Looking Summery

We made a water slide in our back yard over the weekend.

Summer Fun 1

Summer Fun 2

Summer Fun 3

Summer Fun 4

Summer Fun 5

It’s been about 9 or 10 months since we were able to play in water without getting hypothermia.

And, our lupines are doing fabulously — including a couple of genetic oddities.
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It feels so bizarre to have bare legs and arms out in the outside (or at all, for that matter) — and, naturally, I got my first sunburn on Saturday because I forgot about the existence of sunscreen. I remember now.

You Gotta Grow Up Some Time

And, in a way, this weekend I feel like I passed a milestone in adulthood: I mowed the grass.

Okay, don’t get me wrong. One of my chores as a high-schooler was mowing our yard, and I did it most weekends. But I used a mower where I was the engine, the kind of mower where it’s just wheels and a blade, and you know not to put anything in the blades because they will chop whatever it is to bits. The thing about this type of mower is that if you let the grass get really long, you end up doing a ton of work pushing it through that tall, thick growth. So you’re pretty motivated to keep it under control.

I understood that mower and felt comfortable (albeit exhausted and sweaty) with how it works.

When we bought this house, we had that same kind of mower. But Ian was the guy responsible for mowing, and he didn’t like this push mower. It’s too much work, we had too much grass, and too much time elapsed between mowings so every time was a nightmare.

Long story short, we purchased a mower with an engine. It’s electric, and plugs in, so we got around the whole gasoline engine issue. And it doesn’t drive itself; you still have to provide all the pushing. But the blades are powered, which makes a big difference for the amount of work. With this purchase, Ian took on the basic mowing responsibilities.

I was happy with this, because lawn mowers with engines always made me nervous. Not only are they loud and stinky (although with ours the only stink comes from the person doing the mowing–ha!), but something about the powered blades made me very uneasy. So I let Ian do it, and we were good.

But with my taking on this new job, our days–especially weekends–have filled up, leaving not much time for incidentals like the yard. With the 45″ of rain we’ve gotten so far, plus the occasional burst of sunshine, our grass has grown like gangbusters. It really needed mowing, but Ian’s schedule was full up.

So, today, I ventured into adult-land and used a lawn mower with a motor. Dum da dum!!

My First Lawn Mowing!

It was basically like vacuuming, only nicer weather and heavier machine. I guess this means I don’t have any excuse for not mowing again in the future, because I felt like it turned out decently well.

Christmas Basket Outreach

I’m not going to talk a lot more about the political nightmare currently unfolding in New York, as the President-Elect selects appointees who go beyond “unqualified” into “unmitigated disaster” territory. As days go by and hate speech increases and we hear about white supremacy groups (I will call them what they are, not some soft-and-fuzzy euphemism like “alt-right”) celebrating Trump’s election, I have felt increasingly disheartened.

This is not how we should start our Christmas season. This is a season to come together to celebrate joy, peace, and love, to be generous and open-hearted. We in our family start thinking about our annual donations, and helping those more needy than ourselves. All of us want to draw near to family, friends, and neighbors in relationships of generosity and selflessness.

That’s pretty tough when everyone is bitterly divided and hurting.

Which is why it’s the perfect year for us to restart the Christmas Basket tradition.

This is an annual tradition my parents started in their neighborhood, and I did one year when we first moved in. Since then, I’ve slacked off. But, as I said, this is the perfect year to do things that show generosity and encourage building connections rather than walls.

What Is the Christmas Basket?

As the name implies, it is a basket that we fill with holiday-related items, things like candy canes, candles, chocolate, holiday-themed cookie cutters, napkins, ornaments, etc. I give the basket to our neighbors, who take out things they want and put in more things to share. Then they pass it along to their neighbors, who do the same thing. Eventually, the basket makes it all the way back to our house, having passed through all the homes in our neighborhood.

I do make sure to include a sheet of instructions, along with a neighborhood map indicating all the houses the basket should go along to next.

This year I’ve also added something new: A small notebook in which to write a holiday greeting or encouraging note for neighbors to read and share. Often the basket just appears on a doorstep, without any actual interpersonal interaction, so it seemed to me like the notebook idea would let people share more directly with one another.

Christmas Basket

The last time I did this, I kept it confined to the 10 houses in our cul-de-sac, and we did get the basket back in the end. This year, however, I’m boldly including a map for our entire neighborhood of over 80 homes. It’s a lot, way more than my parents have ever done, so I have no idea if it will succeed or not. If I start the basket tomorrow, on Black Friday, it would have to go through about two houses a day to make it by Christmas.

Not likely; but we’ll just see what happens. I figure, worst case I’m out about $100 of miscellaneous Christmas goods. Even if the basket doesn’t make it far and we never see it again, it will certainly reach some of our neighbors. That’s reason enough to try. There’s always next year, to see if it gets a little farther.

I encourage you to think about doing your own Christmas Basket, or some other similar community-building thing, with your neighbors as we start thinking about ways to heal and grow after this tumultuous and divisive year. Please also share your ideas for how to reach out in tangible ways to overcome divisions and encourage healing. I’d love to hear some other ideas.

When Life Gives You a Broken Oven…

…make no-bake cookies and a gigantic box space ship. At least, that’s what we did.

Two weeks ago, I mixed up a batch of coffee cake from a new recipe (which was delicious, but sadly in the kerfuffle I lost closed the tab with the recipe, alas). I turned on our oven and it made the usual gas burning sound. When I put the cake into the oven, it didn’t feel particularly hot. I figured, “It’s only 350; that’s why.” Not that I’d hang out in a 350-degree oven, or anything, but in the scheme of baking it’s just normal.

Well, 40 minutes later, I checked on the coffee cake and found it entirely batter still. I mean, it actually still sloshed when I moved it. A quick phone call to Mom confirmed that her oven was available. Benji and I zipped over there, still wearing our pajamas.

Well, actually, zip doesn’t describe it so well as delicately minced along. The drive proved surprisingly harrowing, with a very full pan of liquid sloshing first one way and then another as we traversed the innumerable up-and-down hills between our house and my parents’ house. I spent a good portion of the drive leaned over, trying to level the pan while still seeing out the windshield well enough to drive. Good thing I didn’t get pulled over.

Anyway, Mom had neglected to mention she had guests arriving within 30 minutes of our starting the 40-minute bake of our coffee cake. Needless to say, I might have chosen to wear regular clothes and brush my hair if I’d known that.

While Benji and I baked the cake, Ian researched new ovens. We easily chose to replace our old one, which had previously broken once already. When the repair man fixed it at the time, maybe two years ago, he mentioned that parts weren’t available because the oven was too old. On the bright side, he said, it was so low-bidder that the control panel was extremely simple. So simple that the repair man simply rewired the control panel so our “bake” setting worked. We agreed at the time that, if the oven broke again, we would retire it for good.

Armed with Ian’s research, during nap time Dad and I went to Albert Lee and looked at ovens. We found one that got good Consumer Reports ratings, and (only briefly distracted by the $4200 Wolf range) ordered it. They scheduled delivery for November 17, 10 days later; but said we needed to find someone else to install it, as their installers couldn’t come for a month and a half (!!). I privately wondered whether we’d have gotten an installer sooner if we’d bought the high-end range. Fortunately, Pat Zeller, the guy who did our fireplace, was available and came to help us out.

Because Pat loves cookies, I made a batch of Ian’s favorite cookie of all time, Chocolate Dreams.
Chocolate Dreams
This sparked a discussion about the definition of candy versus cookie, as Chocolate Dreams are pretty much entirely sugar and cocoa powder, with milk and Karo syrup to hold in some oats. Either way, they’re delicious. Turns out, Pat doesn’t care about no-bake cookies, so that just meant more for us.

On Thursday, the delivery guys arrived with our oven. When they asked if I wanted it in the box or not, I immediately realized that we absolutely did want that enormous box. Then, in a burst of (if I may abandon modesty for a moment) brilliance, I asked if they had any extra big boxes in the back of the truck. And they gladly handed over a huge refrigerator box along with our range. I gave them some Chocolate Dreams.

Boxed Range

These two boxes we turned into a really great box fort, currently a space ship. You can see Benji’s “bed” on the side, outside the space ship. I don’t ask how that works.
Box Spaceship

Inside the Space Ship

On Thursday, we got the range unpacked, but unfortunately Pat wasn’t able to come to install it until Friday morning.
Unpacking the Range

New Range Installed!
But fortunately Pat showed up and got it installed in plenty of time for me to bake for our “Friendsgiving Dinner” with our church group. I got a good trial of the new range as through the afternoon I cooked:

  • Mashed potatoes
  • Steamed carrots
  • Bacon
  • Roasted beets
  • Homemade dinner rolls

It was a veritable glut of oven-use after nearly two weeks without! And everything turned out delicious. Either that, or my friends were fibbing. But, in the ultimate tests — cooking bacon, and baking dinner rolls — the new range worked beautifully.

The new range has nice dual-size burner that boils things really fast with the inner small ring and the outer big ring both on; or simmers things really low with just the small inner ring on. I’m going to have to get used to burners of different sizes, but I think I’m going to like the broader range (har har) of this new stovetop.

The oven is a convection bake, but I didn’t use the convection setting for any of our baking yesterday. I need to experiment a bit to see what kind of difference it makes to baking time. But the oven heated up quickly, which was nice; and I think I’m going to like the rolling-sliding rack that lets you slide things in and out more easily than moving the whole shelf.

So, back to baking for me! Hooray! Let me know if you need any baked goods. I’m going to be keen for baking the next few weeks, I’m sure.

Did I mention planets?

First a silly story. Benji and Ian have been looking at Wikipedia entries for bodies in the Solar System. While doing this, they encountered the term trans-Neptunian objects, which Ian explained and Benji understood as “anything out past Neptune.”

Later, we learned that there’s a new dwarf planet out in the Kuiper Belt (currently euphoneously named 2015RR245), and Benji’s comment was classic: “OH! Daddy! This must be a trans-Neptunian object!” 

After that, most of our morning was devoted to planets.

When coloring planets, we have had to break out reference guides to make sure to use the correct colors.

Benji’s pen-opening technique results in ink all over his face. Good thing it’s washable.
Team effort Solar System: I drew the planets (not real taxing) and Benji colored them. He picked the colors, too, with some discussion and consultation of his big planet book. He enjoyed making the far-away dwarf planets and Kuiper Belt objects all silly colors, since we don’t have good pictures to guide us. 

Later in the morning, we also made two sets of proportional planets with sidewalk chalk.

The sun is the arc to the left, while you can barely make out Pluto to the far right on the sidewalk. Distances definitely not to scale.

One, in the driveway, assumed the sun was 15 feet in diameter, and all the planets went from there. Pluto was, as expected, a speck. This really bothered Benji, who wanted to color them in. But most were too small to color.

So I made a bigger version in the street, where Mercury is 12″ in diameter. For the record, that made Jupiter 30′ in diameter and Saturn 24′. The sun was so big I just drew a straight line across the street to start.

I used our 100′ tape measure as a compass to make those big circles. When I finished Jupiter, Benji tab over and exclaimed, “Holy moly, that is big!” So perhaps we have a slightly better understanding of planet sizes relative to each other now.

Attitude

At the end of our cul-de-sac, there is a large tract of property with an adult family home on it. I’d estimate it’s a few acres of mostly grass. Well – at least, it was, until earlier this month, when a crew of construction vehicles rolled in and started work on some new houses.

This work first entailed ripping out a large screen of trees that had been planted on the edge of the property, a noisy and depressing process. The work continues to progress from there, with a great deal of extremely loud rumbling, beeping, crashing, smashing, and general noise and mess you expect from construction sites. Oh, and of course I have to mention the rumbling of trucks up and down our formerly quiet street. It’s like garbage day every day, all day, and especially intrusive and onerous when the weather is nice and we open our windows.

When this all started, I immediately began feeling resentful and angry. It’s going to go on all summer, making having windows open miserable, and even after summer who knows how long it’ll go on; when the trucks are done, we’ll just switch to hammering and banging of the actual home building. And then we’ll have people moving in, and lots more traffic in and out our (as previously stated) formerly quiet dead end street. Oh, and the folks in our HOA voted not to include this development in our HOA, so they don’t have to adhere to our CC & Rs.

Grrrr! Put on my curmudgeon hat, with a NIMBY scarf.

But some of my friends have been helping me see the bright sides:

– Entertainment for a truck-obsessed preschooler within easy walking distance.
– New neighbors means we could meet new friends!
– Better construction here in the ‘burbs than clearing some forest land out in the foothills.

I’m trying to keep these upsides in mind wherever the huge trucks are especially loud. And when I start feeling angry or resentful, I pray. I pray for the construction workers, who do have a very dangerous job; and I pray for our future neighbors, who we don’t know yet but hopefully we’ll get to be friends one day. This helps somewhat.

But, honestly, it’s just going to take time to resign myself to these changes. Development is happening everywhere around here, on any property even remotely suitable. I guess it was only a matter of time.

“If you can’t change something, change the way you think about it.” I’m trying.

Applesauce “Cupcakes”

This is the recipe for the “applesauce cupcakes” that Benji love/hated earlier this week.

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Apple Crisp Muffins

1 1/4 C. flour
3/4 C. quick-cooking oats
1/2 C. brown sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt

1 C. milk
3/4 C. applesauce
1 egg
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
1.50 C. peeled, finely diced apples (2 medium-sized apples; peeling optional)

Heat oven to 375 F. Lightly grease a muffin pan. Try not to think about how two hours from now, you’ll be laboriously scrubbing out that very same pan.

In a medium bowl, combine flour, oats, brown sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt.

In a separate, smaller bowl, whisk together milk, applesauce, egg, oil, and vanilla.

Stir milk mixture into flour mixture just until moistened. Stir in diced apples. Fill medium muffin cups 75% full (mine actually ended up over 100% full — maybe my muffin size is slightly smaller than standard?) or fill mini-muffins cups to the top.

Topping

1/3 C. quick-cooking oats
1/4 C. flour
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons melted butter

Combine topping ingredients until crumbly. Double if you want to actually have enough to cover all the muffins as generously as your lucky taste-testers would actually like. Everyone knows the top of the muffin is the best part. Sprinkle over muffins.

Bake 16 – 18 minutes for medium muffins, 10 – 12 minutes for mini-muffins; or until tops spring back when lightly touched. Mine actually seemed undercooked at 18 minutes, but I took them out because they were getting towards dark golden around the edges. They finished cooking and are wonderful despite seeming kind of gooey when I pulled them out. Don’t leave them in longer! They’ll just dry out, and who wants a dry muffin?

Now, what this recipe doesn’t tell you is whether to leave the muffins in the pan to cool, or take them out to prevent over-cooking. So far I’ve taken them out, but this results in mangled muffins since fresh from the oven they’re mighty soft and unwilling to be readily extracted. Maybe next time I’ll try letting them cool in there. If you try it, let me know how it goes.

Yields 12 “medium” muffins or 36 mini-muffins.

Recipe from pg 39, Best of the Best from Washington Cookbook: Selected Recipes from Washington’s Favorite Cooks, edited by Gwen McKee and Barbara Moseley, 2002.