Tuesday, August 25, 2015

your antidote to Pinterest: part one - my back yard

There are a lot of reasons I am not on Pinterest, but the two main ones are: 1) I really do not need another reason to waste time online; 2) it's just too aspirational for me. From what I understand and see alluded to on blogs, Pinterest is full of gorgeous photos of other people's gorgeous houses, hairstyles, adorable DIY projects and beautiful food. Maybe on a good day those things provide inspiration, but most of the time, too much of that makes me feel shabby and lame. 

Instagram can have that same effect, but I follow plenty of regular folks there who show pictures of their lives, not just perfectly backlit bowls of soup and manicured toes relaxing in the sand.

Does this happen to you? Do you ever look at Pinterest or skim lifestyle blogs or pass by the magazine aisle in the drugstore and find yourself feeling really crappy about your house/nails/garden/meal presentation?

If your answer is YES, then read on. My friends, this post is an antidote to all those aspirational traps.  I'm going to show you a bunch of pictures of my junky, crappy back yard, and by the end of it you will all feel better about your surroundings. 

Let's start with some renovation prep.

Exhibit A: the temporary utility pole


Yes, this is temporary, and thank goodness, because if it were there to stay I'd probably try to grow some climber beans up those 2x4s holding it in place. Now that wheelbarrow without the wheel right there next to it? It's been there for a while, like at least two years, ever since the wheel went permanently flat and we couldn't find a replacement that fit. I've been meaning to drill some holes in the bottom and turn it into a raised herb planter, but I obviously haven't gotten around to it.

Exhibit B: Deck wreckage

Stairs to nowhere.
The back of our house with the deck completely gone.

Stuart spent most of Saturday annihilating the back deck, which was not in great shape to begin with. Now we have a crumbling concrete porch with a really awkward step up to the back door. 

Why anyone would cover this marvel of concrete engineering with a spacious wooden deck is beyond my understanding.
This will be gone next week when the excavators dig a giant hole there.

Exhibit C: The pile of splinters and tetanus

Attempts to preserve the deck wood so it could be repurposed did not work out. After an hour with a reciprocating saw and crowbar, Stuart had removed exactly one board. Understandably, he declared this rate of progress far too slow so he went out and bought a circular saw and started slicing. What's left of the deck is now a pile of splintered wood and rusty screws, equal parts human safety hazard and chipmunk paradise.



Now you might be thinking, but the ugly utility pole and demolished deck are temporary! They're only uglifying your back yard because you're getting ready for a big remodel that will resolve these issues soon enough. And you'd be right. But I'm not done showing you crap yet.

Exhibit D: The garden.

I garden a lot. I have a community garden plot, I do a lot of work at the school garden, and I also attempt to grow stuff at home. Eventually I want raised beds bursting with juicy vegetables, but for this year I didn't want to put in anything permanent (knowing it might get trampled during construction). So last fall I built a lasagna garden, which basically just means smothering an area with cardboard and newspaper and piling compost and organic matter on top, letting it break down over the winter, and planting vegetables and whatnot in the spring. It looks every bit as classy as it sounds.

This is what it looks like now:


Look at that squash vine! you might be thinking. Not bad! Except that I didn't plant that squash vine. It's a vigorous volunteer that is threatening to take over the back yard, and then the neighborhood. World domination might be its eventual plan, and while I wouldn't ordinarily mind volunteer vegetable plants, the squash this behemoth is producing look tough and inedible. They are pumpkin-shaped but alternately dark green and pale yellow, and will probably be too small for carving. Useless.

I also have tomatoes. Approximately 500 volunteer tomato plants sprouted from the compost I layered on the garden, and I didn't intentionally plant a single one. All my tomatoes got blight last year, and I didn't want a repeat performance. I left a few plants anyway to see how they'd do. They are sprawled all over the ground and producing a few small fruits that aren't especially juicy or flavorful, but I pick a small handful every few days to throw into sauce. The way they are growing amongst the mutant squash vine and creeping charlie, you really have to search for them.

It's like Where's Waldo for tomatoes.
If I showed you pictures of the stuff I wanted to grow, you wouldn't see anything because nothing I planted on purpose even made it except for a few leaves of chard. Whoop dee do.

Exhibit E: the mulch pile


This mound of wood chips used to be the birch tree in front of our house. I had the arborist dump all the mulch in back thinking I'd spread it all around and make good use of it. That was in May. I've used some of it, but clearly not all. It has joined the rusty wagon in being a big eyesore.

But maybe not as much of an eyesore as Exhibit F: the shed!


This shed sucks. Since we have no garage, this 8'x8' shed houses all of our bikes, the lawn mower and some garden tools - some, not all, because as you can see from the pictures below, the walls are only about 4' high before it tilts in for the roof, you can't lean anything tall inside. I suppose the reason for this aspect of the shed's design was to make it look like a barn, perhaps to bring some rural charm into an urban back yard, but I find it aggravating. 




Also, there is no concrete pad for the shed; it just sits on cinder blocks and provides safe haven for gosh only knows how many critters underneath. And the roof has no overhang, so there is some water damage along the edges.

Snow shovels and step ladder live outside all year long amongst the weeds.
Bonus exhibit: the junk that lives by the shed. 

We have that temporary utility pole and useless wheelbarrow, and to complete the look, some old buckets, extra cinder blocks, the wheelbarrow's wheel, scraps of garden fence and a small pile of sand. There used to be a sandbox there, but we gave it and all the sand toys to new neighbors whose toddler daughter seemed very excited to get them.


So that's my back yard. Honestly, I sometimes look back there at all the junk and the weeds and piece of crap shed and I despair. All we need is a battered pickup truck and an above-ground pool and we'll complete the White Trash theme we've inadvertently been perfecting the last few years.

Postscript: It's like our house knows the Big Renovation is coming and it's just giving up. Since I started writing this post yesterday, the light switches in Anya's room quit working and the back storm door broke:


I've also noticed siding coming loose and the roof sagging in front of the house over the soffits. (I'm pretty sure there's some water damage in there.) All that broken stuff will be fixed eventually, as it's part of the Big Renovation. Now that you can see how bad it is, maybe you understand why we're willing to go to the trouble and expense of fixing it.

So that's part one of my anti-Pinterest series of posts. Feel better about yourself yet? Next time I'll show you the kitchen and all its charms.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Tuesday Night Fun Cooking! (On Wednesday): slow cooker tomato soup


Oddly enough, it was downright chilly yesterday. This happens every so often here in the upper Midwest, a late summer day that is cool, cloudy and blustery and feels like mid-September. We wore jackets with our flip-flops to go to the park, and it felt like a good day to make a pot of soup. Tomato soup and cheese toast - can you think of more quintessential comfort food?

I started by chopping the onions. Onions make my children weep so I spared them that step.


The big white onion quarter is from our CSA, and the little guys are from my garden. Why don't my onions get big?
Chop, chop.
We're inundated with tomatoes right now. I've got a few from my own garden, but most of these are from the school garden. School hasn't started and I've put in dozens of hours pulling weeds and tending the garden plots this summer, so I figure it's okay for me to bring home the harvest if nobody else will.

Tomatoes are gorgeous, aren't they?
The kids' main job was to wash and core tomatoes before tossing them into the slow cooker insert. The soup goes in the blender when it's done cooking, so we didn't chop them, but the large tomatoes were cut in half.

We are still working on how to point the knife to avoid injury, but she didn't cut herself this time. Thank heaven.

Meanwhile, I sautéed the other soup ingredients on the stove: chopped onion, quite a lot of garlic, about a half zucchini leftover from chocolate zucchini cake (I need to make that with the kids next, because it's easy and quite delicious), a green pepper starting to shrivel, and some uneaten carrot sticks leftover from lunch a couple days before. This is like kitchen sink tomato soup; put in a little of everything except the kitchen sink!


Once those veggies were nice and soft, I put them in with the tomatoes, and the kids measured out some salt and a little bit of sugar (helps cut the acid of the tomatoes).


We mixed it all up, then put the lid on, set it to cook on low, and left for the day.


When we returned about six hours later, the soup was bubbling and fragrant. We added some a vegetable bullion cube, blended it up, added fresh chopped herbs, and turned the cooker back on to warm up the soup while Stuart make cheese toast and cooked corn on the cob.


It was the perfect meal for a chilly day!

Slow Cooker Tomato Soup
  • One big bowlful of ripe tomatoes, any kind (enough to fill a 6-quart slow cooker about 2/3 full)
  • 1 large onion (or several small ones), roughly chopped
  • 2 T. garlic, roughly chopped
  • About 2 cups random vegetables roughly chopped (I used zucchini, carrot, bell pepper, but you don't have to use all those. I bet eggplant would work, or even greens like chard or kale if you don't overdo it)
  • 3 T. olive oil
  • 1 T. salt
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • 1 cube bullion or 1 tsp. concentrated broth paste or powder (I used vegetable, but chicken would be good too)
  • 2-4 T. chopped fresh herbs like parsley, basil and chives
  1. Heat the oil over medium low heat and slowly cook the onions for about 10 minutes. When they become translucent, add the chopped vegetables and cook another 5 minutes. Then add the garlic and continue cooking another 2-3 minutes.
  2. While those things are cooking, core the tomatoes. Cut the large ones in half or quarters. Don't worry about removing seeds unless you really don't like them. Leave the skins on, too. Put all the tomatoes in the slow cooker insert thingy.
  3. Once the vegetables are done cooking, put them into the slow cooker with the tomatoes. Gently stir in the salt and sugar (sugar helps cut the acid of the tomatoes, as do the carrots).
  4. Cook undisturbed on low for at least 6 hours.
  5. With a slotted spoon, scoop all the big pieces out of the pot and blend. If you don't like tomato skins you can peel them off the large tomato halves at this point, but I usually don't bother. 
  6. There will be lots of juice left in the pot. Mix in the broth powder or bullion, gently pour the blended soup back in, and add the chopped herbs. Set the cooker on low and continue to cook for 30-60 minutes while you prepare the rest of the meal and set the table.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

so many feelings

You were expecting a Tuesday Night Fun Cooking! (on Wednesday) post, weren't you? Rest assured, one is coming. In fact, the kids and I got a head start on something in the slow cooker this morning.

But right now I am having lots of feelings about many, many things, and I sort of feel like my head might explode if I don't write some of them down.

I am kind of freaking out about the impending renovation project, for one thing. Yes, it will be disruptive and we don't know where all of our stuff is going to go or where Anya will sleep when they are cutting holes in her wall, but I think I can deal with all that. What I'm worried about is our neighbor, with whom we share a driveway, who is sure to unleash all of her crazy, paranoid anger at us as soon as she sees the excavation equipment rolling down the street. Even though I know we have the right to improve our own property, and even though we have been reassured multiple times by the subcontractors that they can stay within our property boundary, and even though we have an attorney willing to represent us should we need it, just thinking about it makes me shake.

Of course, all of this is going to happen the first week of school, which starts September 1st. Like most parents, I'm looking forward to school starting. We've reached that point of the summer when I either want to take another vacation or just start school NOW already, but neither is happening so in the meantime we're getting a little bored and twitchy. I've started waking up in the middle of the night, not in a panic exactly, but with my mind busy and racing with thoughts about what it will feel like to have kids in 2nd and 4th grades, worried I won't find enough freelance work, wishing the back yard didn't look so terrible, wondering if we're the only ones who know just how difficult the neighbor is and if it's somehow our fault.

To cope, I've been obsessing over details of the project, like picking out colors for backsplash tile and how to paint the living room walls, even though none of that needs to be decided for a while yet. I'm also in serious DECLUTTER mode, and I have several bags of stuff for the thrift store and a stack of books to sell at Frugal Muse. Going through clothes and toys overwhelms me. Where did all this stuff come from?! Why do people feel the need to give kids crappy little plastic prizes at every school function?! When did every purchase of new underwear or a bag of apples become an ethical decision worthy of the cover of Newsweek?!

Today I can't help but have feelings about everything. It's just happening to me whether I like it or not. This afternoon I will play some card games with my kids, help them clean out their rooms, drink some tea and take some deep breaths. Maybe I'll feel better tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Tuesday Night Fun Cooking! (on Wednesday): Gimbob and cornc edition

For this week's Tuesday Night Fun Cooking! (on Wednesday) I bring you my seasonal Midwestern version of a Korean staple: gimbob (aka kimbob, aka gimbap, aka kimbap...you get the idea). A few weeks ago, a friend of mine invited me and the kids over for lunch at her house, where she taught us how to make gimbob and they gobbled it up like trick-or-treaters on Halloween night. Since then, we've made it a few times, and we've all declared it a favorite.

Gimbob is essentially Korean-style sushi: sticky rice and various other things wrapped in sheets of toasted seaweed and sliced into cute little rounds. It's delicious and easy* and perfect for a summer meal since it doesn't require much actual cooking.  More on that in a minute.

Of course, fresh corn on the cob is a quintessential summer side dish. Whether or not it's an appropriate accompaniment to gimbob I don't know, but I happen to think they go pretty well together. Step one for TNFC (on Wednesday) was for Daniel and Anya to shuck a few ears of corn, an activity best done outside, as you can see:




That task done, they happily trotted inside to enjoy some screen time while I boiled the corn and got everything out for the gimbob. I have to confess here that we had gimbob for lunch yesterday as well, and there was enough stuff leftover that I didn't really need the kids' help preparing anything, except for throwing some more rice into the cooker. Yes, they had it easy this time. No, I don't really care. It's mid-August already.

Seaweed and filling!
So what are all of those things pictured above? The bottom of the picture is a sheet of toasted seaweed sitting on a bamboo rolling mat and a big bowl of sticky rice. Less obvious are the items above. From the top left: a thin omelette cut into strips (the dark spots are finely chopped beet greens I sneaked in, which probably isn't the least bit authentic), fish cakes warmed up and cut into strips (you can find these in the frozen section of your local Asian market, and I believe their express purpose is sushi/gimbob filling), cheese sticks cut into thin strips (again, not authentic, but these were some weirdly unsalted ones from Trader Joe's that none of us wants to eat plain), and then that plate on the right contains carrots, cucumber and pickled daikon cut into thin strips. Youngjoo - my culinary mentor in these matters - tells me you can put essentially whatever you want into gimbob, but it should be colorful like a rainbow (hence the garishly yellow pickled radish).

I hesitate to provide instruction here because I'm really quite a novice at this dish. And what follows is not so much a recipe as a few guidelines. Still, I'll do my best.

First, you have to have a bamboo sushi mat. They are inexpensive and easy enough to find.

Once you have your ingredients assembled, place one sheet of seaweed shiny side down on the mat. Spread sticky rice all over the seaweed except for about an inch on the top and bottom. Lay strips of your choice of filling about 1/3 of the way up the rice and squish it together before rolling it up, using the mat to squeeze as you go so that the thing holds together.  (*I have yet to master this skill. Remember when I said this dish is delicious and easy? It's easy if you are a novice and don't much care when it falls apart because you stuffed too much in the roll and didn't squeeze it tightly enough. I'm still learning this lesson.)

Daniel seems to have the hang of it, but he wouldn't let me take a whole video, lest he reveal his trade secret, so you'll have to make do with this snapshot.



Anya had just a bit of help with hers, and she proudly held up her roll:


Now, I'm no expert on Korean or Japanese food, but I gather that the main difference between them is what you serve alongside the rolls. Last month when she taught us this dish, Youngjoo didn't have pickled ginger or wasabi paste or any of the things you typically eat with Japanese sushi. Instead, she simply  rolled the gimbob in toasted sesame oil and sesame seeds drizzled on a cutting board before slicing it. 


And there it is! Sliced and ready to eat. You can dip in soy sauce if you choose.

This is Daniel's plate. See how nicely his holds together? I aspire to this.



Friday, August 07, 2015

random on Friday

E1. Stuart and I had our 14th anniversary this week. To say we celebrated properly would be a bit of a stretch, but no one was out of town for work or had an ear infection or needed five teeth pulled by the oral surgeon, so that's an improvement over the last few anniversaries we've had. Also, Stu grilled a chicken and the kids and I made a scrum-diddly-umptuous pecan pie - not worth a whole Tuesday Night Fun Cooking! post, I'm afraid, but here are a few pictures:


2. School starts in three weeks. I know some of you down South have gone back to school already, but up here kids are in school up to mid-June, so it feels like we've barely started summer break. At the same time, we're all getting bored with each other, bored with the park, bored with the same card games, bored with the library...it feels like a long haul to September.

3. We finally have a starting date for the Big Renovation. It's starting in September, four months after we'd originally anticipated, but this time it's happening for real (I think). Frankly, I'm dreading it. All in one week, the kids go back to school, I go back to my teaching job and (hopefully) lots of freelancing work, and some big burly guys will bust up the porch and dig a giant hole in my back yard. That's only the beginning. Then we'll have concrete poured, windows replaced, framing for the new addition, the roof torn off and replaced, and then after all that they'll knock down walls, pull out our 64-year-old metal cabinetry, carefully remove our asbestos-laden kitchen floor (yes, sigh) and start installing all the new stuff.  Just thinking about dealing with all that plus my variable work schedule and schlepping the kids around has me on the verge of a panic attack.

4. Part of the renovation affects Anya's room. She has an unnecessary entrance to the kitchen, which will be walled off, and she'll be getting a new closet. I'm not sure where her stuff will go or where she's going to sleep in the meantime.

5. When they start the demolition we may need to move the fridge to the living room. I'm trying not to think about that too much.

6. For a time we'll probably be washing dishes in the bathtub. I'm trying not to think about that too much, either.

7. I'm feeling a little homesick these days.

8. I need some good fiction to read.  I gobbled up Richard Russo's memoir Elsewhere (it's sad but good; read the NYT review here) and Elizabeth Cline's critique of the fast-fashion industry in Overdressed (distressing), but I think I need something juicy and escapist before all the shit hits the fan and my stress level spikes in a few weeks. Got any recommendations?

Saturday, August 01, 2015

road trip photo dump

A few days ago I got back home from a 10-day road trip with Daniel and Anya to visit my brother and SIL in the Boston area. We brought along our camping gear and took our time - four days - to get there. Looking back, it was pretty ambitious to drive them all the way to New England on my own, especially with tent camping we did along the way. I've always loved traveling, though, and I've been going on road trips ever since I can remember. Stuart flew out for the long weekend, but didn't have the vacation days to come with us for the long drive, so I just packed up the kids and camping gear and we went on our own. (Flying all of us out there would have been too expensive and not nearly the adventure.)

Of course, things have changed since I was a kid. Air-conditioning, credit cards, and smartphones with GPS all make it possible to have a comfortable trip without too much advanced planning (though I have a road atlas I use about as much as my phone for planning the long routes). And let's not overlook the fact that the iPad set up in the back seat with many MANY episodes of The Simpsons made our longer days of driving (12 straight hours on the first day coming home) bearable. Back in my day we played the alphabet game, read books in the back seat, and stared out the window at the world speeding by. There are only so many times you can play the alphabet game, though, Daniel gets carsick if he reads in the car, and staring out the window can get a little old in the less scenic parts of the drive.

If you follow me on Instagram, you already saw plenty of snapshots and snippets from the trip. I did bring the nicer camera, too, so what follows are the better pictures I took along the way. It's a little random, but such is blogging. Enjoy!

All the camping pictures are from our third night, when we finally got there and got everything set up with some spare time for play and for me to take photos. We were in the southern Adirondacks on the Sacandaga River just outside of Wells, NY (not terribly far from Gloversville, where novelist Richard Russo was born and raised).


The Sacandaga River, just steps away from our campsite.

Early evening light on the rocks.

Daniel tends the fire.

Happy campers
 Our first day with Joe we walked the Freedom Trail in Boston.


The state house with its golden dome. Dare I say the Wisconsin state Capitol is a bit more impressive?

Future Democrats...

Sleepy pooch in Charlestown.
 We spent a day at Tully Lake, a popular destination for camping, fishing, boating, hiking, and disc golfing.


Joe and MJ watch someone's disc fly through the air.

Dry riverbed.

This picture of Anya is so sweet. Too bad she has cracker crumbs and smears of sunscreen on her face. Or maybe that just makes it more endearing.

Boston Harbor

Monday, July 27, 2015

Our trip so far in photos

Let's see how it goes blogging on my phone. I hate typing on the tiny keyboard so you'll have to make do with a few pictures for the time being. 

Short version: lots of driving, camping, hiking, hot dogs, time with my brother, hanging out in Boston and surrounding 'burbs.