot of blue, some red, and a few drops of yellow.

You'll have to let your cookies dry for at least 24 hours before you can eat them. That gives you time to admire them, and allows the paint to set so that you don't get all sticky when you eat your art.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Friendly Shakespeare: In Which We Learn to Enjoy Shakespeare Again

The Friendly Shakespeare differs from other books on Shakespeare in that it is not a work of academic criticism, a handbook to help students write term papers, or a coffee table book extolling the beauties of the Bard with glossy pictures of Anne Hathaway's cottage. Its aim is to introduce the reader to the Shakespearean spirit in all its forms, from the commercialism of Stratford to the lyricism of Romeo and Juliet. (Preface, A Note to the Reader, xii-xiii)
The Friendly Shakespeare: A Thoroughly Painless Guide to the Best of the Bard, by Norrie Epstein has been sitting on my bookshelf for an embarrassingly long time. I have loved Shakespeare since seventh grade since Mrs. Hladky, a stern grey woman who taught the accelerated classes, assigned Othello and took several seventh graders on an overnight trip (O! Brave woman!) to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to watch the play.

Oops, lost my train of thought. I just spent a half an hour on the Shakespeare festival website trying to decide when to take teenaged lovely lady to see Romeo and Juliet. In the Elizabethan theater. The last time I saw a play in the Elizabethan theater I was 16 or so, and my mom and I stopped in Ashland on the spur of the moment and got last-minute tickets to Cymbeline. We had to rent blankets because it was chilly out. So I'm thinking that waiting for cheap-seat October to take lovely lady might not be a great idea.

Back to The Friendly Shakespeare. The reason it's been sitting on my shelf for so long is that somewhere between seventh grade and graduating college, I decided that Shakespeare is wonderful but hard. Shakespeare is for smart people, ultra-intellectuals, people who understand things. So, while I've got a few lovely Shakespeare books on my shelf, rather than being lovingly well-worn, they were always on the mental "Yeah, I should read that" list. The elder of the lovely ladies and I decided that it would be nice to explore a little Shakespeare this year, and as I frantically combed through Shakespear resources and read about teaching Shakespeare to young people I realized that I wasn't intimidated by Shakespeare, I was intimidated by what I thought were the expectations of Shakespeare readers. His works aren't meant to be analyzed and picked to death until you wish your brains would just leak out your ears so that you don't have to endure one more second of tedium. As indicated in the quote above, Epstein's book is an antidote to that kind of thinking about Shakespeare.

The obvious first step to falling back in love with Shakespeare was just getting out the plays and reading some of them again, and checking out videos from the library and setting the Tivo to record anything that has to do with Shakespeare. Having a young person to teach, particularly a young person who thinks "Ooo!" instead of "Ugh!" when I say "Let's start some Shakespeare!" is a huge boost too. I started by giving lovely lady some Friday afternoons off from regular schoolwork to watch Romeo and Juliet, Henry V, A Midsummer Night's Dream. As for reading and learning about Shakespeare, The Friendly Shakespeare was a great place to start falling in love with Shakespeare all over again. It's a book written by someone who loves Shakespeare for people who want to become more familiar with Shakespeare without being overwhelmed or preached at or bored to death.

On reading The Friendly Shakespeare, Epstein writes, "Don't feel compelled to read this book from cover to cover: It's meant to be dipped into and browsed through at your leisure, because Shakespeare should never be a duty." Though I've read straight through, the book is certainly structured in such a way that dipping and skimming and skipping around is encouraged. I mean this next comment in a most complimentary way: The Friendly Shakespeare is a sort of Uncle John's Bathroom Reader for Shakespeare lovers-- The entire book is divided into small sections, each only a few pages long, most interesting, and none of which take long to read. Topics addressed include general comments on and themes found in Shakespeare's plays, a separate section for each individual play (excepting a few that Epstein elected to skip), individual characters from the plays and the actors who played them from Richard Burbage on, the sonnets, Elizabethan history and politics, and more. Some favorite topics so far: Hints on Reading Shakespeare Aloud, A Glossary of Shakespeare Invective, Why Is Shakespeare Boring?, and Hamletology. The text is interspersed with quotes by famous writers, literary critics, actors, directors, and others who have something interesting to say about Shakespeare and his works. It's been a perfect re-introduction to Shakespeare, his life and works, and there's interesting information about Elizabethan life, politics, language and culture as well.

I mentioned setting our Tivo to record all things Shakespeare. Last week loving husband and I watched Shakespeare Behind Bars, a documentary following a production of The Tempest put on by prison inmates, and a film version of Hamlet set in the year 2000, starring Ethan Hawke as Hamlet. Both fascinating.

Shakespeare Behind Bars is more about the behind bars part than the Shakespeare, but it was a fascinating glimpse into prison life, the prison theater program, and how the prisoners approach Shakespeare and his themes. The Shakespeare Behind Bars website touts the film as inspiring and about human triumph. Both loving husband and I agreed that the film (and the Shakespeare production itself) did afford the men dignity and allowed us to see them as people beyond their crimes. The themes of redemption and dignity certainly ran throughout the film. And the film also gives us a clear view of the crimes that the men have committed that got them to prison in the first place. We came away with as many questions as we did inspiration. Good questions, not easily answered. The documentary was well-done. It's worth watching.

Hamlet. In light of my new resolution to enjoy rather than feel that I have to analyze and intellectualize, it was wonderful. It's set in the year 2000, but using Shakespeare's original language. I enjoyed it. I understood it. Ethan Hawke was good as Hamlet. I had a hard time with Bill Murray as Polonius, but maybe that's just because Groundhog Day and What About Bob? are stuck in my head. The adaptation to modern times was brilliant-- cell phones, faxes, limos, video. Another movie well worth the time spent.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Speaking of chickens....

Chicken Pie

In Which We Make a Chicken Pie from Scratch

The night before:

You need....
A whole chicken
Optional: Apples, white wine, peppercorns, whole cloves, salt

Pop a whole chicken in a large pot, including the neck but not including the guts that they always leave in the middle. I cut up the chicken, just so that it will fit, but it's not necessary. Throw in some carrots, a quartered onion or two (peel and all), celery stalks (the ends or those pale center pieces will do just fine), a bay leaf, a couple apples (also quartered) and about half a cup of white wine if you've got some handy. Add a little salt if desired. Put a few whole cloves, whole peppercorns, and a sprinkle of oregano and basil into a tea ball and drop that in too. Add water until everything in the pot is just covered. Bring the whole thing to a boil, then reduce the heat to bring it down to a nice simmer. After about 30-40 minutes of simmering, remove the chicken from the pot. Leave the neck in and leave the pot simmering on the stove. Let the chicken cool until you can handle it and pull the meat off the bones. (I'm always in a hurry, so I use tongs while it's still pretty hot.) Save the cooked meat in the fridge and toss the bones back in the pot. Let pot simmer on the stove for another hour or so, or until you've got time to put a strainer or sieve on a large bowl and strain the veggies and such out of the broth. Cover the bowl of broth and put it in the fridge until tomorrow. If you want fancy clear reduced chicken broth, strain the broth a few times through several layers of cheesecloth and boil it until it's reduced. I don't bother because the unfancy way looks kind of murky, but it only takes ten minutes to prepare, ten minutes to pull the meat off the bones, and a few miscellaneous minutes to strain it, put the broth in the fridge and clean up. It takes some cooking time, but for most of that time the broth is just simmering away while I do laundry or chat on the phone or watch mindless television.

The day you'll make the pie: The fat will have hardened at the top of the broth. Skim it off (I've found that a flat metal spatula works best) and save 2 1/2 to 3 cups of broth. Freeze the rest for later use.

If you really want to skip the whole broth step, you can use leftover chicken and canned chicken broth. Wimp.

Pie crust: Either the night before or sometime on the day you're making the pie, make your favorite double pie crust recipe. Pat it into rounds about 1/2 inch thick, wrap them in plastic wrap and put it in the fridge until you have time to make the pie.

Pie Filling:
This will give you enough filling for two pies. Just pop the extra filling in a freezer bag, and the next time you want a chicken pie all you've got to do is thaw the filling and make a pie crust.

You need....
4-5 red or yellow potatoes, peeled and diced
3 medium carrots, also peeled and diced
3-4 cups cooked chicken, chopped
1 package partially thawed frozen peas
6 tablespoons butter
1-2 small onions, chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
3/4 cup flour
2 1/2-3 cups chicken broth
1/3 cup white wine
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg (don't skip this, it makes the pie delicious!)
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, add carrots and potatoes. Once the boil returns, blanch the potatoes and carrots for 2-3 minutes. Drain well. In a large bowl, toss the carrots and potatoes, peas, and diced chicken. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Before the next step, I measure out my ingredients and set them in my cooking space so that I can just add things to the pot without having to stop and measure while I stir. It seems to work better that way. Melt the butter in a large saucepan. Add the onions and garlic and saute until softened. Stir in the flour. Keep stirring for a bit to toast the flour. Add the chicken broth, the white wine, and the spices. Bring it to a boil, stirring constantly, then lower the heat and simmer until it gets really thick. Pour it over the chicken and vegetables and toss.

Roll out the pie crust, and put the bottom crust in a pie plate. Pour in half the filling. (Set the rest of the filling aside and put it in the freezer once you've got the pie in the oven.) Put the top crust on the pie and make a fancy curly "C" on top for "Chicken." Or make your own initial to show your pride in your pie. If you can crimp the edges of the pie crust, go for it, make your pie beautiful. Place the pie plate on a cookie sheet, put it in the hot oven, and bake 45-55 minutes. Let the pie cool for at least one hour before serving.

It's perfect served with a simple salad.

This is the best chicken pie ever. It reads like a lot of work, but it's divided into shorter tasks that can be completed in those little interstices allowed by school, chauffeuring, and parenting. And the long cooling time makes this dinner perfect for, say, choir night, when I've got to make dinner then go pick up a kid then come home and serve dinner before I shuttle another kid off to a different activity.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Tuesday Ten: Chickens

The Barn Yard ~Claude Guilleminet

Ten Cool Things about Chickens

1. They make chuckley homey little chicken noises. Some day I'll get out there and record their chicken noises and put them on my blog. Or else I'll think about it every once in a while and think, "Yeah, I should do that."

2. Chickens sure are pretty. If you've never met a well-cared-for hen, you probably don't realize just how pretty chickens can be. They're lovely.

3. They're also a little bit ridiculous, which is endearing. They bob when they walk, they peck at the ground, they squawk and ruffle at the cats, they chatter and gossip with one another just like little old ladies.

4. Fresh eggs. Yum. Chickens earn their keep. Farm-fresh eggs taste better, the yolks are bright orange, and there's something satisfying about eating eggs laid by your very own chickens.

5. Chicken sayings. "Coming home to roost." Chickens actually do that. "Pecking order." Yup, they do that too. "Running around likes chickens with their heads cut off." Oh yes. As a matter of fact, when I was a kid, my sister and I used to have to watch the chickens to see where they went after Dad cut their heads off. Otherwise they'd get lost in the tall grass behind the chopping block. Those darn chickens ran everywhere, spurting blood. Morbid child that I was, I thought it was great fun. And waaaaaaay better than having to do the stinky messy job of helping to pluck the darn things. Bleah!

6. Chickens eat snails. And slugs. And bugs and weeds and all manner of things with which I do not care to deal. I love chickens. Any creature willing to eat a slug is tops in my book. They'll also eat old lettuce, celery tops, apple peels, leftover oatmeal....and think they're getting a great treat! The list of things that we can throw out in the chicken yard to make the chickens happy is nearly endless.

7. They have personalities. Lucy is brave. She's the chicken leader. She's bossy and independent and likes her space. She doesn't like to be held but she'll tolerate it. She was the only chicken willing to walk around in the snow. Ethel's kind of, you know, a chicken. I'd say pardon the pun, but I did it on purpose because I know you can't throw things at me. Ha! Anyway, Ethel's not an adventurous gal. She absolutely refuses to walk in the snow. She's spent the entire time since it's snowed in the coop. Except for the snow thing, she follows Lucy around like a shadow, mostly because, I suspect, she's not too bright. She doesn't want to have to think for herself. She squawks like I'm a fox or a raccoon every time I pick her up to move her. Hattie is a pretty mellow gal. She doesn't mind being picked up and held and petted. She's kind of her own chicken, though. She's not in charge like Lucy or brainless like Ethel. She hangs out with the others but she'll go off on her own too. Hattie's my favorite. For a chicken she's kind of sweet.

8. Fried chicken. Chicken and dumplings. Chicken noodle soup. Chicken pot pie. Barbequed chicken. Chicken salad sandwiches. I'm not going to eat my three feathered friends, but I sure can't wait until the day I can raise chickens to eat.

9. There are lots of different varieties of chickens. You can even have chickens that look like feathered poodles. Chicken people get all excited about different kinds of chickens. It's a little bit scary, even. Kind of like...oh, homeschoolers getting all carried away by math books and stuff. (Uh, not that I know anyone who does that. Heh...heh...)

10. Chickens remind me of growing up on a farm in the country. Gathering eggs, chasing the chickens (shhh...don't tell my mom), climbing the trees next to the chicken pen, throwing out scratch just to see the chickens come running....

11. They put themselves to bed. This cracks me up. No need to round them up. When it gets dark they hop up into their little chicken house. All you have to do is go out and shut the door so that other critters don't decide to join them.

And last, but not least, because I couldn't stop with just ten tonight so may as well make it an even dozen (just like eggs)...

12. Rubber chickens are funny. Cliche? Sure. Ugly and kind of weird? Well, yes. But still funny.

Cristy's Ten Random Thoughts about Chickens

Saturday, January 13, 2007


flotsam 1 : floating wreckage of a ship or its cargo; broadly : floating debris

The UPS guy brought a surprise package the other day. Inside was a gift note from my mom, something along the lines of: "I saw this and couldn't resist. Enjoy! Mom"

A picture book with no words, David Weisner's Flotsam has beautiful pictures telling the story of a boy's discovery of a bit of flotsam that washes up on the beach. The official publisher's website for Weisner is titled The Art of Visual Storytelling, which describes Flotsam (and other books of Weisner's) very well. I can't tell what the boy finds at the beach, it would give the whole thing away, but the story told through the pictures is lovely. Things to like about this book: It's fun and charming without being cloying, the pictures are bright and imaginative, and the details in the illustration make it fun to look at again and again. Six-year-old young gent has spent the last few evening poring over the pictures at bedtime.

Great choice, Mom! Thanks, we love it!

Designing the masks (Mask Study, Part 2)

Part one of our mask art study, making the masks, here. If you haven't read it yet, the first mask-making post deals with actually making plaster masks.

Masks are a fascinating study in themselves. Making a mask is like creating an alternate identity, a fantasy you. I mentioned in the earlier mask post that making masks that were actually casts of their faces helped make the whole project more personal, and set the kids up for really taking a lot of time and effort to create their mask. The kids mouths tend to run a little more when their hands are occupied, so while painting masks we had interesting discussions about masks in general and about how and why the ladies and gents made their design choices. It was kind of neat getting a peek inside their little heads, especially seeing and listening to the completely different approaches each child took to the whole mask-making process.

I deliberately kept the design process open-ended so that the ladies and gents could give their imaginations free reign. We started by brainstorming with paper and colored pencils. I set a box of supplies on the table: feathers, beads, ribbon and string, sequins and glitter and buttons, so that the kids would know what was available. Lovely lady, 13, created a detailed mask sketch in color. Lovely lady, 11, chose some paint colors and gold beads and set them aside. I sat down with each of the gents and sketched their masks for them. The sketches gave us a jumping off point, at least.

As soon as we read about Chinese opera masks, fine young gent, 6, knew that he wanted to paint this mask:
The blue represents fierceness and some of the lines represent courage and skill. This young gent thrills to stories of pirate, knights in shining armor and fierce battles, so it's no surprise that his alter ego is a brave and courageous warrior. He followed the step-by-step directions we found on the internet to create his mask. It took a few painting sessions because each color had to dry before we could move on to the next step. Step-by-step directions for painting this mask here. For more information, the whole site is excellent: Chinese opera masks

Lovely lady, 11. I expected a girly pink sequined feathery floofy thing. Instead, her mask is a man. With a beard and mustache, and brown skin except where he's purple. If you look closely, he's got red beaded eyebrows. The pink hair was an afterthought. She looked for a long time at all of the mask pictures on the bulletin board before beginning her mask, and it seems to be a combination of features from different masks that caught her eye and spur-of the moment impulse. The mask looks almost startling on the wall. I can't decide if I like it or not, but it certainly catches one's eye.

Lovely lady, the artist, 13.

Her mask is beautiful. She started with a clear vision and didn't waver. The mask is gorgeous, a classic fantasy mask. She could design and make fantasy masks for a living. This lovely lady's reason for this design: There weren't any green masks in the many photos we studied, and she wanted to create something unique.

Fine young gent, almost 4. His design strategy consisted of saying, "Blue and green! I want blue and green!" After he'd obligingly scribbled on his mask picture with sparkly blue and green crayons, he reminded me that his favorite mask had horns. So I drew horns. Come mask time, I made him horns out of toilet paper tubes, helped him put them on the mask, and turned him loose with a paint brush. Once the paint was dry he decided he wanted to add more and more to his creation: glitter, "jewels" and a stick just like one of the fancy masks we'd seen in a picture. The jewels, ribbons and glitter were in the supply box, and loving husband swiped a plastic florist's stick (you know, the kind that holds the card in the flowers) from the grocery store. Voila! his mask is beautiful.

Wall-mounting the masks was a challenge. I even asked for advice at a frame shop, but the ladies working there had no idea. No helpful ideas, that is. "Punch a hole in it and hang it up with some string" wasn't exactly what I was looking for. Which is, oddly, why I said, "I don't want to poke holes in the masks to hang them if I can avoid it." I want to treat the kids' art as though it's real art, meant to be displayed, not just tacked to the fridge with a magnet until it falls down or gets in the way. Not all of it, but any project that's taken the time and effort and thoughtful imagination that the ladies and gents put into their masks deserves more than getting tied up with a piece of string. I did end up poking holes. I finally used some brass office fasteners painted to match the masks, punched a small hole through the side of each mask, twisted picture wire around the wings of the fastener, and hot-glued the wire to the fastener. Very secure, and you can barely see the fasteners on the outside of the mask.

Elder lovely lady's mask was even more difficult to mount. The feathers on the mask make it impossible to hang on the wall, and we couldn't get all of the Vaseline out of the inside of the mask (remember, we had to put Vaseline on the kids' faces to keep the plaster from sticking), so duct tape and glues wouldn't stick. The solution? A decorated styrofoam base, wooden dowels to prop up the mask, held in place by Sculpey clay.

Designing Masks

Supplies: Plaster, paper-mache, or plastic masks. Paint and brushes, glue (we used an all-purpose craft glue, and a hot glue gun), beads, buttons, sequins, yarn, plastic jewels, glitter, ribbon, feathers-- anything you can find in your craft supply box. Newspaper, cups for water, rags for cleaning. Picture wire, picture hangers or nails for the wall, brass office fasteners (if you want to try our hanging method).


  • If you've got a specific goal in mind, like making a realistic mask of the child's own face or creating a mask that reflects a particular culture or design element, make sure to be clear about your goals. Provide plenty of examples before you start your own design process.
  • Start with a sketch on paper. We found that painting and decorating the masks was much easier when we had a general idea of where we were going. It also makes supply assembly easier if you already know what colors and materials you will start with.
  • Particularly if the design project is open-ended, prime the pump by making a variety of materials available.
  • Prepare a good-sized drying space. The masks are fairly large and will need a place to sit while drying and while waiting to be mounted. I used an old cookie sheet lined with newspaper, which was perfect for moving the masks without touching them.
  • Allow plenty of time. It took my kids between 2-5 sessions, depending on the mask, as some paint colors needed to be applied separately. Glue needs time to dry. Decorations fall off the masks and need to be re-glued. Someone will decide that they want to add more or change the mask a little.
  • Have fun! It's quite a project. So enjoy the process, too.

Snowball fight

Friday, January 12, 2007


I got my Christmas wish (here, #5) a little late. An honest-to-goodness snow. What a treat. The kids took most of the day off to play in the snow. So did I.

My sister's kids played in the snow too.

Read about Irie's snow day.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


So...do you think it's bad manners to go check on the chickens while munching on a chicken salad sandwich?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Road map

I had a long chat with a good friend last night. It's been a while since we talked last, so the conversation took lots of different paths. We know one another well enough that when I said something about turning 40 she asked me something along the lines of, "So, are you where you wanted to be at 40?"

Hmmm. I've been thinking about that ever since. Am I where I wanted to be at 40?

Hell no.

When I was young and starting my independent building-a-life journey, I thought I'd meet the right guy, we'd have beautiful babies in or nearing their teens by the time we were in our forties, I'd be teaching kindergarten and living on a farm. Oh, I had a plan. I knew what age I'd be married (22), the age I'd start having babies (24), how many children I'd have (4), and even their names (Kayla, Sarah, Brian, and Rachel).


So am I where I wanted to be? Nope. Not so much.

I did not plan to be a tattoo-sporting, homeschooling, divorced-and-remarried stepmother in a blended family, living in the city.

Why has this been swimming around in my head all day today? Because that's not the answer I gave to my friend. The answer I gave was a resounding yes. Absolutely. Ok, so I didn't do any of the big things I thought I might. I haven't trekked across India barefoot with only a spoon and a change of underwear. I haven't discovered a cure for anything or become a saint. I can't even make a decent-looking pie crust. (They taste fine, I'm just pie-crust-crimping impaired.)

But I love my life. My wonderful husband loves me, and even more important, respects and supports me. My wonderful, kind, creative children love me and love one another. I have a tattoo. I live in a lovely warm home. I swing in a back yard hammock. I have friends and family who love me and who know I love them. I have chickens and a garden.

I haven't overcome my many faults. I am still impatient, cross, hasty, impulsive, sentimental, lazy, shy, and not very serious or ambitious. But now I like myself anyway. I've come to terms with the fact that my hair is never going to be glossy and thick and straight. I've decided to take up the guitar just so that I can learn something new. I'd still like to move to the country but it's not going to ruin my life if it never happens. At 40, I wake up grateful for the blessings I've been given instead of feeling unhappy about the things that I don't have.

After spinning this in my head today I realized that I answered a different question than the one my friend asked. Am I where I wanted to be? No. Am I where I want to be?

That's the question I answered. I wouldn't trade any of this for that imaginary life. Not one thing.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Tuesday Ten: Ten Ways to Waste Time

Funny, isn't it? When I've got time to, say read or sew or chat with a friend on the phone, that's what I do-- pick up my book or my sewing or the phone. Time to clean out the closet? Call a stranger? Plan lessons? Scrub the toilets? Suddenly there are many absorbing activities that demand my immediate attention. Heck, I even waste time doing productive stuff when I should be doing something even more productive. Time to work on a huge project in the yard? I clean the closet instead. Need to clean out the closet? Gee, I've got lots of lessons to plan. Maybe I should plan to paint the house...by hand. I'll bet I'd waste time getting all kinds of stuff done.

Ten Ways to Waste Time (When you should be doing something more productive)

1. Watch chickens. (All day long.) Yeah, you're going to be sick of me and my stupid chickens pretty soon. I manage to work it into every conversation. "Thank you for the packages, Mr. UPS man. I've got chickens! My chicken laid an egg. I finally named her, wanna know what her name is?" Pretty soon he's going to toss the packages out the van door as he drives by. Aaaanyway...They're pretty funny creatures, chickens. There's something soothing about watching them and listening to their little chicken noises. And, um, you have to keep an eye on them so that the neighborhood cats won't eat them. Which would go over a lot better as an excuse if the chickens weren't way bigger than the cats, who are mostly afraid of those big scary birds.

2. Joggle. (3 minutes. Per game. So, like 30 minutes, because Joggle is like potato chips. You can't play just once.) Like Boggle, only better because you can play it while you're really supposed to be lesson planning or researching online for your Shakespeare unit (or bug studies or whatever).

3. Scrabble. (A really long time.) Ditto on the "you can play while you're supposed to be lesson planning," only it takes even longer than Joggle. Play this if you really really don't want to do those $%&#% lesson plans.

4. Clean something, just not what you're supposed to be cleaning. (About 15 minutes but you can milk it for another half hour if you're reaaaallly trying to avoid harder work.) If loving husband wants you to help haul all of that really messy junk to the curb, just tell him "Sure honey, I'll be there as soon as I'm done cleaning under the bathroom cabinets." Neglect to tell him that you clean and organize under the bathroom cabinets every couple months. Alphabetize the goods and such. Ponder whether it makes more sense for the toilet paper to go next to the extra shampoo or next to the clean towels. When loving husband is nearly finished with the messy job, haul a couple light things to the curb and apologize because the cabinets took way longer than you expected.

5. Try to read a stranger's mind. (Kind of like Joggle, it doesn't take long to play once, but you can't play just one time.) Play the ESP Game.

6. Make a pie. (Good for 2-3 hours, intermittently.) It's no fun to cook dinner-- boooooring! Pie is way more fun. It's way easier than it looks and it's impressive. Just make sure that everyone knows how hard you slaved to make them a homemade pie and that's the reason they're eating mac-and-cheese from a box.

7. Drop your pencil. (Anywhere from 1-20 minutes.) Take a page from the kids' book. Drop your pencil on the floor. Hem and haw. When asked why you're not getting anything done, say "I dropped my pencil." Get down to find the pencil. Pet the cat. Try to figure out what that weird-looking thing on the floor might be. Macaroni from two nights ago when we had pie? Wonder if it still tastes all right. Find out. Try to remember why you're under the table in the first place....

Yeah. You can really milk this one.

8. Blog. (Hours.)

9. Make a list. (Gah! Way too long. Years.) Wonderful husband's favorite time-waster. Instead of actually doing projects, make a list of projects that need to be done. Walk through the house room by room. Make your patient wife (shh...it's my blog so I can call myself whatever I want) follow you, a kind of two-fer-one timewaster. Ignore her when she rolls her eyes, um, rolls them patiently that is. Naturally you can't just use your handwritten list. You must put the list on the computer...so that you can delete them once they've been completed. Apparently crossing them off a piece of paper won't work. Prioritize the list. Add to the list the next day because you forgot some things. Re-prioritize the list.

Never look at the list again. When loving wife says, "Honey, what's next on the project list?" look blank and say "I don't know." Or, even better, especially if you're adventurous, say "What list?" Run.

Make another project list. Because you need one. Otherwise you might have to do a project.

10. Play with the kids. (A lifetime.) Say things like, "I'm raising children, not a yard." Always say it's because they grow up so fast and that you're meeting their developmental needs. Never admit that playing with the kids is just way more fun than schlepping stuff up out of the basement. Nobody cares that you think your kids are cool people to hang out with, they just want to know why there are cobwebs in the bathroom.

See how my sister Cristy wastes her time.

Meet Hattie

Meet Hattie.

I got some excellent name suggestions:

Lovely lady, 11, gave me a three-page list of chicken names, including Alyssa, Charmaine, Bryanna, Iliana and Deeondra.

The gents came up with a descriptive name-- Brown Chicken.

Other name suggestions from some mommy friends included Laverne and Shirley (I almost renamed Lucy and Ethel after reading that one, then decided that my dad's wife might not be thrilled to have a chicken named after her), Ricky, and Camilla. Camilla after Gonzo's Camilla.

Then my Irie sister sensibly suggested that we name the chicken after her previous owner, who loved having chickens. And Hattie is an awesome name for a chicken, is it not? Hattie laid us a perfect brown egg this morning. Hattie the Chicken, that is.

I hope Hattie the Person doesn't mind sharing her name with a bird.