homeschooling, homemaking, homesteading...home.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Swiss Miss

If the fabric is so dang gauzy that you can't reliably determine whether it's cotton, is it still called Swiss?

Let's pretend that I'm kinda knowledgeable about fabric and confident about that knowledge and say yes, shall we? At least for the sake of discussing this apron:

It's lovely enough, I suppose. But this is one in the "look, don't touch" collection. Not because it is delicate (which it is) or because it's vintage (that's never stopped me before), but because the bib is ridiculous.

Yeah. The top of the bib section hits right about at nipple level. And the width of the bib section doesn't even span the distance between said nipples. Seriously, what is the function of this bib? It couldn't possibly protect a thing. And as for style...well, the best we could spin this as is a little "lift and separate".

I do not need an apron to call attention to my boobs. I need it to keep various sauces from staining my boobs. While this may have potential use as a boudoir item (not really, I'm being sarcastic...I *swear* we do not role-play with the aprons. Now get that image out of your mind immediately!), it is useless as a functional item. Or even as a "hostess" accessory.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


I'm thirty-seven; I'm not old!

Happy Birthday to me!

I made out pretty good. My bestie sent me a handmade (yes, made by her--although I still can't convince her to blog it) table runner. The whole thing looks like this:

but that shot doesn't do it much justice, as it totally clashes with my couch. What can I say, it was the only uncluttered backdrop available at the moment. Here's a closeup so you can see the adorable goodness.

It's currently living on the buffet in the dining room. Which I cleaned off just to use this. So it actually motivated me to go unclutter a trouble spot in my home. Win-win. ;)

My mother took my family and me out to dinner (see previous post), which was mostly wonderful. I got a bunch of cash and assorted gift cards from various people (the gifts that keep giving), and a balloon and serenade from my co-workers.

The best part, as always, was sharing the day with my family. They made me some cards

and some cupcakes,

and my OMG I LOVE IT new toy, my very own personal netbook!

Thanks to all who offered their generous wishes for happiness, health, and other goodness. It was a good day. :)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Customer Service Rant

And now...for the "completely lost my Zen" portion of my day. If you haven't read the previous post, you should. Or maybe it would be a better idea to read it afterward, to purge your mind of all of the vitriol I'm about to spew, so you won't get up from the computer and kick the dog or something.

After we returned from the zoo and my darling husband arrived home from work, we drove to Max & Erma's (McMurray location) to meet my mother for our birthday dinner. (Hubby's big day was last week and she's all about efficiency, which I love about her.) It was fine. The menu was significantly smaller than I remember, but then I haven't been to a Max & Erma's in almost 7 years, so that's hardly surprising. The food was good, our waitress and her trainee were pleasant and competent, and the kids totally loved the build-your-own-sundae bar.


My younger stepson had ordered a meal that included a big cookie. Since he was also ordering the sundae bar, he asked to have his cookie "to go". No problem; they delivered it in a takeout container. Some time later, we actually placed our order for dessert and went up to the bar to start building our dream sundaes. When we returned to the table, it had been bussed. Well, mostly. The busperson had taken all of the full drinks and the cookie box, but left the empty glasses and a bowl of barely-touched soup. Weird. At any rate, the cookie was gone.

When our waitress returned with the check, I informed her of the error. After all, we had *paid* for this cookie and certainly intended to enjoy it at some point. She went white, and dashed to the back to see what she could do. When she returned with our receipt, she apologized and handed me a gift card for six free cookies.

If I stop the story there, it sounds awesome. But wait! There's fine print!

The gift card was for a free half-dozen of cookies "with purchase of a dinner entree".

Are you feeling what I'm saying, here?

So wait. Let me get this straight. You're going to fix the problem of "I paid for a cookie and yet do not have that cookie" with "We'll replace the cookie you already paid for (and give you five more cookies) if and when you buy more stuff."

That is not fixing the problem that I have today. All I want is the one cookie that I paid for, today. And without having to give you even more money for the aggravation.

At this point, my husband started the "let's lighten up" uncomfortable laugh and said helpful things like, "It's just a cookie!". No. It wasn't. It was the principle of the matter, and as both a consumer and a person with a working brain, I was offended. Do not pretend to address a problem that you caused by offering me a conditional solution at literal expense to me. What do I look like, an idiot?

So now I was annoyed with two people: the busperson, and the manager. I am certain that even if the manager wasn't the one to make the direct decision on this specific incident, (s)he is surely the one who gave that to the staff as their option for customer service. And it's bullshit.

After some ranting to my family (and a refusal to short the tip, because none of this appeared to be within the server's control), I decided to beat them at their own game. I went up to the front desk and explained that I had already purchased SIX dinner entrees tonight, and wanted my cookie card redeemed now. Naturally, I got the run-around. "Well, can't you just get them next time?" By this point, I was so fired up with righteous indignation that I just started lying. No, I am from out of town. "Isn't there a Max & Erma's near you?" (Whew--regional loophole!) No, I am from out of state. "Well, we'll have to put some in the oven, if you don't mind waiting..."

Fine, I will wait.


Still waiting. (These are TollHouse style, folks. 10 minutes in the oven. And I'm sure theirs come from a tube, but even given mixing time, we're way over estimate. And no, they were not at all busy.) The hostess has asked me three times if I need to be seated. Seeing how there were NO other customers in the waiting area, one might expect that she'd remember that she'd spoken to me before. Several times. But no. I finally chased down the staff member who had promised to fetch the cookies and she gasped, "Oh! I forgot!"

No! Really?

She brought out the box of warm cookies and offered a half-hearted apology and damn it, yes, I snapped at her. And she got all lippy with me. And the details of THAT don't matter at this point.

Nor do the stupid cookies, which despite the yummy aroma I refused to try, as the Pyrrhic victory had already soured in my mouth.

The point is...well, it's still my original point. If you (or your staff) screw up and it results in an unhappy customer, you should try to make that customer NOT unhappy. Because even if they never come back to your store (and let's dream of future earnings and build that relationship!), they have the power of word-of-mouth. And unhappy customers talk a LOT more about their experiences than happy ones.

I understand the trick of offering a benefit to the customer that forces them to visit the store again. I do. I've worked in a service-type retail establishment, and it was encouraged because people are often so happy with their coupon or discount or whatever that you actually *do* ensure that future revenue, at least from one more visit. However. At Family Video (former employer)...if the "on your next visit" Band-Aid didn't satisfy the customer, staff members had the power and the latitude to offer a direct and immediate benefit instead. You don't want a free rental next week? Okay, I will take the extra time to void the transaction and refund your money right now. Because I want you to come back. And I don't want you walking out of here ranting to everyone in earshot about how you feel we screwed you.

THAT is good customer service. Not just for the customer, but for your place of business as well.

The Zen 2/3 of my day

I took the kids to the zoo today. I made it my goal to shake off as much of the Type-A preparedness and overthinking and pressure and just *be*. I did a pretty good job of it, too, excepting the part where I felt the need to blog about it at bedtime. But fresh content benefits you, too, so we'll all get over it.

The little guys and I haven't been to the zoo since early spring, which is a crying shame and mostly due to a long and aggravating series of vehicle-related inconveniences. My birthday is tomorrow (woo!) and this was part of my gift to myself: a stress-free day out with them, where we would not worry about any "shoulds" and just go where our desires took us. I even opted to not pack my typical "Mom" bag. No backpack stuffed with lunch and snacks and jackets and Band-Aids. Not even my fannypack or (say it ain't so!) camera. Just a handful of cash and my car keys. Traveling light felt good. And it freed me up emotionally in some strange way as well.

Despite some doom-and-gloom weather forecasts, the day turned out to be simply gorgeous. Warm, but not hot. Gentle breeze. Mostly sunny...a few threatening clouds, but nothing fell during our whole visit. We took our time and were so relaxed. Not so into the tigers today? Okay, we'll skip them. Want to spend an extra 20 minutes watching the sleepy flamingos doing stretches? No problem, we're not on a schedule. And YES, you may climb the model termite mound. Again. :)

We stumbled upon a few "ask the expert" presentations, so that was pretty cool too. We got to touch the pelts of some big cats (from deceased exhibit animals) and watched a presentation about a few of the smaller critters, including a gorgeous horned owl. So yay, good day! I dropped way too much money on heat-lamp-destroyed lunch that made me feel icky, but it was still better than stressing myself about packing lunch and then hauling it around. And it eliminated the whining about the PB&J when we're at a picnic pavilion surrounded by kids eating hot french fries. I certainly didn't hear any complaints from my dining partners this afternoon!

We had a few grouchy moments, but snacks and piggyback rides seemed to help quite a bit. We spent a relaxed time at the play area and I even said yes to one of the few "rides" (a log boat that circles a koi pond). And then on our way out I blew the remainder of my cash on souvenirs, just because we *never* do that.

In other words, THEY had a good "Mommy's birthday". Which really, is a gift for me. ;)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Double duty

A while back, I shared pictures of a reversible apron. There are two in my collection, and here's the other one.
'Scuse the dog butt. She loves me so much.

What I like about this apron:
  • Nice wide, full skirt
  • Very wide hem with clean stitching = fully reversible with great detailing
  • Interesting print + ricrac = "folk art" look

And check it out: One side features an overskirt...

...which I think of (and use) as my quarterback towel. It is perfect for wiping dirty or wet things (hands, kid faces, garden veggies) without risking all of that ick soaking through the back layer and soiling your clothes. Because after all, an apron is designed primarily to protect your clothes, right?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Thoughts on Coercion

I read an interesting quote today in Mary Hood's The Relaxed Home School:
There's never any harm in offering to help a youngster read a story, or asking them if they'd like to play a particular phonics game! The harm comes from "forcing" these activities when the children aren't interested!
I'm torn on this issue.

On one hand, there are plenty of things that children are not particularly interested in (or self-motivated toward) doing that I feel completely comfortable and justified in "forcing" for their own healthy development and, frankly, for the sanity of those around them. I don't care if they don't feel like following good hygiene or nutrition or manners; it's not something I'm willing to make optional. And if that makes me a monster amongst the more radical of the unschoolers, so be it.

On the other hand, I can give countless anecdotal examples of vibrant and exciting child-led learning as compared to the drudgery and resistance to the compulsory and passive lectures and rote-regurgitation that are so often passed off as "education". I've seen time and time again how a child who is in a defensive mode will not learn. So I get that, too.

The real issue—as with most things, I'm finding—is navigating a healthy and sane balance between two well-meaning but ultimately damaging (if only by the sake of their extremism) extremes. And as with all balance issues, it's a constant dance of assessing, readjusting, and living with awareness of the moment. Here's a moment from our recent experience.

We were busy outside, but doing our various things. I was in the garden, C was tinkering with his go-kart, and T went on a walk in the woods. When T returned, he was very excited to show me what he'd been doing. He had a notebook in one hand and an assortment of small items in the other. It seems that my little naturalist had found items of interest and sketched them in his book.

I was so unbelievably proud.

I asked him to tell me about his pictures, which he did. He also produced the original items, to show me what had inspired each drawing. He was a little self-critical about his drawing skills, but I praised his effort and his interest in this self-motivated project.

And then I ruined it.

T is very reluctant to practice writing, spelling, or reading skills. I'm not sure why...but I've already seen one of his older brothers go through a similar stage...where he has the aptitude, but not the interest, in pursuing literacy. I'm usually laid-back about this, assuring him (and reminding myself) that he will read when he is ready, and doing plenty of positive modeling (reading to, and in front of, him) in the meantime. But for some reason, I decided that this was a perfect opportunity to turn his self-led project into a springboard for a Mom-led lesson. I suggested, then encouraged, then cajoled, and finally insisted, that he label his sketches.

I could just keep these photos in the scrapbook and let them tell their own story, but the true story was not one of those harmonious homeschool moments that we all strive for, and assume everyone else is busy living. He pouted. And sulked. And refused. And whined. And huffed. And eventually cried. And me? Oh I stopped respecting his interest and got frustrated with him. Said things like, "You Can do this, you just Won't!" and other not very peaceful pressure statements.

It was not our best moment, and I regret it.

I honestly thought at the time that it would be no big deal. A few months ago, he took it upon himself to start a dinosaur scrapbook, and he labeled many of his entries either with my help or by copying from another source. This was surely the same thing, right?

No. It wasn't. And I took his joyful project and sucked the fun out of it. Turned it into Work and made him hate it. And it made me question not just that exchange, but my entire philosophies of parenting and learning.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Laura Apron

Yes, I know it's not Monday. Shut Up. I was busy.

Here's an apron that's pretty, but alas not very serviceable.

My torso.

 This is a lovely mass-produced apron

The label. "Neat 'n Tidy". Isn't it darling?
made from a printed cotton Swiss. It's thin and delicate, and in need of some repair.

What makes it not a part of my "for use" rotation, however, is simply the fit. I'm not sure if vintage bib aprons are supposed to tie around the ribcage instead of the waist, but that's as far as this one reaches. As you can see in the first photo, despite my attempts to wear it in the former position, it quickly started to pull itself toward the latter. Very unflattering, and not particularly comfortable. Also, look at how narrow that bib is. I still have plenty of exposed acreage on which to splash marinara, etc. Either this was made for a freakishly shorter person, or one who was not quite so...endowed. I have a number of vintage bib-style aprons (many of which you'll see in coming weeks, as I'm nearing the end of my service collection) with this problem. Big boobies and small bibs are not a good combo.

It is a pretty garment, however. The lettuce-edged ruffles on the edges and pockets are extremely feminine, and I adore the print.

Quickie substitute for ironing, ftw!

pssst! Extra bonus points and bragging rights to anyone who can figure out why this apron is named Laura. ;)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

More fun with food

Other recent culinary adventures worth blogging:

I prepared some Rat Patootie

sans Eggplant. Only the onions & oil weren't locally grown. Win!
which I deemed to be delicious, Dad found to be tolerable, and the kids flat-out rejected. Sigh.

I also prepared Ree Drummond's Blueberry Crumb Cake

which garnered much more favorable reviews.

But none of my recent experiments have been nearly as photo-worthy as C's cookies. C has claimed all kid-targeted cookbooks as his own, and often pulls one of them out when helping me cook. He found a recipe that he insisted upon making.

Dragon sez: "Look! It's me, in pastry!"
It was a simple sugar cookie rollout recipe, made far more appealing by brightly colored icing and candy. Well hell, if I was four, I'd be all over that too. Ensues: a family cookie decorating party. Enjoy. (We sure did!)


Friday, August 13, 2010

Food Friday: Golden Cream of Tomato Soup

My first recipe post!

Now, by "recipe", I mean more of a guideline. Like a knitting recipe. Nothing is exact; you plug in your own variables and go with it. Baking is for precise. Cooking is for sensing and adapting.

So, let's start with some yellow tomatoes. Yes, you could use red if you want...but the wonderfulness of this recipe is from the less acidic and slightly sweeter flavor of the yellow ones. How much, in weight? I have no idea. I don't own a kitchen scale. I used 7 medium-sized fruits; each roughly about the size of a baseball.

Peel the tomatoes. This is super easy: just simmer them for 30-60 seconds

and then plunge them into cold water for a few seconds.

This loosens the skins. Do NOT exceed the time in the simmer pot, and do NOT boil them. This will soften the whole dang fruit and then you'll have a mushy mess in your hands. What you want is for the skins to neatly peel off. If you're lucky, they'll shed automatically when you core the fruit.

like *so*
Next, de-seed the tomatoes. This part is hard for me to talk myself into, since the seeds and jelly are where most of the lyocpene resides. But it also makes for somewhat slimey, watery soup. So out they go.

Put the peeled, seeded tomatoes into a saucepan and cook over med-low heat for 15 minutes or so, until the flesh breaks down and the resulting slurry gets nice and bubbly.

While you're waiting for that to happen, saute one chopped onion and one large clove of garlic (minced) in about 2 Tbsp. of butter, until the onion becomes transparent. The garlic is optional, but I find that it offsets even more of the sour/acidic flavor of the tomatoes, further sweetening the final product. My final soup did not taste at all "garlicy".

Do NOT brown these, or the whole thing will be ruined and you should just go find a nice quiet place to have a good long cry about your failure as a cook. (Oh and Shut Up about the butter. It's a cream soup and it's going to get worse later. We are here for flavor, not fat-free!)

Add the onion/garlic to your tomatoes, along with your desired amount of stock. I used chicken stock because that's what I had on hand, and only about 1 cup because my tomatoes shed a lot of liquid and I like a thicker soup.

Simmer over medium heat for about 10 minutes. Then add a half-pint of light cream

oh God YES!
and simmer for an additional 5-15 minutes, or until your kitchen smells wonderful and you have gathered the necessary items for preparing grilled cheese sandwiches. Because nothing goes with tomato soup like grilled cheese sandwiches. Yummmm.

When you remove the soup from the heat, immediately stir in some fresh-chopped basil

and salt and pepper, to taste.

Finish grilling that sammich, pour into a bowl, and enjoy!

This is really ridiculously easy and soooooo tasty. Let me know if you try it!!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

FO: Fuzzy Pink Feet

...a big red bird with fuzzy pink feet.

No, not those ones. But I can't say the phrase "fuzzy pink feet" without my brain replaying this scene from M*A*S*H. Sigh. I miss you, M*A*S*H.

The fuzzy pink feet in question are slippers that I knitted for my bestest friend for her birthday. I found a super-soft pale pink polyester yarn at my local Pat Catan's, at a discount price. It needed to be slippers.

The pattern I used is Lucia Tedesco's "February Slippers", which was easy to follow and knitted up quickly. It took me roughly a day to knit each slipper. Would have been much quicker if I hadn't had to rely on stolen moments in between other demands. ;) Once finished, the slippers felt like a dream, and looked like this:
But I wasn't done; oh no! I could have stopped there and given her a pair of perfectly usable and lovely Mary-Jane style footies. Instead, I decided to indulge her love for bunny slippers and did this to them:

Custom footwear FTW!


This is one of those stories which would be SO much more gratifying with pictures...but which would have been far less enjoyable to actually experience with the let's all just use our imaginations and get over it, m'kay?

It's hot this week. Very hot. And I've been canning, which makes me extra hot. And my kids have been sulking at my unavailability, which makes them extra bored. So I called a break mid-day and declared that we were going to play in the creek at a nearby park.


And that we'd take The Dog with us.

Double hooray!

Then it started to rain. Oooooh-kay. Well, it was hot, and the rain felt refreshing, and heck—it's summer and it was barely drizzling. Surely it would let up soon. And if not, oh well. Extra cooling.

Triple hooray and let's GO already!

Needless to say, by the time we got to the park (a whole 2 miles from our house), it was pouring. It was dumping cats and dogs right on my kids and dog. And me. And this was Not going to stop us.

Well, it stopped C. He declared that he was Cold, and hid out under a picnic pavilion. The dog, however, delighted in trying to rip my arm from its socket as she charged through the creek. (Another sheltering family plus their dog meant that she was Not getting off the leash, alas.) T was laughing hysterically, and trying to get her to plunge into deeper water while she struggled to gain a foothold in the muddy bank. And remember, it's still raining. And raining and raining and raining. T and I were soaked. The dog was a gleeful mess, and she clumsily Splooshed in the water with her oversized feet, leaving T and I with the gut-wrenching giggles.

We had a good time.

Until the thunder. Then we all piled into the van and came home. We dried off, shared a big bowl of popcorn (and oh yes we shared with The Dog), and watched some PBS kids together.

That was WAY more fun than peeling a half-bushel of pears and folding the laundry.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Playing with ideas

One of the most delightful things to observe in children is the way they synthesize and make sense of new information by incorporating it into their play. On yesterday's trip to the library, one of the books we selected was Gretchen: The Bicycle Dog.

It's a true story, told in scrapbook fashion with family photos, of a dog who suffered a spinal injury and learned to walk again using a special prosthetic: a cart to support her paralyzed hind legs.

The kids adore this book and have already asked for many repetitions of it, and even requested that we purchase a copy once our checkout time has expired. Something about this story really resonates with them, and that alone is charming to watch.

But this? This was a little wonderful and a little heartbreaking all at once.

C has constructed a cart for one of his favored toys, "Carlo". He has reassured me that Carlo's injury is only temporary. I'm not sure how long it will take him to get his fill of his toy being handicapped. It's touching to see how gentle and considerate he is of Carlo's new special needs.

Who can? I can!

I've been a neglectful blog host lately. Long radio silences can typically be blamed on one of two phenomena:

  • No content
  • No time

Right now, it's the latter. We're in the full swing of summer, which means that I am busy and that there are usually more people at home (teens out of school, Dad on staycation or working from home) with whom to battle for computer time. Plus, it's August...or as it's known around here, Hell Month. For starters, we have five family birthdays (including both mine and my husband's) and two anniversaries (our own and his parents). Then there's the mad scramble to do all of those things we wanted to/meant to do during the summer, before the school year starts again. That's a lot of family fun to cram in, and we usually end up longing for a day at home just to catch up on the default maintenance. And sleep.

But mostly? It's canning season.

Italian Beans and Blue Lake Beans.
Several years ago, my in-laws' greeting on their answering machine indicated that they could not answer the phone because they were canning tomatoes; and that they would return calls once the garden was bare.

...and after
That scenario isn't as hyperbolic as one might think. Preserving food from the garden is a time-sensitive process. I can't tell you how much food I've had go bad in the fridge because I was too busy to can. (Alas! The beets!) Right now I'm in the full swing of things, so I might not be around much. I'm logging on, in fact, between picking and cutting the day's beans. If you do think of me, know that I'm probably in the kitchen with three burners blazing, on a 90 degree day. With no air conditioning.
But in the dark of the coming winter, I'll be doing a little happy dance as I open yet another jar of home-grown goodness.

Or "neighborhood"-grown. We harvested pears from the vacant property two doors down from us.

The staged photo. We actually filled several random buckets. ;)
Our next-door neighbor knows the owner (who is living in a nursing home facility) and has assured us that our use of the fruits is A-O-K. Sweet!

I will be hoarding these.

It's SO worth it.