dazzling and interesting on a shoestring
Our style here in the Land of the Destitute and Obscure is what I like to call eclectic-vintage bohemian. What does that mean, you may ask. Good question. It means that we get innovative, wait patiently, watch ebay, craigslist and garage sale listings with an eagle eye and even get lucky. As for the rest of our eclectic-vintage bohemian philosophy, even with a tight budget, we follow these loose guidelines to achieve the look:
Buy or Accept it Used:We rely heavily on hand-me-downs for the small people’s clothing options, and since they come from a variety of sources, we don’t worry much about matching.
If the long-sleeved onesie is polka-dot and the pants are flowered, at least they’re both pink, and if a yellow hat is all we’ve got, then that’s what we wear. When you’re the size of the average retriever puppy and your skin is that soft and rosy, you can get away with just about anything.
Handmade Goes With Everything…If it was made with love, it goes with everything, whether it’s a purple cardigan from Grandma or a headband sent from overseas, show your gratitude (and patriotism) and wear it with confidence.
Since I am currently limited in my crocheting and knitting abilities to the two-dimensional, I pair my funky knitted scarves with thin, thrift store silky ones and then I’m both warm and colorful. Then I decorate my couch with blankets made from hand-me-down yarn.
Accessorize with Confidence and Freedom: Whatever you feel your accessory must be, either an Afghan necklace made from silver coins (one of my favorites) or an inflatable butterfly, let your personality shine. Don’t let the circumstances dictate the level of accessorizing either. I may only be going to the park, but sometimes I need to wear a velvet top hat.
Even though you may only be sitting down to breakfast, there may be times when a morning tutu and striped beanie need to accompany syrup and pancakes.
Or perhaps, you may need to don a string of ducks and do your best bellydancing—pigtails optional.
Inspire Others: Encourage your friends to break out of those fashion constraints—fairies, apparently, sometimes need to wear sunglasses, too.
Wear the Unusual Every Day: I have jeans with embroidered butterflies, and skirts paneled with old saris. When I wear them with a simple top, they are a little less overwhelming than some of the combination my eldest puts together, but the outfit remains interesting. I don’t save a whole lot of my clothing for ‘special occasions.’ I don’t really have those; we don’t go out to fancy parties, and every day is worthy of being special. All the outfits above (with the exception of the fairy dresses, plastic shoes and ducks) go out—to school, the park, the store.
We splurge every now and then—the big girl gets new rain boots at Target, and I go bonkers on ebay, collecting cute, little used leather crib shoes on my watch list. I manage to buy a few, too. The truth is, I don’t need any more clothing, with the possible exception of bras that fit properly. I can go ‘shopping’ in my own closet and find things I forgot I owned, and pair them with items that desperately need an update. We manage here to keep our style unique with what we’ve got, because there is no price or monetary limit on creativity.
Just for fun, let’s take a poll. Which one of The Divine Miss M’s outfits was your favorite? Check out the captions for the photo numbers that match.
Think the cupboard is empty? It’s amazing what you can make when you really look around the kitchen. You can make something out of nothing. Here’s what I do when I want granola: Granola is one of the most expensive over-rated items on the grocery store shelf. Do you know how easy it is to make? So easy, really. And the variations are endless. The only two things you must have are oats and oil—peanut or canola oil is best.
My grandfather used to make his own granola with these basic pedestrian ingredients, but you can swap out the peanuts for almonds or the raisins for cranberries, or any other chopped nut or dried fruit, depending on how fancy you want to get, or what you happen to have on the shelves or in your nearly empty pantry. Put it on yogurt, eat with your favorite cereal and dairy or dairy substitute or heat it up to make fancier oatmeal. Plus, when you make it, you get the added benefit of having your house smell all toasty and cozy when it’s cold outside.
Here’s my Grandpa Alden’s list of ingredients for granola:
4 cups old-fashioned oats
1 ½ cups coarsely chopped peanuts
1 cup sunflower seeds
1 cup wheat germ
½ cup bran
3 ½ ounces flaked coconut
½ cup peanut oil
½ cup honey
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup raisins
As you can see, the ingredients are cheap and healthy, though not for the peanut allergenic. I made this recipe for my family, and my husband thought the peanuts were weird, because he has a somewhat European sense of breakfast food. I don’t particularly like flaked coconut, either—it’s a texture thing. We also happened to have a rather large amount of flax meal, leftover from a pumpkin pie recipe gone terribly wrong.
So here’s what I did to make my own granola recipe:
4 cups oats
1 cup chopped almonds (to replace the peanuts, though they do cost a bit more)
1 cup flax meal
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ cup canola oil (to replace the peanut oil, since that’s what we’ve got)
¼ cup honey
¼ cup maple syrup (to replace ½ the honey, because we were poor in honey but rich in syrup)
½ t. vanilla extract
1 cup chopped dried apricots
As you can see, any nut or dried fruit can be swapped out, you can add any number of lovely fall spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves) to the dry ingredients and the ½ cup of honey can be traded for any sort of sweet, sticky medium—agave, maple syrup or any combination of what you’ve got, provided it doesn’t get too weird. The flax meal or bran could be any combination of these or some other roast-able ingredient to add a bit of flavor, health and digestibility.
Once you’ve got your ingredients all decided on (I always pull everything out and put it on our tiny acreage of counter before I begin, that way I don’t discover that I’m missing something halfway through the process) here’s how you’ll mix it up:
Combine oats, nuts, flax meal (wheat germ, bran, etc.) and coconut (if you like it and have it) and spices (if you choose) in a large bowl. Heat oil, honey (or other sticky stuff to equal ½ cup) and vanilla to just below boiling—you’ll start to see bubbles form on the bottom of the pan, when you do, take it off the heat.
Pour your sticky stuff over the oat mixture and toss/stir it all to coat the oats and stuff thoroughly. Spread it all evenly into two (or three) roasting pans (in my Grandpa’s recipe they call them ‘jelly roll’ pans, which just make me think of Leadbelly songs… but I digress).
Roast it all for 30 minutes in the oven at 300 degrees, stirring it up every 10 minutes to have it cook evenly, or until it’s a light brown (or a little darker as I prefer, or if I’m in the middle of changing diapers and forget to take it out in time). Remove from the oven and let it cool, then stir in the dried fruit.
Voila—your very own homemade granola!
We were busy this summer. Here are a few of the things we did:
We went to a couple summer camps and had a few camp-like days at home—including Stalactite Experiment week (inspired by this awesome magazine called Alphabet Glue), Insect Experiment week, featuring ladybugs and pill bugs (and the gorgeous and rare albino praying mantis below), and Flower Experiment week, which just included lots of coloring.
I taught a belly dance class and managed to wait precisely four days after the last class to break my pinkie toe. And then I began class again in the fall just five weeks later, giving it just enough time to heal. I learned what it feels like to break a bone—my first. Like many things in life, it was painful, and then annoying, but I managed just fine and life went on as usual. Which, I might add, is different then the morbidly popular ‘What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.’ Whatever it is could, however, leave you mangled, paralyzed or disfigured beyond recognition—let’s not go looking for pain in search of strength or toughness, okay people? Pain will come to you as part of life—learn to cope and then move along with grace.
Anyhow, enough of the toe, and philosophies on pain.
I applied for yet another blogging job to add to these two and failed to get it due to technical issues that had nothing to do with my wit, charm, abilities or experience. So fear not, we still have both feet firmly rooted in both poverty and obscurity and these blog posts will keep on coming.
We learned that it is better to use a hair clip than scissors to rid ourselves of that pesky lock of hair. We learned to walk, and we learned that just because we’re not walking doesn’t mean we have hip dysplasia (thank God!).
We grew a few things on our balcony garden, learned to love nasturtiums and hate aphids (ladybugs to the rescue!) and ate pesto, strawberries and parsley-riddled spreads thanks to our miniscule garden.
We learned how to do more on our bike than just ‘coast like toast’ and now use our pedals, and we learned to put a book down and return it to the library when it sucks… oh no, wait, I’m still learning how to do that.
This summer we lost a dear friend too quickly, though she had a good run at life and in the end, she wasn’t going to stick around and have people care for her. She cared for others all her life, people and plants alike, and now she’s in a better place, tending a celestial garden and loving everyone there without judgment or fanfare. Now we are learning how it is we explain death to someone not yet six years old.
We’re still learning how to drink out of a cup without sending it all down our chins, but at least we’ve decided to drink cow’s milk, which makes it easier on mama.
We’ve spent quality time with imaginary creatures, furry and hairy, including Babe, Mercy Watson, Elmo, Chester Cricket, and Bunnicula and enjoyed their company. Thanks to the wide spacing of kids, some of them are on their second round of introductions and others will get reintroduced in a few years.
This summer was spent living and learning, and no doubt the fall will be full of more of the same. Summer is a wonderful season, and we are enjoying this season of our lives.
Okay, class—tell me what you learned this summer. Type your answer in the comments section below.
All hail the crazy, lazy days of summer—depending on your employment and child-rearing position in life. What is summer for? The beach? Sure. The movies? Maaaaaybe. But books? Darn Tootin’!! Here’s what’s currently trying not to accrue late fees on my library card:
How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez— listening to this one as an audiobook; I multi-task my commutes and my runs with some literary interludes.
One, two, three! by Sandra Boynton—You can’t go wrong with Sandra Boynton board books for kids, or calendars for adults. Her quirky cats and dancing hippos can charm the socks off young and old.
This Little Chick by John Lawrence
Little Lion by Giovanni Caviezel
Only You by Robin Cruise—a sweet little surprise/love poem book.
For the bigger kid:
Ivy + Bean by Annie Barrows—if you’re not familiar with Ivy and her friend, Bean, you should be, especially if you have kids kindergarten through about grade 3. Something modern and fun while your waiting for them to get old enough for Harry Potter.
Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White—Okay, this is cheating a little bit (we actually returned this book about a month ago) but this is the best, best, best book for beginning chapter read-alouds. Yes, there’s Charlotte’s Web, but Trumpet of the Swan is even better. It doesn’t get nearly enough coverage as its big sister, Charlotte, but it is every bit as quirky, clever, amusing, heartwarming and poignant (and all those other book-describing adjectives) if not more so. Read it to your kids, or even just to yourself.
Joseph Had a Little Overcoat by Simms Taback—A great little story with fun illustrations and Jewish culture to boot—excellent. I am not, however, the first to think so. It won the Caldecott Medal.
Chu’s Day by Neil Gaiman
For future reference, because I know she’s a good writer, and I’ll need something for the big kid once she’s into grade school:
The Runaways by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Bringing up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Drucker—It was time to read another view of parenting, though in truth, it’s a non-view kind of view.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen
The Annotated Brothers Grimm
The Three Incestuous Sisters by Audrey Niffenegger—an illustrated number, not so much for the children.
For research on writing prompts for the Iron Horse Women’s Writing Group (led by yours truly):
Naming the World: and Other Exercises for the Creative Writer
The Writer’s Idea Book by Jack Heffron
Virginia Woolf Writers’ Workshop: Seven Lessons to Inspire Great Writing by Danell Jones
And some others:
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury—Recommended by Uncle Jeremy. I love Ray Bradbury and hope that I will be able to get to it soon, after all the homework’s done.
How To Behave So Your Preschooler Will, Too! Sal Severe, MD – Because I liked the title.
It’s Twins!: Parent-to-Parent Advice from Infancy Through Adolescence by Susan M. Heim—Self-explanatory reasons.
Japanese Art by Joan Stanley-Baker—For a school project, sort of and because I couldn’t remember the names of the Buddhist temple guardians (Fudo).
Happy Summer! Happy Reading! And be sure to let me know what’s on your list. (So I can add it to mine when I’m done with this one.)
Only, it doesn’t exist– yet.
In my wildest blogging fantasies, I dream of hosting a cooking show. But wait—not just the same old ‘here’s a nifty dip to serve at a barbeque.’ And definitely not ‘let’s watch a professional chef verbally abuse people for your entertainment.’ Let’s imagine a nicer mix of the two. I’d like to believe that this new cooking show– something friendly, funny and helpful– might make for good ratings. I’m no television expert—we don’t even have cable—but I know what it’s like to cook and I try to practice my daily acts of kindness and beauty and bumper-sticker philosophy (okay, to a point—some bumper-sticker philosophy just gets ridiculous).
What I want to offer viewers in my new cooking show, is the chance to learn to cook better, while getting a peek inside an American household (we’ll go international, of course, once it catches on) and adding that irresistible flash of hot, charming celebrity. It would be a whole new category of helpful reality television. I recommend choosing families from all demographics, geographical regions, socio-economic status, gender partner pairing (tripling or squaring) marital status and generational mixing. If we’re going American, let’s really represent America. In the end, it will try to have nothing to do with politics.
Here are the ingredients:
1 family cook and his or her family
1 family recipe (not taken from a chef/restaurant cookbook)
1 celebrity cook/chef (my picks: Pioneer Woman— Ree Drummond, Anthony Bourdain, or Bobby Flay. If you have any other suggestions, please chime in below.)
Invite celebrity chef of the week (preferably, a different one every week for added variety) to a family dinner. The family cook prepares the meal and serves it to their own family plus chef and any guests. Everyone enjoys the meal.
Then, celebrity chef and family cook sit down and discuss the merits of the meal and constructively discuss possible improvements. This would be a nice time to talk about the significance or history of the family recipe.
Finally, the celebrity chef and the home cook make the meal together, implementing many or all of the improvements to the meal. They all enjoy it together and the family cook has learned from a pro.
At our house, a cake baked is not just a receptacle for birthday candles, but a gift of love as well, and so, our birthday cakes are homemade ones. They usually taste pretty good, offer an activity for creative hands and often provide a few laughs. Who can say that about a bakery-bought birthday cake?
We used our tried-and-true 1-2-3-4 Cake Recipe from Alice Waters’ Fanny at Chez Panisse, and as per my little helper’s request, we mixed up some turquoise frosting—turquoise is fast replacing pink as the color of choice for… just about everything.
Humorously enough, I started this post, thinking that this cake would bake and get put together just as easily as the Thunder Cake we made last month. My cake, however, had other plans.
It mixed up just fine, thanks to the ol’ Scovil hand mixer and seemed to fluff properly when I folded in the egg whites. In hindsight, however, I vaguely recall thinking that it might look a bit deflated. But I carried forth anyhow.
I planned to fill it with strawberry jam for the very specific reason that it was what we had in the house. At the end of April, even in Northern California, the local, in-season fruit selection is minimal. Strawberries are your best (almost only) option, if you don’t want to be eating fruit that hopped on a plane to get to your local supermarket. Kiwis are an option, but I don’t like them, so I feed them to everyone else in my family. Babies ate their first kiwi today, as a matter of fact. Fortunately, I loooooove strawberries. I eat them for lunch, breakfast, dinner, snack and with my bedtime nightcap (herbal tea). I try not to cry in July when they’re really too pale and dry to be delicious. I am, however, easily placated by the arrival of peach season.
But anyhow, we made another cake. And this time, I was going to try and make it pretty, too. Not beauty pageant, high-maintenance gorgeous, but down-home pretty. Think more Emma Stone and less Kim Kardashian. Okay, great. Now imagine that they are both birthday cakes…
And then my oven limitations and my baking abilities got into the mix with my pretty Hollywood Starlet fantasies and I ended up with Franken-cake. For some reason, one of the cake pans decided not to cook her cake all the way through. The other decided to sink in the middle like the Titanic in a sea of icebergs (and Leo DiCaprio when he couldn’t hold on to the wreckage). It was a sad, sorry sight. But I was not to be deterred. I don’t toss food just because it’s ugly—unless of course, it’s ugly because of the gray-green fuzz growing on it. So I performed a bit of surgery. I cut off the good parts of the half-baked one and then cut the other in half, for a double half-layer cake—in other words, a single layer cake with jam in the middle.
Post-confectionary surgery, we needed to frost the cake. My trusty assistant determined that blue and just a bit of green to achieve the desired turquoise. Only we didn’t have enough powdered sugar. As I said before, we were determined to make this cake—it was my birthday cake, darn it, and I was not going to let a simple lack of powdered sugar keep me from my frosting. Unfortunately, my neighbors are not the baking types, otherwise I would’ve had my five year-old trot over and beg a cup from them. The technique is fun and old-fashioned, almost always reciprocated and a great way to get to know people. But luckily, we now own a Vitamix (that’s another birthday story for another time) and I made, yes, made powdered sugar.
Thank you Vitamix and thank you, Internet. Nifty, no? So, after my trusty assistant came back to the kitchen after the Vitamix was done making noise, we mixed a little bit of pink and a bit more turquoise, with the pre-determined amount of food coloring.
Together, we decorated it with pink flowers (of course) and had a mini spelling lesson—that’s M-O-M-M-Y.
We all know how lovely Anne Hathaway looked at the Oscars, and if you went and saw the movie, you know how desperately wonderful she looked (and sounded) as the ill-fated young woman forced into sexual slavery in Les Miserables. What you probably didn’t hear much about in her acceptance speech(unless you watched the Oscars), was the hope that sexual trafficking would soon become a thing of fiction. The clip is a bit wonky, and taken from a camera filming from the TV, but check out minute 2:15 when she’s done thanking the immediate world.
And moving onward, to the far more frivolous fare of fashion—didn’t you just love those Les Mis costumes?! Here’s how the genius Paco Delgado put together each costume and where he looked for inspiration.
Without looking like a hooker of the 1800’s, you too, can pull together a look that says ‘maybe-a-bit-down-and-out, but-still-positively-French.’ Here’s how:
Find a top. Go simple on this one. A basic tank on hot days, perhaps a thermal shirt (I like to cut the necklines out of mine) for added warmth in cold weather.
Invest in a jacket. This here is the pricier, more time-consuming element. Hunt down the gem on ebay, a thrift-store, estate sale, or get lucky, like I did. I bought my faux military jacket at Urban Outfitters about 10 years ago, (for about $30) thinking it was a flash-in-the-pan trend, but not caring because I wanted to look like Jimi Hendrix. And what do you know, the military trend is still going, even after My Bloody Valentine, et. all started playing county faire circuit (just kidding, MBV is still roaming around small clubs in Europe). One great way to get a military-styled jacket, especially with all those nifty ‘musket ball’ buttons, is to special order it through a Civil War re-enactment costume specialist. Union or Confederate– your choice– no judgment.
Ready, set, accessorize!
For early summer weather (which we seem to be having here) merely throw on those flip-flops, or any other understated hippie sandal. Note that copiously strappy or gladiator style might be a bit much—understated is the key here—your skirt should and jacket should be the showy pieces. If you like wrapping a thin little scarf around your neck, do so, and that would look chic. If you need to go for warmth, I recommend boots (like these, if you’re going fancy and you can afford it– $250+ sheesh, that’s pricey footwear! But I do dream of these occasionally, when the nights are cold and lonely…) or a peasant-y combination of clogs and leg warmers, especially if you get your leg warmers from Sock Dreams. Accessorize your upper limbs with arm warmers or fingerless gloves from them, too. Full gloves are warmer, sure, but a bit too 20th century for this look. To top it off—I love the pun here, forgive me if you don’t go for that kind of humor—a top hat, of course! I bought mine on ebay, searching with the word ‘Steampunk’. Needless to say, I could get lost in the word ‘Steampunk’ for about 3 days. Originally, however, the hat was inspired by my book group’s reading of Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy wrote it, btw). I couldn’t help myself—I wanted to be Anna (romantic misfortunes notwithstanding) with a velvet top hat.
Now, go out with your friends and family and be assured that you look fantastic. Next, do something about putting an end to sexual slavery and make the story of Fantine both fictional and strictly fashionable.
We may live in an apartment complex in an uninspiring section of suburbia, but we have a bit of nature here and there—landscaping notwithstanding, and there’s a beautiful plenty of that around here. We have a wide variety of fowl species fluttering about, from the crows in the tops of the cypress trees in the courtyard (I have fantasies of having a stuffed one atop my bookcase over my desk, Edgar Allen Poe-‘The Raven’-ish style) to the little sparrow-esque twitter-ers in the lower trees. The occasional hummingbird will zip over and check us out as we wait for the elevator down to the carpark, and from the sounds above in the early morning, it seems as if we live in a Canadian Goose flight path, going south in November and now heading back up north again in April.
The other day, this little darling duck made a stopover on her migration path to our pool. As I recall, she and her mate were here last year, too. Her drake, however, was nowhere in sight this visit. Has she been widowed? I hope not. My daughter and I were so glad to see her, that we galloped down the stairs and then tiptoed quietly to the fence to get a picture. The neighbors must have thought we were nuts. The feeling is mutual, but come on, it’s not every day that a duck lands in your pool.
I want to live in the Midwest, simply so I can have fireflies, church potlucks and thunderstorms. Patricia Polacco’s book, Thunder Cake, really makes me long for chickens, antique Russian Orthodox iconography scattered about, a cat, some bright turquoise furniture, a samovar (don’t ask me why on that one, I just do) a few odd goats, and a good, old-fashioned thunderstorm.
So, even though we don’t have thunderstorms in Northern California, my eldest and I made Thunder Cake. It helped that it was raining that morning. And the weather was obliging enough to rain again the following week when I whipped up the frosting and my little helper was there to top the cake with the strawberries and lick the leftover frosting off the spatula.
The rain and wind didn’t stop my neighbor from walking around in his athletic shorts, barefoot and without shoes. He’s out sunbathing by the pool the second the temperature breaks 60 degrees. He won’t be vitamin D deficient, that’s for sure. Ah, apartment living is always so lively! Ahem, but I digress…
So we made mixed up the cake batter with help from Julia, the Kitchen Aid mixer, and whipped those egg whites into a frothy frenzy with my mother’s Scovil hand mixer from 1972 (I say ‘we’, but my helper had to go to her room and close the door, because the Scovil battering against the metal bowl was too loud) and baked our two layers of chocolate cake. I froze those puppies for a few days, and then thawed them to celebrate the end of my husband’s abstinence from eggs and dairy. And what a way to celebrate—we’re all on the verge of a diabetic coma, and there’s three quarters of a chocolate cake left over. Who wants to come over and help us eat it? (Said the Little Red Hen.)
Note: for further fun and games, literary adventures and updates on one of the coolest children’s book author/illustrators ever, visit Polacco’s site. (click on the nifty link here and make your own postcards from Thunder Cake.)
Our version won’t win any beauty pageants, but here are a few tips to help round out the frighteningly brief recipe at the end of Polacco’s book. I supplemented the directions with the 1-2-3-4 Cake recipe from Alice Waters’ Fanny at Chez Pannise cookbook. The instructions are written for children (and when it comes to baking cakes, I am a beginner at the elementary level) and anything from Waters’ is bound to be a gem.
I scoured epicurious for a simple buttercream recipe, and was completely bamboozled by the one I found that suggested a 1:12 ratio for butter and powdered sugar. Yikes. I ended up with a powdery mess, then figured that there had to be more butter in it, especially since I added 1/3 of a cup of cocoa, and made it even drier. So here’s what I did instead—learn from my mistakes.
Easy Chocolate Buttercream Frosting
2 sticks butter (1 cup) at room temperature, so it actually mixes
4 cups powdered sugar (sifted!)
1/3 cup cocoa (sift this, too. I didn’t, because I was annoyed and in a hurry, and the cake has a bit of a grainy, pimply complexion—like I said, it’s no Beauty Queen)
1 tsp. vanilla
Mix the butter all by its lonesome until it’s nice and smooth. Add half the powdered sugar and mix until creamy. Then add the cocoa, the vanilla, and little by little the last 2 cups of the sugar. You may not need it all. Just mix it until it looks like, well, frosting. It should have a nice, smooth, spreadable quality about it. Don’t dip your finger in and lick it until the cake’s all frosted.
Note: I added a thin layer of strawberry jam to the middle instead of frosting, just for a little change-up, and because it is my nature to rebel against the recipe. I suppose you could cook down and macerate your own strawberries, but the jam is cheap and easy, and that’s just the way we do things around here.