Monday, May 18, 2015

Seven Things I Know About Writing

Hi everyone. I know I have let my blog drift away for a few months now. I was off to a pretty good start at the beginning of the year and then, well, you know how the song goes . . . life is what happens when you're busy making other plans (or something like that, but you know what I'm talking about).

Anyway, my friend (and fellow Lake Forest College alumna) Jessica, over at Little Merry Sunshine, tagged me to write about "seven things I know about writing." (By the way, when you get the chance, please go read her blog!)

Well, what better way to get back into blogging than to write about seven things I know about writing, right?!

Here we go. . .

1. Be prepared.

Whether you're writing for work or school or for fun, make sure you get organized and you have everything you need before you sit down and start writing.

If I'm going to sit down and write at the library or a cafe or at a desk/office, I need to make sure I've got my preferred writing implements: a nice notebook (this is what I use) and my favorite pen . . . or sometimes, a laptop and power cord and a table near an outlet.

This may seem obvious, right? Sometimes, in my rush to get to work (especially if I have a good idea I want to get written down right away (!!) before it disappears), I've occasionally forgotten one of these things, and then I spend a few minutes distractedly getting back into the writing mood because I've had to make due with something else (like a pencil and the back of an envelope). 

2. Make yourself comfortable.

The way I make myself comfortable is by making sure I have my beverage of choice (and maybe a snack) within reach. Oftentimes, I'll have a reusable water bottle filled with ice cold water (it's gotta be super cold) and also an iced coffee (usually during the day, because I need the caffeine).  In the evening, I might have an ice cold bottle of beer (but that depends on whether I'm writing for school or for fun). For a snack? I always seem to gravitate towards Chex Mix. It helps me concentrate. Liv calls it "brain food" - that snack, whatever it may be, that helps one concentrate. Seems like I really like need Chex Mix if I'm writing something scholarly.

Also, if you know the room you're going to be writing in will be either chilly or warm, make sure you're dressed appropriately. There's a room in the University of Iowa library that I liked studying in, but it always seemed overheated, so I always made sure I wore a short-sleeved shirt (underneath a sweatshirt I could take off) if I knew I'd be in there.

Make sure you've used the restroom ahead of time, adjusted your chair just the way you like it, have your music (on your smart phone, iPod, computer, CD player . . . ) and earphones (if you're in a public area) . . . or no music at all (whatever you feel like), and get everything situated just so. Get all these possible distractions taken care of before they become distracting, so you're not interrupting yourself later.

Seems like getting all these things just right will turn into "chair glue" and keep you writing for a good length of time. I know it helps me remain in my chair (hence, "chair glue") for a while.

3. Want to be a better writer? Read. Read a little more. And then read some more.

By the way, Jessica also mentions point this in her blog post. (If you haven't already, go read her post after you finish reading my post.)

Read a variety of things: fiction (mystery, suspense, drama. . . ), non-fiction (biographies/autobiographies. . .), historical fiction, newspapers, blogs, National Geographic . . .whatever seems interesting. Try reading stuff that you may not find so interesting.

Why? Among many other things, reading helps get your little gray cells going. It helps you figure out what you like about written works, what you don't like. It can improve your vocabulary, help you learn things, and well written stories can take you on awesome adventures.

And, besides, if you're going to write accurate non-fiction (or believable fiction, for that matter), you're going to end up doing research, which is going to require reading. 

4. Be true to your own voice.

I love reading mysteries. Suspense, thrillers, action, whodunnits - these are what usually draw my attention. Sure, I enjoy reading other genres, but the "What could possibly happen next?!" types of books are the ones I really enjoy. Of course, I have certain favorite authors in these genres. And if one of my (living) favorites comes out with a new book, I'm right there at the bookstore or library waiting to dive in.

However, don't try to compare your own writing to your favorite author's writing, or you'll just get frustrated. Well, *I* get frustrated, when I catch myself comparing my writing to, say, Tony Hillerman's or Nelson Demille's. My writing could never compare to any of my favorite authors' differing styles. (If you were wondering, some of my very favorites include Tony Hillerman, Robert B. Parker, Nelson DeMille, Sara Paretsky, Sherman Alexie. . . . )

Find what's beckoning you to write and go with the flow.

I had a professor in a graduate literature/writing class that I am very good at creative non-fiction. It seems to come naturally to me, so that's what I've been working on lately. 

5. Writer's block happens and 6. Take a break.

These two go together (for me, anyway). I take writer's block as a signal that it's time to take a not-too-long break. Take a walk. Swim some laps. Take a kick-boxing or spinning or yoga class. Tai Chi. Whatever.

I've found that just getting up and moving around helps me get my little gray cells back on track.

I like trying a different art form (because, really, writing is its own art form). I usually like photography, even if it's "just" Instagram. Practicing another art form usually helps dislodge my writer's block. Even going to a museum and looking at art helps.

(And sometimes, just getting up and staring out the window for a little bit helps.) 

Then I can come back from my break with some good ideas.

Another thing about taking a break: when I finish writing a piece, I always like taking a break, usually no more than 24-36 hours, before going back and doing a final proofreading. I like completely stepping away and letting my brain not think about the piece at all. That way, when I go back to proofread, I'm looking at it with fresh eyes.

7. Enjoy the journey.

It should be fun (mostly). Once I get an idea and I'm in "the zone," I can lose myself in writing and not realize a couple hours have gone by (if I'm on a roll, and haven't run out of Chex Mix).

For me, finishing a piece is very satisfying. 

By the way, if you ever catch me writing, or, more accurately, staring out the window, I might be daydreaming about White Sands National Monument.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Gourmet Pizza, Take 2!

On Monday, February 2nd, I shared our "homemade foodie adventure" we had here at home with some gourmet pizza.

I had based my own pizza creation on two recipes I'd found for fig and prosciutto pizza, because it sounded really good - just the right balance of sweet, salty, savory, tart.

Well, since I'd been way too heavy-handed with the fig preserves and way too light with the prosciutto and sauteed shallots on the first attempt, I decided to try again. I mean, I knew with the first attempt that this creation had awesome potential. I just had to tweak my recipe a bit.

In addition to using a LOT LESS fig preserves, I made a couple other changes:  The first time I tried this recipe, I'd used two fairly small shallots. This time, the two shallots I'd picked were much bigger. Also, the first time, I'd used the pizza dough marked "thin crust." This time, I used the regular/non-thin crust dough. And instead of baking the pizza on a sheet of foil on top of a baking stone, I used a 12" cast iron skillet.

So, this past Sunday (Feb 15th), I tried again.

2 shallots, thinly sliced
2 TBSP olive oil
2 TBSP balsamic vinegar
Pizza dough (you can make your own. I used the dough that comes in a tube in the grocery's refrigerated section.)
Fig preserves (just enough to lightly cover the dough, leaving a bit of room at the edge for the "crust")
Ricotta Salata cheese (which is crumbly, kinda like feta)

The instructions:
First, I preheated the oven to 500°F and took the pizza dough out of the can and set it aside. I wanted the dough to get somewhat close to room temperature so it would be easier to handle.

Then I thinly sliced the shallots and sauteed them in 2 tablespoons' worth of olive oil (plus an added few drops partway though sauteing).

Once they became soft, I added two tablespoons of balsamic vinegar (and then a small splash for good measure), sauteing them a little bit longer, until they seemed glazed. They took on a sort of plum color due to the balsamic vinegar.

I then set the shallot mixture aside and let it cool.

At this point, I took my 12" cast iron skillet and worked the dough into a circle rough imitation of a circle. It ended up not filling the bottom of the 12" skillet completely, but I didn't mind that.

Then I added the thinnest layer of fig preserves onto the dough, leaving about an inch around the outer edge, for the crust. It was such a thin layer, you could barely tell it was there, aside from the bit of gloss the preserves left on the dough, and the occasional bit of fig.

Next came the prosciutto. I hadn't torn/cut it into smaller bits. I just layered the prosciutto as it came out of the package.

On top of the prosciutto, I sprinkled the cheese and  the sauteed balsamic shallot mixture, sort of haphazardly, as I was going for an "artistic, foodie" look.

Into the oven it went. I set the timer for 10 minutes, and checked on it through the oven window on occasion.

After 10 minutes, it looked like it needed to bake a little more. All in all, it spent about 14 minutes in the oven. I think I should have taken it out at about 13 minutes, as the bottom of the crust was just on the verge of burning, getting black around the edge of the "circle."

Here's how it turned out: 

(Note: my large cutting board is lime green. The color made the pizza look really weird and alien-like, and really, really bad. So I used the B&W option on PicMonkey to make the cutting board a light gray (as best I could), so the pizza would look at least sort of good.)

Okay, so this pic (taken on Andrew's smart phone) really doesn't do the pizza justice.

But let me tell you, it tasted AWESOME!! Yum! It was so good!! I can't wait to make it again.

It made two good sized pieces each for two adults. 

Liv refused to taste it again. And Andrew? Well, he ate one piece, and picked the prosciutto of his second piece, leaving his second piece all picked-over. Which was too bad, because if he hadn't, I would've saved it for my lunch the next day.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

It's Almost Time!

In eastern Iowa, Girl Scouts can start selling Girl Scout cookies on February 13th (including taking orders). We are ready!

As you can see, my trunk is loaded with cases of Girl Scout cookies - 22 cases (meaning 264 packages!) of cookies, to be exact!

That's a lot of cookies.

So on Feb 13 (and not a moment sooner!!), Liv can start taking orders and getting cookies to her customers.

Friday, February 6, 2015


I like Mother Nature's winter fashions (so long as the roads are clear). The sunshine and blue skies help.

This is a tree outside my bedroom window (on the eastern side of my house). It had a lot of snow blown onto its limbs during the blizzard we had last weekend - a bit of snow continued to stick to the branches, even a couple days later.

However, add a sunny, seemingly "warm" winter day, and some of the snow starts melting.

But then, when the temps dip to around zero, all that melting snow turns icy.

Then we get a lovely "glittery" tree.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Not the Usual Pizza This Time

Saturdays are usually pretty busy for us. I usually chauffeur Liv around to various extracurricular activities. We're usually out of the house by 9 AM and don't get home til around 3 PM. Then we have about an hour to hang out before we leave for our weekend church service from 4:30-5:30 PM.

Oftentimes, Liv will ask if we can just order a pizza on Saturday evening. Since a couple of the local (chain) pizza places deliver (and I don't have to cook or clean up), she typically doesn't get an argument from me, after having driven what seems to have been 200 miles back and forth, back and forth. . .

This past Saturday, though, I had a better idea. I was going to try making a "gourmet" pizza at home, just for something different. Earlier in the week, I'd gotten the ingredients for this pizza I'd been wanting to try. I have been meaning to try it for months, now, and last week, I finally found the last remaining ingredient at a new specialty store/food co-op that opened up in December 2014.

Yes, I know. What kind of pizza is it?! Fig (or fig preserve) and prosciutto pizza.

I'd seen a catalog for fancy chef tools, and inside, it had the most scrumptious-looking pizza among all their beautiful chef/cook tools. It was a fig and prosciutto pizza. Andrew and I had tried prosciutto on other pizzas in the past. A few times, we'd had prosciutto added on a pizza we'd ordered at one of our favorite pizza places in the Boston area, as well as adding onto pizzas we made at home, using one of those pre-made pizza crusts, that you get in a package in the "Italian" section of the grocery store.

But this time, I was going to make a completely different kind of pizza - no tomato-based pizza sauce, no shredded mozzarella, no pepperoni, no pre-made pizza crust out of a package. It was going to be this "gourmet" pizza I'd seen in the catalog.

Well, I did kind of get "help" on the crust. Instead of using the pre-made one, I got a "can" of raw pizza dough from the grocery store's refrigerator section.

I was going to see if I could buy a couple balls of raw pizza dough from our favorite local pizza parlor (not one of the chains that you'd find anywhere, from LA to NYC to Miami). This is a local place and they don't even deliver. There are only two of these pizza parlors and one is just about a 5 minute drive from our house (the other is about 15 minutes away from us). But I ended up not getting the chance to do so. So the "can" of dough would have to do, as I have little (no) experience making doughs from scratch.

I ended making my own recipe based on two fig and prosciutto recipes I found online (one being that one I'd originally seen in that catalog).

Here are a couple of the big changes I'd made off the bat: instead of using either a red or yellow onion, I used a couple shallots. And while I could've used fig slices (fresh, not dried), I opted to go with just the fig preserves for now (that last ingredient I'd found last week).

First, I preheated the oven to 500°F. I have a pizza stone, which I put in the oven before preheating.

Ingredients (the ones I used):
2 shallots, thinly sliced
2 TBSP olive oil
2 TBSP balsamic vinegar
Pizza dough (you can make your own. I used the stuff in a can, for "thin crust")
Fig preserves
Prosciutto (to taste)
Ricotta Salata cheese (crumbly, like feta)

What I did with the ingredients:
I sauteed the shallots in a couple tablespoons' worth of olive oil. Once they became soft, I added a couple tablespoons of balsamic vinegar. Then I sauteed that all together until they seemed kind of glazed.

Then I set the shallot mixture aside and let it cool.

In the meantime, I had a baking sheet lined with foil (which was supposed to be parchment, but I realized too late that I was out of parchment). I sprinkled a little flour onto the foil. Then I took the dough out of the can and split it in two. Then, using my hands, I shaped two pizzas out of it (note to self: next time, let it come to room temp, as cold dough is hard to work with).

Then I scooped fig preserves onto each. I hadn't measured, but it was about a few tablespoons on each. It ended up being about the same amount you'd use if you were using pizza sauce instead of fig preserves. (Note to self: This was way too much.)

Then I took the prosciutto and coarsely tore it into smaller pieces before putting it onto the pizzas.

Then I sprinkled on the cheese. I sprinkled on an amount that seemed just right - not too much, not too little.

Here's where I added the shallot mixture, half on one pizza and half on the other.

I baked the pizzas at 500 for about 8-9 minutes.

 Here's what they looked like.

Liv tried a piece, picked at another, and gave her "Yuck!" face. Needless to say, she was not pleased. She said she never wants it again.

Andrew and I both agreed that I was a little too heavy-handed with the fig preserves. The pizzas were way, too sweet. He said he'd like it again, and I definitely would like it again - so long as I'm sparing with the fig preserves. We realized that the flavors would be very good together - the sweetness of (just a little fig preserves) with the saltiness of the prosciutto, and the tangy/sweet flavor of the shallot and balsamic vinegar mixture.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Let it Snow!

Well, the Midwest is getting snow (and winds, lots of high winds!) again this weekend. It started raining here yesterday afternoon and into the evening. By around 7 PM, it had started changing over to snow as the temperature dropped. And it has been snowing ever since, even still, at 3:30 PM. I think new snow is still falling but it's sometimes hard to tell with the heavy winds blowing and causing lots of drifts.

There has been heavy snowfall around my neighborhood. A couple cars have already gotten stuck on our street before snow plows started clearing our neighborhood roads.

In the meantime, Liv and Jock have been enjoying the snow (but not for too long because the wind chill's right around zero).

Jock really seems to enjoy playing in the snow. Here are plenty of Pembroke-Welsh-Corgi-in-the-snow pics, most are kinda blurry because he was having so much fun zipping around quickly.

Bookin' it through the snow!

Over the drift

Peek a boo, Jock!

Running along the fence line

I included this pic, even though Jock's a blur, because of how quickly he ran to me and turned around for another lap in the snow!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Oh, Deer! A Weekend Surprise

So, we've been hanging out at home, today and totally enjoying some unexpected sunshine through our southward-facing living room window.

Jock had been lounging quietly, too, but had suddenly started whining and acting restless. Not unusual - maybe the Dachshunds next door were outside. Or maybe the wind was blowing just so. Who knows. 

All of a sudden, Livie shouts, "Hey, look! Deer! Deer! Look! Daddy! Mommy! Look out the window!"

When I looked out the window, I saw what she was so excited about. Three deer were just on the other side of our backyard fence, right here in suburbia!

The view of two of them, through our very dirty window!

At this point, Jock was barking and whining and getting at the sliding door that leads to our deck. He really wanted to get out there and chase them. It was at this point that they had gotten startled and started heading toward the elementary school's field right across the street. And it was at this point that I realized there were four deer (not three) out there. 

That was unexpected!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Royalty and Popular Songs

Liv and I have been keeping busy this month with all sorts of activities, from school/homework to Girl Scouts, swimming (at our local Y's indoor pool), riding, and Pony Club.

Liv and I are quite proud of her improvement this past weekend at her riding lesson. She's been working on learning how to post the trot, and yesterday while riding Prince, she was really getting the hang of it! (Posting is, in the simplest of terms, rising and lowering yourself to the beat of the trot - a horse's two-beat gait - up on one beat, down on the next beat, up on the next. . . .) Once you get the hang of it, it oftentimes seems easier than sitting the trot. This is very exciting, as it shows great improvement. Plus, she'll be able to get tested for her first U.S. Pony Club rating (D-1) within the next couple months!

Pony Club is a great organization that teaches kids proper horsemanship/maintaining horses' well-being/learning to ride in a safe, smart manner. D-1 is the beginning level. Each level is standardized and has certain expectations that they must meet or exceed in order to be rated at a certain level, and they build on the knowledge these young horsemen/women learned in the previous levels.

Here she is, mid-lesson giving Prince and herself a breather after having maintained a posting trot for a few minutes. This is the first time she has been able to use a couple gifts from "Santa" -  her new "children's length" (shorter) stirrup leathers (that are still a little long so we had to roll 'em, anyway) and safety stirrup irons, which have a thick "rubber band" type thing on the outside that will release if she were to fall off, preventing her foot from being stuck in the stirrup; if her foot were to get stuck in the stirrup during a fall, it's dangerous, as she could get dragged around.

Prince, by the way, has been enjoying the weather. It's been in the mid-40s F here in eastern Iowa during the day these past few days.

Needless to say, the paddock where Prince is kept has a muddy spot or two. And he thoroughly enjoyed rolling in a "nice" gloppy spot not too long before we arrived for Liv's lesson. When we got there, his neck and head were COVERED in mud. Her instructor had said he had been perfectly clean not two hours earlier!

So Liv and another young girl at the stables worked on getting the mud curried off of him (at least his midsection and rear end were covered by his blanket, and were relatively clean). If you click on the pic, you can see that he still has some remaining dried mud on his mane (neither girl was quite tall enough to get that part thoroughly cleaned).

Another fun thing she's done this month is art. She had received a gift card from "Santa" from the local art studio, The Dreaming Bear, where she loves doing artwork. A couple weekends ago, she made a fantastic piece of art (a winking fox). She based her paint scheme on a song that's been popular somewhat recently:
To tell you the truth, I'm still not sure what he says.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Just Remembering

Today is my grandmother's birthday. She would've been 90 years old today.

So, in her honor, I'm posting a few of my favorite pics of her and the Southwest.

In no particular order:
The street where she and my grandfather used to live. I took this pic when we were there for her funeral.
Near her house - these are the Franklin Mountains, which she saw daily.

Liv, near a yucca plant at White Sands National Monument.

A dune at White Sands National Monument. My first visit to White Sands was with my grandparents, when I was very little.

Oma's birthday, 2011.

Me, my mom, and Oma, right around my college graduation, May 1993.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Jock's Snowy Morning

Alright, so many of you are probably aware that the Midwest got hit by a snowstorm yesterday and  it lasted through the overnight hours. We ended up getting approximately 6.2" in my neighborhood.

Plus, we're going back into the deep freeze this week. When I headed out with Liv to take her to school this morning (after a 2 hour delayed start), the temp was -5°F with a wind chill of around -19°F. Let me tell you, she was bundled up. Long underwear, clothes, snow pants, snow boots, neck gaiter, winter coat, mittens, hat. She said her snow gear is SO WARM (thankfully!!) and the walk to school - 0.26 one way/door-to-door (we're literally right across the street) - is short.

We're supposed to be above 0°F for a high temp (though in the single digits, around 8°F). Tonight, though, it's supposed to be -11°F; who knows how cold the wind chill will get. Tomorrow? A high of -5°F and tomorrow's low expected to drop to -18°F. No wonder we've got a wind chill warning, huh?!

It really could be worse, though! Liv and I are reading The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. In this book, Laura describes blizzard after blizzard the Ingalls family endures in their house in the Dakota Territory during the winter of 1880-1881. She often mentions the bitter cold they were enduring this particular winter, and how, when she was in bed, she would look up at the ceiling and see how frost coated the ceiling board nails thickly in white. (They could also see their breath upstairs in their bedroom!!) 

And at one point, she mentions that, when Pa went down the street one day (they lived in town at this point) to find out the news from other townsfolk, he'd mentioned, upon his return home, that it was around 40° below!! 

A high of 8°F doesn't seem so bad, especially when the sun is making a weak (but hopefully not brief) appearance.

Anyway, I did entitle this post "Jock's Snowy Day." Yes, my original intent was to share a few pictures of Jock's enjoyment of the snowy back yard. He was born in August 2014, so last year was obviously his first winter. He LOVED it. He loved rolling in the snow, running around in the snow, eating, it, sticking his snout into snow drifts and rooting around . . . I was hoping that this winter, he'd be just as enamored of the white stuff as he was last year. 

Yep. He sure is. 


These were taken this morning, during Liv's two hour delay. She watched a bit from the window while I went out to take a few pics of Jock. I didn't get any of him while he was rooting around (SO FUNNY!) because he'd hear my camera's buzz while I focused on him, and he'd immediately whip his head around and look at me. But you can see the snowy effect of his rooting!

We didn't stay out long because of the wind chills, and the fact that his veterinary hospital posted about only taking dogs out for elimination purposes only while we're in this deep freeze. But I figured a few minutes here and there would be okay.

And then Liv had to go to school. I usually take her to the corner, and then the crossing guard takes over, but since we were a few minutes early, the crossing guard wasn't there, yet. So I walked her across the street onto school property, and she trotted off from there. 

When I got back into the house, I found Jock. Since both Liv and Andrew had two weeks off (one from school and the other from work, obviously), he grew accustomed to having all three of us around. But Andrew left for work after snow blowing the driveway and sidewalks, and then Liv was off. So he found his spot at the window by the front door (with his chew toy and the towel I use to dry him off after coming in from the snow) and began pining away for his two missing humans. 

Poor Jock. Hopefully he'll get used to the regular routine soon. (He's no longer at the window, but under my desk right now as I type.)

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My Year in Books 2014

Knock, knock, knock . . . Hello? Any readers around?

Yes, I know it's been a long, LOOONG time since I've posted. I think my inspiration to write disappeared when a creative nonfiction piece I wrote for a writing competition in mid May didn't get past the contest's initial round.

Well, I think that was the last straw, actually. Inspiration had been slowly seeping out of me, as I haven't needed a creative writing outlet (namely, this blog) to balance out the (currently on hold) academic writing for grad school. I also think that I was meeting my creativity needs through a visual outlet by posting on Instagram, instead of being verbally creative here at Under the Desert Sky.

But I've realized something,  I miss my blog! So I'm making a New Year's resolution to get back into posting something on a "regular" basis - if not daily or weekly, at least monthly. How does that sound?

Plus, I didn't want 2014 to fizzle away without any posts since May 2014!

And in previous years, I really enjoyed the "Year in Books" meme that Lisa over at Two Bears Farm got me hooked on, starting with the book list for 2010.

Basically, you want to answer the prompts with book titles you've read in 2014. 

So here's my year in books, 2014 style (some are repeats I'd originally read in previous years, but had wanted to revisit. Most are first-time reads.)  . . .

1.  Describe yourself: Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
2.  How do you feel?  Damned if You Do (Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone) by Michael Brandman
3.  Describe where you currently live.  The Round House by Louise Erdrich
4.  If you could go anywhere, where would you go?  A Year in the World: Journeys of a Passionate Traveller by Frances Mayes
5.  Your favorite form of transportation?  Ghost Ship by Clive Cussler
6.  Your best friend is: The Replacement Child: A Mystery by Christine Barber
7.  You and your friends are: High Profile by Robert B. Parker
8.  What's the weather like?  Stone Cold by C.J. Box
9.  What is life to you?  Mirage by Clive Cussler
10.  Favorite time of day?  Night and Day by Robert B. Parker
11.  Your Fear?  Death Without Company  by Craig Johnson
12.  What is the best advice you have to give? For Immediate Assistance, Pray the Memorare by JCD Rev. Francis J. Hoffman
13.  Thought for the day?  Hold the Dark, by William Giraldi
14.  How I would like to die: By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder
15.  My soul's present condition:  Kindness Goes Unpunished by Craig Johnson
16. My family is: On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder

I hope you enjoy the list. Please visit "The Happily Ever After" blog (written by Christine) for this meme's prompt, My Life According to the Books I Read in 2014

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Living with Laura

Hi everyone! I've been a completely uninspired writer lately. And uninspired writers rarely get words on paper.

But I have a fun activity I wanted to share. Last weekend, Liv and I attended a Girl Scout "Living with Laura Ingalls Wilder" day at a local outdoor "museum" called Ushers Ferry Historic Village, which is a replica of a small town at the turn of the 20th Century. They do various activities depicting life in a small Iowa town during the 1890-1910 years.

Anyway, as a Girl Scout Brownie, Livie had the opportunity to earn a "Laura Ingalls Wilder" patch. In addition to reading at least two of the books in the Little House series, written, obviously, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, she had some other activities she had to do to earn the patch. This "Living with Laura Ingalls Wilder" day fulfilled all the patch requirements (aside from the reading). Since we are already on book 5 of the series (By the Shores of Silver Lake), she was able to earn the patch by the end of the day.

We started the morning by checking in at the village church at 9:15.This pic is just inside the entrance. I liked the lovely stained glass (which isn't showing up very well due to the sunlight coming in from outside). I was going to get a pic of her outside the church, too, but at the time, other people were arriving and mingling outside; I was going to get a pic later, but I ended up forgetting.

Once the program started, we got to hear a Laura expert in period costume (a fan and re-creator who has done a lot of studying up on Laura's life) tell us about Laura and her family's life. She highlighted different stand-out stories from each book.

One story that Liv and I loved was from Little House in the Big Woods, when Pa was gone for a few days (hunting or trapping, I think?). One evening, Ma had Mary stay in the house with little Carrie. Ma and Laura went out to the barn to check on the cow before going to bed (maybe they were going to get some milk, too, but I don't remember that detail).

Well, it was dark out, and upon arriving at the barn, Ma had Laura help by holding the lantern. They had noticed that the cow was out in the pen, instead of in the barn. Well, they couldn't figure out why the cow was out, because Ma was sure they'd closed the barn door when putting the cow in from the field earlier. (Now remember, it's dark out.) So in order to get the cow to walk forward so they could get her into the barn, Ma smacked the cow on the rear end.

But at that moment, Ma realized that the dark shadow she saw standing in front of the barn wasn't the cow. It was a bear! Very firmly and very calmly, Ma told Laura to back away quietly and calmly. She said that when she gave the word, Laura was to run as fast as she could to the house.

They both hurried back to the house and got there safely! (The cow, by the way, remained safe inside the barn because it had been so sturdily built.)

One of the things I learned was that Charles "Pa" Ingalls' fiddle still exists! We even got to hear a CD of a musician playing period music with Pa's ACTUAL fiddle!

Now, Pa's fiddle is very important. One of Laura's reasons for writing the books was to remember and share the joy Pa's music brought to the family and community. She wanted to remember those days and pass along what her favorite songs were. Liv and I enjoy getting to the parts in the book where Pa plays his fiddle. Laura's stories were a big reason why Liv chose to learn how to play the violin! So to find out that Pa's fiddle still exists in a museum . . . well, we were excited about that.

Apparently it is brought out once a year during a festival celebrating Laura's family. It is played by a musician in a folk-music band, playing music from Laura's time period. I believe the museum is in the Missouri Ozarks. Click here for more info.

Oh, another thing that I learned was about Almanzo Wilder. Apparently, someone in his family took part in the Crusades. This family member was in a predicament and was saved by someone known as "El Mansoor." The family was so grateful, that they wanted to pay their respects to this person, so Almanzo's parents chose the name "Almanzo." But in real life, it wasn't pronounced like it was in the TV series. The "man" in Almanzo rhymes with "hand" (or "ran" or "pan"). I never knew that. (Apparently, Dean Butler, who played Almanzo in the TV series knows this and pronounces it the way the real family pronounced it.)

Oh, and in real life, Laura actually called Almanzo "Manly" as a nickname! But his nickname for Laura wasn't "Beth" like it was in the show, it was "Bessie," (still based on her middle name, Elizabeth).

After learning a bit about Laura's family, we went to different parts of the town to learn about life in Laura's day.

Walking through town.

Learning games Laura and her sisters used to play:

Making a serious face at the doctor's place

Making biscuits using a recipe from the day. The helper actually baked them in a wood-burning oven!

Learning how to sew! (Mary Ingalls made her first basic quilt when she was about 5 years old!)

In front of the school, next to the bell (it was actually pretty loud! We could hear it across the "town"!)

In school, writing on slate tablets with chalk!

They also got to make little dolls out of remnants or scrap pieces of fabric. (I hadn't gotten a good pic of them while they made those.)

There was SO much information that we learned about the real Laura. It would take a lot of reading if I were to have shared all the info with you. But I hope the info that I shared was interesting, anyway. I hope all you Little House fans out there enjoyed "tagging along" with Liv and me on our "Living with Laura" day!

P.S. Here's a pic of a quilt a fan made, showcasing the Ingalls girls (and their first and middle names). Cool, huh?!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

For HAT on 8 Mar 2014

For the man of many words, I'll leave it brief and let the photos speak for themselves; so here you go, Uncle. 

We miss you, too.

And because you and I both thoroughly enjoyed this movie, here's the trailer for Sherlock Holmes:

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Three of My Winter Essentials

The past few days, Liv and I have had an icy walk to and from school. Even though I've salted my driveway and the sidewalk in front of our house, the city has sanded the streets, and the school has salted their walkways, there are still icy spots that are unavoidable.

Especially at the corner where Liv and I (as well as lots of other students) cross. This particular corner's at a somewhat low area where water naturally pools. So when we have weather just warm enough to start melting ice and snow, water pools at this corner. Then it gets below freezing, and that (seemingly giant) pool of water freezes up like an ice skating rink. It makes crossing the street a bit hazardous. We don't want to slip and fall, especially since it's at the corner - I'm always worried that either Liv or I (or another kid) will slip into oncoming traffic.

That got me to thinking about the winter weather gear that I'm glad I have.

Quite a few years ago - it must've been when I was in college and was home visiting at Christmastime - my brother Joe and I were at our local mall. He didn't have a car/ride and wanted to head to the mall to pick up some gifts; I was more than willing to go with him. I liked spending time with my brothers, and if that meant taking one of them to the mall, I was all for it.

Well, we'd walked past one of those kiosks that sells all those toasty warm shearling products. I tried on a pair of mittens and said I loved them and would have to come back another time to get them. (I don't remember why I wasn't going to get them right then.) As we walked along and Joe made a purchase for our youngest brother, Alex, and maybe another purchase for somebody else, he decided he had to go the the men's room.


He came back grinning, and I somehow noticed that he was hiding attempting to hide an extra bag among the other bags he already had. He ended up saying something like, "If you were to get those mittens you liked, you would pick the small ones and not the mediums, right?"



Fast forward to Christmas day.

He'd gotten me those mittens. And I still have them, as evidenced by the photo above. They are SO WARM.

I'd used them a LOT (except for skiing/sledding, because I'd go with mittens that are a bit more water repellant), and they went with me wherever I moved - although when I was stationed in Tucson, AZ, they remained in a box of winter weather gear (like my snow parka and winter boots).

When Andrew and I ended up being stationed in Boston, and I knew I'd need these mittens at some point, I actually couldn't find them! They were lost! So Andrew, upon finding a similar pair at a similar kiosk at our "new" local mall, bought me a new pair.

The original mittens that Joe had gotten me were in that winter weather gear box and it had been temporarily lost on our household goods' journey between Tucson and the Boston area. I was glad the box finally showed up, though unfortunately, another couple boxes were lost for good.

Anyway, these mittens are perfect for those low wind-chill days when I'm walking Livie to and from school!

My other favorite winter gear invention: YakTrax.

These are things you put on your shoes that help you maintain traction as you walk on icy or otherwise slick paths, kinda like tire chains for tires. A few years ago, I'd bought a pair of the "walking" variety. They're thick rubber "webs" with metal coils that go on the bottoms of your shoes. They really help reduce all the sliding around you do on icy surfaces.

That's my very poor, poor quality photo of what they look like. (Yes, it's gunky out there with the sand and the salt and the gunk.) You can see a better pic of one here.

I actually meant to wear these one morning when I ran outside while visiting my parents over the holdiays (treadmills get boring FAST in the wintertime). But I hadn't realized that Andrew had brought them inside; I thought they were in my car. So when I got to the trail head, they weren't there. But I went running anyway, and slipped on a nasty patch of ice, wrenching my right foot and aggravating the just-about-completely healed tendonitis. I took a couple weeks off, and that morphed into a couple more weeks off and. . . well, I need to get back to running. I'm just about out of the habit.

Anyway, my third favorite winter thing?

My peppermint mug. Usually used for coffee, and occasionally for hot chocolate. I use it mostly in the winter, because it seems like it's a wintery themed mug, right?

Anybody else have winter gear you just can't live without?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Liv's First French Baking Lesson

While we were at my parents' for Christmas, Livie got to do a special activity. My mom had had a very special guest staying at her house while we were there. Pedro. Pedro used to work at one of the US Embassies in South America, as well as honing his culinary skills in Paris, of all places. He knows his way around a kitchen like any celebrity chef you'd see on TV these days.

Well, one day, my mom said that Pedro had mentioned to her that he had the perfect activity for Livie. He wanted to teach her how to make an apple tart. He had this French recipe he wanted to teach her; it was one he'd seen young French children her age making all the time, during his stay in Paris. He said it would be a perfect first "from scratch" recipe. And it would be delicious.

So one afternoon, after tending to their "mise en place" (getting all their ingredients ready and kitchen tools set out in their proper places), they got right to work on the recipe.

 Pedro's ensuring she's getting all the pastry ingredients in the bowl.

He's giving instruction on how to mix the pastry ingredients."Use two hands on the mixer."

She is doing it herself!

Adding some final wet ingredients.

Time to add the apples on the pastry dough. Abuelita is "supervising."

Almost done! She's adding golden raisins that had been soaked in . . . something with cloves (I've forgotten exactly what it was).

 It's ready for the oven!

After smelling its heavenly aroma wafting from the oven, it was FINALLY ready.

Liv gets the first piece.

It was DELICIOUS!! Now I just have to email Pedro and ask him to send me the recipe so that Liv can make it again.
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