Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Jell-o Project: Layers and Food Fights

For the Memorial Day picnic at Starlings I made a stunning ten Layer Jell-o mold. This is five different flavors of Jell-o, including the new mango flavor. Half of the dissolved Jell-o goes in the mold and the other half gets mixed with three tablespoons of sour cream. Then after the non-sour cream layer has had time to set up, you add the sour cream layer and let that set up. Rinse and repeat for your next four boxes.

If you think the Jell-o looks impressive in the picture above--and who wouldn't!--you should have seen the cross section at the picnic. It was breathtaking. And it went quickly.

It's so fun to bring Jell-o to people who are excited about Jell-o.

Only two people in my family (besides myself) were able to get a bit of this masterpiece before it was all gone: Robert and Isaac. Robert said it was very good and Isaac gave it a 2.8 out of three. I never found out why he dinged me .2 points, but someone wisely suggested I let it go.

After we got home and the glow of Jell-o success was starting to diminish, I reminded my family of the awesome Jell-o, just in case anyone wanted to offer more praise.

"It was a popular projectile in the food fight," Ethan offered.

There was a food fight?

The moral of the story is, don't be greedy seeking Jell-o praise. Even if you are sorely in need of it.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

A Trip To Oregon Caves National Monument

Last August as we set out on the first day of a month-long vacation, we drove through Grant's Pass on the way to Crescent City and the Redwood Forest. We passed the turn-off for the Oregon Caves and momentarily thought about deviating from our set course. 

Not willing to give up time in the redwoods, I suggested we come back another time and explore the Oregon Caves when we didn't have a month full of plans hanging in the balance.

So this weekend, that is exactly what we did. I made reservations to stay in the Oregon Caves Chateau back in February and have been excitedly looking forward to our trip ever since.

Unfortunately, Robert had to work and was not able to come with us. 

The drive from Portland to The Oregon Caves was about six hours, including a 45 minute stop in Grant's Pass for lunch. After our amazing weekend, I have to say the travel time was totally worth it and I would happily do the drive again to repeat our wonderful experience.

When we arrived at our destination, we still had several hours before we could check into our hotel, so we went to the Visitor's Center and paid for a tour with a ranger. You can only enter the caves with a ranger-guide and tours last 90 minutes. I don't know what I was expecting in the cave, but this was definitely not it. The picture above was taken in the "Paradise Lost" room and was definitely the most outstanding display of cave formations that we saw on the tour. But there were many other fascinating things to see.

The ranger who led our tour was super knowledgeable and explained both the history and the science of the cave. Honestly, I could go on and on about the cave. I was astounded by it's beauty and other-worldliness.

One of the members of the tour offered to take our picture as we exited the cave. It was a cold day and had actually snowed two inches overnight. The 44 F of the cave interior was actually warmer that outside. 

There were two ways to get back to the Visitor's Center from the cave exit: The long way and the short way.

We took the long way. A 45-minute hike over the top of the cave to a cliff over looking the valley. Of course our view from the top was foggy, but still beautiful. Everything was so lush and made me think that while Oregonians probably had hundreds of words to describe rain, there certainly must be thousands to describe all the shades of green.

The Chateau was old and charming and to be honest, I'm not sure if I enjoyed it even better than the cave itself. The interior was stunning with wood beams and a massive marble stone fireplace. There were plenty of vintage touches like the original stereo, an old telephone switchboard, and even hall phone boxes with the receiver on the side and big bells on the front. 

There was a 1950's diner downstairs. Not a 1950's "style" diner. This was an authentic coffee shop that hasn't changed at all since it was built (except the kitchen equipment and soda machine). The view out the window was of a waterfall, but I don't think the boys noticed it much as they sipped their delicious milkshakes. (We got two for $6.50 each and split them. Ethan wasn't able to finish his.)

Another great thing about the Chateau was the lack of wifi, television, or even cell phone service. The downstairs was warm and welcoming. There was a large fireplace we all enjoyed reading in front of for at least an hour. A pianist played at the grand piano for several hours in the evening, and Ethan and Isaac had fun playing chess in the "library."

The building was so creaky and there was a radiator in our room that hissed when it warmed up. I didn't mention this to the younger boys, but Ethan overheard the desk clerk telling us about Elizabeth, the ghost who roams the chateau. (I asked about it when we were assigned our room, and the clerk explained in hushed tones that they were not allowed to talk about it unless the guest brought it up first.) Evidently, Elizabeth can be heard walking around the Chateau, and actually stays away from the room where she jumped to her death, 310. Sometimes she knocks over milkshake glasses in the coffee shop at night.

I have to say, I definitely heard foot steps and lot of creaking, strange noises. But they were most definitely the creaking of the radiator and the foot steps of the people in the room above us. 

The next day we hiked the Big Tree Trail to see Oregon's largest Douglas fir tree. It was 1.3 miles straight uphill and I was impressed with the boys stamina. Especially Ethan and Isaac who blazed the trail, running part of the way.

I should mention that everywhere we went, the boys Junior Ranger hats always got lots of comments. Everyone was super impressed with their badges, especially the rangers who read them the oath and gave them their badges for the Oregon Caves.

We looked at the tree for about 60 seconds, then ran back down the mountain. Jonah and I did more walking that running and found Ethan and Isaac waiting for us in front of the fire in the Chateau wondering, "what took you so long."

Isaac pleaded for us to move to the Chateau permanently and for Robert to become a ranger there. He didn't want to leave and either did I. I mused with the clerk at checkout that I didn't know how I was going to tell Robert about our trip without making him feel bad for having to miss it. We had such an amazing time.

When we finally got home and had had an hour to decompress, Isaac came to me with tears in his eyes saying he wanted to move and go back to the caves.

So the trip was a huge success and we all hope to return again.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

In Which I Get Graphic

It can be a challenge to get boys to read. So when Jonah and Isaac were fighting over a book the other night, I admit to feeling proud instead of annoyed. And last night, when Jonah wouldn't put down his book at dinner, I kept quiet.

In the past graphic novels and comics have been sidelined and shunned. Thankfully, though, they're now starting to gain acceptance among educators, librarians and parents as legitimate forms of literature.  I might not be able to get my kids to sit down and read through one of the several Newbery books on my shelf, or any one of the other fabulous books I know they'd love, but they will willingly pick up a graphic novel and sit and read--sometimes for twenty minutes!

How can I complain about that?

Here are a few of their favorites.

Warriors Series - These are based on the chapter books by the same name. There are cats that do things and I'm not sure what those things are, but Jonah couldn't read the 9 books fast enough. Many nights he was reading these in bed with a flashlight. And of course I did not make him turn it off.

Squish - Portland illustrator Matthew Holm visited Jonah and Isaac's school and we got signed copies of Squish 1 and 2. Isaac is eagerly awaiting the arrival of Squish 3 in the mail. There are science experiments in the back of each book.

Meanwhile - This was the book Jonah and Isaac were fighting over and I know exactly why. It's a visual "choose your own adventure book" with lines or tubes to follow to take you to the tab that will reveal the end of your story. Super fun.

Big Nate - This appears to be a rip off of the Wimpy Kid books, but Jeff Kinney himself offered a blurb for the front cover, so they have his stamp of approval. Best of all, there are lots of books in the series. I've counted about 9.

Wimpy Kid - Duh

Astronaut Academy Zero Gravity - Who wouldn't want to read about space school? My teenager seems to like this one better than the younger boys.

Knights of the Lunch Table - My 10 year old liked this one better than the 8 year old. They're short and quick reads. It looks like there are 5 books in the series so far.

Daniel Boom: Loud Boy - I don't know what this one is about, but I'm guessing there is a loud kid involved. And Jonah liked it, so maybe your boy will like it too.

Dragonbreath - This probably isn't technically a graphic novel. There are more words than pictures. But  my boys can't get enough. With titles like "Attack of the Ninja Frogs," "Lair of the Bat Monster," and "Curse of the Were-wiener," how can you go wrong?

Bone - An adventure series that Jonah loved. He read every book.

Comic Compilations:
Zits: The life and times of a lazy, but lovable teenage boy.
Foxtrot: The life and times of a geeky but lovable young boy and his family.
Calvin and Hobbes: The life and times of a precocious, but lovable kid and his imaginary tiger friend.
Garfield: The life and times of a fat but lovable cat with attitude and his pathetic human.
Dilbert: The life and times of an engineer. And he's lovable

Friday, May 18, 2012

Book Club for One: Crossing to Safety

I just finished, for the second time, Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. Even though I'd read it once before, I could remember very little about it, so this was like reading it for the first time. I borrowed the book and didn't get through more than ten or twelve pages before realizing I needed some of those sticky tabs to mark all my favorite passages.

Now I have to return the book, so I've decided to list my favorite passages here, so I have them to reflect on whenever I want.

"In fact, if you could forget mortality, and that used to be easier here than in most places, you could really believe that time is circular, and not linear and progressive as our culture is bend on proving. Seen in geological perspective, we are fossils in the making, to be buried and eventually exposed again for the puzzlement of creatures of later eras. Seen in either geological or biological terms, we don't warrant attention as individuals. One of us doesn't differ that much from another, each generation repeats its parents, the works we build to outlast us are not much more enduring that anthills, and much less so than coral reefs. Here everything returns upon itself, repeats and renews itself, and present can hardly be told from past."

I love the way this puts life in perspective. I guess it could seem slightly pessimistic, but that's not how I see it. I can focus on where my influence will be greatest and where my contributions will mean the most.

"I have accomplished little that matters, that the books have never come up to what was in my head, and that the rewards--he comfortable income, the public notice, the literary prizes, and the honorary degrees--have been tinsel, not what a grown man should be content with. What ever happened to the passion we all had to improve ourselves, live up to our potential, leave a mark on the world? Our hottest arguments were always about  how we could contribute. We did not care about the rewards. We were young and earnest."

And I think that goes nicely with the paragraph at the end of the same chapter:

"In high school, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a bunch of us spent a whole year reading Cicero--De Senectute, on old age; De Amicitia, on friendship. De Senectute, with all its resigned wisdom, I will probably never be capable of living up to or imitating. But De Amicitia I could make a stab at, and could have any time in the last thirty-four years."

I like to think that what Larry Morgan is reflecting on here is that it's our relationships that are our legacy. They are our "contributions." They are what make life worth living.

The next quote is from the passage where Larry and Sally are leaving the faculty party in the fancy house to return to their little basement apartment. I just liked the sentiment and remembered many college days of Ramen, Saltines, and Jiffy muffin mix.

"I suppose we were both a little depressed at leaving those colleagues, strangers though they were, unknowns with the most profound portent for our future, and going home to our cellar, where we at the stuff that was good for the budget but not especially good for the soul."

I still make this choice at the grocery store every week and often throw in a little soul food with the budget food. It feels so luxurious.

"What the disorderly crave about everything is order, what the dislocated aspire to is location. Reading my way out of disaster in the Berkeley library, I had run into Henry Adams. 'Chaos,' he told me, 'is the law of nature; order is the dream of man.' No one had ever put my life to me with such precision, and when I read the passage to Sally, she heard it the same way I did . . . I had lost my security, she had never had any. Both of us were peculiarly susceptible to friendship. When the Langs opened their house and their hearts to us, we crept gratefully in."

This makes it seem as though Larry and Sally were almost victims of Sid and Charity's friendship. That they were deprived, maybe, and that there was no resisting the kindness.

I fell in love with the following quote as Larry describes being the center of attenion:

"They quizzed me on a hundred California subjects from Yosemite to Dust Bowl refugees, and not only they but others near us, Alice and Lib especially, attending my answers as if I had been speaking from the sacred cave. How lovely it is to be chosen, how flattering to have such bright eyes on you as you divide the light from the darkness."

Wonderful! I guess if I was to be a little introspective, this provides a great lesson on how to be a good friend, how to be kind, how to make someone feel important, at ease, blah, blah, blah.

"I believe that most people have some degree of talent for something--forms, colors, words, sounds. Talent lies around us like kindling waiting for a match, but some people, just as gifted as others, are less lucky. Fate never drops a match on them. The times are wrong, or their health is poor, or their energy low, or their obligations to many. Something."

I don't know whether this should motivate me or depress me? But I love it.

Here's another on the same idea:

"What if our parents had been undernourished villagers in Uttar Pradesh, and we faced the problem of commanding the attention of the world on a diet of five hundred calories a day, and in Urdu? What good is an ace if the other cards in your hand are dogs from every town?"

I think Stegner answers this question. It has to do with using your talents to improve the area you are in. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but it seems like Stegner was all about the West when most intellectuals and writers were all about the Hallowed East. He made his spot into they primordial soup that birthed his ideas and nurtured his talents. Maybe commanding the attention of the world is the wrong goal to have? Didn't Charity often talk about making Wisconsin an intellectual power to rival those of the Ivy Leagues?

It's true, some will never have that match dropped into the kindling of their greatness, but does that matter?

"'Maybe she's a little inconsistent,' Sally said. 'She wants all those children, but one of her reasons is so she won't have too much time to give to one or two. She thinks children in a big family have the benefit of a certain amount of neglect.'"

I only have three children, but love the idea of "the benefit of neglect." Fabulous!

"We weren't indifferent. We lived in our times, which were hard times. We had our interests, which were mainly literary and intellectual and only occasionally, inescapably, political. But what memory brings back from there is not politics, or the meagerness of living on a hundred and fifty dollars a month, or even the writing I was doing, but the details of friendship--parties, picnics, walks, midnight conversations, glimpses from the occasional unencumbered hours. Amicitia lasts better than res publica, and at least as well as ars poetica. Or so it seems now. What really illuminates those months is the faces of our friends."

This supports the idea that relationships matter. Other things fade, but relationships shape us and stay with us.

"By mid-January Dave Stone, Sid and I were at work on one of those anthology textbooks that young instructors hope will look impressive on a vita. Stone, Lang and Morgan, Writing from Conviction. But I didn't steal from my writing hours to work on it. I stole from evenings, from Sally, from class preparation, and from sleep."

Not an mind-blowing quote, the the "stealing from Sally" part struck me. Is he expressing regret about this or just stating a fact. Either way, it feels sad to me. Maybe because it hits a little close.

And I loved this:

"Henry James says somewhere that if you have to make notes on how a thing has struck you, it probably hasn't struck you."

Just something to think about.

Here's a little something Larry says after publishing his first book, an autobiographical look at the tragic death of his parents:

"Yet now, having held in grief and resentment, and evaded thinking too much about the episode that changed my life with the finality of an axe, here I am exalted by having made use of it, by having spilled my guts in public. We are strange creatures, and writers are stranger creatures than most."

I find spilling my guts in public to be cathartic. I probably share too much.

"We agree that until it has had a poet, a place is not a place."

This made me think of the poetry I've written internally, that I didn't have words to express, that was maybe only feelings, but that still made a place a place for me.

"Thomas Hardy, whom I had recently been teaching to Wisconsin high school teachers, might have guessed that the President of the Immortals had other sport in mind for us. My own view is less theatrical. Order is indeed the dream of man, but chaos, which is only another word for dumb, blind, witless chance, is still the law of nature. You can plan all you want to. You can lie in your morning bed and fill whole notebooks with schemes and intentions. But with in a single afternoon, within hours or minutes, everything you plan and everything you have fought to make yourself can be undone as a slug is undone when salt is poured on him. And right up to the moment when you find yourself dissolving into foam you can still believe you are doing fine."

So does this mean planning is a waste of time? Doesn't planning and order still help us to get where we are going, even if where we are going is not the place we have in mind?

This is a great summary of Charity's character:

"No Battel Pond visit at all in the summer of 1939. None in 1940 either. Charity came down once, but stayed only a day. Other people's houses, and routines that she could not control, made her uneasy, and she was as unwilling to be a burden as Sally was."

As is this:

"We sat in firelight, watched by the eyes of the owl andirons. The kitchen door, over at the dim dining-room end, was outlined with the light beyond it. Ordinarily I am an admirer of the Ninth Sympohny, but that night it struck me as pompous and overstated. I couldn't listen because I kept thinking of Sid out there, inferior and unneeded, dismissed to the scullery. And why? Because Charity had set up a schedule and was too inflexible to change it."

And here Larry comes to understand some of the wisdom of Charity's ways:

"I ran my New Mexico mornings about the way Charity had always tried to run the life of the Lang family--evocatively when possible, arbitrarily if necessary. That, if you can get away with it, is a very satisfactory way to live."

And this was an interesting idea:

"Technically, Christ was the hero of Paradise Lost; actually, Satan was. Fallen grandeur was always more instructive than pallid perfection. Or look at painting, all those Christs whose bland faces belied their bloody wounds, all those characterless angels. Saintliness had no possible expression but a simper. But Judas, now, sitting at the Last Supper trying to disguise his treachery, with that symbolic cat behind him, he was something else because of his human complexity." 

Is this why we love to read about bad characters? People who do things we'd never do? Or maybe why we like to read about women who are dominant, who make us a little uncomfortable? Who elicit a response, or an opinion in us?

Again, on Charity:

"She could never have a good time without calling her own and other's attention to what a good time she was having. She wanted no experience, even the slightest, to go unmarked."

I have so much trouble with Charity in this book. Her dominance rankles me. Makes me uncomfortable. Makes me angry at times. But on the other hand, it's what provides the fuel to this friendship. Is it not her that is and has been driving it from the beginning? How can you know if you are part of a Master Plan, or if she truly does cherish the friendship? And would you care?

And this brings up the fact that I do not believe a friendship, or a relationship can be built on such an unequal foundation. I don't care how genuine Sid and Charity were about sharing their wealth with Sally and Larry, that kind of imbalance automatically places one person in the role of benefactor and another in the role of the benefitted. I believe this creates a dynamic that can not be overcome. One is always giving, the other always in debt.

At the same time, Larry did have his gravitas as a talented writer to give to Sid and Charity. In a way, this was currency they could not acquire. Maybe that was the way the scales were balanced in the relationship?

More Charity:

"We did not argue with her. She was still developing her sundial theory of art, which would count no hours but the sunny ones."

This too is a great summary of Charity after they drop off the injured Italian at the bottom of a hill:

"I don't think he wants anymore help."
"But he needs it, whether he wants it or not. He could lose his hand, and what would a workman like him do with only one hand? He's got to have a doctor. They'll probably just soak his hand in dirty water and wrap it in a rag, or poultice it with cow manure!"
"What would we do? Sid said. Tackle him, and load him back in by force?"
"Oh," Charity said, "why did you let him out?"
"Because he wanted out," I said.

Who is right here? Charity has a good point, but at what point do you let someone do what they want, even to their own detriment? This is how she handled Sid. She decided that poetry was bad for him and dragged him, by force, to her idea of success. There was no regard for what he wanted. Was it best for him?

Frankly, this whole line of thinking makes my head hurt. At what point do you let someone ruin themselves?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Jell-o Project: Layered Pear Cream Cheese Mold

I do love when Jell-o recipes that call for green Jell-o use the word "mold" in the recipe title.

Layered Pear Cream Cheese Mold is a recipe from my "Jell-o Brand Collection" cookbook and I'm sort of happy to say that the family loved it. And I say "sort of" because frankly, it's a bit hard to come up with a compelling report when everyone likes the Jell-o salad.

Robert said it was probably his favorite Jell-o salad to date and even had seconds. I'm beginning to suspect he's been reading the blog posts and is trying to make up for past vagueness. Which, I suppose is very sweet of him.

Jonah and Isaac ate all their Jell-o in order to get a can of ginger ale for dessert. (I used ginger ale in the Jell-o) Jonah ate his happily, while Isaac looked as if at any moment he was going to hurl. He also complained heartily about the nuts.

Ethan ate his Jell-o all up too, but not without four solid minutes of unimaginative face-making which included his tongue sticking out one direction, then altering the look so that the tongue stuck out the other direction. (The Academy was not impressed.)

Layered Pear Cream Cheese Mold

1 16 oz can pear halves, undrained
1 8 serving package of green Jell-o
1 1/2 cups cold ginger ale or water
2 TB lemon juice
1 8 oz package of cream cheese
1/4 cup chopped pecans

Reserve pear juice and add water to bring it up to 1 1/2 cups. Dissolve Jell-o in boiled liquid and add cold ginger ale or water. Reserve 2 1/2 cups of Jell-o at room temp and put the rest into a 5 cup mold. Let chill for 30 minutes, then add 1/2 cup diced pears. Mix softened cream cheese into the remaining Jell-o (I used an immersion blender). Let the cream cheese mixture cool in fridge for about 30 minutes then and add in remaining pears and nuts (oh yes, do not forget the nuts.) Spoon the mixture over the first layer and continue to refrigerate until firm. Unmold and garnish as desired.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Jell-o Project: Uninspired

This is Creamy Fruited Mold. It's any flavor Jell-o (strawberry), 1 cup of any diced fruit (except fresh pineapple, obvs.) and 1 1/2 cups of cool whip (plus the obligatory hot and cold water.)

This turned out WAY different than the picture in my "Jell-o Brand Collection" cookbook, which was my first disappointment. The second disappointment was that this Jell-o was boring.

It was so boring, every single person in my family loved it. Not a complaint from anyone.

Okay, Isaac did think some of the diced fruit was a little too big. But he ate over 80% of the Jell-o anyway.

I'm done with safe Jell-o. It's time to make things interesting again.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Lately . . .

Robert on phone: Hi, I'm coming home for dinner.
Me: Okay, well, we had dinner an hour ago and I'm leaving for Relief Society in 10 minutes.
Robert: Oh.
Me: Okay. So, I guess I'll see you at 2am when I wake up to go to the bathroom?
Robert: Yeah, okay.

It's not that I can't check in on Robert when I get home from Relief Society. It's just that he will be busy working and won't have much more than a minute or so for talking. Usually I get out the important stuff in a quick, verbal list like this:

1. The checks came today
2. I got those granola bars you like from Costco
3. We are going to Vancouver after church on Sunday and bringing mixed nuts.

And that's about it. Most of the time I forget something more important like:

4. Your dad called, or
5. Everything went great at the dermatologist today

And then I fall asleep reading a book in bed and Robert wanders in sometime around who-know's-what o'clock. I see him when I roll over and wake up around 2am, and then he leaves before I get up.

So that's life lately. And that leaves me to do things like science fairs and baseball games and piano lessons and scouts. I could go on, but as I mentioned to Robert in our phone conversation, I have to leave for Relief Society now.