Ending 2013 a Bit Wiser?

So another year is coming to a close.  Like every year, there have been ups and downs.  As always, there are parts of the year that I am very relieved to see over and done with.  And there are parts that I want to do my best to remember, treasure and carry with me as time inevitably marches on.

Same old, same old, really.

I hope, as with each old-to-new year, that I’ve learned things of value.  That I’ve gained valuable experience with something that will help me down the road.  That I’ve grown (and not just around the middle).  If I’m being fully honest with myself, I’ve definitely grown around the middle and I’m pretty sure I’ve learned more than a handful of useful, if not valuable, things.  No matter what kind of year I’ve had, I cannot stop experience and progress from happening.  Good thing I’m getting used to it.

Because I’m a List Person and I categorize things in my head before I realize it, these are some of the things I’ve learned in 2013:

  • I’m still thoroughly disgusted with bugs.  Seeing large images of bugs on a projector screen is like being in a circle of hell
  • I like soil.  Soil is most definitely NOT Dirt.  Soil is organic matter. Dirt is what you sweep or vacuum up, and it may or may not be organic. I also learned the difference between Soil & Dirt
  • Turf/grass is mind numbingly boring (to me).  I almost fell asleep, while standing up, during a field trip to a turf farm.  Hence, I love the 2 guys at Eco Lawn, who take care of our lawn and patiently answer all of my questions.  They are worth every penny PLUS they seem to really like turf. Bless Them
  • I like researching plant pathology and playing with microscopes
  • I loved the Master Gardener classes, except the ones on bugs and turf
  • I still don’t know what I want to do with a Master Gardener certification yet but I’m glad I’m not designing web sites anymore
  • I mostly enjoy taking online classes – but I miss face-to-face contact with fellow students.  Still, the convenience and potential is wonderful
  • I’m becoming far more liberal in my political views as I get older
  • I can make bows and arrows but I stink at actually shooting arrows (except on the Wii – I’m really great at Wii Archery)
  • I could definitely help plan kid’s parties but I’m not sure I like working with groups of kids.  I’m more of an idea person
  • I get easily irked by kids who are spoiled, entitled and rude
  • I get even more irked by parents who don’t do anything about their spoiled, entitled and rude children
  • I believe strongly in the power of prayer and positive thinking
  • I think if pharmaceutical companies and medical professionals really wanted to cure cancer, they would do so – there’s too much money to be made in treating cancer (and other diseases) instead of curing them.  I’ve become convinced of this in 2013
  • I’ve lost too many people I love to cancer.  And there’s always someone I care about who is dealing with it
  • I love camping but it would not be fun if I had to do it without an electric hook up.  I have no intention of ever sleeping on the ground again; air mattress or I’m not going
  • I can start and maintain a roaring fire.  Turns out, this is a very helpful skill to have
  • I am learning to say No when asked to volunteer for something.  It’s taken years to get to this point.  I’m working on not feeling guilty when I say No
  • I don’t exercise as much as I should
  • You can never have too many Christmas lights at Christmas time
  • I don’t think I could ever give up cheese or chocolate
  • I could easily work at IKEA.  I know more about their products than most of the employees there
  • I am hooked on the simply awesome  concept of frozen dollops of whipped cream to plop onto hot chocolate
  • I shamelessly collect ideas on the internet, especially Pinterest
  • I watch too much TV
  • I don’t feel bad about how much TV I watch
  • I don’t feel as guilty about buying birthday/thank you/etc cards as I used to. I’ve learned it’s OK to NOT make homemade cards all the time
  • I eat I Love Peanut Butter’s Dark Chocolate Dreams peanut butter straight out of the jar
  • A teaspoon of local honey a day really does provide allergy relief, as long as I remember to do it every day
  • A neti pot is great, once you get past how icky it looks on YouTube
  • I get choked up when I think of what life will be like without my parents
  • I do the Mommy Sway thing when I hold our cat.  I didn’t know I did this until someone pointed it out to me, but I don’t care.  She’s my fur baby, after all
  • Most nights when I check on N before I go to bed, I spend a few minutes just staring at him, sometimes just touching his hair – I cannot believe my baby is growing up this fast.  I often wonder how long I can get away with this
  • N still believes in Santa and I totally love that and encourage it
  • A moved out in Feb and I miss her being here every day, but I do not miss the tension.  I’m learning to let her go and do her own thing
  • I’m not good at letting people go and do their own thing but I’m getting better with practice
  • I still hold my breath when I see the lower Manhattan skyline
  • I really like how our recent renovations have gone.  I really love our new bathroom.  I’m trying not to get carried away and paint and re-do everything in the house
  • I re-read the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings this summer and realized that I missed at least half the details when I read them as a child and then again as a teen.  So I’ll probably re-read them in about 20 years and see what else I’ve missed
  • I still haven’t read 50 Shades of Grey and am perfectly fine with that
  • I still prefer to read books on paper rather than on an e-reader
  • I am still able to function on 5 hours of sleep a night.  Not sure if that’s a good thing but it seems to be working out OK
  • I liked traveling on the auto train a lot more than I thought I would
  • I learned how to cut up an 18 pound whole turkey into parts.  This is also a very useful skill
  • I would like to take a class (if I can find one)  to learn how to cut up meat the proper way.  This could end up saving us money, too
  • I learned how to pickle just about any vegetable you can think of
  • I bought a PVC tube cutting tool that turned out to be the best $5 I’ve spent in the past few years (see the item about making bows & arrows)
  • I am very happy that N has faith that I can make almost any party or craft or science project come together.  His creativity & confidence – along with access to the internet – make for some fun projects
  • I already have a long “Things to Do in 2014″ list and I’m only 80% sure that it’ll all get done

Happy New Year!

Shakespeare & Superheroes – a Compromise

“Shakespeare” – it’s a word that can elicit one of 2 responses, in my experience.  Either people love Shakespeare or they don’t.  Both camps are passionate, too.  Count me among the ‘lovers’ of Shakespeare.

“Shakespeare” also has a lot of loaded meaning in just that one word.   Does it refer to the man?  His plays?  His place in history?  The style of writing and speech?  The implicit uppercrustiness of all of that?

There must be something to his works and his legacy, after all, if there is still an active interest in all things Shakespeare nearly 600 years after his first plays were performed.   Before summer blockbusters, wizard & vampire series, dramedies and chick flicks, there was stage drama written for an often raucous public.  Shakespeare and his contemporaries also had a Queen and her court to please.

It has always been about entertainment first and telling a message second.

N & I have worked out a compromise, and tonight was the test.  He wants to get some superhero picture books that are way below his reading level (with his own money). I said OK but you need to balance that dumbed-down stuff with some Shakespeare.  He agreed. So tonight was “Hamlet pt 1″ … Some reading involved, some cartoons (!!!) and discussion.  Pt 2 will be some videos showing performances and interviews on YouTube.  I put together a basic outline of what to cover.

No surprise… I have my own hard copy of “Hamlet” but we only looked through that briefly.  We looked at the cast of characters, “Dramatis Personae,” the structure of Acts, Scenes, stage directions and spoken lines.   Since N is very interested in movies, this was interesting for both of us.

At the advice of a friend, I had purchased some Shakespearean books from Orchard Classics that are novellas for kids.  One of the titles I’d bought was “Hamlet.”  These books are great and definitely took the intimating factor completely out of the equation.

I’d done some research as well, and found a very good cartoon summary that appealed to my comic book loving kid – link here http://www.angelfire.com/oh/Pretzel/dogsummary.html

I have the videos all lined up to go tomorrow.  We’ll be checking out “Kenneth Branagh – Discovering Hamlet” and the production starring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart.  I felt it would be more appealing for him if he saw actors that he was already familiar with.  And, thanks to Harry Potter, Thor and Star Trek: The Next Generation, those clips will do the job well.

After a couple of hours of reading and discussing, I would say this is off to a great start.  He has picked out the picture book he wants and now has a basic understanding of “Hamlet” and the Globe Theater.

He also wants a skull to talk to.  Not sure how to compromise on that one.

Throwing a Hobbit Party

Or… Why I Won’t Becoming a Kid’s Party Planner Any Time Soon

We are Geeks.  We are aware of our Geekiness and shameless about it.  So when N said that he wanted to have a Hobbit/Middle Earth party theme for his birthday, I said, “No problem!”  And I did an excited dance in my head because the potential FUN of having a Hobbit party was, for me, at least, unlimited.  So yeah, I’m that kind of Geek.

So N and I checked my new favorite Go To Spot for ideas when I’m not feeling inspired: Pinterest!  Not much there when we started our research in February.  We relied on my previous favorite Go To Spot: Google.  That produced some ideas.  And so began my folder-filling adventure.  As tech-y as I may be, I still have a good ol’ fashioned folder for ideas and notes.  I use Evernote to be mobile about it.

First we found the cake.  Looked easy enough.  Saved the info and moved on.

Then we needed activities – not as easy for pre-teen boys as I would have thought.  But we finally found the jackpot – archery!  Yes!  We would get simple archery sets for the kids.   We have 2 parties (friend & family) and that adds up to about 25 kids, give or take a few.  More Googling commenced and resulted in my wanting to ditch the whole archery set idea because the costs were ridiculous.

But one caught my eye – a DIY archery set.  N and I looked over the photos and instructions, here.  He was confident that “we” could do this and by “we” he meant me.  Luckily, a friend who had already made them assured me that I could, indeed, handle it.  So, we had our BIG THING.

More activities and stuff for the inevitable goody bag – a treasure hunt (a tradition of ours) that could be done either outdoors or in (or both), making dragon eye magnets, a gold ring, and a small bag of “gold.”  All of these went into a cloth drawstring backpack that they would decorate themselves.  All told, the price was affordable to do and there was plenty to do ahead of time and plenty to do with the kids themselves on party day.

It’s a very good thing that the following facts held true:

  1. We started weeks before the 1st party
  2. We made a prototype/tried everything out first
  3. I’m getting good at using tools
  4. I have a Lowe’s card that gives me an automatic discount

And so we began!

We started with the bows.  We made 25 of them, using PVC pipes, twisted mason line, pipe insulation, duct tape and spray paint.  We discovered a very handy tool to make this part easy, a PVC pipe cutter.  Almost the best $5 I’ve spent on a DIY project.

Here’s how they came out:

Making bows

Making bows

completed bows

Completed bows & some arrows

It was then time to make arrows.  A LOT of arrows.  80 arrows, in fact.  This was very time consuming but definitely worth it, because each kid got 3 arrows and we had extras for when some arrows ended up in trees and gutters. *sigh*

This is what 80 nearly-done arrows look like:

Arrows

Arrows – not covered with fabric yet

All that was left to do to them was cover them with 9″ fabric circles and keep them in place with cable ties.  We worked on all of these with an assembly line process and snuck in a discussion about Henry Ford.

I ordered the backpacks and plastic gold coins from Oriental Trading about 3 weeks in advance.   They arrived a week before the party.  We bagged up coins in small favor bags.  I made sure the fabric markers I have on hand weren’t dried out and THAT was done.

Next up were the treasure hunt maps.  We have a wide, not deep, backyard that has been transformed over the years, via the Power of Imagination, into a Toy Story “Find Woody” adventure, numerous Star Wars universes, a Superheroes battleground and, now, Middle Earth.  We made a map of our backyard and hoped the kids would ‘see’ what we saw.  Printed those maps onto parchment paper (from Staples) and they came out great!  Mind you, Minas Tirith was the trampoline, Helm’s Deep was the hammock but yeah, we had Middle Earth to explore now.

Middle Earth map

Middle Earth map

We made rings out of a coil of metal from the jewelry making department at Michael’s and a wire cutter but if I’d been paying attention a month ago, I would have just ordered plastic gold rings from Oriental Trading.  Oh well.  We tied the rings up with leather cording.  N assured me that boys would indeed wear these.  Alrighty!  Here’s how they came out:

Rings

The “Rings”

We’d found another cool craft for the kids to do and, with fingers crossed, I hoped the boys wouldn’t mind that nail polish was involved.  They made dragon eye magnets – I can’t find the link anymore for where we got the idea from but it involved some basic household (if you have girls, paper clip, foil, craft glue) stuff and a few things (glass beads, small magnets) that we bought at Michael’s.

None of the boys flinched.  I was impressed!

Dragon Eyes

All the stuff to make Dragon Eyes magnets

The big thing – besides the awesome bows & arrows – for the smaller, friend party was going into Gollum’s Cave to answer riddles.  Now THIS was interesting – we weren’t sure it would work and, at first, it didn’t when we tested it out.  We got help from Dad and a bigger fan and voila!  Gollum’s Cave was done!  I didn’t get a picture of the outside of it but frankly, the outside was boring.  The fun was inside.  And we had a great, suitably creepy shot of Gollum blown up at Staples and poster-puttied onto scrap foam board – he got stuffed into the cave and sufficiently wigged the boys out.

Gollum

Creepy Gollum

Gollum's Cave

N, inside Gollum’s Cave

I put the cake together on the days of each party.  Bilbo is in his Lego form.  Also shown are the folded & sealed maps for the treasure hunt.    The cake, and Bilbo, elicited many Oooohs and Aaahhhs.  Which is why it’s always cool to put together a fun cake.

Hobbit Hole Cake

Hobbit Hole Cake

The kids decorated their bows with Sharpie pens and colored duct tape.  And then we let them loose in the front yard!  Only 4 arrows, between the 2 parties, became casualties.  Not bad…

Archery

Finally! Getting the hang of the bows & arrows

N said both parties were great – “the best ever, Mom!” even.  And I agree, they were a lot of fun to put together and to watch unfold.  All of the kids brought their enthusiasm and imagination, which made it all come together.

A few folks have suggested, after many years and many home parties, that I should become a kid’s party planner.  And I’ve actually considered this, I really have.  But I don’t think it will work because of a few factors.

First, when it comes to planning a party with my child, I know what kind of stuff he – and his friends & cousins – like to do, are willing to do and, perhaps most importantly, will NOT work with them.  I don’t know if I’d be able to nail things that closely with kids and families I don’t know.

Second, this party was a LOT of work.  Yes, I’d get paid if I did it as a job but I would need to charge a lot for the amount of time I put into this.  And I’m fairly certain I’d price myself out of a job.

Party time is over for us, for now.  There have been whispers about how we can reuse the cave for Halloween… or for another Star Wars party… or… well, maybe we should just keep it “in case.”   I don’t think I could do this very often or I’d need to take a vacation pretty regularly.

Maybe there’s a place for ‘here’s some ideas, good luck!’ kind of planning.  Even a Geek like me could handle that.

Blogging, the next generation

Today marks the day that N starts to blog.  This is a culmination of writing practice, his love of expressing his opinion, his humor branching out and a way to get used to feedback (from someone other than me).

He’s decided to call his blog (which is part of ours) “N’s Weird Truth.”  And that pretty much sums him up in a nutshell.

This may just prove the very thing to kick start my feeble attempts to write on a regular basis as well.  Weirder things have happened.

Tarps, Wine & Flip Flops – Our Camping Adventures

Most summers since I was an infant, I have spent at least 1 week camping with my family. We’ve camped in different states and in all sorts of summer weather conditions. Blazing hot and sunny? Check. Mini tornado? Check. Sweatshirt by the campfire kind of cosy? Check.

Sometimes there have been over a dozen of us together, sometimes there have been as few as 4. The common threads have been my parents and a genuine love of camping.

The word “camping” itself can conjure up all sorts of images to various people, depending on their own experiences (or lack of experiences). For me, it makes me think of one thing: Family.

This year’s camping trip had it all, it seemed. Good weather, crazy weather, laughs, campfires, delicious food, plenty of fresh air, and the-thing-we-forgot-to-pack. This year’s “thing?” The canopies that go over the metal pop up frames that ultimately cover our picnic tables. There was a modicum of grumbling and cursing, then Mike and N went to the nearest Lowe’s to find a tarp, while I helped my parents set up their tent.

Mike returned with a huge tarp, 20 X 40 feet! That more than covered the two pop up canopy frames, butted up against each other. So that took care of that problem, plus we had the added bonus of providing us and our camping neighbors with some humor. When the wind picked up during the week, the tarp would billow up like a balloon so that the whole canopy set up looked like a giant blue mushroom.

We’ve been camping in the Finger Lakes region of New York since 1975, with a few years break for college. It’s a beautiful part of the state, with wide scenic views, dark nights filled with stars (unhindered by bright city lights), and rolling hills. And on many of those hills are wineries. So we partake of those, too. On our 3rd day of camping, relatives visited us for the day, and the females of the group went to three local wineries: Hazlett, Penguin Bay, and Caywood. Our favorite is Hazlett, with their popcorn and funny names (Red Cat, White Stag).

We went to Wagner winery the next day, for lunch, a beer tasting (Mike and Dad), and stocking up on some of our favorite wines of the area. It was the first time we’d eaten lunch at the restaurant there, and I think it became a new tradition.

We camp in tents. When I was a kid, my family had a pop up tent trailer – the kind that had beds and not much else. My father had rigged up storage bins in it, for holding our clothes and towels. And when we were really little, it also had a very basic potty. I kind of cringe at that thought while also appreciating my father’s ingenuity – there were 3 young kids to accommodate after all and that means 3 young bladders.

Our current tent is impressive in many ways – its very large to handle 6’5″ Mike and our air mattresses – but it does not, alas, have a potty. It is a trek to the bathroom. The campground bathrooms are pretty nice. They are also quite public, so there is no question about wearing footwear in the shower. Did we worry about that when I was a kid? No, not at all. We also didn’t have bike helmets, sunscreen or aloe lotion.

I am not a flip flop person. I was when I was a kid but at some point in my life, I grew to intensely dislike sandals that required a thong between my big and second toe. My camping conundrum, therefore, is that I must wear flip flops to and in the shower while hating having to wear them.

And this simply highlights how much I love camping, as anyone who knows me well knows how much I hate feet, especially my own… in flip flops.

In the midst of this year’s camping trip, we also biked, ate ice cream daily at the camp store, gazed intently at stars (saw Andromeda!), tried and enjoyed 3 new campfire recipes, and went to a dinosaur museum. It was a week full of familiar and new, spent with family, outdoors and together.

Just the way I remember.

How We Rolled… for Easter

Our Easter was going to be a very quiet one, we’d known that for a while.  We had plans to go on a mini-vacation the day after Easter so hosting a bigger family holiday dinner or going elsewhere for it wasn’t going to work out this year.  So we kept it simple and small.

The day before Easter was the day of trying a new recipe and decorating eggs.  So we rolled up our sleeves (pun intended) and got to work on Resurrection Rolls (details in Food, courtesy of my time-absorbing hobby of scouring Pinterest for “cool stuff.”

Basically, it’s refrigerated crescent rolls, marshmallows, butter, cinnamon, sugar, and parchment paper.  The most important part of the recipe is the parchment paper.  Sure, the rest are crucial but I hate cleaning up icky pans so the parchment paper was vital.  Cleaning up sticky, gooey and greasy rolls was a matter of rolling up and tossing out a big piece of paper.  I LOVE PARCHMENT PAPER.

Making these was pretty fun – and fast.  So fast that we ended up making a double batch, because N wanted to make more!  That doesn’t happen often so I was glad to have the supplies on hand.

Making Resurrection Rolls

Making Resurrection Rolls

They came out delicious – sweet, gooey and living up to the reputation of a surprise inside.  We can add this to our Easter traditions, I think.

After cleaning up, it was time to boil a dozen eggs to start the egg decorating process.  There are a ton of ways to decorate eggs, and we picked 2 methods ahead of time: crayons and tie-dye.  We’d done tie-dye ones before and liked it.  We also did that technique at the recent Lenten Fair at church, where it was the most popular way to decorate eggs.

Half a dozen eggs were taken from the hot water once they were completely cooked through but NOT cooled.  We needed them nice and hot.  We assembled our materials: paper towels, unwrapped crayons and a clean egg carton.

The method is very simple – hold a hot, cooked egg in one hand while gently pressing a crayon on the shell, drawing with a little pressure.  The heat from the egg melts the crayon wax instantly, creating vivid colors and an almost paint-like material to draw with.

Crayon eggs

Using crayons to decorate hot, hard boiled eggs

We also experimented with a couple by putting some unwrapped broken crayons in a small plastic bag and hammering them into very small bits.  The broken bits were then put on a square of foil.  The egg is placed on the crayon bits and the foil wrapped completely around the egg.  A little massaging of the foil-wrapped egg (and patience) resulted in a beautiful, watercolor effect on the eggshell.

Crayon bits

Crayon bits - hammered then pressed onto an egg

N experimented further by scraping the wax off with his fingernail.  The result was a thin sliver of wax that melted far easier than the bits.

Shaving a crayon

N's technique of shaving crayon wax to melt onto an egg

The next technique we tried was tie-dye.  For this, we used a metal colander, liquid food coloring, white distilled vinegar and cold water.  We also used a clean roasting pan to be under the colander.  We put an egg, one at a time, into the colander, splashed it with a bit of vinegar, and rolled the egg to cover it with the vinegar.  Then we let 1 drop of food coloring land on the egg and swished it around in the colander to coat the shell with the dye.  We let it rest for 30 seconds and then added 1 drop of another color, swished and rested the egg.  After 30 more seconds of resting, I poured some cold water over the egg to rinse it.  Using plastic sandwich baggies as gloves, we moved the dyed eggs to an egg carton to dry.  The results were beautiful and unique (even Mike colored a couple of eggs this way).

When I can convince Mike to try a craft project, it’s a good time.

Here are the final results:

Tie-dye eggs

Tie-dyed Easter eggs

Easter morning was a bright, sunny one.  We dressed in our finest (ties for the boys, so handsome) and went to the early service at church.  It was a beautiful service.  We enjoyed breakfast at the youth group brunch after ward then headed home.  Our quiet Easter continued with a prime rib roast and roasted vegetables for dinner, with roasted corn and pepper soup to start it off.  Dessert was homemade Cadbury egg treats and chocolate dipped Peeps.

Easter desserts

Cadbury egg treats, chocolate dipped Peeps & Jelly Belly Beans

We squeezed in an Easter Egg Hunt with A’s help and topped the day off with some packing for our impending trip.

For a simple Easter celebration, there was still a bit of work to celebrate the day the way I wanted.    Some day, “simple” may involve going to a restaurant and not turning the oven on at all.  I much prefer it this way for now.

For Mike, the Jets Fan – When Beer & Chocolate Can Make Things Better

When I tried out a new recipe yesterday, a carryover from St. Patrick’s Day, I had no way of knowing that it could be medicinal for my poor husband.  Mike, lifelong and diehard Jets fan, enjoyed one piece last night and may very well feel like demolishing the rest of it tonight.

The recipe is for Chocolate Guinness Cake (see my Food post from today, NYINNJ – Food ).  The original occasion was St. Patrick’s Day but we went out to eat that night instead, so our leftover St. Patrick’s Day dinner was last night.   I don’t make corned beef or cabbage myself, ever, but it’s the traditional dinner and we’re traditional people.  Thank goodness, the Market Place has the delicious and easy-to-pick-up complete dinner for take out, so problem solved!

Today, though, is cause for the cake to not be celebratory.  This cake is now medicinal.   In the midst of a circus-like off season for Mike’s Jets, rumors and accusations have been consistent and frustrating.  If that wasn’t enough, Peyton Manning went to the Broncos and now Tim Tebow has landed with the Jets.  The circus atmosphere is now approaching Ringling Brothers proportions. 

The thing is, Mike is a pretty even tempered fan.  He’s been a Jets/Mets/Rangers fan for his entire life, so this latest drama isn’t new to him nor is it likely to turn him off from rooting for his team.  If this was happening to the Giants, I’d be having an anxiety attack, no kidding.  He’s realistic enough to not expect much good to come of the Sanchez-Tebow QB situation but he’s also laid back enough to not let it faze him much. 

We’ll call him the Chocolate portion of the sports-aspect of our relationship.  Steady, reliable, sometimes WOW! and sometimes Meh…   It’s rare to have bad chocolate, right?  The kind you spit out?  Doesn’t happen much.

Then there’s me.  Most of my family and friends know how I’m a bit… shall we say… obsessed?  passionate?  frantically loyal?  nuts?  about my sports teams.  Mike is definitely as loyal about his teams as I am about mine but he shows his enthusiasm differently.  He, for example, doesn’t need to do deep breathing exercises when watching the 4th quarter or 9th inning.  He gives me his hand to squeeze for that last second field goal attempt, not vice versa.  I’m not sure I’d have fingers left if he ever tried that on me…

So, in the Chocolate Guinness Cake analogy, I’m the beer portion – I don’t think I need to explain why…

Anyway, the cake is delicious – and it may prove to be our ‘go to’ comfort food depending on how things go for our resident Jets fan.