April 30, 2016

Ending Eras

     My husband flipped on the television the other night and splashed all over the screen were the words, Prince dead at 57. I was stunned. Was I a huge Prince fan? No, I must say I was not. I certainly enjoyed listening to his music and watching his lively performances, but, admittedly, I never purchased any of his albums nor do I have any in my personal music collection. I once heard that in grammar school he had been nicknamed “Skippy”, and whenever I heard or saw him, it made me smile. Was it true? Who knows, but that bit of information will forever come to mind. Prince made me smile. So I wondered, all week, what was it about his death that stunned me. I have been asking myself that question every time I hear his name or his music, and I am hearing it a lot.
     He was young by today’s standards of lifespan and I had heard nothing that indicated he was near the end of his life. That made it a surprise, but it did not account for the feeling I had. After seeing similar news reports about Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Glenn Frey and even George Martin he was another loss in a long list of memorable talents and I am certain that there will be many more as well. I know no one gets out alive.

Sir George Martin

     I have lived a lifetime of being inundated with entertainment. My generation had more than radio and newspapers, we had television and then to make that even more interactive, we now have computers and the internet. We watched TV day and night as kids. Many of us still do. It informs, entertains, manipulates and pacifies. And through both sound and picture it makes us feel familiar with people we have never laid eyes on otherwise. We see their public and private lives and form opinions of who celebrities really are by what is fed to us. They become our friends and sometimes our foes. We bring them into our minds and, on occasion, our hearts and when they die we feel the loss with that perspective. But there is more.

A young Glenn Frey

     The world watched Michael Jackson struggle with his looks and many aspects of his life. Did it seem something less of a surprise that he died young because that? Glenn Frey was older and a part of a generation, my generation, that is winding down. We know that many of the artists of our time will pass before long. But Prince was younger and in many ways the voice of another generation and he went as well.

Michael Jackson as I first saw him.

     In my mind I think that instead of growing accustomed to the passing of the famous and those we know and love personally there comes a point, like the proverbial straw that broke that camel’s back, when we say not another one. I had never heard much at all about Prince’s personal life, or what struggles he may have had and that only made it more seem surprising. I am older than he was by a few years. In my lifetime I have seen the results of a fight for sexual freedom, censoring of profanity in music and then not, fights for the equality of sexes and races and legalization of marijuana. Some of the results have been positive and others much less. I suppose it is natural for those growing older to fade away. We had our time and we did many things with it. We enjoyed what I think may have been some of the greatest music every composed and then recorded, music that will live for many generations.


      Prince was in a way, a kid to me. He stood on the shoulders of a history of R&B and Rock, sexual equality and cultured individuality. In my mind he was what the next age of folks could do with music. He could sing openly about sex and love and God and do it in a leopard bikini if he wished. He was not the only one, but he was one that made me smile. He took what the world and the media and the generation before him offered and he did it up nicely. To me he was almost like a child running around in their parent’s shoes, skipping and having fun. And that is why, I think, it hit me, and a bit of the next generation fell. Prince did what one ought to do, to take what the world has learned and make it his own. May every artist, from every generation, do such a thing and when they have done their very best may they rest in peace and be remembered with a smile.

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April 23, 2016

Stitching Into Spring

      The goldfinches have returned to the thistle feeder and the bleeding hearts are blooming profusely in their new location in my garden. In fact, nearly everything that I relocated in late winter is emerging with enthusiasm. My lavender, once robust, has struggled the last two years, but in its new sunnier spot, it looks as if it might bloom once again. I certainly hope so. I had dried several containers of the flowers a few years back to use in sachets and my stash is getting thin this year. I have a Mother’s Day project that will likely deplete my supply and I look forward to posting that in a future blog.
     These days I am enjoying the emergence of spring. I got in my first mowing in my newly designated patch of land and found it easier and more enjoyable with far less work. I have new grass seed emerging in the places where I took out garden sections and I anticipate spending more time loving my garden and less time laboring. 

A view of the white dogwood tree from my screened porch.

     In between the warm afternoons and colder nights, I have been working on my Yo-yo quilt. It’s almost too easy to make the little fabric circles and I have decided to sew them while enjoying other activities, namely my grandsons' softball games. With a tote bag I can bring my fabric scraps, needle, thread and the little plastic Yo-yo maker and enjoy the ball park and the sunshine, watch the boys play ball and knock out a dozen yo-yos. I will finish the quilt, certainly, but with all projects there should be some element of fun, even those that get humdrum towards the end.  I have put together a good collection of the circles and the finishing touches of the quilt are not too far off.

My grandson, Michael, warming up for Little League.

     In the last couple of weeks, I have also rediscovered embroidery. I wanted another pretty pillow for my fainting couch and thought maybe a bolster of needlepoint or embroidery might be lovely. I happened across a collection of cross-stitchers on YouTube that have built a bit of a stitching congregation called “Flosstube”. I had done a few embroidered pieces years ago, a kit here and there that caught my eye in the package at the fabric store, and I have had them hanging on the walls of my studio proudly for a long time. 

Past cross stitch projects

     I had a few good tools for the hobby, hoops and even a good hardwood frame, but I hadn’t done any embroidery in years. Once, when my daughter was very young, I discovered waste canvas. It looked like stiff, perfectly sectioned cheesecloth. You basted it to regular fabric and it was essentially a grid where you could embroider through the waste grid, which helped keep your embroidery stitches organized for your design. When you were finished, you wet the waste canvas and it would kind of melt and you then pulled it away from your embroidery and, viola! a perfectly beautiful little cross stitch design was left behind. At that time, it was state-of-the-art in cross stitch embroidery. I would say it was about 1985. I made my daughter a dozen, “Little House on the Prairie” style dresses and white pinafores and I hand embroidered the pockets. Yep, until she hit that first year of kindergarten I dressed her like a walking doll. It was great while it lasted. Once day, while school shopping, she announced that she hated dresses and wanted to wear only sweat suits, and only in purple. It was a memorable year of change for both of us.
     At any rate, I know I am rambling. I thought I might like to dust off my embroidery skills, specifically my cross stitching, and I watched a few of the dedicated stitchers on Flosstube. Wow! Cross-stitching has come a very long way! Perhaps it is the computer that has evolved the skill from simple samplers to incredibly elaborate works of art. Kudos to the young women who are motivated to completely cover linen and silk with minute stitches to create a masterpiece. I decided that to get back up to speed I ought to go to the level where I felt I had left off and I picked up an inexpensive kit on EBay.
     When I got the kit something about it seemed oddly familiar and I dove into my storage closet and pulled out my cross stitch frame. I guess my tastes haven’t changed over the years because I already had the exact same project, in black, on the frame. Groan.

     Undeterred, I decided that I had learned some new techniques and approaches to the craft since doing research online and from watching a few of the ambitious Flosstubers, and I would pull the old project from the frame and start fresh. I might even go back and finish the first one with a new outlook. It’s not often that I don’t finish a project I have started and I began to remember why I had abandoned the first one.
     For one thing, my eyes got older. Those tiny squares in black aida cloth, a fabric that is woven specifically to have an obvious grid for cross stitches, were hard for my old eyes to see. Nowadays they make many tools to magnify stitching. The embroiderers on Flosstube also grid out their designs. When I took out the paper pattern from my kits I saw that everything is gridded out into blocks of ten. Duh! I never noticed that. I had learned how breaking art into a grid made it much easier to tackle a big project in high school when all the art students did huge posters of the Beatles. (Yeah, that was even before they had invented waste canvas.)
     These Flosstubers have all the best toys and the best plans of attack. They are very inspiring. They even have twenty minute videos where they show their “WIPs”, aka “works in progress”, and these folks keep several projects going at once. I have decided that I am still very old school and I will do one at a time.
     With inspiration and dedication, I finished my first new project. It has been kind of a renaissance journey. I have loved the stitching! Now that my children are grown I can enjoy stretches of time with little or no interruption, something I only dreamt about. I can set aside a block of time for stitching that is completely relaxing and rejuvenating. Since I have added real organization to my stitching I get more done more quickly and pleasantly and in very little time have turned out a pretty piece for a pillow for my lovely lounger. I am starting another and a little learning venture to try my stitching skills on linen and not the clearly marked aida cloth. We’ll see.

My finished venture back into cross stitching.

   It is a lovely spring this year and my garden and handiwork are both doing well. That all makes me very happy.

The bleeding heart in full bloom in my garden.

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April 16, 2016

Suffolk Puffs

     What are they, these Suffolk Puffs? Some decadent tea biscuit lathered in curdled cream and melting butter, guaranteed to stick promptly to my backside as lumpy cellulite? Nope. They are little rounds of fabric gathered into disks. Here, in the modern world, or rather since the 1930s, we call them yo-yo's. While researching the perfect throw for my new fainting couch I tested every quilt and afghan in the house trying to find the perfect little blanket to toss over my legs for a bit of lounging. Most of those I have are too large or too heavy, not only in weight but in appearance. I wanted something beautiful, something unique, something light enough for a summer afternoon in the air conditioning and heavy enough to pair with a light flannel on a chilly winter day. I ran across this picture of a yo-yo quilt and knew it was perfect! 

     Not only would a lovely, vintage-inspired, yo-yo quilt fit the bill perfectly, I could enjoy hours of making it myself while relaxing on my chaise lounge. I haven't made any yo-yos in years, but I remembered how. Basically you cut out a circle of fabric a little more than twice the size of the yo-yo you want. You sew around the edge in a circle back to where you started and then pull the thread and gather up the fabric disk. You fuss with the thing a bit and lay it flat and smooth the gathers evenly, take another stitch or two to secure it and voila... yo-yo! Now, as the French grape farmers told Bart Simpson when he was an exchange student forced into farm labor, you, "Do it a million times!". Well, not quite a million, but if you want a nice sized throw, figure a couple of grand. I won't dwell on that number for now.

Only the beginning

     In my refresher course of yo-yo making I came across a gadget designed to make the task quicker, more consistent in size and more fun. I read all about it. It's cheap and looked like a great idea so I got one from Clover at the craft store. There are apparently purists that say if you use such a gadget you aren't making the "real" traditional yo-yo and I get that. I have honestly had the same feeling about people who make their quilts on the sewing machine. Now I don't mean the piecing of quilts on the machine, I get that totally! Anyone who has ever attempted to piece an entire quilt by hand knows this is like some type of madness. I have and it is. What I mean is the quilting part, the part where you stitch together the top, the fluffy batting and the back  of the quilt. I used to think that to be a "pure" quilter you had to take every, sometimes painful, stitch by hand. That's the part I love most about quilting. Sewing at the machine is work, but sitting with a beautiful quilt-in-progress over your lap is what quilting is really about. It is because of my love of the hand-quilting process that I'm prejudiced I suppose. Now, I figure if you love making quilts, no matter your method, hats off to you. And so in my mind I am going to use the yo-yo gadget without excuses. I wonder, did someone set in their ways say similar things about the first thimbles?
      At any rate, the yo-yo making has begun. The gadget is great, faster, fun and the little yo-yos resemble one another in size much more than my hand-cut circles.

The Yo-yo maker

      I haven't quilted in a long time and have certainly missed it. This one needs no time at the machine, goes with me everywhere and is very relaxing. I actually think I can make a few thousand. We'll see.

The collection grows.

      My plan is to add a light, white muslin backing and maybe an eyelet ruffle around the edge. I will post pictures when it is finished.

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April 9, 2016

Poppin' it!

     Sometimes even the simplest things in life can become convoluted if you delve deep enough into them. Recently I found this to be true when I wanted a decent bowl of popcorn. One evening we bought a new film to watch and we set ourselves up to be comfortable in our living room. Our little preparation means making sure we are warm and seated in our customary spots armed with snacks and beverages. This particular night I had a powerful hankering for popcorn. I hadn’t made any in quite a while, although I had thought of it many times over the past few months. I didn’t expect I had any in my stock in the cabinet. I ordinarily keep a favorite we like, a pre-packaged microwaveable brand that's tasty and not too overly salted. My husband and I have cut way down on our sodium consumption over the past couple of years and sometimes it's a challenge to find food without much salt. Much to my surprise I found a nearly full jar of just plain, regular popcorn in the pantry, a leftover from a Christmas project and I searched for brown paper lunch bags. I had prepared popcorn for a caramel recipe over the holidays that called for plain, air popped popcorn with no oil or flavorings added. The recipe suggested that I put ½ cup of kernels into a paper bag, fold twice and fasten with one staple, then nuke for about two minutes and thirty seconds. I did exactly that again, twice, and filled two bowls for our film.

The Christmas Gift Popcorn

     I don’t remember that the movie was all that good, but the popcorn was terrible. It tasted like little puffs of Styrofoam and rather than sate my hankering for the snack it made me want decent popcorn even more. This is where the drive for a really good bowl of the stuff took a dark turn.
     Mentally I made a list. First there were the things I hungered for in a good bowl of popcorn. It had to taste good, of course. It had to be fluffy and chewy both, not too airy and not too soggy. It should be kind of buttery, not greasy and floating in fat really, but it ought to have a bit of oil on nearly every kernel. It should be a little salty, to satisfy that part of the salty snack craving, but still not be overpowering and make me need a gallon of beverages all night from radical sodium ingestion. It should be all of those things and it had to be easy to make. I began my quest.
     As with many projects there are experts everywhere on YouTube who have filmed themselves perfecting their personal preparation of popcorn. It appears that making the snack is a welcome challenge predominately for male vloggers. I enjoy watching a man cook so I reviewed many. I also learned plenty as well.
     Since I didn’t relish the idea of getting out “the right heavy skillet” every time I wanted to pop some corn, as many vloggers suggested, I looked into popcorn machines. It seemed reasonable to me that a little gadget dedicated to one task ought to be out there, a handy device that held the right temperature and ingredients and put forth a tasty snack in the few minutes it takes for a good corn popping. I found several. After careful research it was clear that popcorn poppers fell largely into two categories: air poppers and oil poppers. That made sense to me. The movie popcorn I'd made in the plain brown bags had no oil on the kernels at all, which is what you get from air poppers. The popcorn was light and dry and apparently healthier for you with no oil. That’s fine, but if I didn’t like eating it there was no joy in that. 

Air style popper

     In the other style of poppers the kernels are stirred around in the oil of your choice and had a taste closer to movie theater popcorn. That’s what I wanted. I also didn’t care for the fact that most of the air poppers popped the finished popcorn out of a chute into an open bowl. I didn’t really like the idea of chasing the stuff all over my counter. It might be fine if you have children (not standing too close) who find the explosive popcorn experience fun, but in my crowded little kitchen this would not work. I voted down the shooting air poppers.
     Now I want to mention here that these machines are not too expensive, they fall into the $20 to $30 range mostly. Not expensive that is if you actually use the machine with some frequency. I know that a fancy kitchen gadget may seem appealing until it sits around taking up really precious counter space, collecting grease and leaving you feeling guilty for ever having purchased it. I thought about that as well. For myself I decided that I love popcorn and if I can make it well I would eat it very often. I especially like it in the afternoon in the summer and it’s the perfect outdoor snack when my grandsons visit. It’s frugal and healthy for them and the squirrels that live in my yard enjoy cleaning up the mess. I would eat popcorn instead of naughtier snacks if it wasn’t packed in pricey little microwavable bags that hold far too much for one person. I also evaluated my tight counter space and decided that I could probably fit a machine, even one that took up more space than an air popper.
     So I researched oil poppers. These range from a heavy pot you shake around on the stove to larger, dedicated machines that stir the kernels in hot oil and conveniently let you flip the finished snack right into a bowl that is part of the contraption. Diabolical! I read everything I could stand on those and found one with the features I liked. Well, that and the fact that it came in red. I relied on good old Amazon reviews and ordered one I liked. Then I moved onto studying ingredients.

The Popper I decided I wanted

     Good heavens, who knew that popcorn was such an art?! Even the simplest of recipes for just good old-fashioned buttered popcorn brought out many opinions. Some of them were a real surprise. The first revelation was that apparently the best oil for popping corn is coconut oil. I love coconut oil! I eat it, rub myself in it and use it in my hair. Coconut oil is fine by me. It also is purportedly really good for you. The popcorn sounds better already. Then there was the salt. Since we try not to use too much I wanted the best. I found pink, Australian salt, sea salt, table salt and especially flavored salts with orange coloring to make you think your popcorn tastes butterier and other added chemicals as well. What it all comes down to is mostly the grind of the salt. Fine salt sticks better, not only to the oil but into those tiny popcorn nooks and crannies. Fine milled salt it is.

Fine ground sea salt

     Next was butter. There are a few butter-flavored oils that you can use for the cooking part and/or pour over the finished popcorn that taste like butter. In my experience that thing that usually tastes most like what I want is the thing itself. If I want a buttery flavor I’ll use butter, thanks. Since most butter comes in salted and salt-free that gives me another way to control the sodium.
     There are other flavorings as well. Apparently there are even popcorn bars, like liquor bars, very popular at weddings, where you can sprinkle on anything from ranch flavor to cinnamon and sugar to enhance your popcorn. If you keep looking at the cooking sites online you can find some tantalizing recipes for things like Garlic Bread Popcorn and Jalapeno Cheesy popcorn. My mom used to make popcorn balls to take to the drive-in movie theater with corn syrup and we loved it. Somehow though, I think I would find it less appealing now as an adult. Either way I bet I could find the recipe for them somewhere as well.
     In the end I decided to buy an oil based popper and then gave it a few test runs, tweaking the recipe until I got popcorn we loved wolfing down. With a few very basic ingredients I now have popcorn that is chewy and light. I use a good premium popping corn, Orville's in the jar is great. The kernels are fluffy and huge. I now use only coconut oil and I can see why it is so popular with popcorn purists. It adds a nice light richness to the popped kernels that is never greasy and it spreads evenly. The fine ground salt does flavor better with less salt and more even coating. In a good batch of about two quarts of prepared popcorn I use abut a quarter of a teaspoon and find the saltiness just right.

The popper sits inside the bowl for storage.

      After trying a few toppings, oil flavored, shake-on butter flavoring and good old butter, the real thing wins hands-down. My machine has holes in the top so I can put in a couple of butter pats and it melts down over the spinning popcorn while it pops. The gadget winds up and stores easily and cleans up fast. As for the entertainment factor I made a batch of popcorn for my grandsons and they found the process fascinating. They enjoyed watching the bar inside stir the kernels and once it started popping it explodes to fill the bowl. Very exciting to a nine year old and five year old alike. I am still adjusting to the fact that there are no, "old maids", as we used to call the unpopped kernels. Not one. That means that even a little cupful of kernels makes mounds of popcorn so whenever we have a snack so do the squirrels in my yard. There is no waste at all. Now I keep popcorn in the cupboard all the time. It satisfies my craving, makes our movie time more enjoyable and has been a worthwhile bit of research as far as my taste buds are concerned.

Delicious popcorn!

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April 2, 2016

Back to the Garden

     It's finally here! Spring has sprung and the anxiety of waiting to see how my garden has fared from the big upheaval is over. About a month ago I began my new garden plan for this season. You can find it here: The Eight Step Garden Plan. In my new, more focused garden plot I moved many of the larger plants in my yard, it ended up being most of them in fact, and I added a few new elements. Everything was still dormant when I did the digging and I feared I had transplanted too early. This week my worries have been put to rest. It's still cool out, with only a warm day or two, but things are beginning to emerge.
New hydrangea leaves.

     The big hydrangea on the top level is sprouting beautifully. Once, a few years ago, it was loaded with massive blooms, but the last few years it has only wilted its way through the summer months. It has survived the transplant and I am hoping for flowers once again. The lamb's ear that I started last year from one leaf has gone wild.

Soft lamb's ear

     All of the relocated plants are now showing life, even the climbing rose which I gave a huge new trellis in hopes of a wall full of blooms, is finally showing sprouting, much to my relief. The grass seed has taken hold where I have removed plants.

The climbing rose showing new sprouts

 The knockout roses in their new location.

It won't be long before a summer full of roses burst from the busy knockout rose bushes.

 Fresh grass is emerging

The bleeding heart looks happy in it's new spot and should bloom soon as well.

     I pulled out my potted hostas from the garage. I was shocked a few years ago that they will survive the winter in pots and reemerge in spring to surround my tub. The tub will not be filled until warmer weather arrives, but by then the hostas should be lush and green.

New growth on the hostas.

     It looks and feels as if the new eight step plan has worked well. I had to turn a bit of a blind eye to the areas I did not get to until all of the previous steps were done, but I felt far less overwhelmed. Now that spring has arrived I have no huge jobs to do in the garden. By staying focused and doing one area at a time, and doing it completely, I had far fewer aches and pains from overdoing and from the stress of feeling I needed to get to all of the property at once. I found that as I got into the plan there was also less work in the places that I gardened last. There were some holes to fill and piles to clean up, but I felt more inspired and more relaxed and enjoyed my gardening much more. The plan worked well and now that the days are beginning to warm I have more time to enjoy my garden, less work to do and I think all of my plants are happier. When I relocated and dug up around my plantings I took my time and fed everything as well. I bought a beautiful, glass vase while antiquing in Adamstown, Pa and I look forward to many bouquets of flowers from my own backyard.

A little petunia that wintered over in a basement window, now enjoying some spring sunshine.

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