dazzling and interesting on a shoestring
Yes, we celebrated Easter last week, complete with eggs, bunnies, chocolate and not least of all, our Lord Jesus Christ who gave His life for us and was resurrected so that we might be able to live in loving relationship with Him in Heaven. That said, we went to church on Sunday morning, the little people dressed in bright dresses and Mom and Dad in comfortable shoes—the better to chase around said little people. Church for us is two blocks down the street at the park. Blessedly convenient and fun, too. There were coffee and pastries and fruit, and the obligatory Easter egg ‘hunt,’ which really consisted of laying (pun intended) out a hundred or so plastic eggs on the grass and then saying ‘Go!’ to the kids—an Easter egg dash, to be more specific.
Before church, there were Easter ‘baskets’ for all the kids. Since we can’t really afford cheap and breakable colored baskets, and I abhor that Easter grass that gets everywhere and sticks to everything, we improvised. I used paper bags, some nifty alphabet stamps, a few ribbons left over from presents and boxes of chocolates, and a sheet of repurposed yellow tissue paper.
We bought small bunnies and a bag of chocolate eggs to split amongst the kids and called it done. Really, that’s all they need. The chocolate will be nibbled at for the next few weeks, and the bunnies will be beloved for a week or so before they are added to the motley family of stuffed animals that grace the bed, or the toy basket or the futon in the twins’ room.
And that was just in the morning.
In the afternoon, Dad went for a bike ride, Mom worked on a school paper (boo) and the kiddos napped and relaxed. We do this everyday in hopes that Mother will stay sane. Just before the small people woke up, I wandered down to our lovely apartment courtyard, where everything is in bloom, and ‘hid’ about 20 plastic eggs containing absolutely nothing.
The kids didn’t care, or even, uh, notice. The hunt was the fun part. We met up with our neighbors, who just had to walk out their front door, and the smallest people wandered around looking confused, until a parent directed them to exactly where an egg perched in some foliage and then pointed to it.
‘Hunt’ isn’t exactly an accurate description, but fun was had. We sat on some steps and scarfed popcorn, pretzels, cheddar bunnies and raisins (Destitute Style Chex Mix, without the Chex) and drank a bit of juice before the younger kids ran around chasing the big one and managed not to obliterate the landscaping.
I don’t know what we feasted on for dinner, but it wasn’t ham. I made a call up to the relatives, talked to my uncle and to my dad and wished everyone a Happy Easter. Daddy-O and I put the kids to bed and watched some totally unrelated-to-the-holiday-movie—‘Catching Fire,’ I think.
Happy Easter to all and to us!
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.)
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 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.
As many of you might have noticed, I don’t include my kids in my posts. That, however, is about to change—a little bit. I want to keep my little ones safe from creepy people. And because none of y’all are creepy, I’m going to post their pictures here and share with you about a little experimental picnic we had this winter.
Winter in Northern California can be a little chilly, windy and rainy, but no snow. Those of you in other parts of the country may scoff at us and call us softies, but occasionally, we do complain. This post is not a complaint. But, um, we were cold…
We are enrolled in afternoon preschool (thanks to a generous family scholarship fund) but my husband had a doctor’s appointment scheduled an hour before drop-off. We have one car and two places to be. So the kiddos and I dropped dear ol’ dad off at the doctor’s and then cruised down the street into the old ‘hood where I grew up. It’s located right near a golf course and a gated community—to keep out the ‘riff-raff’ like us.
The sign here even says we’re not technically welcome to picnic on this narrow patch of grass, but the neighbors walking their dogs didn’t seem to mind— it helps to have a few cute kids with you.
So, anyhow, we brought a container of raspberries, water bottles, some string cheese, and a bag of pretzels and called it lunch. The little ones looked adorable in their matching hoodies (check out the ‘ears’ on top!) and the oldest did her best to keep warm and not lose the Frisbee in the gale that was blowing. We lasted about 20 minutes before we decided to pack everything back up in the car and wait for in the parking lot for Daddy to be done.
It wasn’t a picture worthy of golden-memory status, but it’s the sense of adventure that counts.
It’s always okay to say thank you. It’s always perfectly acceptable to be polite. Start young and continue until your dying day. You won’t ever be sorry that you had good manners.
We write thank-you notes (NOT emails) in my house. My children write them for every birthday and Christmas present.
I started writing thank-you’s for my one-year old, as if the child was writing them. Obviously, none of the words were belonged to the little one, but the sentiment was there all the same. As my oldest began to develop some language skills, I began inserting cute words or phrases or funny things done or said about the gift. When the child could form sentences, they dictated the letter to me (with some helpful prompts by Mommy) and now that they can write ‘love’ and their name, they signed the cards.
A thank-you note or card, does not just say— ‘thanks for the sweater. It looks neat.’ No. Express your thanks and then pick another subject, somewhat related to the recipient, such as, ‘it was great to see you over the holidays,’ or ‘we should get the cousins together to play this summer,’ or some such. Make it personal. It needn’t be an epic poem in rhyme but a sentence or two to let them know that not only are you thankful, but that you have some affection for them as well.
With thank-you’s (as with most things in life) I like to get a little creative and add a little style. I either make my own thank-you’s, or I buy them discounted at my favorite over-priced stores. For example, Anthropologie has great little note-card sets. Some of them can be ridiculously expensive, as if only rich ladies can afford manners or have enough money and time to send cards. But found on the sale shelf or picked over carefully, one can find just the right card to express both gratitude and style without stretching the budget. My rule of thumb is that cards should cost no more than a dollar individually, so I buy the lovely birthday and greeting cards at Trader Joe’s (while I stock up on yogurt and macaroni and cheese) or I buy boxes of note cards. If a box costs $12, then it must contain at least a dozen cards to meet my per-card requirement. I buy unique cards at local, independent bookstores when I can, but I’ve also been known to give in and just go to my local Papyrus chain. You can buy notecards online, but it seems a little silly to have cards mailed to you before you write them and then mail them out, no?
For kids, there are nifty little kits like this one can help encourage creative little minds (and your kids’) and give you ideas to use for making your own from scratch.
Lastly, find your recipients’ addresses and send them. I email my friends and request addresses that way, and then have a master list on an Excel spreadsheet—super-handy for the mass of invitations and thank-you’s I had to send for my wedding. Sometimes I even remember to update it. You can get fancy stamps at the post office, or if basic efficiency over-rules that, you can always get stamps at the supermarket. I like to try to stock up on the nature-inspired or ‘Love’ stamps the USPS puts out.
So, get to it, y’all (and that’s a reminder to myself as well)! Send those thank-you’s and express your gratitude in style. Who knows, for all your troubles, you might even end up on Santa’s ‘nice’ list next year.
As the mother of two new babies, there is nothing so helpful and appreciated like hand-me-downs. The purpose of hand-me-downs is two-fold: I receive much-needed clothing for my growing critters and somebody easily cleans out their closet. I honestly don’t know what I’d do without the generosity of so many friends and their older children. And I certainly don’t know where (and can’t afford) to buy such cute, cute clothes.
Those clothes that were originally worn by oldest are then passed on to the consignment store in hopes of serving one last purpose as a few bucks in cash. A few of the generous free-bees make it into the consignment pile, too, but for the most part, I try not to be stingy with the karmic circle of generosity, and I pass it along to the next needy mom or donate them to a nearby charity. Please note that my motivation to accepting cast-offs is not to turn them around for a hefty profit—the last time I checked my balance at the consignment store it was less than enough to order a pizza. It helps pay down my school debt and bought me a dining room chair, from a consignment furniture store, incidentally. And most of it is used to clothe my two babies.
I have received more gracious gifts than I can practically use. Here’s how I add a little organization to the chaos of tons of baby clothes:
The best way to give and receive hand-me-downs is to be involved in a moms group, or church group with other mothers. Neighbors are wonderful connections as well, since we can easily see their crammed garages and pregnant and then un-pregnant bellies. It helps, of course, to be in a group with kids at least six months older (the givers) and about six months younger (the receivers) in order to make the perfect circle. But I have been blessed enough to receive gifts from friends of friends, hundreds of miles away. What a wonderful, wide-spread village!
Being well-connected, organized, generous and grateful are all essential in the great recycling circle of hand-me-downs. Believe in them and their usefulness and you may never have to buy kids’ clothes again… well, maybe not never, but certainly less.