Improvement Over Time

We’re hosting Rosh Hashanah dinner at our place this year, to celebrate the Jewish New Year. I’m so excited about it. It’s such a fun time to have family over to a house filled with food and cheer. And though Greg is the cook in our family, I’m excited to do some cooking myself, too, this time around. I’ve already made dessert, and I’ll be making a noodle kugel and challah.

It had been a few months since I’d last made any challah, so last weekend I put a loaf in the oven to get back into the swing of it before I make the special round challahs for Rosh Hashanah (at this one time of year, you make them round to symbolize the circle of time and life).

Facebook reminded me last week that it was a year ago that I made challah for the first time. It awoke in me a desire to make it more and more so I could figure out my own favourite recipe (and learn how to make it pretty). Eventually, I not only mastered the six-stranded braid, but I settled on my own favourite recipe, tweaked and nudged from many I experimented with.

Looking back at those original loafs, it’s very cool to see the result of the time and effort I put in. It’s a slow process to make a loaf of bread like this – it takes pretty much all day, though much of the time is spent waiting. I loved doing it over and over again, until I got my bread to be just right – sweet and dense and perfect with some salt on it.

Here’s the recipe I use, if you want to try your hand at it, too!

Braided challah dough –

Homemade challah (with recipe!) -

Time: What We Do and Don’t Do with It

Abby Glassenberg‘s weekly newsletter is one of my favourites. She always makes me think, and she always points me to posts and articles that are informative and helpful.

In yesterday’s newsletter, Abby wrote a response to a question people ask her all the time, “Do you ever sleep?” Abby’s so prolific, and she’s so even-keeled about her work, that it seems like her situation-normal is something the rest of us might assume takes superhuman powers.

Here’s part of what Abby wrote in response:

I choose to work instead of choosing many other things. I don’t watch T.V. (I’ve never seen an episode of 30 Rock or House of Cards – in fact I just had to Google “most popular T.V. shows of 2015” to find out the names of those shows so I could write this) and I don’t read the newspaper. I don’t volunteer at my kids’ school – I’ve never been to a PTA meeting despite having kids in school now for 9 years. I don’t coach the soccer team or organize the Girl Scout troop.

So it might seem like I get so much done, but really I just get so much OF THIS done (and almost none of THAT).

She is focused, people.

It’s a level of focus I don’t have, but not in a bad way. Now that my kid is a couple months into proper school, I realize I allocate my time and energy differently than I’d anticipated I would. I’d thought that fewer work hours during the day would mean I’d be that much more focused on working whenever else I can – early mornings, evenings, etc. But that’s not how it’s turning out (and I’m not getting any less work done).

I have managed to become far more efficient at work. It took a couple of months, but I’ve established a good routine, and I’m back to getting work done at an acceptable clip.

I do watch television and read novels and stay on top of local and international news. This fall I started volunteering with a knitting group at a residence for people with mental illness, and I’ve recently been coordinating a donation drive for Carry the Future. I’m the website coordinator for the PAC (that’s what we call the PTA here) at my kid’s school.

The busier I am, the more I get done and the more satisfied I feel. The more I fill my tanks with input unrelated to my work (within reason), the more inspired I get to do good work. I need a tremendous amount of diversity in what I do in order to stay interested in each thing; the variety prevents me from burning out.

It’s neat to think about this. I so admire Abby’s laser focus, and her talking about it led me to think about my own need for lots of variety, and how having lots of balls in the air enables me to get good work done.

How do you navigate making choices about all the possible things you could do with the limited amount of time you have in a day?

Spinzilla is almost here. Let’s make a mess of it!

Of course, I don’t mean let’s make a mess of the event; I mean let’s just make a mess.

Lemme take a step back for those of you who aren’t plugged deeply into the yarn world.

Spinzilla is an annual week-long yarn-spinning competition, and it starts on Monday, October 5th. Really, it’s more a celebration-slash-geek-out than a cut-throat competition, but there are teams, and each team tries collectively to spin more yarn than all the other teams. There are also rogue spinners, who prefer to to fly solo rather than as part of a team.

I’ve dabbled in spinning yarn, but I’m not very good at it. So when one of the organizers of the event invited me to participate in the Spinzilla blog tour, specifically to write about messiness and why we should embrace it, I took that as a good reason to join a team and dedicate some serious time to upping my spinning game. Though surely many participants will be experienced spinners, I’m here to encourage even total n00bs to join in. A special kind of magic can happen when we set ourselves to task for a week, and while the seasoned pros spin their miles of yarn, we beginners can embrace the mess of not knowing much about spinning so we can finish the week knowing a hell of a lot more than we did at the start.

Here’s the deal about a mess: There’s no sense trying to learn how to do something new, or trying to get better at doing something you already know how to do, if you’re simultaneously trying to nail it on the first go. On paper that’s a no-brainer, but in practice it can be a hard walk to walk. Spinzilla is a gift of dedicated time. It’s just one week, so it’s not a stressful gift. But it’s long enough that daily practice can make a serious impression.

So I’m here to champion the mess. I’ll go so far as to encourage you to make as big a mess as you can. Like the fifty pounds of clay people, let’s go for the learning and productivity that come with a focus on quantity over perfection.

Behold: The beginning of the mess I plan to make:

I'll be spinning all this up for Spinzilla 2015. Oh yeah.

Pictured above is the collection of fibre I’ve amassed over the years. I’ve had some of it, like most of the undyed stuff at the top and the lovely pink/green/cream/grey braid at the top-right, for many, many years. I picked some of it up much more recently, on our road trip last spring, in anticipation of participating in Spinzilla. The boldly labeled Vortex is, as you can see, made by a hand-dyer in Taos, NM. The two braids to the right of the Vortex are also dyed by a New Mexican, under the Widdershin Woolworks label (I suffered choosing colours of hers, man, such was the gorgeousness). I picked up some of the braids and knots at a yarn swap, I think. Oh, and there are a couple of small baggies in there, too: one of bison wool and one of wolf fur, both of which I purchased at an open-air market in Santa Fe. (I left a piece of my heart in New Mexico if you can’t tell, and I’m feeling very grateful to myself for knowing back in May that I would enjoy revisiting our travels this fall, through fibre.)

Here’s the thing about all that gorgeous stuff up there: I’m going to mangle most of it. Sure, I anticipate that by the end of a week of spinning, I’ll have a pretty even tension going. But I won’t have an even tension going at the beginning. No. At the beginning, I’m going to achieve some seriously dramatic thick-and-thin yarn action. My yarn won’t produce a solidly usable gauge. I may or may not end up wanting to even use the resulting yarn to make anything at all.

And I will keep in mind at every turn that all of that is normal. I will keep in mind at every turn that if I didn’t allow myself to mangle many ounces of fibre as I learn that I would not learn. Those mangled knots of wool will not have been wasted, because even if they aren’t useable as yarn, they were useable as learning.

Sure, I’ll probably save the New Mexican wools till the end, since I’d really love to have them turn into yarn that I’ll use to make something truly wonderful.

But all the messes I’ll make? All the thick-and-thins, all the broken strands? All the cursing over figuring out how to oil my machine? All the wondering out loud why the way I spin is considered to be left-handed even though I’m right-handed and I’ve heard it’s actually quite common for people to spin opposite their usual handedness? All the yarns I’ll make through the mess will be wonderful yarns, because they will be true results of my spinning effort.

I will spin slowly, most likely. My poor team will not consider me to be, shall we say, an asset. But I won’t apologize and I won’t feel bad. Because I’m going to get to know local spinners I’ve never met before. And I’m going to accept their advice. And I’m going to allow them to remind me that my fibre – no matter how gorgeous it might be combed and braided, no matter how much it cost to buy – is not precious, and it must be spun.

If you’re a beginner spinner looking for an excuse to up your game, please join me next week! And if you’re an ace spinner waiting to be nudged to join in, consider this your nudge! If you’re a #yearofmaking person, won’t it be cool to spend one of your 52 weeks doing this? Yes, I think so, too. Spinzilla registration is open until 5PM Eastern on Friday, October 2nd.

In a Fall Cooking Kind of Mood

It seemed to happen all at once last week: fall arrived. Seemingly overnight, gone were the warm, long days of summer, replaced by crisp air, grey days, and even, thankfully, rain.

As it happened, last week was also my first of three weeks of not having solid time to work, between the end of summer camps for Owen and the beginning of full-day kindergarten. Rather than stress out about my loss of work time, I’ve managed to relax into it.

Conveniently, the change in weather also coincided with my having the time and energy to get seriously domestic. I don’t feel like getting seriously domestic very often, so when the feeling strikes, I do my best to make the most of it. Three weeks seems like a long time to not have a solid work day, but the weeks will pass quickly enough, to be replaced before I know it by the busier, more frantically scheduled days of lots-of-work, school schlepping, soccer schlepping, and Hebrew school schlepping.

My goal, then, is to set myself up to feel very grateful for this domestic time.

I fired up the slow cooker for the first time in months last week, and I froze half the batch of split-pea soup I made. (I used this recipe as a starting point, but used about 2/3 green split peas and 1/3 yellow, I eliminated the tomatoes [Greg can’t eat ’em] and dried parsley [didn’t haven’t any, and anyway wouldn’t have used it if we did], and I browned the onions and garlic before adding them to the cooker.)

Slow cooker split-pea soup

And I took Owen apple picking (in the pouring rain), so this coming week I’ll not only make apple crumble, I’ll also can a few half-litre jars of apple-pie filling so I can make quick desserts in coming months. We made apple chips that same afternoon (next time I’ll bake them for longer; they were a little chewy).

We made apple chips after apple-picking at Willow View Farms

At the apple farm, we also picked up some cookie cutters, and I made my first batch of sugar cookies ever (seriously – I always figured why bother making sugar cookies when you can make oatmeal chocolate-chip cookies?). And I froze half the sugar cookies. (I used this recipe, but subbed vegan margarine for butter because G’s got a whey thing, and I subbed whole-wheat flour for a third of the total flour amount; I ended up putting in a bunch more white flour after mixing the dough, because it was way too wet – maybe because of the margarine substitute – but all was well after that.)

Non-dairy part-whole-wheat sugar cookies. Yum!

We picked up a couple of sweet pumpkins at the farm, too, and I’ll make another big batch of soup soon, half destined for the freezer.

Over the last few months, I feel like my (previously non-existent) cooking game has been upped significantly. I mean, I started from having almost zero game, so any improvement would be a dramatic one. But I’m feeling half-competent in the kitchen for the first time in my life, and I’m enjoying preparing food I actually enjoy eating, and that my family actually enjoys eating, and I especially enjoy making enough food that I’ll give myself some very, very easy dinners in the weeks and months to come.

Do you have favourite simple (seriously, stress on the simple) slow-cooker, canning, or freezer-friendly recipes you love to make and eat? Let’s have a prep-for-winter extravaganza in the comments!


Lego for Boys, Lego for Girls: A Lego Friends Thing

Lego Friends Heartlake Airlines

The night we spent in the maternity ward nearly five years ago with our tiny, tiny son, we sat on the bed with that bundled-up baby in our arms and wondered aloud, now that we were, for real, parents, what might happen if this tiny tiny kid didn’t end up liking Lego.

Now those nearly five years have passed, and our kid loves Lego more than any other kind of toy. It’s exactly what we envisioned when we’d fantasized about being parents – kissing boo-boos, reading great books together, and lots and lots of Lego. When Owen fills up his marble jar with kindness and helpfulness and good listening, he turns those marbles in for Lego. If he doesn’t have time to finish assembling a complex kit before bedtime, he’ll skip watching a cartoon the next morning in favour of Lego. When a Lego catalog arrives in the mail, he’ll sit with it as he sits with his favourite books.

Last week, Owen announced to Greg that Lego Friends, the line of kits the company launched in 2012 in an attempt to draw girls into the fold, are just for girls and are boring.

Lots of people have decried Lego Friends as a wrong-headed idea, insisting that Lego are, at least in their before-Friends existence, for everyone, and that Lego could have put its energy into featuring more female mini-figs and superheroes in its existing lines (this comic nails it, in my opinion). And that now it seems like there’s Lego “for girls” and Lego “for boys” and that that’s just playing into the horrific trend of manufacturers divvying up kids’ culture along gender lines in a toxic, terrible way. Lego itself said it developed the line because 90% of its sales were to or for boys, and they wanted to draw girls into building.

So Owen declares that Lego Friends are boring, and this is what Greg did. Greg whipped out the well-worn Lego catalog and proclaimed his love for all the cool pink and purple kits, and Owen discovered there’s a jet plane kit. Which is why, a few minutes later, Greg came upstairs and informed me that he would be spending a lot of money at the Lego store for feminism.

A hundred and twenty bucks later, Owen spent an entire afternoon putting the kit together (it comes complete with an airport that has a cafe and gift shop, and a baggage carousel), muttering under his breath about it being a perfect choice and oh my gosh it’s so awesome.

In related news, there’s a Lego croissant, you guys.

PS I do very much wish, regardless of how successful Lego Friends is at drawing in girls – and apparently it is very successful at doing just that – that Lego had used its standard mini-fig design for the characters, so they’d be compatible with all the other Lego kits. Friends figures don’t have moveable legs or hands. It’s weird, and limiting in ways it simply shouldn’t have to be, considering the standard mini-fig can be any gender at all.

PPS Some of this post came from my initial posting of this photo on Instagram. I revised and expanded it because I want it to live here on the blog, too.


Log Cabin Quilt-Inspired Shelves

Way back in ancient history, we gutted our kitchen, and in rebuilding it, I suggested we tile our backsplash in an argyle pattern. Though I now regret most of the decisions we made about the kitchen (for the love of puppies, why didn’t we put in white cabinetry?), I do so love that backsplash.

For years – years – we’ve had plans for Greg to build huge built-in bookshelves for an odd room at the front of the house. It’s an odd room because we think it was originally intended to be the master bedroom of our small, almost hundred-year-old bungalow. But it’s at the front of the house, with a door to the tiny front-door entranceway, and a window that’s under the porch so it gets about zero good daylight. Around six years ago, we opened up the wall between this room and the living room, which improved it considerably (we’d chosen the smaller back-of-house bedroom to be our bedroom; and anyway, after Owen came along we moved our bedroom to the basement where his room is), and we decided to use it like a second living room. Or, you know, a library, if we want to be all pretentious about it.

We put French doors in the opened-up wall, so we could have the option of using the room as a guest room. Which was good forward thinking on our part, since what used to be our guest room at the time we opened up that wall is now Owen’s room, and the small upstairs bedroom is my office/studio, and though there’s a sofa bed in there, it’s always nice not to have to vacate my home office when we have houseguests.

But the plan didn’t get off to an easy start. We suddenly had an infant in the house, then Greg was finishing up his degree and I was writing a book, and months passed and years passed and that room remained a half-finished mess. With no shelves, but with some water damage in the ceilings and walls from a leaky roof we’ve since had fixed.

Somewhere along the line, during our years of dreaming about finishing that room, Greg decided that he needed to design and build a half-height Murphy bed for it. Who wants to take up a huge, queen-size part of a wall when the whole point is to have wall-to-wall shelves, after all? The idea is a relatively simple one, and he was obsessed with it: Just like the mattress of a sofa bed folds into the sofa, the mattress of the half-height Murphy bed folds into its casing against the wall. (Ok, to be fair, I don’t think it’s exactly half height. Whatever). So this bed was to become the central part of the shelves he’d build.

So for about a year, we had a half-height Murphy bed in that otherwise-disaster of a room. Until now. This month, Greg built the shelves. And before he started the sawing and drilling and gluing and painting, we talked a lot about the dimensions and the design, and how to incorporate the half-height Murphy bed.

We knew we didn’t want the shelves to be perfectly symmetrical. We knew we wanted them to hold art and photos and doodads in addition to lots of books.

And so one day I said, “Hey, do you know what a log cabin quilt square looks like?” And he said, “No.” And so I googled it.

Which is how it came to be that Greg installed this beauty last night:

Log Cabin Quilt-Inspired Bookshelves

Log Cabin Quilt-inspired Shelves

After a coat of primer.

I knew I’d love this room someday, friends, and that day is today.