Friday, December 28, 2007

Since we were talking about Mitford

Or I was, anyway...Circle of Quiet has a post about Patches of Godlight and some of "Father Tim's" favourite quotations.

Year of the Red Ribbon

What's in your hand...this year it was a spool of lovely red ribbon that we found at a rummage sale in the summer, and two spools of wide white lace. We used them both to tie up packages...tied bows with the red ribbon on the dining room mirror...decorated just about everything except ourselves with it.

And then the Apprentice topped every other use for it by hot-gluing it into a Barbie dress (the two dresses were her gift to Crayons). Nice, yes?

The blue print dress and the other parts of the ribbon dress are made from silk neckties. The Apprentice learned how to make those a few years ago from a library book, and she came up with some gorgeous designer duds. (All cutting and hot-gluing, closures made from sticky-back Velcro.)

(Photo credit: Ponytails)

The little clothespin kits that grew

Or, if you give a mom a Ziploc...

To read the rest of this post, come on over here and I'll whisper the rest while the Squirrelings are busy gluing.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Lemon Poppy Seed Shortbread

Birdie was asking for shortbread recipes, and that reminded me that I've never posted our recipe for Lemon Poppy Seed Shortbread. This is one that came from Canadian Living Magazine (Dec 1/92) and we make some every year; it freezes well.

[2008 Update: I baked an 8-inch square pan of this and, for the first time ever, had it turn out underdone; when I cut the pan into squares, the bottoms of the pieces were very damp. I remedied it as best I could by turning the squares upside down on a cookie sheet and baking them a little while longer at 275 degrees; they're not perfect but at least I didn't have to dump the whole batch. So--a reminder to give the pans as long as they seem to need, even if they're turning a bit brown--better that than underdone.]

Lemon Poppy Seed Shortbread

"This recipe can be baked as invidiual cookies or in a square pan." My note: I doubled the recipe this year and baked it in a large pan, cutting it afterwards.

1 cup butter, softened
1 cup icing sugar (confectioner's sugar)
2 tbsp. poppy seeds
2 tbsp. grated lemon rind
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 to 2 tbsp. granulated sugar for sprinkling (or as desired)

In bowl, cream together butter and icing sugar until fluffy; stir in poppy seeds and lemon rind. Gradually blend in flour. Gather dough into ball; chill for 30 minutes if sticky.

If you're rolling and cutting them: On lightly floured surface, roll out dough to 1/4-inch thickness; cut into 2-inch rounds and place on ungreased baking sheets.

If you're baking them in a pan: Press dough into 8- or 9-inch square pan; prick surface all over with fork. My note: I always find a fork really massacres the top of the bars, so I don't do that anymore; but I do prick the surface gently with a toothpick. Sprinkle with a little sugar if you like.

Bake in 300 degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes for cookies, or about 35 minutes for square pan, or until set and very faintly browned. Let cookies cool on rack, or let large square cool in the pan before cutting into bars.

Shortbread can be stored in an airtight containers for up to 5 days or frozen for up to a month. Makes about 40 cookies or 24 bars.


I finished Shepherds Abiding. It didn't matter that it was the eighth in the series and that I didn't know all the characters...the story was exactly what I needed this week.

I've been thinking a lot about things and people that I miss (especially around the holidays), things that have changed, things I'm unhappy about (yes, there are some even though I don't blog about them), the fact that the living room won't stay cleaned (it's a living room), and the general imperfection that always seems to interfere and mess up the perfect life I always thought I was somehow entitled to.

Shepherds Abiding is full of imagery of things imperfect, broken, less than ideal. One-winged angels, families with missing siblings, lost letters, and, central to it all, an antique Nativity set that Father Tim is restoring as a Christmas present for his wife.

In a nice touch of irony, as Father Tim is consulting Botticelli paintings to choose the perfect colours for angels' robes, the ailing and rather simple-minded old man down the street is also making a present for his own wife: a wooden tray for her jewelery, with handles swiped from the kitchen cabinets. Both gifts are welcomed and loved.

The book is about restoring, repairing, finding what has been lost, and reconciling the past and the present. And even about extending grace from unexpected quarters: another couple sit "in their twin recliners" in front of a fake fireplace that "featured a forty-watt bulb that flowed through a revolving sheet of red cellophane." The wife opens a gift from a neighbour and recognizes something that she herself donated to a rummage sale "a hundred years ago."

"And to think I gave her a two-layer marmalade [cake]" [she said.]

"Th' poor woman has a gimp leg, Esther, which don't leave much room for shoppin'. Besides, why did you put it in th' Bane an' Blessin'? It looks perfectly good to me."

"Well, yes," said Esther, examining it more carefully. "After I put it in, I wished I hadn't."

"See?" said her husband, hammering down on a couple of cashews. "What goes around comes around."
It's about finding peace, mystery and wonder at Christmas in whatever place in the story you happen to be...understanding that God is allowing you to be a part of it all...whether your life is about Renaissance angels, or recliners, or somewhere in between.

It's about allowing some living room.

A matter of vocabulary

"He went to the coat rack by the back door and put on his fleece jacket, zipped it up, and popped a toboggan on his head."--Jan Karon, Shepherds Abiding

What on earth, I thought. Visions of Mr. Canoehead?

OK, no, obviously that must mean something different in North Carolina.


Noun 1. toboggan cap - a close-fitting woolen cap; often has a tapering tail with a tassel
ski cap, stocking cap

Oh--a toque!


Can't find the words

You are now looking into my closet where the Christmas gifts are hidden. If you have not been given an access code, shut that door right now if you know what's good for you.

If not, proceed





All right...for those of you who are allowed a sneak peak inside...

We didn't do that much of our usual dollar-store shopping run this year. I don't know if it's the discouragement over made-in-you-know-where stuff, or just that there didn't seem that much worth getting, or just that we had other ideas. In any case, the other ideas are turning out to be even better than we'd hoped. Obviously I'm not in on every present that's getting wrapped, but these are a few of them.

From Mama Squirrel, the Apprentice is getting a paperback copy of Up a Road Slowly (thrift shop), a vintage copy of Beautiful Girlhood, and a giant neckroll pillow that Mama Squirrel crocheted from several colours (cream, tan, white, lavender, turquoise) of yard-saled chunky-weight yarn and stuffed with leftover stuffing and quilt batting. (I started it last night and it was done by this afternoon. Squirrel paws work fast, especially when I know that The Apprentice is soon coming home from school and will be home from now through the holidays.)

From Ponytails, Mr. Fixit is getting a Daddy's Morning Drink Kit. Every morning Mr. Fixit sleepily asks Ponytails if she will kindly go over to the kitchen counter and fix him a tea or an instant coffee. Which she does. So Ponytails bought him a nice (thrift-shopped) mug, filled it with tea bags and instant coffee in baggies, and added this label: "Daddy's Morning Drink Kit. Ingredients: Tea. Coffee. Love." She was as pleased as all-get-out with it, and I think Mr. Fixit will be too.

Also from Ponytails, The Apprentice is getting a (thrift-shopped) fancy jar full of homemade sugar scrub, plus a fancy spoon to scoop it with, and a small piece of jewelry from Ten Thousand Villages.

The Apprentice got Ponytails her own makeup case with some toiletry items from the dollar store.

The Sunday School teachers are getting bags of Salad Toppers, decorated with fancy labels we made.

From Crayons, Mr. Fixit is getting a homemade book of her retellings and illustrations of Kipling's Just-So Stories. We used leopard-print paper to make a very cool-looking cover.

From Mama Squirrel, Mr. Fixit is getting two picture frames that are made to display LP covers. His request--one of those "yes I'd like them but don't tell me when you get them" presents. Half off at Michael's. Also a book about Captain Cook.

Ponytails, our budding cartoonist, is getting a set of Prismacolours, the fine-line kind (Michael's 40% coupon); and a few loose peach-coloured soft ones because she keeps using up all her peach-coloured pencil crayons drawing peach-coloured faces.

The Apprentice is getting a driver's-training handbook to study over the next while--and believe it or not, it's a fairly hefty chunk of change for those! No bargoons on driving books.

And the younger girls are also getting a small assortment of other things: a couple of Oz books, a couple of small Sculpey sets, a miniature boxed set of Benjamin Franklin's wisdom (for Ponytails), a toy cell phone so Crayons can talk to her imaginary friends (don't ask), a thrift-shopped Madeline Thinking Games computer CD-Rom, some chocolate, a couple of puzzle books, and anything else we come up with between now and Tuesday. Dollar stores may fail, but Squirrel imagination goes on.

An Advent Read

Found at the thrift shop: Shepherds Abiding, by Jan Karon. I am one of those outcasts who's never yet read more than a few pages of a Mitford book (sorry, Donna-Jean), but I'm about two-thirds of the way through this one. Something to put in a grownup's box of Christmas books!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Play it again, Eric

Heard on CBC's Studio Sparks, in a somewhat Chestertonian moment:

"That was a short version of Carol of the Bells. It's probably the shortest one out there. In fact, it was so short, let's play it again."

And he did, much to Mr. Fixit's disgust and the little Squirrelings' delight.

Want some Christmas?

Head over to The Common Room. More posts there today that I can shake a peppermint stick at, so you'll just have to scroll down through them. Music, Christmas villages, and thoughts on why you do not want to start any tradition with your kids that you do not hope to do over and over and over again. (Been there, done that.)

It's not only about reading to them

(Edward Ardizzone's drawing of young Eleanor Farjeon reading, in The Little Bookroom)

Ragamuffin studies has a post about Becoming a Reader: The Politics and the Reality. Read it, read the comments. It's very eye-opening. Then go read something else; read something to yourself, read something to your kids that's ranked above a grade 4 reading level. Just to be subversive.

Or go do something completely different with them--because you are the parent. See? I get it.

Monday, December 17, 2007

How to make a mama squirrel crazy

I bought three packs of Mary Engelbreit Christmas note cards at Michael's (in the inexpensive bins where they always have a lot of Mary Engelbreit cards, magnets and so on). I thought they'd work well as Christmas cards this year.

We wrote in them. We signed them. We put in photos. We addressed them and put return labels on them. We did everything except seal them.

Mr. Fixit was going to take them with him to work this morning and get them mailed. So just minutes before he left, Mama Squirrel started applying her furry little tongue to those envelopes. And it was then that she realized--not one of them had enough sticky on the flap to stay closed. These were dud envelopes. They had shuffled off their mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible. (That's for the DHM.)

And Mama Squirrel didn't even have any pretty stickers, at least not that she could lay her paws on that quickly.

So if you get a card from the Treehouse, closed with Scotch know why.

And a very big HUMPH to whatever person (chuckling evilly) let those envelopes through.

Thank you all so very much

Yes, we won. I don't have the fancy button yet to dress up this post, but the votes are in and the Treehouse somehow scuttled up to the top of the Cyberbuddy category. As the Deputy Headmistress (and the Common Room is a double winner!) pointed out, the winner for Funniest Blog--as you'd expect--wrote a very funny announcement thanking all and sundry for their support. So what's a Cyberbuddy supposed to write?

Just thank you. Thank you to all 56.8 of you (or whatever it was) who voted for us. Thank you all for coming along with us over the last couple of years--because a Cyberbuddy is nothing without some buddies. We will strive to be worthy of your visitiness. (Thank you, Apprentice, I couldn't find the word there.)

And thank you very much to the team at Homeschool Blog Awards, and the sponsors of the contest.

Tofu Fudge Chews

Dairy and egg free! We don't make these every Christmas, but since we had a package of soft tofu and it is my tofu-eating brother-in-law's birthday, Crayons and I made a batch in his honour.

Tofu Fudge Chews

from Tofu Cookery, by Louise Hagler

Blend in a blender (or food processor, or use a blender stick) until smooth:

1/2 lb. tofu (or a 300 g package)
1/2 cup oil

Pour into a medium mixing bowl, and add:

1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 tbsp. vanilla (optional; we add it)
1 tbsp. water, milk or soymilk if needed (it wasn't needed)

Stir well. Mix separately (or just dump in):

3 cups unbleached white flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt

Add to wet ingredients, mix well. The dough should be fairly stiff, although you may still find it sticks to your hands a bit while you're making the balls.

Roll into 1 1/2 inch balls (average cookie size). Put some more white sugar into a cereal bowl and roll the balls in the sugar. (We only roll about half the balls and leave the rest plain for those that object to crunching through sugar.)

Place on a lightly oiled cookie sheet about an inch apart. They will puff up and then spread somewhat, but they won't come out flat unless you squish them.

Bake for 12-15 minutes at 350 degrees. Cool on a wire rack.

Of Squirrelings and snow clothes

"James worked away frantically on the Centipede's boots. Each one had laces that had to be untied and loosened before it could be pulled off, and to make matters worse, all the laces were tied up in the most complicated knots that had to be unpicked with fingernails. It was just awful. It took about two hours. And by the time James had pulled off the last boot of all and had lined them up in a row on the floor--twenty-one pairs altogether--the Centipede was fast asleep."--Roald Dahl, James and the Giant Peach

And sometimes it does feel exactly like that.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

One of those early-morning emergencies

"Mommy, I want to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and I can't find the note to start on."

Monday, December 10, 2007

Great books nobody reads (Plutarch)

And bad books everybody reads.

Kathryn at Suitable for Mixed Company pointed me to this article by Anthony Esolen, The Top Twenty Books That Nobody Reads. Top of the list: Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.

To be honest, I'm surprised that it even made it to the list--I mean, to make it to the list of famous books that nobody reads, it would have to be famous, if not read, right? Everybody's heard of The Grapes of Wrath and The Odyssey and Paradise Lost, even if they don't read them. But it seems to me that more people just haven't heard of Plutarch than have heard of him but don't read him. Part of that reason--I think--is that he's kind of hard to find unless you're looking on purpose. Easy to find online or probably in a library (say if they have the Harvard Classics), but you're not going to see multiple copies of Plutarch come up at book sales like you are the hundreds of school editions of Shakespeare's plays, or the multiple copies of Lord of the Flies. (I think there were school editions of Plutarch produced years ago--as well as the retellings for children that are available online--but I haven't yet seen one myself, I mean a "real" Plutarch but just with some of the content edited out, see below, or maybe some vocabulary notes.)

Also, he was a "moral biographer," and that's gone out of style. That's good for us, in some ways, because you don't have to know all the history that's included to make sense of one of Plutarch's Lives. Some background helps, but it isn't just the battles and the rulers that matter; it's what makes a great leader, or a poor one; what good choices were made, and what bad ones.

If you're talking to homeschoolers who are even aware of Plutarch's existence, they're most likely either of a classical or CM bent, since Charlotte Mason enthused about his biographies in her own books. She classed Plutarch as "Citizenship Study" rather than as history lessons. To the rest of the world (maybe outside of the Classics departments), he's more obscure even than Sir Walter Scott. (How many people can name more than about two Scott books?) Even the author Penelope Lively (in Oleander Jacaranda), who studied through the Parents' Union correspondence school, says she can't understand what a child would have gotten out of Plutarch.

And then there's the problem of whose translation you're looking for, and which Lives are included in the volume you have. And the problem of some of the nasty stuff--Plutarch is neither squeamish nor prudish. Lacking an edited version, you have to read him aloud rather than turning your kids loose.

However: the Ambleside Online curriculum, among other things, has quietly been turning all this ignorance of Plutarch on its ear. All Ambleside students over about the age of ten are encouraged to become familiar with Plutarch, to study one of his Lives every term--beginning with the retellings if they want, but eventually moving on to the grownup version. Lacking a SparkNotes for Plutarch, we created our own notes (which get added to the website at regular or sometimes irregular intervals). And we've started to hear from families for whom Plutarch is no longer a stranger. We start to hear that his Lives are even inspiring enjoyable discussions.

This, from a book at the top of the list of the Books That Nobody Reads.

Not bad.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Kitbashing, a way of life

(Relax, this hasn't anything to do with blog bashing or HBA bashing.)

Kitbashing. Do you know what that is? I used to get dollhouse magazines with examples of kitbashing, and I know car modellers who do the same thing. You want to build something, if you'll pardon the example, a haunted you buy a regular dollhouse kit FOR THE COMPONENTS...or two or three kits...and change, combine or otherwise customize them to suit your purposes. Roof from here, walls from here and so on.

I was thinking through a whole blog post about kitbashing as a kind of frugal philosophy...a variation of what's in my hand...but this essay beat me to it.

"Sure, what I call "kitbashing life" has been stated before in a multitude of forms, from the impressive "Adopt, Adapt, Improve" of the Knights of the Round Table to the cliched "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." But I've found that since I started kitbashing toys, I've really taken this sort of attitude to's more than just words of advice, it's something I live by."

The inverse of this philosophy is missing out by not being able to see the parts, just the whole. I wrote once here about going to a yard sale and buying, for $2, some bits and pieces of craft supplies packed in a $14.98 plastic container--that several people had passed over because they didn't like those particular bits and pieces, or they ONLY wanted the bits and pieces and didn't notice the container. Sometimes you get a better deal buying a whole junker whatsit with a good part you need, than you do trying to get a new part alone. (Or sometimes, in that case, it's the package that's the best find of all.)

I was thinking about that this week when I noticed that a local fabric-plus-more outlet store has reduced its prices on several educational-type kits for kids. You might have seen them: they are large boxes, six kits (each marked with a school grade), and each one has a different theme and project booklets. The sixth grade one, I think, is called Flying (it contains things to make kites and gliders); the fourth grade one is a Top Secret Spy kit with fingerprinting dust and so on; the first grade one is just art and craft supplies. The outlet store had them for $5.99 for quite awhile, now they're $3.99. Somebody told me their dollar store had the same kits--incredibly--for $1 apiece.

And they're sitting there. How come? Maybe because of the grading thing: what sixth grader wants to be given a box marked "Grade Two?" Or maybe because of the whole-parts thing: maybe you don't want to be a top secret spy, but you sure could use a magnifying glass; who couldn't use a big boxful of craft supplies? How much paint and glue can you get even at the dollar store for that price?

I guess the company boxed themselves in (pun intended).

Of course the most frugal--I mean, the only sensible way to do the kind of kitbashing I'm talking about--is when you can get the pieces-in-the-whole for less than you'd pay for them separately. But even better is when you find a poor old forgotten whole--maybe in a dusty or dented or otherwise bedraggled package--for almost nothing, and it turns out to have one or two pieces of gold in it. A bag of tangled yarn with leftover knitting needles thrown in. A bag of weary-looking stuffed Santas and snowmen with, somehow, one very cute Dora the Explorer doll in there too; and the thrift shop was not going to parole Dora without her cellmates. (We bought the bagful--it was worth it for the doll, and the Santas found new homes too--they turned out not to be as awful as they'd first appeared.) A set of books for almost nothing, in which one volume turns out to be exactly what you need. Would you pass up the set and pay more than that for a different book?

Maybe that's not kitbashing exactly, but you know what I mean. Look at parts as well as wholes--and never mind the holes. Instead of buying all new embroidery floss and tapestry yarn, consider using what you find in the half-used kits at rummage sales--I see those all the time. Half-used latchhook kits, too. Obviously this only makes sense if you like latchhook pictures of old mills and things, and I don't, especially, so for me this is not a good kind of kitbashing. But I'd pick up a partly-used package of floss or yarn, if it wasn't cut into little latchhook pieces. I've found partly-used party kits (usually with some leftover paper hats and unused noisemakers)--even the slightly Boy ones are fun for Mr. Fixit's family-only birthdays. (He doesn't mind Ninja Turtles or robot warriors, even if we have to combine a couple of themes to give everybody a hat and a napkin.)

Recently some Squirrelings and I were talking about doing fabric painting, and we realized that, between two or three paint-a-something kits they had been given, we could put together enough colours to do the project we had in mind. As Meredith says, better than a trip to the Big M (not McDonalds).

Keep an open mind, and kitbash when you can.