Thursday, May 15, 2014

Learning Creatures

Caution Note: I've mentioned my daughter before, but this post is 100% about kids. Out of respect for my dear friends in the Loss community who have yet to find their rainbow, I'll be placing warnings on child-oriented posts, so that they may choose to skip that post if they are having a rough day.

We are learning creatures.

I was watching Pebbles today, and I was struck with the fact that we are learning creatures. From the time we are born, we are hardwired to learn. Every experience, no matter how mundane, teaches us something.

Pebbles was getting into everything today. She was a whirlwind of energy and I was looking for something that would slow her down a bit, so I could keep up. I handed her a little tin that I keep cheesy crackers in for a quick toddler snack. She had once before figured out how to pop and slide the lid open to get to the treats inside. However, today she was stumped.

Recently, she discovered that she could hand me something and I would interact with the item for her. She had fed me strawberries that were supposed to be her breakfast the other day with a childish delight that had me feeling like Lucille on the production line at the chocolate factory. Today was the first time she handed me something specifically because she wanted it fixed. So, I demonstrated to her how to slide the lid back and forth three times, then I handed it back to her.

It took a minute of trying and fumbling, but she finally got the lid slid open enough to reach in and pinch a cracker between her little fingers.


Once she realized that she couldn't reach more than the top crackers, she started testing her limits. First she dumped the crackers on the floor, but instead of just eating them that way, she picked them each up and put it back in the tin. As she did this, she would reach in occasionally to see if she could reach the crackers. She continued this methodical testing until she figured out the level that she could reach the crackers.

Okay, that's how far my hand can go...

When she sorted this problem out, she began a new game. She pulled each cracker out of the tin and lined it up along the seats of the couch. This is something I used to do with Cheerios to distract her when she was just starting to stand with the help of the couch and was super grouchy. We haven't done it in more than 3 months. She replicated it for a while, lining crackers up and then eating them one by one.

This one goes here!

Eventually, she bored of this activity and began to grab the crackers and huck them over her shoulder in and around her myriad of toys strewn over the floor.

Apparently it no longer goes there.

Finally, she retrieved the tin and its lid and began putting the remaining cracker pieces back in the tin, and tried to figure out how to align the lid right to slide it back into place. She gave up, choosing to put the lid inside the tin along with the crackers, but I was still impressed.

Only a few crumbs left for me to clean up. Everywhere!

This was a half an hour of total solitary focus after I had showed her how the lid opened. Complete self-directed play and self-directed learning. It makes me think that sometimes the best thing we can do for our children is to get out of their way. They've got this learning thing taken care of!

I learned something too.

Inside every Elmo is a Mickey Mouse just waiting to get out.

Next time: Spring is in the air!

Monday, May 5, 2014

Yard work and a tour

We've been in this house for a month. Sometimes it's very hard to believe, but we spent the first two weeks getting moved in and cleaning out our old house. We were supposed to move into this home after it had been professionally cleaned, however when the sale started falling apart and the sellers were getting crabby, we released them from that clause on the day of closing. Instead of finishing up what cleaning that they did promise, they just locked the doors, dropped their keys off with their realtor, stopped by the title company to sign their papers, and drove off into the sunset.

So, I've been spending a great deal of time deep cleaning this house. From the ceilings, the light fixtures, walls, windows, window sills, baseboards, heaters, door jams, doors, and floors, I've been scrubbing to remove all traces of old cat, dog slobber, greasy hand prints, scuffs from moving furniture, and copious amounts of accumulated dirt. It's almost done, but I had to change focus for a minute or three.

What a difference a month makes!

This is because sun came out, break up finished, and we're even being blessed with something of an actual spring. Something that Alaska doesn't see very often. As the snow retreated for the first time, we finally got a chance to explore our new yard. We discovered poop.

Lots of poop.

Poop everywhere.

I'll spare you from a picture.

You're welcome.

Last fall the previous owners did not do a typical fall clean-up before the snow came. The grass was left long, the leaves lay where they fell, and then as the snow built and built, they let their dog out to do its business and never picked anything up. Our lawn was a matted, thatchy, poopy mess. I didn't have the heart to take pictures. Instead, we hired a local service to come do a spring clean-up. We did this at our old place once before. It was an expense, but given our schedule at the time, it was worth it and it only took one guy an hour to clean the whole yard. This time was different. For two hours, four guys picked up poop and raked up leaves. They only made it through about a third of the yard, even using two leaf blowers before running through their allotted time. We just couldn't justify the expense of having them continue, knowing how much was still left to do.

Instead, we put that money down and invested in a good gas-powered leaf blower. It took me two days with the blower, with John raking behind me to de-thatch the grass and pick up poop, while battling a serious Alaskan-style mosquito infestation, but we finally got it done yesterday morning.

That's a lot of poop. Well, there's a few leaves mixed in there, too.

After showering we took our 15th trip to Lowe's and a couple of local nurseries. Now we've got a game plan and something like a nice yard. Pebbles is kind of over Lowe's, the people watching isn't all that good.

Care for the grand tour?

Here it is! Come up the driveway through a few trees and there is this lovely cedar-sided home.

On the south side of the driveway, to the right of the house, is the garage. It's a big garage. I'll do a post just on the garage another time. It deserves it's own post.

I'm letting the entire yard cycle for one year, to see what's what and where things like perennials might turn up. So, this year gardening is limited to pots, except for one tomato plant that I'm going to find a warm place to grow. Here's the mix, out in the shade, starting their hardening off cycle before planting.

One of the things I get to do this year is to identify all the plants on the property. If there is anything particularly toxic, out it comes. This shrub looked a bit shifty.

But, then we looked at it closer (and consulted a local botanist). It's a Rose Tree of China! It will be in full bloom in a few days. I definitely will get pictures!

Back to the yard. The pretty flowering bush has this view, looking south along the eastern garage wall.

Behind the garage (looking west) is a deceptive bit of land. About a quarter acre is hidden in the trees back there. I was thrilled on my meanderings to discover it's virgin forest, complete with native undergrowth, including High Bush Cranberries and possibly some wild raspberries. I love them, so we'll make sure to leave that land undisturbed, so we can harvest the berries in the fall.

Looking east from the garage, the back fence stretches out on your right. We have a kind of triangular-shaped lot, so this is our longest fence line stretching from the back of the forested area, along behind the garage, and on along to the east side of our lot. We were greatly relieved when the snow melted and we found a 5-foot tall fence, instead of the 3-foot it had looked like when we bought the place. Fencing wasn't a project we were looking forward to.

Before we walk all the way to the back of the property, we turn to the north to see the house. No south-facing windows except that little kitchen window, yet somehow the inside is bright and airy all day. We're planning on some renovations which will include adding dormer window seats upstairs, and eventually the window seats will open out over a two-story 'post and beam' sun room after a second phase of renovations. But that is a long ways off.

This little shed just begs to be made into a playhouse for Pebbles!

The sellers were kind enough to leave the caribou antlers. Makes me smile every time I look at them.

Looking west from the back (top image) and the center (bottom image) of the property towards the garage and house. Lots of lawn to play on!

There are quite a bit of paper birch trees on the property. Many of them look big enough to tap, so maybe we'll try our hand at birch syrup some spring. This set, however, is just growing mushrooms.

In the mean time, there are one or two spots that are simply crying out for a hammock, a book, and a nice glass of wine.

Of course, that deck looks awfully comfortable, too!

We did, however, discover that after they installed a new septic tank last fall, they just kind of scraped the dirt back in place with a bobcat and called it good. So much for the 'fully landscaped yard'. This will take a while to fix. I've got to pull out all the rock, spread new top soil, level, and re-seed. Yeesh.

The only bit of landscaping clues that the sellers gave, was a hand-written note on their way out the door. The wife wanted me to know that outside the kitchen window were 'the most beautiful peonies she had ever seen'. Sure enough, they broke through the ground two weeks ago and are already over a foot tall! Alaska is definitely good for growing peonies.

They are along the east wall in a really warm corner with reflective heat from the extended roof line under the kitchen window. I'm going to take a bit of space in there to plant my tomato. They really don't do well in Alaska's cool, short growing season, so every bit of extra heat helps. You can even see that the peonies nearest to the kitchen wall are taller than those further down the row.

Coming out of the back yard by the garage, you can see this interesting gate and fence they built. On top of the fence posts are stained glass caps. Some of them look like they have solar panels on top, as if they could light up at night. The sellers left four more of these for what I presume was for a matching gate set up for the north side of the home. I like the idea of expanding on their theme (the house is loaded with stained glass fixtures), and a fellow at Lowe's in trying to locate more for us to use along the driveway.

View of the front walk from the garage, looking north. The amount of gravel tracked in from this walk is stunning, and right onto hardwood floors. We are absolutely shoeless inside now, and I'll be paving this walk during the summer when I have help watching Pebbles.

Outside the front door, there is this little gravel pad that is something of a small patio. When I put down pavers for the front walk, I'll be including this in the project. No more gravel! We sweep the garage out twice weekly, because of the gravel the trucks track in, but the driveway is much too big to pave on our current budget.

The grand tour is almost over, but I had to include the biggest surprise we've had yet.

Kokopelli! I have no idea why this little Anazazi fellow is up here in the Great Land, but there he is. A taste of my old life in Southern Utah, ready to welcome us home.

Up next: A tour of the inside. But first, I have to get through the housewarming and birthday party this weekend!

And, mosquito abatement. We can't take Pebbles outside right now, and little girls need to play outside.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Easter eggs

I've always liked the idea of Easter eggs, mostly because I'm a mad fan of the deviled eggs. The days after Easter are filled with deviled eggs at every meal. Mom made hers with finely-minced sweet pickle and the obligatory sprinkle of paprika over the top. They were enough work that they were special occasion fare, with usually a small tray at Thanksgiving and Christmas. The rest of the year? Nary an egg of the deviled variety to be found.

I was cruising around the web the other day and spotted an ad from Schillings for the custom colors you could mix using their Neon food coloring drops. I always wanted to do vibrant colored eggs just once. As a kid, we didn't use a high enough concentration of the stuff or have enough patience to really get bright eggs. So, I decided to have some fun. One of the things that attracted me to the ad was the lack of the usually obligatory Photoshop job that is rampant in advertising. For example, the white band on the egg from a thick rubber band used during dying wasn't a professional-looking, Martha Stewart perfect, crisp line. In fact, you could see fuzzy edges from bleeding dye and flaws where the band had shifted. Similarly, the white polka dots were more oblong and funky. I liked it. It seemed doable.

So, armed with two dozen white eggs I had cooked up the night before, I poured myself a cup of coffee and set about it. First thing I found? The instructions say, 'use 1/4 teaspoon food coloring.' However, their custom color recipes give ratios that come up to decidedly less than 1/4 teaspoon. So, I winged it. After the first color, I figured out that 1/4 teaspoon is around 26-27 drops. I just counted them out in the cup and went to whatever multiple of that color's ratio was close.

I'm funny when it comes to arts and crafts. My skill level is hit and miss. I can pick up one random project and knock it out like I've been doing it my whole life, and then pick up another and it ends up looking like a 5-year old given an espresso and a puppy did it while having a meltdown. Stylish. I decided to try the rubber band and rubber cement trick I'd seen done.

First of all, you cannot get a round spot from the brush in the rubber cement jar. I'm just going to say that right now. A half a dozen diseased-looking eggs later, it finally hit me. I needed a stamp. In true 'me' style, I looked around for whatever was handy. On the counter, not too far from where I left a pile of leftover parts and tools used in installing a power-outage night light in the kitchen (very handy for midnight snacks in an arctic hurricane, I highly recommend picking some up at Costco), I found this little rivet-shaped piece of plastic. You can see it up there on the counter to the left of the glass tray of dyed eggs. I dabbed the flat top into a bit of rubber cement and touched it to the egg. I found that if I didn't overload the thing and if I didn't mash it down too hard, it left a nice even disk of rubber cement that dried pretty quickly.

I lowered it into the dye and kind of bobbed it up and down for a while, working all the surface bubbles off in an attempt to get even color. I noticed that the instructions Schillings give say to mix your dye lot up with boiling water. However, I noticed that as the dye lot cooled to room temperature there were less and less bubbles forming on the eggs while they sat in the bath. The problem with bubbles is that they form after the egg hits the dye. So, when you pull the egg out to dry, everywhere there is a bubble, the egg is a lighter color. You can really see it in later pictures below. The egg I'm describing here was the last in the turquoise dye and didn't develop many bubbles at room temperature.

It worked! You can see the rubber cement is repelling the dye. Once it was completely dry, I pulled off the rubber bands and used my thumb to roll the rubber cement off the egg.

It didn't turn out too badly. Where the knots on the rubber bands were, to make them small enough to fit the egg snugly, dye seeped underneath. But, all together, I think it looked pretty good for a project to do while Pebbles napped. When she woke up, everything was dry and ready to hide for her.

And, by hide I mean 'put out in plain sight'. Hey, give her a break, she's not quite a year old! She did get one egg in the bucket that her Papa was holding for her, but mostly she picked them up and dropped them after drooling on them a bit. Several cracked.

Mama? Can I play with the dyes? I promise not to pour them on the dogs!

It was a pretty fun diversion from unpacking. I really didn't want to have to tell my parents that I didn't do anything for their Granddaughter's first Easter. I'm already having her 1st birthday party 2 weeks late, just to give me a chance to have a party with people not sitting on boxes.

As for the eggs?

Martha Stewart couldn't do better if you gave her an espresso and a puppy.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Sticky fingers- homemade peanut butter

Pebbles likes peanut butter.

I mean she really, really likes peanut butter. When she was smaller, the only way I could keep her entertained long enough to get the dishes done was to feed her peanut butter toast with her breakfast. Those sticky toast soldiers kept her busy for a solid 10 minutes. The only issue I had was that she'd be hollering for her food before I'd had my coffee, and I'd by gamely trying to spread peanut butter and pick out all the peanut chunks (we're chunky peanut butter lovers here) so she wouldn't get one stuck in her tiny throat, and I'd be losing my damn mind because of the crying and not being able to move fast enough to stop it...

No more.

When we moved into the new house last week and I was packing the last of the kitchen staples at the old place, I took the opportunity to chuck that last tablespoon of chunky peanut butter at the bottom of the jar, just so I wouldn't have to move it. This morning I was making my shopping list and started to put peanut butter down, but got to thinking about a pin I'd spotted recently. According to the blogger, homemade peanut butter was as easy as throwing peanuts in a food processor and turning it on.

Now, I remember homemade peanut butter from when I was a kid growing up in the 70s, and it was not the rich, smooth, delightful spread she touts in her recipe. I remember gloppy, grainy, oily nastiness that use to drive me to beg my mom to just buy Jif. She didn't try to make it again, but she stuck with Laura Scudder's Natural for years. It had this inch thick slick of oil on top that was impossible to stir back in. Blargh.

Well, I read through her instructions and I think I figured it out, where my mom went wrong that is. If you'll forgive the pun, the sticking point is that you have to grind the peanuts down to a peanut butter-like paste, but you can't stop there. After the peanuts are all ground down and have formed a ball, you have to keep going, and keep going, and keep going. After a few more minutes, the ball suddenly disappears and you get this wonderful, smooth, liquid peanut butter. No oil added, remember? Just peanuts. The blades of the food processor go for so long that the peanut butter becomes heated. Once you pour it into a jar and stick it in the fridge, it thickens back up. No added oils, no added stabilizers to compensate for the added oils. Just peanuts, transformed.

You can find the full recipe, with detailed photos of each step of the grinding process here at Averie Cooks

I will do some things differently next time. First and foremost, I will change the peanuts I use. I liked her idea of using honey-roasted peanuts. However, there are no Trader Joe's up in Alaska. So, all I had to work with in the honey-roasted variety was good old Planters. The result? Too sweet. I like sweet, but this is dessert peanut butter. I'll be using it largely in peanut butter smoothies and shakes, and spread on tart apples. Next time I'm going to use plain dry-roasted peanuts from the bulk section at the supermarket and adding my own honey to taste. As an added bonus, it's half the cost of Planters and without all the extra ingredients. Just peanuts.

Something Pebbles approves of.

Next up: Not sure. Perhaps a tour of the half-unpacked house?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Trying again with a new attitude!

Alrighty then.

I've got a cup of coffee and I've pushed up my sleeves. It's time to get serious about this blog business. I've got this Canadian Housewife I know who's been pestering me (nicely) to get back to blogging, so she can keep up with this Alaskan Housewife.

The past, oh my goodness, two years have been nuts. After the loss of our twins, we went through IVF and after an uneventful pregnancy and a worrisome birth and recovery, we were blessed with a healthy baby girl. Pebbles is about to turn one and raising her has been a wonderful, tiring, hilarious, overwhelming and, at times, frightening privilege. I didn't come through the pregnancy unscathed, and have undergone a few surgeries to try and get on track to try for a sibling. More on that some other time.

In addition to raising our daughter, we have just bought our first home! We moved to Alaska a few years ago and chose to lease a house rather than buy right away, so we could get to know the area first. We finally decided to start looking after the first of the year, and were greatly surprised to find the perfect home after just a month of looking. We closed and moved in a week ago, and I am still unpacking and cleaning. This house is in great shape with recent renovations of kitchen and baths, but it need a lot of work this summer. I'll be documenting it here.

So, from cooking, to home customization, to building a bear-proof chicken coop, Campfires and Caribou is finally back online!